Dogen For Punks

(The following is a modified version of a speech I gave at the Dogen Tanslators Forum in San Francisco on November 5, 2010. It ran on Elephant Journal a while ago but not on this blog until now.)

This summer at Tassajara Zen monastery I met Kazuaki Tanahashi, the translator of a number of books by Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. At that time he was organizing a big event to be held at the San Francisco Zen Center to celebrate the publication of his translation of Dogen’s masterwork, Shobogenzo, the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Since I wrote a book about Shobogenzo called Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye he thought I might be good for the forum. He suggested that I do a speech there titled “Dogen for Punks.” He might have been joking. I’m not sure. But I liked that title. It’s not a title I would have chosen myself. But it suggested something I’d like to talk about. So I did.

I first came across Dogen when I was a 19-year old punk rocker. I’d been vaguely interested in Eastern religions for a while, but I wasn’t very serious about it. I decided to take a class at my university called Zen Buddhism mostly as a diversion.

Dogen’s philosophy changed my life. I had never encountered anything like it. I’ve been studying him ever since.

The popular appreciation of Dogen is a 20th and now a 21st century phenomenon. Even though he wrote Shobogenzo almost 800 years ago, for most of those 800 years Dogen’s work was almost entirely unknown. Certain extremely nerdy Buddhist scholars and monks looked at his writings now and then. But they were not published for general audiences until the 1800s, and even then it took over another years before they became popular.

I once asked my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, who, like Tanahashi, translated Dogen’s Shobogenzo into English, why this was. He said he thought that the people of Dogen’s time couldn’t understand what he was writing about. But, he said, human civilization has advanced considerably since that time. We understand much more about human psychology. We’ve had philosophies like existentialism and pragmatism that come very close to expressing the Buddhist outlook. Our understanding of the physical world we inhabit has also become more sophisticated. Because of these advances, contemporary people can comprehend what people in Dogen’s time couldn’t understand. Even teenage punk rockers.

Here’s one simple example of this. If you want to understand Dogen’s philosophy you have to accept that there are many real things and phenomena in this universe that we human beings are simply not equipped to perceive, but that these things and phenomena are not parts of some mystical other realm. They’re part of our concrete reality. These days we grow up learning about infrared and ultraviolet light. So we know that there are forms of light that we can’t see. We know about the subconscious. So we know that there are realms of the mind we cannot consciously access. These are commonplace ideas. Just because we can’t normally perceive these things, we don’t think of them as supernatural the way people in Dogen’s times tended to conceive of things they could not perceive directly. So when we read Dogen we’re already prepared for much of what he wrote about in ways that his contemporaries were not.

I believe a lot of people in our society today are ready to hear what Dogen had to say all those centuries ago. They need to hear it. It’s our job to try to make Dogen’s philosophy accessible to as many people as we can.

I have no argument with scholars and scholarship. In fact I have tremendous respect for the scholars who did the initial work required to make Dogen available to us.

But it’s vital to take Dogen’s philosophies outside of the narrow confines of intellectual study and outside of the even narrower confines of Buddhist nerd-dom. You know what I mean, I hope. Buddhism has a really strong tendency to turn into a bit of a nerd subculture just like Star Trek fanatics or comic book fandom or punk rockers. I used to work for a company in Japan that made monster movies and superhero TV shows. So I’ve been to plenty of sci-fi fan gatherings and comic book conventions. And, I hate to tell you, but in a lot of important ways they’re not all that different from the forum I attended at San Francisco Zen Center. And I said so to the audience there at the time.

What happens with nerd subcultures may have some bearing on what we see happening with Dogen and with Buddhism in general these days. One of the major attractions of something like punk rock or Godzilla or Japanese animation or Dogen is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Certain types of people like these things because they’re something we can call our own, they’re things we can use to define ourselves.

Buddhists in the West are often precisely the same personality types you encounter at sci fi and anime conventions or in punk rock clubs. They just have a different kind of thing that turns them on. But they use it in exactly the same way, to help delineate their personality as something different from the mainstream.

But then all too often disaster strikes! The thing they liked suddenly goes mainstream and everybody is dressing like a punk rocker or doing the Vulcan hand salute or even quoting Dogen or talking about mindfulness. We’re already seeing this happen. I’m sure a lot of you know that Dogen was used as the name of a character on the TV series LOST, in which many of the characters were named after famous philosophers.

Nerds hate it when this happens! It was one of the reasons I gave up on punk rock for a very long time. I suggested at the forum that t a lot of the people there were going to be grumbling when Dogen slipped out of their grasp and became part of mass culture. Some of you reading this blog are already grumbling about how Buddhism has gone mainstream. I know I am!

Here’s what I said to the people at the Dogen forum regarding their own nerd fetish, Dogen. I think this goes for all forms of Buddhism and not just the Dogen-based ones. I said, “Maybe right now you don’t think you’ll complain when Dogen finally hits the popular culture. You’re sitting there thinking it’ll be a glorious day when Dogen is accepted by the masses. You imagine it the way we punks imagined the day we were certain could never come when punk rock went mainstream. We thought that if that happened it would mean that everyone finally understood what we were saying in the same way as we understood it. Well it happened and that isn’t what it was like. It was Ramones songs in beer commercials and $150 designer combat boots and a generation who looked like punks but didn’t have a clue what punk rock was about.

