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Steven Heine and Taigen Dan Leighton
Published in “Kyoto Journal,” No. 39, 1999

Steven Heine, scholar of Eihei Dogen, the great 13th century Japanese Zen master and author, once remarked that he would like to be buried with the collected works of a great spiritual writer whose name has five letters beginning with “D” and ending with “n,” but who was not Dogen. Another American translator of Dogen, Zen priest Taigen Dan Leighton, has been known to mention his gratefulness to be living in the same time as Bob Dylan. After 35 years of songwriting Dylan recently released the critically-acclaimed albumTime Out of Mind, and received appreciation with the Lillian Gish and Kennedy Center honors and three Grammy awards. During conversations sharing their high esteem for Dylan’s work, Heine and Leighton noted the striking parallels between Dogen and Dylan as spiritual writers who demonstrate a remarkable ability to use the tropes and idioms of everyday language to convey profound spiritual truths. This article is a product of that dialogue.

Dogen’s Consistency and Dylan’s Variability

The contrasting stereotypical views of the careers of Dogen, the priest, and Bob Dylan, the poet are both off the mark. Dogen (1200-1253) is commonly considered in histories of Zen Buddhism to be Mr. Consistency. A primary stereotype is that Dogen had a single, all-important experience that completely changed his life when he attained enlightenment during a pilgrimage to China from 1223-27. After this experience resolved his fundamental doubts about the relation between original or innate awakening and the need to persevere with daily meditative training, he never varied from his basic religious vision. Upon his return to Japan he established the sect of Soto Zen and maintained a strict commitment to the practice of shikan taza(just sitting, or single-minded meditation) as the central form of training that leads to and embodies awakening. This approach is expressed in Dogen’s masterwork, the Shobogenzo,the collection of philosophical essays he crafted over twenty years of writing and editing.

However, in contrast to the stereotype, there is actually a tremendous diversity of style and subject in Dogen’s writings. For example, there are two editions of the Shobogenzo,an early version (written in the first fifteen years after the trip to China) and a later version (from the following ten-year period), as well as other important writings such as a collection of sermons recorded in the Eihei Koroku, and a collection of writings about Zen community life,Eihei Shingi. Furthermore, while Dogen advocated meditation, he also supported a variety of practices, including the study of koans (paradoxical Zen teaching stories used for the training of disciples) that are commonly associated with the rival Rinzai Zen sect. In addition, in some passages Dogen rejected folk religious practices as superstitious, but at other times he emphasized the role of popular religion and the value of belief in local gods and spirits as an effective method of communicating the nature of ultimate reality in medieval Japan.

Another ambiguity in Dogen’s thought is a creative tension between, on the one hand, a disdain for literature as a distraction from single-minded pursuit of enlightenment and, on the other hand, a great felicity and facility with literary techniques used in a wide range of prose and poetic writings. This tension is acknowledged and wrestled with in the following verse composed in Chinese while in reclusion in a remote mountain hermitage:

For so long here without worldly attachments

I have renounced literature and writing;

I may be a monk in a mountain temple,Yet still moved in seeing gorgeous blossoms

Scattered by the spring breeze,

And hearing the warbler’s lovely song–

Let others judge my meager efforts.*


The Zen Poetry of Dogen(Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997).]

Thus, Dogen was primarily a religious seeker who conveyed his experience through poetry and the elegant lyricism of the Shobogenzoand his other prose writings. He rigorously maintained an uncompromising attitude of dedication and determination, but also found and explored diverse methods of disclosing it.

