Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea

Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea February 15, 2015

DSCN0245More bad news for the orthodox Soto position that Dogen was opposed to koan introspection in zazen.

Modern scientific historical research supports what some of us who have experienced koan introspection and Dogen Zen have been saying for some time – Dogen offers wonderful teaching by example of how to engage the wild and rich world of koan.

Why does it matter? If you care about enlightenment, it matters. If you care about truth, it matters. If you care that Dogen’s words can inspire opening and actualizing the radiant field of awakening, it matters.

It’s high time that we reclaim Dogen’s work for koan introspection.

Enter a wonderful new book edited by Steven Heine, Dogen and Soto Zena collection of essays by leading Buddhist scholars about a wide range of issues regarding Dogen and, of course, Soto Zen.

Heine summarizes the purpose of the volume by suggesting it “…moves forward with ways of associating and connecting some of the dots, so to speak, in order to explore and determine to what extent Sōtō Zen represents faithfully or may misrepresent, and complements or may depart from, Dōgen’s thought in terms of such issues as meditation and monasticism, literature and philosophy, or gender and cultural memory.”

Yeah, in many ways the Soto school, reformed in the late 19th Century so as to compete with the Pure Land school and various Christian denominations, dumbed down the dharma in order to be popular with lay people and keep them coming to visit the grave sites of relatives. And give money. No need for long hours of zazen – practice and enlightenment are one! No need for those bothersome koans – the founder was purely into just sitting.

See Jiryu’s excellent recent series of blog posts for more and less on this in  “Lay People: Leap Clear of Mushrooms!” and other recent posts.

Granted, our Soto forebearers probably had a bunch of noble aspirations too, including survival. I’m heartened to learn that there was a lively debate about direction for the school regarding monk and lay practice, uniformity and diversity of styles, precepts as training rules vs. ceremonial blessings, etc.

The winners in the debate, winners largely due to the positions they held rather than the merits of their arguments,  stressed “just sitting” zazen as a koan-free zone and employed a doctrine of the oneness of  practice and enlightenment that diminishes the importance of enlightenment (no need for bothersome striving). Strangely, this view was then transplanted here to West where lay people are not that interested in visiting grave sites on memorial days but are interested in wholehearted zazen and enlightenment.

But, come to think on it a bit, maybe it’s not so strange when zazen is regarded as a reenactment ritual, kinda like a funeral, with Zen students revisiting the cold and dead.

All the while, the Soto school has used the words of Dogen to support the 19th Century reformation by cutting and pasting (quite literally, especially in regards to what has become the most essential expression of the Soto faith, “Shushogi”). We’re inheriting a tradition that might well stand accused of dumbing down the dharma by delimiting Dogen – that’s even before we Americans got our hot little commodifying hands on the dharma.

Or as Foulk puts it (summarizing the perspective of Soto by Rinzai Zen), it is an approach “…that allows practitioners to remain smugly ensconced in delusion while believing that they are already awakened.”

Yes, to see Dogen’s teaching used to credential a cold-and-dead ideological and faith-based (rather than realization verified) “just sitting” is just sad.

The lead chapter in Dogen and Soto Zen is T. Griffith Foulk’s “Dogen’s Use of Rujing’s ‘Just Sit’ (shikan taza) and Other Koans” (underlining added) and I think I’m in love. Maybe just the Valentine’s Day spirit generalizing in a wonderful way.

Here’s Heine’s summary of Foulk’s chapter:

“A central thesis of this chapter is that Dōgen does not actually teach (or even conceive of) the mode of zazen practice—now generally referred to as shikan taza—that is attributed to him by modern Sōtō school scholars as well as Zen teachers. The instructions Dōgen does give for the practice of zazen, which Foulk analyzes in considerable detail, do not employ this term, nor do they recommend an approach that is consistent with what contemporary researchers say about just sitting.”

Foulk shows that Dogen viewed “just sitting” as a koan.  As I’ve noted here before, when explaining zazen, for example, Dogen repeatedly presents the thinking/not-thinking/non-thinking koan. What does it mean that “just sitting” zazen is koan? It enlivens the practice as something to actualize in this vividly hopping along moment, the truth happening point.

