Dec 17, 2022

Review |To Meet The Real Dragon by by Gudo Wafu Nishijima

Book Review by Adrian Matthews

Adrian Mathews recounts his personal experience reading this book as a young man and then returning to it 10 years later.


Dogen Sangha publications (2009)

To Meet the Real Dragon, written by Nishijima Sensei, evokes a question in me. One, I hope, I can resolve in this review. It’s not a world shattering question, nor in anyway controversial. Simply put, it is thus: when I am reborn in my next life, would this book make a perfect introduction to Zen, and to Buddhism as a whole?

The book is a series of 17 lectures and Q&As between Nishijima-Sensei and his students, covering topics such as the historical Buddha, issues pertaining to morality, idealism versus materialism, zazen and so forth. It is, at times, an intellectual overview of Buddhist teaching although it reads easily without unwarranted fluff and hefty arguments. However, I will return to this point later as there is a notion of intellectual disagreement I have with some of the content.

As a wiry and overly inquisitive youth, with a dash of green-eyed mysticism thrown in, I remember the chapter on A World Divided particularly disturbing. In a good way, mind. Having grown up as a Westernised adult, blinking in the ruins of the Celtic tiger era, I was notably attuned and accepting that normality was not all it was made up to be. Nishijima is quite adept in presenting the normality of daily life and how we coast along believing that, "This realm of senses is reality itself."

Nishijima leans heavily on Master Dogen, and is squarely placed within the Soto Zen school. Yet I felt little in the way of exceptionalism or a desire to present that school over all others. Nishijima is above all courteous, and in his back and forth between his students neither harsh nor haughty. Perhaps a little bit cute, but that's alright in my books. Indeed, it became quickly apparent that the author was trying to place Zen in context with, and in right relationship to, Western academic philosophy. The "truths" of Buddhism are presented by a teacher that is aware of the mind steeped in the academy or the standard cultural liberalism of the late 20th century. One of his skills is his ability to be considerate of this fact alongside his desire to present Zen to Westerners, presenting the Buddha without the widely fantastical prologue story of his countless previous lives. The historical Buddha, according to the author, is one who, "taught us how to find ourselves and become master of ourselves through the practice of zazen." Indeed, his novel interpretation of the The Four Noble Truths as, "four philosophies...idealism, materialism, Buddhist realism and the philosophy of a Truth beyond philosophical enquiry; the ineffable reality itself”, is deeply evocative.

To expand on this further would take a doctoral thesis, but, in short, instead of The Four Noble Truths being simply a statement of the  cause and effect of suffering and the possibility of liberation, they are a sequence of realisations which we can use to interpret reality; a progressive sequence of epistemologies each building on the last. Namely,an idealist view that considers suffering as something abstract and beyond the self. A materialist view that sees suffering and the self as part of a causative chain of events. A realistic dream that this chain can be broken. And, naturally, that the truth lies beyond our current understanding. In some way, one could think of The Four Noble Truths as our ability to label the world through different world views, albeit ones that seem to have a directionality and increasing “truthfulness,” or complexity. A simpler way of putting it would be getting a toddler, a teenager, a young adult, and an OAP to offer a view on say an apple. A toddler might describe it so in terms of hating, liking, hard, soft. A teenager with regards to, “Uh, mum wants me to eat an apple.” An adult, “Oh it’s good for my skin.” And finally an OAP, “Well, now that brings me back to the time when I was in war...” Each viewpoint is valid, but there is a general sense of refinement over time. At least, this is how I understand Nishijimia’s interpretation of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of the world, so I am going to cut him and myself some slack here in my rebuttal of this standpoint.

While I'll come onto my views in a moment, I will start by praising the author's independence and his radicalism, as both are often far at the back of the Dharma ; they are not what one could call canonical Dharma. While there is much in the authors view that I suspect is open to debate, I believe that kicking the sand in the Zen garden into a new and exciting pattern is both beneficial and appropriate for a religion such as Buddhism.

However, this presents a problem. Although Nishijimia-Sensei is very clear in demarcating Buddhism as a set of metaphysics dissimilar from the laws and stipulations of modernity, with a jaundiced eye one can see the steady hand of rationalisation appear in the text. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this. Nishijimia is correct in assuming that Buddhism is an attempt to bridge the gap between eternalism and materialism. As he would put it,  Buddhism is an important ally in mankind's intellectual development, one that combines objective and subjective reality. This is very Hegelian in a sense, the combination of two opposing ideas to form a new thesis.

