Eihei Dōgen: Mystical Realist - Foreword

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Foreword to the Wisdom Edition
By Taigen Dan Leighton

Hee-Jin Kim’s landmark book Eihei Dōgen: Mystical Realist (formerly titled Dōgen Kigen: Mystical Realist) is a valuable, highly insightful commentary on the work of the thirteenth-century founder of the Sōtō branch of Japanese Zen. This book is an excellent comprehensive introduction to Dōgen’s massive corpus of intricate writings as well as to his elegantly simple yet profound practice. Kim clarifies that Dōgen’s philosophy was at the service of his spiritual guidance of his students, and reveals the way Dōgen incorporated study and philosophy into his religious practice.

Since this book was first published in 1975, and even more since the revised edition in 1987, a large volume of reliable English-language translations and commentaries on Dōgen have been published. And a widening circle of varied meditation communities dedicated to the practice espoused by Dōgen has developed in the West, with practitioners eager to study and absorb his teachings.

I have been privileged to contribute to the new body of Dōgen translations and scholarship. Other translators such as Shohaku Okumura, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Thomas Cleary, and Francis Cook have all made Dōgen’s writings much more available to English readers, and now we even have a serviceable translation of the entirety of Dōgen’s masterwork Shōbōgenzō, thanks to Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. These new translations supplement the excellent early translations of Norman Waddell and Masao Abe that predate Kim’s book, but have only recently become more accessible in book form. Furthermore, excellent commentaries on specific areas of Dōgen’s life and teaching by such fine scholars as Steven Heine, Carl Bielefeldt, William Bodiford, Griffith Foulk, and James Kodera, to name a few, have created a thriving field of Dōgen studies in English. Nevertheless, after all this good work and a few years into the twenty-first century, this book by Hee-Jin Kim from the early years of English Dōgen studies easily still stands as the best overall general introduction to Dōgen’s teaching, both for students of Buddhist teachings and for Zen practitioners.

Even beyond the realm of Dōgen studies, this book remains a valuable contribution to all of modern Zen commentary, with Kim’s accessible presentation of thorough scholarship that does not reduce itself to dry intellectual analysis of doctrines or historical argumentation. Kim provides a subtle and clear discussion of Dōgen’s work as a practical religious thinker and guide, showing that Dōgen was not merely a promulgator of philosophy, and never considered his work in such terms.

Kim unerringly zeroes in on key principles in Dōgen’s teaching. The organization of this book is extraordinarily astute. After first providing background on Dōgen’s biography and historical context, Kim discusses with subtlety Dōgen’s zazen (seated meditation) as a mode of activity and expression. Kim then focuses on the centrality of the teaching of Buddha-nature to Dōgen’s teaching and practice. Finally, Kim elaborates the importance of monastic life to Dōgen’s teaching and training of his disciples.

In explicating the purpose of zazen for Dōgen, Kim enumerates the meaning and function of key terms that provide the texture of Dōgen’s teaching and practice: the sam›dhi of self-fulfilling activity (jijuyū-zammai), the oneness of practice-enlightenment (shushō-ittō), casting off of body and mind (shinjin-datsuraku), non-thinking (hishiryō), total exertion (gūjin), and abiding in one’s Dharma-position (jū-hōi).

With all the confusion about meditation in Zen, historically and today, we must be grateful at the acuity of the introduction to Dōgen’s zazen that Kim has provided. Unlike other forms of Buddhism and even other Zen lineages, Dōgen emphatically does not see his meditation as a method aimed at achieving some future awakening or enlightenment. Zazen is not waiting for enlightenment. There is no enlightenment if it is not actualized in the present practice. And there is no true practice that is not an expression of underlying enlightenment and the mind of the Way. Certainly many of the kōans on which Dōgen frequently and extensively comments in his writings culminate in opening experiences for students in encounter with teachers.