“Or maybe they did. Old punk rockers like me love to complain that today’s punks don’t get it. Well, OK, maybe they don’t understand how it was literally dangerous to walk around with a Mohawk haircut. But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand punk. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that some of the young punk rockers today understand the real philosophy of punk rock better than some of the people I hung around with in the early days of the movement.

“And so it will go with Dogen, I think. The next generation is already better equipped to understand Dogen than we ever were. It’s vital that we allow them to discover their own way of understanding and expressing what he said, even if we don’t understand it ourselves.

“It’s crucial that we don’t smother their understanding with our interpretations. It’s important that we let them go out and teach their understanding to others. It’s important that we be prepared to admit that maybe they understand Dogen better than we do. I hear a lot of people complaining about the ‘graying of Buddhism’ and yet these same people seem intent on not allowing anyone below a certain age to become a teacher. We need to stop that nonsense.

“Because Dogen really is for punks. And we’ve got to let the punks have their Dogen. Even if we really want to keep him all to ourselves.”

***

Brad is at Tassajara until September 11th. But the donation button and the store on this website still work!

113 Responses

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  1. Renbyo
    Renbyo August 27, 2012 at 6:22 pm | |

    Dogen….first gen punk…That kicks ass, heh-heh

  2. Jinzang
    Jinzang August 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm | |

    Dogen become a part of mass culture? Have you *read* Dogen? (Okay, you have.) Not very likely.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm | |

    Brad’s post is interesting to me, in that he postulates that Dogen is more widely understood now.

    Dogen specifies that zazen is done in the lotus, with the left leg on top of the right, and I believe the left hand on top of the right. I don’t think Dogen offers any advice on how to sit the lotus per se, but maybe it wasn’t necessary in 12th century Japan; maybe the lotus had made its way to Japan long before.

    There are pictures of Egyptians sitting the lotus on the walls of the pyramids, it was apparently common enough in 5th century B.C.E. India, and I’m guessing all over Asia. Not too many in the U.S.A. outside of religious institutions with roots in Asia sitting the lotus.

    “Therefore, when we completely cast aside our thoughts and views and practice shikantaza, we will become intimate with the way… This is why I encourage you to practice zazen wholeheartedly.”

    (“Shobogenzo-zuimonki”, sayings recorded by Koun Ejo, translated by Shohaku Okumura, 2-26, pg 107-108, ©2004 Sotoshu Shumucho)

    Now Kodo Sawaki believed in just zazen: no chanting, no lecture, no ceremony, just zazen. Mostly the practice at Zen temples includes chanting, lecture, and ceremony as well as zazen. There are practice periods with more zazen, and sesshins with many periods of zazen that last a week or longer. Kodo Sawaki’s successor Uchiyama used to drink three shots of whisky every night to get the feeling back in his legs.

    I’m not that good at sitting the lotus myself, but I always believed the object was to sit the lotus like Kobun, without pain or numbness in the legs. It took me a long time to learn to sit the lotus 40 minutes without pain or numbness, and frequently I get up with some numbness. I know some people who learned to sit very young, those whose fathers were abbots like Kobun, who can sit three sesshins in a row without a problem.

    I think until knowledge of how to sit at least 30 minutes once a day in the lotus without pain and numbness is more widespread, it’s premature to celebrate the next generation’s greater understanding of Dogen.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 27, 2012 at 8:54 pm | |

    @Buddy, the reason I quote the Pali Canon is because the words recorded there, regardless of who spoke them and when, describe relationships in human experience that I can’t find described anywhere else.

    ‘… whatever is “own-body”, this is “own-body”. But this is the deathless, that is to say the deliverance of thought without grasping.”

    That to me is a description of the beauty of nature, in the language of science.

  5. buddy
    buddy August 27, 2012 at 11:03 pm | |

    Mark, well put, thanks.

  6. buddy
    buddy August 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm | |

    I’ve read about Uchiyama’s whisky, but thought it was to warm up his feet because he was old and his poor circulation made them cold, not because they were numb from too much lotus. But maybe this is a case of ‘what would his feet have been like without meditation?’

  7. anon 108
    anon 108 August 28, 2012 at 3:11 am | |

    Go here and scroll to 36.20-ish to see Brad Warner as he was, live and direct, speaking the written words you see above. A fine performance, imo:

    http://www.livestream.com/sfzc/video?clipId=pla_fb95c2c9-b51f-4199-9504-892d8e81ce6f&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

  8. anon 108
    anon 108 August 28, 2012 at 4:25 am | |

    Each new generation (‘punks’) understands what it receives from the past in new ways; in ways relevant to the changed circumstances it finds itself in; in ways compatible with its developing comprehension and insight. (Even) the usually dismissed language and concerns of popular culture include and reflect sensibilities unknown to, and unacknowledged by, earlier generations. These are not bad things. These are inevitable and good things. That’s how I understand what Brad means when he says “The next generation is already better equipped to understand Dogen than we ever were.”

