The Shobogenzo, or The True Treasury of the Dharma Eye is an 800-year-old Zen commentary written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dogen. It is considered to be one of the classics of philosophical literature; though, as Soto Zen priest and popular blogger Brad Warner observes in his book It Came From Beyond Zen it was largely ignored for the first seven hundred years of its existence. It was not until the eighteenth century that there was a small revival of interest in its author by Japanese scholars.
A New Audience
In the introduction to his book Warner reveals how his thirty year love of this text led him to create an interpretation of it’s wisdom that was digestible to Western Minds: not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination for, as Warner himself admits, “Dogen is trying to say things that cannot be said. So he has to bend language to the point where it almost breaks.”
Early on in his book Warner shares the immense challenges he was presented with whilst trying to decipher what is essentially a Japanese text that dates back to the 13th century from such a radically different sociological and cultural perspective. He describes the environment from which it emerged by detailing Dogen’s life along with a brief history of a Zen perspective of Dogen’s work.
In addition he also explains how the Buddhist perspective on certain spiritual practices, those such as mindfulness and meditation, vary greatly from the way that we understand them in the West today.
For each of Dogen’s essays, Warner offers a short introduction, a simple paraphrase of the text in question, and a commentary. He gives his readers details regarding the changes he has made along with an alternative way of reading certain problematic parts of the original manuscript.
For those who find even this too great a challenge Warner also offers what he thinks Dogen’s means and the reasons he might of had for so thinking the way he did.
It seems that the sheer sense of love and appreciation Warner has for Dogen’s work has given him the driving force to tackle such a challenging project. However as a Warner states “He [Dogen] shows us, in fact, that the way we’ve been thinking about stuff for centuries borders on insanity. He is showing us how to get sane.”
Our Review of It Came From Beyond Zen by Brad Warner
I gave Warner’s previous discourse on Dogen Don’t be a Jerk a hearty thumbs up. (See our review here). I do the same thing again here: although the two books are markedly different from one another in several regards.
For a start It Came From Beyond Zen is a notably more challenging and mind-stretching read. Gone are the extensive personal anecdotes that characterised and coloured Warner’s previous work and instead this follow-up is a much more scholarly work
That being said the author still does a great job in presenting Dogen’s ideas and philosophy in a way that is digestible by the Western mind. This makes for a genuinely interesting read which, whether you are interested in this aspect of Zen or not, offers a great deal to hold one’s attention.
In of itself the book challenges and is challenging and for that reason alone I felt that my time spent working with the material to be a good investment.