And the actuality of the zazen practice still carried on by followers of Dōgen may often include glimpses, sometimes deeply profound, of the awareness of awakening. But such experiences are just the crest of the waves of everyday practice, and attachment to or grasping for these experiences are a harmful Zen sickness. The Buddha’s awakening was just the beginning of Buddhism, not its end. Dōgen frequently emphasizes sustaining a practice of ongoing awakening, which he describes as Buddha going beyond Buddha.

Although current meditators may appreciate the therapeutic and stress-reducing side-effects of zazen, for Dōgen, as Kim clarifies, zazen is primarily a creative mode of expression instead of a means to some personal benefit. In one of the hōgo (Dharma words) in Dōgen’s Extensive Record (Eihei Kōroku), Dōgen speaks of the oneness not only of practice-enlightenment, but the deep oneness of practice-enlightenment-expression. Just as zazen is not waiting for enlightenment, expounding the Dharma—the expression of awareness—does not wait only until enlightenment’s aftermath. There is no practice-enlightenment that is not expressed; there is no practice-expression of Buddha-dharma that is not informed with enlightenment; and there is no enlightenment-expression unless it is practiced. We might say that Dōgen’s zazen is a performance art in which its upright posture and every gesture expresses one’s present enlightenment-practice. Kim explicates how such creative practice-expression is not a matter of some refined understanding, but of deep trust in the activity of Buddha-nature: “Zazen-only cannot be fully understood apart from consideration of faith.”

Kim skillfully describes how this unity of practice-enlightenmentexpression is true not only for zazen, but also for Dōgen’s study of the sutras and kōans as well: “Our philosophic and hermeneutical activities are no longer a means to enlightenment but identical with enlightenment, for to be is to understand, that is, one is what one understands. Thus the activity of philosophizing, like any other expressive activity, is restated in the context of our total participation in the self-creative process of Buddha-nature.”

The expression of practice is a dynamic, creative activity. While Dōgen’s teachings are complex, we can find his focus in untiring expression of the radical non-duality of Buddha-nature, as he emphasizes not fleeing or fearing the realm of everyday experience, but full-hearted creative engagement in it. As Kim states, “Dōgen’s emphasis is not on how to transcend language but on how to radically use it.”

Dōgen is extremely playful in freely overturning classic teachings to bring forth the inner dynamic of nondual liberation, in which forms are revealed as already empty and open from the outset. The most famous example is when Dōgen transposes the sutra statement that “All beings without exception have Buddha-nature” to “All beings completely are Buddha-nature.” But again and again in diverse contexts, we see, as Kim says, “Dōgen’s creative and dynamic interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of means in which the means in question is not transcendence of duality but realization of it.”

Kim’s work provides us with the background to enjoy and play along with Dōgen’s teachings for ourselves, in the light of the universal liberation of Buddha-nature.

Kim discusses how Dōgen enacted his practice-expression and trained a fine group of disciples in his monastic retreat, Eiheiji, in the deep mountains far north of the capital during his last decade. Dōgen cannot be understood aside from his aesthetic sense of wonder as it informs communal practice in the world of nature amid the mountains and rivers. There in the mountains Dōgen trained an excellent group of monk disciples who, along with their successors in the next few generations, would spread the tradition of Sōtō Zen introduced by Dōgen throughout much of the Japanese countryside, so that it became one of the most popular sects of Japanese Buddhism. Paradoxically, Dōgen’s emphasis on care for everyday activities in the monastery provides a forum for practice that may readily be translated to predominately lay practice in the world, the primary mode of current Zen practice in the West. Kim conveys how Dōgen’s teaching serves as a basis for popular expression, stating: “However lowly one’s symbols and practices as we see in, say, a peasant’s religion, one is entitled to enlightenment if and when one uses them authentically. Here is the egalitarian basis for a claim that Dōgen’s religion is a religion of the people.”