  9. anon 108
    anon 108 August 28, 2012 at 5:03 am | |

    If you check out the video of the talk you’ll see that what’s written up here is not a straight transcript of what was said there. There are bits here that you won’t find there and vice-versa. I recommend both.

  10. Fred
    Fred August 28, 2012 at 8:33 am | |

    ” this is the deathless ”

    Dogen said,
    ” To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things”

    and

    Kobun said,
    “You go to the other side of nothing, and you are held by the hand of the absolute. You see yourself as part of the absolute, so you have no more insistence of self as yourself. You can speak of self as no-self upon the absolute. Only real existence is absolute”

    This is all that needs to be realized.

  11. Fred
    Fred August 28, 2012 at 8:41 am | |

    This will be heretical. All that needs to be realized can be experienced in daily
    life in the noise and movement when the mind is distracted by the myriad of
    10,000 different things. Just sitting on a cushion in absolute silence with the
    correct hand over the other is not the only way, and that is punk Buddhism.

  12. Fred
    Fred August 28, 2012 at 8:47 am | |

    When the mind is still a supernova does not perturb it. So the practice is
    studying the self, and finding the stillness while everything arises all around.

  13. tysondav
    tysondav August 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm | |

    i’m not sure you have to worry about Dogen becoming mainstream. i’ve tried to read and listen to Dogen several times without any success. maybe 20 years from now i will try again and have better luck.

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 28, 2012 at 9:21 pm | |

    Fred, how do you understand what Kobun said? I can barely relate to it, I’m afraid!

    For me, the posture comes out of an ability to feel. In my legs, in my abdomen and my hands, in my neck and jaw. Something like that. Chen Man-ching talks about full and empty in the legs and in the hands, single-weightedness. My mind shifts from one side to the other at some point, my elbows come out, and my jaw closes; maybe the shift is single-weightedness, I hadn’t thought about it. I straighten up like a balloon inflating but it’s not air. When the muscles under my sit-bones are calling the shots, and I have no choice but to be where I am and feel in order to breath, I’m alive. Standing in the grocery line, sometimes the same; harder to be waking up or falling asleep in the middle of the day at Whole Foods, but I rely on necessity, and pray.

  15. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon August 29, 2012 at 2:07 am | |

    Things A Spiritual Con Man Might Say:

    #3 – There is no God and he is your creator.

    #2 – There is no Soul and it reincarnates.

    #1 – There is no Enlightenment and only I can teach you how to achieve it.

    Thanks for playing and we’ll see you next time on The Family Feud!

  16. Leo
    Leo August 29, 2012 at 2:36 am | |

    @ Mark Foote:
    It’s amazing that one can sit long without any numbness as you describe. I’ve always been encouraged to step it up a bit when a position becomes comfortable. But maybe that’s typically Rinzai. During long practice one can learn to seperate the physiological pain from the suffering, the pain in the mind. Thus, the pain we experience can be a great help.
    My Roshi recently told he still has pain in his legs after over 35 years of sitting. Nevertheless he sits during dokusan for nearly three hours, and I have seen him get up with some stifness and numbness. I guess you should just feel the numbness and pain in your legs, but don’t be disturbed by it.

    @ Fred: You’re totally right in saying we should practice in daily life. Isn’t zazen the training for daily life?

    Go ahead punks, make my day!
    Leo

  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 29, 2012 at 8:23 am | |

    Leo, I’m always amazed at people who can sit in the lotus for two hours (or more, just reading David Chadwick’s interview of Graham Petchey where David says Dan Welch sat 5 hours straight one day only shifting once, to change from left full lotus to right). I’m even more amazed when people report that they sit consistently in pain. I’ve read about people injuring their knees, so I’m not sure it’s a good thing to advise sitting through pain as a practice for everyone. I’m pretty sure if I tried to do it, I would injure my knees.

    Having said which, I’m fortunate to have found my way to sitting the lotus for 40 minutes in the morning without pain, and sometimes without any numbness, although I usually have some marginal numbness in the upper foot. I read about Kobun being able to get into the lotus without using his hands, and although I can’t quite do that, I think aiming to do that is the best way for me to approach getting into the posture.

    I sat a three day sesshin at Jikoji last month, and I couldn’t quite finish the last sitting of the day in the lotus. The sittings after meals were difficult, and I think had I been there any longer I would have been sitting with some pain all the time. So, my lotus still needs some work.

    Having said which, I think a lot of the reason that very few people show up to sit with Brad at the Santa Monica zendo is that Zen teachers advise sitting through pain, and cannot teach sitting even one 30 or 40 minute sitting without pain.

    The practice that the Gautamid said was his own, before and after enlightenment, was “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths”; following “1) mindful breath in, and mindful breath out”, the practice goes: 2) mindful of the long inhalation as long (the long exhalation as long, the short inhalation as short, the short exhalation as short) breath in/breath out; 3) mindful of the whole body, breath in/out; 4) relaxing the activity of the body, breath in/out; 5) mindful of ease in the body, breath in/out. Dis-ease in the body is said to cease in the first meditative state.

