About Dogen Zenji
(Taken from Prof. Masunaga book ‘Soto Approach to Zen’, the chapter: ‘The place of Dogen’, pages 203-214)
The place of Dogen
It was Dogen (1200-1253) who first brought Soto Zen to Japan. Keizan (1268-1325) made possible the popularization of Soto Zen, thereby laying the foundation for the large religious organization, which it is today. Dogen, born in a noble family, quickly learned the meaning of the Buddhist word “mujo” (impermanence). While still young, he lost both his parents. He decided then to become a Buddhist priest and search for truth. He went first to Mt. Hiei, the headquarters of the sect.
At the young age he was assailed by the following doubt Both the esoteric and external doctrines of the Buddha teach that enlightenment is inherent in all beings from the outset. If this is so, why do all the Buddhas, past, present, and future, seek enlightenment? This doubt, clearly pointing to the dualistic contradiction between the ideal and the actual, is the kind of anguish likely to arise in the mind of any deeply religious person. Unable to resolve this great doubt at Mt. Hiei, Dogen decided to study Buddhism under Eisai (1141- 1215). For some time he practiced Zen meditation with Eisai’s disciple, Myozen. Then at the age of 24 Dogen accompanied by Myozen, embarked on a dangerous voyage to China in search of the highest truth of Buddhism. There he visited all of the well-known monasteries, finally becoming a disciple of Ju-tsing (J. Nyojo) who was living on Mt. Tien-tung (J. Tendo). For two years Dogen studied hard day and night and at last realized liberation of body and mind – the most important event of one’s life.
Dogen freed himself from the illusion of the ego, the result of dualistic thinking and he experienced deeply the bliss of Buddhist truth. He continued his religious training in China for two years before returning to Japan at the age of 28.
Dogen’s greatest desire was to spread the Buddhist religion and thereby benefit all mankind. He first settled in Kosho Temple where he trained Zen monks. He had a Zen training hall (Dojo) built and lectured before both the Buddhist clergy and laity for more than 10 years. In 1243, at the urging of Hatano Yoshishige, he moved to Echizen, now Fukui Prefecture, and founded the Eihei Temple, which today is one of the two head temples of the Soto sect. Burning with enthusiasm to teach true Buddhism to all seekers, he spent some 10 years there leading quiet religious life.
Dogen is the greatest religious figure and creative thinker in’s Japanese history. Thoughtful leaders outside the Soto sect have declared that the essence of Japanese culture cannot be correctly understood without considering this great Zen master. Deeply impressed at the thoroughness and depth of Dogen’s thought, many Japanese have gained new confidence in the potentialities of their culture.
Dogen enjoys such high regard because his Philosophy, religion, and Personality blend with the ideals held by humanity throughout history. His ideas are universally applicable. Dogen’s greatness rests on three Points: his profundity his practicality, and his nobility. His principal work, Shobogenzo, in 95 chapters, is a true masterpiece; it clearly reveals his thought and faith. Instead of writing in classical Chinese, so popular in those days, Dogen used Japanese so that every one will be able to read it. His style is concise and to the point. His thought is noble and profound. His sharp logic and deep insight not only put him at the forefront of Japanese thought, but also give him an important Place in modern philosophy. Because of these features the standpoint of Dogen provide a base for synthesizing Oriental and Occidental thought.
But Dogen’s significance is not found merely in the excellence of his theories. We should always remember that Dogen never amuses him self with empty words and barren phrases divorced from reality. In Dogen’s writings we find theory and practice, knowledge and action, inseparably entwined. The detailed Zen regulations found in Dogen’s Eihei Daishingi established this fact very clearly.
Buddhism teaches us that we must awaken our own body and mind thoroughly and experience them fully. This does not mean mere intellectual knowledge but living the life of the Buddha without strain. Dogen combined both deep insight and thorough practice in his character- and therein lies his greatness.
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