The mercurial Bob Dylan is commonly thought of as Mr. Variability, for the focus of his songwriting has shifted dramatically over the years from social protest in the early 1960s, to love songs in the early 70s, to born-again religiosity in the 80s, and to songs of personal anguish and pain in the 90s. At the same time, his musical style has changed from folk to rock, then to country and gospel, and recently to blues idioms. Some critics and fans have been puzzled, dismayed, or even outraged at times when they thought that Dylan had turned his back on their concerns while embracing an opposite ideological or musical standpoint. The legendary performer is known for having been booed on stage in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival where he introduced the electric guitar, and for having upset his audience in 1979 in San Francisco when he began a tour by discarding his usual repertoire for an entirely gospel show. Also, during the Sgt. Pepper’sera of the late 60s Dylan released the stripped-down pedal-steel guitar-sound albums John Wesley Hardingand Nashville Skyline,and twenty-five years later he outdid the “Unplugged” era of the early 90s with two eclectic collections of solo, acoustic versions of mostly obscure old folk/blues ballads. Dylan has constantly been changing and reinventing himself and his image/persona. At times his whole demeanor, including clothes and hairstyle, seems to be altered along with vocal and musical style.

However, there is an underlying consistency in Dylan’s songs and music-making throughout a career marked by an incredible degree of longevity and sustained creativity in the era of “15 minutes of fame” and “planned obsolescence.” Dylan always expresses contemporary angst in the face of “changin’ times” as well as a timeless sense of moral imperative toward the forces of inauthenticity to which he declares, “if my thought-dreams could seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/ But it’s alright Ma, it’s life and life only.” Dylan is primarily a singer-songwriter who constantly probes and moves beyond the limits of any one style or genre in pursuit of a transcendental, mystical vision whereby “I shall be released,” even while “Eden is burning.” Despite a legacy of many masks and (dis)guises that challenge the way he has been perceived by his audience, in his concerts these days Dylan dresses like a riverboat gambler and integrates songs from all phases of his career into a unified, incredibly dynamic performance of hypnotic, swirling guitar/vocal sounds.

Dylan’s evocative and often impassioned lyrics speak of suffering from social injustices, but also of the personal, psychological pains of human love and loss. The fullness of his experience of the suffering and anguish of the world, and his search for spiritual peace, is recounted in Time Out of Mindwhen he tells us with bittersweet wistfulness that his “mind is in the Highlands/ And that’s good enough for now,” as well as in the confessional lyric, “I’ve been to Sugartown,/ And I shook the sugar down;/ Now I’m tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.” Similarly, an awareness of suffering based on the universal impermanence of life is a central theme for Dogen. It is said that he was awakened to the poignant reality of sorrow and loss at age seven when, after having already lost his father and step-father, he witnessed the incense smoke drifting away at his mother’s funeral. This experience impelled him to become a “home-leaver,” a Buddhist monk searching for redemption through the experience of enlightenment, which he attained through rigorous meditation in China. In a Japanese waka verse he writes of his loss:

My companions/ Trekking/ The six realms –/

I recognize my father!/ There is my mother!

Masters of Spirit

Viewing their careers as a whole, there are significant similarities between Dogen and Dylan in their roles as mystical seekers, prophets and social critics, and renunciants/recluses. Linking these realms for both figures is an ability to use language to convey an inner spirituality characterized by self-reflection and self-correction. Dogen is recognized as a mystic for the ages due to his dedication to meditative yogic practice. His writings explicate the transcendent meaning of contemplative awareness though an evocation of the nonduality of nature. According to Dogen, continuous, sustained meditation practice is essential in order to embody awakening, and the practitioner must realize that even the sun and stars are engaged in this harmonious spiritual activity. Even a single instant of zazen links the practitioner with the cosmic interconnectedness reflected and expressed by mountains and rivers, trees and stones. But he suggests that while we can awaken while gazing at a beautiful mountain, it is also important to notice whether the mountain has been awakened while gazing at us.

Dylan, on the other hand, does not purport to be an adept of mysticism or any specific spiritual technique, although he has apparently explored Kabbalistic Judaism, fundamental Christianity, esoteric symbolism like Tarot, and perhaps Eastern meditation. But a mystical side is clearly evident in songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which enjoins one to “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,/ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,” as well as in his explicitly Christian and apocalyptic songs, such as “When He Returns” and “What Can I Do For You?” During the time that Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident in the mid-60s, he recorded a number of songs highlighting the dimension of nothingness in the process of self-awareness that recall the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, such as “Too Much of Nothing” and “Nothing was Delivered,” and his declaration in John Wesley Hardingthat “nothing is revealed.”

