It; The Shobogenzo

Recently, I have found myself doing something that I had hoped for but had never thought possible: reading the Shobogenzo and loving it.

Let me explain. I have a long standing difficulty with koans because they are commonly [and perhaps unfairly] characterized as having an alien logic all their own, designed to allow those who consider them to escape their wordly views which are immersed in duality and come to the realization of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that is and ever will be and thus gain all kinds of groovy zen powers…

*ahem*

I’m sure that much of this is true, but what I find unhelpful is English translations that play up grammatical ambiguities in Chinese and Japanese for overflowing obtuseness and maximum mysticality. While these problems are assuredly reduced by a good student-teacher relationship, a parable that cannot be understood doesn’t have a whole lot of value.

To explain: on one occasion I stopped inside a Tower Records which was going out of business and, while passing the vastly marked down book section, found a modest collection of Buddhist books. I picked up a translation of the Chinese Shobogenzo, a collection of koans collected by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Though this translation featured some ambiguity, the translator’s original commentary attempted to resolve these by layering on further flowery confusion. Consider this excerpt from the commentary on the much cited koan “Juzhi holds up one finger:”

“…Although the boy lost a finger, he gained his nostils. Don’t you see? The truth of Juzhi’s teachings is not to be found in the finger. This being the case, you tell me, if the truth is not in the finger, then where is it?”

I’m not sure, but this editor has decided not to include anything so silly as the answer in his commentary.

So such has been the case with me and koans, and my experience with the Shobogenzo. That is why Shasta Abbey’s Rev. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the Shobogenzo has been such a delight.

The Reverend’s translation is thoughtful, analytical, and helpful. When linguistic ambiguities are resolved, they are done so consistently, providing an overarching reading designed to develop understanding. The Reverend also takes care to tell you what it is he is resolving, so you can revisit those ambiguities on your own if you like.

It has been a great joy to read, and I hope to mention it more as I continue onward. I would recommend the translator’s introduction to anyone interested in truth and good writing from any walk of life with variable leanings towards the Dharma.