Lesson
27

Dogen

7 of 7

A shining peak

For all his intensities and eccentricities, Dogen was certainly a powerful new thinker, the first Japanese Zen philosopher and clearly the strongest dialectician in the history of Japanese Zen. Dogen's presentation was subtle and complex, often pushing language to its breaking pointing fact his extreme manipulation of language lies at the essence of its message. Although his language is lucid and poetic, Dogen was attempting, as Peter Matthiessen suggests:

. . . to convey a set of concepts—not concepts or even perceptions, but intuitions, apprehensions—for which no suitable vocabulary exist. To approach his formidable masterwork is to seek an ascent to a shining peak, glimpsed here and there against the blue through the wild tumult of delusion. With each step forward, the more certain we become that a sure path toward the summit can be found.

He was also a magnetic personality who attracted many followers. At his temple of Kosho-ji near Kyoto he constructed the first truly independent Zen monastery in Japan, finally recreated Chinese Chan totally in Japan with an uncompromising discipline reminiscent of his old Chinese master Rujing. During his time there the tree of Zen took root in Japanese soil firmly and surely.

Eventually the politics of Zen caught up with Dogen, who criticized for being obsessed with zazen and ignoring the sutras, etc. was persuaded him to quit the Kyoto vicinity and move to the provinces, where he could teach in peace at his final temple, Eihei-ji, or Eternal Peace. This site became the center of Soto Zen in Japan.

In the first lines of Dogen's death poem we see that his first insight into impermanence stayed with him his entire life:

On leaf and grass
Awaiting the morning sun,
The dew quickly evaporates away.

Dogen seems the one we should acknowledge as the true founder of Zen in Japan; pure Zen first had to be introduced before it could grow. But at the time of Dogen's death it was not at all obvious that Soto Zen, or any Zen for that matter, would ever survive to become an independent sect in Japan. Nor was Dogen inspired to establish the Soto sect in Japan. Rather he was a reformer who chanced across a Chinese Soto master devoted to meditation. It was the powerful discipline of meditation that Dogen sought to introduce into Japan, not a sectarian branch of Zen. Only later did Dogen's movement become a proselytizing Zen sect. These and other thirteenth-century Japanese reformers imported Chan for the simple reason that it was the purest expression of Buddhism left in China.