Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

The Standpoint of Dogen and His Ideas on Time

By zen master Prof. Masunaga Reiho

From Soto Approach to Zen by Prof. Masunaga Reiho, Chapter 4, Layman Buddhist Society Press, 1958.

[Dogens ideas on Time] [Dogens view on Life-Death]

1. The Standpoint of Dogen

Religion tries to penetrate to the true ground of the contradictory self by transcending the ego-bound self and experiencing the real self. By focusing on death and sin, it strengthens our sense of the absolute, expands our sense of life, and purifies the sense of the sacred in our body and mind. Among religions Zen is an immanent transcendent type that makes zazen (cross-legged sitting) the basic form of practice that approaches the origin of the mind, and that directly experiences the absolute.

Dogen, in the GenjoKoan fascicle of his masterwork Shobogenzo (The Eye and Treasury of the True Law), makes this statement: To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one's self and of others. This implies wiping out even one's attachment to satori. Detaching ourselves from Satori, we must enter the day-to-day world. This sums up the essential character of religion. If we question the experience of the self, we become confused about where the self should be. If we become anxious about the experience of the self, we start knocking at the door of religion. Penetrating to the deepest true of the self, religion tries to transcend the ego and release the true self. But we have to seek the self by denying the self. Conduct based on self-desire and self-attachment is evil. In every religion the emphasis falls on denying the self. When we deepen our faith, we touch non-ego-a state free from the ego's dualistic thinking. Buddhism, setting up the principle that all things have no ego-substance, especially stresses the realization of no- ego. But the more deeply man reflects on the status of the self, the more he has to seek the absolute ground beyond the self. Belief springs not only from man's subjective demand, but also from his response to the beckoning of the absolute. It comes from the absolute and depends on the call of God. But this God is not only the object but also the ground of the object; He is not only the subject but also the ground of the subject. In Shoji, Dogen says:

When you let go of your mind and body and for get them completely, when you throw yourself into Buddha's abode, when everything is done by the Buddha, when you follow the Buddha Mind without effort or anxiety-you break free from life's suffering and become the Buddha.

When we transcend the subject and touch its ground, we come in contact with the absolute. The mind of God appears in the flowers in the field and the birds in the air. In them we see the form of the absolute. The truth speaks through objects. Arising from the Buddha, it takes shape in the world.

Thus one's body-mind and the body-mind of others are essentially free from conflict. The gap between one's self and others naturally falls away and invites unity. So attaining enlightenment does not call for pride. The enlightened returns to the day-to-day world, takes part in historical reality, and vitalizes Buddhism. Asanga called this Apratisthita-nirvana (enlightenment of no abode). In Zen Buddhism we call it training after enlightenment.

The severe and thorough style of Dogen's Zen was no doubt influenced by his master, Ch'ang-weng Ju-tsing (1163-1228). We can find two facets in Dogen - the carrying on of tradition and the realizing of individual potentiality; if we examine his career and his many books, especially the Shobogenzo.

