Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


To understand the Way is to understand the self. To understand the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to drop the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on for ever and ever.

Shobogenzo DOGEN

Eisai's Japan was a social and political kaleidoscope of shifting trends and influences. Whilst the aristocracy Li struggled to retain imperial control, burdened by its effete sensibility, poignant beauty and pervasive sense of impermanence and doom, the rising samurai class developed a feudal government undergirded by the emerging bushido, the way of the warriors. Buddhist institutions had passed into the hands of the secular aristocracy to such an extent that the distinction between buppo and obo, Buddha-law and secular law, had collapsed. The religious establishment on Mount Hiei, for example, recognized no difference between them. Peasants were expected to render service to their provincial barons, but were left to their own social devices and religious inclinations, for neither the refinement of the court nor the power of the war-lords benefitted them. Reflective Buddhists readily accepted the doctrine of the three ages, in which shobo, the period of authentic dharma, and even zobo, the age of imitative formalism, were said to have given way to mappo, the time of degeneracy and decay. Within these forbidding conditions of social despair and spiritual aridity, one man arose who recognized Eisai's contribution and reformed the Buddhist topology of Japan.

Dogen Kigen was born on January 2, 1200, to Ishi, the beautiful but ill-starred daughter of Fujiwara Motofusa, the imperial regent. Her exalted social position afforded her no protection from the heartless machinations of the time, however, and at the age of sixteen she had been betrothed to Kiso Yoshinaka in an effort to secure the support of the influential Minamoto clan for Fujiwara rule. The alliance failed, and soon Ishi's husband was dead. She was then given in marriage to the elderly poet Koga Michichika, whose prolix support for the imperial regime was matched by his sensuality. Dogen was born to this union just two years before Koga died, and he was subsequently raised by his mother and half-brother. He had every comfort and opportunity that imperial society could offer, but his birth and early life were clouded by scandal. Though his natural brilliance found expression in rapid mastery of Chinese and Japanese literature, he found his life unsatisfying. When he was seven his mother died, shortly after requesting him to become a Buddhist monk dedicated to ameliorating the suffering of humanity. He was profoundly shaken by his mother's death – in which, he said, he first realized mujo, the impermanence of all things. His life was still in the hands of others, and he was adopted by Fujiwara Moroie, his mother's brother, who sought an heir. He was given the best aristocratic training for a brilliant Fujiwara career, and prepared for initiation at a gempuku ceremony in which he would be inducted into aristocratic manhood.

When the time for the gempuku ceremony arrived in 1212, however, Dogen chose instead the life of a monk. Moroie, deeply disappointed, appealed to the duty of a son to his father. Dogen, though only twelve years old, replied that the greatest form of filial piety could not be limited to one's family alone, since it embraced all sentient beings. Serious study of buddhadharma, the Way and Teaching of Buddha, is the performance of duty to family and kin, he added, because the Way is not followed for the sake of the aspirant, but for the sake of the Way, which includes all beings. After discussions with relatives and religious leaders, Dogen journeyed to Mount Hiei, where he was ordained in 1213. There he enthusiastically undertook a systematic study of the sutras, fired by his sense of the transience of all things. He believed that impermanence, far from being an excuse for laxity, required in fact assiduous efforts to deepen one's insight and wisdom. He wrote later, "If you do not seek enlightenment here and now on the pretext of the Age of Degenerate Law or wretched ness, in what birth are you to attain it?"

Dogen's intense studies at Mount Hiei, which included the Tendai form of meditation, gradually made him aware that an immense gap existed between theory and practice and that many monks understood neither very well. In time, he came up against what seemed to him an insoluble enigma: if, as Mahayana taught, all beings possess the dharma-nature, why should Buddhas, who were doubtless enlightened before voluntary incarnation, have to seek enlightenment through spiritual practice? The distinction between original and eternal enlightenment, hongaku, and acquired enlightenment, shikaku, always present but often blurred in Mahayana thought, was sharpened in Tendai doctrine. Tendai teaching held that original enlightenment is eternal, and also that there is a profound unity of enlightenment and practice. Borrowing from Zen doctrines, this Tendai emphasis upon the supreme importance of everyday activities (rather than special rites and ceremonies) elevated particular events and things to eternality, not as token expressions of principle, but in themselves. Doctrinal studies were of decidedly secondary importance, and faith tended to be reduced to the conviction that sudden enlightenment could be found in a fortuitous penetration of phenomena. Spiritual striving rooted in ethics was evaded by worldly-minded monks on the grounds that it was unnecessary. This attitude highlighted the fundamental nature of Dogen's question.

