Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Eihei Dōgen: Mystical Realist - Selections

Revised, Third Edition


During the past several decades, the significance of Dōgen’s thought —not only for the history of Buddhist thought but also for the history of ideas at large—has been increasingly recognized, albeit belatedly, by a growing number of students both inside and outside the Sōtō sectarian circle in Japan. Masunaga Reihō, a leading Dōgen scholar in the Sōtō sect, for example, characterizes Dōgen as “the unique religious personality” with “incomparable depth of thought.” Among those singing his praises outside the sect is Tanabe Hajime, one of the most prominent Japanese philosophers, who exalts Dōgen almost ecstatically, calling him “a great metaphysical thinker” and appraising his thought in the Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), Dōgen’s magnum opus, as “the culmination of dialectical thinking” and “the precursor of Japanese philosophy.” “Indeed,” says Tanabe, “his thought seems to have already had an insight into, and to have made a declaration of, the direction to which the systematic thought of today’s philosophy should move.” Even a foreign student of Zen Buddhism concurs with these claims in observing that Dōgen “belongs among the great creative figures of humankind.” It is not difficult for us to glean such praises and eulogies from various sources—they are perhaps more frequent than criticisms of Dōgen. A sudden rise in Dōgen studies in scholarly circles and an unprecedented enthusiasm among intellectuals for the past several decades seem to indicate that, after the initial shock of the discovery of a virtually unknown thinker, the “popularity” of Dōgen has been steadily growing in the post–World War II period.

Credit for causing the “initial shock” in Dōgen studies should go to Watsuji Tetsurō, a leading cultural historian, who brought Dōgen to light from his cloistered confinement in the Sōtō sect. In his now famous essay, “Shamon Dōgen” (“Dōgen, a Monk”) written in 1926, Watsuji declared:

I am not here insisting that my own interpretation is the only one on the truth of Dōgen itself, in the understanding of which I am least confident. I can safely say, however, that a new path of interpretation has been opened up here, to say the least. Henceforth Dōgen is no longer “Dōgen, the founder of the sect,” but, our Dōgen. The reason I dare make such an arrogant statement is that I know Dōgen has been killed thus far in the Sōtō sect.

Deceptively meager as it may have been in its size, Watsuji’s essay was a bombshell, openly revolting against sectarian injustice to Dōgen and challenging many younger minds to engage in Dōgen studies without being fettered by sectarian concerns. This revolt, in the spirit of making Dōgen “our Dōgen,” was cheered and welcomed even by some insiders of the Sōtō sect, although there was also much sectarian resistance and indifference. This was the beginning of Dōgen studies in the genuinely modern sense.

For some seven hundred years prior to 1926, Dōgen studies were pursued by sectarian scholars who approached his work with apologetic concerns and confessional hermeneutics. These scholars lacked any kind of modern methodologies and philosophical reflections, and as a result, Dōgen was venerated pietistically, but never studied critically. For the sake of convenience, we can divide the history of Dōgen studies into the following periods: (1) the period of institutional expansion (1253–1660), (2) the period of sectarian studies (1660–1868), (3) the period of continued stagnation (1868–1926), (4) the period of awakening (1926–1945), and (5) the period of steady maturity (1945–present). Let us briefly examine these stages.

