Shobogenzo Reviews

dogen[1]_0I’m working on a new book about an old book, Dogen’s great masterwork Shobogenzo. This is why I haven’t been posting a whole lot here lately.

Doing this new book has gotten me more into studying Dogen and the Shobogenzo than I have been in a long time. So, since sometimes people ask me to recommend either translations of Shobogenzo or books about Dogen in general, I thought I’d take a stab at it.



Gudo Nishijima was my teacher so of course I am prejudiced to like this translation best. But the more I work with it, the more I am convinced it’s better than any other. About three and a half years ago, I wrote a piece on my old blog called Why The New Edition of Shobogenzo is the Second Best Translation. It’s still up there if you want to see it.

In that piece I said all my reasons for liking the Nishijima/Cross version best. They’re still the same reasons. Mike Cross did the actual translation. As he says, “The process took place in my brain.” He looked up the words, puzzled over how best to render them in his native language, and made an incredibly accurate facsimile of the original Japanese text in English.

But the translation was “initiated, guided, nurtured, and financially supported by Gudo Nishijima,” as Mike also says. Without Nishijima and his 60 years of working with Shobogenzo to guide and nurture the process, the current edition couldn’t have existed. Mike has always felt that I didn’t give him proper credit for his work. He may be right. I’m sorry Mike! I think Mike was a genius at making the English say precisely what it says in Japanese.

If you want a version of Shobogenzo that feels like you’ve put on magic glasses that allow you to read 800 year-old Japanese, this is the one. The authors also provide copious footnotes that tell you what ancient sutras Dogen is referring to, who the old masters he names are, what certain of the original Japanese phrases are in case you’re wondering, and so on. It’s also cross-referenced with a 12-volume edition containing the original Japanese text plus a translation by Nishijima into modern Japanese. So if you know how to read some Japanese you can pretty easily look up anything that you feel like.

It’s available for free on-line as a pdf, though the pdf version omits all the Chinese characters that appear in the printed version and moves the footnotes from the bottom of each page to the end of each chapter.

Tanahashi/San Francisco Zen Center

This is the second best translation, as I said in that earlier article. It is far more readable than the Nishijima/Cross version. Which means it’s far more readable than the original by Dogen. Which means it’s also less like what Dogen actually wrote. It was also translated with an eye toward making it user-friendly and inoffensive to the sensibilities of ultra-sensitive folks from the Bay Area.

For example, the phrase  “sit upright like a king of (or under) the Bodhi tree” (kakuju-oh ni tanza) in Bendowa is rendered as “sit upright beneath the glorious Bodhi tree” so as not to be sexist. Where Dogen refers to the full lotus posture (kekka fuza) in the original, he says “sitting in meditation” in this translation so as not to offend anyone with tight hamstrings. In a section I was just working on, the word “parent” (oya) is translated as “mother” so as to make Dogen seem more inclusive of all genders. The list goes on.

There are also no footnotes. But there are a number of useful appendixes, a huge glossary, an index, and a bibliography that even includes a listing of my book Sit Down and Shut Up. Many of the translations used in this edition previously appeared in Tanahashi’s books Moon in a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds, where they are footnoted, but not as extensively as in the Nishijima/Cross edition. Those other books are also a lot cheaper.

Thomas Cleary

I only just started looking at this one. It’s not as bad as I was expecting it to be given that I’d heard Cleary did his translation in a hurry. But it’s got no footnotes* and it does seem to be more an exercise in being an absolute completist than in really trying to understand the meaning of Shobogenzo itself.

* Correction: It does have footnotes! Just not for every chapter and not as extensively as the Nishijima/Cross edition.

Kosen Nishiyama/John Stevens

This was the first complete translation of Shobogenzo into English… I believe. I say “I believe” because I have never seen any copies of volumes 3 or 4 of the four-volume set. Do they even exist? It’s a good translation. But the authors sort of attempt to explain Dogen within the text rather than do what Nishijima/Cross did and put that sort of thing in the footnotes. So you don’t know if you’re reading Dogen or reading Nishiyama and Stevens sometimes.

Good luck finding a copy!

Shasta Abbey

This was translated Reverend Master Hubert Nearman of Shasta Abbey, probably under the direction of Jiyu Kennet who ran the place. It’s available for free on-line, which is nice. It’s not bad. But the Reverend tends to go for overly flowery language sometimes. I occasionally refer to it when I see discrepancies between other translations and don’t feel like looking the phrase in question up in Japanese. It’s my tie-breaker version.

Stanford Soto Zen Text Project

Five or six years ago this was announced as the Shobogenzo translation to end all Shobogenzo translations. The Mother of All Shobogenzos in English! A few chapters have appeared on-line, and they’re pretty good. But where is the rest of it? Will we ever know?


The Essential Dogen by Kazuaki Tanahashi

This is sort of a Dogen’s gretest hits collection of short passages from Shobogenzo and other writings. Unfortunately you never know where a given quote comes from in case you want to look it up and see how it functions in context. Still, it’s a nice starter book on Dogen.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

It’s weird to review my own book. But I have actually been going back to it as a reference! It’s been seven years since I wrote it, so it almost feels like somebody else’s book. It’s a darned good introduction to what’s in Shobogenzo if I do say so myself.

Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki 

Although Shunryu Suzuki doesn’t reference Dogen very often in this book – and sometimes when he does he misquotes him! – it’s still a great introduction to Dogen’s outlook, which informs Suzuki’s philosophy throughout.


If this is interesting, let me know. There are a lot of other Dogen books I could talk about.

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Deep into the process of writing a new book, I have no other income than what I get as donations from this blog. Every little bit helps! Donate! Become a micro-donor! Just don’t make me go out on the Philadelphia subways begging for spare change! Thank you!

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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 Dogen Sangha Los Angeles

Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (I will probably do events in Austin  around the same time)

Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

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80 Responses

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  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 7, 2014 at 4:58 am |

    “July 7, 2014 | New at Tricycle: Zen priest and punk rocker Brad Warner leads a new online retreat on how to get yourself on the meditation cushion every single day.”

    Hot Diggity Dog! Damn the car horns, full speed ahead!!

  2. Mayneric
    Mayneric July 7, 2014 at 8:17 am |

    Enjoy hearing about the different books.

    You really need to come to Kansas City sometime I would enjoy hearing you talk in person.

  3. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 20, 2014 at 3:13 am |

    the distractions are just a part of it?…”realization” is more about a shift in perspective then anything actually changing?

    i think, your career is about soar 🙂

    i’ve read a large portion of the Shobogenzo…but just really reading through it and listening to dharma talks about it. not making a close study of it!

    Dogen was a great historical Buddha.

    i think, i’m going to dedicate myself to reading Shobogenzo, Nishijima/Cross, front to back as to have a better understanding when your book comes out.

    i think, this is going to fantastic shift in perspective!


  4. otaku00
    otaku00 August 7, 2014 at 3:04 am |

    Nishiyama/Stevens: There is indeed a complete edition apart from the separate parts, it came with a “gilt edge” and may be retrieved through some of Nishiyama’s disciples.

    A version of the 75-fascicle Shobogenzo was translated by Yuho Yokoi who also translated the Eihei Koroku, the Eihei Shingi, some other texts of Dogen [Zen Master Dogen: An Introduction with Selected Writings, with Brian Victoria] and the Denkoroku. You may find his work through libraries.

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