What Kind of Guy Was Dogen?

dogen01My new book, Don’t Be a Jerk, alternates between paraphrases of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, an 800-year old Japanese Buddhist classic, and short chapters about topics related to studying Dogen, the author. I wrote a few chapters that I cut out before publication. They just seemed not to fit somehow. But a couple of them are still worthwhile, I think. Here’s one of those. I included a few bits from this chapter in the final version of the book, but most of it’s not in there. Enjoy.

Would I have even liked Dogen? I mean, as a person? I guess that’s a weird thought because he died 800 years before I was even born. There is no way I’ll ever meet him except through the words he left behind and I’ve already done that. I like his words. But would I like him?

Maybe not. He comes off as an arrogant, tight-assed, rule-oriented prick sometimes. But then again, people who only know me through my books and blogs say I come off like a dick in my writing but that I’m a real nice guy in person. So who knows? Maybe Dogen and I could hang out and be buddies.

The fact is we don’t know what sort of a person Dogen was and we never really will.

Even after reading as much by and about Dogen as I have, I still sometimes wonder what kind of a person he was. If I could somehow meet Dogen in person, could we be friends? Or would I just find him annoying and insufferable? Would he find me undisciplined and flaky? I really don’t know.

He doesn’t reveal much of his personal story in his writings, at least in 21st century terms, although in comparison to other Buddhist writers of his time he tells us a lot. One very significant thing we know about Dogen is that he died young. It’s sad that he was only 53 when he passed away.

But what makes his untimely death interesting for me is that because he died so early we are reading the words of a very young man — especially in Zen Master years. Our stereotypical image of a Zen Master is as an ancient withered Yoda-like figure with thinning white hair, holding himself up with a cane while he totters around expounding great cosmic wisdom in a raspy timeworn voice. In fact, most of our great Zen Masters were quite old when they wrote their most remembered books or gave their most talked-about lectures.

Dogen, unfortunately, never got to be like that. He was only 27 when he wrote the earliest pieces that appear in Shobogenzo and he was in his mid-forties when he wrote the last major pieces of it. So we are not only reading the words of a deeply enlightened man, but those of a fairly young man too. Dogen had not yet lost much of the brashness and impatience of youth when he composed the material you’re reading. I think that really comes through.

Also, the times Dogen lived in were extraordinarily different from our own. There were no motor vehicles of any kind, no electricity, no telephones, no central heating or air conditioning. There was also no such thing as mosquito repellent, or deodorant, no supermarkets or flush toilets. We call our times “politically turbulent” when congress can’t agree on a budget plan. In Dogen’s day people involved in politics at any level had to constantly fear for their lives. Dogen’s own father was very likely the victim of a politically motivated assassination. We still argue about who shot JFK. In Dogen’s time there were too many high level assassinations to even keep track of.

When Dogen established his temples in Japan, the Zen form of Buddhism was still almost completely unknown. The sect did not enjoy the state sponsorship that Tendai Buddhism did. Zen temples were tolerated, but treated with suspicion by those in political power and as potentially dangerous interlopers by the higher-ups in the Tendai establishment. This was probably what led to Dogen’s group pulling up stakes at their temple outside of Kyoto and walking en masse hundreds of miles, loaded up with all their sutra books and bells and suchlike, to the mountains of remote Echizen Province (now called Fukui) to set up a new place.

Even Kyoto could be rough in those days. There was no police force and the rule of law was mostly non-existent. Vice, corruption, intimidation and murder were how things got done. Dogen’s temple was probably more like a makeshift church in the outlaw days of the Wild West than the kind of serene oriental holy place we tend to imagine.

Also, as I’ve said elsewhere, his monks were generally young country boys. They’d lived tough lives before they entered the temple. For them the term “taking refuge” wasn’t just a metaphor like it is for us today. They were literally trying to find a place to get away from a level of disorder and chaos most of us can’t even imagine. They had to work hard to be self-sufficient. They couldn’t take anything for granted.

All of this shaped Dogen personality in ways we of the 21st century can never fully appreciate. So if he seems like a hothead or a taskmaster sometimes, or seems to obsess over getting certain details of temple behavior and organization just right, I always cut him some slack. I don’t think I’d have had the strength and resilience to do what he did. I doubt even the toughest among us today could have done it. We think our grandparents were solid for surviving the Great Depression. The times Dogen lived in make the Great Depression look like a walk in the park.

