The Buddha-Nature in Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō

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The Buddha-Nature in Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō
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Citation: Kodera, Takashi James. "The Buddha-Nature in Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 4, no. 4 (1977): 267–92. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/2797.

Article Summary

It has come to be acknowledged in the present century that Dōgen is one of the most seminal thinkers of Japanese Buddhism. For nearly seven centuries, however, he has been buried in oblivion, except within the Sōtō School of Zen that reveres Dōgen as its founder. Even the Sōtō School contributed to the obscurity of their founder by prohibiting the publication of Dōgen’s major work, Shōbōgenzō until the end of the eighteenth century.
       Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) brought Dōgen out of this long period of obscurity with his treatise Shamon Dōgen written between 1919 and 1921.[1] Watsuji's contribution, however, is not limited to his introduction of Dōgen to public attention. Instead of treating Dōgen as the founder of the Sōtō School, he presents him as a human being, a person, a man (hito):
...it may be justifiable to assert that I opened a gate to a new interpretation of Dōgen. He thereby becomes not the Dōgen of a sect but of mankind; not the founder Dōgen but rather our Dōgen. The reason why I claim it so daringly is due to my realization that his truth was killed by sheer sectarian treatments (Watsuji 1925,p. 160).

      This realization grew out of Watsuji’s effort to solve the problem of how a layman like himself could attempt to understand Dōgen's "truth" without engaging in the rigorous training prescribed by the Zen tradition (Watsuji 1925, p , 156). A sectarian would claim that the "truth" must be experienced immediately and that any attempt to verbalize or conceptualize it constitutes falsification. If the immediate experience is the only gateway to the "truth," as the sectarian would claim, why did Dōgen himself write so much? Dōgen believed that it was through writing that his truth was to be transmitted to others. For his own religious training, he singlemindedly concentrated on sitting in meditation; yet he saw no intrinsic conflict between sitting and writing. This is why Dōgen started writing Shōbōgenzō in 1231: so that he might be able to "transmit the Buddha’s authentic Dharma to those who are misguided by false teachers" (Watsuji 1925, p. 157). Watsuji further quotes from Dogen: "Although it (Shōbōgenzō) might appear to be a mere 'theory,' it still bears indispensable importance for the sake of Dharma" (1925,p. 157). Thus Watsuji claims that his approach, which relies on words and concepts, is a valid alternative to the monk’s subjective pursuit.
      According to Dōgen, enlightenment is possible only through rigorous sitting in meditation (kufū zazen) and through the study of Dharma under a master (sanshi monpō). One can encounter Dōgen as a master through his writings, for he answers one’s questions in his works. But one still must practice sitting in meditation. Watsuji insists that meditation can be done in an office or a study as well as in a meditation hall; he even goes so far as to say that perhaps a study may be a more congenial place for this purpose than a meditation hall when many monasteries are no longer concerned with the transmission of the truth but are immersed in secular concerns (1925,p. 158). Therefore, for Watsuji, meditation does not necessarily require the act of entering a monastery.
      Of the two prerequisites for the realization of the truth, sitting in meditation is left to the individual. But the other, the pursuit of Dharma under a master, is Watsuji's principle concern. Shamon Dogen is an account of Watsuji's personal encounter with the person of Dōgen as he speaks in his writings, primarily Shōbōgenzō and Shōbōgenzō zuimonki, the latter of which was compiled by Ejō, Dōgen's closest disciple. In Watsuji's treatise, we encounter not only Watsuji as he faced Dōgen but Dōgen himself.
      Watsuji’s new methodology considers it central to discover and encounter the person (hito) of Dōgen in his works.[2] Many people have followed Watsuji’s methodology. Professor Tamaki Kōshirō of the University of Tokyo, for instance, remarks that not only was he first exposed to Dōgen through Watsuji, but also that he encountered the living Dōgen in Watsuji’s treatise.[3]
      This writer finds Watsuji's methodology to be particularly applicable to the study of Dōgen. Dōgen himself saw the truth fully embodied in the personhood of his Chinese master, Juching. Dōgen's encounter with this individual was the single most decisive experience in his life, as is abundantly attested in his writings. Furthermore, Dōgen repeatedly discouraged his disciples from associating with institutionalized Zen. This paper, therefore, is the result of the writer’s attempt to encounter the personhood of Dōgen.
      While this writer uses Watsuji’s methodology, the main body of literature that is examined in this paper is the chapter of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō devoted to the busshō or Buddha-nature. The reasons for this choice are three. The question that tormented the young monk Dōgen concerned the Buddha-nature. Dōgen's search for the answer to this question took him to the eminent monks of his time: Kōen of Mt. Hiei; Kōin of Miidera temple; Yōsai of Kenninji temple; Myōzen, who succeeded Yōsai at this first Rinzai Zen monastery in Japan; Wu-chi Liao-pai and finally T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching in Southern Sung China. This pilgrimage spanned a period of over ten years ending in 1225 when he attained enlightenment under Ju-ching’s instruction and solved his question. Thus it is possible to look at Dōgen's formative years as a continuing struggle with the fundamental question he first raised on Mt. Hiei. Secondly, the Buddha-nature chapter is one of the longest of the ninety-two chapters, in the Shōbōgenzō which may suggest Dōgen's particular concern for the subject matter. Lastly, the original manuscript of this chapter, now preserved in Eiheiji temple, bears witness to the fact that Dōgen laboriously revised the chapter a number of times. Study of the Buddha-nature chapter, therefore, can reasonably be taken as central to understanding Dōgen's life and thought. (Kodera, "The Buddha-nature in Dogen's Shōbōgenzō," 267–70)

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  1. The treatise was originally contributed in parts to two scholarly journals, Shin shōsetsu and Shisō. They were later compiled and published as part of Watsuji, Nihon seishinshi kenkyū [A study of the spiritual history of Japan] (1925). The references in this paper are from the book.
  2. Watsuji's emphasis on encountering a person stems from his study of Martin Heidegger. While Heidegger stressed the "temporality" of Dasein in a phenomenological and existential manner, Watsuji ingeniously detected the incompleteness of Heidegger’s temporal treatment of man. Watsuji thus focused on the spatial dimension of the phenomenological and existential "analytic" of man. The spatiality of man was then further formulated into Watsuji's own system, which first appeared in his Fudo,which was rendered into English by Geoffrey Bownas as Climate and culture (1961). Watsuji's own system is commonly referred to as ningengaku ("the study of man"), in which he attempted to elucidate hito to hito to no aidagara ("the betweenness of persons"). It is apparent that Watsuji’s emphasis upon hito is traceable to his spatial critique of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit [Being and time].
  3. See "Dōgen no sekai" [Dōgen's world], a colloquium between Tamaki Kōshirō and Terai Tōru, p. 2. This colloquium is printed in the form of a pamphlet to accompany Dōgen shū [Selected writings of Dōgen], edited by Tamaki (1969).