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  • Did Dōgen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It
  • William Harmless SJ
Did Dōgen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It. By Steven Heine. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xviii + 298. Hardcover $99.00. Paper $35.00.

Over the last thirty years Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253), founder of Zen's Sōtō school, has become, in the West, among the most renowned and most studied figures in Buddhist history. His brilliant and voluminous writings have now largely been translated into English, accompanied by a growing body of learned commentaries and penetrating historical-critical studies. The English-speaking world is just beginning to appreciate what Japanese scholars have argued for nearly a century: that Dōgen is Japan's finest religious thinker, one who probed the nature of religious experience with philosophic profundity and startling poetic originality.

Steven Heine, professor at Florida International University and director of its Institute for Asian Studies, has been at the forefront of Zen and of Dōgen studies for over twenty years. His earlier, pathbreaking Dōgen and the Kōan Tradition (SUNY, 1994) exploited postmodern literary methodologies to chart Dōgen's unique approach to kōans—that is, as dharma-charged words that disentangle hearers by entangling them in polysemous overflows of meaning. In this new study, Did Dōgen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It, Heine introduces Western readers to the many-layered tangle of issues that surround Dōgen's biography and his vast literary output. The broad, ambitious scope of this investigation is not fully apparent from the book's title. The title, in fact, may look a little odd, but its aptness unfurls upon reading. Heine is not questioning whether Dōgen went to China. Instead, he probes how China figured both in Dōgen's presentation of Buddhism and in Dōgen's self-presentation as "a dharma-transmitter who traveled to Sung China." Dōgen's genius sprang, in good measure, from the way he absorbed Chinese Ch'an Buddhism, both its revered monastic traditions and its vast transmission-of-the-lamp literature, and, in turn, from the way he transmuted this inheritance to create, back in Japan, what we now know as Zen. Heine argues that by charting Dōgen's many, varied, and shifting appeals to China, one discovers the linchpin for a comprehensive interpretation.

Dōgen's career (not unlike that of Augustine of Hippo) was marked by a series of seismic shifts, both of locale and of mind. One was his dramatic enlightenment experience—what he came to speak of as a "casting off body-mind" (shinjin datsuraku)—in 1225, while in China at the monastery of Mt. T'ien-t'ung, under the guidance of its Ch'an abbot, Ju-ching. The problem, as Heine notes, is that the earliest narrative describing this momentous event comes not from Dōgen himself, but from a hagiographic account composed two hundred years after his death. What of firsthand accounts? Well, there is Dōgen's own Hōkyōki, an autobiographical memoir that purports to date from his early years in China. But as recent Japanese researchers have demonstrated, the surviving version is laced with themes that match Dōgen's preaching at the very end of his career. Thus this memoir, far from giving us access to the young Dōgen, is (at best) a late redaction. This is but one example of the way [End Page 286] that Heine brings the English-speaking world up on advances in Japanese historical scholarship, "which has been questioning just about every angle and nuance of the largely pseudo-historical traditional account" of Dōgen's career (p. v). Over the course of this work, Heine does more than communicate the status quaestionis of Japanese Dōgen studies. He carefully and critically evaluates that scholarship, its breakthroughs and its biases. He also helps us see that for Dōgen, as for so many other seminal religious figures, East and West, sorting out biography from the hagiographic haze remains a formidable and ongoing task.