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Remembering Dogen’s death

By Steven Heine


As the founder of Soto Zen, one of the major Buddhist sects in Japan, the birth and death anniversaries of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) are celebrated every fifty years. It was amply demonstrated at the beginning of the millennium through the outpouring of new publications and media productions, including a kabuki play and TV show as well as manga versions of his biography, that these events help to disseminate the master’s teachings to a worldwide audience yet also turn him into a commercial commodity that is somewhat misrepresented.

Of the two celebrations, according to an article by William Bodiford in Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies, it is the death memorial of patriarchs and saints that has traditionally gained greater attention in Japanese culture. This is in part because of the way all forms of Buddhism are closely associated with the performance of funerals and bereavement ceremonies for the dead. In pre-modern times, the anniversary of Dogen’s demise was marked on the twenty-second day of the ninth lunar month according to the ancient Chinese calendar. Now this date, like so many other annual occasions from New Year to the Buddha’s birthday, is regularized to the Western solar calendar.

For most of his career, Dogen was among the most vigorous and productive of Buddhist teachers. Born to an aristocratic family but tragically forced to grieve the loss of his parents while still a young child, the orphan took the tonsure at age 13 and studied at various temples of both the Tendai and Zen schools, which had just recently gained a footing on Japanese soil. At 23, Dogen left Japan and spent four years traveling in China, where he gained enlightenment under the tutelage of Rujing, a master of the Caodong school.

On returning to his native country, he established his first temple in the outskirts of the capital in Kyoto and then at age 43, he led a small band of followers to the remote mountains of Echizen province. Although the reasons for this move are obscure, it is likely that Dogen made what was at the time an arduous trek by foot lasting about a week in the mountains north of the capital in order to escape persecution by religio-political rivals. Eiheiji temple was built in Echizen with the financial support of Dogen’s samurai patron, and a new and growing movement was born that eventually became the largest of the medieval Buddhist sects.

During the period lasting about twenty years where he managed temples first in the capital and then in the countryside, Dogen was a prolific writer who produced several major texts largely based on collections of sermons that were delivered in both classical Chinese and vernacular Japanese. A few years after he returned to Eiheiji in the spring of 1248 (from a six-month visit to the temporary capital in the town of Kamakura, where he turned down the abbacy of a new temple that was offered by the shogun), Dogen became ill.

Following this unfortunate development in the winter of 1252, his productivity slowed considerably, and he attended primarily to the matter of choosing a successor to lead the temple. In August of 1253, Dogen was convinced by his disciples to visit Kyoto to seek medical assistance. This proved to be his final journey before he died in the seated-meditation (zazen) posture, and his remains were later taken back to Eiheiji, where they are still venerated in rites of worship today.

It is said that Dogen composed two Japanese waka (31-syllable poems) during the trip to Kyoto, which I have translated in The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Both poems demonstrate his agility with language in expressing a sense of equanimity and calm in the face of a deep sense of frailty and vulnerability due to the vicissitudes of ephemeral human existence. The poems, which evoke feelings of nostalgia and remorse for having left the capital while Dogen steadies himself for inevitable fate, are rare examples of personal emotions suggested by the otherwise stoic Zen master, who is mainly known for his puritanical adherence to monastic rules and ethical regulations.

According to a verse from the time he began the trip titled “On the harvest moon in the year of Dogen’s death”:

Mata minto                         Just when my longing to see
Omoisho toki no               The moon over Kyoto
Aki dani mo                        One last time grows deepest,
Koyoi no tsuki ni              The moon I behold this autumn night
Nerare yawa suru            Leaves me sleepless for its beauty.

In this poem Dogen expresses a desire to see his hometown while realizing that this will be the last time. The second waka, written just prior to his death, on “The [final] journey to Kyoto,” reads:

Kusa no ha ni                      Like a blade of grass,
Kadodeseru mi no            My frail body
Kinobe yama                       Treading the path to Kyoto,
Kumo ni oka aru                Seeming to wander
Kokochi koso sure            Amid the cloudy mist on Kinobe pass.

The verse uses alliteration in the first syllable of each line as well as natural imagery evoking a difficulty mountain pass that has to be crossed in order to evoke a powerful awareness of the unavoidability of evanescence. The verses reveal the literary genius of Dogen’s approach to appropriating the standpoint of Zen meditation in his personal life.

Steven Heine is an authority on Japanese religion and society, especially the history of Zen Buddhism and the life and works of Dogen. He is the editor of Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies. He has published two dozen books, including Did Dogen Go to China? (2006); Zen Skin, Zen Marrow (2010); and Zen Masters (2010). Read his previous blog post “Four myths about Zen Buddhism’s ‘Mu Koan.’”

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Image credit: Dōgen watching the moon. Hōkyōji monastery, Fukui prefecture, circa 1250. Fukui Prefectural Archives. Image via Shii, Wikimedia Commons.

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