Master Dogen: A Pragmatic Mind

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

It doesn’t take long for anyone new to Buddhist inquiry to encounter the name and lessons of the thirteenth century Japanese Zen Master Dogen. He is referenced all the time in Zen/Ch’an publications today. He is a Zen superstar, and is credited for establishing the Soto Zen school. His work is referenced by both Chinese, Japanese, and contemporary Western Zen Buddhist teachers today as representing how important mindful meditation (zazen) and a common sense approach for a serious practice is. He is very pragmatic in his approach to Buddhist thought. “Useful and productive” seems to be an underling theme throughout his teaching. He, of course, had no notion of the term ‘pragmatic’. While the term has been around for quite a few decades, it is also a modern philosophical construction arising from the American pragmatic movement in the nineteenth and twenty centuries. But Dogen’s path to development of a pragmatic perspective to life, and his subsequent worldview, was one that he cultivated over a period of years, especially in his travels and study in China.

Dogen was one of the major leaders in the Kamakura period’s revitalization of Buddhism in Japan. It was not an immediate consequence of his influence on the cultural changes that took place during this dynamic period in Japanese history, but one that required decades to accomplish. These changes, and the new Buddhist schools that emerged, had either direct or indirect roots in China. These new schools, including what was to become know as Soto Zen, emphasized the practical actions to be undertaken by both lay and monastic students stressing individual practice that was supported by a Sangha open to all. It was no longer just a monastic practice that was required for coming to a realized state of body-mind. What was more important was establishing a strong student/teacher relationship. In order to do this, authenticated teachers were encouraged to make themselves open to those outside the walls of a temple. This was a revolutionary change. In the past, only the best educated and aristocratic families contributed to the monastic communities. In the type of militaristic culture Japan had at the time, it was only possible for the samurai class to participate in the traditional style of education like offered in monastic communities. There were exception, but they were rare. Dogen himself came from an aristocratic family, but early life circumstances provided him a chance to move away from what was expected of him and instead followed his developing awareness that was calling him to step on the spiritual path.

Dogen was driven to find answers to one nagging question, “If we are all enlightened beings, why is it so difficult to achieve this understand?” To get answers that could be useful and productive to his own practice, he decided to travel to China where he thought he would find a teacher that could work with him on this question. He was taking the bull by the horns, and his life would never be the same again. On this first trip to China he stayed for four years and worked on his meditation technique that was stressed in Chinese Ch’an practice over what was emphasized in traditional Japanese Buddhism in the thirteenth century. He experienced a breakthrough that was authenticated by his teacher. When he returned to Japan it was with a new pragmatic approach to practice that was outside conventional structures of his day, and placed emphases on personal experience that acted as the basis for self-realization when combined with a strong zazen practice.

Dogen recognized that while contemporary Japanese teachers stressed the intellectual pursuit of scriptures as the means to realization, it falsely separated practice from it (realization), cultivation from authentication. In his day it was considered that meditation was a means to an end, a technique and tool to use to experience satori. Dogen came to realize that this distinction between method and goal was in error: zazen is not a technique by which to achieve enlightenment; it was enlightened action itself. Dogen also recognized that for his new understanding to gain cultural authority he had to justify it to his skeptics. As a result, he spent much time in the first years of his teaching, writing and lecturing on the value and practicality of this new approach to Japanese Buddhist practice, following the example of Siddhartha himself.

Shobogenzo pushes the medieval Japanese language to its expressive limits as Dogen interweaves the idiomatic and the traditional. This was driven most likely by the influence of the Chinese language and use of characters in the Chinese language that were more expressive and imaginary then the more practical Japanese characters. This is another example of how Dogen used the tools at his disposal in new and useful ways to break through a more entrenched “old school” way of thinking. Dogen often writes statements that have concrete and poetic images and that have at least two levels of meaning, and he is very skillful in using traditional Buddhist terms to function simultaneously as natural images and descriptions of states of mind.

Perhaps one of Dogens most striking and more radical methods of revitalizing Buddhist thought is by reinterpretation of classical passages. In a pragmatic way this is seen as “creative re-description”. It is interesting that often he describes his understanding of Buddhist practice as very traditional, and pointing to what he termed as “correct Dharma”. His approach was based on what he thought was a return, and rediscovery, of Buddhism’s essence. This may be one reason that Dogen often quotes classical scriptures, but in doing so he often gives the Chinese phrases a more “creative” meaning.

In Dogen more than in any other Zen Master of his day perhaps, there is a comprehensive attempt at explaining the nature of the Zen experience with ordinary ways the Universe expresses itself. He felt that there was little difference between the enlightened and the unenlightened mind, other than awareness of the difference by those that are awakened. Dogen worked diligently to find useful ways to bring the dharma to all those that wanted to step on the path. The causal effects of his life and practice are still reverberating in our world today, and producing productive and positive experiences each time we sit zazen.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s