Engaging Dōgen’s Zen

1. Reflections on Dōgen’s Practice and Philosophy

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1Reflections on Dōgen’s Practice
and Philosophy



Shushōgi (The Meaning of Practice and Verification) is a document compiled in 1890 primarily for the aid of lay practitioners by selecting some key passages from Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), the primary source for the teachings of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism. The compilation of Shushōgi was intended to act as an introduction to the four themes of Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings: “eradicating our iniquities (bad karma) through the practice of repentance,”2 “accepting the precepts and entering the ranks of the buddhas and patriarchs,”3 “making the vow to benefit all beings,”4 and “showing our gratitude to the buddhas and patriarchs through the wholehearted practice of Buddhism.”5

These four themes, called the “Four Main Principles” (Yondai Kōryō), along with their introduction, have been at the heart of Sōtō teachings since 1941. However, possibly because these teachings were meant for lay followers, the practices taught in Shushōgi have not included the one practice, shikantaza (wholehearted engagement in zazen meditation), which was absolutely central to the founder of the Sōtō school, Eihei Dōgen. From the time of the original assembly of Shushōgi, the principal criticism that Shushōgi does not faithfully transmit the essence of Dōgen’s teachings has persisted. For these reasons, the Sacred Teachings of Dōgen Zenji (Dōgen Zenji Seikun) (1924), edited by Dr. Nukariya Kaiten, has a fundamentally different emphasis than that of the current Shushōgi.

Moreover, the teachings of Keizan Jōkin Zenji (1268–1325), the second founding father of Sōtō Zen,6 are entirely absent in the current Shushōgi. In addition to the latter, Kikuchi Daisen Rōshi has compiled the Addenda to the Sōtō Zen Fellowship7 Shushōgi (Sōtō Kyōkai Shushōgi-zoku),8 which is 16based on Keizan Zenji’s seminal work, Denkōroku (The Transmission of the Light). There is also a second work drawn from Keizan, namely, the Denkō Sokun (The Teachings of the Transmission of the Lamp Patriarch), compiled by Shōkō Mitsuo. From these works we can see that Shushōgi is far from a complete exposition of the teachings of the Sōtō sect. Possibly because it lacks any discussion of zazen, few Zen practitioners in the West bother to read it. Indeed, few even know of its existence. Nevertheless, Shushōgi is significant because it can still act as an introduction to some — but not all — of the important teachings found in Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō.

Accordingly, we here at Eishōji in Seattle have decided to assemble critical editions of Shushōgi in the context of the teachings of the Sōtō school. First of all, we planned to conduct an examination of the English version of the current Shushōgi included in the Sōtō School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practices published by the Sōtō Head Office. This plan has come to fruition in the present volume. In the future, we hope to expand upon this work by also taking into account the role of Keizan by examining the Addenda to the Sōtō Zen Fellowship Shushōgi compiled by Kikuchi Daisen Rōshi. Finally, we would like to produce a new Shushōgi that speaks more directly to the needs of contemporary practitioners in the West both without ceding anything essential to New Age practices of Buddhism and while avoiding the restrictions imposed by the historical and political exigencies of the Sōtō school during the Meiji era.

This final aspiration, namely, to create a new Shushōgi for a new time and a new context, will be a difficult task. This is because the Sōtō Fellowship has traditionally held a common evaluation of the worth, meaning, significance, and functioning of Shushōgi for roughly a century. Although Shushōgi is largely unknown in the West, it has almost universal acceptance by the Sōtō Fellowship of Japanese followers. Despite this, it has all too easily rigidified through time. Even though scholars have made small changes in the text, it remains basically the same as the original version. There seems to be little room for flexibility in this context. Moreover, the traditional and most basic economic foundation of Japanese Sōtō temples remains the highly profitable funeral business. Also, since the Edo period (1603–1867), temples remain in the family 17and are handed down through the generations from father to first-born son.9 This temple system became the established order and was not easily changed. This temple plan and the community of Sōtō temples has and continues to have a large influence on the prevailing Sōtō fraternity, increasing its rigidity so that any flexibility it might once have had has basically evaporated.

Contemporary Japanese Buddhist Institutions

Two special features of contemporary Japanese Buddhist institutions are “funeral Buddhism” and “temple inheritance.” The former was established during the Edo period10 as a new charge for village temples, namely, to verify that the people in the local village were not Christians.11 The custom of temple funerals arose from this requirement. Previously, funerals were held under the direction of the village headman. This was because temple funerals were traditionally held only for monks or nuns — there was no tradition of lay funerals. The ceremonies used for monk funerals consequently had to be adapted to create a new lay funeral ceremony.

