Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Dōgen’s Extensive Record (Paperback) - Selections

A Translation of the Eihei Kōroku

Dōgen and Kōans
By John Daido Loori

The prevailing historical perspective in the literature on Zen regards Master Dōgen as an opponent of kōan introspection. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dōgen not only used kōans as an integral part of his teachings but commented on them extensively, in a unique and innovative way. In fact, he might have been one of the key contributors in introducing kōans to medieval Japan.

Shortly after his return from China and then settling at Kōshōji temple, in 1235, Dōgen compiled his Mana Shōbōgenzō (Chinese Shōbōgenzō), also referred to as the Shōbōgenzō Sanbyakusoku (Shōbōgenzō of Three Hundred Kōans). This was a collection of three hundred kōan cases, written in Chinese, that he gathered from Song kōan sources during his trip to the mainland. These kōans “seeded” his subsequent teachings, beginning with Eihei Kōroku, volume 9, written in 1236 at Kōshōji. This volume contained verse commentaries on ninety kōans of which fifty-two are from his Mana Shōbōgenzō. Dōgen’s compilation was followed by the gradual development of his jōdō, brief formal presentations in the Dharma hall often built around one or more kōans from his own Mana Shōbōgenzō or from the classical collections. It is estimated that Dōgen employed over 290 kōan cases in the first seven volumes of Eihei Kōroku as part of his jōdō.

Dōgen’s allusive teaching style in these brief jōdō was demonstrative and poetic, and used many of the techniques of wordplay and multiple meaning that has come to characterize his Dharma. These brief comments in the Eihei Kōroku contain a unique treasure trove of information on many of the kōan cases and are an invaluable source of insight for students of kōan introspection.

Dōgen’s most extensive and subtle use of the Mana Shōbōgenzō kōans was in his Kana Shōbōgenzō (Japanese Shōbōgenzō). Here, Dōgen takes up 172 of the 300 cases, using them in different ways in the ninety-five chapters. In some instances the kōans are employed as simple examples, clarifying a point in the teachings. In other cases the entire chapter is built around a kōan, as in Shōbōgenzō Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), where case 105 (of the Chinese Shōbōgenzō), “The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion,” is the starting point; or Shōbōgenzō Hakujushi (Cypress Tree), built around case 119, “Cypress Tree in the Garden.”

Because Dōgen appeared, on the surface, as an outspoken critic of kōan study, many scholars concluded that he would never have collected or used kōans. What seems closer to the truth is that he opposed the superficial treatment of kōans, not kōan introspection itself. Dōgen is likely to have trained with kōans when he studied with Master Myōzen. He must have been familiar with the kōan literature that was accessible at that time. Several of the major Chinese kōan collections were available in Japan. It is almost certain that Dōgen also trained his students in systematic kōan study, since his teachings require a solid understanding of Chinese kōan literature. As scholar William Bodiford points out in his Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan, Dōgen used “more than 580 kōans” in his teachings. They are peppered throughout all his works and are used to point out how the teachings are embedded in every aspect of practice.

Temples of the Five Mountain system of early medieval Rinzai Zen in Japan imitated the Chinese style of kōan study, which required a sophisticated understanding and mastery of Chinese language and the ability to compose Chinese verse. Monks less inclined toward scholarly pursuits trained in other monasteries, outside the Five Mountains system, where kōan study was simplified and standardized. There were answers to be memorized and prescribed methods for guiding students. This form of kōan study was practiced by both Sōtō and Rinzai lineages.

The use of Dahui’s “short cut,” or huatou (literally, head word), method of working with kōans was also known in Japan at this time. This emphasized concentrating on the principle point or critical phrase of a kōan in order to minimize unnecessary distractions or misleading discursive thoughts that might arise from studying the entire exchange.

 In contrast to these formulized views, Dōgen’s approach to kōans was wide ranging. He addressed key points of each case, as well as minor secondary points. He frequently examined the kōans from the perspective of the “Five Ranks of the Universal and Particular” of Dongshan. He also pointed out the questions that should be addressed, challenging the practitioner to examine them and sometimes also providing his responses.

