Dogen & The Soto School

Dogen (1200 – 1253) is the founder of the Japanese Caodong school, known in Japanese as Soto Zen, the major rival school of the Linji school in Japan, known in Japanese as Rinzai Zen.  In Japan, Rinzai Zen became popular with the rising samurai warrior class of the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), at a time when importing everything from Chinese Song dynasty culture was all the rage for Japanese elites.  Dogen was born near Kyoto, the imperial capital, and sadly lost his father when he was an infant and his mother when he was eight, giving him, as he later said, an early experience of the impermanence of life.

Dogen began his training as a monk in a Tendai (Chinese: Tiantai) Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, at a time when the Tendai and other powerful Buddhist schools were trying to stop the growth and popularity of Pure Land and Zen cutting in on their patronage.  Tendai warrior monks (sohei) who lived and practiced on Mount Hiei, the Tendai center where Dogen later studied, would sometimes burn the monasteries and temples of competing sects.  Some might cynically say the Tendai sought power and wealth, others that they truly believed they had the truth and other schools such as Zen were a corruption of the Buddha’s original teaching, and still others would say it is both and neither.  Either way, Dogen became disillusioned with Tendai Buddhism, as well as the corruption that was evident in its involvement with government officials and aristocratic families.

Dogen left Mount Hiei and sought teachings from various masters, finally finding Zen master Eisai, who had traveled to China twice and established the House of Linji in Japan, but who also sadly died the year after Dogen came to study with him.  Eisai’s successor Myozen decided to travel to China himself in 1223 and take Dogen as a promising young student with him as his assistant.  While still on the boat docked in port, waiting for permission to disembark, Dogen asked an old monk who was head cook of a local monastery buying dried Japanese mushrooms from the merchants aboard the ship why he worked at being a cook rather than concentrate on zazen, seated meditation.  The cook laughed and said that the boy did not yet understand the teachings of the ancients, astonishing and shaming him.  Like Cook Ding of the Zhuangzi, or the cook who kicked over the water vase, chefs get some credit for wisdom in the Daoist and Zen traditions in their lowly position.

Unfortunately, Dogen was disillusioned by the practices in the monasteries of the House of Linji in China, molded in the way of Dahui, as monks shouted and held up fists but did not seem to grasp deeper meanings in their imitations of Huineng, Mazu, Zhaozhou and Linji, but in 1225, two years into his trip to China, Dogen heard that the Caodong master Rujing, who taught the Silent Illumination Chan of Hongzhi, was the abbot at Mount Tiantong, so Dogen wrote to him and said he wanted nothing more than to study true Buddhism with him.  Rujing was impressed and wrote back, inviting Dogen to study with him and “ask questions anytime, day or night.”  Sadly Myozen died soon after this, leaving Dogen in China alone studying with Rujing.  A year after that in 1227, while listening to Rujing lecture the assembly of monks and hearing the words, “casting off both body and mind,” Dogen experienced great enlightenment.

It is clear that Dogen believed that Gautama Siddhartha passed the Zen tradition to Bodhidharma, who eventually passed it to Hongzhi, who passed it to Rujing, who passed it directly to Dogen himself.  Rujing would routinely refer to Hongzhi as “the old Buddha,” and aside from Rujing, Dogen refers to Hongzhi more than anyone else in his writings.  Dogen wrote that everyone in Song China thinks Dahui is the equal or better of Hongzhi, but they do not clearly know the truth for themselves.  Dogen believed Dahui was genuinely enlightened, unlike later patriarchs of his Soto school who argued that Dahui never achieved genuine kensho, true awakening.  Dogen wrote that Dahui focused on koan practice to achieve awakening, koan practices rely on using words to forget about using words, and that this is like telling someone to cross the sea in a boat and then discard the boat.  Dogen says that sitting meditation is not like this as you don’t discard what you gain while sitting, an end it itself, and that the Buddha’s own silent transmission of holding up a flower for Mahakasyapa shows that words are completely unnecessary, even though the case is used as a primary koan.

Feeling that Rujing had finally answered his question about why Buddhist practices such as meditation and contemplation was necessary for beings who fully possess buddha-nature, Dogen returned to Japan to spread his new understanding of Zen, but he found that the Tendai school he had left was using its royal support to suppress both Zen and Jodo Shinshu, so he left Kyoto, with some pressure from the government and the Tendai, and founded his own school in an abandoned temple just south of the capital.  He wrote treatises on teachings and practices and gathered his own extensive koan collection, The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (1235).  Like Hongzhi and Rujing, Dogen practiced koan contemplation, arranged koan study for his students and lectured about koan cases frequently, but he focused on seated meditation.  Ultimately Dogen taught to do nothing but sit, meditating with bright, alert attention, free of thought, directed at nothing.  In his General Advice on the Principles of Zazen, he wrote:

For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.

Dogen’s greatest work is the Shobogenzo, ninety-five lectures and essays between 1231 and Dogen’s death in 1253 on all sorts of subjects, including monastic rules, the practice of sitting meditation and the meaning of Buddhist teachings.  Dogen felt the need to write a great deal to preserve what he learned in China and transmit the teachings of an Indian philosopher to Japan, and said we must always be willing and open to be disturbed by the truth, to have what we think conventionally makes sense and the certainty of our world called into question.

In his Discourse on Doing One’s Utmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddhas, one of the primary lectures, Dogen says that all Buddhas naturally show delight in understanding and compassion and have treated the practice of seated meditation as “the proper and most straightforward gate for entering the Way.”  All beings have buddha-nature, which makes no distinction between self and others, and we can put this oneness into operation by following the road away from dualistic thinking and its explanations that block free passage like the nodes in bamboo and the knots in pine wood.

When we speak of the correct transmission in our tradition, the straightforward Buddha teaching of direct transmission is “the best of the best.”  From the very moment when a student comes face to face with the spiritual friend and knowing teacher they seek, there is no need to have the student offer incense, make prostrations, chant the names of the Buddhas, do ascetic practices and penances, or recite scriptures.  The master just has the student do pure meditation until they let their body and mind drop off.

You must realize that even if all the Buddhas, who are as immeasurable as the sands of the Ganges, were to exercise their spiritual strength and attempt to gauge the meditation of a single person by means of their awakened wisdom, they would be unable to reach its boundaries, try as they might to fathom them.

Someone who is befuddled by doubts may ask, “Since there are many gates into the Buddha’s teachings, why bother to do just seated meditation?”  I would point out in response, “Because it is the proper and most straightforward entryway into what the Buddha taught.”

Dogen says that the Buddha taught seated meditation, and so did all the Indian and Chinese patriarchs because they all realized that it was the most straightforward and easiest way into enlightenment.  Neither chanting the sutras nor quoting koan cases can make you realize buddhahood, and there is no use in debating which of the teachings in words is superior and which is inferior, which take reflection and which are expedient means.  Dogen says the ancestors and patriarchs made no distinction between male and female or exalted and lowly.

Let go of the idea that you are doing good or bad practice, and you will overflow.  Sit without caring whether you are a novice or expert, a commoner or a saint.  There is no separation of mind from body, and Buddhist sects that teach this are heretical, destroying the true teaching and practice.  All things, including our bodies, are the One Mind.