Dogen wanted to return to the fundamental spirit of the Buddha from a critical standpoint. He spanned court life and tried to train a small group of elite followers. He rejected the idea that the three training - Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism could be reconciled. He criticized the rivalry among the five schools of Zen and tried to live in the oneness of Buddhism. He even refused to use the name Zen "sect." In short, he dwelt, like his teacher Ju-tsing, in supreme meditation - free from attachment to body and mind. Dogen's personal approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Since the object of Zen consists in actually experiencing the Buddha Mind, Dogen made no special effort to provide a tool for analyzing theoretical reality. While Dogen denied man and the world on one hand, he usually affirmed them on the other. Through mutually denying of the opposites, Dogen turned absolute denial into absolute affirmation. To Dogen, to be able to say and not to be able to say are self-identical, as are to be able to explain and not to be able to explain. Knowledge and faith, therefore, do not differ essentially from philosophy and religion. Dogen rejected such simple catchphrases as no dependence on the letters of the sutra and transmission outside of the classified teachings.
  2. For Dogen the main value of Buddhism did not lie in the superiority of the teaching or the profundity of the truth. He set greatest store in the truth or fallacy of the training. The prime object, he felt, was not to know Buddhism but to become Buddhism. In his personal life, Dogen, unable to resolve his great doubt about original Dharmata by discriminating intellect, managed to find a solution through unified training and experience. He learned that contradictions can only be truly resolved through Zen action. The mind itself is the Buddha was not a mere theory for Dogen, he knew it became a living experience through religious need, practice, wisdom, and enlightenment. In this way Dogen broke the religious impasse reached by the Tendai and Shingon doctrines of the body itself becomes the Buddha.
  3. Founders of Buddhist schools generally considered the time and space in selecting a suitable sutra; they naturally favored a Buddhism befitting the ability of the people. But Dogen dismissed such an approach, which he considered characteristic of religious decline. He asserted that training must be carried out without relaxation especially in a "twilight" age. Dogen found deep meaning in the unremitting effort to realize eternal truth with his whole personality.
  4. The zazen that Dogen recommended to everyone denies the difference between training and enlightenment. It emphasizes their non- duality. Zen Buddhism, of course, takes the basic form of cross-legged sitting. But this cross-legged sitting is not simple zazen but "training based on original enlightenment." Dogen' zazen is "taintless" training - one permitting no hiatus between training and enlightenment. It is simultaneously superior training and original enlightenment. Training enfolds enlightenment, so enlightenment-based training takes place unimpeded. Dogen's zazen, therefore, is not a means to an end but the end itself. It is cross-legged sitting for no gain and with no expectation-a way of living in one's true self. Since truly transmitted zazen is superior training enfolding original enlightenment, it frees itself from the wait for enlightenment and the wish to become a Buddha. It definitely does not strive for enlightenment by means of the Koan. Because superior training enfolds original enlightenment, it has no end. We practice the Way even after enlightenment and keep up the effort even after becoming a Buddha.
  5. Zen, while a religion of cross-legged sitting, does not end with zazen. It tries to purify and infuse daily activities with the basic spirit of Zen. This tendency emerged in the early history of Zen, but Dogen deepened its meaning and stressed that daily work itself is true Buddhism. Seeing no gap between the mundane and transcendental, he taught a Buddhism that lives and works in day-to-day activity. For those who make unimpeded use of each hour, every day is a good day.
  6. Those who live in the eternal identity of the Buddhist spirit even though time and history flow are recognized as transmitters of the true law. Transmission of the true law means that two personalities are unified in one by direct contact, and one life handed down to another without end. In transmission the mind of the master and disciple are interfused like the trunk and branch of a tree. And to keep Buddhism fresh the disciple must eventually transcend the master and express the basic teaching in terms of his own personality. When the master is strong and the disciple weak, Ananda is overshadowed by Mahakasyapa; when the disciple is strong and the master weak. Mahakasyapa is overshadowed by Ananda. In Menju (an essay in Shobogenzo) Dogen tries to explain this contact: Though not in horizontal relation, though not in vertical relation - it is transmission. This suggests that the life of the Buddha move through history and advances in time and space.
  7. "Unthinking" zazen makes it possible to experience freedom from the duality of body and mind. It eliminates the common delusion that we and the Buddha are separated and establishes the unitize truth. Zen is the synthesis of wisdom (which manifests the original Buddha Mind in enlightenment) and of contemplation (which expresses it in training). The enlightenment and training identified with the original Buddha Mind constitutes the essence of Zen. But this Buddha Mind is not a stationary mind as maintained in the Srenika heresy. Dogen, therefore, used the terms no Buddha Mind and impermanent Buddhahood. For "nothing" is not relative emptiness but absolute nothing. It is absolute void - or absolute being. Dogen also asserted that all existence is the Buddha Mind and made this the ground of all being and all value. He thus deepened the meaning of embracing all beings in the matrix of the Tathagata. All beings move in the sea of the Buddha Mind. Buddhahood, expressing itself in a new form each movement, permeated the world.

[The Standpoint of Dogen] [Dogens view on Life-Death]

2. Dogens ideas on Time

The idea of impermanent Buddhahood necessarily introduces us to the problem of time. In the history of Buddhist thought there have been many essays on time - like the Madhyamika and Fa-tsang's (643-712) Hua-yen-t'an-hsuan-chi.

