10. Dōgen Studies
Eihei Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 1200 – 1253) was a pivotal figure in the history of Japanese Zen and is credited as the founder of the Soto school. After practicing from an early age in Japan with some of the leading Buddhist teachers of his time he traveled to China to study Chan (Chinese Zen) for three years, returning to Japan to found the monastery which to this day is the main training center for Soto Zen monks. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (鈴木 俊隆 Suzuki Shunryū, dharma name Shogaku Shunryu), founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Zoketsu’s grand-father in the Dharma studied Dōgen extensively and practiced Zen with a similar spirit. Suzuki Roshi’s way is sometimes called “Dōgen Zen.”
Dōgen is unusual among Asian Zen masters for two reasons: first, he wrote and was interested in writing and language; and second, he forthrightly saw the need to re-interpret the Zen tradition based on this sensitivity to language. In a word, his reinterpretation was radically non-dual. That is, he saw that Zen masters, in their effort to go beyond the seeming dualism of normative Buddhism (in which Nirvana and Samsara, enlightenment and ignorance, seem to be opposite states of being) had merely created new dualisms.
You do get the impression in reading Zen literature, for instance, that meditation is good but thought is bad; action is good reflection is bad, and so on. Dōgen saw this as a problem based largely on a naive view of language and how it works to shape thought. The sometimes baffling nature of his writing comes from his refusal to ever “nest” within a dualism.
All of this is characteristic of Dōgen’s masterwork Shōbōgenzō, as read with a modern sensibility. There are other Dōgens as well: Dōgen the delicate waka poet, full of feeling; Dōgen the superintendent of a monastery responsible for training monastics in the traditional style, with the traditional flair; Dōgen the avuncular mentor, giving informal practice advice to his disciples. Though we tend to favor the Dōgen of the Shōbōgenzō, all the other Dogens are also represented by the texts below and the talks that go with them.