Having undertaken jukai (the acceptance of the Mahāyāna precepts) was a prerequisite for receiving a temple funeral. This would not have been a problem for monks or nuns, all of whom were required to accept the precepts as a matter of course, but it posed a problem for laypeople, most of whom had rarely even considered accepting them. For those who had not taken them when alive, it became necessary to take them after death, and this became a new part of the funeral, thus further distorting established monastic ceremonies.

Another effect of the formation of temple funerals for the laity was that the temples became surrounded by or connected to the temple graveyard. It was not easy to move to another village or area when one’s ancestors were buried in the village temple graveyard. Another byproduct of this system was to strengthen the economic foundation of the temples by providing them with a new source of income (collecting fees for the performance of lay funerals), and this became a factor in providing for the stability of the village temple, which in turn further entrenched the danka (parishioner household) system.


After the Edo period ended, the Meiji era (1868–1912) explicitly legalized the marriage of Buddhist priests. The “funeral courtesy donations” multiplied temple incomes and stabilized their economic foundations. Temple priesthood became a professional occupation. Although the temples were not officially private property, they were managed and operated within the family12 and passed down through familial lines.

The priesthood for most all Buddhist denominations (not just Sōtō) had essentially become a profession, and priests made their living based on specialized skills, such as the knowledge of the necessary procedures for conducting funerals and other rituals. In so doing, they deviated from the long-established work of monks and priests to teach the Four Sufferings — birth, old age, sickness, and death — and the Four Noble Truths — suffering,13 its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. They had transformed the original role of the monks and priests into something utterly foreign.

From the time of the establishment of the Sōtō tradition as a sect, it has had two honzan (headquarter) temples, Eiheiji and Sōjiji. This bifurcation has been the root and soil from which sectarian Sōtō Zen has grown. Would Dōgen have imagined that the tradition of his teachings would become the vulgarized Buddhism of the present, where the admonitions of his Chinese Caodong teacher, Zen master Tiantong Rujing14 — to always pursue the universal teachings of Buddhism, and to stay away from centers of political power — have been almost utterly forgotten? Is it not the case that Eiheiji and Sōjiji, and even Rinzai Zen, have strayed so far from their origins that they have become exemplars of the very kinds of Buddhism that Dōgen had so strongly criticized?

Zen in the United States

Japanese Buddhism was introduced in the United States over a century ago. However, the Zen Buddhism that was transmitted at that time was directed to Japanese ethnic communities who had emigrated but still maintained the relationship of the temple to the household (danka) and hence upheld the old Japanese danka system. The duties of the missionaries were first to conduct funerals and other services for their parishioners, 19and second to teach their children Japanese culture. All of the various denominations of Buddhism shared in common these same basic functions. Every temple had an attached Japanese language school. Therefore, each temple had its master(s) of ceremonies and services and its Japanese language instructor(s). Since the resident priests had been appointed precisely to fill these functions, efforts to bring Zen to America were, for the most part, limited to the communities of Japanese immigrants.

Suzuki Daisetsu (1870–1966), known in the West most commonly as D. T. Suzuki, was among the first to introduce genuine Zen philosophy — rather than transplant the danka system, which had little to do with Zen or the Buddha — to the United States and the West more broadly through his many writings and his famous lectures at Columbia University and elsewhere. Moreover, Beat movement writers like Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) and Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), or expositors of Asian wisdom like Alan Watts (1915–1973), happily embraced his writings and soon Zen became a fixture of the “baby-boomer” generation.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that American culture was able to skew Zen teachings was because they were not all that well understood by many of their early American advocates. The authentic tenets of Zen Buddhism were distorted in some important ways as they shifted from their original Japanese context. It may be that human thought, whether Western or Asian, shares the same broad spectrum of characteristics. But when formed through the filter of Japanese culture, ideas and emphases often substantially differ from the way they are understood in other cultures. Dōgen’s thought, which passed through the particular filter of Japanese culture, is impossible for Westerners to comprehend and make their own just through a cursory reading or lecture.

Moreover, since the introduction of Zen philosophy to the West by people like D. T. Suzuki, the word “Zen” has become associated with exotic mysticism. Also, quite a few people think of zazen as one type of meditation among many with a religious tint, or as some kind of especially penetrating form of yoga. Knowing something about this “mystical Zen” has become a popular way to make a person appear as having a respectable pastime that is superior to the trivial pursuits of others.