Dogen was born in 1200 CE. He was probably the illegitimate son of a court official. Nobody knows his given name. Buppo Dogen was a dharma name he received when he joined a Tendai monastery at the age of 12. Buppo means “Buddha-Dharma” and Dogen means “Way-Source.” Later when he built Eihei-ji temple, he was called Eihei Dogen, which is how he is usually known today. Dogen’s father died when he was just two years old and his mother passed away when he was seven. This event, he later said, made him realize the impermanence of life and decide to follow the Buddhist way.

But he became dissatisfied with the teachings and practices of the Tendai sect, who we have noted were the main form of Buddhism practiced in Japan in Dogen’s day. He wanted to know, if it’s true what the Buddhist texts say about us being perfect just as we are, then why do we need to practice hard and meditate? None of the monks could answer him.

When he got a little older, he finished his monk’s training and went “searching for the dharma” by visiting whatever temples he could make it to. At last he heard of a teacher called Eisai who was a master in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Eisai was the first Japanese person to hold that title. Dogen was impressed with Eisai’s down-to-earth, realistic approach. Unfortunately Eisai died before Dogen was able to become his student. But he became a student of Eisai’s successor, Myozen when he was just 17 years old.

Myozen gave Dogen a certificate of full accomplishment when Dogen was 21. But Myozen himself wanted to deepen his own studies and decided to travel to China to do so. Young Dogen impressed him so much that Myozen took him along for the journey.

In 1223 Myozen, Dogen and two other students of Myozen’s embarked on the dangerous journey across the Japan sea in a wooden sailboat amidst crashing waves that had young Dogen wondering if they’d survive the trip. They made it, but Dogen’s troubles had only just begun.

Because of some sort of legal irregularities, Dogen was forced to remain aboard that ship for over a month. It was here that he first encountered Chinese Zen in the form of an old monk who had traveled a long distance, probably on foot, to purchase some Japanese mushrooms for his temple. This monk impressed Dogen greatly with his dedication to his work even though he was old and frail. Later on another Chinese monk would impress Dogen in another mushroom-related episode, which we already looked at earlier.

Finally Dogen was allowed to leave the ship. He visited a number of temples in China but was unimpressed by most of them. He found many of them to be corrupt and their teachers seemed to only be making a show of being enlightened masters without really knowing much of anything. Just when he was about to pack it all in and go home, Dogen heard about a teacher named Tendo Nyojo (Ch. Tiantong Rujing 1162-1228 CE) and decided to check him out.

Tendo Nyojo turned out to be a teacher of the Soto lineage of Zen. Up until then, Dogen had only encountered teachers from the Rinzai lineage. Nyojo’s philosophy was that zazen was not a means for seeking enlightenment but was enlightenment itself. This idea captivated Dogen and he asked Nyojo to be his teacher. Nyojo accepted.

In the fall of 1227, Dogen received a certificate of dharma transmission from Nyojo making him the first Japanese person to hold the lineage in the Soto school of Zen. He returned to Japan shortly thereafter and began his career as a teacher.

He established a temple near Kyoto. But as I said earlier, he had to abandon it a few years later for reasons that remain unclear. It seems odd that, with all the autobiographical writing he did, Dogen never put down on paper the reasons for this sudden and very difficult move. This makes me suspect even more that he was forced out of Kyoto and thought it best not to publicly state why, lest it only make things worse.

He established a temple in Echizen province, which is now called Fukui Prefecture. First he called it Daibutsu (Great Buddha) monastery but later renamed it Eiheiji (Eternal Peace Temple). Sometime in his late forties Dogen began experiencing a recurring illness. After a while it became clear he needed better medical treatment than could be found out there in the wilds of Echizen, so he was taken to Kyoto. But it was too late. He died in Kyoto aged 53.

During his short life he wrote a lot. Shobogenzo is usually considered his masterwork. But Eihei Koroku, the Extensive Record of Eihei-ji Temple is also an important text. It’s composed mainly of transcripts of talks Dogen gave to his monks at Eihei-ji, but also contains some of Dogen’s poetry and other works. He also produced a group of texts containing detailed instructions for temple officers whose philosophical sections are considered equal to the material in Shobogenzo. The guy did a lot of writing!

And yet we still don’t know just what sort of person Dogen was. A few years ago a bio-pic on Dogen’s life was produced in Japan (the DVD I linked to features me for about a nanosecond in the bonus section, or you can watch it for free on YouTube). Here he is depicted as a kind of gentle monk, soft-spoken and mild mannered. But I doubt he was quite like that.

