Dogen Zenji for Real
Unknown artist, Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan-zu), 14th century (detail)
by Douglas Penick
I was so happy when I heard that my friend Kidder Smith was working on some translations of the great 13th century Zen master, Dogen Zenji. For many years, Kidder taught East Asian history at Bowdoin College. His recently published Li Bo Unkempt (with Mike Zhai) is entrancing. His translation of Ikkyū, Having Once Paused (with Sarah Messer, University of Michigan Press), is uniquely revealing. I didn’t exactly know what to expect in these translations, but Kidder delivers Dogen’s sharp flinty shocks.
Here are some excerpts:
Speaking Dreams in Dream
We speak dreams in dream from before all dreaming, it’s the pervasive proclamation of all realms, the bright brightness of all things, the very moment of our doubt and jumble. Speaking dreams in dream is buddha, and buddha is wind rain water fire.
No one can doubt that dreams are realization—dreams aren’t administered by doubt. Nor can anyone confirm it—they’re unaltered by our confirmation. Prostrations and getting-the-marrow speak dreams in dream. So too our seeing and hearing, our body manifesting, our understanding and our not-understanding.
This is not analogy.
A Secret Language
Buddha, sitting there with millions on Vulture Peak Mountain, picks up a flower and blinks, and Kasyapa smiles, starting our Zen lineage. Some people think this blinking constitutes a secret language, and by comparison the spoken teachings are superficial and thin. They claim that human words are the only thing the assembled millions can understand, and thus the flower language is secret from them.
Well, if buddha’s speech is shallow, so is picking up a flower and blinking. For all we know, the millions are in there with Kasyapa, shoulder to shoulder, the same nature as buddha, the same nature as themselves, shooting the arrow of mind, all this in the same moment. Having seen their first buddha, they go on to see buddhas as numerous as Ganges sand. Every time they meet, the buddha picks up the same flower and blinks, and every time it’s the same time.
Then buddha says, “All minds of mystery and all dharma belong to Kasyapa.” Is this speech or unspeech? If he hated speech and loved flowers, he’d have just picked up another flower.
Buddha doesn’t hide a thing. If he did, everything would be secret to ordinary people, they’d have a ton of secrets, and the wise would have none, even those with god ears, dharma ears, buddha ears. But his secret language, secret action, and secret confirmation aren’t like that. The moment we meet a person, we hear and speak a secret language. When we know ourselves, it’s secret action. And in this moment buddha is secretly confirming, his secret language and secret action are tumbling over each other as they seek to manifest.
What we call secret is this fact of intimacy. No gaps, no breaks. It protects the buddha-ancestors, it protects you, me, action, the dynasty, virtue, secrets. The meeting of a secret person and a secret language is invisible even to a buddha.
What time is it now? This secret is present in us, in others, in buddha-ancestors, in every class of being, in secrecy. When we pass through the secrets of buddha-ancestors, we pass through secrecy itself.
We shed buddha-ancestors. We shed right meditation. We make more nostrils by splitting open the top of our head. We pick up Kasyapa’s flower from within the eye of real dharma. Inside the flower are Kasyapa’s hundred thousand faces breaking into a smile. When the world ends, and fires blaze unobstructedly through everything, and all falls to ruin, we just follow circumstance.
About the Authors
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
For many years Kidder Smith taught East Asian history at Bowdoin College. With punctum books, he previously published Li Bo Unkempt (with Mike Zhai). His other translations include Having Once Paused, poems of Zen Master Ikkyū (with Sarah Messer, University of Michigan Press).
Abruptly Dogen was recently published by punctum books.