Some people view Zen as a useful way to improve and rectify their life- style, and consequently some Zen centers have become a kind of New Age self-help center. These centers focus on isolated aspects of Dōgen’s teachings without being able to appreciate them as a whole. They put together marketable self-improvement training programs, sell them as a commodity to those who have this kind of conception of Zen, and make a handy profit. There have even been cases where, after a few weeks of training, a person, having made a suitable “offering” of an always hefty sum, can receive the shishō or certificate of Dharma transmission. Such incidents could not be further from a true understanding of the teachings of Zen master Dōgen.

This is not always the case, but such occurrences are prevalent enough that we should ask ourselves if it is not time to rethink and clarify the original teachings of Zen and Dōgen. We need not reject “Beat Zen,” or New Age eclectic Zen, or Zen as a sophisticated intellectual pursuit, such as they are. But I think that it is essential that we reexamine the teachings of Dōgen and make sure that we are not diluting them through the filter of cultural preferences. It therefore follows that we should examine the basis of currently held interpretations of the essentials of Dōgen’s teachings and confirm or disconfirm their validity.


The contributors to this project are monks and priests, academics, and those who work in the community, but few of them started out as students of Buddhism. A number were students of Continental philosophy having other areas of interest. Nonetheless, it is through such paths that many of them appreciatively came upon Zen master Dōgen. Although not all of them read Japanese, many of them are practitioners who have tried, using all of their abilities and leaving no stones unturned, to look deeply into the marrow of the ultimate truths of Sōtō Zen. In the end, no particular language or culture owns or has a monopoly on the truth of Zen.

Many students today who study such important texts as Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō and Keizan’s Denkōroku have come to understand them through various translations. Some might argue that the texts can only 21be appreciated in their native language — and all of the texts in this volume have been carefully edited to make sure that translations were not a hindrance — but we have found that the fresh eyes of those who take practice seriously and who, working with Japanese readers, explore the translations also have a genuine access to the truth of Zen experience as well as the real meaning of the original texts.

It would be very fortunate if readers were easily able to gather the wide range of viewpoints presented in these translations to help them grasp the fundamental essence of Sōtō Zen. Furthermore, if the authors and editors who labored on this project can help Zen practitioners and those who are trying to deepen their lives to appreciate better the teachings of Sōtō Zen and make these teachings part of their lives, then the goals of this project will have been attained.


Following are my views on six themes to help the reader better understand Mahāyāna Buddhism and Sōtō Zen, with a view to deepening their understanding of Shushōgi.

1. Religion

If we understand the word “religion” exclusively in the context of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, then Zen is not a religion. This is because in Zen there is nothing corresponding to the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or the polytheism of Hinduism. The etymology of “religion,” from the Latin term religare, means to bind fast, to connect tightly, because one is attempting to connect oneself to God. If this is what is meant by religion, then we cannot call Mahāyāna Buddhism a “religion.” For some other sects of Buddhism, Śākyamuni Buddha might be the object of worship, but this is absolutely not the case for Zen. Although Mahāyāna Buddhism includes traditions that require faith in certain doctrines, there is nothing corresponding to the belief of forming or returning to a relationship with any God or gods.

If we were to acknowledge any particular kind of faith embraced by Zen, it would not be a faith in God or the Buddha, but rather a faith in the 22very act of living. For Sōtō Zen in particular, the object of faith is simply life itself — life embraced right here and now, in this very moment.

It would be difficult for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, practitioners of indigenous religions, and Hindus to reconcile their practice with a form of Buddhism that does not require reverence of new deities. This would only produce conflict. Zen, however, does not ask this of those who engage in Zen practice. If someone from another religion appreciates the fundamentals of Sōtō Zen, there is nothing in this path that demands that they have to first give up their religion. Any imam, Christian priest, rabbi, shaman, or Brahman priest could also become a Zen practitioner. There would be nothing strange about this at all.

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to partake in Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zen practitioners, and others of various traditions all gathered together at the camp. Each morning members of the various traditions would offer their respective services, all of which were open to members of all faiths and practices. I had the impression that people were partaking in these different traditions out of genuine curiosity and respect. Even those who had come from the Middle East, where many such traditions are in conflict, were able to rise above traditional animosities and embrace a common purpose.