When he found no satisfactory answer at Mount Hiei, he began to visit other temples in search of understanding. In 1214, when only fourteen, he settled at the Kenninji Temple in Kyoto, founded by Eisai. Although Eisai died about a year after Dogen first visited him, the young disciple was overwhelmed by the moral integrity and spiritual fibre of his new master. After Eisai passed from the world, Dogen wandered for three years but returned to study under Myozen, Eisai's chief disciple and, Dogen believed, the one who "alone transmitted the supreme dharma rightly". Although he was Myozen's most devoted disciple for six years, Dogen became increasingly convinced that he would have to go to China to discern the highest truth. He suggested the possibility of such a sojourn to Myozen and the two decided to travel together, preparing for the trip and making the crossing in 1223. Whilst Myozen was welcomed into the Ching-te ssu on Mount T'ien t'ung, Dogen had to wait about two months to secure admission. During this time, he lived aboard ship, studied and visited local temples.

One day an aged Chinese monk, the chief cook of a distant monastery, visited the ship to purchase some supplies. Dogen fell into conversation with him and asked him to stay the night, but the old monk declined. When Dogen pointed out that his assist ants could easily prepare the simple meal monks shared, the monk replied, "The reason I am chief cook at such an old age is that I regard this duty as practice of the Way for the rest of my life. How can I leave my practice to others?" Dogen realized that he under stood neither practice nor teaching in this remarkable way, and he was deeply impressed by the old monk's marriage of theory and practice. He enthusiastically entered the Ching-te ssu as soon as he was able, joining Myozen and, in spirit, Eisai, who had studied there years before. Shortly after entering the temple monastery, Dogen met the old chief cook for a second time, and he was told that "nothing is concealed throughout the whole universe". From him Dogen learnt to see the universe through the teachings and the teachings through the universe, learning the limits of language but also its power to liberate consciousness from error and deception.

After studying at Ching-te ssu for two years, Dogen began to travel to all the 'Five Mountains', but his already high standards had become more strict and precise as a consequence of meeting the old cook, and he found himself almost as dissatisfied with Chinese Buddhists as he had been with Japanese. On his way back to Ching-te ssu to visit Myozen, who was suffering from a pro longed illness, Dogen was told that the monastery had a new abbot, Ju-ching, of exceptional wisdom and character. When Dogen met Ju-ching on May 1, 1225, his life passed over a spiritual threshold of enormous significance. Both teacher and disciple recognized in one another depths of commitment and high earnest ness generally lacking in human beings, and their relationship was warm, serious and intimate from the beginning. Dogen believed that buddhadharma was only as deep and vast as one's teacher, and he felt that he had met the best possible teacher. Although the Ching-te ssu was a Lin-chi (Rinzai) monastic centre, Ju-ching belonged to the Ts'ao-tung (Soto) school, and he emphasized shikantaza or 'zazen-only', the simple practice of frequent, deliberative meditation. Ju-ching's devotion to shikantaza was matched by his care for his disciples. Dogen recounted the following incident:

Once Ju-ching spoke to the gathering in the hall. "At such an advanced age, I should now retire from the monastic community, seclude myself in a hut, and care for my last days. But I am in the office of abbot as your leader in order to help each of you shatter delusions and find the Way. Thus, I sometimes utter scolding words and sometimes strike with a bamboo reed though it should be done very carefully. On the other hand, it is a method to educate people in the place of Buddha. So brothers, forgive me with compassion." Thereupon all the monks wept.

Behind Ju-ching's shikantaza, the practice of zazen-only, was the philosophical premise of shinjin-datsuraku, 'body and mind cast off', the natural self-forgetfulness which voids the performance of duty of any sense of ego or self-identification. Such practice affords the aspirant an opportunity to see enlightenment in ordinary phenomena, whereas any form of self-regard or identification with labels or characteristics, name and form, prevents the realization that "nothing is concealed throughout the whole universe".

Myozen died in late May, 1225, and Dogen was free to devote every particle of his being to Ju-ching. Around this time, Dogen was engaged in morning meditation, when a monk next to him dozed off to sleep. Suddenly Ju-ching roared, "In zazen it is imperative to cast off body and mind. How could you indulge in sleeping?" Just as suddenly, Dogen's whole being was illumined with the realization that duality is not to be shunned or denied, but that it should be understood from the standpoint of a transcendental non-duality which is the sole basis of the relative truth and reality of the ordinary, dualistic world. Zazen, the serious effort to meditate, alone gave meaning to phenomena without either reducing the world to a barren nominalism or absolutizing phenomena and thereby allowing an escape from consistent spiritual striving. Knowing that the self is inherently Buddha does not emancipate one from ignorance. Dogen's original question, formulated on Mount Hiei, now had an answer in direct realization. Put into words, the original enlightenment cannot manifest in incarnated consciousness save through dropping mind and body. Realizing oneself as the Self is the realization that one is Buddha, a metaphysical truth that has meaning only when transformed into existential fact.

