Dogen & the Lotus Sutra

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)

NB. The Japanese Soto school of Zen, is a continuation of the Chinese Caodong school founded by Dongshan Liangjie , who lived from 807-869. Dongshan is known as Tozan Ryokai in Japanese. The first two letters of Tozan’s name give us the last two letters of ‘Soto.’ The ‘So’ of Soto comes from another Japanese teacher, Sozan (840-901) – Caoshan in Chinese. Likewise, ‘Caodong’ brings together the Chinese names of the founders, Caoshan and Dongshan.


Eihei Dogen, or Dogen Kigen as he is sometimes known, is today seen as the most influential figure in the development of Soto Zen, but this was not always the case. Although Dogen’s role as a thinker began to be recognised in Japan in the 1920s, prior to the 1960s in the west Dogen was seen as just one Zen teacher amongst many. But with the writings of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki, Dogen’s name and ideas have become more widely known. He is now recognised as both a major reformer of Zen Buddhism and as a philosopher of world importance. I will focus on what I consider to be some of his key insights and teachings.

Dogen was born in 1200 CE into an aristocratic family and was orphaned at the age of seven. He was ordained a monk at 13 and studied Buddhism on Mount Hiei, the centre of the Tendai School of Buddhism in Japan. He seems to have been dissatisfied with the quality of teaching on Mount Hiei and elsewhere in Japan, and between 1223 and 1227 he studied Zen meditation in China. He eventually found Rujing, a teacher he admired and who enabled Dogen to realise satori. On his return to Japan, he lived and taught at various temples, passing on to his students a rigorous approach to Zen practice centred on sitting meditation, zazen. He spent his last years at Eihei Temple, which he had founded on a hill in present-day Fukui Prefecture in Japan. Dogen died in 1253.

In 1223, Dogen travelled to southern China with his teacher, Myozen, to visit the major Zen monasteries in the region and to learn what he could from the monks who were there. Two years prior to this, in 1221, when he was only twenty-one years old, Dogen had already received what is known as ‘dharma transmission’ from Myozen, an acknowledgement that Dogen was considered to have mastered the teachings of Zen. However, Dogen was dissatisfied with his own understanding, or lack of it, he also felt dissatisfied with the quality of Zen as practiced in Japan at the time. He hoped that the teachers in Song dynasty China would enable him to fully realise his Buddha-nature.

During the first two years of his travels, he seems to have been disappointed by the teachings he encountered. Then, in the summer of 1225, he went to the Tiantong Mountain monastery to meet the sixty-two year old abbot, Rujing. The meeting was one of the most important events in Dogen’s life. He later wrote:

I first offered incense and bowed formally to my late master, old Buddha Tiantong, in his abbot’s room […] He also saw me for the first time. Upon this occasion, he transmitted dharma, finger to finger, face to face (Tanahashi 1995: 5)

This seems to have been one of those moments when almost by being in each other’s presence two people communicate at a very profound level. Rujing appears to have recognised that the time was ripe for a breakthrough in Dogen’s practice and that he, Rujing, would do all he could to enable this to happen. He gave permission for Dogen to visit him at any hour for instruction and discussion, and Dogen made full use of this rare privilege.

According to Kazuaki Tanahashi, Rujing was an unusual teacher, who had little time for the trappings of authority that went with his position. He never wore the ornately decorated robes that he was entitled to wear, and he argued that what he taught was ‘the great way of all the Buddhas,’ something that couldn’t be confined within the label of ‘Zen School.’ (ibid: 6) Rujing advocated a simple but powerful approach to meditation. He told Dogen that, ‘to study meditation …. Is to drop body and mind; it is single-minded intense sitting without burning incense, worshipping, reciting, practising repentance or reading sutras.’ (Batchelor 1994: 126) ‘Single-minded intense sitting,’ ‘shikantaza’ in Japanese – is a term many scholars regard as having been introduced into the vocabulary of Zen by Rujing. Dogen was so impressed with this advice he studied with Rujing for two years and experienced a profound awakening. He returned to Japan, in his words, ‘empty-handed …. Knowing nothing more than the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical.’ But, in the paradoxical language of Zen, this was praise. Dogen was to develop and teach Rujing’s method of single-minded sitting for the rest of his life.