When I read his works, I imagine a slightly cranky young guy who probably read more than was really good for him. If I were going to cast him in a film I’d get an Ian MacKaye-type actor. He also liked to make a lot of puns. I often wonder if these got a laugh from his audiences when he preached them. I’m sure his audiences were conditioned to be highly disciplined and respectful to a Buddhist master. But it’s hard for me to imagine he could talk the way he does in some parts of Shobogenzo without getting at least a few chuckles. Maybe he was the first Zen stand-up.

Although we can’t know for sure what kind of a guy Dogen was, I feel grateful to him for all his efforts to try and transmit his understanding down through the ages to us.

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April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream

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48 Responses

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  1. John_eg
    John_eg April 5, 2016 at 10:12 am |

    Looking forward to the book, UK shipment seems to be delayed?

  2. Khru 2.0
    Khru 2.0 April 5, 2016 at 10:36 am |

    I’d rather hang out with Ikkyu than Dogen. Ikkyu would also make a more exciting movie character too, hands down (the kimono).

    1. Mudo
      Mudo April 5, 2016 at 2:49 pm |


    2. senorchupacabra
      senorchupacabra April 5, 2016 at 4:06 pm |

      Ikkyu strikes me (as much as a long-dead man can strike me) as something of a self-absorbed megalomaniac who appeals to a lot of people’s residual adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. He fucked a lot and was a jerk to people who kind of deserved it. I get it. Kind of more interesting than most of these Zen dweebs who sat around staring at walls all day.

      The one I think seems the most down-to-earth is Bankei. He seems like he’d be cool just doing whatever.

      1. Khru 2.0
        Khru 2.0 April 5, 2016 at 6:17 pm |

        I’d describe him as honest and frank. Someone who recognized Buddha nature in all beings, without the usual pretense of the religious folks.

        “Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
        A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
        Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
        Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.”

        1. Kyla
          Kyla April 6, 2016 at 6:31 am |

          Love that poem. Thanks for posting it!!

    3. Mumbles
      Mumbles April 5, 2016 at 4:30 pm |
      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles April 5, 2016 at 5:08 pm |

        And this one…

        End of the year
        woodcutter walks through mud
        steps on clouds

        -Soen Nakagawa

        1. Kyla
          Kyla April 6, 2016 at 6:33 am |

          And these are great too!! Thanks.

          1. Mumbles
            Mumbles April 6, 2016 at 4:17 pm |

            America had it’s own Ikkyu in Jim Harrison (R.I.P.)

            “Beware, O wanderer, the road is walking too.”
            -Jim Harrison, After Ikkyu & Other Poems


  3. Dogen
    Dogen April 5, 2016 at 10:53 am |
  4. YeahNo
    YeahNo April 5, 2016 at 1:22 pm |

    There is stuff in Eihei Koruku that definitely has as stand-up feel.

  5. roman
    roman April 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm |

    Brad, what is your opinion of the short talks Dogen gave as recorded in Eihei Koroku? In Eihei Koroku Dogen sounds like a very brief, loud, Rinzai style teacher, hitting the floor, throwing away the whisk, throwing his fist, and expecting his students to do similar things with confidence, don’t you think? I wonder why this style of Dogen and the book Eihei Koroku is so unpopular compared to Shobogenzo.

  6. Shodo
    Shodo April 5, 2016 at 1:36 pm |

    A post or so ago you said you spontaneously passed a few koans.
    When did you work with koans with a teacher?

  7. sri_barence
    sri_barence April 5, 2016 at 2:14 pm |

    Re: Eihei Koroku, does anyone have a particular translation they would recommend? I’d like to read some of Dogen’s talks.

    Re: koan study, I think Brad’s description of how the answers just spontaneously appeared is spot on. That is always how it happens for me. No amount of thinking helps, even though some koans are quite logical when you understand them. Sometimes the answer is blatantly obvious, but thinking actually gets in the way, so you don’t see it!

    If you want to check your koan study, then I think it is necessary to consult with a teacher who has finished their koan study. Especially if you think you’ve “got it!”

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 5, 2016 at 8:31 pm |

    Okumura’s translation is the only one I’ve read, though I never finished it. I’m thinking of the one he did for Sotoshu; I’m not sure if this is a different work but this one is very inexpensive (free):


    From the introduction, by that famous Zen standup artist Reb Anderson:

    “There is a principle in Zen Buddhism that for our practice to be alive and relevant to the actual problems of our current suffering as sentient beings, we must go beyond the previous ways the tradition has gone beyond itself. Here in this wonderful translation of the Extensive Record, we have a separate transmission that goes beyond the Zen tradition of separate transmissions beyond the Buddhist scriptures. Now, thanks to the great and loving efforts of two devoted students of Eihei Dogen, we are challenged by this vast pile of precious records from our brilliant ancestor. These are records of his repeated attempts to free his self-expression from the Chinese Zen tradition of trying to leap free of the Buddhist tradition. In the face of this tradition, how are we going to study this oceanic record without damaging the living spirit that brings us to this text in the first place? One possibility would be to close the book now. But if we avoid reading it, how will we develop our skill as escape artists? On the other hand, if we do read and study these dusty old records, how will we avoid becoming like Huangbo’s “dreg slurpers”?”