But Dogen seems to have gone further than most in organizing time-experience as a system of thought. In Shobogenzo the problem comes up in such essays as Uji, Kenbutsu, Sansuikyo, Daigo, GenjoKoan, Kuge, Kaiinzammai, Menju, Bussho, and Zenki.

An especially detailed study of time is contained in Uji. The date at the end of this essay indicates that it was written in the early winter of 1240 at the Kosho Horin temple in the suburbs of Kyoto. At that time Dogen was 41 years old. Making Uji the focus and referring to other writings of Dogen, let us treat his thoughts on time in terms:

  1. the self-identity of existence and time,
  2. specific time,
  3. basic time,
  4. the principle of continuity in time,
  5. the absolute present, and
  6. applied time or time in practice.

As St. Augustine said: If no one asks me about time, I know all about it; but if someone asks, I know nothing about it. It is difficult to explain time when it is so closely linked up with our lives and flowing in the same current. Generally time tends toward abstraction. But in Dogen, time is practical-a means of grasping reality. Time - like space - has been considered a form of cognition. The idea has been that objects must exist in a fixed place and time before they can result in sensation and intuitional knowledge. Time and space, therefore, are prerequisites to direct knowledge in traditional Western thought. They

  1. are not obtained from experience-both being there before experience-and
  2. Have been thought of as a form of intuition rather than of conception.


  1. Dogen asserts that time is not simply contentless form; he identifies it with existence. In Kuge, he says: Time has such colors as blue, yellow, red, and white. Spring draws in flowers and flowers draw in spring. There is absolutely no difference between time and such colors as blue, yellow, red, and white. The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers. The flowers in turn express the time called spring. This is not existence within time; existence itself is time. Dogen underlines this in Uji with such statements as, Time is existence, and existence is time and You must see all things in this world as time. Everything in the world-each existence-must be itself a time unit. This vitalizes the basic principle of Buddhism: Time does not have a separate substance: it is established by existence. And it is clear that time takes form in space. Dogen's standpoint here has some of the flavor of modern existentialist philosophy, particularly the ideas in Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.
  2. The word "Uji" refers to a specific time taken from infinite continuity. It points to the existence of a discontinuous time expressed as "this time" and "that time." At the beginning of the Uji essay, Yueh-shan is quoted as saying: Standing on the peak of a high mountain is Uji. Diving to the bottom of the deep ocean is Uji. You and your neighbor are Uji. The great earth and vast sky are Uji. All these instances are limited to an independent and isolation special time.

    But Dogen himself refers to time cut off from past and future as ordinary time and contrasts it with basic time. This special time can be compared to Heidegger's "vulgare Zeit" of ordinary life (Alltagichkeit). Time flows but it is not simple flowing. Uji contains elements that are difficult to express simply in terms of individualized special time. To take Uji only as a single time unit and see it as part of the time flow does not go beyond the common understanding of specific time. About this, Dogen says: If you think of uji in the common way, even wisdom and enlightenment become only appearances in time coming and going. Time is flowing without flowing, and it takes shape in the flow without flow.

  3. Uji can also be considered the source of all time units just as Buddhahood is the ground of all existence. It is the basic time (ursprungliche Zeit) behind such manifestations of time itself as high mountains, deep seas, the great earth, and the empty sky. It is time-beyond, and time arises from it and returns to it. Regarding this, Dogen says: Uji arises, free from desire. It materializes now here, now there. Even the king of heaven and his retainers are not separated from uji manifested. Other beings on land and in water also arise from uji. All things in darkness and light arise from uji. These manifestations become the time process. Without time, nothing can arise. Not a single thing arises apart from uji. This basic time is time and also time beyond time. This thesis - that specific time is actually basic time-resembles the thought of Heidegger.
  4. If we think of independent and discontinuous specific time as unified in the self, it becomes the concept of continuity in time. For continuity in time is the time process. It has future and past, which are mutually linked, and mark time's passage. Dogen takes this view: Ultimately all existences are linked and become time. Because it is uji, it is my personal time. Uji has the trait of continuity; it goes from today to tomorrow. Time changes each moment without losing its continuity. Time is time because it is continuous. Such continuity can be compared to Bergson' Duree pure and Heideggers' die Dauer, das Wahren der Zeit. This refers to the manifestation of time (Uebergangscharacter) between now and then (vom Jetzt bis Dann).
  5. From one point of view, time is isolated in each moment and disconnected from past and future. From another point of view, it manifests new time each moment and connects up the past and future. Dogen says in GenjoKoan. You must understand that a burning log-as a burning log-has before and after. But although it has past and future, it is cut off from past and future. The statement that the log has before and after refers to the continuity of time. Cut off from past and future refers to the discontinuity of time.

