Dogen: the Patron Saint of Passive Zen?

I was pleased this morning as I reviewed the comments to my recent posts about Soto Zen going to hell. Seems like as real a cyber conversation as we’ve had in these parts. Not everyone agrees, of course, and sometimes feelings flare.

One way to frame the disagreement is as a debate between inherent stability and full aliveness. As is often the case these days, Dogen is brought up as a proponent of inherent buddha nature with a slight twist – there is no enlightenment apart from practice and its corollary, practice is itself enlightenment.

Was Dogen, then, the patron saint of passive Zen, as one tongue-in-cheek commentator says?

The above drawing (not mine), represents the active and passive aspects of what Dogen taught (e.g., “Instructions for the Cook” vs. “Zazenshin”) and reflects the actual practice of Soto Zen. Obviously, there are the active (work) and passive (zazen) sides  of training. However, for Zen activity to be fully alive, the activity must spring from stillness. For the practice of stillness to be fully alive, interiority must be dynamically hopping along.

I like the drawing above, but from the view I’m expressing here, I’d like the two monks to be much closer. It isn’t about balancing two things but about the two aspects entwined and hopping along together, sometimes dangerously close to falling down, sometimes falling down. And then, pushing off the great earth, getting up and getting going again.

The form of zazen and the precepts, for example, are the containers for full aliveness, the ground rules for full-out boogie, optimally unfolding full aliveness. Without the intimate engagement of both aspects, practice is either boring and repressive or crazy and dangerous. The beauty of Dogen’s expression is how he points to full aliveness in stillness, still within full aliveness.

This is akin to Suzuki Roshi’s pre-politically correct “Hinayana practice with Mahayana spirit – rigid formal practice with informal mind.”

As my friend Nonin once said in a debate over the pure Dogen way to do oryoki meals, with Nonin not feeling the way that was being presented as pure, “Haven’t you heard? Dogen’s dead.”

So this conversation isn’t about authority, but about what Dogen wrote 750 years ago that can inform our practice-enlightenment now and especially for the next generation and beyond. The important point, then, is to take up the teaching and experiment with it … enjoying a good rant from time to time too. The old bugger certainly did.

Different people will come up with different results as they use the body-mind to test the teaching. No problem. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they’re all equal in power to illuminate one little corner of the world, as they say.

If it could be definitively demonstrated that Dogen totally favored one side or the other … well, ho hum. And that does seem to be the drift in contemporary Soto Zen – a rush to institutionalize, regulate, and normalize – making Zen safe and dull and utterly devoid of challenge and freedom.

A Zen teacher friend recently mentioned to me that when he read through the survey results of Soto Zen teachers that I’ve been groaning about, he found that when there was 60-70% agreement on some point, that he too almost always agreed. After our conversation, it occurred to me that I wished I said to him, “Yes, exactly the point. Ask safe questions tending to the norm and that’s the answers that you get.”

After 30-some years of study and practice, it’s my provisional view that Dogen was not advocating silent illumination or passivity. He was a creative. In fact, that Dogen did not advocate quietism makes him relevant today and is what keeps me coming back to his vivid expression of practice where the active and passive elements are in intimate conversation, with neither aspect dominating the other.

Even in his early years, when he was about 30, Dogen junked the “silent illumination” framing of zazen for the much more active “self-enjoyment samadhi.” Later it became “the acupuncture needle of zazen” as well, of course, as “dropping body and mind” and “earnest, vivid sitting.”

In the early period, as I was saying, it seems to me that he hadn’t fully resolved the nasty moral and practice implications of the original enlightenment teaching (“It’s all good” and “whatever” and “just sit”) that were vogue in his day. Here’s a passage from the “Self Enjoyment Samadhi” section of “Bendowa” with my comments inserted:

There is a path
(emphasizing the relative world with a beginning, middle and end)

through which the unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment of all things
(emphasizing the fundamental, giving possession of perfection to each of the myriad things with or without path) 

(the 10,000 dharmas advancing to confirm the self)

to the person in zazen, and the person and the enlightenment of all things intimately and imperceptibly assist each other.
(the practitioner boogieing with the buddha).

Therefore, this zazen person
(this person who has become a zazen person, but not necessarily the person who does not practice, intimately entwines with buddha)

without fail
(stay with it practitioners, you are doing it!)

drops off body and mind, cuts away previous tainted views and thoughts, awakens genuine buddha-dharma, universally helps the buddha work in each place, as numerous as atoms, where buddha-tathagatas teach and practice, and widely influences practitioners who are going beyond buddha, thereby vigorously
(the bold highlight that this dance is not passive)

exalting the dharma that goes beyond buddha 
(ordinary being and buddha together go beyond buddha).

