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Introduction Since the 1920s, Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and in particular Chan and Zen, attracted the Western philosophers’ attention, but they tend to neglect modern Japanese writings, such as those of their contemporary colleague Nishida Kitarō 西田 幾多郎 (1870–1945). One may ask: Why not passing from the modern world of Europe to modern Japan, and then probe further back to, say, medieval sources? This paper suggests such a gradual approach to the complexities of Zen. While Nishida only unsystematically mentions Asian sources in his writings, in the 1930s a student of his, Tanabe Hajime 田辺 元 (1885–1962), developed an interpretation of

the thought of a prominent Buddhist monk of medieval Japan, i. e. Eihei Dōgen 永平 道元 (1200–1253), the founder of the Japanese Sōtō Zen sect. Tanabe consciously followed in the traces of an earlier interpretation of Dōgen by Watsuji Tetsurō 和辻 哲郎 (1889–1960), a cultural historian who was one of the first to see the philosophical import of the monk’s writings1. But Tanabe is probably the first prominent philosopher to suggest a metaphysical interpretation of Dōgen, according to which the monk’s speculation surpasses most of Western philosophy and Asian thought. In line with Watsuji, he tried to uncover the pre-modern sources of Japanese philosophy not in order to isolate his homeland’s culture, but to open it up and to contribute to «world culture». Tanabe’s and Watsuji’s interpretation have in common one central focus: both concentrate on Dōgen’s reflection of language, that is of dōtoku 道得, signifying «the perfect expression of Buddhist truth». Dōgen’s speculations in his magnum opus «Shōbōgenzō» suggest a concept of philosophy in many ways similar to the Western idea of logos. At the same time, his work is commonly taken to be exceptionally important in the tradition of Chinese and Japanese Zen. Zen is supposed to dismiss language and inculcate this conviction through its use of kōans to demarcate the boundaries of speech and script. That is, at least, the way in which kōans are looked at by the many intellectuals who have understood Zen as some kind of mysticism. This misunderstanding goes back historically to the propagation of Rinzai (chin. Linji) Zen, a sect that uses kōans primarily in the harsh training of monks. In contrast to this «negative» idea of kōans, Dōgen makes a comprehensive use of them and weaves a great number of them into his rather analytic, rational, and discursive prose. One might say that Dōgen’s basic insights and expounded ideas depend on «words and letters», thus changing the meaning of the famous Zen saying of «seeing into one’s nature, without relying on words and letters». The following essay presents Tanabe’s work on Dōgen as one example of a way to read the Zen monk as source of philosophy, of Japanese philosophy. Dōgen’s treatment of the issue of language and Tanabe’s corresponding treatment of Dōgen’s use of «words and letters» will only be touched upon, while our primary concern will be to throw light upon some historical aspects of his reading. On Tanabe‘s approach Watsuji may have been the first to explicitly explore the chance offered by Dōgen in this regard. And Tanabe is also under the sway of this idea, even if it takes some time before he singles Dōgen out as the source of Japanese philosophy. Tanabe’s first written remarks on Zen only appear a few years before his book on Dōgen in 1939. In the historical tide of the thirties, Tanabe’s research on topics like society, history, culture, and politics demonstrates a far reaching interest in Japanese philosophy such that it is more than Tanabe’s accidental preoccupation with Dōgen that lead him, in his quest for the sources of Japanese philosophy, to 1 Müller R. Watsuji Tetsurō et la découverte de la philosohie pré moderne // Proceedings of the 2nd Congress of Résau Asie. Paris, 2005.



