When we read about the enlightenment experiences of the ancient teachers, we should remember that the person did not exist in a vacuum and that their realization emerged within a specific personal and cultural context. To fully appreciate the nature and significance of a person’s enlightenment we need to look beyond the time when they received approval of their insight, and study both the teachings that followed and what preceded their breakthrough.
Everything that occurs before enlightenment is part of the enlightenment experience. To understand Dogen, we need to understand his enlightenment experience, the story of his life, the historical background of his spiritual search, and the evolution of his teachings.
When he was four years old, Dogen learned to read Chinese poetry from his grandmother. At the age of seven, he presented his father with a collection of poems that he had composed in Chinese. He was a pretty extraordinary child, regarded as a prodigy by the local elders and Confucian scholars.
He lost his father when he was three and his mother when he was eight. His mother’s death was especially devastating to Dogen. It proved to be one of the pivotal events of his life, deeply impacting him and shaping his early religious and spiritual intentions. With his mother’s death, Dogen experienced a profound sense of grief and developed a determination to seek enlightenment.
In the spring of his ninth year, he read Vashubandu’s “Abhidharma,” familiarizing himself with a wide spectrum of accessible Buddhist teachings. His uncle, the regent and chief advisor to the emperor of Japan, took Dogen as an adopted son, providing him with thorough classical education and aristocratic connections. The uncle taught him the essentials of political affairs and, when Dogen was thirteen, had him make his debut at the court with the intention of having Dogen become a courtier.
Dogen, however, had different plans. He secretly left his uncle’s manor in the middle of a night and went to Mt. Hiei, to study Tendai Buddhism. Another of Dogen’s uncles, his mother’s brother, was a high priest and a master of the esoteric and exoteric schools at Mt. Hiei. His name was Ryokan. Dogen asked him to be ordained as a monastic. Ryokan was very surprised and pleased, but queried Dogen, “Won’t your foster father be angry about this?” Dogen explained, “When my mother was dying, she told me to leave home and study the Way. I also think I should do so. I don’t want to be involved in the mundane world. I just want to leave home and be a monastic. I want to become a monastic to requite my debt to my mother and grandmothers.” Ryokan, weeping, took him up as a student.
At the age of fourteen, Dogen had his head shaved by the high priest Koun, and then received the universal precepts and became a monastic. He absorbed himself in the teachings of the Tendai School, the meditation practices of “stopping and seeing,” as well as the esoteric teachings from southern India. By the time he was eighteen, he had read all of the Buddhist canon that was available to him.
As Dogen pursued his studies, he kept returning to an apparent paradox he encountered in his readings. The fundamental teachings of Buddhism proclaimed that the Way is perfect and complete and that all people and sentient beings are innately endowed with the Buddha nature. If that is the case, Dogen wanted to know, why do we have to practice? With time, this question became uppermost in Dogen’s mind and consumed him completely. At one point, he brought it to a high priest Koyan, another uncle and a sage, and asked for clarification. Koyan was unable to present a satisfactory answer but advised Dogen to look for resolution to his dilemma within the new school of Buddhism that was arriving in Japan from China — Zen. Koyan said that he heard about a Japanese monastic Eisai who went to China and received the transmission of the Buddha seal that the great master Bodhidharma brought to China from India. To find out about the Zen school, Koyan directed Dogen to go to Kennin-ji monastery in Kyoto or, better yet, to China.
By this time, Eisai had passed away and Myozen was his designated successor at Kennin-ji. Myozen was an accomplished teacher in both the esoteric and exoteric Buddhism. The annals of Kennin-ji stated that “the treasury of the teaching is entrusted to Myozen alone; those who would seek such teachings of Eisai should ask Myozen.” So, in the fall of his eighteenth year, Dogen joined Myozen’s community at Kennin-ji.
He was ordained as a Zen monastic, took the precepts again with Myozen and studied with him for a number of years. He was given the robe and bowl symbolic of the Zen tradition, obtained the secret teachings of esoteric rituals, studied the canon of monastic regulations and began to learn about Rinzai Zen. After a couple of years, he received the transmission of Rinzai Zen as well as transmission in the esoteric and exoteric schools.
By the time Dogen reached the age of twenty-four, his background in Buddhist academics and practice was very broad. He had taken up and passed koans, mastered esoteric and exoteric teachings, gained fluency in tantric rituals, and delved into the mystical dimension of Buddhism. All of this was integrated into his persona. Still, he was not satisfied. The question that fueled his search remained unresolved and his mind was not at ease.