I might quibble with Kim’s fine treatment of Dōgen only inasmuch as he does not bring into discussion the important later work Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record ), which contains most of what we know about Dōgen’s later teachings at Eiheiji, and his actual training of his great disciples. I have had the pleasure and privilege of recently completing a translation of this massive work together with Shohaku Okumura. Overshadowed by Dōgen’s more celebrated writing Shōbōgenzō, Eihei Kōroku has only recently received the attention it deserves. But impressively, Kim notes even this work, and its comparative neglect, in his excellent appendices, which include a very thorough account of Dōgen’s many writings, and a good chronology of his life.

Kim has given us not only an excellent and reliable reference for Dōgen’s writings, but also an entry into how to play with Dōgen in going beyond Buddha. Students of Dōgen’s teaching and thought must now be grateful to have this fine guidebook to Dōgen’s world again available in print.


Taigen Dan Leighton is a Zen priest and Dharma heir in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi. He has trained in Japan as well as America, and is the author of Faces of Compassion, and translator of numerous works by Dōgen, including Dōgen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, The Wholehearted Way, Dōgen’s Extensive Record, and Enlightenment Unfolds. He teaches at the Graduate Theological Union, and leads the Mountain Source Sangha meditation groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Foreword to the Previous Edition
By Robert Aitken

The Way of Dogen Zenji

Hee-Jin Kim’s Dōgen Kigen—Mystical Realist [as the first edition was titled] was the first comprehensive study in English of Dōgen Zenji’s writings, and for the past twelve years, it has served as the principal English language reference for those Dōgen scholars who work from his thirteenth-century Japanese, and for Western Zen students reading translations of his writings. This revised edition appears in a scholarly setting that now includes many new translations and studies of Dōgen, and thus it is most welcome.

Dōgen wrote at the outermost edge of human communication, touching with every sentence such mysteries as self and other, self and non-self, meditation and realization, the temporal and the timeless, forms and the void. He moved freely from the acceptance of a particular mode as complete in itself to an acknowledgment of its complementarity with others, to a presentation of its unity with all things—and back again. He wrote of the attitude necessary for understanding, of the practice required, of the various insights that emerge, and of the many pitfalls. He did not generally write for beginners—most of his points require very careful study, and a few of them elude almost everybody. These challenges are compounded by his creative use of the Japanese language of his time. It has been said that he wrote in “Dōgenese,” for he made verbs of nouns, nouns of verbs, created new metaphors, and manipulated old sayings to present his particular understanding.

Thus the writings of Dōgen are an immense challenge to anyone seeking to explicate them in English, but Dr. Kim does a masterful job. In this Foreword, I do not presume to explicate Dr. Kim’s words, but offer a personal perspective of Dōgen in the hope that it might serve as access to Dr. Kim’s incisive scholarship.

I choose as my theme a key passage in the “Genjō Kōan,” the essay that Dōgen placed at the head of his great collection of talks and essays, the Shōbōgenzō, using Dr. Kim’s translation:

To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.

To study the Way is to study the self. Asian languages offer the same options as English for the meaning of the word “study.” “A Study of Whitehead” would be the presentation of an understanding of Whitehead. Thus the first sentence of the passage quoted also means, “To understand the Way is to understand the self.”

The term “Way” is a translation of in Japanese, Tao in Chinese. It is the ideograph used to identify the central doctrine of Taoism and its basic text, the Tao te ching. Kumarajiva and his colleagues in the early fifth century selected Tao as a translation of Dharma, a key Sanskrit Buddhist term meaning “law,” or “way of the universe and its phenomena,” or simply “phenomena.” In Dōgen’s view, all phenomena are the Buddha Dharma—the way of the universe as understood through Buddhist practice.

Indeed, for Dōgen, to study and understand the Buddha Way is to practice the Buddha Way, and to practice the Buddha Way is to have the self practice. It is important to understand that practice, like study, is both action and attainment. Modes of practice: zazen (Zen meditation), realization, and the careful works that transcend realization—all these are complete in themselves, and they are also means for further completion. They are aspects of a single act at any particular moment, and they are also stages that appear in the course of time.

