Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)
& the Soto (Caodong) Zen Tradition


A Life of Dogen

Once in a faraway land there lived a little boy. He lost his father when he was two. Six years later, his mother died. At her funeral, the newly orphaned boy stood before the incense lit in her honor. Sadly watching it disappear into smoke, he was struck by how fleeting life is. He vowed he would leave home and seek the meaning of life and death. In pursuit of this goal, he traveled to a foreign kingdom, crossing over mountains and rivers to question one wise person after another. At last, in a magical moment, he found the answer within himself.
Enryakuji, Mt. Hiei

The Great Doubt
Both exoteric and esoteric Buddhism teach the primal Buddha-nature [or Dharma-nature] and the original self-awakening of all sentient beings. If this is the case, why have the buddhas of all ages had to awaken the longing for and seek enlightenment by engaging in ascetic practice?
[A Study of Dogen, 19]
Kenninji, Kyoto


Eisai’s Response
All the Buddhas in the three stages of time are unaware that they are endowed with the Buddha-nature, but cats and oxen are well aware of it indeed! [Zen Master Dogen, 28]

 Dogen Seeks a Solution

Dogen: “Venerable sir! Why don’t you do zazen or study the koans of ancient masters? What is the use of working so hard as a tenzo-monk [i.e. a monk who works in the kitchen of a monastery]?”

Tenzo monk: “Good foreigner! You seem to be ignorant of the true training and meaning of Buddhism.” [Zen Master Dogen, 29]
The practice of zazen is the dropping away of body and mind. What do you expect to accomplish by dozing?” [Zen Master Dogen, 32]
In the pursuit of the Way [Buddhism] the prime essential is sitting (zazen). ... By reflecting upon various public cases (koan) and dialogues of the patriarchs, one may perhaps get the sense of them but it will only result in one’s being led astray from the way of the Buddha, our founder. Just to pass the time in sitting straight, without any thought of acquisition, without any sense of achieving enlightenment — this is the way of the Founder. [Religion in the Japanese Experience, 100-101]

    If you, for however short a while, imprint all your activities with the Buddha-mind Seal by sitting upright in samadhi, then all things in the entire dharma realm become imprinted with the Buddha-mind Seal, and the entire cosmos becomes awakening. Thereupon all Buddhas and Tathagatas increase their fundamental essence of dharma joy, and the adornments of the way of awakening are revitalized. Moreover, at this very moment all living beings in the six courses of rebirth throughout all dharma realms of the ten directions simultaneously purify their body-minds, realize great liberation, and discover their original faces. All things realize complete awakening, all creatures access Buddha bodies, transcend the boundaries of awakening, sit as Buddhas at the base of the tree of awakening, and simultaneously turn the incomparable Dharma Wheel that expresses deep, ultimate, unconditioned Prajna [i.e. wisdom].
           Because the Fully Awakened Ones [Buddhas] provide mysterious assistance, when you practice sitting Zen, you will definitely slough off body-mind, eliminate habitually defiled thought patterns, and realize divinely genuine Buddha dharma. ... At that moment all lands, plants, fences, and roof tiles throughout the dharma realms of the ten directions also engage in Buddha activity, causing everyone to obtain the Buddha
    ’s inconceivably mysterious assistance in attaining awakening as easily as they receive natural blessings like wind and water. ... As it unfolds and widens without end, without break, the inconceivable, infinite Buddha dharma will flow throughout the entire cosmos and beyond. The fact that the one who practices sitting Zen is unaware of the Buddha’s mysterious assistance is because it is direct realization of nondeliberative quiescence. If, as ordinary people suppose, cultivation and realization are two separate processes, then it would be possible to be aware of each in isolation. But what interacts with our awareness cannot be fundamental realization because fundamental realization is beyond deluded human thoughts. ...
    Therefore, whenever you practice sitting Zen, for however short a while, you mysteriously merge with all existence, you completely permeate all time, and throughout the infinite dharma realm, you eternally perform past, present, and future Buddha deliverance. ...
    QUESTION: This practice, whether correctly transmitted by the Tathagatas or handed down by the Zen ancestors, truly is beyond the ability of ordinary people. Chanting scriptures or recalling the Buddha (nembutsu), however, easily leads to awakening. How can just sitting vainly without doing anything lead to awakening?
    ANSWER: ... How futile to think that the merit of Buddha activity can be produced merely by moving the tongue aloud. If you regard such practices as Buddha dharma, then you are far from the truth. You should open the scriptures only to clarify what the Buddha taught about the fundamentals of gradual and sudden cultivation and to practice in accordance with the teaching so as to attain realization. No intellectual deliberations could ever produce merit leading to bodhi [awakened wisdom]. To foolishly pursue the Buddha Way by chanting is like pointing your cart north while wanting to go south to the tropics. It is the same as trying to put a square peg in a round hole. [Sources of Japanese Tradition, 321-3]