As an expression of their mystical vision, Dogen and Dylan both speak poetically with paradoxical phrasing about the true wisdom embedded in the harmonious world of nature. In an early masterpiece, “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” Dylan sings, “The ocean wild like an organ played,/ The seaweed wove its strands,/ The crashing waves like cymbals clashed/ Against the rocks and sands.” As Dylan personifies the music-making of waters, Dogen speaks of the omnipresence of flowing water, and also of the phantasmagoria of the walking of mountains, in his evocative essay, Shobogenzo“Sansuikyo” (“The Sutras of Mountains and Waters”). He concludes, “There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This is complete understanding.” For Dylan in his song as for Dogen in his philosophical works, the natural elements are alive as powerful spiritual guides.

In addition to seeking a mystical vision, both Dylan and Dogen are prophets and social critics standing up against the forces of inauthenticity and corruption, and pointing at those who perpetrate morally deficient attitudes. As Dylan declaims against worldly oppression and cruelty, Dogen also displays something of the prophetic in his proclaiming and espousal of the total awakening of Buddha-nature for all beings, even plants and rocks, arising out of nondual awareness actualized through disciplined meditative practice.

Dylan is a scathing and ironic critic of the “masters of war” and “false-hearted judges” and other high-class “criminals in their coats and their ties” who profit from and promulgate social inequities and intolerance. The American Dream in the “land of the brave” has become a domain where “Jefferson’s turning over in his grave.” Dylan asks the corrupted most pointedly, “When you gonna wake up/ And strengthen the things that remain?” His criticism reaches to all who think “death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally.” Dylan has often shunned the limelight of high-profile television appearances since the time in the early 60s when he walked off the set of the Ed Sullivan Show because the producers tried to censor his song attacking the right-wing John Birch Society. But on two occasions when he did participate in prominent broadcasts he seized the opportunity to make bold political statements. During the worldwide Live Aid show of 1985 to help the famine-stricken in Africa, Dylan commented that more should be done to reduce poverty among the farmers of America, which led his friends and associates like Willie Nelson to originate the annual Farm Aid fundraisers; and in 1991 while receiving a lifetime achievement Grammy award which coincided with the start of the Gulf War, Dylan performed a quixotic version of “Masters of War.”

Dogen was known to criticize severely contemporary Buddhist institutions and all the false prophets or supposed masters for self-serving hypocrisy or faulty understandings of the tradition. At times, his critical comments are couched in stinging language unsettling even by today’s standards, especially to those expecting only gentle, lyrical elegies, which Dogen also perfected. For example, he calls some monks whose understanding he challenges “beast and demons,” or “shit-eating, piss-drinking dogs.” Dogen was so infuriated by a disciple who betrayed the principles of Zen training that he not only expelled the rogue from the monastery, but had the monk’s meditation seat removed and a three-foot hole dug in the floor so that it would never be replaced. Also, it is said that near the end of his life Dogen declined a gift from the emperor of the prestigious purple robe given to high-ranking Buddhist priests, commenting that the monkeys in the mountains would only laugh to see him dressed in such finery.

Both Dylan and Dogen represent in divergent historical/cultural contexts the Outsider who knows well the difference between the world of Ideal truths versus the harshness of the everyday Real, and sets his sights on attaining idealism without losing touch of concrete reality. Dylan, who writes “I am a lonesome hobo without family or friends,” sings songs populated by loners and drifters, hobos and immigrants, geeks and clowns, in the carnival atmosphere of the “cracked bells and washed-out horns” of “I Want You” and of greeting “the blind man at the gate” in “Simple Twist of Fate.” For Dylan, who drew a clown-like image of himself on the cover of Self-Portrait,“Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” is reduced to “reciting the alphabet,” and the Joker and Thief plot their escape in “All Along the Watchtower.” Yet, in a world in which the haunted and hunted constantly suffer betrayal and deceit, Dylan declares unabashedly: “I paid my price for solitude/ But at least I’m out of debt.”

