Watch the lecture: Dogen: The Founder of Soto Zen in Japan

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(The notes below are from A. H. Almaas’s overview of this lecture.)


Eihei Dogen Zenji is the founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan. It is one of the two major schools in Japan; the other one is Rinzai. Dogen found a teacher in China, with whom he had his realization, then came back to Japan and started teaching. This teaching was the beginning of the Soto Sect in his own country. Dogen lived in the 13th century.

I am talking about him mostly to introduce him to the general spiritual culture these days. He is not well known in most circles, and not understood even by most Zen practitioners. I want to introduce him because I think he has a lot to offer, many kinds of realizations and spiritual insights not common in spiritual circles, which are not only important, but many of them are relevant to our times, and also quite a corrective to the spiritualty commonly practiced these days.

I will discuss some of the teachings of Dogen that I know or understand from direct experience. For I don’t understand many things he taught, and cannot hence discuss them.I will be giving my understanding of these teachings for when it comes to Dogen there is no one common understanding of him. Furthermore, I won’t be teaching Zen or Dogen, but giving my understanding of some of his teachings.

Part of this introduction is the discussion of realizations he taught that show us the amazing potential of spirituality, to expand our spiritual horizons. There is a tendency to know one teaching or tradition and end up believing it is the only valid view or experience of reality. I want to emphasize a wider view of spiritual work.

1. Intention of This Lecture

2. Uji, Time-Being

3. One Bright Pearl

4. Genjo Koan; Actualizing the One Bright Point

5. Realization

6. Particularity

7. Impermanence is Buddha-Nature

8. Non-Thinking

9. Delusion and Enlightenment

See Other A. H. Almaas Lecture Series Videos:

19 thoughts on “Dogen”

  1. Can you say something about how this way of understanding can affect us experientially? I’m especially curious about how it impacts the lived experience of a deeply significant relationship like the kind we can have with a specific parent or sibling.

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      What I gave in the lecture was not simply understanding. It was my understanding of having the experience of the realizations that Dogen taught. So the realizations are deep experiences, and usually beyond mind and memory.

      The impact I s what Dogen says it: liberation and enlightenment. Enlightenment means we recognize what realty is. Liberation is freedom from the ordinary sense of self and the baggage that goes with it.

      We feel a tremendous sense of freedom and lightness, in addition to the wonder of such realizations of reality. It will impact all of our behavior in the world including that of relating to other human beings.

      However, we cannot try to understand Dogen from the perspective of how it is going to benefit particular situations in our life. He was not concerned about that as much as being liberated in all ways.

  2. For anyone who may be interested there is a beautiful novel by author and Soto Zen priest Ruth Ozeki titled
    A Tale for Time-Being. She explores and presents Dogen in a weaving of stories within stories, diverse narratives, history and culture of Japan.and Time.

    Deep gratitude to Hameed and all who made these lectures and this lecture on Dogen possible and available.
    Deep bow to all. A beautiful presentation.

    1. Thanks for this suggestion, Michelle,
      Sounds interesting. Reading a story might be a good way to begin understanding Dogen.

      There is also a move called Dogen. It is about his life and history, the situation in Japan at that time. It is not a great movie but good enough to get some idea of the life of Dogen.

      1. Thank you Hameed, will take a look at the Dogen movie. Re the novel, which I just finished last week, the story added a lot to your presentation, and, your presentation beautifully added to the literary exploration of Dogen’s teachings. Very synchronous for me in the midst of my Zen practice. Your presentation and undersanding of Dogen’s teachings/experiences/realizations are very profound and clarifying. I am very grateful to have had access to this lecture, and, the opportunity to ask you questions live and online.
        You mentioned a couple of books in your lecture. I have Moon in a Dewdrop, you referred to another book with “impermanence” in the title. May I please get that title/author from you and any other you may also mentioned. With much gratitude, Michelle

      2. Hi Hameed, I just wrote a reply to you which contained a request for book titles you mentioned in your lecture. I just found them in the lecture notes.
        Thank you, Michelle

  3. This was pretty much an introduction to Dogen for me. And, perhaps not unexpectedly, I’m confused.
    I believe, Hameed, that you said that Dogen says particulars are present as they are. Opening to that is opening to true reality. Ash is ash. And yet, when talking about Buddha Nature, you said that Dogen proposes that Buddha Nature doesn’t come into being until I realize it. Does this apply to ash too? Ash isn’t ash until I realize it as ash? Does it require my participation?
    Much thanks for these beautiful, rich talks.

    1. Hi Christine,
      I am not surprised that there will be confusion. Dogen is not easy to understand, and many things he says sound paradoxical and enigmatic.