As to the self, it has no abiding nature, and “kisses the joy as it flies.” It is the Buddha coming forth now as a woman, now as a youth, now as a child, now as an old man, now as an animal, a plant, or a cloud. However, animals and plants and clouds cannot “study” in Dōgen’s sense, so in this context, Dōgen intends the human being that can focus the self and make personal the vast and fathomless void, the infinitely varied beings, and their marvelous harmony.

To study the self is to forget the self. Here Dōgen sets forth the nature of practice. My teacher, Yamada Kōun Rōshi, has said, “Zen practice is a matter of forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.” To unite with something is to find it altogether vivid, like the thrush, say, singing in the guava grove. There is just that song, a point of no dimension—of cosmic dimension. The “sole self ” is forgotten. This is something like the athlete who is completely involved in catching the ball, freed of self-doubt and thoughts of attainment, at the same time aware of the other players and their positions. Using this same human ability on one’s meditation cushion is the great Way of realization. It must be distinguished from thinking about something. When you are occupied in thinking, you are shrouded by your thoughts, and the universe is shut out.

There are other analogies for gathering oneself in a single act of religious practice, freeing oneself of doubt and attainment. Simone Weil sets forth the academic analogy:

Contemplating an object fixedly with the mind, asking myself “What is it?” without thinking of any other object relating to it or to anything else, for hours on end.

Dōgen often uses the phrase, “mustering the body and mind” to understand oneself and the world. Using Dr. Kim’s translation of a later passage in the “Genjō Kōan”:

Mustering our bodies and minds we see things, and mustering our bodies and minds we hear sounds, thereby we understand them intimately. However, it is not like a reflection dwelling in the mirror, nor is it like the moon and the water. As one side is illumined, the other is darkened.

This mustering is zazen—and also the activity of the Zen student who is grounded in zazen. Dr. Kim quotes Dōgen writing elsewhere in the Shōbōgenzō:

The Buddhas and Tathāgatas have an ancient way—unequaled and natural—to transmit the wondrous Dharma through personal encounter and to realize supreme enlightenment. As it is imparted impeccably from Buddha to Buddha, its criterion is the samādhi of self-fulfilling activity.

For playing joyfully in such a samādhi, the upright sitting in meditation is the right gate.

With the practice of zazen, mustering body and mind, we understand a thing intimately by seeing or hearing, and the self is forgotten. This kind of understanding is not by simile, it is not a representation, like the moon in the water, but is a brilliant presentation of the thing itself, and a complete personal acceptance. One side is illumined. There is only that thrush. At the same time, the universe is present in the shadow. The other players are still there.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. The term “enlightened” is shō, the same shō found in inka shōmei, the document given to a senior student by a master confirming him or her as a teacher. The thrush confirms you, enlightens you, but be careful not to give “enlightenment” anything more than provisional status. It is likely to be just a peep into the nature of things. Nonetheless, “One impulse from a vernal wood” or the Morning Star shining over the Bodhi tree is a communication. It works the other way, from the self to the object, but the result is different, as Dōgen makes clear earlier in the “Genjō Kōan”:

            That the self advances and confirms the myriad things is called delusion; that the myriad things advance and confirm the self is enlightenment.

The way of research and analysis is “called” delusion. Don’t condemn it, Dōgen is saying. By advancing and confirming and throwing light upon all things of the universe, you reach intellectual understanding. However, when you forget yourself in mustering body and mind in the act of practice, there is only that particular act, in that particular breath-moment. Then, as Dr. Kim says, the whole universe is created in and through that act. With this you experience the things of the universe. They are your confirmation, your enlightenment.

To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. When you focus body and mind with all your inquiring spirit upon a single matter, the self is forgotten. The myriad things communicate their wisdom with their forms and sounds, and the emptiness, harmony, and uniqueness of the ephemeral self and the world are understood clearly. This is reminiscent of Paul’s “putting off the old man”— not merely forgetting but dying to the self.

