United in Koan

 United in Koan

For those of us who have come to love and revere Master Ehei Dogen (1200-1253) it can be disturbing when we come across the more polemic parts of his writings. In the essay Sansuigyo (p. 173) for example he calls a large group of fellow Zen monks in China “dogs” and “more stupid than animals”. Their "offence" which so upset Dogen was the fact that they maintained that certain stories from the Zen tradition called koan were irrational and not to be approached through words or reasoning. In another essay called Jisho-Zanmai Dogen describes over several pages the fruitless attempts of another Chinese Zen monk called Soko to trick various Zen masters into conferring on him the rank of a Zen teacher. Throughout this text, Dogen again uses strong and personal languages, describing Soko as heedless, ignorant, and greedy:

“We must say that he is without profound insight, and without the makings of truth. He is an extreme case of negligence in practice. Through greed for fame and love of profit, he wants to break into the inner sanctum of the Buddhis patriarchs.” (Jisho-Zanmai, p. 39).

What brought Dogen, the lifelong advocate of silent meditation, continuous practice and ethical conduct, to use such harsh language? And who are the targets of his fury? These questions point to the very heart of a struggle over the legacy and identity of the Zen tradition in Dogen’s age that still resonates in our times.

Dai-e Soko – the aim of Dogen’s polemic in Jisho-Zanmai - is the Japanese rendering of Dahui Zonggaou (1089-1163), a highly venerated Zen master who lived through a time of crisis in China that characterised the transition of the Northern to the Southern Song dynasties (960-1127 and 1127-1279 respectively). In a time of war and famine when half of the empire was lost to an invading dynasty, Dahui sought to support the distressed lay leadership of the state through making the wisdom and learning of the Zen tradition available to them. He figured that the experience of Zen awakening would boost the confidence of the Song leaders in a time of crisis and energise the defence against external invaders and internal desperation. The problem he faced was that at the time Zen learning and practice was confined to the monastic communities of monks and nuns who had to abandon their secular lives if the wanted to pursue the Zen Way. To overcome this barrier, Dahui invented an ingenious meditation technique based on the rich tradition of Zen enlightenment dialogues or koan stories. For Dahui, koan stories were essentially irrational conundrums that cannot be understood intellectually. As object of an introspection exercise, they firstly force the rational mind into a logical impasse and then, eventually, enable the individual to overcome the limitations of conceptual thinking in a sudden breakthrough moment. To facilitate this practice, Dahui stripped the transmitted koan stories back to what he perceived as their bare essence. One famous example is Zhaozhou Congshen’s (778-897) (Japanese Joshu Jushin) answer “Mu”, literally “there is not”, when asked by a disciple if a dog had buddha nature. Dahui condensed Zhaozhou’s much longer and diverse response into the iconic “Mu” so he could package the story into a neat riddle for his lay disciples to ponder on. This truncated form of koan became to be known as “hua tou” (Japanese “wato”) which literally means “head words”. The associated introspective practice is known under the Japanese term “kanna zen” (Heine, p. 31). Kanna Zen became very popular within the Rinzai linage of Zen to which Dahui belonged. It remains the dominant form of meditation in the Rinzai school to the present day.

