Dōgen, if you haven’t heard of him, is a big deal. At the time “Don’t Be a Jerk” came out, NPR had recently published an article by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” who described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” arguing that he deserved to be ranked alongside Heidegger and Husserl in terms of his contributions to philosophy. (Actually I think he ranks higher.)
Dōgen lived from 1200 to 1253, and founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. His teachings are often couched in a paradoxical, dense, and obscure style that is often hard to translate, as evidenced by the wide variety of ways one passage can be rendered by different translators. It’s these characteristics — plus the great length of the Shōbōgenzō, that make books like “Don’t Be a Jerk” and “It Came From Beyond Zen” necessary.
Each chapter is in the same format: an introduction by Warner, a paraphrased and summarized chapter from the Shōbōgenzō, and then some explanation from the author, in which he tells us what the original text said, as compared to his paraphrases and pop culture references, and gives us his take on the teachings. Warner’s explanations about his paraphrases are a bit like a magician doing a trick and then telling you how it was done; it adds to the entertainment, makes you appreciate the skill involved, and is also informative. For example, he paraphrases “Has the disciple arrived at the state without doubt?” as the more approachable “Are you sure about that?” and “tea and rice” (medieval Japanese shorthand for something seemingly mundane) becomes “eating cornflakes and doing the dishes.”
Warner is mostly working from a number of translations, but he also knows at least some (I’m not clear how much) Japanese and sometimes takes us under the hood to show us the inner workings of the Shōbōgenzō — something I find fascinating.
The actual contents of the book are varied, because the essays the Shōbōgenzō comprises are varied as well. Some were presumably aimed at an audience with a very basic understanding of — well, just about anything. As Warner points out, many of the monks would have been uneducated young monks straight from the farm. Others teachings are among the most profound Buddhist texts ever written.
I was particularly interested in the chapters on ethics and compassion, since I haven’t seen much discussion of these topics from a traditional Zen perspective (as opposed to what modern Zen teachers have contributed, which is considerable). I found myself comparing teachings like Zen’s 10 Grave Precepts with the 10 precepts I follow, which come from the early Buddhist tradition. There’s some evolution evident in these teachings, as where abstention from slanderous speech becomes “No praising or blaming” and abstention from false views becomes “No abusing the Triple Treasure: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” It’s kind of refreshing to see a familiar old teaching presented in new words, but also a bit disorienting, which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course.
I can’t leave without pointing out that the book’s title is actually very clever. For a number of years Warner worked in the Japanese film industry, with a company that made cheesy monster movies. “It Came From Beyond Zen” obviously refers to science fiction monster movies “It Came From Outer Space” (in which an alien spaceship crashes in the Arizona desert) or Stephen King’s “It.” The “it” in these movie titles refers to something so beyond our experience that it’s unnameable.
Buddhism too deals with the unnameable: reality, which can’t be adequately expressed in words. This reality defies description. As Warner very neatly puts it, “Any description of anything involves … mental measurement. But no possible description of this something — this it — will ever suffice, because there’s literally nothing else to compare it to.” This “it” (in Dōgen’s text it’s the Japanese inmo) is beyond Buddhism. It’s beyond Zen. It’s beyond any attempt to conceptualize it.
If you’ve never heard of Dōgen, read this book. If you’ve heard of him and want to learn more, read this book. If you’ve a Dōgen expert, you probably won’t learn anything about the original essays, but might (I’m just guessing here) enjoy the book for its entertainment value and for Warner’s perspectives.