Rujing’s phrase, ‘drop away body and mind,’ was to be used many times by Dogen in his writings.  Rujing and Dogen are suggesting that, in the practice of zazen and elsewhere in our daily lives, we should let go of attachment to dualistic ideas and habits of thought, including notions of ‘body’ and ‘mind.’ Rujing was undoubtedly a forceful character. He ran a rigorous programme of instruction based on the practice of zhigan dazuo – that is, zazen in Japanese. As Rujing taught it, this was a practice that did not involve wrestling with single-focus, unresolvable conundrums, as in the koan-based methods of the Linji or Rinzai school of Zen. Rujing’s sitting meditation was also not a practice in which one sat in order to become enlightened. As Dogen was to teach when he returned to Japan, zazen involves sitting just to sit, realizing Buddhahood in the very ordinary act of being attentive to one’s own existence – just being here, just becoming.  

Dogen shared with Rujing the belief that zazen was ‘authentic practice’, and that practice and awakening are one and the same. According to Dogen, we don’t have to ‘do’ anything to ‘gain’ enlightenment. We do not need to search for something on the horizon. It is already here, immanent in us, ready to be actualised. We only have to be present, to wake up to our tangible transient existence, to realise our enlightenment. For Rujing and Dogen, practice is enlightenment. Enlightenment is inherent in us, and the only way to realisation, is to let go of chasing after it, or, desiring to be someone other than we are. Indeed, the Japanese term for awakening, kensho, means to ‘see into one’s true nature’ – which is also one of the primary meanings of the word ‘dharma.’ Dogen says, ‘stop pursuing words and letters’ – for there is no purpose to zazen, other than to sit and to be present. To practice zazen is to return to one’s original, true, nature. There are echoes, here, of the Daoist belief that by letting-go of the layers of words and concepts that we drape over ourselves and the world, we can re-discover the Dao – our spontaneous, fluid, original nature.

In the year that they met, Rujing gave Dogen a certificate of transmission – an acknowledgement that Dogen had realised his true nature. Dogen continued to study at Tiantong Mountain even though Myozen, his earlier teacher and companion, had died suddenly when they first arrived at the monastery. Eventually Dogen said farewell to Rujing and in 1227 he arrived back in Japan. One of the first things he did on his return was to write his seminal essay, Fukanzazengi, in which he gives precise guidance on how to practice zazen.

The approach taken by Rujing and Dogen echoes the experiences and the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago. When the Buddha was sitting under the Bo-tree in Bodhigaya, he realised that there is no need to look elsewhere for enlightenment, for it is right here where we are. We are all gifted with the potential for enlightenment or nirvana, we only have to realise enlightenment by letting go of attachments to theories, intentions, analyses and delusions of all kinds. Instead, embrace all opposites and dualities and sit single-mindedly in unity with the universe. Suspend judgment, sit quietly, pay attention and be the Buddha you have always been. Trust in your own nature.


Dogen probably makes reference to the Lotus Sutra more than to any other Buddhist text. The Lotus Sutra is considered as one of the key texts of Mahayana Buddhism. There seems to be no clear evidence with which to date the sutra, but scholars suggest it may have been compiled in India between 50 – 150 CE. Although the text was often copied by Indian teachers and scholars, it wasn’t until the sutra was translated into Chinese that it became a key document in the development of Mahayana Buddhism – including Zen. The most famous Chinese translation is by Kumarajiva dated around 406 CE. Kumarajiva’s text was the basis for the many translations that were then made into Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean. The first Chinese commentary on the Lotus Sutra was written by Kumarajiva’s student Daosheng, who lived between 355-434 CE.

There are three main strands of ideas in the Lotus Sutra that influenced the development of Buddhism in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. The first is what is known as the ‘One Vehicle’ teaching, the idea that there are many ways to achieve awakening or enlightenment and that part of the role of the teacher is to guide a student in finding the ‘skilful means’ (upaya) that most suits the student. The second, closely related, idea, is that all beings have the potential to achieve awakening (to become a Buddha). This is a very egalitarian approach. One doesn’t have to be a monk or nun, a priest, or a member of the elite in society, to be enlightened. Anyone, whatever their background, ethnicity or status has the innate potential to be a Buddha – they only have to realise that potential. The third main theme of the Lotus Sutra is the notion that Gautama Buddha somehow continues to be present in one form or another in the world – acting upon and through the many individuals who work towards easing suffering and achieving awakening.

These three liberating notions are deeply ingrained in Dogen’s worldview – influencing what and how he taught.


Tanahashi, K. ed. 1995. Moon in a dewdrop: writings of Zen master Dogen. New York: North Point Press.