His extensive use of koan in his teaching of lay people did apparently not stop Dahui from burning the printing blocks of the famous Blue Cliff Record (Japanese Hekiganroku) koan collection, which had been compiled by his own teacher Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135) (Japanese Engo Kokugon). Far from being an uncritical champion of the koan tradition, Dahui heavily criticised scholastic tendencies within the Zen movement of his time. He saw koan as a means of radical self-transformation and action, not the topic of leisurely literati scholarship (Heine, p. 13; Kodera, p. 90.) As an outspoken proponent of action in a time of national crisis, unsurprisingly, Dahui neither had much positive to say about the “silent-illumination” or “mozhao” Zen taught by the contemporary Master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1153) (Japanese Wanshi Shogaku) of the Soto school of Zen. It was this form of silent seated meditation practice that Dogen learned from his Teacher Tiantong Rujing (1163-1228) (Japanese Tendo Nyojo) under the name of “shikantaza” – “just sitting” – two generations after Dahui and Hongzhi's time. Dahui called Hongzhi’s followers “blockheads” who in his view altogether neglected enlightenment and its potential for personal transformation (Kodera, p. 92.) This harsh criticism might well have been one reason for Dogen’s attacks on Dahui in Jisho-Zanmai. Dogen revered Hongzhi and certainly qualified as one of his “blockhead” followers devoted to silent zazen meditation practice. Far from the crooked image Dogen tries to portray in Jisho-Zanmai, Dahui was long remembered and venerated in China, not only for his invention kanna Zen, but also for his uncompromising ethos which earned him several decades of exile in a plague-ridden corner of the empire, and his dedication to laity welfare (Kodera, p. 87-91.) 

Koan are originally enlightenment conversations between early Zen teachers and their followers during the Tang period in China (618-907). The stories include iconic exchanges like the one with Zhaozhou Congshen about the buddha nature of dogs or Nanyue Huairang (677-744) (Japanese Nangaku Ejo) polishing a tile to convince Mazu Daoyi (709–788) (Japanese Baso Doitsu) of the futility of pursuing enlightenment. Another example features a female street vendor of rice cakes outwitting the early Deshan Xuanjian (780/2 to 865) (Japanese Tokusan Senkan), who at the time still boasts his credentials as scholar of the Diamond Sutra. And then there are the exploits of Linji Yixuan (died 866) (Japanese Rinzai Gigen), the originator of the Rinzai school of Zen, vigorously pushing his disciples to enlightenment through his signature blows and shouts. The technical terms for these root accounts in Japanese is “kien-mondo” – “dialogue” or “katto” – literally “[entangling] vines”. They were spontaneous and real-life conversations, often taking unexpected twists and turns and always depending on the specific context. These kien-mondo and katto are tales of Tang era Zen masters boldly casting aside the old sutras and transmitting the Dharma through their own witty intuition and creative action. Seemingly abandoning the written records of Indian Buddhism, the Tang era dialogues are the foundation of the Zen doctrine of “transmission outside the scriptures” (Japanese “kyoge betsuden”) or “without reliance on words and letters” (Japanese “furyu monji”) (Heine, p. 38-39). Flesh-and-blood teachers became the true embodiment of the Buddha Dharma, replacing texts, relics, and images. Later generations would see this time like something akin to a golden age of Zen.

At the time of the Song dynasty when Dahui invented is koan-introspection Zen the sturm-und-drang period of Chinese Zen Buddhism was long over. It was a time of reflection and consolidation when some of the “tangles” and “dialogues" of the Tang era were gathered, edited and commented on in koan collections (Heine, p. 22). Besides the Blue Cliff Record of Dahui’s teacher Yuanwu Keqin there is the Book of Equanimity (Japanese Shoyoroku), initially compiled by the very same Hongzhi Zhengjue whose silent illumination Zen so antagonised Dahui. And two generations later a contemporary of Dogen called Wumen Huikai (1183-1260) (Japanese Mumon Ekai) compiled the Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier collection (Japanese Mumonkan), completing the cannon of the great koan collections. Strictly speaking, the term “gong-an” – “public case” or koan in Japanese - is restricted to the Tang era stories that the Song commentators found worthy to be included in their collections. Rather than creating new contents, most of the Song Zen masters contended themselves with recycling the old stories, turning them into the “catechisms” of the now fully established and self-aware Zen school (Heine, p. 39-40). In one of history’s ironic twists, the stories of the Tang era Zen master who had boldly cast aside the scriptures in favour of a personified Buddhism now became the contents of a new scholarly tradition themselves. And the koan – not the practice of seated meditation or “zazen” which had originally given the tradition its name – became the most powerful symbol of the Zen sect (Heine, p. 44).