Dogen’s dimension as Outsider is based on the legacy of hermits, mountain seekers, and ascetics in China and Japan, who relinquished and sacrificed all for an opportunity to realize the Buddha Dharma, often abandoning the lavish temples of the urban capitals for remote, isolated, and often frightening mountain terrains. Like Dylan, Dogen knew that misunderstandings by and rejection from the “crowd” (for Kierkegaard) or the “herd mentality” (for Nietzsche) came with the territory. He once commented that, despite the fact that he was responsible for introducing authentic Zen practice to Japan through eloquent teachings, his followers may be inappropriately distracted by the elegance of his words:

Will their gaze fall upon

The petals of words I utter,

Shaken loose and blown free by the spring breeze,

As if only the notes

Of a flower’s song?

While certainly not retreating from an active censure of worldly fame and fortune in the context of the social-political arena, both Dylan and Dogen display strong reclusive or renunciant sides. Dogen renounced and moved away from the secularism and contentiousness of the capital in Kyoto to establish his monastic community at Eiheiji temple on the remote northwestern coast of Japan. This event led to some of the changes, and apparent contradictions, in Dogen’s overall approach to practice and writing. In the Eiheiji period, Dogen focused his teaching almost exclusively on his cadre of monk disciples, seeming to forego his earlier beliefs, clearly expressed while living in Kyoto, in the equality of lay and women followers as potential buddhas. The guiding spirit behind Dogen’s move was the injunction of Ju-ching that it was more valuable to have just a single authentic disciple than a horde of unworthy ones. But Dogen retained the centrality of meditative practice and awareness in his monastic community. And his mountain temple actually attracted throngs of followers from all over the country, lay as well as monk, although he realized that many of the common folk in the region thought of him as “that preposterous rube living up in the hills, no better than a wild fox.”

Dylan expresses his art and poetry most intensely as a performer and has spent a number of years on a “never-ending” concert tour, yet he reclusively guards his private life and generally avoids publicity as well as interviews, especially attempts at interpreting or deciphering his complex, open-ended lyrics. Although he has ironically referred to himself as a “song and dance man” or “entertainer,” Dylan writes poignantly of his quest for self-awakening, “Shedding off one more layer of skin,/ Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.”

Dylan and Dogen embrace the outsider role, in pursuit of a higher moral standard, because it reflects a purposeful transcendence of conventional values that may be petty or easily corruptible. On the other hand, one of Dylan’s most famous lines celebrating the proverbial renegade, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” has become ironic in light of persistent abuses of power in the highest places.



Masters of Words

Underlying the messages of mystical vision and social protest by Dylan and Dogen are intensely creative and provocative uses of language. Both are notable for their syntax-bending wordplay and denseness of writing, or an ability to express a maximum of meaning in a minimum of words. In his mid-60s albums such as Bringing it All Back Home,Highway 61 Revisited,and Blonde on BlondeDylan sings highly symbolic, intricate lyrics with surrealist images that twist or defy usual sense, but that are by no means nonsensical. Perhaps one of his most unforgettable verses is from “Visions of Johanna,” which also remarks that “the ghost of ‘lectricity howls through the bones of her face”:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo that this is what salvation must be like after a while

But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues

You can tell by the way she smiles.

Here Dylan takes a traditional, abstract artistic image and puts it in a contemporary, concrete idiomatic setting, thus enhancing the sense of ambiguity and mystery with an additional layer of irony and humor. Other bon mots from Dylan’s early period that have become popular cultural staples include: “God said to Abraham, kill me a son,” “The sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken,” “Twenty years of schoolin’, and they put you on the day shift,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” “Your debutante knows what you need, but I know what you want,” and “There’s somethin’ happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” In his recent blues-oriented songs, the apparent simplicity of writing is belied by wordplay and unconventional turns of phrase, such as the lines from “Million Miles,” “You told yourself a lie,/ But that’s all right, mama, I told myself one, too,” and “Voices in the night, waiting to be heard/ I’m here listenin’ to every mind-pollutin’ word.”