    I’m not saying that Zen isn’t amazing, but I sometimes think it’s a different teaching from what’s offered in the Pali Canon in the Gautamid’s descriptions of meditative experience. If we took someone who had found some peace of mind through some other practice and put them in Zen robes and told them to talk about what wisdom isn’t, and what their path isn’t, I’m not sure folks would catch on that it wasn’t an enlightened Zen teacher in front of them.

  18. Fred
    Fred August 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm | |

    “Things A Spiritual Con Man Might Say:

    #3 – There is no God and he is your creator”. – yes

    “#2 – There is no Soul and it reincarnates.” – hahaha

    “#1 – There is no Enlightenment and only I can teach you how to achieve it.” -
    There is Enlightenment from the viewpoint of the ego that is trying to get somewhere. A Fiction is trying to realize the Truth. hahaha

    If there is no one there, there is no spiritual con man. Who is conning who – the
    universe conning itself? Hahaha.

    Hold #3 and #2 in your mind all day, and see what happens.

  19. Fred
    Fred August 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm | |

    An3drew would call it Voynich, a scam that is totally believable.

    A Holy Man is selling Enlightenment to a thing that is already enlightened.
    Two pseudopods of the same amoeba, one calling itself enlightenment and
    the other not.

    Why are you working so hard at pretending that you aren’t enlightened?

    There is no God and he is your creator.
    There is no God and he is your creator.
    There is no God and he is your creator.

  20. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 29, 2012 at 9:32 pm | |

    For those who wonder what became of john e. mumbles, he took the summer off for sure, and maybe he won’t come back- thaz what he told me when I asked him. He’s trying to get a band together, somewhere in the midwest.

    Rereading my comments, I don’t mean to make light of what your Roshi is doing Leo; that kind of dedication to helping others is awesome to me. Maybe I’m just looking for Zen-lite, as I think it’s been described, ’cause I could never cut it at Eiheiji. Really, all I want is to sit my 40 minutes in the morning and some more in the evening before bed, and let it go.

    Helps me to write on this blog, keeps me focused somehow. Probably reincarnate as a snail.

  21. Ted
    Ted August 29, 2012 at 9:32 pm | |

    Fred, the question “why are you working so hard at pretending that you aren’t enlightened” implies an oxymoron: an enlightened person who, despite being enlightened, is unaware that he or she is enlightened. In order for this to be possible, enlightenment would have to be a pretty useless state of mind, wouldn’t it?

  22. Ted
    Ted August 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm | |

    Mark, you will probably be reborn in the formless realm. All of the higher realms are supposed to be the result of various levels of meditation. Although I have heard that if you spend all your meditations dulled out, it leads to an animal realm rebirth. I suspect that’s hyperbole, though.

  23. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel August 30, 2012 at 3:22 am | |

    Mark Foote wrote:
    “The practice that the Gautamid said was his own, before and after enlightenment, was “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths”; (…)

    I’m not saying that Zen isn’t amazing, but I sometimes think it’s a different teaching from what’s offered in the Pali Canon in the Gautamid’s descriptions of meditative experience.”

    I don’t think so. It is only a different way to put it. I’ve read the thing on Access to Insight, and what I find there is not the injunction to only watch the breathing, but that to be aware of it, which is not exactly the same. It is not an attempt to control the breathing, but to be aware of it, as well as the totality of the body. Otherwise, he wouldn’t say “observe it is short when it is short; observe it is long when it is long”.

  24. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon August 30, 2012 at 3:52 am | |

    “You will probably be reborn in the formless realm. All of the higher realms are supposed to be the result of various levels of meditation. Although I have heard that if you spend all your meditations dulled out, it leads to an animal realm rebirth. I suspect that’s hyperbole, though.”

    Maybe it’s unicorns.

    Unicorns all the way down.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 30, 2012 at 7:48 am | |

    Or mules, all the way down Bright Angel. Thanks, Ted, whatever it is, that will be what it is; no free pass for this freak, out of the sideshow!

    Proulx Michel, agreed. The breath controls me, and together with the cranial-sacral system manipulates the place of occurrence of my consciousness. When I am fully where I am, the place of occurrence of consciousness is sufficient to act. To me, peace of mind is not only the relinquishment of a sense of self, but the actualization of place in physical and mental action; that is the “deliverance from thought without grasping” to donkey!

  26. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 30, 2012 at 8:23 am | |

    “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”- here again is the Lone Ranger, offering the pitch, yaw and roll of the cranial sacral system (the cross and circle of the ankh, also known as the key of life) to the breath of Nefertari, the ranger (ok, Isis) being the embodiment of the occurrence of an Aten or free consciousness.

    “There is a possibility that Aten’s three-dimensional spherical shape depicts an eye of Horus/Ra. In the other early monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism the sun is called Ahura Mazda’s eye.” (Aten, “variant translations”, Wikipedia)

  27. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 30, 2012 at 8:25 am | |

    Hey, Jaycee, can you make sure my comment only appears once? SoF, what’s your secret, all those links!- are your comments held for moderation?

