The Japanese monk Eihei Dogen was born as the illegitimate son of a Japanese aristocrat in the year 1200. By the time he was just eight years of age both of his parents had died and as a consequence he entered a Japanese monastery at the age of 12 where he studied a form of Buddhism of which he quickly tired.
As a result he traveled to China where he studied a purer form of Zen – one that had developed in India around 500BC. Dogen died in 1254 and left behind him a large legacy of written work which includes the text he is most known for namely Shobogenzo.
A Philosophical Classic
As a work of spiritual commentary Shobogenzo was, for many centuries, entirely forgotten about until it was rediscovered by Japanese philosophy professors in the late 19th century. Since then interest has grown in the book to the extent that it has become elevated to the position of one of the world’s great philosophical works.
It is, however, said to be a challenging work to interpret – one that is replete with contradictions and which many commentators suggest is perhaps well ahead of the era in which it was written.
In the introduction to his book ‘Don’t Be a Jerk’ Brad Warner shares his own personal relationship with Dogen’s masterwork. He also describes the events that caused him to decide to write an interpretation of Shobogenzo and to create a commentary upon the work that might appeal to a modern readership.
In his book Warner is keen to express his desire not to create a new translation of the work with which he has been familiar with for over thirty-five years, but instead to offer a sense of his impressions when reading the ninety-five chapters of Shobogenzo.
The Authentic Way
Warner begins his discourse on Shobogenzo at a fundamental level by introducing his readers to the Buddhist practice of Zazen which is referred to by Dogen as
…the complete path and the whole truth of Buddhism.
The author then follows this up with a commentary on Fukanzazengi or ‘The Universal Guide to the Standard Method of Zazen.’
Here the author offers his impressions of the advice on Zazen practice given by Dogen to his disciples in the form of practical procedures for entering the correct frame of mind and body for its practice – one which is slightly unorthodox in that it is carried out with the eyes remaining open throughout meditation.
From there on Warner develops his understanding of the Dogen philosophy on a variety of subjects including the idea of the no-self, the Koans and reincarnation.
The Challenges Involved
Trying to extract the spiritual and philosophical essence of an obscure 800 year-old, Japanese text has presented Warner with many literary problems.
He dedicates a whole chapter of ‘Don’t Be a Jerk’ to explaining the various challenges that have presented themselves throughout the project. Previous writers and commentators that have taken on the work of translating Dogen into English have experienced similar issues and as a result, according to Warner, the results have not always been accurate to the style or meaning of Dogen’s works.
In his book Warner catalogues the best versions and comments upon their accuracy and ability to transpose the intent behind Dogen’s works.
From commentaries on Dogen’s apparent feminist attitudes through to his observance on the ‘science of nature’ Warner covers the material in Shobogenzo from his own perspective This includes a reflection upon the title of his own book as a quotation – though often misquoted from source, of Dogens most grounding of all philosophical statements.
In the closing of his book Warner sums up the essence of what he feels Dogen us about in one final, closing sentence.
To be a follower of Dogen’s style of Zen simply means to come together in this spirit and learn how best to allow each other the proper space to find it for ourselves.
In this regard the sprit of Dogen encapsulates the core of what we need from 21st century spirituality.
Our Review of ‘Don’t Be a Jerk’ by Brad Warner
It cannot be said that I have any deep understanding of the life and works of Dogen – nor can it be said that after reading Brad Warner’s exposition on the man am I likely to take too much to his brand of 12th century philosophy.
Even in his book Warner states that
In his writings, Dogen often comes across as one of the strictest, most rigid, even rule-bound Zen monks one would ever want to meet – or avoid!
That does not mean that this is not a worthy or enjoyable book. In fact the reverse is the case for as a commentary on Zen it offers a fascinating approach to what has at its heart has all the makings of a disaster.
Anyone reading this book will, I am sure, be somewhat relieved that the Gods had not charged them with the task of interpreting Dogen’s work. Warner, however, was and he has performed a herculean task with great humour and a sense of respectful irreverence – if such a condition exists.
With personal stories, historical reflections and a fine grounding in making the intangible become readable ‘Don’t Be a Jerk’ is an extremely successful publication; one which will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in Oriental philosophy, Buddhism and Japanese studies.
‘Don’t Be a Jerk’ travels to times and places long since lost in the mists of time to extract ancient philosophical teachings that speak to our modern world. It is a work that straddles 800 years and energizes a world needing a more rational approach to spiritual thought and action – an impressive work by an impressive writer!