Dogen Zenji

dogen01Dogen (1200-1253) is the founder of Soto Zen. He was a Japanese Zen monk and teacher, and he received his training in China from Rujing.

The Life and Thought of Dogen

(quoted from Prof. Masunaga: “Soto Approach to Zen,”  p. 203-214)

“It was Dogen  who first brought Soto Zen to Japan. Keizan (1268-1325) made possible the popularization of Soto Zen, thereby laying the foundation for the large religious organization, which it is today. Dogen, born in a noble family, quickly learned the meaning of the Buddhist word “mujo” (impermanence). While still young, he lost both his parents. He decided then to become a Buddhist priest and search for truth. He went first to Mt. Hiei, the headquarters of the sect.

At the young age he was assailed by the following doubt “Both the esoteric and external doctrines of the Buddha teach that enlightenment is inherent in all beings from the outset. If this is so, why do all the Buddhas, past, present, and future, seek enlightenment?” This doubt, clearly pointing to the dualistic contradiction between the ideal and the actual, is the kind of anguish likely to arise in the mind of any deeply religious person. Unable to resolve this great doubt at Mt. Hiei, Dogen decided to study Buddhism under Eisai (1141- 1215). For some time he practiced Zen meditation with Eisai’s disciple, Myozen. Then at the age of 24 Dogen accompanied by Myozen, embarked on a dangerous voyage to China in search of the highest truth of Buddhism. There he visited all of the well-known monasteries, finally becoming a disciple of Ju-tsing (J. Nyojo) who was living on Mt. Tien-tung (J. Tendo). For two years Dogen studied hard day and night and at last realized liberation of body and mind – the most important event of one’s life.

Dogen freed himself from the illusion of the ego, the result of dualistic thinking and he experienced deeply the bliss of Buddhist truth. He continued his religious training in China for two years before returning to Japan at the age of 28.

Dogen’s greatest desire was to spread the Buddhist religion and thereby benefit all mankind. He first settled in Kosho Temple where he trained Zen monks. He had a Zen training hall (Dojo) built and lectured before both the Buddhist clergy and laity for more than 10 years. In 1243, at the urging of Hatano Yoshishige, he moved to Echizen, now Fukui Prefecture, and founded the Eihei Temple, which today is one of the two head temples of the Soto sect. Burning with enthusiasm to teach true Buddhism to all seekers, he spent some 10 years there leading quiet religious life.

Dogen is the greatest religious figure and creative thinker in’ Japanese history. Thoughtful leaders outside the Soto sect have declared that the essence of Japanese culture cannot be correctly understood without considering this great Zen master. Deeply impressed at the thoroughness and depth of Dogen’sthought, many Japanese have gained new confidence in the potentialities of their culture.

Dogen enjoys such high regard because his Philosophy, religion, and Personality blend with the ideals held by humanity throughout history. His ideas are universally applicable. Dogen’s greatness rests on three Points: his profundity his practicality, and his nobility. His principal work, Shobogenzo, in 95 chapters, is a true masterpiece; it clearly reveals his thought and faith. Instead of writing in classical Chinese, so popular in those days, Dogen used Japanese so that every one will be able to read it. His style is concise and to the point. His thought is noble and profound. His sharp logic and deep insight not only put him at the forefront of Japanese thought, but also give him an important Place in modern philosophy. Because of these features the standpoint of Dogen provide a base for synthesizing Oriental and Occidental thought.

But Dogen’s significance is not found merely in the excellence of his theories.’ We should al ways ‘remember that Dogen never amuses him self with empty words and barren phrases divorced from reality. In Dogen’s writings we find theory and practice, knowledge and action, inseparably entwined. The detailed Zen regulations found in Dogen’s Eihei Daishingi established this fact very clearly.

Buddhism teaches us that we must awaken our own body and mind thoroughly and experience them fully. This does not mean mere intellectual knowledge but living the life of the Buddha without strain. Dogen combined both deep insight and thorough practice in his character- and therein lies his greatness.”

What is the basic thought and belief of Dogen?

1) The essence of Dogen’s teaching lies, first of all, in the correct transmission of a united Buddhism He felt that if the Zen sect formed its own system in contrast to those of other sects, it was apt to become one-sided and biased. So Dogen rejected the name “Zen sect” as indicating something distinct from the other sects. “Those who use the name Zen sect to describe the great way of the Buddhas and patriarchs,” he says, “have not yet seen the way of the Buddha.” To Dogen the establishment of the five sects of Zen only destroyed the unity of Buddhism. He considered it a product of shallow- thinking. Dogen sought to restore sectarian Sung Dynasty Zen to the main road of Buddhism from which it had stranded and to enable Chinese Buddhism, which had deviated from the main course, to find itself again.