The Soto orthodoxy, however, tells us that Dogen didn’t like koan, an assertion akin to the emperor claiming he was fully clothed in a splendid gown while walking around buck naked.

Foulk writes, “It is clear nevertheless that Dōgen regarded kōan literature as a repository of wisdom left by the ‘buddhas and ancestors’ in Bodhidharma’s lineage, that he embraced and recommended the study of kōans as an essential part of Buddhist practice, and that kōan commentary was the principal device he used to instruct his own disciples.”

Now, some contemporary apologists of the Soto orthodoxy begrudgingly argue that Dogen used koans but NOT for zazen. No, never. No way. Dogen was a pure zazen guy after all who would never contaminate his zazen with … what?  “…A repository of wisdom.” Hmm.

However, as Foulk points out, one of the ways Dogen was creative was in his use of the koan to vivify the details of Vinaya (monastic discipline) and the reading of the sutras – two really essential aspects of the Zen life that covered what was happening in the monastery twenty-four hours a day. I’d say he koanized both the rules for everyday behavior and for reading and understanding the sutras.

For example, in “Instructions for the Cook,” Dogen writes, “Wash the [dishes] so that they are completely pure and clean, placing up high those that belong in high places and putting down low those that belong in low places. High places high and level; low places low and level.”

That last sentence quotes an important koan, thus koanizing the practice of even putting away the dishes. Dogen also does this with sutra reading. This from “Seeing Buddha” (underlined portions represent references to koan):

“The ‘becoming close to the Dharma Master’ that is spoken of [in the Lotus Sutra] is like the Second Ancestor’s eight years of serving his teacher, after which he got the marrow of a whole arm; it is like Nanyue’s fifteen years of pursuing the way. Getting the master’s marrow is called [in the Lotus Sutra] ‘becoming close to.’ When it [the Lotus Sutra] speaks of the ‘bodhisattva path,’ this is ‘I am also like this, you are also like this.’”

So this guy who is knocking down all barriers and koanizing everything in sight, low and high, from putting away the dishes to the reading and understanding the Lotus Sutra, brackets zazen as the “no koan” zone. Hmm. Does this sound right?

The orthodox position also claims that practice and enlightenment are one and so there is no “experience” of enlightenment. This dismisses the truth of immediate experience and the reports of many practitioners ancient and modern, including the likes of not only Shakyamuni Buddha but also Dogen, Ejo, Gikai, Keizan, and Meiho (the first five Soto ancestors in Japan). Even the lesser known Meiho realized enlightenment, by the way, while grappling with the koan, “What is it that makes all things wax and wane?”

Some proponents of the “no koan” zazen zone, argue that there is no evidence that Dogen used Dahui’s “punchline” (aka, key word, watto) method in zazen. Dogen also doesn’t say not too, of course, and his zazen instructions seem to provide a basic trellis without micro managing the actual contents. Certainly, Dogen does not say ever to keep zazen free of koan.

Further, there are places in Dogen’s writing where he advocates the use of a punchline, sometimes punchline after punchline. The guy seems to have been into the serial punchline method. For example, in the finale of “Instructions for the Cook,” Dogen exhorts us to study and realize the one word Great:

As for what is called great mind, this mind is like the great mountains or like the great ocean. It is not biased or contentious mind…. On this single occasion you must write the word Great. You must know the word Great. You must learn the word Great.”

But if you find yourself writing, knowing or learning Great in zazen, you’ve strayed from the one true path of pure zazen?


