Fundamentals of Dogen's Thoughts

KAZUAKI TANAHASHI on the pioneer of Soto Zen


The “way” is a common image in many religious traditions for the process of spiritual pursuit. It often implies that a seeker is bound to toil on a long path, wandering about and overcoming numerous obstacles before arriving at the final destination. There is a huge distance between the starting point and the goal. In the context of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle teaching—a developed form of Buddhism that spread through North and East Asia—this process represents the journey a seeker, or bodhisattva, takes to become a fully awakened one, a buddha. The time span between the initial practice and the achieved goal—enlightenment—is described in scriptures as “hundreds and thousands of eons.”

Dogen accepts this image of a linear process of seeking. But he also talks about the way as a circle. For him, each moment of practice encompasses enlightenment, and each moment of enlightenment encompasses practice. In other words, practice and enlightenment—process and goal-are inseparable. The circle of practice is complete even at the beginning. This circle of practice-enlightenment is renewed moment after moment.

At the moment you begin taking a step you have arrived, and you keep arriving each moment thereafter. In this view you don’t journey toward enlightenment, but you let enlightenment unfold. In Dogen’s words, “You experience immeasurable hundreds of eons in one day.”1 The “circle of the way” is a translation of the Japanese word dokan, literally meaning “way ring.” Although this word, which Dogen coined, appears only four times in his writing, it may be taken to represent the heart of his teaching.

This circle of practice-enlightenment describes not only the journey of one individual, but also the process and goal of the entire collection of practitioners of the way throughout past, present, and future. Dogen says, “On the great road of buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way. This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so.”2

Thus the practice of all awakened ones actualizes the practice of each one of us. And the practice of each one of us actualizes the practice of all awakened ones. The practice of each one of us, however humble and immature it may be, is seen as something powerful and indispensable for the entire community of awakened ones. Our life at each moment may be seen likewise in the context of all life.

Dogen usually describes “life” as “birth,” for Buddhism sees one’s life as a continuous occurrence of birth and death moment by moment. He says: “Birth is just like riding in a boat. You raise the sails and row with the pole. Although you row, the boat gives you a ride, and without the boat no one could ride. But you ride in the boat and your riding makes the boat what it is. Investigate such a moment.”3 Dogen’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all things at each moment sheds light on the absolute value of the present moment.


Dogen calls the path of practice-enlightenment “the buddha way.” It is the path of all awakened ones of past, present, and future. He cautions against calling his own community part of the Caodong School, the Zen School, or even the Buddha Mind School. For him this teaching is the universal road of all awakened ones.

The path may be wide and limitless in theory but narrow in practice. Dogen calls it “the great road of buddha ancestors,” the “ancestors” being those who hold the lineage of a certain teaching. In the Zen tradition this lineage is restricted to dharma descendants of Shakyamuni Buddha and Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor in China, and no other teachers are called ancestors.

Following the Zen tradition, Dogen attributes the authenticity of this lineage to the legend about the great assembly of beings at Vulture Peak where Mahakashyapa alone smiled when Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower. The Buddha said, “I have the treasury of the true dharma eye, the wondrous heart of nirvana. Now I entrust it to you.”4 Dogen affirms that this treasury has been transmitted from teacher to disciple, face to face, throughout generations.

The heart of this teaching is zazen, or meditation in a sitting posture, from which all understanding derives. Dogen offers a highly defined way of doing zazen, as well as guidelines for activities in the monastic community. Details of what and how to eat, and what and how to wear, are all presented as indispensable aspects of the life of the awakened ones.

Dogen constantly talks about true dharma, genuine teaching, correct lineage, and correct ways. He often uses the word zheng in Chinese or sho in Japanese many times in one sentence. This is the word that means “genuine,” “true,” or “correct.” Establishing authenticity in understanding and in the daily activities of a monastic community was one of Dogen’s primary concerns as a thinker and teacher.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.