Dogen in E-Prime

Eiheiji JizoWhen I enrolled in a poetry class my senior year in college, I fancied myself a bit of a writer. I enjoyed writing, and my professors praised and encouraged me — maybe too much. So I felt some dismay when the new poetry professor explained that for the full semester, we would write exclusively in traditional forms (sonnet, villanelle, and so on). I thought I had landed back in junior high school, where we churned out bad haiku and hammered clumsily at iambic pentameter. What a joke, I thought. I have a voice. I have something to express, and locking my verse in an arbitrary, formal box can only serve to silence what I have to offer. I didn’t write any great poems that semester (nor have I since). But the process of trying to adapt my voice to the parameters of form, of trying on a mode of expression that felt foreign, opened me up to a completely new view — both of my own voice as a writer, and of what it means to write.

Here, the opportunity presents itself to jump to monastic practice and how, in that strict, impersonal atmosphere of sitting like this, standing like this, talking like this, eating like this, one discovers not only a new practice, but also a new practitioner. But I’ll leave that there. For now. Instead, I want to talk about the language of practice, the poetics.

A few years ago, one of my college students introduced me to something called E-Prime. Developed by the linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., E-Prime advocates for the complete omission of the verb ‘to be’ from English. This includes not just be, am, is, and are, but all conjugations of them, all contractions that use them (I’m, what’s), and all use of the present progressive (“He is eating a sandwich”). The basic idea goes like this: If I say, “I am hungry,” you will understand my meaning, but the language will not reflect reality. “I feel hunger” tells the truth; “I am hungry” equates “I” with my subjective experience, essentially conflating the two. Hunger, a sensation, becomes an identity.

In some cases, strict allegiance to E-Prime requires some unnatural acrobatics. “Eating meat is wrong” becomes something like “I believe that eating meat constitutes wrong behavior.” But in other cases, E-Prime delivers an immediacy and frankness that ‘to be’ cannot. “He is a thief” becomes simply — and accurately — “He steals.” As I struggle to skillfully express myself to my 4-year-old son, the question of identity, embodied in ‘to be,’ comes up all the time. If my son shouts in a restaurant, I don’t say, “You’re a bad boy.” To do so reinforces precisely the kind of self-identification we want to avoid. But I might say, “That’s bad behavior.” Not E-Prime, sure, but still, these little tweaks speak to the same problems.

So, in introducing me to this idea , my student essentially placed a little worm in my ear that I cannot remove. I hear the question every time I sit down to write: “Does this verb, in this instance, reveal the truth? Or does it obscure it?” And, for good or bad, I now hear ‘is’ as a shouted word; when I read it, I add my own italics and bold print. I hesitate to write it (though I often give in). I know, at all times, the extent to which I cannot escape this ‘is’ and the questions it poses.

Which brings me to the language of Zen, and to Dogen in particular. Dogen did not write in Classical J-Prime, or anything like it. His principal equation, A=B, permeates his teachings. This doesn’t reflect a laziness of thought on Dogen’s part — A=B says exactly what he wants it to say. A=B, if we take it seriously, challenges us to our depths. Or it should. A=B should throw into question our definitions of A, of B, and of “=.” It should pull our philosophical rug out from under our feet. But does it? The first time one hears that “practice is realization,” or that “emptiness is none other than form,” the shock value can go a long way. But with time and immersion in the practice, we start repeating these things not as earth-shattering questions, but as fundamental truths, statements that require no further explanation (or worse, as teachings so profound that words cannot possibly touch the truth of them). There, exploration stops.

An example from Uji (“Being Time”):

Each moment is all being, is the entire world. (時時の時に尽有尽界あるなり; those last two characters, なり, or nari, function as “is” here.)

In trying to remove “is,” I immediately hit a wall. Alternate verbs dismantle A=B; they describe a relationship, boundaries, a distinctness that Dogen practically screams to cut through. “Each moment contains all being. Each moment encompasses the entire world.” These fall short. With work, we can try to approximate the original: “Each moment fully equals the full scope of all being, of the entire world.” That gets closer, but only because, in its clumsy way, it uses “equals” as a synonym for “is.” How about this — “Each moment realizes all being, manifests the entire world. Or, “In each moment, all being — the entire world — fully manifests” (the original Japanese also includes the notion of “in,” making this another possible direction).