introduce Dōgen. However, the same historical tide and cultural «urgency» can help us to explain Tanabe’s forceful, but rather forced reading of the «Shōbōgenzō». While the forced reading will be addressed here in the first place, it must be remarked that both Zen and Dōgen remain so influential on Tanabe’s thought that even his main work «Philosophy as Metanoetics» of 1946 can be plausibly read, as Himi Kiyoshi 氷見 潔 contends, as an series of impasses, i. e. kōans, leading reason to the realization of the «fundamental and intrinsic contradictoriness of reality as such», i. e. to genjōkōan 現成公案 – an allusion to Dōgen who coins this term in an important section of the Shōbōgenzō. It is clear that Tanabe’s reading is forceful and of lasting impact, although it remains to be discussed if his attempt of 1939 to read Dōgen as a philosopher is less striking than what later philosophers in the East and West try to do. Tanabe’s work on Dōgen was initially motivated by a presentation at the summer meeting of the committee for the promotion of science in Japan, hosted by the ministry of cultural affairs in July 1938. Even though he broadens and deepens his interpretation of Dōgen in the course of the text, his basic themes only become clear by the third chapter on Dōgen’s idea of language. We are going to discuss the first half of the text, seeing in it the connection to his ideas on the tradition and fate of Japanese thought. Any systematic treatment of Tanabe’s interpretation is bound to focus on this part, too. If one faces, however, the basic question of how to treat Dōgen’s thought or at least his main work «Shōbōgenzō» as a whole, in terms of its relation to philosophy, a different approach seems necessary. Language makes a good candidate for this relation, in as much as language is itself, on the one hand, a necessary, possibly sufficient, means to philosophize and on the other, Dōgen himself is concerned with scripture and spoken words in the transmission of the Buddhist truth. As has often been remarked, Dōgen’s use of language is astonishing, and his linguistic ingenuity has often been praised, but few interpreters try to get a grip on this on philosophical grounds; in particular nobody has continued the analysis of the term dōtoku and the «Shōbōgenzō» fascicle of the same name, as already undertaken by Watsuji and Tanabe. To delve into Dōgen’s idea about language (dōtoku) can help us to place his writings in their proper proximity to our concept of philosophy. In particular, it opens a view on the whole of his «Shōbōgenzō». That is different from focusing thematically on an intrinsically philosophical matter like time. Treating the «Shōbōgenzō» as masterpiece of philosophy differs from two other common approaches: the social scientific view is to take the text simply as a historical object (in the fields of philology, buddhology, and so on); while initiates of the Sōtō sect cannot but worship both its appearance and its contents. As in the case of other holy scriptures, it was forbidden to print the «Shōbōgenzō» and it was hidden in the monasteries for hundreds of years. Tanabe addresses both of these concerns, defending himself, first of all, against accusations from the side of the confessionals. He admits being a «man without relation to а religious sect», and in particular, he would «not know how nowadays in the Sōtō sect the teachings of the founder Dōgen are dealt with, or how the «Shōbōgenzō» is inter324

preted»1. Then, how could he as a layman, as mongekan 門外漢, read the «Shōbōgenzō» from the point of view of philosophy? Can it be anything else but a «blasphemy»? To Tanabe, who is taking the same line as Watsuji, it seems rather to be a duty to uncover a formerly hidden side in Dōgen in order to «honour» him as the precursor of Japanese philosophy, which, in effect, «strengthens the general selfconfidence of the Japanese towards their speculative abilities»2. This is, of course, no argument for the value of reading Dōgen as a philosopher, but shows clearly Tanabe’s motivation to do so. Another motivation more closely linked to philosophical history is Tanabe’s desire to show that the «Shōbōgenzō» encompasses a philosophical significance to modern philosophy as such, i. e. it can contribute to it and point beyond it in some ways, thus relating it to its Western counterparts on their own terms. Conceptual access to the work, then, will be via a philosophical reflection on dōtoku. In order to read Tanabe’s own reading of Dōgen with any philosophical rigor, then, this criticism needs to be addressed, without allowing it to negate his enterprise as such. His interpretation is a useful prototype and standard, even though it reflects the turbulent times in which it was written, especially in the tendency to incorporate the monk’s views into Tanabe’s own narrow schema of concerns. Even taking this context into account, it is hard to agree with much of Tanabe‘s interpretation, but it must also be pointed out that he himself was quite aware of the difficulties of his undertaking. He states right in the beginning that he does not interpret the life work of Dōgen nor the whole of the «Shōbōgenzō». And he does not even treat its ideas systematically3. He sees his work more as a preliminary attempt that is open to later revision. At the same time he takes a critical stance towards his «fellow» scholar, Watsuji, insofar as he regards his way to read Dōgen to be that of a historian, not that of a philosopher. Watsuji would be right, to take the «Shōbōgenzō» as a text. But it needs to be treated, as Tanabe contends, as text of greatest importance for modern philosophy both in East and West. In his view, the text outshines all existing ideas by its profound speculation4. The context of Tanabe‘s work By putting the issue of culture at the beginning of his analysis of Dōgen, Tanabe signaled that his interest in Dōgen relates to a larger concern about Japanese tradition and the position of Japan within world culture. For Tanabe, Japan’s integration and assimilation of Chinese culture over the centuries were a prototype that suggested the way in which Japan could play an intermediary role in global culture – for 1