2) Dogen, who was free from egotism and vain desires for wealth and fame, rejected the Buddhism of his period as imperfect. It goes without saying that in selecting the doctrines of Buddhism to be spread throughout the land, the time, place, and persons to receive the doctrine must be taken into consideration. The division of the teachings of Buddhism into three periods (the period of the True Law, the period of the imitation of the True Law, and the period of the decline of the True Law) is nothing but a means for explaining the changes in Buddhist philosophy to the masses. In Dogen’s view it is precisely because we are now in the period of decline that we must make unrelenting efforts to live in the spirit of the Buddha and to grasp the essence of Buddhism directly. Therefore Dogen says: “If you do not enter Buddhism in this life on the pretext that we are in a period of decline and unable to know truth, then in which life will you realize truth?” Dogen discovered deep meaning in the efforts of men to discover eternal truths in their own character. We can observe here Dogen’s intense resistance to religious fatalism and Mappo (the last of the three periods mentioned above) thought. If one has fervor for truth, the limitations of time and place can be transcended, and one can see the Buddhas and patriarchs directly. This is because the three periods are not periods in time but really stages in the development of men.

3) For Dogen the object of adoration is the historical Buddha who unites the three aspects in his own personality. This object, the Buddha, is source of our teaching and the guarantor of our belief. At the conclusion of the Sokushinjebutus, Dogen writes, “The phrase ‘all the Buddhas’ denotes ‘Sakyamuni Buddha. The heart of ‘Sakyamuni is Buddhahood itself. All the Buddhas who appeared in the past, appear in the present, and will appear in the future must inevitably be ‘Sakyamuni.” In Buddhist doctrine we often come across such Buddhas as Amitayus, Mahavairocana, and others. However, these are only manifestations Sakyamuni Buddha. As Buddhist thought developed and expanded, many others- likewise attained enlightenment. Both Mahayana and Hinayana consider the origin of Buddhism to be in Buddhagaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment). We may, therefore, say that the object of Dogen’s adoration is ‘Sakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree in Buddhagaya and who is the model for all Buddhas. He is neither a Buddha conjured up in the imagination, nor an idealized Buddha a devoid of a real personality, but an actual historical personage. Later generations viewed the nature (body) of a Buddha from three different angles. 1) The Body of the Law (Skt. – Dharmakaya), which is a personification of the True Laws of the Universe and hence transcends all finite limitations. 2) The Body of Retribution (Skt – Sambhogakaya) which is the reword for all training undertaken before enlightenment, and 3) The Body of Transformation (Skt.- Nirmanakaya) which comes into being so that the Buddha may adopt himself to varying individualities and capacities.

The Buddha of the Soto sect transcends this division. He is the historical Buddha who unites the three aspects in his own personality. He is termed in the Soto sect “Daion Kyoshu Honshi Shakamuni Butsu Daiosho,” which many be translated “The great Benefactor, the Founder of the Religion, Original Teacher, ‘Sakyamuni Buddha the Great Monk.” This great monk is beyond comparison and has a unique historical personality. Dogen strongly rejected the one-sided sectarian Buddhism that ignores the mainstream and clings to trivia. He taught a fully integrated Buddhism which existed before the division into Hinayana or Mahayana. Accordingly, the objected of adoration is ‘Sakyamuni, the founder of the religion, who naturally predates any splits in dogma. The uninterrupted transmission of the True Life starting from the Buddha is what we call “Shoden no buppo” or “correctly transmitted Buddhism.”

4) Now we must ask ourselves the question, “How did the Buddha find the way to live in truth?” The answer has already been given above: though zazen Dogen writes in Bendowa, a chapter of the Shobogenzo, “The teacher ‘Sakyamuni handed down this unexcelled method of enlightenment. And the Tathagatas of the past present, and future and the patriarchs in India and China have also attained enlightenment through zazen.” Thus beginning with the historic Buddha, all the patriarchs and masters have experienced enlightenment through zazen. At the time of his enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have declared: “Together with me the Great Earth and all beings have become enlightened. The grass, the trees, the very soil have achieved Buddhahood.” Mankind was saved by the enlightenment of the Buddha. So in Dogen’s view there is absolutely no need for us to practice asceticism by imitating Buddha. In Gakudo Yojinshu, he says, “Those who practice the way of the Buddha must first have faith in the way of the Buddha. This means to believe that we are in enlightenment already and have neither illusion nor error.” We are already on the path to enlightenment and are filled with the wisdom of the Buddha. Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen, said: “We deeply believe in accordance with the teachings of our master that all mankind is endowed with an identical Buddha-nature.” Our true nature reveals it self only when we have thoroughly understood the doctrine of the non-existence of the ego.