On September 18, 1225, Dogen became the first Japanese monk to receive the ancient succession of a Chinese lineage, becoming thereby the inheritor of the Ts'ao-tung line and the founder of the Soto school in Japan. Like the offshoot that pre serves the dying tree, Dogen planted the lineage in Japan, where it continues to flourish today, even as it was rapidly disappearing from China.

In 1227 Dogen returned to Japan with his teacher's blessing. Ju-ching died a year later, content that he had accomplished his mission. Returning to the Kenninji Temple, Dogen immediately began to write a number of texts to spread his teachings, which he and others saw as a radical departure from the doctrine and practices of his time.

If the Way works spontaneously everywhere, why do we separate practice and enlightenment? If the supreme teaching is free, why do we waste our time on the means of attaining it? Inasmuch as the whole truth has nothing to do with dust, why do we believe in the means of wiping it away? The Way is not separate from here and now, so what is the use of getting a foothold on practice?

However, when there is even the slightest gap between two opposites, they are poles apart, like heaven and earth. When love and hate are differentiated even imperceptibly, we are doomed to lose the Buddha-mind. It should be perfectly clear that an infinite recurrence of rebirth is due to our mental discrimination, whilst illusions and delusions of this world arise from an incessant persistence of selfish deliberation. If you wish to surpass even the pinnacle of spiritual advancement, you should understand clearly the here and now as it is.

Dogen's concern with the failure of lay and monastic life to engender true spiritual victory was not directed at beginners, because their enthusiasm helped them to soar through an initial understanding of principles and practices. Rather, he was dedicated to regenerating those who should already have grasped Buddha's message, for language and laxity had corrupted them. Just as he radically revised Japanese Buddhist practice through a rigorous zazen, so he reworked the Japanese language to suit his purposes, making verbs of nouns and nouns of verbs, adapting ancient sayings in new contexts and using analogies creatively. His works require careful study. Yet he was not dogmatic, for even though he held to one practice integrated into every aspect of life, he generously recognized the complementarity of other approaches and drew them into his own. For him, the Way (do in Japanese, tao in Chinese, first chosen by Kumarajiva as the best translation of 'dharma') best suggested the integration of theory and practice, thought and action, solitude and sociability, because he believed that a~ phenomena are buddhadharma, the Way of Buddha. Self- forgetfulness is openness to universal enlightenment as focussed in every phenomenon. In his great Shobogenzo, Dogen summarized his views by saying:

The Buddhas and Tathagatas have an ancient way ;mdash; unequalled and natural – to transmit the wondrous dharma through direct encounter and to realize supreme enlightenment. As it is imparted impeccably from Buddha to Buddha, its criterion is the samadhi of self fuffilling activity. For playing joyfully in such a samadhi, the upright sitting in meditation is the right gate.

During the three years Dogen remained at the Kenninji Temple, he emerged as the foremost teacher of meditation in his day, but his achievement only annoyed the entrenched traditional establishment at Mount Hiei. In part to avoid unnecessary confrontations with those who disliked his reformation, and in part to gain relative seclusion in order to write, he moved in 1230 to the abandoned An'yoin Temple in Fukakusa. There he began his Shobogenzo, a collection of essays which address every aspect of Buddhist thought and practice. His followers grew almost daily, and in 1233 he had to move to the larger Kannon-doriin Temple nearby. He expanded the complex, renaming it the Koshohorinji, and installed Koun Ejo – his devoted disciple and constant companion from 1236 until his death – as its head monk. Having built his own meditation hall and monastic quarters, Dogen opened his community to all serious aspirants without regard to intelligence, birth, social standing, sex or profession.

In their superabundance of mercy; the Buddhas and ancestors have opened the boundless gate of compassion, so that all sentient beings may be led into enlightenment. Who in heaven or on earth cannot enter it?

Dogen's thorough-going universalism meant that just as one's social standing cannot help one attain insight (even if being attached to it might be a hindrance), so native intelligence, clever ness or acquired learning are unnecessary for treading the Path, "for the true learning of the Way should be easy".

On the one hand, Dogen insisted that anyone could follow the Way, given a serious and persistent wish to do so. "Enlightenment depends solely upon whether you have a sincere desire to seek it, not upon whether you live in a monastery or in the secular world." On the other hand, he had the greatest respect for monks and nuns, reminding his followers that "of all the Buddhas in the three periods and in the ten quarters, not a single Buddha attained Buddhahood through the secular life". Whilst Dogen made enlightenment the focus of the spiritual life, he did not believe that one should count as valuable only that ultimate attainment. In striving towards it life after life, one sees that all things show their real, if relative, value. He supported the efforts of both monks and lay persons because he held to the ideal of homelessness (related to dropping the mind and body), which transcended the ordinary lives of both monks and laity. If the layman had no excuse to avoid spiritual imperatives, the monk also had no excuse to shun the needs of the larger society.