    “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”- here again is the Lone Ranger, offering the pitch, yaw and roll of the cranial sacral system (the cross and circle of the ankh, also known as the key of life) to the breath of Nefertari, the ranger (ok, Isis) being the embodiment of the occurrence of an Aten or free consciousness.

    “There is a possibility that Aten’s three-dimensional spherical shape depicts an eye of Horus/Ra. In the other early monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism the sun is called Ahura Mazda’s eye.” (Aten, “variant translations”, Wikipedia)

  28. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 30, 2012 at 8:27 am | |

    ahem… one more time… The Lone Ranger!

  29. Ted
    Ted August 30, 2012 at 10:18 am | |

    There are two reasons to deny the existence of mystery and magic in the world. The first is that it may not exist, and so if we base our actions on its existence, we will act wrongly. The second is that we might be disappointed when it turns out not to exist.

    The cure for the first is to act in ways that we will be happy with whether there is magic and mystery, or whether there is not. Essentially, to treat the possibility of magic as a reason for an optimistic outlook and positive ethics that we will be happy to have lived even if the magic fails us.

    There is no need for a cure for the second, because if indeed there is no magic, there will be no mind to notice the lack of it when the time comes.

    My personal experience of Zen comes from the writings of Suzuki-roshi and my visits to the SFZC as a guest. The people I’ve met there seem to be people who live their lives in the way I’ve described, and I’ve very much enjoyed my encounters with them, even though I’ve hardly ever spoken to any of them.

    I think you can get some real benefit from Zen practice even if you completely reject the idea of mystery and magic, but I don’t really see any upside to doing so.

  30. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon August 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm | |

    Unicorns exist because the Bible says unicorns exist.

    Numbers 23:22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

    Numbers 24:8 God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce [them] through with his arrows.

    Job 39:9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

    Job 39:10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

    Psalms 29:6 He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

    Psalms 92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like [the horn of] an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

  31. Aaron
    Aaron August 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | |

    So is Dogen’s philosophy well presented in the book: Fundamental Wisdom of the Middleway?

    I’m always curious about if we lose ideas in these translations of translations of translations.

  32. anon 108
    anon 108 August 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm | |

    I don’t know, Aaron. I haven’t read the finished book. But I did follow (most of) Nishijima’s translation of Nagarjuna’s complete text of the MMK as he published it on his blog a while back. As a serious student of Sanskrit, I can tell you unequivocally that the translation is wrong. I don’t mean unusual. I don’t mean idiosyncratic. I don’t mean interpretive or poetic. I mean wrong. Nishijima doesn’t understand some very basic things about how Sanskrit works. This has led him to produce a confused mess of a translation that only occasionally represents something remotely similar to what Nagarjuna wrote.

    Still, it’s possible that Brad and Gudo’s book presents Dogen’s philosophy well. Perhaps someone who’s read it will tell us. What the book does NOT do is present Nagarjuna’s philosophy – as Nagarjuna wrote it – well. I want to read the book, but I’m worried I’ll find it a frustrating experience. I doubt I’ll be able to ignore the massacred Sanskrit on every page. One day I may pluck up courage.

    “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” has attracted attention because of Brad’s reputation as a writer. It’s even got a good review from someone with a PhD: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/fundamental-wisdom-middle-way-nagarjuna%E2%80%99s-mulamadyakakakarika – a PhD with no knowledge of Sanskrit, clearly. But he liked the book, which can’t be a bad thing. What’s not such a good thing is that Brad has given the impression that there were previous collaborators, but they “gave up”. That’s not quite what happened.

    There IS a published translation of Nagarjuna’s MMK that presents both Dogen’s and Nagarjuna’s philosophy – as understood and taught by Gudo Nishijima – and presents it without torturing the Sansrkit text. I wrote about it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/0952300257/ref=sr_1_1?p=random&ie=UTF8&qid=1346370391#reader_0952300257 (see ‘jiblet’’s review). If you read that review, you’ll see that a long time before Brad was asked by Nishijima to help him out, Nishijima’s first Dharma heir, Mike Luetchford had been working with Nishijima on the project, and for many years. Mike L’s efforts and eventual published book have been treated by Brad as if they never happened. I guess that’s either because Brad doesn’t want to eclipse his own efforts and/or because he’s blindly accepted Gudo’s paranoid and perhaps senile view that after 30 years of working with, studying and serving Gudo, Mike suddenly got it all wrong. For, sadly, that’s what Nishijima concluded after Mike challenged his understanding of Sanskrit grammar one too many times.

    Anyway, there are two books that say they are translations and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s MMK made in light of Dogen as explained by Nishijima. If you can afford it, get both, why doncha! :)

  33. anon 108
    anon 108 August 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm | |

    I don’t know, Aaron. I haven’t read the finished book. But I did follow (most of) Nishijima’s translation of Nagarjuna’s complete text of the MMK as he published it on his blog a while back. As a serious student of Sanskrit, I can tell you unequivocally that the translation is wrong. I don’t mean unusual. I don’t mean idiosyncratic. I don’t mean interpretive or poetic. I mean wrong. Nishijima doesn’t understand some very basic things about how Sanskrit works. This has led him to produce a confused mess of a translation that only occasionally represents something remotely similar to what Nagarjuna wrote.