Dōgen was a master of language. It is impossible to study his writings and not be moved by the poetry and creativity of his words. His way with language was so unusual that it has earned the appellation “Dōgenese” among modern scholars. He brought to the kōans this sophistication of language, familiarity with Buddhism, and perhaps an unparalleled understanding of the Dharma. To help communicate his appreciation of the teaching, Dōgen used not only ordinary language but also what he referred to as mitsugo, “intimate words.” These are direct and immediate words that are grasped intuitively in an instant, not understood in a linear, sequential way. Dōgen used both methods freely to transmit his understanding. His teachings had the “lips and mouth” quality found in the Zen of Masters Zhaozhou and Yunmen, who were famous for their live and turning phrases, pointers that went immediately to the heart of the matter, to help practitioners see into their own nature.

Dōgen’s apparent criticism of kōans ran parallel to his condemnation of the Five Ranks of Dongshan. And it had a similar purpose. Dōgen was not opposed to the principles conveyed by the Five Ranks. He was critical of the very intellectual, stylized, and inconsequential way that they came to be used in his time. Extending this argument even further, we could say that his teachings in Eihei Shingi on cleaning the teeth, using the lavatory, preparing and eating a meal, or washing the face were responses to the superficiality and self-consciousness that had invaded the Buddhist liturgy of thirteenth-century Japan.

As a Zen teacher, my main interest in Dōgen’s treatment of kōans has little to do with the nature or reasons of Dōgen’s critique and everything to do with his creative way of commenting on the kōans in both the Kana Shōbōgenzō and the Eihei Kōroku.

Commentaries on many of the kōans in Dōgen’s collection of three hundred kōans can be found in classic Song collections such as Hekiganroku, Shōyōroku, and Mumonkan. A careful comparison of these texts with the commentaries offered by Dōgen in the Kana Shōbōgenzō shows no substantial differences in the expression of the Dharma truth of the kōan. Further, there does not appear to be any discrepancy whatsoever between the commentaries by Dōgen, the commentators in the classical collections, and the truth of these kōans as transmitted face-to-face in traditional kōan introspection practice. In other words, what the masters are expressing, whether it is in the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity, the Gateless Gate, or Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, is identical in principle but radically different in style and depth.

Both the classic commentaries and those of Dōgen are perfectly consistent with the traditional Mah›y›na teachings found in the sutras and sutra commentaries, with no departures from traditional understanding. None of the teachers presenting the kōans invented a new Dharma. Everything they said always reflected the historical teachings of the Buddha, particularly as understood in the Mah›y›na tradition, although they may have said it in new and perhaps dramatically different ways. There is, however, something especially fresh in how Dōgen expressed the Zen truth of the traditional kōans that sets the Kana Shōbōgenzō in a class by itself. What are the unique characteristics that placed Dōgen’s treatment of the kōans apart from the traditional commentaries?

One unusual aspect of Dōgen’s treatment of kōans is his use of the Five Ranks and, more than likely, the Fourfold Dharmadh›tu teaching of Huayan. He never explicitly talked about either system, except to summarily dismiss the Five Ranks, but he definitely engaged them in a way that reflected a profound understanding and appreciation for their method. In Shōbōgenzō Sansuikyō (The Mountains and Waters Sutra), for example, Dōgen wrote: “Since ancient times wise ones and sages have also lived by the water. When they live by the water they catch fish or they catch humans or they catch the Way. These are traditional water styles. Further, they must be catching the self, catching the hook, being caught by the hook, and being caught by the Way.” Then he introduced case 90 of the Mana Shōbōgenzō (Jiashan Sees the Ferryman) and commented on it, saying, “In ancient times, when Chuanzi Decheng suddenly left Yaoshan and went to live on the river, he got the sage Jiashan at the Flower Inn River. Isn’t this catching fish, catching humans, catching water? Isn’t this catching himself? The fact that Jiashan could see Decheng is because he is Decheng. Decheng teaching Jiashan is Decheng meeting himself.”

Even a cursory examination of these teachings reveals elements of Dongshan’s Five Ranks. The phrase “When Jiashan sees Decheng, he is Decheng” is the particular within the universal (or the universal containing the particular), the First Rank. The phrase “Decheng teaching Jiashan is Decheng meeting himself” (in other words, the teacher teaching the student is the teacher meeting himself) is the universal within the particular, the Second Rank. “Catching the self, catching the hook, being caught by the hook, being caught by the way”—these are all expressions of the interplay of apparent opposites.

It is clear that though Dōgen was cautionary about the Five Ranks, it was not because he did not find them true, but rather that he did not want them to become a mere abstraction. He did not use them in the way they were taught classically, but more so in the manner where they would be realized face-to-face in the kōan study between teacher and student.