In 1239 Dogen had to expand the monastic hall of his temple, and he posted instructions in the new building:

Those who have believing minds and give up desire for worldly fame and gain shall enter. Those who lack sincerity shall not join; entering mistakenly, they shall depart after due deliberation.

Even as his reputation drew disciples, other centres of Buddhist practice came to respect him. Eventually, he was invited to take up residence in Kamakura, but he refused. He did accept an offer of property in Echizen province and moved his headquarters to a more remote setting, perhaps in keeping with Ju-ching's injunction to avoid the commotion of cities and the favour of rulers. He occupied an abandoned temple in Echizen in 1243, and a year later the new Eiheiji Temple, built by his disciples, was ready. He named it Eihei because the word means 'eternal peace'. For Dogen, this temple, lost amidst mountains and rushing streams, was the perfect location for the ideal monastic community. In establishing an approximation to the ideal, he sought to influence beneficially all the centres in Japan. He referred to Eiheiji as shinjitsu-so, the community of truth, wajo-so, the community of peace and harmony, and shojo-so, the community of purity, indicating the three elements fundamental to his ideal.

Late in 1247 Dogen accepted an invitation to deliver discourses before the government in Kamakura, but he declined to accept property from it. In 1250 the former emperor Gosaga offered to bestow a purple robe upon Dogen. He refused several times and finally accepted it so as not to antagonize the imperial elite, but he refrained from wearing it until the very end of his life. In 1250 Dogen's health began to fail, and he never recovered from its steady deterioration. In January 1253 he wrote his last treatise, and in July appointed Ejo as his successor and head of Eiheiji Monastery. On August 28 he quietly bid farewell to his chief disciples and, assuming the posture of zazen, passed from the earth.

Dogen held that the Bodhisattva Ideal is essentially supreme compassion (mahakaruna in Sanskrit, daihi in Japanese), and it is the theoretical and practical dissolution of all dualities. "The Way of the Bodhisattva", Dogen wrote, "is 'I am thusness; you are thusness'." Compassion is neither sentiment nor an untutored impulse to do good for others; it is an interior realization that stands beyond 'I' and 'thou', 'mine' and 'thine'. From this perspective, true self-study is the means for understanding others, and just as one drops body and mind in meditation, so one drops self and other in self-study. For Dogen, the four chief virtues of the Bodhisattva are fuse (giving), aigo (loving speech), rigyo (service for the welfare of all beings) and doji (identity with others). Although the last virtue is the most difficult to realize in one's thought and action, it is the ultimate foundation of the other virtues. Identity with others does not ignore the fact that beings differ from one another, but rather it is the recognition, first of all, that differences between beings have to do with transience over time and not with the ultimate nature of reality, and, secondly, that the essential non-difference of beings applies to all, including the non-human realms. In practice, identity with others means harmony of thought, word and deed and sharing one's particular talents – for music, poetry, design, speech, construction or whatever – not simply on behalf of others but in ways that naturally elicit mutual sympathy and concord. Harmony in samsara is the reflection in time and change of the unity of all reality beyond them. The Bodhisattva is the total human being, whose consciousness has been freed from delusive dichotomies and discursive thought, and for him living for all is as natural as breathing.

Dogen's message became the basis of the Soto school and it also influenced other schools and the whole monastic tradition in Japan. He held that to understand the Way is to understand the Self, and just as Self and Way cannot be different from one another, so attainment and the activity leading towards it are the same. Meditation, realization and the performance of duty with lightness and ease are themselves whole and complete, and yet they also lead to further insight. Such understanding of the self through zazen is self-forgetfulness, for as one concentrates on enlightenment or on the task at hand, the self recedes. "As one side is illumined, the other is darkened." In self-forgetfulness, everything in the universe enlightens one. "When the self comes forward and confirms the myriad things, it is delusion; when the myriad things come forth and confirm the self, it is enlightenment." Such realization is dropping mind and body, not only of oneself, but of all others. And when even the subtlest distinction between enlightenment and everything else disappears, enlightenment is continuous and ceaseless. Then the self "kisses joy as it flies". Dogen tried to live the answer to his original question about the Buddha-nature, and the answer he formulated in words reflects his life as well as his teaching:

If you say that one should not use a fan because the wind is constant, and that there will be a wind even when one does not use a fan, then you fail to under stand either constancy or the nature of the wind. It is because the nature of the wind is constant that the wind of the Buddha House brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the kefir of the long river.