Human beings real nature is what we call the Buddha Mind or Buddha-nature. Bodhidharma taught us to believe that all mankind is endowed with this nature inherently. In the Soto sect, belief in this nature is called “honsho no anjin” (Tranquil mind of original enlightenment). Since we are in a state of enlightenment from the outset, zazen cannot he regarded as a means to achieve enlightenment. In the Soto sect zazen is not a way leading to enlightenment, but a religious practice carried on in a state of enlightenment. This zazen differs from the meditation practiced by the Buddha before his enlightenment. It corresponds rather to the Jijiyu Zammai (self- joyous meditation) practiced after the enlightenment of the Buddha. In this zazen one fully experiences the bliss of enlightenment by oneself.

Zazen itself, we may say, is Buddhahood. Since zazen is the practice of the Buddha, those who engage in it are Buddhas. Zazen, which is based upon the peaceful state of mind arising from original enlightenment, is also termed “wonderful practice.” We view this wonderful practice and enlightenment as one and the same thing. Dogen says of this in Bendowa, “In Buddhism training and enlightenment are the same. Be cause this is training enfolding enlightenment, the training even at the outset is all of enlightenment.” – This is what we describe as the identity of original enlightenment and wondrous training. Although we do not deny the existence of practice and enlightenment, we say that one must not cling to those concepts. This non-attachment we call untainted enlightenment and practice. It is correctly transmitted Buddhism and is characterized by the harmony, not opposition, of enlightenment and practice. Some may ask, since enlightenment and practice are one, isn’t zazen superfluous? To this we must answer in the negative. It is easy to fall into such erroneous thinking about zazen. Dogen says in the Zuimonki, “My idea of the untainted man of religion is the person who gives himself completely to Buddhism and leads a religious life without troubling himself about the attainment of enlightenment.” If we devote ourselves whole heartily to Buddhism without any desire to reach enlightenment, we became the living embodiment of Buddhism.

5) Zazen is the basic expression of a religion that emphasizes practice. Once its foundation is firmly laid, it becomes an activity of the Buddha adaptable to our daily life. Since it is a practice resting on enlightenment, it will transform our daily life into a religious one and reveal our tranquil mind of original enlightenment.

Quotes about Dogen.

“Dogen profoundly expressed the essence of Zen. In his biography it is said that Dogen had great doubts about reality and ideals when he was 15 years old, and he visited Eisai in an effort to solve this problem. Dogen later studied under Myozen, a disciple of Eisai. When he was 24, Dogen went to China with Myozen to study Zen. In 1225 he visited Ch’ang-weng Ju-tsing (1163-1228) at Keitoku temple in Mt.Tenndo; Deeply impressed, he trained hard. Finally he freed himself from dualistic attachment to body and mind and received the master’s approval. At that time he was 26 years old. He trained himself after enlightenment for two years and in the spring of 1228, he was given a book of genealogy testifying to his grasp of true Zen. After his return to Japan he made Kyoto the center of his activities and concentrated on writing, and meditation, in Koshoji at Uji and taught priests and laymen who visited him. Then, in July of 1243, when he was 44 he moved to the mountains of Echizen and built the temple Eiheiji. Here he lived a calm life of meditation for about 10 years.

Dogen’ uniqueness consists in his unifying and demonstrating deep philosophical thought and Thorough religious practice through his remarkable personality. Dogen shunned worldly fame and profit. He also steered clear of political authority. Foregoing a fancy Kesa, he wore a rough robe throughout his teaching life. He always stressed the way-seeking spirit, and he urged others to live each to the fullest. Dogen stood on quietude and original enlightenment. He considered cross-legged sitting superior training within original enlightenment. He devoted himself to thorough training day and night. He constantly lived a life of gratitude for the Buddha and the patriarchs.

Dogen’ right law was handed down to Keizan Jokin through Koun Ejo and Tettsu Gikai. With these Zen teachers the Soto school begin making big impact on society. Linking itself with the common people, it spread throughout the entire nation. Many brilliant Zen masters emerged. The teachings of the school flourished especially in the Tokugawa Period. Gesshu, Manzan, and Baiho pressed for revival of tradition in the school.”

from: Masunaga Reiho: Zen Beyond Zen

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