Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) was the founder of the Soto Shu, a Japanese school of Zen based on a Chinese tradition. He was an important philosopher and his major work was called the Shobogenzo.
Dogen was an illegitimate son of a high official, Minamoto Michitomo. His mother died when he was seven years old.
He ordained as a Tendai monk. The Tendai Shu taught that all beings are intrinsically endowed with Dharma Nature. Dogen became preoccupied with the question, if this is so, why do Buddhas need to teach?
Not finding an answer, he went to study Rinzai Zen under the master Myozen who was the successor of Eisai, the founder of Rinzai Shu in Japan.
In 1223, Myozen and Dogen travelled together to China seeking further teachings. In those days this was a hazardous journey.
He was in China five years or so. In 1225 he went to visit Master Ru-jing at Tian-tong temple. Thereafter he often referred to Ru-jing as “the Old Buddha”.
Dogen had a great awakening through an encounter with Ru-jing in which the latter said, “Cast off body and mind (shinjin-datsuraku).”
Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 or 1228. His first distinctive act was to write the text Fukan Zazengi (Instructions for Zazen).
After several attempts to live and teach closer to the capital and running into conflicts with Tendai Shu, he accepted an invitation, from Hatano Yoshishige, lord of Izumo, in 1243, to move north into the more remote Echizen Province. Dogen and his supporters constructed a temple initially called Daibutsu-ji (Great Buddha Temple). Later it was renamed Eihei-ji and it remains the head temple of Soto shu to this day.
While Daibutsu-ji was being built, Dogen fell into depression. This condition seems to have converted itself into anger and he wrote a strong critique of Rinzai Zen and then went on and on writing, in the next few years,pouring out texts that are regarded as some of the most challenging and stimulating in the whole of Japanese Buddhism.
Dogen advocated zazen as the core of Buddhism and described zazen as not thinking of good and bad, not considering pros and cons, and ceasing all movement of the conscious mind, yet Dogen himself was a person of strong opinions. about practice, about such social issues as women’s equality (which he favoured), about monastic discipline, and about doctrine, as, for instance, in his views about Buddha Nature, being and time. He was sharply critical of many of the other schools of Buddhism. While some would claim Dogen’s writing as support for the idea that Dharma cannot be expressed in words, he was, in fact, an attentive scholar of the scriptures, especially the Lotus Sutra, and strongly criticised those who paid too little attention to them. He was a great stylist and his writings are often cryptic, poetic, paradoxical, highly suggestive and philosophically profound so that much controversy goes on over the precise meaning of his words.
By 1247, Dogen had found more favour with powerful people and was invited by Hojo Tokiyori, the regent shogun, to visit Kamakura and give him lay ordination.
In 1252 Dogen fell ill. The following year he travelled to the capital, Kyoto, seeking a remedy but died on arrival.
We might ask why did Dogen become depressed. Looking at it psychologically, we immediately focus upon the early death of his mother and the difficulties of being an illegitimate child, both in the sense that his parents were not married and also in that he had fallen out with both of his Buddhist “parents”, Tendai Shu and Rinzai Shu. Until he went north he was fighting for a point of view that was being persecuted. Probably, with the protection of Hatano Yoshishige he may have felt safe for the first time. It is often at such a point that depression comes out. All the accumulated hardship and sense of injustice then came to the surface and, fortunately for us, he was able to sublimate that energy into his great writing endeavour.
His story leaves us with tantalising questions. Is it possible to be enlightened and depressed and/or angry? Can a person be, as, I think, Jack Kornfield asks in one of his writings, enlightened yet still in need of therapy? Is it, in fact, necessary to have some anger or burning animus in order to write works of genius? Is there a contradiction between Dogen’s advocacy of quietism and his strident critiques? When Dogen suggests constant zazen as the essence of practice, is he really talking about sitting in meditation? To what extent are Dogen’s writings purely autobiographical - descriptive of his own spiritual struggle - and to what extent are they generalisable? Was Dogen right in being so critical of other schools of Buddhism? These and more questions have kept scholars and practitioners busy for many years and there is no sign of this activity diminishing. Dogen is nowadays perhaps more studied than ever before.