Given the importance of koan, Dogen could not ignore them when he set out from Japan to Song China in search of a true teacher in 1223. He spent the first two years of his sojourn in the company of Rinzai teachers and second-generation Dharma heirs of Dahui Zonggaou, the very same people he would later call “dogs” and “more stupid than animals”. Dogen came to reject Dahui’s koan introspection Zen once he found his true teacher in Tiantong Rujing in 1225. For the rest of his life, he would remain firmly committed to Ruijing’s silent shikantaza – “just sitting” – meditation practice. But his extensive writing following his return to Japan in 1227 remained squarely within the fold of the koan tradition (Heine, p. 12). Dogen compiled his own koan collection called Shobogenzo of three hundred cases in the Chinese language (Heine, p. 9). Dogen’s masterpiece, the collection of up to 95 essays also called Shobogenzo and written in his native Japanese, is also full of references to koan from the classic collections. According to Steven Heine (p. 40), this Japanese Shobogenzo Dogen’s should be seen as Dogen’s attempt to introduce a new way of working with koan to Japan. Instead of reducing the stories to “head words” – hua tou - and making them suitable for introspection, Dogen expands the range of possible interpretations of the koan, often seemingly contradicting the conventional reading of the case. When Nanyue Huairang picked up the tile and pretended to polish it into a mirror, maybe his aim was not after all to reprimand Mazu Daoyi for pursuing enlightenment, but rather to point out that enlightenment already existed in the act of practice. Maybe Zhaozhou Congshen’s “Mu” meant that dogs were the same as buddha nature instead of having or not having it (Heine, p. 6). Dogen’s approach to koan is one of curiosity and enquiry. He invokes multiple and often conflicting views without necessarily settling on any. In Heine’s words, Dogen saw koan “as a discursive means of generating shifting, self-displacing (and thereby self-correcting) parallactical perspectives.” (Heine, p. 7.) Koan invite us to explore a story from many angles, to engage with the multifaceted nature of a problem. It is this openness which matters more to Dogen than any single interpretation.

Dogen’s open approach to koan even lead him into a territory where he seemingly abandoned the connection with the traditional koan literature altogether. In his most famous essay Genjo Koan – “Spontaneous manifestation of the koan in concrete activity” (Heine, p. 7) – Dogen gives advice to a lay follower on how to approach situations of everyday life without obvious references to the dialogues and stories from the golden age of Zen. Views and perceptions are always relative, like if one observes the shore moving when travelling on a boat, or the ocean appearing circular when the boat has travelled out of sight of the coast (Genjo-Koan, p. 34-35). There is no obvious link to a classic koan story. Dogen seems to have drawn this example from his own personal experience of his sea voyage to China. Genjo Koan thus appears to be as a guide to koan practice without koan. Where the Chinese Song scholars tried to find the truth through working with classic enlightenment stories, Dogen invites us to approach our daily lives like if they were koan. And true to his unorthodox approach to koan, he tells us that there is nothing fixed, but that we need to approach each situation with a fresh pair of eyes, unobstructed by rigid conceptions, free like a fish in the water or a bird in the sky (Genjo-Koan, p. 35-36). Just like the simile of the boat, the fish and the bird are not a reference to any recognised koan story. They appear in the last two verses of a poem called Zazenshin on silent illumination meditation or zazen by Hongzhi (Okumura, loc. 2536-2644). For Dogen, there is no contradiction between silent zazen and koan practice. His unconventional approach to koan fits well with the undirected openness of Hongzhi's silent illumination Zen. This allows him to present a harmonious synthesis of the two signature forms of the Zen tradition in Genjo Koan.

