A formal portrait of Dogen Zenji

A formal portrait of Dogen Zenji

Dogen Zenji, 1200 -1253, was born in Japan and entered the priesthood at the age of twelve. He studied Tendai Buddhism on Mount Hiei but, finding the teaching there unsatisfying from the religious point of view, went to Kyoto where he studied Rinzai Zen under Myozen, a pupil of Eisai, founder of Rinzai Zen in Japan. He left for China, with Myozen, in 1223, again because he could find no real depth in the Rinzai teachings. He studied much in various temples in China, eventually receiving the Transmission from the Abbot of Tendozan, Tendo Nyojo Zenji, and returning to Japan in 1227. He stayed for a time at Kenninji, in Kyoto, but left there, since he felt that he was not yet competent to teach, in order to retire to a small temple; here he commenced his now famous writings. He became the first Abbot of Koshoji, in 1236, and was offered the opportunity to become the founder of Daibutsuji, later Eiheiji, by Hatano Yoshihige: he died in Kyoto. He is known in Japan either as Eihei Dogen Zenji or by his posthumous title of Koso Joyo Daishi.

Dogen Zenji brought with him from China both the Transmission and the teachings of the Soto Zen Church of Buddhism. This Church, which is the oldest of all the Zen Churches (both the Obaku and Rinzai Churches are derivatives), is perhaps the only Church of Mahayana Buddhism to retain some of the original Indian elements of Hinayana Buddhism. There is no doubt that Dogen’s way was, and still is, hard to follow, for he was a somewhat puritanical mystic, but there is equally no doubt that he inspired Japanese Buddhism with a new spirit. His major works are Shobogenzo, Eiheikoroku, Eihei-shingi, Gakudo-yojinsho and Kyojukaimon. The Kyojukaimon is essential if one would understand the moral training and the scope of Soto Zen teaching.

Reprinted with permission from Zen Is Eternal Life, by Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett. Shasta Abbey Press, 1999.

For a more detailed account of Dogen’s life and importance in our tradition, go to this article from the Journal of the OBC.

To get sense for Dogen Zenji’s teaching, we have included a work called the Shushogi, or, “What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment”.