Dogen Zenji is, perhaps, the most important figure in Zen in the history of Japan. I am working on a translation of Dogen's seminal text Genjo Koan. It is about enlightenment. It is written to a layperson. Later on Dogen writes other things that strongly suggest that it is virtually impossible for a lay person to be enlightened. Did Dogen change his mind? If so, why?

Dogen is known for being a dedicated advocate of zazen. It has the highest value in his system and is presented as equivalent to enlightenment, yet in Genjo Koan, which is about enlightenment, he does not mention it? Why?

If you take Genjo Koan in isolation, if you knew nothing else about Dogen's writings, you would probably never guess that he regarded zazen as being so important. You would rather, I think, tend to think that what he is talking about could arise in a variety of ways.

My own experience of spiritual practice would go along those lines. I have learnt important things from meditation, but also from other aspects of practice, from my relationships with different teachers, from adventitious circumstances of life, from devotion, chanting and prayer, from writing, and even from reading Dogen. Many of Dogen's own writings also suggest such diverse learning. Dogen, however, makes a distinction between the kind of learning that is cumulative and the awakening that is satori. My own spiritual awakenings have certainly had some kind of contemplation as one important element, but that has not been the only trigger.

More Dilemmas

We can ask, why did Dogen write, given that he wrote a great deal. Some of the writings were initially delivered as spoken sermons. One can say that their purpose was to encourage people to do zazen, but such encouragement did not require such sophisticated prose, such wide ranging rehearsal of doctrines and stories, such poetry. Much of Dogen's writing revolves around koan cases - Zen stories of encounters between monks or between teacher and disciple, in which one at least generally arrives at some kind of enlightenment experience. It is therefore clear enough that Dogen also thought that enlightenment came via interaction and dialogue.


Sometimes Dogen writes about zazen as sitting in a specific posture and managing the mind in a particular way. Sometimes he writes as though almost any activity can be zazen.

Dogen's text that most centrally focusses on zazen is called Fukanzazengi - Instructions for Zazen. Early in this text he reminds us of Shakyamuni training for six years and Bodhidharma for nine. This implies that enlightenment comes as a result after a period of time. However, later in the text, he says that training is enlightenment. These claims cannot both stand.

In any case, Shakyamuni, at least, clearly was not enlightened when he was "training" and what he was doing at that time was not zazen, and Bodhidharma we are led to believe was already enlightened before he started his legendary nine years facing a wall.

His Dilemmas

Were Dogen's writings as much a way of putting down his own dilemmas as of instructing others? Is what we are to learn here the way that a spiritual life, such as he exemplifies, is a continual series of dilemmas? Is he obliged to be consistent? Perhaps contradicting himself within the same essay is enlightened behaviour. Perhaps he was not sure about some of the answers. He probably wanted to think that lay people could be enlightened, but found in practice that they just gave him a lot of trouble. He probably wanted people to do zazen but realised that for many it was impractical. He probably wanted his message to be popular, but found that it wasn't.

He certainly did not have an easy time. His parents died when he was young. He became a monk. He went to the big Tendai monastery Enraku-ji at Hiei and then to the Rinzai Kennin-ji temple. When the abbot, Myozen, went to China Dogen went with him. However, on their arrival the Chinese did not accept that Dogen was a proper monk and treated him as a layperson, or at best as a bottom grade junior. Then Myozen died. When Dogen got back to Japan he probably expected his new understanding to be greeted with acclaim, but largely it met with rejection. After ten years of trying to run his own monastery near to the capital he was forced to leave and move to a remote area. The school he founded was always teetering on the brink of being made illegal. He had to try hard to find persons of influence to speak up for him.  He had some successes, but it was a difficult progression and he must have been near to despair on occasion.

Our Dilemma

So the moral of today's teaching is that the spiritual life is not easy or straight-forward, that it involves many struggles and often a good deal of lack of clarity. Our spiritual heroes are not people who sailed along from one great experience to another. Honen Shonin also went to Enraku-ji as an orphan, left, struggled, got exiled, and had many conflicts.

Our image of the spiritual life in modern times has been somewhat built upon the idea that it provides 'happiness' and freedom from trouble. We asset strip it for techniques to use for 'personal growth' but often miss the meaning of the body of practice that we have taken them from. We do not have a feel for 'enlightenment' we just want more immediate benefits for body and mind - exactly the things that Dogen learnt to let go of in China.

My teacher Kennett Roshi said, on more than one occasion, that if enlightenment was just about happiness then a dog asleep in the sun would be the ideal. There is more to it.

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Comment by David Brazier on May 26, 2016 at 14:57

Thank you, Satya. Yes, life is a funny old thing. We can enjoy bumbling around together. I am full of joy that we have poppies in the front garden.

Comment by Satya Robyn on May 26, 2016 at 12:14
It's good to hear that Dogen might have been struggling with dilemmas - and to be reminded that great spiritual teachers don't seem to lead straightforward or dukkha-free lives. On bad days I feel like I'm bumbling around in complete darkness!! On good days maybe I also know I'm doing that but that there's a light that is guiding me despite myself. Life is a funny old thing. I'm grateful to have people around me who also think these questions are important, and that we'll be getting a first-hand dose of the magic of La Ville au Roi and its inhabitants before too long. Much love to all.


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