Dogen and Koan: The Ultimate Truly Definitive Unquestionable Smoking Gun

Yamada Mumon MuThere is a long-standing debate in Soto Zen circles about Dogen and the use of koans.

Dogen, you see, is regarded these days as the founder of the just-sitting school of Zen (Soto) and his writings are used (selectively – I’d argue) to paint the great founder advocating for the style of zazen he taught, shikantaza, and the style that characterizes the modern Rinzai school, koan introspection, as different and not equal. This narrative became dominant about two hundred years ago – 550 years after Dogen’s death.

This characterization, however, is unfair in many many ways. We know, for example, that there have always been Soto practitioners engaged in koan introspection, (e.g. the 18th Century Soto masters Genro and Fugai wrote The Iron Flute:100 Zen Koans), especially since Harada Daiun’s time, beginning about a hundred years ago.

In this post, I reveal the ultimate argument that will definitively and for all time prove that Dogen was really a koan teacher or that, as I believe, koan and shikantaza were not different practices for him.

Or it might at least provide a little more fuel to the already convinced. You get to judge. This is the internet, after all.

Before I get into that, though, I want to admit that it really doesn’t matter. Koan introspection has a profound integrity that does not need Dogen’s approval. For those of us who are deeply moved by Dogen’s teaching, however, there is a yearning that the old boy’s work be represented fairly and accurately and not be misappropriated for a sectarian political agenda.

Oh, yes, but what about the smoking gun?

First we need some background, a baseline for comparison, if you will.  I’ve selected a couple passages by a koan teacher so we can hear what s/he might sound like so that we can contrast it to Dogen and appreciate the difference heard by many modern Soto folks. So the following are by a teacher of about the same dates as Dogen who advocates for koan introspection:

Good gentle people, when you meet a teacher, first ask for a kōan, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently. If you climb to the top of the mountain and dry up the oceans, you will not fail to complete this study.

And specifically regarding the mu koan (like the “mu” calligraphy above  by Yamada Mumon Roshi), here’s that same koan teacher:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, ‘Does a dog have the Buddha nature?’ Zhaozhou answered, ‘Mu.’ Can you gauge this word, ‘mu’? Can you contain it? There is no place at all to grasp its nose. Please try letting it go. Let it go and just look. What about your body and mind? What about your conduct? What about life and death? What about the dharma of the Buddha, the dharma of the world? What about, after all, the mountains, rivers and great earth, the men, beasts, houses and dwellings? If you keep looking and looking, the two attributes of motion and rest will naturally become perfectly clear, without arising. Yet, when these do not arise, this does not mean that one becomes rigidly fixed. There are many people who fail to realize this and are confused about it. Students, you only attain it when you are still half way; when you are all the way, do not stop. Press on, press on.

Now for the surprise – the above passages are by the koan teacher named Dogen. The first passage is from Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 528, the second (which I’ll focus on) is from “Guidelines for Studying the Way, 8, The Actions of a Zen Monk.” There are many more possible examples including more than 30 times in the Shobogenzo where Dogen admonishes his readers to “sit quietly and reflect” many different koan topics.

Sometimes orthodox Soto teachers, bent on explaining away the obvious (sweating and shifting on their zafus), argue that in the second passage, when Dogen says, “Let it go and just look,” he’s encouraging his students to let go of mu and practice shikantaza.

One problem with that theory is that it goes against what is known about the context in which “Guidelines for Studying the Way” was written in 1234. This text was addressed to the group of monks living with Dogen at his first monastery near Kyoto and therefore was not included by Dogen in the draft Shobogenzo that he pulled together before he died. “Guidelines” appears to have been originally intended as an in-house document, not directed for a general audience.

Even if we read the passage as Dogen telling the monks in his monastery to stop practicing mu, there’s a problem – where might they have gotten the practice from in the first place?

Dogen’s first Zen teachers, Eisai and Myozen, from whom he received a Huanglong Rinzai lineage, had both been dead for some time. It appears that Eisai had other successors, though, so maybe the monks had learned of koan introspection from them. However, in the writings left by Eisai, there are no references to koan introspection. None. We don’t know what Dogen and Eisai’s other heirs were doing while they were studying with Eisai and Myozen. It may have been the Huanglong style of koan introspection (Heine calls it the “entangling vines” approach) or it may have been a more generic form of Zen meditation common on the continent.