      For Dogen Buddha Nature is everything. Especially so when we are free of the ordinary self. The realization that Ash is Ash, without the presence of the self, indicates the presence of Buddha Nature. Ash is Buddha nature in this case, because it is as it is, without the overlay of ideas, concepts, self and so on. For Dogen, Buddha Nature is not something that Ash becomes. It is everything in its factness.

      Realization of course requires your participation. However this does not mean that it is somebody there experiencing Ash is Ash. It is definitely your realization, but you are not present as self in such realization. There are two ways I think Dogen takes this realization of particulars.

      One is that you and Ash are the same. the other is that there is simply ash being ash.

  4. Did you, Hameed,
    turn out to be
    the very Beingness
    that brought about the realisation
    that took place
    in the entity that called itself,
    and formerly thought of itself as,
    — John, UK3

    1. Hi John,
      Entity is no more. Yet there is the individual consciousness through which such realizations happen.

      The situation is subtle. It does not mean that there is a consciousness that recognizes itself as a consciousness having a realization. Partly depends on the realization. In some realizations, there is simply Wood is Wood. In other realizations, there is awareness inherently aware of its transparent luminosity by being itself. So awareness is awareness, but awareness has this capacity of knowing itself.

  5. Do you ever wonder if the distinctions you make between different paths are the product of your point of view? Nisargadatta writes,’I am simplicity itself…..I am what is -without any distinction whatsoever into inner and outer, mine and yours, good or bad. What the world is I am; what I am is the world.’ (P101 I am that)
    What is the difference between this and Dogen seeing tiles and grass as the ultimate truth just as it is ?


    1. Hi Bruce,
      One of the realizations in the path I teach is that of the view of totality. This is the realization that can hold any view or no view at all. It can hold several views at the same time, like this of Dogen and Nisargadatta. So what is my point of view?

      The difference between Dogen and Nisargadatta is vast. But each is real and authentic realization and liberation.

      One of the purposes of the lecture series is to show that there are many views in spiritual teachings, reflecting different realizations of reality. That there is no one way of realizing the real. The real manifests itself differently, and this is one reason we have so many teachings, all with different views of spirituality and enlightenment. However, a student follows one genuine path. You do not need to follow or the paths or know about them. If you are truly engaged in one authentic path, then that is sufficient for you.

  6. Dear Hameed: Thank you so much for this lecture series. I wanted to ask about Dogen’s teachings and nature. From what I understand, the Chinese teachers he studied with and much of their lineage practiced in mountain retreats and other natural settings. And Dogen it seems spent some time in Kyoto on his return to Japan but ultimately left to establish a mountain monastery. This is on one level a silly question, but when we think about wood as wood and ash as ash, can we also think about an instagram post as an instagram post and a tweet as a tweet? In practice it seems like there is something in natural settings that is more aligned with the type of realization in Dogen’s lineage and also more supportive of human nervous systems being open to realization. Are we modern humans tasked with finding suchness in and amongst the information flow and virtual/augmented reality increasingly around us? Thank you, Ethan

  7. Good question, Ethan,
    For sure, a natural or better, monastic setting supports the focus and engagement of practice. However, it is not necessary.

    There is a famous fascicle. by Dogen called: “The Painting of a rice cake.” And he asks about whether a rice cake is the same as the painting of rice cake? I see this as pointing to the fact that a painting of a rice cake can function the same as a real rice cake for realization.

    You ask about an instagram post: anything can be seen for what it is. It is more challenging to see an instagram post as what it is, as compared with a redwood tree. But everything is included. Dogen includes the totality of reality, and does not limit realization only to natural things or phenomena.

    But I would say there is always the sky, the clouds, the birds, your desk, the stars, and so on. All are reality. You don’t need to just stay with an instagram post. I hope instagram posts do not constitute the majority of your life.

  8. Let me try again: I have some experience in the Chinese tradition of meditation Dogen studied in – Dogen attained enlightenment when his teacher shouted “When you study under a master, you must drop body and mind!” Dogen describes his enlightenment as similar to all the feathers coming off a chicken!

    In the Shobogenzo Dogen writes that “conveying oneself to all things to carry out practice enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realisation.”

    I take this to mean allowing the world to come to you with out an intention to get something – rather like sensing, looking and listening.

    Dogen also comments: ‘When the opposites arise the Buddha Mind is lost”

    My zen teachers might call this nothing-everything. You made a comment somewhere about enlightenment in Zen along these lines but I was not sure you recognised this equation can mean nothing/grass in its facticity; or nothing/everything.