    Still, it’s possible that Brad and Gudo’s book presents Dogen’s philosophy well. Perhaps someone who’s read it will tell us. What the book does NOT do is present Nagarjuna’s philosophy – as Nagarjuna wrote it – well. I want to read the book, but I’m worried I’ll find it a frustrating experience. I doubt I’ll be able to ignore the massacred Sanskrit on every page. One day I may pluck up courage.

    “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” has attracted attention because of Brad’s reputation as a writer. It’s even got a good review from someone with a PhD: [link to follow] – a PhD with no knowledge of Sanskrit, clearly. But he liked the book, which can’t be a bad thing. What’s not such a good thing is that Brad has given the impression that there were previous collaborators, but they “gave up”. That’s not quite what happened.

    There IS a published translation of Nagarjuna’s MMK that presents both Dogen’s and Nagarjuna’s philosophy – as understood and taught by Gudo Nishijima – and presents it without torturing the Sansrkit text. I wrote about it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/0952300257/ref=sr_1_1?p=random&ie=UTF8&qid=1346370391#reader_0952300257 (see ‘jiblet’’s review). If you read that review, you’ll see that a long time before Brad was asked by Nishijima to help him out, Nishijima’s first Dharma heir, Mike Luetchford had been working with Nishijima on the project, and for many years. Mike L’s efforts and eventual published book have been treated by Brad as if they never happened. I guess that’s either because Brad doesn’t want to eclipse his own efforts and/or because he’s blindly accepted Gudo’s paranoid and perhaps senile view that after 30 years of working with, studying and serving Gudo, Mike suddenly got it all wrong. For, sadly, that’s what Nishijima concluded after Mike challenged his understanding of Sanskrit grammar one too many times.

    Anyway, there are two books that say they are translations and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s MMK made in light of Dogen as explained by Nishijima. If you can afford it, get both, why doncha! :)

  34. anon 108
    anon 108 August 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm | |

    Here’s the missing link – see above – to the review of Brad and Gudo’s book (note the mispelling):

    http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/fundamental-wisdom-middle-way-nagarjuna%E2%80%99s-mulamadyakakakarika

  35. anon 108
    anon 108 August 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | |

    And here’s a better link to Mike Luetchford book -

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Between-Heaven-Earth-Nagarjuna-Dogen/dp/0952300257/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346374688&sr=1-1

    You can ‘look inside’ if you want. Just click ‘click to LOOK INSIDE’.

  36. Jinzang
    Jinzang August 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm | |

    I haven’t read Gudo’s book on the MMK, but I did read what he posted on his blog. And that was fairly damning. Not just poor English, but a poor grasp of Sanskrit and Nagarjuna’s meaning. Brad said he improved the English, but I don’t think he was up to correcting Gudo’s mistakes. As much as I like Brad, and I *do* like and respect him, he is not a scholar of Indian Buddhist philosophy. I thought he did pretty well by Dogen in “Sit Down and Shut Up,” but Nagarjuna is a whole ‘nother thing. In our modern Internet age everyone deserves their say, whether in print or on the web. So I’m glad Gudo got a chance to put down what he thinks. But I don’t find much value in it. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t know Zen, I imagine very few Zen teachers out there could do justice to Nagarjuna.

  37. Khru
    Khru August 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm | |

    This comment thread is 100% dog excrement.

  38. Andy
    Andy August 31, 2012 at 3:10 am | |

    @ anon 108:

    “Mike L’s efforts and eventual published book have been treated by Brad as if they never happened.”

    What would you have preferred Brad have done? I would have thought Brad’s efforts were his business and Mike L’s efforts likewise.

    Brad puts time and effort into writing a blog where he can advertise what he has produced and make some extra income. I take it that Mike L’s efforts don’t involve maintaining such a blog, which is the reason why you’ve decided to use the coverage Brad gets to occasionally market Mike L’s work here.

    ‘Aaron’ looks like a Trojan intended to set up the latest sell. Considering Gniz’s annoyance at Mysterion’s spamming, I’d be interested to find out what his view would be on this.

    Brad seems quite happy to allow this to happen, and so perhaps he should also be commended for such tacit approval. Also, given that many of the criticisms of the Gudo/Warner work appear to be sound – from my uninformed perspective – it might also be worthwhile acknowledging something very human and decent in his fidelity to a project which clearly meant much to his teacher, and also to whatever value remains in the work itself, despite its various failings.

    Loyalty can sometimes be blind, of course; and sometimes it can be driven by a narrow infatuation, strained by the deeper self-interest that it serves. I suppose. I suppose one has to be able to gauge, in whatever case, whether such loyalty has been projected in ways that don’t do those to whom we are acting as loyal parties an injustice, and through those acts do ourselves a disservice.

    I personally find the constant dredging up of old scars as a means to an end – even if this is deemed to throw a little extra light and context upon the two works – to be sad and unnecessary, and also a tad disrespectful to all the parties who actually experienced whatever happened.

