By David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei
The question of Dogen being Zen or not Zen is a question of definition, so what does it mean to define something? I am offering four different ways of defining Zen, in some of these ways, Dogen is not Zen. In others, he is Zen.
First, Zen as a discursive practice – This means literally a tradition where ideas move through time via authors. In discursive practices, some authors have authority, other authors do not (which is a pragmatic view really). For example, if the sayings of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) masters are the basis for defining Zen, Dogen, a Japanese Master, would be excluded from this, since those masters had to have received transmission from a Chinese tradition.
But If you look at the body of Zen in literature beyond Chinese Ch’an masters, anyone who identifies themselves as Ch’an/Zen teachers, and his words have been excepted by a Zen community, then Dogan would qualify as Zen, since his writings have an 800 year old discursive practice associated with them.
Second, Zen as a cultural practice – Regardless of what writing there is, Zen can be seen through the eyes of those that identify as a Zen Sangha. What do people who call themselves Zen practitioners of Zen do? How do they live? Who’s ideas are important to them? This kind of definition for Zen is exclusive of anyone who identifies as a Zen practitioner, regardless of some sort of textual authority. Dogen would be Zen in this sense in that he was part of a cultural practice which labeled itself as Zen.
Third, Zen as a metaphysical believe system – This is Zen as a form of “catechism”. What does Zen say is true or not true about the world? What are the metaphysical points that Zen is trying to articulate? Such as the term Buddhanature considered as (“you are already enlightened “), or (“enlightenment happens instantaneously”) sort of reasoning.
Dogen had innovative ideas in terms of Zen metaphysics, such as sitting meditation itself being enlightenment although he also said that sitting Zazen has nothing to do with sitting or not sitting, and his importance on a continuity of an awakened state is clear in his writing, such as instructions to the cook. If we were systemizing Dogen’s ideas, some would depart from some Ch’an masters, some would resonate but others not as much. His Zeness for this category of definition might be termed ambiguous, creative, radical, visionary, or wrong depending on how they are perceived by the individual based on their understanding of a particular line of study or training.
Fourth, Zen as ineffable – Zen is something beyond any sort of definition because it’s essence is beyond words.
None of these definitions are either right or wrong. They are expressed in language for saying what something “is”. This is one of the basics of critical thinking: what we say is always a matter of the terms of definition, of perception and reflecting our own state of mind in any given moment. I bet you have heard that before!