So what was the meaning of “Just sit” for Dogen? Foulk writes,

“Given that Dōgen undeniably treated Rujing’s ‘Just sit’ as a kōan in these and other contexts, a question that remains is this: How did he interpret the meaning of the saying? As I show in my previously published analysis of Dōgen’s commentary on the kōan that appears in the chapter of Shōbōgenzō entitled ‘King of Samadhis Samadhi,’ he allowed that the verb ‘to sit’ had a number of different meanings. In the first place there is the ‘sitting of the body,’ which presumably refers to the physical posture of zazen. What he called ‘mental sitting,’ then, would be a kind of concentrated state of mind that could be cultivated in any posture, whatever the practitioner is doing. When the practitioner is no longer attached to any physical or mental phenomena, however, that liberated or awakened state is referred to by Dōgen as the ‘sitting of the body and mind sloughed off.’ In light of this I conclude that Dōgen interpreted Rujing’s admonition to ‘just sit’ as an injunction to ‘just gain awakening.’

If so, Dogen himself did not practice or teach what is now labeled as “shikantaza” and the great founder himself had a gaining idea, too.

Like I said, it’s high time that we reclaim Dogen’s work for koan introspection.

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16 responses to “Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea”

  1. Good piece. Looking forward to reading the book.

    And, anyway, if all there is … is a “gaining idea,” then where is the gaining idea?

    • Lee, most of the traditionally trained Soto Zen teachers I’ve worked with, including Katagiri Roshi, believed that Dogen was opposed to koan introspection in zazen and one said directly, Dogen didn’t like koan. Scholars like Biefeldt, Heine, and Foulk have also noticed this about the Soto orthodoxy.

      • Not at all. Our teacher Katagiri Roshi also recited the Nembutsu. I heard him tell two visitng Japanese ladies: “Namu Amida Butsu is exactly the same as Shikan taza. When I am gardening or doing some other quiet activity, I recite it to myself.”

        He wasn’t fond of visualization. Mayumi Oda tried to get him visualizing Dakini in his blood stream killing the cancer. He said, “I am too old to learn a new thing.”

        He was a sort of inkblot to people and they saw what they wanted in him.

        On the other hand, originally, the public records (aka koans) were for study, not mediation.

  2. As I read this article, I found that I didn’t recognise the ‘Soto’ it mentions. I think to anyone who sits zazen, they are doing so in the first place because there has been at least the subtle gaining idea of reducing and ultimately ending suffering.

    But the orientation, *while* sitting, is to allow, to let oneself and life be. Not smugly deluded in the thought ‘now I’m enlightened’, but rather with an attitude of ‘no attainment, nothing to attain’. The very experience of life, self, the universe manifesting and falling away in the ever present moment, is to me at least, its very own koan- an engagement with the wordless ineffable mystery of being, here and now.

    I found the following criticism of the essay by Griffith Foulk quoted above, on Amazon, it expresses in more detail some of things I feel are amiss in this piece. This is perhaps the most salient point:

    “After pages and pages in which Foulk merely underlines the point that Dogen preached Koans and expected his students to do as much, Foulk concedes (bottom of page 33), “One thing Dogen did not do with Koans, however, was use them as objects of contemplation in the manner recommended by Dahui. That Chan master advocated fixing the mind on the “keyword” of an old case … ”

    The full Amazon review:

    “The balance of the essays in this collection are of the usual high and informative level found in all the Steven Heine books. Well worth reading and tremendously valuable for all of us with interest in Dogen and Soto Zen. However, I feel that one essay detracts from that to such a degree, that I wish to lodge this small protest and complaint.

    I am generally a great fan of Griffith Foulk’s writings on Soto Zen. It is for that reason that I am so surprised and disappointed at the poor reasoning he demonstrates in the lead paper in the book, “Dogen’s Use of Rujing’s ‘Just Sit’ (Shikantaza) and Other Koans”. . It is almost as if Dr. Foulk is setting up a “strawman” Soto Zen that does not really exist in anyone’s mind, and describes a “Shikantaza” Zazen based on some naive “goallessness” and literal “non-attaining” missing the subtle intent of those words, a viewpoint that nobody I know in the Soto world holds or ever has.

    Here is substantially the message I posted about the piece to the SZBA (Soto Zen Buddhist Association, an organization of Soto Zen Teachers in America, where I am one member):


    Much of the subject essay consists of Dr. Foulk’s making supposed “revelations” about Dogen that, I wager, most of the members of the SZBA already know and, further, agree with!