Nevertheless, what we know of the monks in Dogen’s assembly does not indicate that they had generally come from some other successor of Eisai or Myozen.

But if not from the Eisai line, maybe the monks had picked up koan introspection from another Rinzai line. However, it doesn’t appear that there were any in Japan in 1234, with the exception of the renegade Daruma-shu, but the teacher there, Nonin, had not gone to China and seems to have had a rather one-sided absolutist view so it seems very unlikely there was any koan introspection going on in the Daruma-shu.

But how about the important Enni Bennen, the Rinzai teacher who eventually had 30-some successors and was given the big monastery in Kyoto that Dogen is reputed to have had his eye on? Well, in 1234, Enni was just tying up his straw sandals and heading for China.

So where, oh, where could the monks in Dogen’s monastery have received instruction in the mu koan? The only likely place, imv, that they could have picked up mu practice to begin with was from the only monk known to have studied in China with a teacher who is known to have advocated for practicing mu. That teacher would Rujing and the Japanese monk would be Dogen.

Furthermore, it is more than a stretch to view the passage above as discouraging koan introspection. Instead, the more likely explanation, is that Dogen was giving his monks good advice for how to practice with mu – when you approach getting hold of mu, let go and look! And then Dogen jumps in much like Hakuin might with a series of questions to test and open up a student’s realization (aka, checking questions):

  • What about your body and mind?
  • What about your conduct?
  • What about life and death?
  • What about the dharma of the Buddha
  • What about the dharma of the world?
  • What about the mountains, rivers and great earth, the men, beasts, houses and dwellings? 

Indeed, some of these echo checking questions in our Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum.

So this passage from “Guidelines,” in context, is the smoking gun in the Dogen-koan debate. Dogen even seems to have taught mu to his students.

But whether Dogen was a koan teacher or not, the most important point is that we take up the dharma and practice with diligence – all the way through – with koan or without. And to paraphrase Dogen, not stopping at the stage of belief but continuing through the halfway realization, pressing on and on.

As Dogen said elsewhere, “The gates of emancipation are open and the truth is ready to harvest.”

  • William B Wood

    If you’re going to just sit there, don’t do something!

  • Nonin Chowaney

    Nowhere in any of Dogen’s writings or in writings about him can we find him advocating koan introspection as it’s practiced in the Rinzai school today, nor can we find any of his contemporaries or disciples writing about Dogen
    advocating koan introspection or advocating it themselves. Rather than contemporary Soto Zen teachers who also teach koan introspection trying to trace the practice back to Dogen, it would be better and more to the point if they just teach it because they learned it from other teachers and find it valuable. Why try to justify their teaching it by saying that Dogen taught it?

    Nonin Chowaney

    • doshoport

      Well, Nonin, my friend, that’s your opinion but I did site a couple where he actually does and there and many more. Did you read the post? In the Eiheikoroku he directly advocates for people to take up a koan. In Guidelines, he talks like a koan teacher. See Beilefeldt’s Dogen Meditation Manuals for more on this – I’m hardly alone in this perspective. There is evidence that Ejo,Gikai, and of course Keizan used koans in their teaching – and all report awakenings in conjunction with koan work. I agree, as I said in the post, koan introspection doesn’t need Dogen’s blessing and of course he wasn’t able to see into the future and predict how the modern Rinzai school might use koans. In my opinion, what Dogen actually taught is closer in many ways to the koan introspection tradition than the orthodox Soto story about just-sitting only. I see no reason why Dogen should be used to perpetuate that story when the evidence is at best quite contradictory. From the koan introspection perspective, his teaching offers a treasure trove of insights and examples of playing freely with the dharma that are sadly often missed in the orthodox Soto narrative about Dogen.

  • alan faulkner

    Dropping body and mind…no dogen, no dosho, no mu, no koan

    • Anderson Long

      Nice photograph!

  • Ted Biringer

    Dear Dosho,

    Thank you for your post.