    So when Nisargadatta writes that: “When I look inside and see that I’m nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I’m everything, that’s love. And between these two, my life turns,”

    Could you explain the vast difference you perceive between these two accounts ?

  9. Hi Bruce,
    I think you are referring to this piece:“To carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. [P. 69. Moon in a Dewdrop]

    You notice he says things come forth and experience themselves.. This means no one is experiencing them.. One important point here is that there is no self present. and that things are just what they are. Sensing, looking and listening is a way of practicing, but Dogen here is referring to a kind of realization.

    I think Dogen kind of realization cannot be compared to that of Nisargadatta. They are talking about very different kind of realizations. For Nisargadatta, the myriad things are simply appearances in his mind, and he is the ultimate awareness that contains them all. But Dogen gives the myriad things an. ultimacy. He does not say they are awareness, not even emptiness. It is just grass as grass. It is possible to have such realization. That the grass is simply the grass, it is itself in its activity. And this does not have to be related to anything else, including awareness or self.

    Nisargadatta has the realization of pure awareness beyond all things is his real self.

    My view is that these are both real and profound realizations. And the interesting thing is that they are very different ways of realizing reality. Dogen talks about other realizations too, like everything is time. Nisargadatta won’t agree with that.

    I think we can learn from both. Both are great teachers and examples of awakening. We don’t have to see them as talking about the same thing for us t learn from both.

  10. Deep appreciation for all these five talks Hameed, and how it open’s up a non-fixation on views, and the possibility for multiple, unfolding, realizations and awakenings.

    I wonder how much you would are familiar with and resonate with the view developed in the book The Seeing That Frees by the (now deceased) buddhist teacher Rob Burbea that the perception of the world and our experience (including spiritual realization) depends on a “way of looking” that is always there. That way of looking can be praticed intentionally to deconstruct perception and lead to less fabrication and to more freedom, but there is always an implicit and often unconscious “way of looking” in any moment that can be traced even to the neurological functioniung of the brain. So even at a gross level the way of looking fabricates, to some extent what we perceive but “we can play with various ways of looking and explore what ways of looking are possible and liberating, (without limiting how many ways of looking are legitimate, and not pre-assuming what is fabricated and what isn’t) thus opening the possibility of radically deep insights overturning our usual assumptions about what is real, what is not real, what is this self, what is this world, what is a thing, what is awareness, what is time, what is space,” “This malleability of perception functions everywhere, inner or outer, with regard to the self, with regard to objects in the world, with regard to the cosmos, with regard to other people. Because everything is empty, there’s the possibility of modulating where we are on the spectrum of fabrication – in other words, how solid and fixed and substantial things appear on that whole spectrum – and also playing with the ways of looking. We can decide to look in a certain way for the sake, let’s say, of sacredness, or for the sake of healing, or for the sake of beauty, or for the sake of freedom from suffering, or for the sake of love. ” (Rob Burbea)

    For Rob Burbea, emptiness is not just the usual understanding that nothing whatsoever has any inherent existence,’ any independent existence but further includes the dependence on the mind, the dependence on the ways of looking. “And ways of looking, too, are empty. So for me seeing emptiness is something that brings this really radical sense of freedom in relation to our existence, but also a lot of profound beauty, sacredness, love, all of that.”

    This view developed by Rob also allows for non-fixating on a view of ultimate reality and fixed awakening but allows for a playful and open exploration of reality that seems to correspond to some extent with what you share. So I wonder if you are familiar with Rob Burbea’s teaching and how this view would fit with your own experiences and understanding.

    Many thanks


    1. My experience is similar to some degree. Practicing is like turning your head just enough where a radically different alignment occurs. Reminds me of a line from the song A child of the Wind by Bruce Cockburn

      It depends on what you look at obviously
      But even more it depends on the way that you see

  11. Hi David,
    I am not familiar with the work of Bob Burbea. so thanks for letting me know. I think the view he has, as you describe it in your note above, comes close to the teaching of the Diamond Approach we call the view of totality. This is the view that is an open ended view, that can include any valid view of reality. It means we can take the stance of any view, without adhering to it as final.

    In the teaching I give, the different views and realizations are not based on how we look. There is no intention or practice to look in a certain way. It is more of an openness to what might arise, without taking the mental conviction that the reality we experience is the only way it can be. Reality simply appears in new ways, which then challenge and expose any unrecognized convictions of what is reality. Not knowing a way reality can appear frequently includes an implicit view that it cannot be this way.. So the view of totality becomes that of living with indeterminacy, which many experience as no place to settle.

    Thanks for bringing this point up, for it is behind all the talks I had given in this series. The series is basically a way to illustrate that there are many ways of experiencing awakened reality.


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