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Dogen Zenji (also Dogen Kigen, Eihei Dogen or Koso Joyo Daishi) (1200–53), also called Dogen Kigen, was a Japanese Buddhist monk who established Soto Zen in Japan. He is also known for a collection of his writings, the massive Shobogenzo. Hubert Nearman was asked to translate it into English, maintains that

such a monumental undertaking would obviously take me many years to complete . . . because of its reputed obscurity and even incomprehensibility. (Nearman 2007, iv)

Translating an obscure and incomprehensible work can be filled with both recognised and unrecognised danger. The dangers that are unrecognised, may be the worst to encounter. Granted all that, the end result of a translation is something that a translator settles on if he or she works alone, or more likely, perhaps, what a group of people settles on. In this case Neuman names and thanks a lot of such people. (Ib. iv, v). Nearman was connected with a monastery in Dogen's Soto Zen tradition. It means he had to get up early each morning and much else too. How early? We turn to the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia and find:

At Eiheji [Eihei] Temple in Fukui Prefecture, monks wake up at 3:30 am in the summer and 4:30 am in the winter. . . .

Cell phones, televisions and newspapers are forbidden.

Patrick Smith describes such a way of community living in National Geographic:

I ate an austere dinner of rice and fresh, cold vegetables. . . . I slept on a tatami mat on the floor.

At 3:30 the next morning I was awakened and led to a room where row upon row of priests, kneeling on a vast spread of tatami, were softly chanting a Buddhist sutra. So the monastery began its day. It was cold and breakfast (as austere as dinner) was hours away; hunger gnawed at my attention, and my eyes wandered across the old plaster walls and the heavy ceiling beams, darkened by the smoke of countless sticks of incense.

Monks often spend a lot of time sweeping, scrubbing floors and cleaning. These activities are regarded as part of their monastic training. One monk told the Daily Yomiuri he didn't mind that, "The shortage of sleep still annoys me most, although I have become used to other hardships."

(Source:"Inner Japan" by Patrick Smith, National Geographic, September 1994)

A question to mull over by long sleepers who need at least 7 1/2 hours of sleep a night, might be: "Wouldn't you rather be free than a slave to 250 rules for monks or 348 rules for nuns?" (WP, "Vinaya") (see I. B. Horner 2014; Ichimura 2017).

But why so many rules to succeed in meditating long? Shohei Ichimura:

To function efficiently, people gathered together with a common goal, whether secular or religious, must have a set of rules and disciplines that regulate daily life and the proceedings of the community as a whole. The community of Chan (Zen) practitioners that began to evolve in mid–sixth -century China gradually formalized . . . The original Zen monastic regulations, referred to throughout this text as the Ancient Regulations, are known to have been innovated by Zen Master Baizhang Huaihai [720–814 CE]. (Ichimura 2017, xiii; cf. 51-52) Dogen, whose main work is said to be obscure and even incomprehensible, was born in Kyóto, the Japanese capital. His mother is said to have died when Dogen was seven. The boy was taken care of by an uncle who was a powerful, highly placed adviser to the emperor of Japan.

When Dogen was twelve or thirteen, he went to a temple on Mount Hiei, where another uncle was serving as a priest. The boy immersed himself in meditation and study, and was ordained a monk when he was fourteen. During Dogen's teenage years at Mount Hiei a question began to nag at him, after his teachers told him that all beings are have a Buddha nature. He said:

Schools of Buddhism . . . maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages — undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment — find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?

Dogen did not get answers that satisfied him. Finally it was suggested to him that he seek out a teacher from a newcomer school of Buddhism in Japan: Zen. It is likely that Dogen went to such a temple when he was eighteen, and left with his teacher there, Myozen, for China in 1223.

In China, Dogen travelled to several Chan (Zen) monasteries, where teachers based their training on kóans. Dogen studied the kóans, became disenchanted with the heavy emphasis laid on them and wondered why the sutras were not studied more. But in 1225 he visited a roshi (Buddhist teacher) named Rújín, of the Cáodóng (Sótó) lineage. Rujing was a patriarch of a Chan school called Ts'ao-Tung in China (Soto Zen), and lived in what is now the Zhejiang province. For two years Dogen studied hard there. In later writings, Dogen referred to Rujing as "the Old Buddha".

One morning Dogen was sitting zazen with other monks as Rujing was circumambulating the zendo. Suddenly Rujing berated the monk next to Dogen for falling asleep. "The practice of zazen is the dropping away of body and mind!" Rujing said. "What do you expect to accomplish by dozing?"

At the words "dropping away of body and mind," Dogen experienced a deep realization.

Rujing recognized Dogen's realisation, gave him a teacher's robe and formally declared that Dogen was his dharma heir. The year was 1227. At last Dogen had settled his "life's quest of the great matter".

Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 or 1228 as a Buddhist teacher (roshi) and founded the Sótó school of Zen in Japan. Myozen had died while in China, and Rujing died less than a year later.

One of the first things Dogen did on returning, was to write down the Fukan Zazengi ("Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen"), a short text stressing sitting meditation, zazen, and giving instructions for it.

Dogen taught in his homeland for three years. But as his reputation grew, so did criticism against him. Dogen left the Tendai dominated Kyóto in 1230, and settled instead in an abandoned temple in Uji, south of Kyóto. In 1233, he founded a small centre of practice, and later expanded it. Dogen took students from all social classes and walks of life, and women. Ten years later he accepted an offer of land from a lay student, in the remote Echizen Province on the Sea of Japan. His followers built a comprehensive centre there, calling it Daibutsu Temple.