    To be honest, the fact that this (and a number of other) distorted notion concerning Dogen and koans is still so widely proclaimed, accepted, and defended is a discouraging testament to the condition of the contemporary Zen community. Dogen’s deep concern with, involvement in, and mastery of the Zen koan literature and techniques was already obvious in the scholarship of the 1970s Certainly by the ’80s, when much of Dogen’s own works was becoming widely available in English and other western languages, the non-koan (or anti-koan) stereotypes of Dogen had last any possible credibility they ever might have had. As Hee-Jin Kim noted in 1985:

    The popular view is that Dogen, while on the one hand advocated zazen in the tradition of silent-illumination Zen, also attempted to reinterpret it radically via the practice of single-minded sitting (shikan-taza). This view, however, is at best deficient and, at worst, obstructive to an accurate understanding of the spirit of Dogen’s Zen. The fact is that Dogen, nurtured primarily in the Ch’an/Zen tradition, used both methods of zazen and the koan, discarding neither. His serious interest in the koan is evidenced by the prevalence in the Shobogenzo of extensive exegeses and interpretations of carefully selected koans from the classical sources of Ch’an/Zen. Dogen’s effort was not to destroy, but to restore, the koan to its rightful status… In brief, zazen was koan, koan was zazen.

    ~Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, pp.4-5

    The last part of Kim’s comment here is suggestive of the reason I might argue with you – I think Dogen’s contribution to the Zen tradition’s establishment, development, and refinement of the doctrine and methodology of koans (a remarkably unique form of wisdom literature) does matter. I think it matters greatly. I will leave that for another time and place however.

    Here, I just want to thank you for, again, going on record as an adherent of Soto Zen that recognizes Dogen’s legitimate involvement with and concern for the koan literature.

    Now if we can just find a way to convey the fact that “words and letters” (writings, teachings, verbal instructions, etc.) are actually as essential to authentic practice-enlightenment as is sitting meditation (zazen), a day may arrive when actual members of the Zen community are at least as “enlightened” to what Dogen’s own works actually proclaim as is the scholarly community in general.
    Please treasure yourself.

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Ted. Nice Hee Jin Kim quote. Clearly, Dogen’s teaching on koans is right there for anyone who wants to see it. Regarding, “It doesn’t matter” – what I wanted to say there was that koan introspection as it is doesn’t need Dogen’s blessing. And as I suggested a few posts back in “What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it’s Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters” – Dogen offers a great deal to the koan introspection. In my work with students, we sometimes take up Genjokoan or Buddha Nature (and soon will add Zazenshin) and work through them as if they were koan texts with checking questions. The work flows as if that is exactly as it was intended. I’ll be continuing this work and writing more on this and related issues. Finally, I remember a conversation about a decade ago about Dogen and koans with the SF Zen priest Tenshin Reb Anderson. He said something like, “In ten years, nobody will believe that Dogen was against koans.” Well, here we are.
      Warm regards,

  • Jundo Cohen

    Hi Dosho,

    There is a certain confusion here between Dogen’s dance with Koans, which is undeniable and now long recognized (Shobogenzo, Eihei Koroku and all his other Teachings are chock full of wall to wall riffing on Koans, obvious to anyone who opens almost any single page) and his proposed advocacy of Koan Introspection Zazen in the manner of Tahui and later Rinzai Traditions, which is not the same ball of wax. I have looked in previous discussions of this at the section of Eihei Koroku and the other references you cite, and I would say that they are a bit out of context. However, I am in Retreat and traveling visiting out Sangha members in the US this week, seemingly unable to access that portion of Koroku online to discuss in full, and promise to write why when I get my hands on one.

    Yes, Dogen dugg Koans, Yes, he worked with Koans throughout his Teaching, playing and bending and unbending the Klassic Koans. But does that mean he had folks sitting in Zazen engaged in Koan Introspection on a particular Koan or Phrase? To claim so is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of certain modern folks who, for understandable reasons, wish to connect to orthodoxy. There was at the time a long Tradition in China of Silent Illumination Zazen, which Dogen was heir to and recooked as Shikantaza, the central Practice of Caodong Teachers at the time of Dogen’s visit. However, the great Silent Illumination Masters (such as Hongzhi) all referenced and danced with the Koans in their Teachings even if rejecting the ways of Tahui’s radical reinterpretation of Zazen in his own manner. (Schlutter’s “How Zen Became Zen” on the state of Zen in China in the 13th Century is very clear on this, and may be worth a read).