Yet, this is where I must proffer a critique. The idea that one can say that the realisations of the first three noble truths fit neatly into idealism, materialism, and Buddhist realism respectively is rather clunky.  I think this view is a mistake as, to put it bluntly, a view like this, while unintentional, leads to  a hierarchical view of the world where it is human realisation and human power that are the centre of our sense-making, or indeed of our enlightenment. Lest we forget, it was the dawn and the morning sky that moved the Buddha to his nibbana. “He” did not get “there” on his own. 

To quote an AA proverb.  "It's a simple program for complicated people," and looking back on the book now I feel as though this is a book heavy on theory, but lacking in practicality. At least in the detailed instructions one might be familiar with in Rinzai Zen practice or certain meditation practices. There are notes in this book on balancing the nervous system, pointers on Zazen practice, ethical uprightness, but in the absence of a clear embodied path all this sounds rather aspirational. It is like asking a child to play international rugby by watching the Six Nations. It is possible for a ten year old to trunk out at the Aviva stadium having listened and observed the rules, but it takes time, patience, and, above all, practice to score a try. And indeed, sometimes enlightenment does not happen in this lifetime; grand slams not withstanding either.  In a way, one of the hardest lessons I have learnt in my own practice is that the particulars of how one holds the lower back, or places one’s knees, or balances one’s neck is of more  import than “what does the fourth noble truth really mean?”

Zen, or any kind of training, needs a solid base of psychophysical practice upon which a solid foundation is formed. Nishijima's section on zazen, while embodying the Soto Zen practice of "just sitting" as a practice that, simply involves - well - just sitting, I could not help wondering, on my re-read of the book, questioning the value of introducing this to a beginner. When you consider that for most of us the day is spent ‘sitting’ either on the bus, train, office or in front of Netflix. Again, I am being somewhat hyperbolic here but I sense that the audience of this book is of a demographic that falls on the side of Buddhism being a way of life rather than a religious practice.

All this is not meant to be a critique of Nishijimia himself. I am a westerner commenting on a religion that is not own, on a type of Japanese Zen Buddhism of which I am no expert. Yet the tone of this book, while relatable and down to earth, elicits in me more questions than answers. I could not help but feel that the author was trying to present western philosophical thought as the natural conclusion to Buddhist thought, albeit with a different way of looking at the building blocks of the mind and the ultimate nature or goal of life. I do not believe it is the case that Nishijima failed to offer a water tight argument, in fact I think this type of world-view would be quite welcome in more secular circles. However, this invokes in me the fear that the Bodhisattva vows would become more of a job description than, as what I believe, a metaphysical statement about the cyclical nature of the world and a vow that has cosmic implications. In the same way being a Christian reshapes the reality in which one lives, if you take Buddhism to its logical conclusion, it is hard to accept that it’s talking points can neatly fold into modernity.

I return to my original question.  Should this book fall into my lap if I was a young teenager in Okinawa, would it turn my head as it had done, in this life, previously. Possibly not, but that is for him/her to decide. But what I can say is that the book is well suited to one who finds Buddhism as a way of life, a philosophy for living. And for that I commend the book to those folk.

I've said a lot in the review, and surprised myself in how much I have been critical of the book. But I don't want this to be a statement that the book is in some way, "bad" or heretical. I think it is still a solid introduction to Buddhism, with concise pointers into an albeit radical yet unique Soto-Zen view of Buddhism and conversely the world. In fact, I would still say that for a beginner it is one of the best books I have come across. It at least opens the door into examining how one is in daily life, where true practice occurs. And I have on many occasions lent the book out as a primer for Buddhism.

All of this leads me to feeling a note of sympathy in that To Meet The Real Dragon is a book left behind as a teen on the shelf ten years ago. And then, as the man taking it back down again, I realise that although the book may not have changed, I, sadly, have.

To Meet The Real Dragon by by Gudo Wafu Nishijima, Jeffrey Bailey (Contributor) pub. Dogen Sangha publications (2009)

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