Dogen Themes


This is a sample of some of the themes that were particularly important to Dogen, and which he addressed in his writing.


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.

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.