Again, in the Kana Shōbōgenzō, in the fascicle Kattō (Twining Vines), where Dōgen wrote about Bodhidharma’s transmission of the marrow to Dazu Huike, he said, “You should be aware of the phrases You attain me; I attain you; attaining both me and you; and attaining both you and me. In personally viewing the ancestors’ body/mind, if we speak of there being no oneness of internal and external or if we speak of the whole body not being completely penetrated, then we have not yet seen the realm of the ancestors’ present.”

For Dōgen the relationship of a teacher and student is kattō, spiritual entanglement, which from his perspective is a process of using entanglements to transmit entanglements. “Entanglements entwining entanglements is the buddhas and ancestors interpenetrating buddhas and ancestors.”

This is the same statement made previously about the teacher–student relationship. All of it expresses the merging of dualities as treated in the Five Ranks of Dongshan or the Fourfold Dharmadh›tu, or for that matter in the Sandōkai (the Harmony of Difference and Sameness) by Shitou: “Within light there is darkness but do not try to understand that darkness; within darkness there is light but do not look for that light. Light and darkness are a pair like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position.” This was the relationship between Jiashan and Decheng. This was the relationship between Bodhidharma and Huike.

 This was the relationship that Dōgen referred to when he expounded the nondual Dharma in the kōans used in the Kana Shōbōgenzō.

We live in a country and in a period of time in which the different schools and sects of Buddhism are not so widely separated as they have been historically in their native regions. This situation affords us the unique opportunity to learn from all of the schools and not be bound and limited by sectarianism. The use of a systematic kōan introspection curriculum has been a central part of training at the monastery where I teach, Zen Mountain Monastery, but the teachings of Master Dōgen have also played a pivotal role here. We have found that using Master Dōgen’s 300 Kōan Shōbōgenzō (the Mana Shōbōgenzō), many cases from which he comments on in his (Kana) Shōbōgenzō and Eihei Kōroku, has added another dimension to our appreciation of Dōgen’s incredible Buddha Dharma. My late teacher Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi always encouraged his successors to “create an American Shōbōgenzō.” For me, this means melding the spirit of Dōgen’s work with kōans and a treatment of kōans informed by the classic kōan tradition.

Zen centers from Japanese lineages in the West fall in to three basic groups with regard to kōan study. First is the Sōtō school, which traditionally does not include systematic kōan introspection as part of their curriculum, although the study of kōans is included, as, of course, is the teaching of Dōgen. A second group consists of the Inzan and TakujÒ lineages of the Rinzai school, both of which have a curriculum of systematic kōan introspection. The third group consists of Sōtō/Rinzai hybrids, which include the teachings of Dōgen as well as some system of kōan introspection. In many cases, systematic curriculums in Western kōan study employ Dahui’s huatou or “turning word” method of working with kōans.

My own formal training included elements of the Sōtō line as well as some experience of the two Rinzai lines of Inzan and TakujÒ. This incorporated a traditional collection of miscellaneous kōans, the Gateless Gate, Blue Cliff Record, Book of Serenity, Transmission of the Lamp, kōans on Dongshan’s Five Ranks, and 120 precept kōans. The approach was essentially huatou-style with some attention to the verses as well as the use of capping phrases. In training my own students with kōans, I found early on that there were gaps in their understanding and clarity. Inspired by Dōgen’s comprehensive approach to working with a kōan, we abandoned huatou approaches and instead worked with the main case and verse lineby-line with testing questions for each line, another traditional mode. In most cases, I now require my students to present a rounded out understanding with a capping verse.

The ultimate point of passing through a kōan, however, is being able to present not just one’s understanding but rather a whole-body-andmind embodiment of the truth of the kōan, its manifestation in the practitioner’s everyday behavior.

As part of bringing more of Dōgen’s influence into the way we do kōan study, I have created a collection of 108 kōans along with commentary and verse, many of which are selected from the Mana Shōbōgenzō cases that were used by Dōgen in his Kana Shōbōgenzō and Eihei Kōroku. This kōan introspection requires that the student present line-by-line understanding of the main case, commentary, and the verse. In this process, the Kana Shōbōgenzō and Eihei Kōroku become valuable source material and a useful perspective for understanding the kōan.

This approach to kōan introspection, fusing Dōgen’s vision with the traditional ways of working with kōans, has opened up new possibilities in my training of Western students in kōan study. I have found that it addresses Western students’ natural philosophical and psychological inclinations, and also allows them to further appreciate the endless depth of the incredible teaching of Master Dōgen.


How to cite this document:
© Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura Dōgen's Extensive Record (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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