Dogen Zen and Vinegar

A couple days ago at work I was cleaning the coffee maker in my office by running vinegar through it. After the first person came in and said, “Wow, that smell brings me back. I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen in Louisiana in 1960 and she’s cooking greens,” I began to ask each passing guest what they were reminded of by the smell.

One person said, “I’m thinking of my dad on a hot summer day while we were growing up. He always used vinegar to treat sunburn.”

Another said, “Smells like taking a bath.” And when she saw my puzzled expression she explained, “African Americans use vinegar in the bath because it’s good for the skin.”

A teenage male who came in to bum a cup of coffee said simply, “Smells like ass.”

If you haven’t had the pleasure of hanging out with teenage males in America lately, you might be surprised to learn how many things smell like ass to this demographic.

That brings me back to the unfolding series here, my hinky reviews of various selections from Steven Heine’s new book, Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies. Today I’m thinking about “Dogen Zen and Song Dynasty China,” by Ishii Shudo (translated by Albert Welter). Ishii Shudo is a Buddhist Studies professor at Komazawa University in Tokyo and a renowned Dogen scholar.

Ishii digs into two important figures in the creation of Dogen Zen. The first, Dahui, is often considered Dogen’s nemesis, not only because he was a koan innovator but also for how vehemently he denounced the quietism of Silent Illumination practice.

The second Chan master, Hongzhi, is associated with advocating Silent Illumination and is considered by many to be one of Dogen’s role-models. The question behind this analysis is about Dogen Zen and what that old dog was really teaching. Koan, Silent Illumination, both or neither?

Here’s a passage that Ishii quotes from Dahui:

When ministers study the Way, they do not depart from two kinds of paths. One is called “emotional detachment.” The other is called “attachment to concepts.” The one called “attachment to concepts” is what unreliable elder’s refer to as “watchful control.” Emotional detachment is what unreliable elders refer to as “Silent Illumination.” “Watchful control” and “Silent Illumination” are two kinds of illness, and if you do not eliminate them, you will not be able to escape birth and death.

Turns out that despite Dahui not being into Silent Illumination practice, he and Hongzhi were close buddies. Hongzhi even bequeathed his monastery to Dahui.

Here’s bit of Hongzhi that’s sweet and quietistic … and then not so:

I instruct on how to achieve tranquility. In autumn, water immerses the old well; in spring, everything is engulfed in change. In the depth of solitude, silence is achieved; as we radiate forth, our activity is dazzling.

Ishii concludes:

Chinese Chan, which recognized meditation as a form of practice in everyday life, releasing the practitioner from the strictures of sitting, developed an antagonism between Koan-Introspection and Silent Illumination Chan. This antagonism was based fundamentally on Dahui’s emphasis on “wisdom” and Hongzhi’s emphasis on “meditation.” Although Dogen refuted Dahui directly, the foundations of Dogen Zen teaching favor neither Dahui nor Hongzhi.

I especially like that last part, admittedly because I share Ishii’s view and have beat the same drum here and there for quite some time. Dogen Zen, imv, goes beyond the single foci of either wisdom or meditation by going through each in intimate conversation. In this vein, Ishii says that Dogen never once uses the term Silent Illumination in his many works. Shikantaza, not Silent Illumination, is Dogen’s expression for this intimate conversation.

Now back to vinegar. Is the truth about Dogen Zen like our associations with vinegar?

In other words, each phenomena has no fixed position but is simply how each mind views it.

For some, vinegar is greens, or sunburn, or bathing. There’s nothing “out there” but how each mind creates it. This relativistic “no accounting for taste” is one side, one foci.

Lived one-sidedly, this view can lead to lack of inquiry and deadness. If there’s only each person’s view of truth, for instance, what’s to practice? What’s worth saying?

On the other hand, the absolutist view is that there is one right view regarding phenomena, Dogen Zen, in this case. This side can lead to brittle fundamentalism, even when (especially when) backed by authentic religious experience.

What’s right?

Imv, engaging the conversation we can deepen our life and have something to offer others. The old Buddha’s Middle Way isn’t a compromise but the dynamic play of these foci (see Hee Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking for more on this).

And that’s the true taste of vinegar.

Guidelines for Studying the Way - Why?
Do Not Waste Your Time Admiring a Painted Rice Cake: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment
What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it's Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters
Dogen and Koan: The Ultimate Truly Definitive Unquestionable Smoking Gun
  • gary robertson

    “Whats right?” Yes here we are. This is a cat grabbing is tail and going round and round, and always returning to where she started. Zen is this cat. I guess that conversation in the hopes of helping is a worthery cause and may help others.
    Seems in my search for understanding I aways arrive at the same place and realize that I don’t understand, and I am getting to the point that I see or may see that I can’t understand. My teeth are deep into the tail. So I look up and see everyone biting their tail, which if too close to the body will smell like ass, and I think, which one of these biters knows about not knowing, and can say something with a mouth full of fur?
    Letting go of these thoughts when sitting is the only point that has no point and opens my jaws. It allows me to release my tail and stop. But, as you can see here is the trap again, I bite, and realize that I must continue to let go.
    The teenager is close, this smells a lot more like ass than vinigar.

    • doshoport

      Hi Gary,

      Thanks for the comment. Coming soon to a blog near you – Dosho’s Four Don’t Knows.

      Warm regards,


  • Harry

    Lived one-sidedly, this view can lead to lack of inquiry and deadness. If there’s only each person’s view of truth, for instance, what’s to practice? What’s worth saying?

    On the other hand, the absolutist view is that there is one right view regarding phenomena, Dogen Zen, in this case. This side can lead to brittle fundamentalism, even when (especially when) backed by authentic religious experience.

    Interesting post, Dosho, thanks.

    It seem to me too that both views, either seperately or in combination, don’t go far enough. What ‘leaps free’ is effort which actualises the intimacy that is already unfolding. Seems to me this is what Genjo-koan is indicating.

    It also seems that it’s no accident that Dogen placed such importance on the student/teacher relationship: There are things about ourself that other people see better, especially people who have substantially ‘met themselves’. Others can see things about us that we will never see actually.

    Part of the problem with one-sided, absolutist views is that it can make a person a ‘closed circuit’ to the process of mutual realisation. Where there is an assumption (with a capital ‘ass’, as in ‘smells of…’) that our sitting is the whole of the nature of effort indicated by Dogen there may be less room for the insights afforded by others. But, sometimes, even within that set of restrictive circumstances, maybe there is a lot of wiggle room.



  • desiree

    “….the mind that revels in silence and detests upheaval, and settle it for a moment. [142]

    So im pretty sure i dont get what Dahui is trying to say. In any of his quotes here. Reading his quote from the page prior to the page you referenced makes this clear. I unjustly prejudged his thoughts. Which i dont think i have a right to do…because of my misunderstaning of this other quote by him i can telll i’ve taken him,perhaps, out of context.

    What is he sayinf on the prior page? I think i get the part about zhaozhous no….until he wants to use it as a tool for extracting evil knowledge and evil awakening.

    I get some jists of it.

    The quote on 142 is said to be when he was 50 years of age. If the 1st quote on 143 is also made when he is already an elder….he could be telling others not to trust even him. This seems a critical bit of information,no?

    The part i know doesnt make sense to me is settling something that revels in the settled ( not the settling of). Does that make sense? I take silence to be a non-motionless type of settled itself ( to me). Is revel being used morr like revelation than lively festivities?