In the summer of 1223, a young Buddhist monk from Japan arrived in China. While waiting on the ship to be given clearance to enter the country, an elderly monk boarded seeking to purchase Japanese mushrooms. This monk, likely in his seventh decade, was the senior cook or tenzo at his monastery. Because the younger monk had journeyed to China specifically to study Buddhism in more depth, he asked the elderly monk to have dinner with him. The monk replied he had to walk back to the temple which was more than a dozen miles away so he could prepare the community evening meal. Somewhat amazed that a senior monk was the monastery cook, the younger man asked: “Why must an older, experienced monk such as yourself do the exhausting work of shopping for food and preparing it in a hot kitchen? Would your time not be better served in study and meditation?” The tenzo smiled gently responding: “Young monk from overseas, while you have some knowledge of Buddhism, you are greatly deficient in the deeper meaning of Buddhist practice.”
The young monk – Dogen – was simultaneously intrigued and embarrassed. Intrigued because he was immediately aware of the lesson,
that mindfully performing simple, everyday tasks such as shopping, cooking, preparing and cleaning up, were as a vital aspect of Buddhist practice was sitting meditation.He was embarrassed because Dogen felt this was a lesson which should have been introduced to him much sooner. He regarded that statement as an awakening moment for him and one which would last a lifetime.
Dogen was born sometime in 1200 near today’s Kyoto Japan. His parents were high ranking officials in the Imperial government and were able to provide him with an exceptional education. By the age of four he was reading Chinese poetry and by six, he was studying Chinese classics. Sadly he experienced the double loss of his parents: his father when he was two and his mother at seven. This was a early and painful lesson of impermanence. He was raised by an uncle who planned that Dogen would work in the Imperial government.
However, Dogen had already decided to become a Buddhist monk, disappointing the uncle. At thirteen left home and entered a monastery and was ordained as a monk.
Ultimately dissatisfied with the teachings he encountered, he traveled to China in order to seek out a more authentic Buddhism. He remained there for five years of study, reflection and, most importantly, developing the practice of meditation.There he uncovered the power of meditation explaining to his own disciples this way: “The human mind has absolute freedom as its true nature.There are thousands upon thousands of students who have practiced meditation and obtained this realisation. Do not doubt the possibilities because of the simplicity of the method. If you can’t find the truth where you are, where else to you expect to find it?”
Returning home, he began to teach that meditation was the true Buddhist path and gateway to enlightenment. Dogen taught meditation to everyone – the laity, male or female and included all social classes.This approach along with his emphasis on sitting meditation as the key practice, resulted in significant opposition from other Buddhist leaders in the Kyoto area. The friction became so intense that Dogen opted to leave the city for the mountainous countryside where he founded the Eihei-Ji monastery which became the head temple of his movement, the Soto School of Zen.
Dogen was a deep thinker and prolific writer of essays, commentaries, and poems. His teachings reveal an ability to offer Buddhism in practical ways accessible for working laity as well as devoted monks. For example, in his collected works, ‘Treasury of the True Dharma Eye’, he outlines these four ways to become an enlightened human:
GENEROSITY: The most noble act of giving is done without self-interest. “Giving means non-greed. Non-greed means not to covet. Not to covet means not to curry favour. The question is not whether the gift is valuable, but whether there is genuine merit. ” By use of the word “merit” Dogen applies the Buddhist understanding that even when two people offer the same generous action, the merit gained from giving can be quite different. For example, a person who makes a $100 donation to a teacher and then expects something in return, indicates a small giving heart. The result will be a small merit. However, a person who makes a $100 donation to a teacher and expects nothing in return, indicates a large, magnanimous giving heart. That result will be a large merit for the action.
LOVING WORDS: Dogen was aware that too often speech is adversarial, angry, hostile, unfriendly. He also taught that loving speech was to be extended to our animal neighbors and companions as well as toward human beings: “It is kind speech to speak to sentient beings as you would to a baby.”
BENEFICIAL ACTION: By this he meant consistently doing good for others. “Beneficial action is skillfully to benefit all classes of sentient beings,” he explained, “that is, to care about their distant and near future, and to help them by using skillful means. In ancient times, someone helped a caged tortoise; another took care of a sick sparrow. They did not expect a reward; they were moved to do so only for the sake of beneficial action.”
IDENTITY ACTION OR WHAT OTHER BUDDHIST TRADITIONS CALL THE PRACTICE OF SAMENESS
a concept similar to the universally found ‘golden rule’ of treating others the way you would like to be treated. “Identity action means non-difference,” Dogen wrote. “It is nondifference from self, nondifference from others. . . When we know identity action, self and others are one.”
In the autumn of 1252, Dōgen fell ill and, sensing he would not recover, he appointed a successor for EiheiJi. He returned to Kyoto where he could receive better medical care but died there on September 23, 1253
Victor M. Parachin, M. Div. (CYT) is an author, Vedic educator, yoga instructor, and Buddhist meditation teacher. He is the director of Tulsa Yoga Meditation Centre (USA). Victor researches and writes extensively about eastern spiritual philosophy and is the author of numerous books. His work is published regularly in
YOGA Magazine. His latest book
- ‘Think Like a Buddha: 108 Days of Mindfulness’ was published by