According to Dr. Hajime Nakamura, learning to speak Chinese was extremely difficult for the Japanese; even for official students sent to China during the Heian period (9th–12th century) who were supposed to learn to speak Chinese. How, for example, a Japanese Buddhist like Dôgen communicated with a Chinese monk was by writing out Chinese characters.
Needless to say, for one reason or another, the Japanese more than often misrepresented original Chinese texts. More importantly, Buddhism as introduced from China underwent many changes when, according to Dr. Nakamura, it entered Japan.
To understand just how Buddhism was transformed when it entered Japan requires that we understand, so to speak, the Japanese soul which, in a word, holds that the phenomenal world is the absolute which in a word is phenomenalism. On this subject, in his book, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, Dr. Nakamura writes:
“In the first place, we should notice that the Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over and above the phenomenal world” (p. 350).
As a result of this kind of cultural view of reality, Japanese Buddhism, especially Zen, is not untouched by the phenomenalist view. Dr. Nakamura continues:
"The way of thinking that seeks for the Absolute in the phenomenal world plays an effective role in the assimilation of the Zen sect as well. The Zen Buddhism in Dôgen seems to have been influenced by the Japanese Tendai Buddhism. This fact has often been alluded to by specialists but has not been fully explored. Here I shall point out a few examples which reveal the phenomenalist way of thinking. The Chinese translated “dharmatâ” in Sanskrit as “the real aspect of all things.” This concept refers to the real aspect of all kinds of phenomena in our experience, and therefore is compose of two distinct contradictory elements, “all things” and “the real aspect.” But Tendai Buddhism gave this phrase the interpretation which emphasized the “the real aspect is all things.” Dôgen meant to say that the truth which people search for [in] reality, [is] nothing but the world of our daily experience. Thus he says, ‘The real aspect is all things. All things are this aspect, this character, this body, this mind, this world, this wind and this rain, this sequence of daily going, living, sitting, and lying down, this series of melancholy, joy, action, and inaction, this stick and wand, this Buddha’s smile, this transmission and reception of the doctrine, this study and practice, this evergreen pine and ever unbreakable bamboo’" (pp. 351–352).
It is not difficult to see where this is leading. Dr. Nakamura observes that “For Dôgen...the fluid aspect of impermanence is in itself the absolute state.” And thus we find Dôgen saying in the Shôbôgenzô, in the section on “Life and Death” that “impermanence is Buddhhood”!
For Dôgen and many other Japanese thinkers, but by no means all, the phenomenal world is the absolute. It is not illusory. Neither is there a beyond nor a higher mind. What you see is basically the Buddha-nature. According to Dôgen in the Shôbôgenzô, in the section on “Buddha Nature”: “Since this is the way things are, to look at mountains and rivers is to look at Buddha Nature, and to see Buddha Nature is to see the jaw of a donkey and the muzzle of a horse.” This, of course, cuts against Indian Buddhism where phenomena are considered to be illusory and empty such as the “jaw of a donkey.”
Naturally, those who worship Dôgen’s brand of Zen will defend his phenomenalism. I expect this. However, it would be advisable to first read the the Mahaparinirvana Sutra which treats the subject of Buddha-nature and see how Dôgen’s words tally with the Sutra, itself.