Dogen (1200–1253)
Dogen, the founder of the Soto branch of Zen, was born to
an aristocratic family in medieval Japan. His father died when
he was two and his mother, five years later. He grew up with a
deep awareness of the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability
of death. He turned from the successful life that his birth
granted him to study Buddhism at the Tendai temple on Mt.
Hiei. Tendai belief centered upon the potential already possessed
by each person for attaining universal enlightenment.
To Dogen, that belief seemed to contradict the Buddha’s admonitions
to engage in lengthy meditative practice.
Unable to find anyone who could help him with his dilemma,
he traveled to China where Zen Buddhism had risen to
prominence. He was initially discouraged by the lack of intensity
that seemed to characterize the Zen monks he first encountered,
but finally located a teacher, Rujing, who advocated the
ideal of sustained meditative practice. Sitting with him, Dogen
had an initial awakening, termed ‘‘shinjin datsuraku,’’ or the
casting off of body-mind, a liberation from intellectual and volitional
attachments. Many doubts about the value of continuous
practice were set aside. He returned to Japan and established
what would be known as the Soto sect in Kyoto, but found that
the other Zen practitioners and his former Tendai cohorts considered
him a disruptive influence, and he withdrew to the
mountainous area of what is now Fukui Province and founded
the Eiheiji temple, the center of Soto Zen to this day.
Dogen is generally associated with two major ideas. First, his
experience of shinjin datsuraku gave him a new mystical understanding
of the timeeternity dichotomy. He understood that
enlightenment was not something to be sought in the future,
a goal to be reached as a result of meditative practice. Rather,
he came to understand the unity of practice and enlightenment
in the moment.
Second, toward the end of his life, he devoted time to a discussion
of ethics and an understanding of karma or consequences.
Every action yields a consequence. Bad karma must
be handled with repentance and the acknowledgment of guilt.
This process of canceling bad karma is to be dealt with in the
context of practice and the realizations that accompany it.
Dogen committed his ideas to writing primarily in Shobogenzo
(Treasury of the true Dharma-Eye), a classic of Zen literature,
but there are also collections of his talks and sayings. A
two-volume collection of his writings in English was published
in 1971.
Abe, Masao. A Study of Dogen His Philosophy and Religion. Edited
by Steven Heine. Albany State University of New York
Press, 1992.
Bielefeldt, Carl. Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. Berkeley
University of California Press, 1988.
Dogen. Edited by Toru Tarada and Mizumo Yaoko. 2 vols.
Tokyo Iwanami, 1971.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism A History. New York
Macmillan, 1990.