The first period, which began immediately after Dōgen’s death and lasted until approximately 1660, is characterized by the institutional expansion of the Sōtō sect. It started modestly in the Hokuriku regions and gradually extended throughout the country due to the shrewd accommodation policies of Keizan Jōkin (1268–1325) and his two most able disciples, Gasan Jōseki (1275–1365) and Meihō Sotetsu (1277–1350). These men adopted certain aspects of esoteric Buddhism and folk tradition, such as a syncretistic mountain religion called shugendō, endeavoring in this way to come into close contact with the people. These accommodative and popularizing policies were certainly not in accord with Dōgen’s style of Zen, which focused on the training of monastics in a “puristic” and “puritanic” spirit as we shall see later. On the other hand, after the death of Dōgen, Sōtō Zen shunned the aristocratic and bureaucratic Gozan Zen in Kyoto and Kamakura and thrived primarily among farmers, the common people, and powerful clans in the regions and provinces remote from the centers of the Gozan Zen establishment. During this period, three different editions of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō appeared: Ejō’s seventy-five-chapter edition, Giun’s sixty-chapter edition (1329), and Bonsei’s eighty-four-chapter edition (1419). Kenzei wrote his famous Kenzeiki (The Record of Kenzei), a biography of Dōgen that influenced all other biographies in subsequent years. Kikigaki (The Record of Dōgen’s Expositions) by Senne, and Shō (Selected Commentaries; 1303–1308) by Kyōgō, both of which were commentaries on the Shōbōgenzō, were of great importance since they were based on the two disciples’ direct acquaintance with Dōgen. Generally speaking, however, sectarian scholars in this period relegated the Shōbōgenzō to oblivion in favor of studying Chinese Zen Buddhism (such as the doctrine of Five Ranks). It was undoubtedly a dark age in sectarian studies.

The second period, which began sometime in the middle of the seventeenth century, witnessed the emergence (or resurgence) of the so-called sectarian studies (shūgaku) and the rise of the “sectarian restoration movement” (shūtō fukko undō). This development was led by such leaders as Gesshū Sōko (1618–1696), Manzan Dōhaku (1636–1715), Tenkei Denson (1648–1735), and Menzan Zuihō (1683–1769), who attempted to rescue the sect from confusion and corruption and restore the rigor and purity of Dōgen Zen. During this time, Dōgen’s works were printed, the monastic rules of Dōgen and Keizan published, and a fresh enthusiasm for scholarly studies encouraged. For the first time, the Shōbōgenzō was rigorously studied by sectarian scholars, although Dōgen’s minor works had previously been studied. Several commentaries on the Shōbōgenzō were written: Tenkei’s Benchū (A Commentary with Critical Notes) in 1730, Menzan’s Monge (Menzan’s Lectures) in the 1760s and Shōtenroku (A Study on the Sources of Terms, Names and Events in the Shōbōgenzō) in 1759, Honkō’s Sanchū (A Commentary) in 1793, Zōkai’s Shiki (Personal Comments) in circa 1779, and so on. Kōzen edited the ninety-five-chapter edition (Kōzen-bon) of the Shōbōgenzō in 1690. Nevertheless, sectarian studies in Sōtō Zen, like other sectarian studies of Buddhist sects at that time, were severely limited by the governmental control and supervision of the Tokugawa regime, which was interested in nothing but the utilization and exploitation of religion to maintain the status quo of the feudalistic order. No freedom of thought existed—rather, sectarian orthodoxies were articulated, stereotyped, and unchallenged.

The third period was marked by the advent of the Meiji Restoration (1868), during which Japan broke away from feudalism and became infatuated—at least temporarily—with anything Western. As Kagamishima Hiroyuki observes, Sōtō sectarian scholarship at that time was largely moved by “the inertia of the Tokugawa period.” Dōgen (unlike Shinran and Nichiren) was relatively unknown to the general Japanese populace. The only works of great importance produced during this period were Keiteki (A Guide on the Right Path), an authoritative commentary on the Shōbōgenzō by Nishiari Bokusan (1821–1910), and the Sōtō kyōkai shushōgi (The Principles of Practice and Enlightenment of the Sōtō Order; 1890), an anthology of selected passages from the Shōbōgenzō for the believers of Sōtō Zen.

