Realizing Genjokoan

Chapter 1: Dōgen Zenji’s Life and the Importance of Genjōkōan

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DŌGEN ZENJI was born in the year 1200 in Kyōto, which was then the capital city of Japan. He was born into a high-society family, and some believe his father was the emperor’s secretary and Dōgen was the grandson of the prime minister. Dōgen’s father is believed to have died when Dōgen was two years old, and his mother is believed to have died when he was eight. It is said that it was his mother’s death that prompted Dōgen, of his own accord, to resolve to become a Buddhist monk. At thirteen Dōgen was ordained at Enryakuji monastery on Mt. Hiei, near Kyōto, in the Tendai tradition, one of the two major Buddhist schools at that time. Yet Dōgen became unhappy with the practice at Mt. Hiei and left there when he was seventeen. Dōgen left the monastery, at least in part, because he was unable to find anyone there who could give him a satisfactory answer to a very important question that arose in his practice.

According to his biography, Dōgen’s question related to the primary Mahayana teaching of Buddha nature, an especially important teaching in the Tendai school of his time. The hongaku-hōmon (dharma gate of original enlightenment) teaching of the Tendai school states that all living and nonliving beings are already enlightened buddhas, since they all have Buddha nature. But Dōgen questioned why it was 8necessary for all buddhas to arouse the way-seeking mind and practice if they were already enlightened buddhas. In the Buddhist traditions of India, China, and other countries practice was always very difficult. But why did even the ancient masters, who possessed great capability, have to practice so hard to attain enlightenment if they were inherently enlightened? Why do any of us have to study and endure such difficult practice if we are already buddhas?

This was the great question that Dōgen asked as a teenager and kept asking until he found its answer years later.

Dōgen visited many Buddhist teachers, but none gave him a satisfactory answer. According to the traditional account, however, one of the teachers he visited, Venerable Kōin, told Dōgen that he would find the answers to this deep question only through practicing in the Zen tradition. Kōin also encouraged Dōgen to visit China, which was then considered to be the home of authentic Zen practice. Following Kōin’s recommendation, at age seventeen Dōgen left the Tendai monastery at Mt. Hiei and joined the community of monks at Kenninji, founded in 1202 as the first Zen monastery in Japan. The founder of Kenninji, Master Eisai (1141–1215), was the first Japanese Buddhist priest to transmit Rinzai Zen teachings from China to Japan. Dōgen began practicing at Kenninji after Eisai had already died, but he studied there with Eisai’s direct disciple, Myōzen (1184–1225), for seven years until Dōgen reached the age of twenty-three.

In Dōgen’s time Zen was new to Japan, and since Dōgen and Myōzen wanted to study authentic, traditional Chinese Zen, together they traveled to China in 1223. Dōgen studied there for five years until he was twenty-seven, but unfortunately Myōzen, Dōgen’s first Zen teacher, died before he could return to Japan.

Upon his arrival in China, Dōgen practiced at Tiantong Monastery under the guidance of its abbot, Wuji Liaopai (Jap.: Musai Ryōha, 1149–1224), a Rinzai Zen master. When Liaopai passed away the next year, Dōgen left Tiantong to visit a number of other monasteries. During this time Dōgen met several Zen masters who were all, 9as far as we know, members of the Rinzai tradition that was so popular in Chinese Zen communities of the day. It is therefore evident that Dōgen spent the first ten years of his association with Zen practicing in the Rinzai tradition. Yet Dōgen felt that none of the masters he met during this period was his true teacher. Just as Dōgen was planning to give up his search and return to Japan in disappointment, he heard that a great master had been appointed abbot of Tiantong Monastery. In the summer of 1225 Dōgen returned to that monastery, where he met Tiantong Rujing (Jap.: Tendō Nyojō, 1163–1228), knowing from their first meeting that he had found the true teacher he had spent so many years searching for. It was in the same month of this auspicious meeting that Dōgen’s first Zen teacher, Myōzen, passed away at Tiantong Monastery. Dōgen continued to practice with Rujing for two years, returning to Japan in 1227 after receiving Dharma transmission from him in the Sōtō lineage.

Dōgen again practiced at Kenninji after returning to Japan. Yet he left the monastery in 1230, because he found that its Rinzai style did not allow him to practice and teach in his own way, and he also felt that the practitioners at Kenninji had lost the genuine spirit of Zen practice established there by Eisai. After leaving Kenninji Dōgen lived and practiced alone for several years at a small hermitage in Fukakusa, a village then on the outskirts of Kyōto.

In keeping with his vow to help all people learn to practice zazen, Dōgen wrote Fukanzazengi in 1227, immediately after his return from China. Fukanzazengi is an essay presenting the essential meaning of zazen and practical instructions for sitting. Three years later while living in his hermitage, the thirty-one-year-old Dōgen wrote Bendōwa (Talk on the Wholehearted Practice of the Way), a presentation of eighteen questions and answers discussing the practice of zazen within the context of Buddhist teachings.

The year 1233 was a very important and productive year for Dōgen. People gradually began to come to practice with him, and finally in 1233 he founded his own monastery, Kōshōji. In 1233 he also rewrote 10Fukanzazengi, and that original manuscript is still stored at Eiheiji as a national treasure. During Kōshōji’s first ango, or summer practice period, Dōgen composed Maka Hannya Haramitsu (Skt.: Maha Prajna Paramita), a short commentary on the Heart Sutra (Skt.: Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra). It was later in the fall of 1233 that Dōgen wrote Genjōkōan for a lay practitioner.

I believe it was through these two short writings, Maka Hannya Haramitsu and Genjōkōan, that Dōgen expressed his basic understanding of Buddhist teachings. For him the practice of zazen is the practice of Maha Prajna Paramita (Great Perfect Wisdom), a philosophy he expressed poetically in Genjōkōan. I am not certain if my English translation communicates its poetic tone, but the original Japanese version is beautiful.

Dōgen Zenji practiced at Kōshōji for ten years until moving his assembly to Echizen, where he founded Daibutsuji (later renamed Eiheiji) in 1243. He worked another ten years to establish his own monastery in the remote mountains of Echizen, and he composed many writings until the end of his life in 1253. The postscript to Genjōkōan says that the text was compiled in 1252, the fourth year of the Kenchō Era and the year before Dōgen’s death. Scholars differ in their opinions concerning the meaning of this word “compile” (Jap.: shūroku). Some think that it refers to Dōgen’s placing of Genjōkōan as the first chapter of his Shōbōgenzō. In any case, it is likely that in 1252 Dōgen rewrote Genjōkōan, originally composed when he was young, before introducing it as the first chapter of Shōbōgenzō.

Several versions of Shōbōgenzō exist, numbering between twelve and ninety-five chapters. Traditionally, a seventy-five-chapter version is considered to be Dōgen Zenji’s original collection, and some scholars think that he later wrote the contents of the twelve-chapter version as an addition to that compilation. In the Tokugawa era (1603–1868) Sōtō scholars found several more chapters and published them along with already known chapters to make a ninety-five-chapter version. Today, one group of scholars believes that Dōgen was unsatisfied 11with his seventy-five-chapter version of Shōbōgenzō and planned to rewrite the text as a hundred-chapter collection. These scholars consider the twelve-chapter version to be the only portion of this revision that Dōgen was able to complete before his death.

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