Casting off body and mind should not be confused with self-denial. Many people suppose that they must get rid of the self. The Buddha too went through a phase of asceticism, avoiding food and sleep in an effort to overcome his desires. Such a path has a dead end, as the Buddha and others have found. We need food and sleep in order to cast off body and mind. The Way is gnostic rather than ascetic.

Finally, as Dōgen says, when you cast off body and mind, all other beings have the same experience. One version of the Buddha’s exclamation under the Bodhi tree reads, “I and all beings have at this moment entered the Way!” This does not mean, “All beings can now come along.” Rather, at the Buddha’s experience, all beings simultaneously cast off body and mind.

When Hsüeh-fêng and Yen-t’ou were on pilgrimage together, they became snowbound in the village of Wushantien. This gave them time for an extended dialogue, during which Hsüeh-fêng recounted his various spiritual experiences. Yen-t’ou exclaimed, “Haven’t you heard the old saying, ‘What enters from the gate [that is, by intellection] cannot be the family treasure’?” Hsüeh-fêng suddenly had deep realization and exclaimed, “At this moment, Wushantien has become enlightened!”

With his exclamation, Yen-t’ou cast off body and mind. Simultaneously, Hsüeh-fêng did the same. The whole village was likewise affected, proving Bell’s theorem a thousand years and more before Bell.

Even traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on for ever and ever. Wiping away the intimations of pride that come with a realization experience are the ultimate steps of Zen practice, steps that never end. They form the Way of the Bodhisattva, polishing the mind of compassion, engaging in the travail of the world, “entering the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands.” Over and over in kōan practice, the Zen student works through the lesson of casting off, casting off.

A monk said to Chao-chou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.”

Chao-chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?”

The monk said, “Yes, I have.”

Chao-chou said, “Wash your bowl.”

“Have you eaten your essential food?” “Yes, I have.” “If so, wipe that idea of attainment away!” For our limited purposes this would be an explication of Chao-chou’s meaning. What is left after body and mind are cast off? Endlessly casting off—ongoing practice. The “Genjō Kōan” ends with the story:

When the Zen teacher Pao-chê of Ma-ku was fanning himself, a monk asked him, “The nature of wind is constant, and there is no place it does not reach. Why then do you fan yourself?”

Pao-chê said, “You only know that the nature of wind is constant. You don’t yet know the meaning of its reaching every place.”

The monk asked, “What is the meaning of its reaching every place?”

Pao-chê only fanned himself. The monk bowed deeply.

The nature of the wind is Buddha nature, “pervading the whole universe.” The monk’s question is an old one. If all beings by nature are Buddha, why should one strive for enlightenment? Dōgen himself asked such a question in his youth, and his doubts fueled his search for a true teacher. Pao-chê takes the monk’s words “reaching every place” as a figure of speech for Zen Buddhist practice that brings forth what is already there. As Dōgen says in his comment to this story—the final words of the “Genjō Kōan”:

Confirmation of the Buddha Dharma, the correct transmission of the vital Way, is like this. If you say that one should not use a fan because the wind is constant, that there will be a wind even when one does not use a fan, then you fail to understand either constancy or the nature of the wind. It is because the nature of the wind is constant that the wind of the Buddha House brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the kefir of the long river.

The wind of the Buddha house, the practice of zazen, realization, and going beyond realization, is altogether in accord with the wind of the universe, the Buddha Mind. As Dōgen says elsewhere, “The Dharma wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest.” The harvesting of truth, the practice of forgetting the self, the practice of realizing forms and sounds intimately, the practice of polishing our mind of compassion—this is our joyous task.

Robert Aitken
Koko An Zendo, Honolulu


How to cite this document:
© Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dōgen: Mystical Realist (Wisdom Publications, 2004)

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