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"Flowers Fall" Dogen and Yasutani in Translation

Book Review by Robert L. Seltman

FLOWERS FALL: a commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan /Hakuun Yasutani; forward by Taizan Maezumi; translated by Paul Jaffe, Boston, Massachusetts, Shambhala Publications, Inc.-1st ed. p. cm. xxxvi + 133 with translated text of Genjokoan, Notes, Bibliography ISBN 1-57062-103-9 (alk.paper)

For academics and modern practitioners of Buddhism, translation is both nemesis and life blood. Paul Jaffe’s translation of Hakuun Yasutani commentary on Soto Zen master Dogen’s Genjokoan, called "Flowers Fall" and published in 1996 by Shambhala, is a case in point.

Apparently Professor Jaffe wrestled for over twenty years with the words of twentieth century Yasutani, a recognized master in both the Soto and Rinzai traditions1, and despite his efforts we as readers must continue to struggle with our own experiential translation of these words. This book is as much an invitation to practice as it is the historical evolution of Dogen’s esoteric flower Genjokoan.

As Buddhist Sanskrit text is a written translation of an oral tradition that later found its way into a linguistically resistant Chinese, the author found himself taking a modern Japanese interpretation of a Soto School classic, and converting it, to be both readable and accurate, for a skeptical English-centric audience. After all, Western readers are born of a tradition where God’s law is the word, and any Asian input into the matter better be daidactically and dialectically clear.

The trouble with Dogen, his enlightened predecessors, and his few successful students, is they try to communicate the inexpressible to the unconvinced. Therefore everything in this book is a metaphor for something that must be experienced to be understood completely. As all Zen writing, no matter how beautiful or profound, this book continues a long tradition of exercising futility.

Undeniably anyone who has ventured into the esoteric mind trap, of learning the unlearnable, will want to evaluate Paul Jaffe’s translation. Unlike the early translators who were still saddled to a Judeo-Christian audience, Jaffe is part of a new generation liberated from cultural faux pas, no "God named Buddha prayed to by a cultic congregation" here. Perhaps one reason for the long time needed, to create this one hundred page translation, is the pain inducing aesthetic of trying to find words to convey ideas yet to be created, or even completely comprehended, in English.

To many Western Zen Buddhists, and certainly most American Soto practitioners, both Hakuun Yasutani (1885-1973) and Roshi Taizan Maezumi, who provided the forward to this work, are undeniably important. Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto line of Zen Buddhism, is believed to have considered Shobogenzo Genjokoan (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), revised just before his death in 1253 from the original sent twenty years earlier to a lay disciple, his piece de resistance. To have it all in one book is quite convenient.

Linking 1223, the year that traveling Dogen most likely first encountered the koan collection, Tsung-jung lu "Book of Equanimity," of the Chinese Soto School (Ts’ao-tung), to the present very alive modern schools of American and European Zen, reveals the tenacity and miracle of these old thinkers. A theology not theological, a philosophy that frowns on dogma, ‘a treasure of the true Dharma eye’ you must see to believe, "Flower Falls" is still further fuel for this historical riddle game, a koan to go beyond a mind that does not exist.

This is the translation and commentary of a man whose primary advice was "shikantaza", just sitting. Shobogenzo, and in particular Genjokoan the first of seventy-five sections in Dogen Zenji’s masterpiece, has been translated many times before, and will probably be translated again by future generations. This particular version of Genjokoan, with invaluable comments by a contemporary master, is a treasure store for this generation, to be read in conjunction with whatever is needed to apply a vision of the true Dharma.

The book contains, besides the forward mentioned by Taizan Maezumi, a comprehensive translator’s introduction, two versions of the original text, with and without commentary, extensive notes and a full-bodied bibliography. Hakuun Yasutani was a colorful and entertaining man of religion, a pragmatist with an extensive education in the classical literature of both the Rinzai and Soto Zen schools. His comments are both insightful and enjoyable to read, grounded, as his outlook dictated, in the everyday.

Dogen Zenji, a man still controversial within the Rinzai community for his apparent eclectic permissiveness in an intellectually stoic world, probably has had the most influence on the ‘Zen-Mind, No-Mind’ budding faith of Western practitioners. Anyone who has entertained the premise of ‘kensho,’ seeing one’s original face, as a possibility in their own lives will want to read this book.


1. For a different view of the Rinzai koan recognition of Sanbo Kyodan, Sogaku Harada, and Hakuun Yasutani, read Jeff Shore’s Discussions of Lay Zen Practice in Europe, FAS Society Journal 1995.

Copyright©1997 Ribert L. Seltman. All rights reserved.

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