Prior to this experience, I would never have thought that such communion was possible. How did this happen? Perhaps it is a result of the contribution from the teaching and practice of Sōtō Zen that is free of the belief in any kind of God or Supreme Being. I could see how Zen, which concentrates on the act of living itself, could help provide some of the glue that allowed everyone to live together in harmony. Even now I clearly remember this experience. It was a turning point in my thinking — as though the scales fell from my eyes as they did for Saul on his way to Damascus.15

2. Mahāyāna Buddhism

The most basic intent of Buddhism is to liberate beings from suffering. Buddhism uses the metaphor of a river with a near shore and a far shore: the near shore symbolizes the realm of suffering, and the far shore, the 23realm of no suffering. At issue is the problem of how to cross the river. In Theravāda Buddhism, only monks and nuns who have attained enlightenment through specialized training can attain the far shore of nirvana. Laypersons, on the other hand, can only attain liberation in their next life by embracing the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), keeping the Five Precepts (not killing living creatures, not taking what is not given, abstaining from misconduct in sexual matters, abstaining from false speech, and abstaining from intoxicants), making offerings to the monks and nuns, supporting the local temple, and building up merit (good karma).

Mahāyāna Buddhism arose as a critical response to the Theravāda teaching that not all beings can be saved. The Heart Sutra,16 the pith of Mahāyāna wisdom teaching, is a reproof of the Theravāda position. Śāriputra represents the Theravāda and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara17 the Mahāyāna. The Bodhisattva refutes many basic Theravāda teachings and teaches the emptiness18 of all things. From the start, Mahāyāna insists that the intention of Buddhism is to help every being reach the far shore and to relieve suffering. Every being without exception can cross the river of suffering and reach the far shore. The Buddha Dharma is like the pilot of the boat that brings all beings to the other shore, showing us that all things in heaven and earth have Buddha Nature and are expressions of dharmadhātu and the great Buddha sea.

Mahāyāna Buddhism is comprised of many sects. They all agree that everyone can cross the river of suffering, but they differ as to the manner in which this should be accomplished. I think that these differences can easily be explained by using the analogy of a floodgate in the middle of the river. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that Amida Buddha will help all beings as they endeavor to pass through this floodgate. If one relies on the nembutsu (“mindfulness of the Buddha”) through chanting the phrase Namu Amida Butsu, Amida Buddha will categorically and without fail intervene to bring you to the far shore. The Lotus Sutra branch of Buddhism, associated with Nichiren, teaches that if you adhere to its namesake text, you will reach the far shore.

Zen, however, teaches that you can cross the river through your “own power”19 in contrast with Shinran and the True Pure Land school’s emphasis on “other power.”20 It teaches us “24not to rely on words and letters”21 nor to be chained to the sutras.22 Rather, it teaches us to listen directly to the echoes of our own hearts and minds and to awaken to the direct truth.23

3. What Does Sōtō Zen Emphasize?

Some Zen teachings seem to imply that there is something like a gate in the river of suffering through which one must pass to reach the far shore — one could think of it as something like a “water gate” or “river gate”24 a kind of “door” in the river. By accruing and applying the fruits of practice, anyone can get the knack of passing through them, and can easily reach the other shore — that is, attain nirvana. This is one way of understanding why some teachers typically use kōans (although there are other ways in which they can be used skillfully).

The emphasis is different in Sōtō Zen because there is no need to get such a “knack” or acquire this kind of skill. We need only to detect the reality and nature of one’s own life. Why? This is because, from the beginning, we are all in the gate and it has always been open. There is no need for the knack of passing through the gate or opening it. If we can only “see our original face,”25 we are entirely free to cross from this side to the other side. In a sense, we are the gate itself. Only we, ourselves, can make this confirmation. No one else can do this for us. It is like trying to find your glasses while you are already wearing them. Only by throwing one’s whole self into zazen — Dōgen’s shikantaza — can we resolve our lives into their proper form, and in so doing, truly confirm our own nature.

4. Dōgen’s Copernican Revolution

I think that there is no problem with saying that enlightenment, satori, is something like acquiring a skill or a knack (in the positive sense), but some threads of Zen have taught that we practice zazen in order to attain enlightenment. In other words, one attains enlightenment after practice. First comes practice and then comes enlightenment. By contrast, in Sōtō Zen, one does not practice zazen in order to attain enlightenment — instead it is because one is already enlightened that one can practice. This is Sōtō Zen’s most characteristic component. Dōgen’s teaching as to 25the true nature of practice was so radically innovative that it effectively comprised a kind of Copernican Revolution. It was like putting all your effort into accomplishing something very important and then discovering that you already had it. In other words, if you practice with the intention of attaining enlightenment, Dōgen confirms that you already are enlightened.

Practice26 is not therefore some esoteric and mysterious kind of training focusing on transrational kōans; it is something altogether different. Instead of putting all your effort into trying to get something you do not now have, the teachings of Dōgen lead entirely in the opposite direction. What you need to be doing with practice is confirming your enlightenment.

