Eihei Dogen

The Founder of Japanese Soto Zen

Eiheiji Statue
A mossy statue on the grounds of Eiheiji, Dogen's temple.

Hauke Dressler / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), also called Dogen Kigen or Dogen Zenji, was a Japanese Buddhist monk who established Soto Zen in Japan. He is also known for the collection of his writing called Shobogenzo, a masterpiece of the world's religious literature.

Dogen was born in Kyoto into an aristocratic family. He was said to have been a prodigy who learned to read both Japanese and classic Chinese by the time he was 4. Both of his parents died while he was still a small boy. The death of his mother, when he was 7 or 8, affected him especially deeply, making him aware of the impermanence of life.

Early Buddhist Education

The orphaned boy was taken in by an uncle who was a powerful, highly placed adviser to the emperor of Japan. The uncle saw to it the young Dogen received a good education, which included the study of important Buddhist texts. Dogen read the eight-volume Abhidharma-kosa, an advanced work of Buddhist philosophy when he was 9.

When he was 12 or 13 Dogen left that uncle's house and went to the temple Enryakuji, on Mount Hiei, where another uncle was serving as a priest. This uncle arranged for Dogen to be admitted to Enryakuji, an enormous temple complex of the Tendai school. The boy immersed himself in Tendai meditation and study, and he was ordained as a monk at the age of 14.

The Great Question

It was during Dogen's teenage years at Mount Hiei that a question began to nag at him. His teachers told him that all beings are endowed with Buddha Nature. That being the case, why was it necessary to practice and seek enlightenment?

His teachers gave him no answer that satisfied him. Finally, one suggested that he seek out a teacher from a school of Buddhism that was new to Japan -- Zen.

Years before, Eisai (1141-1215), another monk of Enryakuji, had left Mount Hiei to study in China. He came back to Japan as a teacher of the Linji, or Lin-chi, school of Chan Buddhism, which would be called in Japan Rinzai Zen. It is likely that by the time the 18-year-old Dogen reached Eisai's temple Kennin-ji in Kyoto, Eisai already was dead, and the temple was headed by Eisai's dharma heir Myozen.

Travels to China

Dogen and his teacher Myozen traveled to China together in 1223. In China, Dogen went his own way, traveling to a number of Chan monasteries. Then in 1224, he found a teacher named Tiantong Rujing who lived in what is now the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. Rujing was a master of a Chan school called Caodong (or Ts'ao-Tung) in China, and which would be called Soto Zen in Japan.

One morning Dogen was sitting zazen with other monks as Rujing was circumambulating the zendo. Suddenly Rujing berated the monk next to Dogen for falling asleep. "The practice of zazen is the dropping away of body and mind!" Rujing said. "What do you expect to accomplish by dozing?" At the words "dropping away of body and mind," Dogen experienced a deep realization. Later he would use the phrase "dropping body and mind" frequently in his own teaching.

In time, Rujing recognized Dogen's realization by giving him a teacher's robe and formally declaring Dogen to be his dharma heir. Dogen returned to Japan in 1227, and Rujing died less than a year later. Myozen had also died while in China, and so Dogen returned to Japan with his ashes.

Master Dogen in Japan

Dogen returned to Kennin-ji and taught there for three years. However, by this time his approach to Buddhism was radically different from the Tendai orthodoxy that dominated Kyoto, and to avoid political conflict he left Kyoto for an abandoned temple in Uji. Eventually, he would establish the temple Kosho-Shorinji in Uji. Dogen again ignored orthodoxy by taking students from all social classes and walks of life, including women.

But as Dogen's reputation grew, so did the criticism against him. In 1243 he accepted an offer of land from an aristocratic lay student, Lord Yoshishige Hatano. The land was in remote Echizen Province on the Sea of Japan, and here Dogen established Eiheiji, today one of the two head temples of Soto Zen in Japan.

Dogen fell ill in 1252. He named his dharma heir Koun Ejo the Abbott of Eiheiji and traveled to Kyoto seeking help for his illness. He died in Kyoto in 1253.

Dogen's Zen

Dogen left us a large body of writing celebrated for its beauty and subtlety. Often he returns to his original question -- If all beings are endowed with Buddha Nature, what is the point of practice and enlightenment? Fully penetrating this question has been a challenge to Soto Zen students ever since. Very simply, Dogen stressed that practice does not "make" a Buddha, or turn human beings into Buddhas. Instead, practice is an expression, or manifestation, of our enlightened nature. Practice is the activity of enlightenment. Zen teacher Josho Pat Phelan says,

"Therefore, it’s not even we who do the practice, but the Buddha we already are who practices. Because of this, realization is the practice of non-dual effort, not the result or accumulation of some earlier practice. Dogen said, 'Realization, neither general nor particular, is effort without desire.'"
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O'Brien, Barbara. "Eihei Dogen." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/eihei-dogen-450198. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 26). Eihei Dogen. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/eihei-dogen-450198 O'Brien, Barbara. "Eihei Dogen." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/eihei-dogen-450198 (accessed May 28, 2023).