Sunday, April 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ Hee-Jin Kim ~ Dogen on Meditation & Thinking

Hee-Jin Kim in American Zen circles is a very  highly respected academic and Zen practitioner. He's a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. His reputation is based on one book, Mystical Realist, which he wrote in 1975 that has been reprinted and revised many times. Deservedly so, as it has become the foundation for many subsequent modern commentarial interpretations and critical analysis of Dogen's uniquely poetic, densely argued expositions.

In Mystical Realist, Hee-Jin Kim managed to explore and explain some of Dogen's underlying religious/philosophical views, and the particular rich use he makes of language. It is on occasions impenetrable itself, but on the whole it was more than worth persisting with. A few years ago I spent a very delightful week at Padmaloka, studying one chapter from Mystical Realist, where my ability to interpret and grasp Dogen's zeitgeist grew immensely. So, Meditation and Thinking, published some thirty odd years later came with high expectations.

I have to say I've been largely disappointed. It has many of the faults of Mystical Realist with not enough of its virtues. I think largely this arises out of Hee-Jin Kim writing primarily as an academic. He uses a distinctly specialist language, which many sentences are structurally jammed tight shut with. Sometimes his explicatory statements can seem just like one long list of words separated by commas. I've rarely read or reread paragraphs so much, in the hope that some sense of meaning might emerge, only to result in a 'nope, still don't get it'. It's very sad to read a commentary that appears to demand its own commentary, that makes the impenetrable more impenetrable.  I've only ever had this experience once before, with Masao Abe's ~ A Study of Dogen, where quotations from Dogen's actual writings emerged like beacons of clarity from the surrounding mud of philosophic framework that they were set within.

I'm not so dim witted that I can't get something out of any book, even if it punches above my intellectual ability by often quite a bit. I'll certainly give it a go. But I never want to read another paragraph with salvific, soteriological, hermenutical, perspectival, atemporalised, telelogical, ontological,or epistemological all within it. This is simply not a direct uncluttered communication of the Dharma. Dogen himself, I believe, would despair at use of language that is so remote and excluding.

Well, having given its style and form a bit of a thumbs down, I think I ought to give some sense of its content. It has six shortish chapters, but each is huge in ambition, scope and potential. They touch on Dogen's views on the nondual intimacy of delusion with enlightenment, on emptiness as a dream within a dream, on language as much more than a finger pointing at the moon ,that right thinking and Dogen's term non thinking describe the same thing, and that micha dittis are part of the striving of reason to perfect vision.

Kim also makes quietly questioning, yet searching criticisms of recent assertions made about Dogen, Zen and the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, as being non-buddhist, that have emerged via the school of Critical Buddhism in Japan  Whilst acknowledging that Zen has often neutralised the role of ethics in spiritual practice because of misconceptions around Buddha Nature, he also recognises Dogen was critical of these views in his own time. Kim is therefore not entirely convinced by some of the unfavourable interpretations that Critical Buddhiism attempts to draw. There is in potential at least, a lot that could be discovered from this book, and it might reveal more on a second reading on a long solitary sometime. Perhaps if my understanding this time was of only ten percent , then that was actually not a bad result.

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