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Emptying Reason: Dogen and Maimonides on the non-instrumental nature of religious practice

Eitan Bolokan


The comparative study of Buddhist philosophy and Jewish thought reveals the possibility for a fruitful dialogue between these two traditions. Such can be found in the inspection of the thought of the 12th and 13th century innovators Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Eihei Dogen (1200-53). 

We can detect a striking resemblance in the manners by which the two described religious practice in terms of a non-instrumental action; rather than in terms of a means towards an end. Yet the reasoning that stand at the basis for this similarity, and which led to its prominence in their respective writings, is quite different. 

For Maimonides, the non-instrumental approach (Heb. leshma) originated mainly from his method of negative theology (Heb. shlilat tearim) aimed at the eradication of idolatry (Heb. elilut). For Dogen, practice (Jp. shugyo) is understood through the dialectical interpretation of emptiness, and the nondual conception of practice and its realization (Jp. shusho funi). 

Comparing these two thinkers’ arguments for a non-instrumental essence of practice leads to a deeper appreciation of basic assumptions that stand at the heart of the two traditions; that is the concepts of suchness (Skt. tathatā) and truth (Heb. emet). 


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