Dogen’s writing is known for his many puns and complex sentences that twist conventional understanding inside out. He frequently alters the meaning and order of phrases from sutras or koans to bring out a deeper spiritual significance derived from the radical nondualism underlying his teaching. A prominent example is Dogen’s retranslating of a sutra phrase usually read dualistically as “All sentient beings without exception haveBuddha-nature” to make it “All beings completely areBuddha-nature,” based on a homonym in that the words “to have” and “to be” are represented by the same Sino-Japanese character. Another prominent example is his philosophical pun on the ordinary word “sometimes” (uji), which he takes to mean “being-time” in that “all beings (u) are already time (ji).” This simple turn of the phrase becomes the basis of his doctrine of the universality of the impermanence of all phenomena, including the Buddha-nature or realm of original enlightenment.

Dogen like Dylan seeks to liberate language by deliberately distorting the ordinary meaning of words to expound an experience of ultimate reality integrated with the everyday world of being-time. He transmutes a number of Zen terms that conventionally indicate the false or fantastic, such as a “dream within a dream,” “painted rice-cake,” “flower in the sky,” or “entangling vines,” into expressions of transcendental reality that lie beyond the distinctions of truth and untruth. InShobogenzo“Muchu setsumu” (“Disclosing/Expressing the Dream Within a Dream”), Dogen counters the dualistic sense that dreams are an inferior, negative form of experience because they are unreal and illusory by indicating the nonduality of dream and reality, and the mutual intimacy of their forms of expression: “The place where the dream is disclosed within a dream is the land and the assembly of buddha ancestors. The buddhas’ lands and assemblies, the ancestors’ way and seats, are awakening throughout awakening, and express the dream within a dream.” In another example in Shobogenzo“Gabyo: (“Painting of a Rice-cake”) Dogen discusses the saying, “A painting of a rice-cake does not satisfy hunger,” usually taken to emphasize the contrast between the real thing as opposed to a mere painting. He masterfully plays with the meaning of emptiness and reality by concluding, “If there is no painted rice-cake, there is no remedy to satisfy hunger. Without painted hunger you can never become a true person. There is no understanding other than painted satisfaction. Furthermore, satisfying hunger, satisfying no-hunger, not satisfying hunger, and not satisfying no-hunger can be neither attained nor expressed without painted hunger.”

Dogen’s thoughtful citing and transformative rewriting of earlier Buddhist and Zen phrases exemplifies what literary critics refer to as “intertextuality,” which is perhaps the most striking similarity between the medieval Zen thinker and the modern popular singer. Intertextuality refers to the use throughout a particular, finite work of myriad allusions and references to previous writings that gives it an aura of limitlessness and infinity. This is done not merely to quote or cite in the sense of borrowing, relying, or plagiarizing, but to enhance and enable a text — to give it context, texture, and dynamism, sometimes by a slight change of a word or syllable or some other subtle alteration.

Dylan is also a master at intertexuality, rewriting earlier songs, both his own and traditional blues and folk material, but always with a new twist, sometimes by incorporating Biblical and classical mythology or by transforming current idioms. In a recent interview, Dylan spoke of the old songs as his lexicon and prayerbook; more than any of the formal religious traditions, these tunes provide his “old time religion.” Dylan’s ancestry stretches back to Old Testament Prophets and to political progressives, but also musically to African-American gospel and blues singers and to the old English and Appalachian troubadours. Dylan has shown respect for the sources of the transcendence he echoes and refines from the old blues and folk traditions by singing a vast array of classic songs, from “Copper Kettle” and “Alberta” to “Delia” and “Froggy Went A-Courtin’,” with such a depth of feeling that an uninformed listener would not suspect they were not his own writings, or by rewriting the union anthem, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill,” as the metaphysical “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”