The fourth period began in the 1920s with Watsuji’s aforementioned essay. As I have noted, this essay freed Dōgen from the monopoly of sectarian studies, awakened scholars from their dogmatic slumber, and incited enthusiasm and passion for Dōgen as a spiritual mentor of humankind. In 1935, nine years after the publication of Watsuji’s essay, Akiyama Hanji published Dōgen no kenk (A Study on Dōgen) in which he systematically addressed Dōgen’s thought with special emphasis on ontology as it related to Western philosophical traditions. (His essay remains the most comprehensive study of Dōgen’s thought to this day.) A few years later in 1939, Tanabe Hajime, as cited before, wrote a short book entitled Shōbōgenzō no tetsugaku-shikan (The Philosophy of the Shōbōgenzō: A Personal View) in which he described his awakening to the intellectual capacity of the Japanese through Dōgen’s philosophical tenacity and exactitude. Watsuji, Akiyama, and Tanabe were primarily interested in Dōgen as a thinker, and therefore his philosophical contributions. However, Hashida Kunihiko, who was a physiologist at Tokyo University, approached Dōgen as the advocate of religious practice, rather than as philosopher, in his Shōbōgenzō shakui (A Commentary on the Shōbōgenzō), the first volume of which appeared in 1939. His impact was to liberate Dōgen further from his sectarian restraints.

As a result of this awakening, two distinctive camps of sectarian and nonsectarian studies formed. The impact of the latter upon the former was evident, though there were many rebuttals and countercriticisms. Tension between the two factions persists to this day, although by and large, the creative interaction between the two camps until the end of World War II has benefited Dōgen studies overall. The major controversies can be summarized as follows:16 (1) Nonsectarian students saw Dōgen as an independent thinker in the history of thought and the Shōbōgenzō as his spiritual and intellectual testimony, rather than as sectarian writings. Sectarian students, on the other hand, vigorously defended a special form of religious tradition (nurtured in the sect as an invaluable heritage), saw Dōgen as the founder of the Sōtō sect (shūso), and construed the Shōbōgenzō as the sect’s authoritative religious text rather than as philosophical treatise. (2) Nonsectarian students studied Dōgen primarily from the standpoint of the Shōbōgenzō; their sectarian friends rejected this position, feeling that the Shōbōgenzō was by no means Dōgen’s only important work. Related to this difference was the fact that nonsectarians tended to emphasize philosophical ideas, whereas sectarians emphasized religious faith and monastic/lay life. And finally, (3) nonsectarian students were primarily concerned with the contemporary significance of Dōgen in relation to the changing world situation, although they often read their own philosophical views into Dōgen, largely as a result of neglecting the historico-social context in which his thought had evolved. By contrast, sectarians insisted on the importance of their community, religion, and history.

It was also during the fourth period that a number of critical editions of Dōgen’s writings were produced; among others, Okubo Dōshū’s Teihon Dōgen zenji zenshū (A Definitive Collection of Dōgen’s Complete Works; 1944) and Etō Sokuō’s Shōbōgenzō in three volumes (1939–43) were important. The latter, published in a popular edition, especially appealed to a wide audience. In addition, one of the most authoritative works of the sectarians, in response to the nonsectarian interpretation of Dōgen, was Etō Sokuō’s Shūso to shiteno Dōgen zenji (Dōgen Zenji As the Founder of the Sōtō Sect), published in 1944. As the title suggests, Dōgen was interpreted as the founder of the sect whose Zen emphasized enlightenment and faith (quite a new emphasis in the Zen tradition).

