Dogen's Unique Commentary Style

Dogen was a master of language. It is impossible to study his writings and not be moved by the poetry and creativity of his words. He brings to each koan his literary sophistication, an extensive familiarity with Buddhism, and what is perhaps an unparalleled appreciation of the dharma. In his teachings, he always communicates on multiple levels: with discursive language, poetic imagery, and with “intimate words,” mitsugo. Intimate words are a direct pointing to the truth, meant to be grasped in an instant and absorbed intuitively rather than in a linear, sequential way. Dogen used all of these methods freely to transmit his understanding. His teachings had the “lips and mouth” quality that characterized the style of Chinese masters Zhaozhou (J. Joshu) and Yunmen (J. Unmon), teachers who used live, “turning words” to help practitioners see into their own nature.

Another aspect of Dogen’s unique treatment of koans was his use of the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan (J. Tozan) to illuminate different perspectives available within a koan. The Five Ranks—first delineated by Dongshan and elaborated on by his successor Caoshan (J. Sozan)—are a formulation of the coming together of dualities. The first rank is “the relative within the absolute.” This is emptiness: no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind. The second rank is the realization of that emptiness, and is referred to as “the absolute within the relative”—the realm in which the enlightenment experience, or “kensho,” occurs. Yet absolute and relative are still dualistic. The third rank is “coming from within the absolute.” No longer in the abstract, the whole universe becomes your very life itself and, inevitably, compassion arises. Dongshan’s fourth rank is “arriving at mutual integration,” the coming from both absolute and relative. At this stage, the absolute and relative are integrated, but they’re still two things. In the fifth rank, “unity attained,” there is no more duality. There is just one thing—neither absolute nor relative, up nor down, profane nor holy, good nor bad, male nor female.

Dogen never explicitly talked about the Five Ranks, except to summarily dismiss them, yet he definitely engaged them in a way that reflects a singular understanding and appreciation of their method. In “Sansuikyo” for example, he writes:

Since ancient times wise ones and sages have also lived by the water. When they live by the water they catch fish or they catch humans or they catch the Way. These are traditional water styles. Further, they must be catching the self, catching the hook, being caught by the hook, and being caught by the Way.

Then, Dogen introduces one of the koans from the Mana Shobogenzo, case 90 (“Jiashan Sees the Ferryman”,) and comments on it:

In ancient times, when Chuanzi suddenly left Yaoshan and went to live on the river, he got the sage Jiashan of the flower-in-river. Isn’t this catching fish, catching humans, catching water? Isn’t this catching himself? The fact that Jiashan could see Chuanzi is because he is Chuanzi. Chuanzi teaching Jiashan is Chuanzi meeting himself.

This passage is presenting the first two of the Five Ranks. The line, “The fact that Jiashan could see Chuanzi is because he is Chuanzi” is the relative within the absolute (or the absolute containing the relative,) the first rank. The line “Chuanzi teaching Jiashan is Chuanzi meeting himself” is the absolute within the relative, the second rank.

Although Dogen had some reservations about the Five Ranks, it was not because he did not find them true. He simply did not want them to become a formula—a mere intellectualization or abstraction. Dogen did not use them in the way they were taught conventionally. He wanted them to be realized face-to-face in koan introspection between teacher and student.

“Catching the self,” “catching the hook,” “being caught by the hook,” “being caught by the way” are all expressions of the interplay of opposites—specifically about how that tension works within the teacher-student relationship. So, “Chuanzi teaching Jiashan is Chuanzi meeting himself” is “the teacher teaching the student is the teacher meeting him or herself.”

Again, in “Katto,” Dogen writes about Bodhidharma’s transmission of the marrow to Huike (J. Eka):

You should be aware of the phrases “You attain me; I attain you; attaining both me and you and attaining both you and me.” In personally viewing the ancestors’ body/mind, if we speak of there being no oneness of internal and external or if we speak of the whole body not being completely penetrated, then we have not yet seen the realm of the ancestors’ present.

For Dogen, the relationship of a teacher and student is katto, a spiritual entanglement, which from his perspective is a process of using entanglements to transmit entanglements. “Entanglements entwining entanglements is the buddhas and ancestors interpenetrating buddhas and ancestors.” This is an expression of the merging of dualities. This is the relationship between Jiashan and Chuanzi. It is the relationship between Bodhidharma and Huike. And it is the relationship to which Dogen directs himself whenever he expounds the non-dual dharma in the koans he is using.