    Anyway, just Sit the Sit in the manner one’s Heart calls, and do not be so concerned what the Old Boy did or did not do.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

    • doshoport

      Of course, we cannot know what Dogen intended, being as he is quite dead. What we can report, is not wishful thinking at all, but that from the actual experience of koan introspection/shikantaza, his work is amazingly in harmony with the realization and processes of that work. The orthodox view that Dogen dug koans but not during sitting would suggest a course dualism in Dogen’s view of life and practice – and between koan and shikantaza – for which there is no evidence. “Sit quietly and reflect” he says more than 30 times in Shobogenzo. Given the rigor of the practice of the monastics he taught, when would his monks have had such time other than in zazen? Happy retreat,

      • Jundo Cohen

        Hi Dosho,

        Of course there is total harmony of the Koans and Zen Practice of all manner. But there is not a single point in Dogen’s writing where he can be heard to advocate holding a Koan during Zazen, and countless references to sitting in language reflective of the Silent Illumination Tradition of dropping all objects from mind, such as his use of the classic Silent Illumination description of the “Backward Step” in Fukanzazengi, “put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward … Do not think “good” or “bad.” Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. ” If he had wanted to say, amid those pretty detailed instructions on what to wear and how to sit, that one should take up a Koan, well, why did he not say so? Why the references to the standard tropes of Silent Illumination?

        As to the time that Dogen’s monks had, well, their day was filled with all manner of Practice on an off the cushion, including study and reflection on the Koan Literature. Soto folks have rarely forsaken Koans even if not undertaking Ta Hui’s innovations in Zazen.

        The references to his advocacy of “sit quietly and reflect” are English translations of phrases by a few folks not found in the original Japanese. I once wrote Ted on this and will dig it up too.

        Perhaps the most detailed study of Dogen and Koans is by Steve Heine in his book, “Dogen and the Koan Tradition”. In a nutshell: Dogen loved Koans, taught Koans, spoke about Koans in most of his talks. Dogen’s writings are chock full of Koans. However, on the subject of holding a Koan, or part of a Koan, in mind during Zazen on the cushion … raising a “Great Doubt” and such … Dogen was quite clear. Heine writes:
        In several passages of his writings Dogen explicitly refutes the use of koans … When Dogen does deal in his writings with the issue of the meaning and importance of the koan, he seems to prefer the doctrine of genjokoan (spontaneous manifestation of the koan in concrete activities) to the Rinzai approach known as kanna-zen (introspecting the koan), which involves examining and contemplating kosoku- koan (old sayings or paradigmatic cases) included in koan collections


        the terms Dogen refers to as the object of his critique are koan-wato in connection with kosoku-koan, which suggests that he specifically refutes the wato technique of interpreting koans, and not necessarily the koan in and of itself. … ch_s&cad=0
        Same for William Bodiford. With regard to, not only Dogen, but for Soto Zen in Japan throughout the entire medieval period, he writes [Soto Zen in Medeival Japan p 213]…
        Koan training lay at the heart of medieval Soto monasticism. … but significantly, medieval Soto koan manuals (monsan) suggest a different modality of koan training than that associated with descriptions of koan study in modern Japanese Rinzai Zen. Soto koan literature rarely urges students to create a mass of doubt, or to cling to a koan. Inducing an enlightenment experience (kensho) is hardly mentioned. Rather than mental conumdrums or meditation exercises, koan were studied as models of truth or as idealized statements of truth.This style of Koan study seemed designed to ensure that future Zen masters would never be at a loss for words to express the ultimate ineffable truths of Zen.
        To emphasize, the above is not intended in any way as a commentary on or criticism of the ancient and wondrous path of Kanna Zen, which is a fine way of practice for those so suited … and is –only– on the subject of whether Dogen taught it or not.

        Anyway, I will write back when I get my hands on the sources.

        Gassho, Jundo

        • doshoport

          Ah, what you mention are standard meditation advice, mostly copied from a Rinzai lineage Chinese monk. See Bielefeldt’s Dogen’s Meditation Manuals. Dogen never uses the phrase silent illumination for good reason. See the third part of Zazenshin. Heine’s new book on the mu koan is also interesting in this regard – although imv he doesn’t appreciate the head word/entangling vines issue and how it really isn’t one or the other in actual practice.
          Nevertheless! the scholarly perspective is really not what I’m trying to share here – helpful but it can also be a distraction.
          I’m sharing with you from the actual practice of entering Dogen texts – not so much what anybody says about them. They read and can be practiced as powerful koan texts. In fact, we’re doing it. So I’m really wanting to share that in the first person present tense.
          Take care,

  • Cherry Zimmer

    Why does it matter? If you want a koan teacher, find one. If you don’t don’t.

  • Anderson Long

    Like my daddy always said about old Rujing: ” Apple pie and dancing beats prison anyday…”