    But no matter how long time continues, there is only the moment. Dogen expresses this thought in these words: It continues from today to day. Time goes from the present to the present. And discrete continuity and unmoving motive are only possible in this moment. This is the now of specific time-the eternal present. Commenting on this problem, Tenkei Denson (1648-1735) says: Mount is time; eternity is time. Time is no time-is eternity. The idea of time as no time refers to absolute timelessness. This is the absolute present. Shuho Myocho (1282-1336) says: We have been separated for so long and have never been apart. We meet each other throughout the day, and do not meet a moment. The present embraces the past and future: it is absolute. The conflict between continuity and discontinuity is resolved here. This is called the unity of specific time and continuity.

    In Daigo, Dogen writes: The so-called present is every man's now. When now we think a past and future, myriad times are the present. They are the now. The original nature of man is the present. This recalls St. Augustine, who argued that instead of setting up the three times categories of past, present, and future, we should say present of the past, present of the present, and present of the future. Dogen says: Time seems to be beyond but it is now. Time seems to be over there, but it is now. The now of specific time continues, embracing the past and future. The moment is eternity.

  6. We first realize the meaning of "now" by training. In Gyoji, Dogen says: Before practice there is a way called 'now.' Realizing practice is called now. There is no real present apart from human action. Where we truly live, we find the present-and nowhere else. Outside the now of practice there is no essential self.

    In the Gyoji essays, Dogen also writes: The great way of the Buddha and the patriarchs always has supreme practice; it circulates and is never cut off. Through this practice, which always circulates and is never cut off, the essential self emerges. Man must live the life of now - and die the death of now. Purifying his activities, he must live fully in life; in death, he must eliminate complications and die with thoroughness.

    For those who are not pushed around by the hours of the day - for those who make active use of them - every day is a good day, and every hour is a good hour. Those people can then be a vital factor everywhere and make truth live wherever they stand.

    In the first part of Zuimonki, Dogen says: Without looking forward to tomorrow every moment, you must think only of this day and this hour. Because tomorrow is unfixed and difficult to know, you must think of following the Buddhist way while you live today. He makes a similar statement in the second part of the essay: You must concentrate on Zen practice without wasting time, thinking that there is only this day and this hour. After that it becomes truly easy. You must forget about the good or bad of your nature, the strength or weakness of your power. The essence of religion in Dogen's mind, lies in living truly in the now of specific time. Realizing the value of life depends on expressing the day and months of a hundred years in each day's living. By unimpeded practice that cuts off past and future, we fulfil the meaning of life for the first time. Thus this day should be vital, Dogen says in Gyoji. To live one hundred years wastefully is to regret each day and month. Your body becomes filled with sorrow. Although you wander as the servant of the senses during the days and months of a hundred years - if you truly live one day, you not only live a life of a hundred years, but save the hundred years of your future life. The life of this one-day is the vital life. Your body becomes significant. True religious life thus comes into being through the now realized in practice.

[The Standpoint of Dogen] [Dogens ideas on Time]

3. Dogens view on Life-Death

Let us now consider Dogen's view of life-death in relation to the problem of time. To be concerned with life-death is the very essence of religion. Originally man could touch the abode of his self at the moment of death. Death is inherent in the self; it does not belong to others but is connected with one's self. It is difficult to overlook. It is the most obvious of facts. We worry, wondering when it will come to us. This self is the only one, and this life comes but once. The deads do not return. All living things die - man is truly mortal. Those who, like animals, live unaware of life's impending dissolution find it difficult to grasp the true self.