Tanabe Hajime. 田辺 元. My view on the philosophy of the «Shōbōgenzō» 『正法眼蔵の哲学私観』. Tokyo, 1939. P. I–II. (Latin numbering refers to pages of the preface). 2 Ibid. P. I. 3 Cf.: Ibid. P. III. 4 Ibid. 325

instance, as Tanabe suggests, in using Japanese Buddhism as a ground to incorporate Western philosophy. Tanabe points in particular to Dōgen‘s «Shōbōgenzō» surpassing Western metaphysical thought. In an essay called «Common sense, philosophy, and science» (1936), Tanabe discusses Eastern thought in contrast to Western philosophy and points to Buddhist wisdom as a «common sense correlative to philosophy», insofar as its knowledge is mediated by action. Here he puts the deeper wisdom of Zen into stark contrast to any kind of mysticism. He contends: «In the same way as common sense is living knowledge, this philosophy [of Zen Buddhist wisdom] is living philosophy. The wisdom of this philosophy is not conceptually organized as a system of thought, but is, eventually, expressed in action. In Zen, a blow with the stick or a shout suffices to express the truth perfectly [dōtoku]. The intertwining of language [gonji no kattō 言辞の葛藤] is only of secondary importance»1. Already in these words, one notices Tanabe’s appreciation of the Buddhist tradition, which will grow in his later works. It seems to bear a quality that is lost in modern Western science, though it lacks, admittedly, the kind of conceptual framework that would make its expression possible. We should note that what he says here in 1936 about the use of the stick and the shouting differs from his future stance towards Rinzai practice. A year later, in 1937, he gave a different twist to the relation of language and the expression of truth, that is to kattō 葛藤, the intertwining of language, and dōtoku, the verbal expression perfected to voice the truth. He drew on Dōgen as a Zen monk who gives primary importance to language, i. e. a symbolic system that reaches beyond the expressive use of the stick and shouting. To quote again: «Shōtoku Taishi can be seen as the one who gave the system of Mahаyаna Buddhism … If this is so, we must assume that the dialectics of absolute negation is the philosophical method of Japanese thinking. To deploy this logic as logic and to call it dialectic means to mediate Japanese thinking with Western philosophy. But this way of thinking is prevalent throughout Mahаyаna Buddhism. That is why I suppose, that it is no exaggeration to call the 95 fascicle «Shōbōgenzō» of Dōgen the treasure store of dialectics in Japan. Therein the intertwining of truth is at once its perfect expression [kattō ha sunawachi dōtoku 葛藤は即ち道得]. The residuum of being, left in Hegel’s dialectics, is wiped out and completely turned into nothing and the transformative mediation of the absolute emptiness is realized»2. Leaving aside the tricky phrases of the passage, one can see that Tanabe gives Buddhism the function of unraveling the «genuine» quality of the Japanese being and he places Dōgen at the end of a process in which the «foreign» sources of Buddhism are perfectly assimilated and turned into something new that, it turns out, equips Japanese culture to process Western science and philosophy. With Buddhism, the meaning of the «native» thought and religion of Japan, i. e. of Japanese Shintō, becomes «concrete», or, in dialectical terms, it breaks through its immediacy and 1 2

Collected works of Tanabe Hajime 『田辺元全書』. Vol. V. Tokyo, 1963. P. 203. Ibid. Vol. VIII. P. 17. 326