As Dylan honors his musical ancestors who rang the call to freedom and justice by alluding to their music or quoting their lyrics, so Dogen venerates the Zen lineage of revered masters or “old buddhas” who embodied enlightenment through rigorous independent effort. With his phenomenal erudition, Dogen frequently cites or alludes to Mahayana Buddhist sutras or scriptures as well as Zen writings. Dogen introduced the Zen koan canon to Japan by commenting on traditional Zen sayings in novel, creative ways. The key to the originality of the Shobogenzois its skillful reliance on and manipulation of source materials of the tradition. Dogen also transforms his koan lexicon into resonant phrases that are both original and somehow familiar.

A key aspect of Dylan’s intertextuality is references to his own lyrics as a matter of self-reflection and self-correction, such as the transition from “You break just like a little girl” in “Just Like a Woman” to “You’re a Big Girl Now,” or from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” to “Highlands.” In a similar vein, Dogen continually revised some essays such as “Genjokoan” for over twenty years, and the later 12-chapter Shobogenzowas largely a rewriting of some of the chapters of the early 75-chapter version.

Another example of intertextuality is that, while containing complex and intricate lyrics, Dylan’s songs are also known for their innovative use of cliches. Indeed, some of his songs are filled with cliches, not in a deadening, mechanical fashion, but perhaps in the same manner that Shakespeare’s plays seem replete with famous quotes. Some prominent examples include: the beseechment in “Dear Landlord,” “If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you”; the scornful, back-handed praise, “What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”; the reproachful comment on the untimely death in prison of black activist George Jackson, “Some of US are prisoners/ The rest of US are guards”; and the painful admission, “I’m love sick/ I’m sick of it . . . I’m in the thick of it.” Dylan’s subtle adjustment of cliches is most poignant and evocative in dealing with tales of lost or unrequited love, as in his refrain, “Blame it on a simple twist of fate.” In “I Threw It All Away,” he comments “Love is all there/ It makes the world go ’round/ Love and only love/ It can’t be denied/ No matter what you think about it/ You just won’t be able to do without it/ Take a tip from one who’s tri-i-i-i-i-e-e-e-e-e-ed,” holding the vowels seemingly forever as a forlorn expression of loss.

A fascinating comparison between the two spiritual writers can be seen by examining one of Dogen’s most frequently cited essays, “Genjokoan,” which can be translated “Actualizing the Fundamental Point.” The opening section describes the reconciling of the reality of form or phenomena with that of emptiness or transcendence. But after delineating the dialectical overcoming of dualities such as delusion and enlightenment, or sentient beings and buddhas, Dogen adds, “Yet in attachments blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.” Dogen acknowledges the presence of samsara or impermanence and the causal effects of desire and aversion right within the transcendence of nirvana.

In his hymn “Every Grain of Sand,” Dylan also speaks of flowers and weeds and the impact of karma on spiritual life and inspiration: “The flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,/ Like criminals they have choked he breath of conscience and good cheer.” For Dogen these flowers fade while weeds proliferate even as the Buddha Way “leaps clear of abundance and scarcity” and of all dualism. For Dylan the indulgent flowers and karmic weeds are obstacles, even as he hears “ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea” and is “hanging in the balance of the reality of man.” He proclaims that “every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand.” The emphasis on each and every particular recalls Dogen’s verse written on his return from the Eiheiji mountains to Kyoto just before his death (which in turn reminds us of the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself):

Like a blade of grass,/ My frail body/ Treading the path to Kyoto,/

Seeming to wander/ Amid the cloudy mist on Kinobe Pass.

In “Genjokoan” Dogen invokes the sense of ultimate awareness as dynamic, ever-evolving and even incomplete: “When Dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When Dharma fill your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.” This paradoxical irony resembles Dylan’s recent song, “Trying to Get to Heaven,” which has a line about emotional loss that also plays with the tension in the ultimate casting off of illusion that comes with spiritual insight. Dylan sings, “Just when you think you’ve lost everything, you find out you can always lo-o-o-o-ose a little more,” crooning “lose,” swung low over a few extra measures, for added emphasis.