Dogen was clearly not the strong koan critic as his harsh words for Dahui Zonggaou and his followers in Sansuigyo and Jisho-Zanmai may suggest. In one of his early writings, Bendowa, he even praises one of Dahui’s dharma heirs. It seems that Dogen’s attitude towards Dahui and his followers only hardened after a group of monks with links to the latter’s lineage threatened to become dominant in Dogen’s assembly of monks (Kodera, p. 95). Rather than rejecting koan, Dogen dedicated his career as teacher and writer to introduce koan to Japan and make them relevant to the culture of his home country. In this sense, he is not so dissimilar from Dahui whose kanna Zen was also an attempt to revive the koan tradition. Viewed in this light, Dahui and Dogen appear as reformers within the Zen movement who tried to drag the koan out of the cabinets of Zen scholars and literati and deploy them in their teachings in innovative ways. Their methods differed, but the underlying intention was the same. Both men are also linked in other surprising ways. Dogen, who is often portrayed as critic of the koan tradition, is said to have copied the Blue Cliff Record in one night before returning to Japan. Dahui, the “champion” of koan practice, is said to have burned the printing blocks of this very same koan collection. Dahui compiled a lesser known koan collection called “Zhengfa Yanzang” - 正法眼藏 – or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”. It is exactly the same title – Japanese “Shobogenzo” – that Dogen chose for his own Chinese koan collection and for his monumental essay anthology in Japanese. There seems little doubt that Dogen copied the title of Dahui’s collection and drew inspiration from the inventor of kanna Zen (Kodera, p. 92). Dahui wrote many letters to his lay followers in which he instructed them in “koan introspection” Zen. Dogen, although most if his writings were intended for a monastic audience, explicitly dedicated the one essay where the word “koan” is directly mentioned in the title – Genjo Koan - to a lay follower. This also suggests that Dogen received more inspiration from Dahui than he was comfortable admitting in his later years. 

Simply dividing the Zen movement into a zazen faction represented by Dogen’s Soto school and and a koan faction epitomised by Dahui’s Rinzai school fails to address the true relationship between the two lineages and their strong common heritage. For every tale of rivalry and antagonism – like Dogen’s rant against Dahui in Jisho-Zanmai – there is a story of kindness and congeniality. Dahui and Hongzhi, despite their doctrinal differences, where also friends who deeply respected one another. Before his death, Hongzhi asked Dahui to take care of his affairs and accept the abbacy of his temple on Tiantong mountain. It is the same monastery where seventy years later Dogen first studied koan with Dahui’s Rinzai successors, and then received dharma transmission from his late Soto teacher Ruijing. Rather than an element of disharmony, koan truly represents the essence of Zen irrespective of its Soto or Rinzai manifestation.

Notes on literature and spelling

This essay is primarily based on the works of Steven Heine, Dogen and the Koan Tradition, and Takashi James Kodera, Dogen’s Formative Years in China. I also used Taigen Dan Leighton’s Cultivating the Empty Field and Shohaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjokoan. For essays from Dogen’s Shobogenzo I relied on the translation by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. For the spelling of Chinese names I used the Pinyin transcription from Wikipedia. All accents of Japanese or Chinese words and names have been omitted.

Source Texts

Genjo-Koan. (1994) in: Nishijima, G.W., Cross, C. (translators) Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1. London: Windbell Publications, pp, 33-38. 

Jisho-Zanmai. (1999) in: Nishijima, G.W., Cross, C. (translators) Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Book 4. London: Windbell Publications, pp. 31-42.

Sansuigyo. (1994) in: Nishijima, G., Cross, C. (translators) Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1. London: Windbell Publications, pp, 167-180.


Heine, Steven. (1994). Dogen and the Koan Tradition. A Tale of Two Shobogenzo Texts. New York: State University of New York Press.

Kodera, Takashi James. (2008). Dogen’s Formative Years in China. An Historical Study and Annotated Translation of the Hokyo-ki. London, New York: Routledge.

Leighton, D.T., Wu, Y. (eds. and translators). (2000) Cultivating the Empty Field. The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Available at: www.amazon.co.uk.

Okumura, Shohaku. (2010). Realizing Genjokoan. The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Available at www.amazon.co.uk.


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