Dogen Zen or Count All The Rice

For class today we read an essay by Dogen, one of the first Japanese Zen masters to study in China. At this point, I dont know much about him, but the essay was interesting.

It reminded me of something I read somewhere, that the best descriptions of Zen dont actually talk about Zen at all. This makes sense to me because I think that Zen practice-mindfulness and all that jazz, are better explained by talking about something else. What I mean by that is that Zen is difficult to explain directly.

Suppose I asked you what Zen means. Could you answer? I guess it would depend on what sort of thing you thought I was looking for.

At the beginning of the class, Kenney talked about a student who took the class in years past. This student registered for the class inorder to understand Zen. At the end of the semester though, he wrote on the evaluation that after spending a semester studying Zen, he still had no idea what it was. Kenney then went on to say that the class will not allow us to understand Zen, but at the end of the class, we should at least be able to describe the structure of the Zen sects, who the important people were and what they said and roughly what time they said it. In other words, it is a Zen-ology class.

Dogen, the subject of this post, lived in the 1200s. Compared to other religous texts I have read, his essay is much more readable, though it is much more dense than Thich Naht Hanh`s. He writes about the rules a cook in a Zen Buddhist temple should abide by, and uses that as a framework for including anectodes and koans.

One of the main differences I noticed between Thich Naht Hanh and Dogen, was the change in audience. I think that Dogen`s essay was intended for monks and others well versed in the terminology and literature of Buddhism at that period. On the other hand, Japan has always had a high literacy rate, so it may be that that is a bad assumption.

Anyway, Dogen was writing for the 11th century Japan, while Thich Naht Hanh wrote for the 20th century world. That might explain some of it.

On of the koans in the essay that we focused on in class described a scene where a student was sifting rice and sand. The teacher asked if the student was sifting the rice from the sand or the sand from the rice. The student responded by saying that both rice and sand are removed. The teacher then asked what the monks would eat then. The student answered by turning over the bowl.

Dogen includes several koans and enigmatic passages in the work like the one above. He doesn`t explain any of them, which I think makes the essay more interesting because it adds a mystic quality to it.

That reminds me. The more I read about Zen, the more I wonder about its connections to the Tao, whether they are acknowledged or not and how strong they are. There are many elements in both philosophies that seem to be the same or at least very similar. They even use alot of the same terminology, for instance `having the way-seeking mind.` I think it would be interesting to look into that more.

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