DŌGEN (1200–1253), more fully, Eihei Dōgen (or Buppō Dōgen, but never Dōgen Kigen or Kigen Dōgen as has been mistakenly suggested), was the founding abbot of the Eiheiji Zen monastery. Since the late nineteenth century, he has been officially designated, along with Keizan Jōkin (1264–1325), as one of the two founding patriarchs of the Japanese Sōtō Zen school, and, most recently, he has been widely celebrated as one of Japan's most creative and original religious thinkers, whose writings and novel use of language seem to anticipate many modern philosophical concerns.
Dōgen lived at a time of political and religious unrest. Shortly before his birth, the Buddhist monastic centers in the ancient capital of Nara had been destroyed by warfare in 1185, Japan's first military government (shogunate) had been established in Kamakura in 1180, and the royal court in Kyoto in 1194 had banned the establishment of independent Zen temples, which were just beginning to appear. During the year of Dōgen's birth (1200), however, the fortunes of the new Zen movement changed when the shogunate began to support the pioneer Japanese Zen teacher Eisai (1141–1215).
Dōgen entered monastic life as a youth. From 1212 to 1217 he studied the mixed exoteric-esoteric (kenmitsu ) Buddhism of the Japanese Tendai tradition on Mount Hiei. From 1217 to 1225 he studied Zen Buddhism under Myōzen (1184–1225), who was Eisai's successor as abbot of Kenninji temple in Kyoto. In 1223 Dōgen accompanied his teacher Myōzen on a pilgrimage to China. In 1225, after Myōzen died, Dōgen became the disciple of the Chinese monk Rujing (1163–1227), who was then abbot of the major state monastery on Mount Tiantong (i.e., Mount Taibei in Zhejiang province). Two years later, in 1227, Dōgen inherited Rujing's Caodong Chan (Japanese, Sōtō Zen) lineage and returned to Japan.
Once back in Japan, Dōgen initially resided at Kenninji. In 1230 he established a new Zen community (officially designated the Kōshōji monastery in 1236) in Fukakusa outside of Kyoto, where in 1241 he was joined by a group of Zen practitioners known as the Darumashū (the lineage of Bodhidharma). In 1243 Dōgen secured the patronage of a powerful warrior family, the Hatano, and relocated his Zen community to the Hatano estates in Echizen province where the following year he founded the Daibutsuji Monastery (renamed Eiheiji in 1246). In 1253 Dōgen became deathly ill and returned to Kyoto for medical treatment, which proved ineffective. Today, Eiheiji is one of the two headquarter temples, along with Sōjiji, of the Sōtō Zen school, one of Japan's largest religious denominations. In 1878 the Meiji emperor (Mutsuhito, 1852–1912) awarded Dōgen with the posthumous name Jōyō Daishi.
Dōgen was an extremely prolific author who wrote essays, sermons, and poetry, both in literary Chinese and in Japanese. His early short compositions—such as Bendōwa (A talk on practicing Buddhism, 1231), Fukan zazen gi (Universal exhortation to practice sitting Zen, 1233), and the Chinese-language Shōbōgenzō (True dharma eye collection, 1235, a compilation of 301 kōan, or topics for Zen study)—comprise a concise introduction to key Zen doctrines and methods of practicing Zen meditation.
In midcareer, and especially after being joined by members of the Darumashū, Dōgen wrote a series of books in Japanese also collectively titled Shōbōgenzō. While this Japanese-language Shōbōgenzō apparently never reached the final form intended by Dōgen, he nonetheless completed at least three compilations: an initial draft in sixty books, a revised draft in seventy-five books, and a new draft in twelve books. After Dōgen's death, books from these three compilations were mixed together (sometimes with unrelated compositions) to produce many other separate editions, each independent from the others. In 1796, monks at Eiheiji began work on publishing an officially sanctioned "Head Monastery" (honzan ) edition of the Shōbōgenzō. It was revised in 1906 to include ninety-five books, arranged in a rough chronological order that bares no relationship to the order of books in any of the three compilations by Dōgen. Each individual book in the Shōbōgenzō typically is organized around a series of quotations from Chinese kōan or Chinese translations of the Buddhist scriptures. Dōgen then comments in Japanese on each of these passages to show how they should be read and understood as expressions of religious truth. Together the books in the Shōbōgenzō comment on approximately 512 kōan, thereby providing an encyclopedic overview of Zen (and general Buddhist) teachings.