    For example, Dogen lived and breathed Koans. The Shobogenzo, the Koroku and his other writings are chock full of Koans, wall to wall Koans, and we modern Soto teachers dance with Koans too. There is no surprise here, and has not been in the vast majority of the Soto world for a long time, at least not since folks rediscovered and actually read the Koan-filled writings of Dogen. Yet this is a bit of another issue from whether we are to sit immersed in a Koan or a phrase from a Koan engaged in Koan Introspection Zazen in the manner of Ta Hui. After pages and pages in which Foulk merely underlines the point that Dogen preached Koans and expected his students to do as much, Foulk concedes (bottom of page 33), “One thing Dogen did not do with Koans, however, was use them as objects of contemplation in the manner recommended by Dahui. That Chan master advocated fixing the mind on the “keyword” of an old case … ”

    Foulk points out that Dogen never specifically used the term “Shikantaza” in Fukanzazengi, Zazengi and other descriptions of Zazen. This might be true. But what he decribes as “thinking-non-thinking” and “putting aside all involvements and suspending all affairs … not thinking good or bad … not judging true or false” seems to be pretty much what I think (and non think) of as “Shikantaza”. Beyond that, Foulk should then also mention the fact that, in Fukanzazengi and elsewhere, Dogen offers very specific instructions on what to do with body and mind during Zazen … the clothes to wear, how to fold the legs, how to think non thinking, etc., yet what Dogen does not mention as part of these details on how to sit is any instruction such as “take up a Koan phrase” “look at a Koan” or the like. Why would Dogen leave that out of Fukanzazengi and the like if it was so important as an aspect of Zazen in which he is mentioning so many details of the process of sitting such as “Do not think good or bad” and “rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking”? He would have mentioned taking up or looking at a Koan or Koan phrase if such was some part of the process of sitting. (Also, Dogen does use the term “Shikantaza” several times in Shobogenzo. As Prof. Bielefeldt notes in translations for the Soto Zen Text Project, “Just sitting” (shikan taza 祇管打坐; also written 只管打坐): An expression occurring several times in Dōgen’s writings — especially, as here, in conjunction with the phrase shinjin datsuraku. ” (Note 3 to his SZTP Zanmai-o-Zanmai Translation)

    The rest of the “revelations” by Dr. Foulk are rather anti-climatic. First, points out Foulk, “Just Sitting” does not mean “sitting alone” and nothing else, because Dogen also engaged in a variety of other practices such as Chanting and Ceremonies and the like. Frankly, I do not think there is a member of the SZBA who would assert that Dogen meant, by “Just Sitting”, that all other Buddhist Practices should be abandoned, and I believe all of us understand the “Koan” that Dr. Foulk seems to think he has discovered in light of the famous dictum in Bendowa (quoting Rujing) “you get it only by just sitting; you don’t need to burn incense, make prostrations, recollect the buddha, practice repentence, or look at scripture.” (For example, as I tell my students … Just Sitting is the only thing, the alpha and omega, nothing lacking while sitting. But rising from the cushion, there is lots which can be done, all “Zazen” in wider meaning”. I believe most modern Soto Teachers preach a similar message these days). This “Koan” of Zazen does not seem very hard to pierce.

    Next, Dr. Foulk makes a rather big deal of the fact that Soto folks (or some strawman version he whips up) believe in a “goalless” Zazen in which there is “nothing to attain” thus foresaking “attainment”. Does any Soto Teacher truly believe that there is no marvelous attainment (perhaps attained, however, by non-attaining!)? Is there a member of the SZBA or any Soto Teacher anywhere who actually understands Dogen to be advocating some pointless, dead sitting which foresakes enlightenment? Dr. Foulk seems to take “goalless” as meaning “goalless”, something all of us understand in much more subtle ways.

    Anyway, I don’t think this essay adds anything new and the “controversies” it seems to raise seem kinda silly. Didn’t Dr. Foulk talk to any actual Soto Teachers when writing this?