After seven years of study at Kennin-ji, he decided to head for China with Myozen. There, he met a number of teachers. He tested and was tested by them. He encountered Master Ryutan, who asked him, “When did you arrive here?” Dogen responded, “Four months ago.” Ryutan continued, “Did you come this way following a group?” Dogen answered, “How is it when one comes thus not following a group?” Ryutan said, “This is still coming this way following a group.” Dogen said, “Since this is coming thus following a group, what’s right?” Ryutan slapped him and exclaimed, “A talkative priest.” Dogen persisted, “Not that there is no talkative priest, but what’s right?” Ryutan said, “Stay for some tea.”
Later, Dogen visited Master Shicho. He asked him, “What’s the Buddha?” Shicho answered, “The one in the shrine.” Dogen pressed on, “If it’s the one in the shrine, how can it pervade the universe?” Shicho said, “Pervading the universe.” Dogen parried, “Fallen in words.” These dialogues suggest that Dogen was pretty arrogant while checking out the Chinese teachers. He clearly was not impressed with their appreciation of the dharma, not satisfied with any of them.
Just about the time when he was ready to give up his pilgrimage and head back for Japan, Dogen met Master Rujing. He was immediately taken by Rujing’s wisdom, integrity and discipline of practice. Soon after arriving at Tien-tung monastery, he wrote a letter to Rujing, stating, “I have set my heart on enlightenment and, since my youth, I have sought the way from various teachers in my own country and came to know something of the basis of cause and effect. I still didn’t know the ultimate goal of Buddhism and lingered in the externals of names and forms. Later I entered the room of Zen Master Eisai and first heard the way of Rinzai Zen. Now I have come to China with Master Myozen and have gotten the opportunity to join your congregation. This is the luck of a past blessing. Now I pray that in your great compassion you will allow a foreigner, an insignificant man from a distant place, to freely come to your room and ask about the teaching, without the question of time or manner. So please be merciful and kind, and permit me this.” And Rujing did let Dogen come anytime, day or night, to do face-to-face interviews.
Dogen found the right teacher, “a teacher who, regardless of age or prestige, comprehends the right Dharma clearly and receives the certification of a true teacher. He or she gives no precedence to words and letters or to intellectual understanding. With an unusual ability and extraordinary will power, he or she neither clings to selfishness, nor indulges in sentimentality. He or she is the individual in whom living and understanding correspond to each other.”
In one account of his practice with Rujing, Dogen wrote, “After hearing the truth of the sole importance of zazen from the instruction of my teacher, I practiced zazen day and night. When the other monastics gave up zazen temporarily for fear that they might fall ill at times of extreme heat or cold, I thought to myself then, I should still devote myself to zazen, even to the point of death from the attack of disease. If I do not practice zazen, even without illness, what is the use of taking care of my body? I shall be quite satisfied to die from a disease. What good fortune it is to practice zazen under such a great teacher of a great country of Sung, so to end my life and be disposed of by good monastics. Thinking thus continuously, I resolutely sat zazen day and night, and no illness came at all.”
Then came the decisive moment. Dogen was doing zazen in a dark and quiet zendo. It was early in the morning, about three o’ clock according to most records. In the stillness of the zendo, Rujing bellowed at one of the monastics, “When you study under a master, you must drop body and mind. What’s the use of single-minded intense sleeping?” Rujing’s exclamation was not a very profound statement. But Dogen was poised; his whole body and mind were ripe. Sitting right next to the sleeping monastic, his doubts fell away and he attained great enlightenment.
There are many stories about Zen practitioners who, at the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo or seeing a falling blossom or hearing a single word from a teacher, are transformed by the event and realize themselves. When we try to understand how that happened, we study the moment and its immediate ingredients looking for clues. But that moment will not provide us with the full appreciation of what happened. Most stories of the enlightenment experiences don’t tell us about the struggles that preceded realization. They don’t tell us about the endless quest to resolve the question of life and death.
Dogen carried his doubts for over twenty years, desperate to find the answers, studying completely at every juncture. He was intellectually brilliant and a very diligent practitioner. As he made the journey to China, he drew closer and closer to the edge of his practice, the spiritual tension of his quest primed. On that edge, a spring breeze or a floating feather could have knocked him off it. What did knock him off was Rujing’s “you must drop body and mind.”
Dogen went to the abbot’s room and offered incense. Rujing probed and Dogen said, “Body and mind have been dropped off.” Rujing replied, “Body and mind dropped off. The dropped-off body and mind.” Dogen wasn’t sure about this, so he said, “This may only be a temporary ability. Please don’t approve me arbitrarily.” Without hesitation, Rujing exclaimed, “I am not.” What did he see? How did he know? Anybody can walk into a room, light incense and say, “Body and mind have dropped off.” How does a teacher know that something has actually transpired?
The fact of the matter is that realization transforms the entire body and mind. It’s not something that is felt only internally; it manifests externally. It affects how you stand, walk, eat, dress and relate to people. There are a hundred thousand ways of seeing it without a word being uttered. If Dogen had not gone up to the abbot’s quarters and lit incense, Rujing would still have seen it. He probably wouldn’t have approved Dogen right off. He would have probed, poked at him, to get it to fully blossom in Dogen’s own consciousness.