In later life, Dōgen seems to have concentrated his literary efforts on composing works in Chinese. After his death, his disciples compiled these Chinese-language compositions into the Eihei kōroku (Extensive recorded sayings of Eihei Dōgen, ten fascicles), which contains sermons, lectures, and verse organized into sections from Kōshōji, Daibutsuji, and Eiheiji. It contains the only writings by Dōgen that can be positively dated to his mature years between 1247 and 1252. In all, it includes Dōgen's comments on approximately 298 kōan. Finally, in 1667, monks at Eiheiji compiled a collection of Dōgen's independent essays on monastic procedures, which they published as Eihei shingi (Eihei Dōgen's monastic regulations). The proper practice of Buddhist monasticism was of major concern to Dōgen, and many of the books in the Shōbōgenzō also address this topic.
Dōgen died in almost complete obscurity, known only to his immediate disciples. The Sōtō Zen community he founded, however, prospered. At first it expanded slowly but steadily, and then it grew rapidly under the leadership of monks affiliated with the Sōjiji monastery, which had been founded by a fourth-generation dharma heir of Dōgen named Keizan Jōkin. During this period of expansion, manuscript copies of Dōgen's prodigious oeuvre were stored in the head monasteries of each major temple network, where they served more as symbols of religious authority and legitimacy than as sources for studying Zen Buddhism.
This situation changed during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) as a result of government policies that simultaneously promoted Buddhist scholasticism and reorganized many Sōtō temple networks. At that time, reform-minded Sōtō monks, such as Manzan Dōhaku (1636–1714), who sought to challenge temple policies, cited Dōgen's writings to support their positions and began publishing excerpts from his Japanese-language Shōbōgenzō. Sōtō authorities reacted by asking the government to ban its publication, which was done from 1722 to 1796. With the subsequent publication of the Head Monastery edition of the Shōbōgenzō, however, Dōgen eventually came to be identified with doctrinal orthodoxy for the Sōtō Zen school. Influential Sōtō monks, especially Menzan Zuihō (1683–1769) and Nishiari Bokusan (1822–1910), interpreted Dōgen as advocating a religion of "just sitting" (shikan taza ), in which the practice of sitting Zen (zazen ) is itself the complete authentication of awakening (shushō ichinyo ). Meditation on kōan and striving to see nature (kenshō ; i.e., attain satori ) are to be rejected. In this way, Dōgen's Zen came to be contrasted to other forms of Zen Buddhism, now usually associated only with Japanese Rinzai or Ōbaku Zen lineages. More recently, some Sōtō scholars have advocated a "Critical Buddhism" (hihan Bukkyō ), which portrays Dōgen's teachings as standing in opposition to many Buddhist doctrinal norms, such as original awakening (hongaku ), that are widely accepted in East Asia.
In 1868 the Tokugawa regime was overthrown, and Japan entered a period of rapid transformation into a modern political state, with an industrialized economy fully engaged in the world. In 1906 the Head Monastery edition of the Shōbōgenzō was published for the first time in a modern typeset edition readily accessible to a mass audience. It soon came to the attention of Japanese intellectuals who had not been educated in Buddhist doctrines but trained in Western philosophy. Leading scholars and educators, such as Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960), Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), and Akiyama Hanji (1893–1980), discovered in Dōgen an original Japanese philosopher whose ideas and methods of analysis presented innovative responses to ontological, phenomenological, and linguistic issues posed by Western thinkers such as Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), and others. Dōgen's notion of time as discontinuous moments (uji ), in particular, has attracted much attention. Just as important, but less discussed in Western-language scholarship, is Dōgen's innovative methods of reading Chinese-language texts. In a manner with many parallels to postmodern literary deconstructionism, Dōgen's Japanese-language comments frequently dissect and rearrange individual words or phrases from Chinese-language passages in ways that defy the ordinary rules of grammar to reveal hidden layers of significance. Today Dōgen's importance to philosophy is widely recognized, not just in Japan, but throughout the world.
There have been sporadic attempts to translate Dōgen's writings, especially his Japanese-language Shōbōgenzō, into Western languages. None of the results has been wholly satisfactory, however, with paraphrased interpretation frequently substituting for the complex linguistic gymnastics of Dōgen's original prose. Moreover, any translation must confront the thorny problem of how to reconcile the existence of at least three separate versions of Dōgen: the thirteenth-century Zen teacher, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Sōtō sectarian patriarch, and the twentieth-century Western (or world) philosopher. Dōgen has become too big to be defined by any one audience.
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William M. Bodiford (2005)