When Dōgen was studying and practicing at Hieizan,27 he learned that “from the beginning, we all have Buddha Nature — this primordial nature is pure and clean.” However, when Dōgen asked his Tendai teachers why we had to practice if we already had Buddha Nature, they had no good answers. Resolving to find an answer to his question, Dōgen left Hieizan and went to the Rinzai temple, Kenninji, in Kyoto, which had been recently established by Eisai, the first ordained Zen master in Japan. He became a disciple of Eisai’s disciple Myōzen,28 but he still could not find a satisfactory answer.

So he and Myōzen found a way to travel to China. There he visited a variety of Buddhist temples and personally experienced Buddhist training under a number of teachers. Finally, when he was about to give up and return to Japan, he found his true master, Rujing, at the Jingde29 temple, and under his instruction, he was able to realize the “throwing and casting off of body and mind.”30 He realized that he had “always been enlightened” and returned to Japan. All of us, right now, just as we are, are already in the realm of our ultimate destination. He realized that there is nothing greater, nothing smaller. Dōgen, unlike earlier monks who traveled to and studied in China, returned to Japan transporting neither Buddhist statues nor scriptures — he brought only what he had realized, the truth of the Buddha Dharma. We call this “returning with empty hands.”31 The essence of the Buddha Dharma with which Dōgen returned home is: “From the beginning, your eyes are horizontal and 26your nose is perpendicular.” Dōgen only brought back that everywhere, nothing is hidden — not any special esoteric teaching or secret.

5. All Beings — Buddha Nature

Among the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism we can find the doctrine “All beings — Buddha Nature.”32 Depending how you read these four kanji characters, the meaning is very different. What is the relationship between “All being(s)” and “Buddha Nature”? There are two readings. One is: “All beings have Buddha Nature.” The other is: “All being is Buddha Nature.” Dōgen illuminates the second — “All being is Buddha Nature.” If we take the first reading as saying “All beings” have “Buddha Nature,” Buddha Nature is then something you have within you. If that is so, we should search for this thing called Buddha Nature within us, and polish it in order to get rid of the dust. If, on the other hand, we read the passage as saying “All being is Buddha Nature,” the meaning is very different. This is one of Dōgen’s most fundamental teachings.

“All being” means everything. “All being” does not point to any one being in particular. It simply means “All,” the whole of being, with no exceptions — “the universe just as it is.” The universe includes all kinds of objects or entities. The planet earth is one such entity. The earth includes innumerable kinds of entities, including the natural world of mountains, rivers, and living beings, including human beings, animals, as well as plants, and so on. All of these entities seem like separate beings, but they are all components of the earth, and the earth itself is a component of the universe. Dōgen called the universe the “great earth,” meaning not the planet earth but all that is without exception. The universe, the great earth, is “all being.” It is Buddha Nature.

Among particular beings, there are differences, which are the distinctive characteristic of the former, namely, singularity. Nothing in all of being is superior or inferior. For the sake of convenience, people make distinctions and value judgments, but these can only apply in the context of individual situations. They do not pertain to reality itself, where there is neither good nor bad, neither greater nor lesser, neither superior nor inferior. All existence is complete just as it is. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, this teaching is expressed as: “Equality is distinction. Distinction is equality.”33 27Distinction means difference, and is not merely the label of a doctrine. Everything is for that time, and existence at that time is everything; relative distinctions are not absolute.

6. The Constituents of Giving Are All Equally Empty

The Path of the Six Perfections34 is essential for any Mahāyāna Buddhist. They include: giving, morality, forbearance, effort, meditation, and wisdom.35 Although the word “giving” implies the everyday simple notion of giving — such as giving to charity — in the context of the Six Perfections, it means something different. “Giving” here is a composite of three constituents. The easiest way of explaining this is through the teaching: “The constituents of ‘giving’ are all equally empty.”

There are three elements to giving — the giver, the receiver, and the gift. To be a giver, there must be a receiver: to be a receiver, there must be a giver. And, without a giver and a receiver, there can be no gift. If any of these elements are missing, the others cannot be. This is the teaching: “The constituents of giving are all equally empty.” No constituent has a higher or lower value than any of the others. When you notice this, you realize that they all are interconnected. None is higher, none lower; none is superior, none inferior — there is no real distinction among them. As we investigate this matter, we realize that throughout the universe nothing is superior and nothing is inferior; all are interrelated, and all are empty of inherent value or inherent distinction. It may seem that in our everyday reality, each individual thing has distinct essential properties and value. Even among such distinctions, however, all things36 are interconnected and interrelated. When you fully realize this — that there are no fences or conflicts of values in giving — you see that there is no reason for preference, and no reason for discrimination. We realize that in giving, “the constituents of giving are all equally empty.”

Translated by Dainen David Putney

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