As the exchange began, Dogen was not aware of the full implications of what transpired. He just knew something had happened. “Please don’t approve me arbitrarily.” Rujing said, “I am not.” Dogen said, “What is that which isn’t given arbitrary approval?” Another way to say that is, “What is it that you see that makes you say it’s not arbitrary?” Rujing answered, “Body and mind dropped off.” He saw in Dogen body and mind dropped off.
What does that mean? The commentary says, “Body and mind fallen away” is a realm in which there are no doctrines or marvels, no certainties or mysteries. It’s just “when you see, there is not a single thing.” Dogen takes this up throughout his writings in the Shobogenzo (“The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”). In Genjokoan, he states, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things. To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to drop off body and mind of self and other. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.”
That last line is the key. “No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” Rujing said, “Body and mind dropped off.” Dogen bowed. Rujing responded, “The dropping off is dropped.” That’s “No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” The commentary amplifies this: Having passed through the forest of brambles, he then passed beyond the other side, too. How did he pass beyond the other side? What is the other side?
The commentary continues: We should understand that this body and mind is not the bag of skin. So I ask you, what is it that is dropped off? Who is it that drops off? This is the place of inquiry that must be clarified. Haven’t you heard the words of the teachers of old? When the ten thousand things have been extinguished, there is still something that is not extinguished. What is it?
Later on, Rujing said to Dogen, “You have the discipline of the ancient buddhas. You will surely spread the way of Zen. My finding you is like Shakyamuni Buddha finding Kayashapa.” An echo of that exchange found its way to our transmission ceremony. At one point during the ceremony, the disciple who’s receiving the transmission is kneeling in shokei and the teacher is passing oral teachings to them. The student then takes several steps in shokei toward the high seat where the teacher is sitting, and the teacher rubs the crown of their head. In China, when a child was born, traditionally, the parents would rub the crown of the baby’s head. While rubbing the crown of the disciple’s head, the teacher says, “The Buddha had Mahakayashapa and now I have you.” This is one expression of a deep sense of bonding between a teacher and a student.
In 1225 Dogen was formally recognized as a successor to Rujing. Rujing instructed him: “Return to your native country and spread the Zen way. Live in obscurity deep in the mountains and mature your enlightenment.” Dogen travelled back to Japan and immediately went to Kennin-ji. While he was in China, Myozen died, and Dogen brought his ashes to the monastery. Then, within a year, he expressed the sense of mission he was embarking on. He said, “In the first year of the Shao-ting Era [1228-1233] of the Sung Dynasty, I returned to my native place in Kyoto and vowed to propagate the Dharma and save all beings in the world. I felt then that a heavy load was on my shoulders.” In the fall of the same year, he wrote Fukanzazengi, a basic instructional text on zazen.
He stayed at Kennin-ji for three years. Slowly, people became aware of the particular style of Zen that he was teaching. His name became famous and he started to attract disciples. As his views were uncompromising and not in line with Kyoto orthodoxy, he started to get pressure from Mt. Hiei. Eventually, to escape the political distractions, he moved to an abandoned temple in Fukakuza called Annu-in. It was there that he wrote Bendowa.
In Bendowa, Dogen stated, “In our country the principles and practice of zazen have not yet been transmitted. This is a sad situation for those who try to understand zazen. For this reason I have endeavored to organize what I learned in China, to transcribe some of the wise teachers’ teachings, and thereby to impart them to those who wish to practice and understand zazen.” We must recall that zazen, single-minded meditation, was not very prevalent in Japan at this time. This was the case even at Kennin-ji where koan tradition was being advanced. To Dogen, zazen was the pivotal factor in coming to realization. For him, practice didn’t have anything to do with the observance of rituals or enigmatic shouts. It had to do with what he was doing with his mind during periods of deep zazen.
In 1233, Dogen moved again. He rebuilt and dedicated a temple, naming it Koshohorin-ji. There, he began to develop the monastic form of Zen, brand new in Japan at that time. Based on the Chinese model, he constructed buildings to accommodate authentic practice of zazen, established monastic regulations, and the way the monastics were to be trained. He was able to realize the vision of Paichang who started the first Zen monastic communities in China. Very quickly, Koshohorin-ji was emerging as one of the most powerful centers of Buddhism in Japan.
Dogen opened his monastic community to everyone, regardless of intelligence, social status, sex, and profession. His religion was, through and through, the religion of the people. Dogen taught that everybody was capable of realization and encouraged everybody to practice. He abolished the separation between monastics and lay persons, declaring, “Those who regard the mundane life as an obstacle to the Dharma only know that there’s no dharma in secular activities. They do not yet know that no secular activities exist in the Dharma.” Monastics and laity are in essence one and the same. Enlightenment depends solely upon whether you have a sincere desire to seek it, not upon whether you live a monastery or in the secular world.