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

    Treeleaf Sangha, Ibaraki, Japan”

    • Thank you, Jundo-san. I agree entirely that Foulk is describing a Sôtô Zen whose identity he claims to have elicited from his reconstruction of the meaning of medieval and, I think we can presume, early modern and modern Japanese texts. As usual, the Rorschach of the past yields up all manner of mysterious creatures , as do the deep oceans of the earth. But as some will know, bringing deep sea creatures to the surface subjects them to fatal distortion. Similarly, our “strong misreading” of materials from faraway lands and times provides us with creatures that say more about the investigator than the ruptured beasts from below. So once again, there’s Dosho waving his “smoking gun”, this time gleefully receiving what looks to him like a firearm from Foulk. We’ve been all over this, Dosho! What makes someone who is both intimately familiar with Dogen’s voluminous oeuvre, and who is equally familiar with the “kôan” of just sitting, unable to recognize that Dôgen was offering something different? Well, one factor, I fear, is that the requsite intimacy is wanting, pace Messrs. Foulk and Port. Once more I remind those with ears to hear that the late, lamented Katagiri Dainin-rôshi warned us practitioners (pace Foulk, this time), that those who mix and match their cultivation of “silent illumination” with a diet of “head words” suitable for mastication, may wind up pleased about their various “kensho”, but will just as likely wind up unable to appreciate the Ts’ao-tung practice of just sitting, which of course T’ien-t’ung Hung-chih never taught, Dôgen never taught, Ju-ching never taught, Koun Ejô never taught, Keizan Jôkin never taught, Suzuki Shunryü-rôshi never taught, Katagiri Dainin never taught, and on and on and on… I’m really wishing that those of us benighted persons who respond to Dôgen’s teaching as it is, i.e. without admixtures of hua-t’ou exercises (note specific reference) could be spared having to witness the repeated beating of this dead horse, so we can stumble along in our pathetic delusion minus the koanista agit-prop.

      • Thanks for your responses, you both covered everything I wanted to say- the creation of a straw man version of Soto zazen to be knocked down, the fact that Dogen does use the phrase shikan taza many times, the desperate attempt to put a certain type of koan practice into Dogen’s teachings, etc- much more eloquently than I would have. I really don’t understand Dosho’s bitter contempt for what he believes practitioners of just sitting are doing on their cushions.Whenever he starts beating this dead horse I always think of what Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.’ There seems to be a fundamental fear of emptiness at work here.

      • Myo, Jundo, Buddy, Eustachio,

        Clearly we see it differently. And, imv, that’s a good thing. I wish you all well on the road ahead.

        Here’s to continuing the inquiry,


  3. What is all this talk about enlightenment? Where do the enlightened go when they leave behind this mortal coil? Is enlightenment a guarantee of Parinirvana or rebirth as a Bodhisattva? If not what then does it guarrantee? Also, what does one do with this so-called enlightenment besides chopping word and carrying water?
    And if one can neither possess it nor become it then it eludes us. What is the point of enlightenment?

    Rather than this thinking/non-thinking do we have a koan for enlightenment/non-enlightenment?

    This is not said in jest but a response to the hair splitting about koan versus non-koan practices that takes us where exactly? And the hour glass has been turned and the sand is indeed running out. What is there to do?

  4. 4 Dogen Koan Controversy Colloraries

    1. Dogen loved koans.
    2. Dogen did not prescribe how to work with koans.
    3. Therefore Dogen did not fit into either the anti-koan nor koan introspection team.
    4. Any attempts to make him fit into one or the other will fail.

    Also, the idea that zazen is a re-enactment ritual is a travesty.

  5. The author of this post talks as if the idea of non-duality, rejection of means (practice) and ends (enlightenment) dichotomy had been invented (asserted) for the first time in the history of Zen Buddhism by some Japanese Soto Zen monks of the 19th century.

    It’s quite misleading. (Though I do not like the idea personally), anyone who has read the recorded sayings of Mazu / Linji etc can not fail to notice that such rejection is one of the principal teachings of them.

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