Flowers Blooming on a Withered Tree

Giun's Verse Comments on Dogen's Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

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Steven Heine
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Steven Heine’s recent monograph, Flowers Blooming on a Withered Tree, is a welcome addition to his already prolific scholarship on Dōgen (1200–1253) and Zen poetry, offering an accessible, engaging, and poetic study that pursues new directions in Dōgen studies. As an impressive body of scholarship now exists on Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shōbōgenzō; hereafter, Treasury) (Shambhala 2010), Heine shifts focus to the Treasury’s literary-textual reception through his translation of and critical introduction to the earliest and most influential Treasury commentary, composed as series of kanbun (Chinese)-style poems by Zen master Giun (1253–1333). Within a relatively slim volume, Heine provides a comprehensive study on the formation of Dōgen’s Treasury and the significance of its commentarial tradition, along with his lively translations and insightful glosses on Giun’s verses.

As an introduction to Giun’s verse commentary, the first two chapters investigate the historical circumstances behind the commentarial tradition and multiple versions of the Treasury, vital to understanding the standard 95-fascicle edition most familiar today. One of the major insights of Heine’s critical analysis is the textual fluidity and inconsistency of Treasury editions and the various ways the text has been envisioned through a succession of editors and commentators, making these chapters essential reading for both scholars and practitioners of Sōtō Zen.

More specifically, Heine sheds light on the significance of the 60-fascicle version championed (and perhaps edited) by Giun as the basis of his verse commentary. Heine’s articulate and neatly organized textual history includes an illuminating comparison of the structure and intent of the two Kamakura-era commentaries: (1) Giun’s homiletic verses that celebrate the master’s teachings while omitting fascicles harshly critical of Dōgen’s Zen rivals; and (2) the lengthy and apologetic interlinear prose commentary by Senne and Kyōgyō on the longer 75-fascicle version, which initially fell into disuse before being rediscovered during the Muromachi. Heine pursues his analysis of the Treasury’s textual history in the book’s epilogue, a meticulous bibliographical essay that skillfully synthesizes Treasury history and scholarship up to the modern day, producing an invaluable resource for Dōgen scholars. Moreover, Heine convincingly uproots several prevailing myths about the Treasury’s reception by presenting substantial evidence that a significant editorial and commentarial tradition persisted before and during the Edo period, contrary to the assumptions of the severe decline and relative insignificance of Treasury study in the Muromachi and Edo periods, respectively.

The first two chapters also explore the significance of Zen poetry and the major literary influences behind the creation of Giun’s commentary, including an explanation of the image in the title of Heine’s book. “Flowers blooming on a withered tree” derives from a series of poetic images which came to represent the Chinese Caodong (J. Sōtō) lineage in addition to figuratively encapsulating an instructive model for its meditative practice and literary engagements, as previously argued in separate studies by Morten Schlütter and myself. Heine expands on the history and significance of the poetic image as employed by Giun and maps out the profound impact of Chinese Zen literature on both Giun and Dōgen. Most importantly, Heine illustrates the literary influence of the prolific and prominent Chinese Zen master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) associated with the relatively obscure Wanshi-ha movement devoted to the master’s poetic approach to Zen, thus drawing attention to a noteworthy Zen literary trend beyond the more familiar Five Mountains literature (gozan bungaku) dominated by the Rinzai lineage.

Heine’s translations and glosses of Giun’s sixty verses, plus an additional selection of verses by Giun and associated poet-monks, are fluid, poetic, and insightful. Each verse is translated alongside their original characters, with a brief overview of the corresponding Treasury fascicle and glosses on the poem’s key terms and capping phrases. As the glosses do not slavishly adhere to the literal meaning or metrical divisions of the verse, they effectively provide a line-by-line commentary in a nontechnical and accessible manner, undisrupted by scholarly footnotes and annotations. For certain terms, further discussion of their semantics and syntax could illuminate additional layers of poetic meaning in the text and clarify the translator’s choices, especially when nonliteral and interpretive. Nevertheless, Heine makes fine and interesting choices as translator and his nontechnical glosses offer insight into the variety and function of the poetic language, valuable to both specialist and non-specialist readers.

For most of the verses, Heine successfully conveys the significance of Giun’s literary engagement with Dōgen through the analysis within his glosses. However, without a summative commentary on Giun’s poetic response to its corresponding Treasury fascicle, the overarching rationale and purpose of Giun’s literary methods are sometimes lost in the point-by-point explanations of particular images and allusions. At times, readers may want to consult the Treasury with the aid of Heine’s carefully assembled interpretive tools in order to develop a greater sense of Giun’s poetic innovations.

In sum, Heine’s latest work makes substantial contributions to our understanding of Dōgen, the Treasury, and the flourishing of Chinese Zen poetic practices within Japan. If there is a shortcoming worthy of note, it would be one of the book’s greatest strengths: the scholarly contributions of Heine’s thorough and expansive textual history of the Treasury tend to overshadow Giun and his verse commentary despite its decisive role in the Treasury’s history as convincingly demonstrated in the book. At the same time, Heine’s direct and vivid translations of Giun’s verses make a wonderful addition to the study of Dōgen and Zen poetry. To use Heine’s own adaptation of the “flowers blooming on a withered tree” image as a metaphor for the flourishing of contemporary Dōgen scholarship, this book embodies a great blossoming of poetic and scholarly knowledge, indispensable to Zen scholars, Sōtō practitioners, and those interested in Sino-Japanese poetry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Byrne is humanities professor at Dawson College.

Date of Review: 
June 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven Heine is professor and director of Asian studies at Florida International University, and an expert on East Asian religions, especially the origins and spread of Zen Buddhism from China to Japan. He has published more than thirty monographs and edited volumes, including several works specializing in the life and thought of Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) such as Did Dogen Go to China? and Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies.



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