Dogen’s creative burst of dharmic, koanic fluency during his early 40′s in Shobogenzo fascicle after fascicle goes beyond his early work in intensely wrestling practice-enlightenment, active-still, sacred-profane. More about that in future posts. I use the above because it is often cited to support the all-zazen-is-enlightenment view while the meaning is considerably more nuanced.

Dogen this and Dogen that. How will I live? How will you live?

Myotai Treace once said, “You can’t live a bunny life and write tiger poems.”

What is the self?

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  • Sam Guthrie

    Hey Dosho, Awesome post. I enjoy your thoughtful, pliant, playful authorial voice.

    Dogen always beguiled me, but I feel he, his work, somehow lives on in me, decades after I “left” Zen practice (can one leave Zen practice?). Maybe this is because there are still, reverberating in my body, so many beautiful talks of Katagiri Roshi discoursing on Dogen, leaving me scratching my head but strangely happy. Keep up the groovy work, brother.

  • Mike Haitch

    Fancy Dress? An expression of some aspects but not the entirety?

    • doshoport

      If “Fancy Dress?” is a response to “What is the self?” … I completely affirm your response.

      Or I may not know what the heck you’re talking about. :-)


  • Harry

    “What is the self?”

    A tiger squeezing himself out of a bunny costume… seriously, reading Dogen and cherry picking him for points to conform to our latter-day dried pooh stick of a Sewtoe Church might be like reading Allen Ginsberg to prove that we’re full-blooded heterosexuals… now work that one out!



    • doshoport

      I almost googled “Sewtoe Church” … and then got it.

  • Mike Haitch

    It was a response to that question.

  • Jundo Cohen

    Hi Dosho,

    Another brilliant point. Dogen advocated the pass-active and the acti-passive, fully exerting in the active when active and the passive when passive, and that Great Activity that fully dances both small human activity and passivity. Lovely. It is a “quiet sitting” on a green hilltop or in a cancer ward bed, in a temple or a bloody battlefield.

    But where to find Enlightenment? In everything when seen with Clear Eye, from bowing and chanting to changing a tire or baby diaper. Shikantaza is living, breathing, constantly changing and deepening … what could be “passive” about that? Some people make the mistake of looking for a dog’s Buddha Nature like this drawing, although it is found in the very running or sitting of the dog.

    DOG CHASING TAIL*yT2Hby*k-4X3a78zy2oPt5qMS0W9mlKmf-ZWQ*-gDqy3rrQUMv6CVzTg0DWu7UqrmtvahYuwaUXjRI11u/singaporeeducationalconsultantschasingitstail.jpeg

    Gassho, Jundo

  • Lee Love

    Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun is not at all passive. It is applied Buddhism. You can apply it to any art, craft or practice. This writing of Dogen’s is one of the reasons I decided to apply what I learned from Katagiri Roshi to the craft of pottery. I wrote previously: Zen is not divorced from Buddhism anywhere but in the West. There are secular applications in Chanoyu, Ikebana, Caligraphy and various arts, crafts and martial arts. But there is a framework in these arts, and morality lessons too. First of these lessons, is to bend the mast of the Ego.

    • doshoport

      Hi Lee,
      Yes, that Tenzokyokun is applied Buddhism was the point that I was trying to make, perhaps not clearly. I also agree about your point on Zen and Buddhism. Dogen, as you know, was only interested in buddhadharma and didn’t even call his thing Zen, let alone Soto Zen. I respect that kind of focus, just on what’s true.

  • http://JustThis( Alan

    Just this…and this, and this, and this, and this…

  • Harry

    “Some people make the mistake of looking for a dog’s Buddha Nature like this drawing, although it is found in the very running or sitting of the dog.”

    How can you know it is found or not without asking the dog?

    If it isn’t found in the looking it isn’t found at all. God help anyone who ever ‘finds’ their Buddha Nature; they may be incurable.



  • Harry

    …Does a dog’s Dog Nature (e.g. dogs’ tendency to chase their tails… some more than others) preclude them from Buddha Nature?

    Does Human Nature (e.g. our strong tendency to question and look… some more than others) preclude us from Buddha Nature?

    Is Buddha Nature merely some inhuman, undogly, sanitised mental state brought about by sitting-as-not-looking-or-doing-anything? There’s no room for a dirty, human buddha, or a messy, silly dog, to chase itself there. Buddha Nature, as Master Dogen indicated so well, is a vigorous activity of the self using the self to chase the self to forget the self to be realised by the many-self in real-time.