The post-war fifth period (which continues to the present day) has marked a new maturity in Dōgen studies. Previous distinctions between the two camps still persist but have become less significant as their differences are increasingly seen as matters of emphasis, rather than principle, in their shared search for understanding. More important, both sectarian and nonsectarian students of Dōgen have been confronted with an entirely new world situation in which traditional values and methodologies have been radically challenged. Dōgen studies have now reached a new phase in which both parties are compelled to cooperate and transform one another, in order to contribute to the common task of furthering self-understanding in an emerging world community. Thus, recent studies demonstrate intensified efforts to place Dōgen in the historical, social, and cultural contexts in which his thought was formed, rather than to study his thought in the abstract— although philosophical treatments of Dōgen still continue. Ienaga Saburō’s “Dōgen no shūkyō no rekishiteki seikaku” (“A Historical Character of Dōgen’s Religion”) in his Chūsei Bukkyō shisōshi kenkyū (Studies in the History of Medieval Japanese Buddhist Thought; 1955), Takeuchi Michio’s Dōgen (1962), Takahashi Masanobu’s Dōgen no jissentetsugaku kōzō (The Structure of Dōgen’s Practical Philosophy; 1967), Etō Sokuō’s Shōbōgenzō josetsu: Bendōwa gikai (Prolegomena to the Shōbōgenzō: An Exposition of Bendōwa; 1959), Okubo Dōshū’s monumental collection of Dōgen’s entire works, Dōgen zenji zenshū (The Complete Works of Dōgen Zenji; 1969–70), which reflects the findings and results of recent Dōgen studies, and a legion of other important works and articles have been written in this period. In addition to the study of the Shōbōgenzō that characterized the pre-war period, Dōgen’s other writings have been investigated and probed for linguistic, textual, and literary data. Furthermore, there have appeared several different translations of Dōgen’s works in colloquial Japanese that have disseminated Dōgen’s thought rapidly among the Japanese populace. In short, Dōgen studies have diversified, broadened, and improved considerably in their scope, precision, and methodology in the post-war period. The quantity and quality of scholarly output in this area is highly promising.

Once we turn our eyes from Japan to the Western scene, we find that virtually nothing has been introduced concerning Dōgen—this is unfortunate indeed, given that ignorance of Sōtō Zen is tantamount to ignorance of Dōgen, its founder. Masunaga is justified in saying: “Western knowledge of Zen seldom extends to the Sōtō style—the style of the larger Zen sect in Japan.” The scholarship of Zen Buddhism in the West has chiefly relied upon D. T. Suzuki’s brilliant introduction and interpretation of many invaluable texts, based primarily on Rinzai Zen in which Suzuki was nurtured. Overshadowed by Suzuki’s brilliance and reputation, the Sōtō tradition has been treated like a stepchild of Zen in the West. Perhaps this situation has been aggravated by the extreme difficulty of presenting Dōgen’s thought in a form intelligible to the Western mind. His language and thought are forbiddingly difficult and subtle, yet irresistibly intriguing, and more often than not, exasperating for students of Dōgen who alternate between hope and despair in their efforts to understand. Nevertheless East-West cooperative efforts to translate and disseminate Dōgen’s works are continuing.

Having established the historical background of Dōgen studies, albeit in the barest of outlines, I would like to articulate my basic assumptions on the present investigation before continuing further.

First, Zen Buddhism is not a monolithic religion with a mystical slant, as it might appear superficially from the reading of Suzuki’s works. Although it has an unmistakable “family resemblance” to other East Asian religions, it also contains elements and traits diverse and rich enough to surprise even those initiated into Zen. Furthermore, Zen is still in the making. The belief that Zen embodies a mystical extremism characterized by irrationality, eccentricity, and obscurantism is a flagrant error. Many of these alleged Zen qualities are exaggerations or misinterpretations that have helped create a distorted image of Zen. Dōgen, as we shall see later, conceived of Zen quite differently—his style of Zen was “rational,” “analytic,” and “exact,” though these adjectives should not be understood in the sense of the Western philosophical tradition. A total understanding of Zen is urgently needed today and Dōgen studies are an integral part of such a task—this means that Zen must be studied in the total context of Buddhism, as well as in the context of the general history of religions.

Second, Dōgen was a religious thinker, not merely or even primarily a philosopher. As I mentioned previously, nonsectarian students of Dōgen are often mistaken in viewing him as a philosopher who attempted to build a philosophical system. On the contrary, even Dōgen’s most philosophic moments were permeated by his practical, religious concern, against the background of which his philosophic activities stand out most clearly in their truest significance. What Dōgen presents to us is not a well-defined, well-knit philosophical system, but rather a loose nexus of exquisite mythopoeic imaginings and profound philosophic visions, in the flowing style of medieval Japanese, studded sparsely with classical Chinese prose and verse. A rare combination of vision and analysis in Dōgen’s thought has dazzled many a student, so much so that many have lost sight of its deeper matrix—that is, his religious and especially cultic concern, which was a passionate search for liberation through concrete activities and expressions. Thus, philosophy for Dōgen was an integral part of religion and ritual.