arrives at a state of reflection. Zen, as part of the same movement, arrives in Dōgen’s work at a different quality and thereby changes from its immediate expression of truth by gestures (shouting, use of the stick, and alike) into «reflexive expression» by language. Therefore, Tanabe elevates «the intertwining of truth by language» to «its perfect expression». Some aspects of the interpretation of Dōgen Tanabe writes about Dōgen towards the end of a series of articles in which he tries to ground his philosophy in a systematic schema, developed in confrontation with Hegel as part of the process of distancing himself from Nishida’s «logic of place». Tanabe invents what he calls the «logic of species». Materially, he wants to present a different appreciation of religion and in particular of Buddhism – different, again, from Nishida. As is well known, Nishida is very fond of Zen, practicing it himself for years, and is close to the most famous advocate of Zen in the Western world, Suzuki Daisetsu. Both Nishida and Suzuki are affiliated to the Rinzai lineage and refer in their writings to its patriarchs the most often. Tanabe «opposes» their appreciation of Zen by treating the founder of the Sōtō sect, Dōgen. According to him Tanabe, the practice of Zen and in particular of Rinzai-Zen tends to be mistaken as a direct access to the absolute. By way of kōan training, the practicing subject seems to gain the ability to intuit the divine. In Tanabe’s view, Nishida grounds his philosophy on such an attitude of self-empowerment towards the absolute1. Consequently, he criticizes his teacher for conflating religion and philosophy in his advocacy of the idea of a union between the intuiting subject and the absolute. This critique is well known; what is less known is the fact that Dōgen comes into play here, figuring in a place in which one would usually expect the name of Shinran, the founder of the Pure Land Buddhism, for it is to Dōgen that Tanabe appeals when he constructs his own interpretation of the relation between the finite and the infinite. To put it in simplified terms: in contrast to the idea of self-power, Shinran teaches a submissive attitude towards the absolute, in which there is no way but devotion to the power of salvation of Amida Buddha. In place of the aesthetic approach to the sublime of Nishida, which according to his student skews to a religious world view, Tanabe, in particular in his later works, points to a form of religious experience that symbolizes the hardships of momentary existence. It is this experience that throws the human being back upon its limits, without any chance of escape, if not rescued by Amida Buddha. The only way to work towards salvation is ethical action in an unselfish manner. On the way to the devotional stance, Dōgen comes into play. He bridges the gap between the polar opposition of Rinzai and Shinran. Tanabe stresses the middle position of Dōgen, putting emphasis on both ethical deeds as the will to submit completely to this life and the rational expression of the basic mode of our existence: He interprets


Cf.: Tanabe H. Op. cit. Ch. 3. 327

a crucial term of Dōgen’s, genjōkōan1, in the sense of the apparent contradictoriness of life, impossible for the human mind to overcome. Dōgen realizes, in his way, the bounds of human reason, which cannot – in a critical self-assertion of the finite subject – be overcome. In putting Dōgen in the middle of the other two monks, Tanabe implicitly attributes to him the role of the «specific», through which the other two are mediated. Mediated relationships form a basic feature of Tanabe’s philosophy of that period. That is why he does not bluntly ask if Dōgen’s work is philosophy, but rather if this monk can be treated as belonging (zoku suru 属する) to philosophy2: can it be subsumed or in any other way be related to philosophy? Before he gives a positive answer, he takes a step back and thinks through what religion and philosophy mean: «Religion and philosophy stand in relation»3 to one another, insofar as both in their own way «make the relation between the absolute and the relative into the crucial problem»4 to solve. Through the term «relation», it is possible to work out Tanabe’s thought5, which is quite «modern» in placing the idea of relation above the idea of substance. Whether taken from him or not, it is only since Hegel that «relation» and «relatedness» are positive features of an ontology instead of derivatives of substance metaphysics6. But how to understand the relationships between religion and philosophy, between the absolute and the relative or relatives? Tanabe uses a wide range of expressions to talk about this relationship. In many cases he stresses a seemingly paradoxical relatedness, in that for both religion and philosophy, both the absolute and the relative exist independently in themselves, but not without intrinsically depending on the opposite side. It sounds like an echo of the rarely critically examined «paradoxical logic» of Buddhism when Tanabe uses the term soku 即: «The term soku signifies a relation, in which the opposites unite»7. It is, of course, impossible to make sense of it, if taken in a strictly logical sense of a unification of entities that are non-identical in a contradictory way8. However, Tanabe does not deny the usefulness of principles systematized by the analytical logic. He rather aims at limiting its use and employing seemingly nonsensical phrases to indicate the boundaries of its validity. In a positive way it might be satisfying to provisionally translate soku (as well as sōsoku 相即) in terms of «correlation» or «mutual relation» meaning a complementary dependency. 1

Ibid. P. 95. Ibid. P. 12. 3 Ibid. (Italics by R. M.). 4 Ibid. (Italics by R. M.). 5 As suggested in: Heisig J. W. Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. Honolulu, 2001. P. 116 f. 6 In the twentieth century, relation becomes explicitly a term of debate as for example in Ernst Cassirer’s work. Cf.: Baum M. Relation // Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. Vol. VIII. Basel, 1992. P. 600–602. 7 Collected works of Tanabe Hajime. Vol. V. P. 202 (Italics by R. M.). 8 Nicholas Jones walks through different argumentations of how to appropriately grasp soku in logical terms. See: Jones N. The Logic of soku in the Kyoto School // Philosophy East and West. (2004). Vol. 54. № 3/ 2