  • Jundo Cohen

    Hi Harry,

    Yes, nothing can be found … and that’s a BIG FIND!

    But that’s 80%.

    One can go further … Buddha Nature is a vigorous activity of the self using the self to chase the self to forget the self to be realised by the many-self in real-time … which is the self enlivened by the self and putting aside the self while rebirthing the birthless self as a new self beyond any self, as 10,000 things advance to confirm the self, all selflessly beside itself and self(ves) inside self(ves) dancing self upon self upon self upon self … as each self is all selves and all selves are no selves is this self no self self … self backwards is self fles rightwards …

    … and still be no further or closer. ;-)

    Gassho, J

  • phil martin

    What hooked me about Dogen from the first those many years ago, was how the distinctions and paradoxes didn’t seem to impede him at all. Those extremes that trip us up or that we get stuck in–body/mind, practice/enlightenment, action/passivity, relative/absolute– Dogen neither blended them in a tasteless mush, or found that static balance point which is a trap in itself. Instead he planted one foot in each realm, like Rumpelstiltskin defiantly stomping up to his hip into the ground. And rather than split apart, he spoke boldly and wholly from that stance. It still amazes me and informs how I practice.

    And for today, if the question hangs out there to be answered, I only can answer with another question….What is NOT the self? Ask it again tomorrow. I’ll likely have a different answer.

  • phil martin

    just a few more thoughts on paradox….

    I was lucky enough to spend a week up on Lake Superior earlier this month, and got to spend each day sitting zazen on the rocks just before the great lake. I was aware that i sat on the border, between the stone and the waves. And that awareness grew, so that I almost became obsessed with the idea of edges, noticing the meeting place between rock and water, self and the world, in-breath and out-breath. I remember reading somewhere once that deer creatures are liminal creatures, beings who hang out at the thresholds. They like those places where the wild meets civilization, where the forest meets the clearing, where the scrub becomes the cornfield. The deer know that’s where the good stuff is. iit occurs to me thers’s something of that in Dogen too. He stands there at the edge, between practice and enlightenent, and all the other “ands,” calling to us to join him. Like the deer do, he knows that’s where the cool stuff happens, and where the sustenance is.

  • Andrew C White

    In AA they outline a spiritual program for sobriety. They tell you to show up early and set up chairs and stay late to pick up and clean up ashtrays. They tell you to work the steps and focus on the spiritual aspects of the program and when you ask what are the spiritual aspects they laugh and tell you “It’s all spiritual.” They tell you that AA is easy, all you have to do is change everything about yourself. But then they tell you not to make any major decisions or changes until you’ve been sober awhile. After awhile it became clear to me that there were two primary levels to the program. One was in the literature, reading the books, learning how to work the steps, being encouraged to pray and meditate, let go of self-will, learning acceptance of things as they are and how to live in the present moment. The second was in setting up chairs, cleaning ashtrays, making coffee for others, picking up people and driving them to meetings, taking the new guy out to the diner for coffee, a meal and conversation. A friend early on called it “nuts and bolts AA.”

    My cushion sits in a room at home and that is where I sit and do that zen thing. But here at work on my monitor is where I put a little sticker that says “practice.”

  • Bryan

    For those who aren’t aware of the connection between Merwin, Zen, Wild Foxes and all the rest (although it should be clear from his poem), I add this: “In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with Robert Aitken, a Zen Buddhist teacher. “

  • Stephanie

    Lovely post. I like your emphasis on Dogen as “a creative.” I think the capacity to “think outside the box,” experiment, challenge, and question is vital if one is to go much beyond the shallow end of the Dharma pool. I still feel very much at the beginning of practice – and I don’t mean that in a flattering “beginner’s mind” sense, more like a ten years in, and still no kensho or world-conquering moment – the point when you start to realize you may be a Zen dunce forever – and yet I’ve lived on the path long enough to see that any of those moments that really mattered have been deeply personal. There is no audience with a round of applause and a booby prize when you reach the end of the line, so what is it to practice Dharma as if there were? As if being patted on the head or fawned over was the ultimate goal? The ego doing its little turn on the catwalk. As a Gnarls Barkley song goes, Who Cares? 

    Dogen seemed like he was on the raw edge of “It,” whatever It is, his words just coming straight from the core of his being. Who lives like that any more these days? Especially in Zen? I guess at least we’ve still got rock stars and Red Bull Air Race pilots to put it on the line for us, though hell, even in the case of the former, it’s more organic sweaters than leather pants now. I was recently reading Shokahu Okumura’s Living By Vow and struck by his description of how enamored Dogen was of the hardcore solitary practice of some Zen worthy whose name escapes me at the moment. There was that vibe of intensity that is absent from so much American Buddhist pop lit. 

