Dogen and Koans

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006

Dogen and the Two Shobogenzos


Relatively unknown during his lifetime in Kamakura Japan, Eihei Dogen is now considered to be one of the most remarkable religious figures and teachers in the history of Zen, as well as an outstanding philosopher, mystic, and poet. His works have had a tremendous impact, not only in Japan and within the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, but also in the West.

Dogen is best known for his monumental work, the Kana or Japanese Shobogenzo, a collection of ninety-six essays composed in Japanese between the years 1231 and 1253. Based on Dogen’s profound religious experience and enriched by his philosophical and literary gifts, the Shobogenzo or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye is a unique expression of the Buddhist teachings. Several English translations of and commentaries on the Shobogenzo are in existence today, and scholars and practitioners alike share the ever-increasing body of information on Dogen’s life and work.

Not as popular as Dogen’s Kana Shobogenzo is his Mana or Sambyakusoku Shobogenzo (The Shobogenzo of Three Hundred Koans), a collection of three hundred cases that Dogen collected during his travels in China from 1227 to 1230. This seminal work, which was to influence all of Dogen’s other teachings, remained in obscurity for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1934 that it was rediscovered and made available to the general public by Professor Tokuju Oya, and only recently was its authenticity finally verified.

The Mana Shobogenzo, unlike Dogen’s other writings, was written in Chinese. And though these three hundred cases were culled largely from Zen texts of the Sung era—The Blue Cliff Record (Hekiganroku), and The Book of Serenity, (Shoyoroku)—unlike the koans in these collections, these cases are not accompanied either by a title or commentary, yet Dogen used them frequently as seeds for his other writings, particularly the Kana Shobogenzo and the Eihei Koroku.

However, because Dogen was an outspoken critic of koan study, some people insist that he would never have collected or used koans. What seems closer to the truth, is that he opposed the superficial treatment of koans, not koan introspection itself. Legend has it that before he left China to return to Japan, the young Dogen stayed up all night and hand-copied The Blue Cliff Record. Dogen’s early teachers, Eisai and Myozen, both taught koan introspection. In fact, Dogen received Rinzai transmission in the Oryu line from Myozen before leaving for China, and though that lineage died out in both China and Japan, it is preserved within the Soto school to this day.