The Glasgow Zen Group practice within the Soto tradition. While originally Chinese, Soto tradition was brought to Japan by Eihei Dogen in the 13th century CE, where it has flourished in many of the subsequent centuries. Many of us in the GZG find studying Dogen’s writings helpful in our practice.
The other pages in this section tell you more about Dogen’s life, his masterwork the Shobogenzo, and his other writings. If you’d like to know more about Dogen, we also offer some places to start.
Dogen was born to Koga Michichiki, a government minister, and to Ishi, daughter of Fujiwara Motofusa. Fujiwara was one of the most important clans in Japan. Both his parents died while he was youung.
Dogen was uncompromising, both as student and teacher. As a demanding student of Buddhism, he challenged his Tendai teachers with the question: if we all are inherently enlightened, why do Buddha’s still strive for enlightenment? None could answer, so Dogen pursued his question with other teachers, and finally overseas.
In China, he traveled widely seeking a teacher with whom he could resolve the question. He despaired of success until he met Tiantong Rujing. Rujing was the teacher who could and did liberate him from his question.
Returning to Kyoto, Dogen did what was needed to nurture Rujing’s living Buddhism in the new land. Eventually, this meant that he abandoned the capital, to establish the Eiheiji monastery in the countryside. In doing so, he founded the Japanese sect of Soto Zen.
Dogen’s writing reflects the same uncompromising nature seen in his life. In the Shobogenzo, he points directly at reality, shifting perspective continuously to block the reader from straying into any complacent, facile understanding.
|A Dogen Timeline|
|1200||born to politically important family.|
|1212||enters Tendai monastery Enryakuji on Mt Hiei.|
|1214||moves to Onjoji temple.|
|1217||studies Zen at Kenninji with Myozen.|
|1223||travels to China with Myozen.|
|1226||attains dropping away of body and mind under Tiantong Rujing (Tend? Nyoj?).|
|1228||returns to Japan, to Kenninji temple.|
|1231||writes earliest chapter of Shobogenzo.|
|1233||establishes the Kannon Dori Koshohorin-ji in Kyoto.|
|1244||founds Eiheiji near Echizen.|
|1253||dies September 29 in Kyoto.|
This is a sample of some of the themes that were particularly important to Dogen, and which he addressed in his writing.
Practice as Enlightenment
From his early days of study with Tendai masters, Dogen was troubled by the question: if all beings are inherently enlightened, why do Buddha’s strive for enlightenment? This question became the driving force in Dogen’s spiritual quest, and the question was not resolved until his training with Tiantong Rujing. In his subsequent writing, Dogen emphasises again and again that practice and enlightenment are not two separate things, the second resulting from the first. Instead, enlightenment is the practice itself.
This is the constant undercurrent in Dogen’s work. We miss something vital when we draw a line between practice and enlightenment, between body and mind, between transmission outside words and transmission in the sutras, between ourselves and the elements which compose us, between illusion and wisdom. Particular themes in Dogen often take the form of X as Y: the non-dual relationship between X and Y which are neither the same nor different. One example is Practice as Enlightenment.
Body as Mind
Dogen emphasises that we cannot separate our minds, even in their highest functioning, from our bodies. In Shobogenzo Shinjin Inga (A07/89 Deep Faith in Cause and Effect), Dogen writes: The self is identified with the mind. The mind is explained as something remaining apart from the body. This is the way in which non-Buddhists think about the body.
In contrast with this, Buddhists should not regard the mind as remaining apart from the body: the two are inseparable.
Dogen did not give weight to the division of Buddhism into vehicles, traditions and schools. In Shobogenzo Bendowa he says: A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only know authenticity or inauthenticity of practice. He sees the fruits and stages of the Hinayana path as equally expressions of enlightenment.
The Glasgow Zen Group has a close but not exclusive association with the Dogen Sangha. The Dogen Sangha is based in Tokyo, Japan, but has a UK branch centred in Bristol. This branch is lead by Mike Luetchford. Some members of our sangha study with Mike either through his annual retreats, or through regular trips to Bristol. The GZG and the Dogen Sangha also run joint annual sesshins, the first of which was held in 2004 at Rowandennan.
As the name suggests, the Dogen Sangha focusses on expressing the Buddhism of Dogen, both in study and in practice. As part of this work, the Sangha has and is producing translations of Dogen’s Shobogenzo and other works.
If you would like to study Dogen within the context of practice, the Dogen Sangha’s offerings are a good place to start.