It was around this time that Ejo became his disciple. When he arrived, Ejo was already a mature practitioner. He became the first shuso of the temple. Soon, other members of the Daruma school followed. These were monastics who had done koan study based on teachings of Master Dahui. Responding to their background and inclinations, Dogen wrote forty-four of the chapters of Shobogenzo, including some of the most profound fascicles. He seeded his talks with the three hundred koans he collected in China. And in the Shobogenzo, he started to present these koans and the buddhadharma in a radically fresh way.
As Dogen’s popularity continued to rise, his stubbornness and zealous sense of mission to bring Buddhism back on an authentic track irritated the traditionally-minded Buddhists, especially the Kyoto religious establishment. These were people of great power. Kyoshohorin-ji became increasingly threatened by these traditionalists. Dogen was given attractive invitations to relocate in Kamakura. He flatly refused, primarily because the offers were coming from within the ruling hierarchy. He did not want to sell out.
Finally, he received an invitation from Hatano, one of his lay students and a member of the shogunate, to move to Ichizen province. Hatano offered Dogen his own property for the site of a new monastery. Dogen accepted. His original vision of the monastic ideal was difficult to carry out in the urban surroundings and under the political pressures. His dream was to disappear into the mountains and to maintain a traditional monastery there. He probably also remembered Rujing’s instructions: “Don’t stay in the center of cities or towns; do not be friendly with rulers and state ministers; dwell in the deep mountains and valleys to realize the true nature of humanity.” And then there was Dogen’s unquenchable yearning for nature, reflected by his writings on mountains and rivers and the teachings of the insentient that emerge during this period.
In July of 1243 Dogen moved again. With a small group of followers, he entered a desolate temple named Kippo-ji. In the fall of that year, he began teaching a handful of monastics, probably just three or four, given the references he made in his talks to teachers in antiquity who had only few disciples. As winter arrived and the snow got deeper, the temperature dropped in his dilapidated and drafty monastery. The morale of his monastics must have faltered. Dogen had to inspire them; convince them that what they were doing was the only genuine way to practice. In many of his talks during this period, he elevated monastic practice above lay practice, glorifying home-leaving.
While he was putting down lay practice, his main lay practitioner and supporter, Hatano, was building him the new temple, called Daibutsu-ji, the Great Buddha Temple. Dogen moved in the new temple in 1244. The dharma hall and the monastics hall were built in rapid succession. In April of 1245 Dogen announced the opening of the monastery and changed its name from Daibutsu-ji to Eihei-ji. “Eihei” means “eternal peace.” At last, Dogen realized his long-cherished dream, the establishment of an ideal monastic community in the bosom of the mountains and rivers.
At Eihei-ji, Dogen wrote only eight chapters of the Shobogenzo. His efforts were directed primarily toward the formulation and guidance of the moral precepts and the disciplinary rules for the monastic community. He concentrated on the ritualization of every aspect of monastic life.
In 1253 he wrote the last fascicle of the Shobogenzo, “The Eight Characteristics of the Enlightened Person.” At the end of the chapter Ejo inserted the comment that Dogen had hoped to compose a total of one hundred chapters for the Shobogenzo but could not accomplish it. “Unfortunately,” Ejo wrote, “we cannot see the one-hundred chapter version. This is a matter for deep regret.” That was in January of the year 1253. In July of that same year, Dogen appointed Ejo to be his successor as the head of Eihei-ji monastery and, following Hatano’s advice, left Ichizen for Kyoto on August 5, accompanied by Ejo and several other disciples in order to seek medical care. He was treated at the home of a lay disciple there, but his illness, aggravated by the journey, was already too advanced to be cured. On August 28, he bade farewell to his grieving disciples and died in the posture of zazen at age 53.
The capping verse:
This is a capping verse that my teacher, Maezumi Roshi, wrote when we were working on one of the books at Zen Center of Los Angeles. I was collecting capping verses and he looked through his notes and pulled this one out. I loved it and I still love it.
The thought-cluttered bucket’s bottom broken. The bucket is the container, the bag of skin, the illusion, the thing that we think we are. It’s the thing that’s in a constant state of becoming and change, the thing that we cling to, put our armor around, and try to protect so desperately. It’s the illusion that separates us from everything else, from everything that we need and from everything that we love. The illusion. When the thought-cluttered bucket’s bottom is broken, the body and mind fall away. The illusion falls away.
Neither water nor moon remains. The water — mind. The moon — enlightenment. Both gone. What is it that remains? You should understand that when the ten thousand things have been extinguished, there is still something that is not extinguished. What is it?!
If you don’t know, you have an imperative to find out.
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.
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