The Soto master Dogen (1200-1253) is probably the most revered figure in all Japanese Zen. Yet only recently has he become read and studied in the West, perhaps because that great popularizer of Zen in the West, D. T. Suzuki, followed the. Rinzai school and managed to essentially ignore Dogen throughout his voluminous writings.
But it was Dogen who first insisted on intensive meditation, who produced the first Japanese writings explaining Zen practice, and who constructed the first real Zen monastery in Japan, establishing a set of monastic rules still observed. Moreover, the strength of his character has inspired many Zen masters to follow.
Born into an an aristocratic family, Dogen was raised within the literary life of the court and the refined decadence of ancient Kyoto. Although his father died when he was two, his privileged education continued at the hands of his mother and half-brother. He most certainly learned to read, and write classical Chinese, as well as to versify and debate — all skills that he would one day put to extensive use. His poetic sensitivity (something traditionally prized by the Japanese above logic and precision of thought) was encouraged by all he met in the hothouse atmosphere of ancient Kyoto.
Doegns' idyllic, protected life was shattered at age seven with the sudden death of his mother. But she set the course of his life when, at the last, she bade him become a monk and reach out to suffering mankind. A popular tradition has it that at his mother's funeral Dogen sensed in the rising incense the impermanence of all things.
At the age of 12 he begged to be allowed to turn his back on the aristocratic world of Kyoto and fulfill his mother's dying wish by becoming a monk and he was ordained the following year as a Tendai monk. Already a scholar of the Chinese classics, he now turned to the literature of Tendai Buddhism. But soon he was snagged on a problem that has haunted theologians East and West for many centuries. Dogen formulated this in a Buddhist context as follows:
As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that man is endowed with the Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why had the Buddhas of all ages — undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment — to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?
If man already has the Buddha nature, why must he struggle to realize it by arduous disciplines? Conversely, if the Buddha nature must be acquired, how can it be inherent in all things, as was taught?
This perplexing paradox drove Dogen swandering in search of other teachers, including Eisai's disciple, Myozen.