In 1246, Dogen renamed this temple, calling it Eihei-ji. This temple remains one of the two head temples of Sótó Zen in Japan today. Dogen spent the rest of his life teaching and writing at Eihei-ji.

In the autumn of 1252, Dogen fell ill, and soon showed no signs of recovering. He presented his robes to his main apprentice, Koun Ejó making him the abbot of Eihei-ji.

Dogen left for Kyóto in search of a remedy. In 1253, soon after arriving in Kyóto, he died.

Dogen's right law (dharma) was given to Keizan Jokin through Koun Ejo and Tettsu Gikai. With these Zen teachers the Soto school began to influence Japan. Linking itself with the common people, it spread throughout the entire nation. The teachings of the school flourished.

Dogen's Zen

Deep in Dogen's teaching was "a united Buddhism". Dogen considered that the establishment of five sects of Zen was a result of shallow thinking, and threatened the unity of Buddhism. Dogen left a large body of writing. Often he returns to his original question, "If all beings are endowed with Buddha Nature, what is the point of practice and enlightenment?" Still, he thought highly of zazen, or sitting meditation as the central practice. In his Fukanzazengi, Dogen wrote:

For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately.

Dogen called this zazen practice "without thinking" . . . one is simply aware of things as they are. "Zazen is not "step-by-step meditation."

Dogen was very critical of the school of Dainichi Nonin, and sometimes critical of the Rinzai school for their disregard for the sutras: "There are many who call themselves Zen masters . . . They have heard and seen but little."

Many Dogen Works

Dogen's Shóbógenzó consists of talks and writings that are brought together in ninety-five bundles (fascicles). The topics are wide-ranging.

Dogen also compiled a collection of 301 koans in Chinese without commentaries added. It is often called the Shinji Shóbógenzó - translated as "Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma" and similar. The text consists of stories.

Lectures that Dogen gave to his monks at his monastery, Eihei-ji, were compiled under the title Eihei Kóroku, (The Extensive Record of Teacher Dogen's Sayings) in ten volumes. These sermons, lectures, sayings and poetry were compiled shortly after Dogen's death by his main disciples, Koun Ejó (1198–1280), Senne and Gien. There are three different editions of this text.

Another collection of his talks is the Shóbógenzó Zuimonki (Gleanings from Master Dogen's Sayings) in six volumes. These are talks that Dogen gave to his leading disciple, Ejó, who became Dogen's disciple in 1234. The talks were recorded and edited by Ejó.

Other notable Dogen writings have survived too.

A Sample of Dogen Instructions

Shobogenzo's chapter 5: On Conduct Appropriate for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall (Juundu-shiki)

Here are extracts from a Dógen outline of how trainees should behave in a newly built hall used by novice monks mainly. In the sutta (discourse), Dógen is instructing those new to the etiquette of Buddhist monastic life. There might be points to heed for people other than monks and novices also.


Those who are aimless and lack sincerity should not enter. Should you have entered for the wrong reasons, once you have determined that you have made a mistake, you should depart. (Ib. 42)

What is right now before you should be what you focus on. (Ib. 42)

In aiding yourself, you aid the Way. (Ib. 43)

Do not indulge in diversions as it pleases you to do, for this will take its toll . . . (Ib. 43)

You should not lend support to the misconduct of others, nor should you look upon the human errors of others with a hateful heart. (Ib. 43)

Put into practice your own virtues. (Ib. 43)

You should not blow your nose noisily or loudly cough up phlegm whilst in the Hall. You should not laugh aloud. . . . You should regret that time, in unseen ways, is depriving you of your life of training in the Way. Thereby, you may naturally have a feeling of being a fish in a small puddle [how limited one's life really is]. (Ib. 44)

When together in the Hall with the community, you should not wear richly brocaded robes, but just a simple one . . . . (Ib. 44)

You should not enter the Hall in a drunken state. . . . Also, you should not bring rice wine in with you, nor should you enter the Hall reeking of strong pickles. (Ib. 44)

Seated meditation should be done. (Ib. 45)

Do your training in the Way free of attachment. (Ib. 45)


Dogen, Koso Joyo Daishi, Dogen Zenji, Dogen Kigen, Eihei Dogen of Soto Zen, Mahayana Buddhism, Literature  

Abe, Masao. A Study of Dogen: His Philosophy and Religion. Ed. Steven Heine. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Bielefeldt, Carl. Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Eihei Koroku I-V: Speeches of Zen Master Dogen. Amazon Kindle ed. 2013.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

Dogen, Eihei. Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation. Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. Boston: Shambala, 2004.

Horner, Isaline B., tr. 2014. The Book of the Discipline: Vinayapitakam. [Turramurra NSW?]: SuttaCentral.

Ichimura, Shohei, tr. 2017. The Baizhang Zen Monastic Regulations. (Taisho Vol. 48, No. 2025). Moraga, CA: BDK America.

Leighton, Taigen Daniel, Shohaku Okumura, trs. Dogen's Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of the Eihei Shingi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Masunaga, Reiho tr: A Primer of Soto Zen. A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975.

Nearman, Hubert, tr. Shobogenzo: The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching. Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 2007. On-line.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation. London: Shambhala, 2004.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, and John Daido Loori, trs. The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans with Commentary and Verse by John Daido Loori. Boston: Shambhala, 2011.

Waddell, Norman, and Masao Abe, trs. The Heart of Dogen's Shobogenzo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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