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Buddhadharma : Fall 2006
buddhadharma| 71 |fall 2006 f irst, in case you are a faithful reader of Dogen and find yourself alarmed and outraged by the title of Steven Heine’s new book, let me assure you right away that Heine is not suggesting that Dogen never went on his much celebrated pilgrimage to China in 1226. Heine’s title plays on that of another book familiar to Asia watchers: Did Marco Polo Go to China? That book offers solid evidence that Polo never went to China at all, and that he, or someone else, concocted an extremely successful fiction by combining fantasy with information pieced together from other books, a fiction that has been accepted as fact for many centuries. Did Marco Polo Go to China? is a rather spectacular example of what criti- cal historians love to do: disprove what has been taken for granted, debunk conventional wisdom, and cast doubt on commonplace conceptions. This has always struck me as a healthy endeavor. ZokEtsu norMan fischEr is thE founDEr anD hEaD tEachEr of thE EvEryDay ZEn founDa- tion, BasED in thE san francisco Bay arEa. hE rEtirED as co-aBBot of san francisco ZEn cEn- tEr in 2000. dogen, BuT whose version? did dogen go To china? By steven heine oxford university Press, 2006 316 pages; $99.00 (hardcover), $35.00 (paperback) reviewed by norman fischer And it is what Heine does in Did Dogen Go to China? Through exhaustive detail and careful reasoning, he succeeds in cast- ing doubt on all the current theories that prevail in the obscure, though not unim- portant, international scholarly industry known as Dogen studies. The early, and naive, view of Dogen studies in Japanese, and later in English, went like this: since it was clear that Dogen was an enlightened religious and literary genius, every word that he wrote had to be consistent, valid, and true. In the last twenty-five years, this pious version of Dogen has effectively been replaced by two main alternative perspectives, called the Decline and Renewal theories. Both are discussed at length by Heine. According to the Decline theory, Dogen, soon after his return from China, had a cheerful, open, and universal sense of practice, as evidenced in “genjokoan,” a beautiful, early essay that contains some of his most inspiring imagery. (“gen- jokoan” was the first teaching by Dogen to be translated and circulated widely in English, and therefore it influenced the Western Zen movement’s initial response to Dogen.) But, according to this theory, Dogen was soon disappointed at his lack of success in procuring patronage, and as time went by, he moved further and further away from the capital, and sub- sequently from the laity. As he did so, the story goes, he became crankier, narrower, more sectarian, and increasingly focused on the details of monastic ritual. Some scholars, like Heinrich Dumoulin, even accuse Dogen of becoming senile and bitter – all this by his early fifties! The Renewal theory, on the other hand, proposes that while Dogen perhaps did become narrower and more monas- tic in his outlook as he moved to the remote mountains of Echizen, where he founded Eiheiji monastery, in fact, a more important and fundamental change took place. Around 1247, Dogen was sum- moned to Kamakura, to the compound of a powerful warlord, who apparently offered to build Dogen a major temple. Dogen refused the offer and returned to Eiheiji, appalled at the possibility that the great universalist doctrine of origi- nal enlightenment, which he had been so sincerely propounding, could become an ideology in support of the violent samu- rai regimes that were beginning to rise to power. Such a co-opted view would have suggested that if we are all origi- nally buddhas – empty and free from the first – and life and death is transcended in oneness, and precepts and morality are mere vestiges of a limited dualistic mind, then what’s the problem with conquering and pillaging, if the motivation for it is in accord with the highest truth? (In fact, in Japan, as elsewhere, violent regimes have never presented themselves as having venal motivations. All great political criminals, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, have operated under high and inspiring ideological banners that justify temporary and spectacular misdeeds in the service of a transcendent good.) So Dogen came home to Echizen, renewed in his appreciation of the impor- tance of karma and of precepts for Bud- dhist practice, and at the end of his life, he was preparing a new version of Shobo- genzo, his masterwork, that would reflect this. The Renewal theory is the product of Critical Buddhism, an important schol- arly movement in Japan that condemns the whole of Japanese Buddhism because of its past support for militarist regimes, from the Tokugawa Period to World War