    As much as Mike L’s work might be sadly neglected, I think we should also reflect on the practical reasons as to why that is. Perhaps Mike L’s work has found an excellent place as something for his students to find value in, which they in turn can pass on to others as something worthwhile in its own right.

    Your Amazon article zones in on past schisms and subsequent gossip to such an extent that you have risked tainting it, in the minds of those who know little of such matters, into a reference point for indulgence into yet another spiritual soap-opera.

    I’m sure you have considered all the angles on this one and are aware of the moral and ethical dilemmas it poses. But our thoughts and feelings can change on such things, and those areas we would rather not admit to ourselves can remain entrenched in a maze of ever more subtle and nuance self-justification.

    I would just prefer for you to laud and reference the work and drop the now well covered and saddening personal contrasts and speculations.

  39. anon 108
    anon 108 August 31, 2012 at 4:28 am | |

    Thanks, Andy. All very fair points.

    What you say about loyalty hits home. There are other even less attractive aspects of the public expression of loyalty that most likely motivate me and that I need to sort out.

    Meanwhile, it’s not easy to know what to do. I appreciate you believing that I’ve “considered all the angles”. I’ve tried to. In this case, Aaron (not to my knowledge a shill) asked a question. I assumed – or chose to assume – that he hadn’t read my previous comments on the two books and went for it. Again.

    In the Amazon review – but not here, it’s true – I do acknowledge something “human and decent in [Brad's] fidelity to a project which clearly meant much to his teacher.” I’ll happily acknowledge it again here. Also, I’m confident that Mike, as one party to the events, doesn’t feel in any way disrespected by my efforts.

    For the record – The influence of Nishijima on Mike’s reading of the MMK sometimes leads to interpretations that don’t work for me. And Mike’s Sanskrit contains a few mistakes, too!

  40. Andy
    Andy August 31, 2012 at 5:48 am | |

    @ Anon 108

    Thanks for the kind response.

    In terms of loyalty, I only speak from my own experiences, some of which I’ve had time to look back on. Speaking on behalf of people I’ve known and trusted about subjects which preceded me seemed less perilous affairs when in the midst of matters I felt passionate about and often pressing.

    I think it’s this passage that really tripped me up into my response to you:

    “I guess that’s either because Brad doesn’t want to eclipse his own efforts and/or because he’s blindly accepted Gudo’s paranoid and perhaps senile view that after 30 years of working with, studying and serving Gudo, Mike suddenly got it all wrong.”

    I’m all for strong criticism and some background, but where I find such things as the ‘perhaps’ and ‘I guess’ in the above, I’m reading rhetorical nods to the fact that you’re speculating on some very sensitive matters which you haven’t had some first-hand experience of. Yet ‘blindly accepted’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘senile’ are nonetheless allowed their full, and necessarily questionable, impact. This is the oily realm of the journalist or historian you’re touching on, with which your openness about partisanship can’t, in my view, hold water with – without seeming a little polluted.

    In light of stuff like that, it’s difficult, for me at least, to suspect the positive acknowledgements towards Brad/Gudo as anything more than a rhetorical balancing act intended to make the reader feel more inclined towards your more strident views. I cannot know what you hold in your heart but only gain some impression of what your head feels fit to make of it. It’s not that I want to read weasel words into it, but that from this distance that’s what the nicer words come across as, once you’ve allowed the darker stuff its lashings. And then I just hold the whole thing at arm’s length with suspicion. I have had the same sort of thing leveled at me.

    I have no idea what’s really gone down with the parties involved or to what extent who is or is not ‘blinded’ in their intentions or ‘senile’ to the point of incapability. But it would be insincere of me not to think, given the smallest bit of bio, that whatever happened with Mike L must have been very painful, and may still very well be.

    Tough old teacher he might be, tough old teacher Gudo too, but I think in such matters it might matter less whether your teacher says, thinks or feels disrespected, as to not disrespect, in a deeper (and perhaps wider) sense, the intimacies and entanglements that may still have much sway within such an individual’s own struggles – struggles that may radiate into our own intimate relationship with them and find a source of renewed energy and expression in our own livid and often revivifying scars and struggles.

    Let’s face it, if Mike L felt and feels he could hold a personal arm’s length attitude towards Gudo’s particular issues about a subject, couldn’t the same apply to whatever approvals or avowals of okay-ness he has toward some issue that might – might cloud his views to some extent?

  41. anon 108
    anon 108 August 31, 2012 at 7:36 am | |

    Andy -

    I wrote: “I guess [making no mention of Mike L's book] is either because Brad doesn’t want to eclipse his own efforts and/or because he’s blindly accepted Gudo’s paranoid and perhaps senile view that after 30 years of working with, studying and serving Gudo, Mike suddenly got it all wrong.”

    And you wrote: “In light of stuff like that, it’s difficult, for me at least, to suspect the positive acknowledgements towards Brad/Gudo as anything more than a rhetorical balancing act intended to make the reader feel more inclined towards your more strident views.”