When I play this game — with any piece of writing, not just Dogen — I often find that the E-Prime version surpasses the original, or at least, that the original suffers no loss. Take the opening from Genjo-koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”):

As all things are Buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.  As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The Buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.  Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

And in E-Prime:

As all things exist as Buddha-dharma itself, there arises delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there exist buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things have no abiding self, no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death can manifest. The Buddha way, essentially, leaps clear of the many and the one; thus the existence of birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

No problem. I won’t say that E-Prime improved it, but it didn’t hurt it (and I like how the Buddha way actively “leaps”).

But then we have the above line from Uji. After hours of thinking and tinkering and rearranging, I find, finally, that it had revealed itself to me from the start: Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Dogen got it right. Or at least, saying it any other way changes the equation, and here, ‘=,’ more than A or B, constitutes the point. Yet I feel, again, that simply accepting “Each moment is all being” on its face betrays a kind of laziness, or if not that, points to a fear of going further, of testing one’s own voice. When Dogen says, “A=B,” he offers us an invitation — not to repeat what he said, but to test its veracity, to see if, in our own expression, we might something that points even more directly to the center.

Even in a tradition which calls itself “a transmission outside of the scriptures, a teaching beyond words and letters,” I personally see no contradiction in exploring practice through the investigation of language — what it can express, and what it cannot. One of my teachers, for a full year as a novice monk decades ago, had to follow a rule of never uttering a first-person pronoun, in any context. No I, me, my, mine. He says it transformed his understanding of himself, that he reflects on that experience every day. It changed his relationships. It opened up a new way of being in the world.

We have to use caution, and not confuse “beyond” with “separate from” or “minus.” I can go to quiet places, but language will follow me (as will everything else). What do I do with it?

As a rule, when describing absolute reality, we fall into A=B; we say things like, “There is no difference, no gap, between you and me.” And when we speak of relative reality, we do the opposite: “You and I are separate, different. I am not you.” Is, are, am. But we have another option beyond these two. We have the the choice to grapple with the gap between what the teachings tell us and what we feel most of the time. We can decide to look for true, inclusive, poetic, useful language powerful enough and flexible enough to at least start to contain the fullness of the reality we sometimes only sense.

We should try. Or at least, I believe that doing so constitutes good behavior.

15 comments on “Dogen in E-Prime

  1. RayMunn says:

    What a kick! A book of poetry earned me my Master’s thesis, and my advisor challenged me to E-Prime too, along with Ernest Fenollosa’s great essay, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry”.

    Now I wonder if all that played a part in planting a worn zafu behind me as I type you a warm “Howdy, Partner”; glad you’re around!

    • koun says:


      Thank you. I’m happy to hear that E-Prime is coming up in programs where people might actually make the investment to see it through. I’m a real amateur, but it shines a light on my process, and my habits, in a way that makes me grateful.

      “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” is new to me, but the idea certainly isn’t. I think I need to read this.


  2. Edward says:

    Thank you.
    Most grateful,


  3. Taigu says:

    Great idea, Koun. Definitely a wonderful way to cut through crap. Adjectives could go in the same bin.
    As a writer of crap prose and poetry, bad philosophy and stinky stuff, I can certainly learn a lot from this.



  4. […] Koun, btw, works this passage in his recent post, Dogen in E-Prime. […]

  5. Gavin Michael Hicks says:

    Thanks for this insightful post. I recently wrestled with language at a Zen retreat. I had attended a retreat at a Soto monastery in the US and much of the liturgy was conducted in English, only a few gathas in Sino-Japanese. Now in Germany, I’ve practiced with two Rinzai groups, one of which uses only Sino- and (I think) modern Japanese for all services. I cannot speak Japanese, and while I understand chanting some of the sutras in non-western languages can be beneficial because one does not have to “understand” everything linguistically and directly, conducting all services in (to me) a foreign language alienated me. At first I tried to see this approach as a challenge, but ultimately I found that such a liturgy service seemed more theatrical than anything else, a bit of halloween. Perhaps my comments stray from the subject of language a bit. I suppose my question to you is: how has a bi-lingual approach enriched your practice and what are the rest of us non-Japanese speakers to do?

    • koun says:


      “How has a bi-lingual approach enriched your practice?” The quick answer is that it’s enriched my approach enormously, but the reason is that after all these years, I am — at least to a degree that’s useful to me — bilingual. It would be a waste for me not to explore the practice in both languages. But does it make sense for everyone to? Probably not. Sometimes I’m surprised at how much non-English chanting goes on in rooms where no one speaks any of the language being chanted. But I do sympathize — we’re all, in our ways, wrestling with the fact that our teachers (or our teachers’ teachers) talked inside their heads in a language that is not ours. How to maintain the dialogue?