    “vast pile”, indeed- he goes on to make this explicit by recounting a koan about crap and then one about leaping beyond the koan about crap, if I’m reading him correctly. Let’s all get up and dance to song, that was a hit before your mother was born…

    1. not a mountain
      not a mountain May 1, 2016 at 11:06 am |

      I do believe that Dogen dearly wanted to establish a traditional Chinese legacy of Ch’an in Japan. He saw this legacy back to Bodhidarma, who leapt and asked questions. Dogen accepted this transmission.
      The Tathagata presented the means to true dharma heirs.
      I don’t think any of them would digress.

  9. Dogen
    Dogen April 5, 2016 at 11:21 pm |

    Maybe he was the first zen stand-up.

    That seems to imply that there’s been such a thing. Religion and humor are mutually exclusive. No need to look any further than the lack of humor this blog demonstrates as proof of that.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot April 6, 2016 at 8:24 am |

      Be hard to beat that joke!

      1. Dogen
        Dogen April 6, 2016 at 9:08 am |

        Have you ever laughed at anything Brad has written or said? If so, please share.

        1. mtto
          mtto April 6, 2016 at 11:18 am |

          Seriously? There isn’t enough room on the internet…

          1. Dogen
            Dogen April 6, 2016 at 12:28 pm |

            No, case and point, not seriously.

          2. mtto
            mtto April 6, 2016 at 1:34 pm |

            Oh, good. For a second I thought you were serious.

          3. Dogen
            Dogen April 6, 2016 at 3:35 pm |

            Okay I admit it, I’m serious. 🙁

            Happy now?

    2. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara April 6, 2016 at 8:54 am |
        1. Dogen
          Dogen April 6, 2016 at 9:07 am |

          Q: What do a Christmas tree and a Zen monk have in common?

          A: Their balls are just for decoration.

  10. Nina
    Nina April 6, 2016 at 9:55 am |

    I am looking forward to your new book very much. Do you know why the delivery in Germany/Europe is delayed? First it was planned to be delivered at the end of March, now it is end of April according to Amazon.

  11. Mumbles
    Mumbles April 6, 2016 at 4:19 pm |

    We lost a great one today…


    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot April 7, 2016 at 5:32 am |

      He was a better good ol boy than most all of them. Sorry his memory is tarnished by a certain redneck anthem, but it’s good to know he wasn’t all that serious about it, and it gave pause for some thoughtful self-reflection:


      “We still take strangers if they’re Haggard”

      RIP, Merle . . . God, you’ve earned it!

  12. Dan_Brodribb
    Dan_Brodribb April 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm |

    Funny, I’ve been reading a lot of translations of Dogen at the priory, and as a result, I’ve also found myself wondering what Dogen was really like and how possible it is to understand what he REALLY meant.

    The book sounds great. I’m back in the world for a couple weeks next week–hopefully I can find a chance to check it out

  13. not a mountain
    not a mountain May 1, 2016 at 10:35 am |

    I really love this summary of Dogen’s life. From my academic understanding of Japanese literature, it’s spot on!
    I’ve also seen the Zen biopic film about Dogen and I think it does a great job overall. I also agree it does portray an overly-beneficent portrait of Dogen.
    When I first read his writings back in undergrad, I was connected to the rebellious attitude and determination he must have had to do what he did. It is amazing.
    He was very well educated and arguably a genius in his time. Coming back from China with what he understood as truth, he was inspired not only from enlightenment, but from a form of C’han which meant a lot to him and which he saw as the vehicle to establish real dharma.
    Back in Japan, all the “educated” folks were tied up in Tendai…it was the proper thing to do.
    The really cool thing about Dogen is that (initially) he was about sharing Buddhism with anyone. Anyone can practice; you don’t need to read sutras, you don’t need to pay tithes to a temple and say “Amitabuddha”. Nirvana is right here.
    I think he probably was frustrated. An intellectual trying to work with his peasant compadres probably caused a lot of WTF moments. He wanted to recreate his experience with Rujing.
    Dogen interprets himself through each of his disciple’s experience. I know him as a guy who I can hang out with and can relate to…flowers die and weeds grow.

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