    And what a great quote from Myotai-sensei. Though you know, even bunnies can be pretty intense, having to run for their lives on a regular basis and all (was re-watching an episode of the Life documentary earlier and I now think of David Attenborough commenting that for a predator, a failed hunt is just one missed meal, whereas for the prey it’s always a matter of life and death – cut to a shot of a hapless young penguin getting ‘flayed’ by a leopard seal). It seems like ‘intensity’ is now treated as the special province of the Rinzai folks, but who says it has to be?

    I think ‘balance’ is an oversold concept in modern Zen, with the connotation of ‘balance’ as it has been used being that of calm and safe moderation. What was it William Blake said about the tygers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction? I mean, who knows, but folks these days are too scared to even look in a tigerly direction. I think of the lovely Neko Case song. “They shot the tiger on his chain, in the field behind the cages.” I personally like my tiger. I named it The Beast a while ago. He keeps me on my toes, alive in the shadow of death and asking questions. But damn, in a world of Buddhist bunnies they do want to take that tiger out back and shoot him for you, thinking they’re doing you a favor.

    • doshoport

      And I suppose that’s why tigers are so good at living in the shadows … and why we’re encouraged to practice secretly, working within like a fool….
      Thanks again for your comment,

  • Mitsu

    I’d like to make a comment from a different perspective; my teacher studied in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, though he incorporates many teachings from Chan/Zen. I have to say I find the entire discussion of “passive” versus “active” Zen here to be perhaps missing a certain dimension of possibility. The essential assumption seems to be that the “active” aspect of Zen is related in some way to realization, whereas the notion that “practice is enlightenment” is related to a kind of passivity which is, if not opposed to realization, in some way ignoring it. I have to say, I think there is a radically different way of approaching all this, which flips this distinction on its head, at least from the some perspective.

    That is to say: the problematic, which I believe both Trungpa and Suzuki-roshi and many other teachers have attempted to communicate, is that the idea of “non-attainment” does NOT mean that, well, just the way you are in the midst of your ordinary delusions, your ordinary way of conceiving of things and so on, is all there is. To me, this is a complete and total misunderstanding of what Dogen was getting at and what any teacher who talks about things from this perspective is trying to communicate. There’s a very different point being made here.

    The point is that there IS in fact a kind of problematic perspective, one which buys into ordinary notions of time, causes which lead to effects for the self, self-other, and so on. A “process” perspective, a “process” approach to thinking about who you are, your position in relation to other things and beings, a position with a defined history, and a progression towards a goal. And this entire matrix, this whole way of being, thinking, and so on, is a kind of ingrained habit. And the point of “non-attainment” or “no gaining idea” as Suzuki-roshi put it, isn’t that enlightenment is just going along like that, with all those habits and so on, and that’s fine! It is a much, much more radical point, if I may say so.

    That point is that if we recognize the problematic of the habits and these ways of conceiving our lives, embodied habits, we might then go, okay, now the thing to do is get rid of that, change it. And we set up a project for the self to “do” something about this, to make a change, and so on. But that very project itself is using the very problematic perspective that we have just begun to recognize!

    So the idea of being critical of “active” approaches is not because there’s no point to realization — in fact, properly understood, it’s a radical critique of every notion of ordinary effort, progress, time, projects, and so on. In other words, it’s a much more thoroughgoing notion of realization than one based on ordinary ideas like “I am going to become enlightened through intense effort.”

    This is actually an extremely interesting, core koan: what does it mean to attain something without turning it into an ordinary project in time? This isn’t balancing the so-called “active” and “passive”, as though active were a single-pointed effort towards realization and “passive” were sitting back and just settling into our habits — it’s a radical alternative to both ideas which goes far beyond our usual notions of both realization and effort.

    From the outside, this radical alternative might actually appear to be things happening in time. But there’s something else involved, something else at issue. What is that “something else”? That’s the koan. If I were to say anything about it, it’s this: the idea that things “happen” only because of “effort” or because we engage in projects to attain goals — that idea is fundamentally wrong. Thinking that’s why things happen is itself the illness we’re trying to “drop”. I.e., “dropping” isn’t an action, properly speaking.

    • doshoport

      Thank you for your thoughts. Seems like you’re in line with Mumon here:
      “If you go forward, you will lose the essence.
      If you go back, you oppose the truth.
      If you neither go forward nor back, you are a dead man breathing.
      Tell me now, what will you do?”
      If so, I agree.