reading Dogen

I flipping adore reading Dogen. He offers practice food of a specific kind, Miracle Gro for whatever plant my mind is, a mind which happens to be happy on Dogen.

This may make me the worst person in the world to attempt list of tips and tricks for Dogening. Most of these things I do without noticing I do them. But some of my sangha is suffering about impending Dogen encounters in an upcoming class and I want Dogen for everyone! I will try to step up. It’s an exercise in studying the self too.

[I’m working this list as a blog post, so I can add to it as I Dogen along and realize that thing I just did that helped me enter the text. I hope I’m writing about Dogening in a way that is more accessible than Dogen, but probably not, but I am trying!]

I’m not worried about spoiling Dogen. It doesn’t work that way. Practice builds capacity. If a barbell with 100 pounds is completely beyond capacity, ffs strip off some plates and find a good working weight.

The basic unit of Dogen is a chunk – a paragraph maybe, but it depends. It’s rarely a sentence and perhaps three. Chunks are made of bits. All these suggestions apply to a chunk of Dogen, not an entire sutra. If you can Dogen a chunk of Dogen I suspect you are good to go with a sutra – it’s lather rinse repeat.

Try reading his sentences in reverse order. The nasty thing about writing is that you mostly have to put words in order; it’s a linear progressive project. Each sentence usually builds on the next.

Dogen was condemned by causes and conditions to write. We have to supply some memory and agility to make up for the lamentable limits of words marched in neat little rows. Dogen is realizing through words because they are what he’s got… and realizing is the least linear thing ever.

Dogen’s thinking is maybe like painting or a 3d artist… they can show you 5 things at once, all co-constituting each other, and they aren’t forced into any particular order or hierarchy either. You can look at different bits and chunks of a painting as they attract you, and move your eye around the canvas, and double back to the bits you really like, and ignore the ugly bit in the corner for now since it’s not your jam. This is not such a bad way to read Dogen.

Maybe Dogen’s also like juggling… to see one bit of Dogen is mostly in order to consider the implications for all the other nearby balls in the air. When you “get” a bit, this means you’ve launched one ball all spinning and shining into the air. Just wait until you get three bits going at once! Four! It might not be possible to see quite what a chunk is about until all his bits are up and moving for you so be patient.

So. If you are reading Dogen, and you don’t get how the thing he is now saying possibly follows from the thing he just said—congratulations! You are probably right. This bit maybe doesn’t flow from that bit at all. It’s a whole new bit. But you will want this new bit and that previous bit and the next bit, to engage with the chunk. And if one bit seems to be crashing into or fighting another, that’s probably on purpose too. Dogen can be like a pool player and set up things to fight each other, for the sake of a liberating creative tension. (Some of my sangha feel maybe he is too good at this,

Meanwhile, if you can get three bits out four, chances of cracking the chunk (liberating yourself to the text and who knows what else) are not bad. Dogening is kind of like algebra; the point of all that X and Y and Z stuff is that we don’t have to know all the numbers.


shantyboat #5, 48 x 60"

shantyboat #5 48 x 60″ oil—a totally Dogen-relevant allegory


Hey, maybe Dogen’s like a cookie recipe! There isn’t always a reason that bakers list the 2 cups of flour before the 1.5 t cinnamon, they are all gonna get mixed together, but there is custom and convenience and they have to list the ingredients somehow because words have to march in rows.

When I read a Dogen bit, I glance back at the most recent two bits, and over at the next one, and kind of roll all the bits together, and a whole new thing emerges – the chunk. It’s amazing. Dopamine fires in my brain like payday for a gambler. I roll around on the floor fangirling for Dogen for a little or long while… and when I come down, on to the next chunk.

Try reading Dogen beginning in the middle of a chunk. The first few times through your chunk do it beginning to end and build a base familiarity with the bits. But then try middle end beginning. Try end beginning middle. This is how you will spot and get comfortable with his inversions, how he doubles back to amplify and explode some unskillful concept.

Dogen won’t usually tell you straightforwardly just what he is trying to liberate you from. His words either work for you as mega turning phrases or they don’t; you are helped out of some conceptual jail, or you aren’t. If I give a chunk a good go and no jail door pops open for me, I just move on. No harm no fowl. Who knows, maybe that door will open for me later. Maybe I personally am not in that particular jail, so that chunk wasn’t for me. Maybe I’ll get to know someone who is in that particular jail and then that chunk will come alive.

Dogen gives you many chances to liberate yourself from old habits of reading for “mastery” if you are willing to let those habits go. Most of us learned certain ways of studying that don’t help much with Dogen, because he is opposed to them. Maybe if you have to teach Dogen or are studying for an exam, it’s different. You have to know Dogen and your students and whomever wrote the test and it’s a lot harder. But when the for sake of which of your study is liberation – revel in your fortunate birth and be free. It does not need to matter if you can’t embody the whole of the text. It’s ok to live with mystery and unsolved problems.

Obscure bits are the translator’s problem but sometimes they become your problem too. Dogen riffs on technologies that few contemporary people are likely to know. He riffs on texts that he imagined his imaginary audience totally knew. I’m pretty sure Dogen didn’t imagine us. So make use of whatever notes the translator offers you.

Sometimes a bit is obscure yet the translator doesn’t say anything about it. Maybe the bit is not particularly obscure… but the translator didn’t know what to do with it, so they took their best shot and moved on. I notice translators tend NOT to leave us notes saying “yeah I was clueless about what Dogen was going on about here, so I did this thing, hope you like it :)” When translators are stumped, they mostly bury it, quietly or stylishly. (I appreciate translators who admit it when they’ve not got a clue, and a few do.)

For yourself, if the translator notes fail you, you can do the same— make your best guess and go on your way. You can consult multiple translations and see if anyone else has a compelling angle that opens up the bit; you can google and do your own primary research. You can bracket the mysterious bit as a mystery, and experience yourself being bothered or unbothered by that. There are lots of good ways to practice.

I love my internet deep dives. We don’t have a lot of unglazed kiln fired clay tiles around now to polish into mirrors, nor do we make ALL THE THINGS out of bamboo. I have enjoyed thinking about how I’d think, living in a world where everyone knew bamboo and clay and rice, but not plastic and cell phones and grocery stores.

Another way of putting this is that I studied the self and found the self knew nothing about bamboo, and so I studied bamboo just a bit. And on deep dives I do sometimes find commonplaces to Dogen’s times that inform little sticky bits. But it takes time to do this research, panning for Dogen gold, and I have a couple of day jobs. So sometimes I have to bracket a bit [“obscure technology?”] and continue on.


About it's still raw

Angie Reed Garner writing on art, anti-racism, and Buddhist practice in no particular order I work with Stand Up Sunday-Stand Up Louisville under the supervision of Black Lives Matter Louisville.

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