    A bit of that may be going on, yes. I’m trying to cut out such self/other-deceptive tricks when I notice them and when I conclude I’ve been disengenous, but some of it still gets through. Nevertheless, I _do_ see what Brad did as “human” (of course) and “decent” (helping a respected and elderly mentor achieve their purpose). I believe I understand why he did it and, pending reading the book, am grateful that he did. Despite the problems I have with the Sanskrit translation, I have the feeling – the hope – that the book contains some good stuff. I believe my acknowledgements are sincere. But I can also see Brad’s part in the project as weak and lazy (wanting to please his teacher; not bothering to learn Sanskrit; not listening to the warnings of his colleagues; ignoring Mike’s earlier efforts). I can see what Brad’s done in bringing Gudo’s project to publication in the state we have it as both brave and foolish.

    I did consider your points about my “perhaps”s and “I guess”s and I wrote a paragraph commenting on what I believe forms the basis of my assumptions about Brad’s motives for failing ever to mention Mike’s book, and about the basis for my use of the terms “blindly,” “paranoid” and “senile”. But, other than serving to explain/justify myself, I don’t think what I wrote is useful. So I’ve left it out.

    I understand your penultimate paragraph and take the point. But I don’t understand your last one. Want to try again?

  42. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 7:52 am | |

    “There are two reasons to deny the existence of mystery and magic in the world. The first is that it may not exist, and so if we base our actions on its existence, we will act wrongly. The second is that we might be disappointed when it turns out not to exist.”

    Tell that to Lama Christie.

  43. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 7:55 am | |

    “I don’t mean interpretive or poetic. I mean wrong. Nishijima doesn’t understand some very basic things about how Sanskrit works. This has led him to produce a confused mess of a translation that only occasionally represents something remotely similar to what Nagarjuna wrote. ”

    Heresy. Stone him.

  44. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 7:58 am | |

    “I guess that’s either because Brad doesn’t want to eclipse his own efforts and/or because he’s blindly accepted Gudo’s paranoid and perhaps senile view that after 30 years of working with, studying and serving Gudo, Mike suddenly got it all wrong.”

    Heresy. Burn him at the stake.

  45. Andy
    Andy August 31, 2012 at 8:14 am | |

    @anon 108

    Yes, sorry, the last para was confusing to me too.

    In short, that if Mike L’s as a student could correctly critically view his teacher as a human being with failings on particular issues, then perhaps this could be one of his ‘issues’ too. That he might give what you have written the ok for similarly all too human reasons.

    I don’t know, of course, and you’re the one with the relationship, which is your business. Yet insofar as he seems at least to have approved of you as some form spokesperson on issues I imagine run/ran deeply, I’m really addressing that uneasy feeling one gets when one person talks for another on such issues. Like I say, only you can know if, or to what extent, you have questioned that tacit or direct OK you say has been given to you to write these things. I don’t even know if your teacher has read what you have been writing on his behalf.

    Whatever the answer is there’s your own personal understanding of the issues and yours and Mike L’s, on one hand; and then there’s all these concerns thrown up by the presentation of them – and which I was concerned enough to engage in some dialogue about. For which I thank you again, because whatever the situation, I imagine that you spent much time and care on how you have presented your words on the Books in question and you appear to have a great deal of respect and feeling for your teacher.

    It’s much easier to pick up on things from my side than to stick your head above the parapet, as you have.

  46. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 8:20 am | |

    “find a source of renewed energy and expression in our own livid and often revivifying scars and struggles”

    There’s tons of stuff buried in the subconscious that is probably pulled up when
    certain emotions are triggered. That’s why we medicate, to keep it at bay.

    AA’s approach is to make amends with those we have violated. There is certain freedom in that.

  47. Andy
    Andy August 31, 2012 at 8:32 am | |

    @ Fred

    “AA’s approach is to make amends with those we have violated. There is certain freedom in that.”

    Yeah, I have a family member who went through that, and not only got off the booze but actualized a deeper ‘spiritual’ side to her life.

    My wife had friend who also did that as part of giving up booze and drugs. As far as I’ve observed and from what we have heard, that person’s still running amok like a little sociopath, using her ‘making amends’ story as a buffer and badge of goodness.

    Some shit runs deeper than the shit we’ve dealt with (and can be more cunning to).

    I can talk!

  48. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 8:38 am | |

    “Fred, the question ‘why are you working so hard at pretending that you aren’t enlightened’ implies an oxymoron: an enlightened person who, despite being enlightened, is unaware that he or she is enlightened.”

    Yes, there is no God, and he is your creator.

    “In order for this to be possible, enlightenment would have to be a pretty useless state of mind, wouldn’t it?”

    Useless to states of mind?
    Useless to the state of ” Big Mind”?
    Useless to a state of mind which continually arises and is impermanent?
    Useless to the Unborn and Deathless? How do you measure that?

  49. anon 108
    anon 108 August 31, 2012 at 8:39 am | |

    Andy,

    I’m responsible for whatever I’ve written and chosen to share. Thanks a lot for honestly and insightfully engaging with me.

  50. Fred
    Fred August 31, 2012 at 8:42 am | |

    “I can talk!’

    And write very well.

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