The fear of death means attachment to life. But arising, decaying, and changing are the true aspects of life and the essential characteristics of human existence. If birth and death are put in opposition, birth precedes death, and death follows birth. This viewpoint aggravates the difficulty of penetrating the problem of life-death. In Shinjingakudo, Dogen says: Although we have not yet left birth, we already see death. Although we have not yet left death, we already see birth. This runs counter to the common view of birth-death. Birth and death are the two sides of human existence. Every moment is birth from one standpoint and death from another. Each moment we live and die. Life is a moment of growth and a moment of decay. Death pervades life, and life pervades death. And it is birth and death that give significance to human existence. From the usual viewpoint birth and death are nothing but transmigration. Those enslaved by the idea of an ego cannot break free from the stream of birth and death; they have lost their freedom of escape. If ego-attachment is severed, we realize that the continuity of birth and death is itself the expression of Buddhahood and thus gain control over birth and death. Be cause the Great sage gained insight into life and decay, he did not fear birth and death; instead be made life-and-death existence a place for training. Therefore, Dogen says: Although birth and death are the transmigration of the unenlightened, the Buddha is free from all this. For those who have control over them, birth and death are not things to be feared and avoided. They are transmitted instead to the coming and going of light. In Bendowa, Dogen says: To think that birth and death are things to be avoided is a sin against Buddhism. They are truly the tools of Buddhism.

It is said that time is cut off from past and future although it has past and future. In this way, birth and death, while continuing without pause, are absolute existences disconnected from one moment to the next. Birth is one position of time, and death, too, is one position of time. But the now of specific time that connects birth and death is an absolute, unchallengeable reality Apart from this moment there is no birth and death anywhere. Outside the present, we seek life; outside the present, we are terrified by death-this is the common delusion. We must live the life of now to the fullest; we must die the death of now without hesitation, Here abides the full realization of all functions. About this, Yuan-wu K'o-ch'in (? -1135) says: Life is the realization of all functions; death is the realization of all functions. Buddhahood is expressed in full, whether in life or death.

We must regulate life and death, while living and dying our life and death. Because life and death and coming and going are true human actions, to throw them away in denial is forsaking the life of the Buddha. Therefore, says Dogen in Shoji: If life comes, there is life. If death comes, this is death. There is no reason for your being under their control. Don't put any hope in them. This life and death are the life of the Buddha. If you try to throw them away in denial, you lose the life of the Buddha. Chia-shan says: If the Buddha is within life and death, we are not confused by life and death. Ting-shan says: If there is no Buddha within life and death, it is not life and death. Both are trying to explain the problem of life and death, but Chia-shan view life-death and the Buddha dualistically. Ta-mei Fa-ch'ang (752-839) had to criticize him: He is far from the Way. Dogen says: If a man seeks the Buddha without life and death, it is like turning the cart to the north and heading for Esshu (Yueh-chou), or looking south to see the North Star. We will gather the cause of life and death more and more-and lose the way to liberation. We can transcend life-death if we study and do what we must in the present moment without pursuing the past or waiting for the future. A relevant passage appears in the sutra (M.N.): Don't pursue the past: don't wait for the future. .... Just do today with all your heart what must be done today. Who can know the death of tomorrow?

Dogen's view of life and death is closely connected with applied time. In Kenbutsu, Dogen says: Though we say the Buddha of the past, present, and future, this differs from the common time standard. The so-called past is the top of the heart; the present is the top of the fist; and the future is the back of the brain. Regarding this, the "Benchu," a commentary by Tenkei on the Shobogenzo, says The three worlds of past, present, and future are your heart fist and brain. They are not the three times of common sense. They are the abode of your own body in the 10 worlds of past and present. Although called the three worlds of past, present, and future, there is nothing but this moment as the self-fixation of the eternal now.

Thus Dogen, while inheriting the tradition, realized his own individuality. In the world of philosophy and religion he opened up his own vista. In Japan he greatly influenced the generation that followed. His ideas or time compare favorably with modern Western philosophy. In fact, they may open up new avenues to an East West cultural synthesis.