Later in “Genjokoan,” Dogen uses the image of a bird’s flight along with the swimming of a fish to express both the fullness and the limitation of freedom or awakening. “A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. . . . When their activity is larger their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. . . . [The bird] totally experiences its realm. But if the bird leaves the air it will die at once.” This resonates with Dylan’s marvelous and haunting inquiry — a true modern-day koan — into the realm and limit of freedom at the end of “Ballad in Plain D.” After the loss of someone he genuinely loved through tragic circumstances of betrayal and arrogance, he responds to his “friends in the prison,” who ask how good it feels to be free, by questioning them “so mysteriously,” “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”



Freedom and Ambiguity

Dogen was a medieval Buddhist monk who attained the heights of spiritual liberation but remained keenly aware of the ambiguities, struggles, and tensions that continue to plague the religious seeker. Bob Dylan is a poetic singer “still searching for another joint” while “revolution is in the air,” who glimpses freedom now and again while knockin’ on heaven’s door, but keeps wondering “what price you gotta pay/ To get out of going through all these things twice.” Dylan’s variability is reflected in a rich variety of genres including: personal romantic narratives with profound social significance or cosmic implications, such as “Visions of Johanna,” or “Tangled Up in Blue”; topical, state-of-the-union message statements, such as “Desolation Row,” “Slow Train Comin’,” or “Political World”; apocalyptic pronouncements, as in “Shooting Star,” or asking whether this is “Lincoln County Road or Armageddon” in “Senor”; barbed-wire fence-straddling howls of desperation, such as “Can You Please Crawl Out My Window” and the recent “Cold Irons Bound,”; and confessional, repentant anthems, such as “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” “I Believe in You,” and “Not Dark Yet.” Underlying these thematic approaches is the ever enigmatic, mysterious presence of the Jokerman, or the Man in the Long Black Coat, who accepts chaos while wondering if chaos will ever accept him and remains busy being born rather than busy dyin’. Dylans finds shelters from the storm . . . most of the time.

Dogen’s stance of consistency is marked by his adamant rejection of the doctrine accepted by most Buddhists of his time that the Dharma had entered the Age of Decline due to rampant corruption. Dogen insists that here-and-now enlightenment, without partiality or compromise, is possible each and every moment at this very instant that zazen is performed with dedication and no hesitation. Yet his writings explore the full meaning of impermanence and the emotions, time and death, nature and cosmic spiritual forces, through the creative use of language and symbols.

Although in some cases Dogen does show a penitent attitude, in his death poem Dogen displays confidence and bravado mixed with irony or uncertainty about the final outcome:

For fifty-four years

Following the way of heaven;

Now leaping beyond,

Shattering every barrier,

Amazing! To cast off all attachments,

While still alive, plunging into the Yellow Springs.

We have compared Dogen and Dylan as spiritual seekers who are masters of the craft of expressing their vision. Perhaps what they share most fundamentally is a common intensity and even passion in their concern for Truth. In differing milieus, they both have accomplished a vivid and evocative expression of dedication and commitment to finding and sustaining the wholeness of humanity, and of all being.

* Translations of Dogen’s poetry are from Steven Heine, The Zen Poetry of Dogen, Tuttle Publishing, 1997. Some of the quotes in this article are from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, 1985; and from Lyrics: 1962-1985by Bob Dylan, Alfred Knopf, 1985.


Steven Heine is Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University. His books include The Zen Poetry of Dogen; Dogen and the Koan Tradition; Existential and Ontological Dimensions of Time in Heidegger and Dogen; A Dream Within a Dream: Studies in Japanese Thought; and, as editor, Japan in Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives; and A Study of Dogen by Masao Abe.

Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and Dharma Successor in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is Adjunct Professor at Graduate Theological Union. He is author of Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and their Modern Expression; and is co-translator and editor of Dogen’s Extensive Record; The Wholehearted Way; Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community; and Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi.