Dōgen on Buddha Nature

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Dōgen on Buddha Nature
Citation: Abe, Masao. "Dōgen on Buddha Nature." The Eastern Buddhist 4, no. 1 (1971): 28–71.

Article Summary

DŌGEN (1200–1253) is one of the most outstanding and unique Buddhists in the history of Japanese Buddhism. He is unique in at least the following three senses.

First, rejecting all existing forms of Buddhism in Japan as unauthentic, he attempted to introduce and establish what he believed to be the genuine Buddhism, based on his own realization which he attained in Sung China under the guidance of the Zen Master Ju-ching (Nyojō, 1163-1228). He called it "the Buddha Dharma directly transmitted from the Buddha and patriarchs." He emphasized zazen[1](seated meditation) as being "the right entrance to the Buddha Dharma" in the tradition of the Zen schools in China since Bodhidharma, originating from Śākyamuni Buddha. Yet he strictly refused to speak of a "Zen sect," to say nothing of a "Sōtō sect," that he was later credited with founding. For Dōgen was concerned solely with the "right Dharma," and regarded zazen as its "right entrance." "Who has used the name 'Zen sect'? No buddha or patriarch spoke of a 'Zen sect.' You should realize it is a devil that speaks of 'Zen sect.' Those who pronounce a devil's appellation must be confederates of the devil, not children of the Buddha.",[2]He called himself "the Dharma transmitter Shamon Dōgen who went to China"[3]with strong conviction that he had attained the authentic Dharma that is directly transmitted from buddha to buddha, and that he should transplant it on Japanese soil. Thus he rejected the idea of mappo[4], i.e., the last or degenerate Dharma, an idea with wide acceptance in the Japanese Buddhism of his day. It may not be too much to say of Dōgen that just as Bodhidharma transmitted the Buddha Dharma to China, he intended to transmit it to Japan.

Secondly, though Dōgen came to a realization of the right Dharma under the guidance of a Chinese Zen master whom he continued to revere throughout his life, the understanding of the right Dharma is unique to Dogen. With religious awakening and penetrating insight, Dōgen grasped the Buddha Dharma in its deepest and most authentic sense. In doing so, he dared to reinterpret the words of former patriarchs, and even the sutras themselves. As a result, his idea of the right Dharma presents one of the purest forms of Mahayana Buddhism, in which the Dharma that was realized in the Buddha's enlightenment reveals itself most profoundly. All of this, it is noteworthy, is rooted in Dōgen's own existential realization, which he attained in himself through long and intense seeking. Based on this idea of the right Dharma, he not only rejected, as stated above, all existing forms of Buddhism in Japan, but also severely criticized certain forms of Indian and Chinese Buddhism, though, it is true, he generally considered Buddhism in these two countries as more authentic than that in Japan.

The third reason Dōgen is unique in the history of Japanese Buddhism, is because of his speculative and philosophical nature. He was a strict practicer of zazen, who earnestly emphasized shikantaza[5], i.e., just sitting. His whole life was spent in rigorous discipline as a monk. He encouraged his disciples to do the same. Yet he was endowed with keen linguistic sensibility and a philosophical mind. His main work, entitled Shōbōgenzō[6], "A Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye," perhaps unsurpassable in its philosophical speculation, is a monumental document in Japanese intellectual history. In Dōgen, we find a rare combination of religious insight and philosophical ability. In this respect, he may be well compared with Thomas Aquinas, born twenty five years after him.

He wrote his main work, Shōbōgenzō, in Japanese, in spite of the fact that leading Japanese Buddhists until then had usually written their major works in Chinese. Dōgen made penetrating speculations and tried to express the world of the Buddha Dharma in his mother tongue by mixing Chinese Buddhist and colloquial terms freely in his composition. The difficult and unique style of his Japanese writing is derived from the fact that, in expressing his own awakening, he never used conventional terminology, but employed a vivid, personal style grounded in his subjective speculations. Even when he used traditional Buddhist phrases, passages, etc., he interpreted them in unusual ways in order to express the Truth as he understood it. In Dōgen, the process of the search for and realization of the Buddha Dharma and the speculation on and expression of that process are uniquely combined.[7]

In this paper I shall discuss Dōgen's idea of Buddha nature, which may be regarded as a characteristic example of his realization. (Abe, "Dōgen on Buddha Nature", 28–30)
  1. 座禅
  2. Shōbōgenzō, 正法眼蔵, ed. Etō Sokuō. lwanami-bunko edition (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1942) II (Butsudō 佛道), p. 217.
  3. Japanese Unavailable.
  4. 末法
  5. 只管打坐
  6. The collection of Dōgen's discourses in Japanese, presently edited in 95 books or fascicles, which he delivered from I23I to I253. See p. 124
  7. Dōgenshū (A Collection of Dōgen) ed. Tamaki Kōshirō, Nibon no Shisō II (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969) , p. 4.