      I do think there’s real value in chanting as a pure act, without the added layer of dissecting the actual content as we go. For that, the dharanis, or mantras, of the tradition serve a nice purpose — no one who chants Dai Hi Shin Darani really knows what it means beyond being a kind of cheer for Avalokiteshvara, so we can just bring a kind of hopefulness about compassion to it and chant our lungs out. There’s a place for that. But I wouldn’t ask Westerners to chant, for example, “Harmony of Difference and Equality” in classical Japanese. That’s one that Japanese people can understand (albeit with difficulty) in the original, so I think it’s only reasonable that we should have the same luxury. I also feel strongly that the dedication of merit should be in the language of the people actually participating. I can’t think of a reason for doing otherwise.

      But I’m saying this as someone who gets to design the service. What to do if you find yourself confronted with an all-Japanese service? Just go for it. Enjoy offering up your voice in that moment, and in another moment, go back and figure out what you’ve been saying. I understand what you’re saying about Halloween, but it’s only play-acting if you’re also play-acting. You always have the option to choose to do it for real.


  6. Mikael Brockman says:

    Very interesting! Some random thoughts:

    I haven’t read the original justifications for E-Prime, but its “animating logic” seems evident. Apparently the writings of Korzybski—”the map is not the territory”—inspired Bourland’s formulation of a simple rule to aid clarity. Perhaps Dogen would gladly say “the map is the territory,” though?

    E-Prime forbids “stealing is wrong,” but permits “you should not steal” and “don’t steal.” Of these, the latter has a more honest impact. I’m not trying to explain a general truth, I’m simply imploring you as one human to another. Wittgenstein might approach morality in this way. It also resonates with the typical formulation of precepts and vows. We say “I vow not to steal,” without going into whether stealing “is wrong.”

    In Zen, we speak of “live words” and “dead words.” I don’t pretend to understand that, but let’s investigate it. Maybe dead words arise when we can’t take our eyes off the map, so to speak. Like going hiking and only seeing names, plans, and routes, never glistening streams, fatiguing thirst, or twittering birds…

    I recall the one word that might possibly invoke Zen: “Look!”

    • koun says:


      Thank you. I’ll add to your list: “turning words.”

      And yes, I think Dogen would be pretty comfortable with “the map is the territory.” I’m much more comfortable with it now than I was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s one of the least intuitive ideas I’ve ever come across.

      That moment when a voice you know, without warning, shouts “Catch!” Zen practice sometimes feels like that.


  7. adam fisher says:

    My teacher’s teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, once commented at a sesshin or Zen retreat, “There is birth and there is death. In between there is enlightenment.” It was, for me, a wowsers observation, an invitation to daring. Mostly, it was the word “between” that left me gasping. For a long time, I flopped like a fish on a dock. I was less lazy then.

    What interests me is that, as you point out, there are invitations that will be accepted and invitations that will be ignored … stuff that might blow me away may be useless and secondary to you or vice versa. One man’s wisdom is another man’s borrrrring. Language may try all it likes to tell-it-as-it-is, but, as they say on Star Trek and you put it necely, the proof is in “make it so, Number One!” There is no imperative or morality or wisdom in any of it … just choice and chance dancing.

    Just noodling. Nice piece.

  8. Harry B says:

    A very enjoyable post, Koun.

    Hugo, in his quirky book of poetics ‘The Triggering Town’, offers the (personal) perspective that, after a while, the accomplished formalist begins to see poetic form as a bit of a cheat, as a crutch, as opposed something to contain, and/or ‘tame’, words and meaning… I think there are many such ways in which the old ‘formal vs free’ polemic assumptions can be seen to be straw men in the quick of the actual creative process.



    • koun says:


      I absolutely agree — it is not at all a contest between the two. That said, my sense is that the “formal” side of “formal vs. free” sometimes lacks a champion. I thought I’d give it a shot.


  9. markfoote says:

    How ’bout:

    Each moment places all being, places the entire world.

    I know, it’s an unusual use of the word “place”, and probably only makes sense in the context of a teaching like Yuanwu’s “be aware of where you really are twenty-four hours a day” (Zen Letters pg 53).

    For years I strove to write without pronouns or participles; I wanted to say something substantive and constructive, and the pronouns and participles always seemed to lead away from that.

    I oftentimes wish I had facility with the forms of the zendo, with the voice that is chant and the balance of the cross-legged pose, and I’m grateful for those who have facility in these things.

    For those with long toes like the fellow here:

    a haiku thread:

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