Third, religion as examined from the phenomenological standpoint, is our nonrational activity in search of the ultimate meaning of existence. I do not wish to enter an elaborate discussion of recent investigations of religious phenomena at this point, but merely to draw on the general agreement with which historians of religions, social scientists, and religious thinkers concur regarding the nature and function of religion. Religion, then, is not something reducible to purely intellectual worldviews, utilitarian functions, and the like, nor is it something explainable in terms of the needs of immediate existence and survival. At its most serious and creative level, it is our attempt to free ourselves in favor of a symbolic reality, through mythopoeic visions and cultic activities. Human nature is most fruitfully understood in terms of animal symbolicum and homo ludens. Religion is intimately related to mythmaking and playful activities—thus, it is nonintellectual, nonutilitarian, and nonethical at its core. The modern proclivity to view religion strictly from scientific, theological, and ethical standpoints misses the deeper psychometaphysical forces operating in religious aspirations. The moral, intellectual, and utilitarian values of religion can only be adequately appreciated in this broader context. Let us keep this fundamental insight in mind as we begin our investigation of Dōgen.

Fourth, religious thought, like any other intellectual endeavor, employs concepts and symbols bequeathed from particular religious and cultural traditions created by our inner aspirations and the cultural and socioeconomic conditions of a given age. Religious thought cannot ignore the interaction of metaphysical visions and historical forces that are mutually limiting, conditioning, and transforming. Thus historico-cultural and philosophico-phenomenological conditions cannot be divorced from one another in any adequate intellectual history. In our present study of Dōgen’s thought, we should not only be concerned with the historical forces within which Dōgen’s thought evolved, but also with the structure of his experience and thought with its own subtle logic. While thought is not reducible to history, it cannot be isolated from it either—it is radically conditioned and relative to history at its core. Even the phenomenology of emptiness, however ahistorical one may allege it to be, has a history. Thus, the history of any religious thought must do full justice to the fact that irreducible character and radical conditionality are paradoxically paired in the structure of the object of investigation. We must come to terms with such peculiarities of religious thought and history, and once doing so will we be able to probe the philosophical and experiential aspects of Dōgen’s thought.

Fifth, Dōgen was obviously a child of the age (i.e., medieval Japan) and of the Buddhist tradition, and his intellectual horizon was limited to the catholic Buddhism that he envisioned. Traditionally-minded as he may have been, Dōgen has attracted many contemporary philosophers and religious thinkers who regard him as surprisingly “modern,” as I illustrated in the case of Tanabe Hajime. Philosophically-minded students of Dōgen, however, often make the mistake of seeing significance divorced from history, which results in mere subjectivity rather than an objective understanding of Dōgen’s thought. Thus, our assumption in this study, though it may sound platitudinous, is that significance and history must continually be in creative tension.

Lastly, and related to the preceding assumption, is the fact that my approach does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather presents a perspective with which to systematically illuminate the character of Dōgen’s thought. I am not hoping to present a system by which to study Dōgen— there is none. As a result, our study will be highly selective and subjective, but at the same time will be supported by textual and historical evidence. I shall attempt to expound the two fundamental structural elements of Dōgen’s thought, namely meditation and wisdom, and to explore the nature of them and their functions in their total contexts. The meanings of these two terms will gradually become clear in the course of our study. Moreover, these terms are associated in Dōgen’s thought with the ideas of activity (gyōji) and expression (dōtoku), both of which are central throughout my work.

With these assumptions in mind, let us begin our study of Dōgen as a human being—not as the founder of the sect or as the philosopher—but rather, as one who struggled to seek a mode of existence and freedom for himself and others, amidst his personal yearnings, frustrations, fears, and hopes in chaotic Kamakura Japan. By so doing, I hope to show a Dōgen who, although confined to his particular religious and cultural tradition, nevertheless envisioned ideas and values germane to the evolution of humanity.


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

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