If we turn, once again, to his idea of religion and philosophy, we can cite the following phrases from the text: Philosophy «correlates to religion, insofar as it aims at understanding the absolute meaning of historical reality»1, whereby the historical itself is «relative». In other words, the standpoint of philosophy is none other than a position within history, while this is, at the same time, the place to look for the absolute. The absolute cannot be somewhere beyond, but only right here and now, even though these coordinates remain relative. From the point of view of philosophy, it is never possible to really touch the absolute, but only to perpetually strive for it. Striving for it, one is forever bound to the limits of human existence. Contrary, but not contradictory to this, in religion the limitedness of the human capability is overcome as one gives up trying to rely on one’s own power and submits oneself, in an act of repentance, to the absolute: an act of self-negation admitting one’s temporal and factual inability to overcome one’s finitude. At the same time, the absolute is dependent on the relative, insofar as it is thought to be dependent on a spontaneous act of repentance; an act autonomously submitted to by the relative. It becomes clear that the relation is not a static one, but dynamic: the dynamism is brought about by the momentum of negation and mutual mediation through negation between the absolute and the relative. Stressing the importance of Buddhism, Tanabe contends that this religion is very close to philosophy in that it considers knowledge based on wisdom to be a means of becoming a Buddha2. This is particularly clear in the case of Dōgen, insofar as he left a huge written work in a style that is not simply enigmatic preaching, but a rather rational and analytic treatise to explain the world in a Buddhist way. That grounds Tanabe placement of Dōgen in opposition to Rinzai, insofar as, within the Rinzai sect, the mediation between the relative and the absolute is executed only in an expressive way, as for instance in using a stick or shouting loudly to evoke awakening. In contrast, Tanabe cites a term of Dōgen’s: dōtoku, the perfect expression of truth: «If we take the word dōtoku in its literal sense as a dialogical mediation of speech, then, according to Dōgen, the truth of the Buddha is not limited to getting aware of it in a sudden awakening along the traditional sayings of “without relying on words and letters, pointing directly to the heart of man, seeing one’s own nature and becoming Buddha”. It is clear that Dōgen takes the road of philosophy, on which he penetrates thoroughly the dialogical dialectic. This dialectic is carried through by questioning and answering of opposed relatives»3. Even though Tanabe talks of relatives, it takes qualified relatives to make the give and take of a simple dialogue the expression of truth. It is the work of the Bodhisattvas (awakened beings), who remain in the human world as in the realm of constant flux. They keep on practicing their awakening within the limits of this world. That is why Tanabe goes on to write, that «talk and non-talk correlate, the absolute and the relative mediate one another»4. That causes «the manifestation of the talks of philosophy to 1

Tanabe H. Op. cit. P. 12–13. Ibid. P. 14. 3 Ibid. Р. 19. 4 Ibid. 2


correlate to “going beyond Buddha”» as the continual practice of the way in this life; in the sense of ethical work for the good of all sentient beings «religion is mediated with philosophy»1: «As Dōgen clearly states: “The wondrous that Buddhas and patriarchs hold up in the air and turn around, is knowledge and understanding” (cf.: «Sesshin sesshō»). Indeed, his «Shōbōgenzō» shows the greatest homology to dialectical speculation»2. Though the ubiquitous use of the same simple and complex schema mentioned above gives us reason to take a critical stance towards Tanabe’s enterprise, his conviction that Dōgen’s use and reflection of language should be seen as the perfect expression of Buddhist truth should impel us to closely examine the latter as an issue of philosophy; in particular, we should flesh out how the Zen monk takes language to express truth. Tanabe’s Dōgen book already chips in some general ideas about what such an analysis would look like; further scrutiny will no doubt, also, teach us to follow Tanabe’s problematic about «how» we can, and how we cannot, do so. This, the more difficult part of both the interpretation of Dōgen and the interpretation of Tanabe’s interpretation of Dōgen, waits to be done.

1 2

Ibid. Р. 19–20. Ibid.


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1 Müller R. Watsuji Tetsurō et la découverte de la philosohie pré moderne // Proceedings of the 2 nd Congress of Résau Asie. Paris, 2005. 32...


1 Müller R. Watsuji Tetsurō et la découverte de la philosohie pré moderne // Proceedings of the 2 nd Congress of Résau Asie. Paris, 2005. 32...

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