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!

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113 Responses

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  1. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi September 4, 2012 at 10:51 am |


    “I think Nishijima knows his own practice, and I think I trust his intuition, but I don’t necessarily trust him as a translator. If he cobbles together a book that he feels reflects some deeper wisdom, and he doesn’t know the language beyond a dictionary, I’ll presume he felt he could channel something and hope that he succeeds. Most Buddhist scriptures after the Pali sutras and vinaya appear to have been composed this way, in my opinion, and the wonder is that more people don’t recognize that (to me). ”


    I think this describes the process of a whole lot of Zen and other spiritual teachings. It certainly explains a lot of the literature attributed to Nagarjuna, that was composed hundreds of years after his lifetime. And even a fair amount of relatively early Buddhist literature. The whole concept of lineage is itself part of this intuitive process. People pass on what arises spontaneously in their own understanding. But what is received is only what arises spontaneously in the understanding of their students. It is not actually “transmitted”. As much as they may try to be loyal and true to their teachers and teachings, to the tradition and the scriptures, what they actually understand is limited to what arises intuitively in their own understanding, and that is seldom acutally the same.

    It’s why teachings tend to diverge over time, and create new traditions, new sects, new scriptures, etc. It’s also why there is still some basic thread of connection between them. One is always resorting to what one needs and can make real use of in this spontaneous process of understanding. No one is ever actually faithful to the tradition, one is always creating something new. Otherwise, one isn’t doing real Zen.

  2. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi September 4, 2012 at 11:32 am |

    As for the value of Nishijima’s translation of MMK, it rests in the understanding it evokes in the reader, not in the literalism of the translation. It would appear from all accounts that it’s not faithful to Nagarjuna’s words, but it is faithful to Nishijima’s understanding. And that understanding must be judged on its own merits, and what it evokes in us. I only have Garfield’s translation of MMK, not Nishijima’s, so I can’t really comment personally.

    Same goes for Nagarjuna’s understanding of Buddhism. I would disagree strongly with Hayes, whose understanding of things does not mesh well with my own. But it’s not just me, Nagajuna is well revered even among Theravadins who see in it a faithful elaboration of Gautama’s teachings on the Middle Way. Just because Hayes doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean much, unless one is particularly aligned with Hayes’ views, which I regard as reductionist conceptual materialism and not of any great value except as a check on unchecked idealism. I would say that there’s very little chance of Hayes actually understaning Nagarjuna, given his viewpoint, and that means nothing except to Hayes himself and people who think similarly. I happen to love Nagarjuna, even though my understanding is limited to my own capacity to grasp what he’s trying to evoke in us.

    As for channelling, I’m all for it. Let’s bring all the Gods and Buddhas into the room.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 4, 2012 at 11:40 am |

    Thanks, Michel Proulx; now if only I could stay on topic!

    I will try to follow the “contact- select (dropdown)- tech” approach for questions and comments on the blog in the future, thanks anon 108.

    Broken Yogi, I’ll agree, but I’m hoping we can address a science of the natural mind (as it were), and that we can find a way to teach it to elementary school kids. Sort of like Euclidean geometry.

    The Gautamid’s descriptions of the meditative states and the truths about suffering are in the language of science to me, but I made no progress with the lotus until I read about the peculiarly American science of cranial-sacral osteopathy. In my comments above, I mentioned that:

    “…as necessary, the pitch, yaw and roll at the place of occurrence of consciousness can precipitate stretch and activity to open the ability to feel throughout the body.”

    The way that I understand this is that balance connected with the place of occurrence of consciousness extends the cranial-sacral rhythm to open the ability to feel, as referred sensation from nerve exits opening along the spine and sacrum. In practice, all three aspects have to be up in the air like juggling balls, the place of occurrence of consciousness as though waking up or falling asleep, the ability to feel opened by the place of consciousness, and the freedom of place of occurrence of consciousness enabled by the ability to feel (so the mind-to-mind transmission).

    I would add to what you said, Fred- “actualizing the fundamental point and the realized universe” is exactly actualizing the potential for action in the place of occurrence of consciousness (which means witnessing the action generated as body and mind free fall, like waking up or falling asleep) and realizing the coincident ability to feel in all six senses in the ten directions. The coincident ability to feel extends to infinity as necessity extends the rhythm of the fluid core encasing the brain and spinal cord from the place of occurrence of consciousness throughout the body of referred sensation; I do look for all three, pitch, yaw, and roll, at the place of occurrence of consciousness, as necessity requires my mind be located now here, now there and feeling be opened where feeling is new to me.

  4. anon 108
    anon 108 September 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm |

    “As for channelling, I’m all for it. Let’s bring all the Gods and Buddhas into the room.”

    I misread first time, BY. I thought you’d written “…challenging…” Oh well.

  5. Aaron
    Aaron September 6, 2012 at 7:57 am |

    anon 108, thanks for your opinion & link to “Between Heaven and Earth”. I’m guessing not many have read “Fundamental Wisdome of the Middleway”?

    Andy, I’m not a Trojan, but I do wear them.

    I’m just looking for some plain english rhetoric regarding the philosophy of Zen Budhism. Maybe this just doesn’t exist (although Brad seems to be making this attempt well). Maybe english is too weak a language to communicate Zen’s ideas. Maybe contemplations should be left to the Stoics. Maybe sitting is simply enough.

  6. anon 108
    anon 108 September 6, 2012 at 9:35 am |

    Hi Aaron,

    If you’re looking for something in plain English about the philosophy of Zen, I suggest checking this out:

    And then this:

    Sure, it’s Gudo’s philosophy of Zen, and not everyone ‘agrees’ with it, but it works for me – and clearly for Brad too. Gudo, of course, taught Brad and Mike L (just about) all they know about Buddhism.

    The online booklet is really simple, but I still go back to it. And Gudo and Jeffrey Bailey’s book To Meet the Real Dragon is an excellent, ‘no-nonsense’ book about Zen/Buddhist theory and practice. The references here and there to the tensions in the world (USSR/USA and Europe) date it, but it’s still smashing, I reckon.

    And there’s lots of straightforward stuff here, too:

    (more Mike L…I know :/)

  7. anon 108
    anon 108 September 6, 2012 at 9:36 am |

    [Got to post these links one by one…]

    Hi Aaron,

    If you’re looking for something in plain English about the philosophy of Zen, I suggest checking this out:

  8. anon 108
    anon 108 September 6, 2012 at 9:37 am |

    And then this:

    Sure, it’s Gudo’s philosophy of Zen, and not everyone ‘agrees’ with it, but it works for me – and clearly for Brad too. Gudo, of course, taught Brad and Mike L (just about) all they know about Buddhism.

    The online booklet is really simple, but I still go back to it. And Gudo and Jeffrey Bailey’s book To Meet the Real Dragon is an excellent, ‘no-nonsense’ book about Zen/Buddhist theory and practice. The references here and there to the tensions in the world (USSR/USA and Europe) date it, but it’s still smashing, I reckon.

  9. anon 108
    anon 108 September 6, 2012 at 9:37 am |

    And there’s lots of straightforward stuff here, too:

    (more Mike L…I know!)

  10. Aaron
    Aaron September 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm |

    Thanks – I’ll check it out.

  11. mr.Lou
    mr.Lou November 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm |

    Hey Brad. I included a link to this article on Dead Deco today because I think the wisdom you were referencing here regarding mainstream-popularity-of-precious-exclusives was exactly what I wanted to share with my readers. Thanks.-mr.Lou

Comments are closed.