View Full Version : For Soto Zen History Wonks Only: Of Koans, Kanwa, Kensho and Koroku 8-14

03-14-2023, 03:13 AM

A controversial writing by Dogen is his Hogo [Dharma Words] 8-14 in the Eihei Koroku collection. According to some, Dogen’s guidance to a lay follower in that section reveals him, surprisingly, recommending Koan Introspection as a means to achieve a breakthrough to Enlightenment while, just as surprisingly, not mentioning Shikantaza Zazen at all. Was not Dogen -the- great proponent of Shikantaza who rejected Koan Introspection Zazen? Does this passage prove that belief false?

While such claim about Hogo 8-14 is correct in part, and highlights some popular misunderstandings about Dogen’s use and love of Koans, the claim also omits some significant information, perhaps wishing to make Dogen appear more of a “Koan Introspection Zazen” fellow in ways he certainly was not.* In fact, Hogo 8-14 is replete with references to Shikantaza and Silent Illumination Zazen.

Hogo 8-14 is a letter of advice to a lay disciple who, according to some historians, was most likely Dogen’s chief benefactor and main financial sponsor of Eiheiji monastery, the samurai Lord Hatano Yoshihige. Much of the letter, as its central theme, consists of repeated reminders that any lay student had best find a good and authentic teacher (in this case, we can safely assume, meaning Dogen himself), coupled with references to several stories of ancient lay disciples who studied with such good and authentic Zen teachers. However, about midway through the writing, Dogen suddenly declares this:

士、大丈夫、知識に見ゆるに及ばば先づ一則 の因縁を問ひ、 直須からく心を留め學に勤めよ。 山窮り 海枯れ、 圓通せざるなし(無不) 。

I would render those lines this way:

Good gentleman, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one story of cause and effect (一則 の因縁を問ひ), and just keep it in mind and study it diligently (心を留め學に勤め). Climbing to the top of the mountain and drying up the oceans, you will not fail to fully understand.

Dogen recommends asking for 一則の因縁, literally, “the cause and effect of one story/example,” traditional Zen lingo for an old Koan story. While this recommendation by Dogen to ask for a Koan may surprise some, it should not: In fact, Dogen dug them Koans. It is sometimes said that “Soto Zen is not about Koans,” but nothing could be farther from the truth! Examining almost any page of Dogen’s Shobogenzo or Eihei Koroku belies that fact, for one immediately encounters wall-to-wall classic Koans, together with Sutra stories, popular legends, famous and obscure poetic references and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist citations, all riffed on in Master Dogen’s wild style. What is more, there is ample evidence that Dogen, as well as his Chinese Master Rujing and many in their succeeding generations such as Master Keizan, taught with Koans, worked with Koans, assigned Koans and encouraged students to intimately keep them in mind and chew on them in order to pierce the Wisdom found there.**

Recognizing Dogen’s love of Koans, however, is not the same as saying that Dogen was an advocate of so-called Kanwa Zazen, or “Koan Introspection Zazen,” the practice of focusing on a key word or phrase of a Koan during Zazen sitting, undertaken intently in pursuit of a Kensho opening experience. We know this because, in the several detailed “how to” descriptions of Zazen which Dogen left to us, such as Fukanzazengi, Zazengi, Zazenshin and others, he spelled out point-by-point exactly how to place the legs, what to do specifically with the eyes, hands and breath, the attitude of “non-gaining” in Zazen practice and how to disentangle the mind from thought, but somehow never bothers to mention picking up a Koan story, phrase or word of a Koan and holding it in mind during Zazen. If Dogen had wanted the reader to pick up a Koan phrase and hold it during Zazen, he would have said so (as, for example, is found in Zazen instructions for Kanwa Zazen by many Rinzai Zen teachers of that period and after, laying out just how to do so.) Furthermore, notice that 一則の因縁 is not referring to a phrase or word of a Koan, but rather, to a whole story to reflect on, keep in mind and study diligently (心を留め學に勤め). What Fukanzazengi, Zazengi and Zazenshin describe is Shikantaza.

And that leads to a misstatement often made about Hogo 8-14: That Dogen makes no reference to Shikantaza within it.

In fact, he did so in several places there and, what is more, with references which echo Fukanzazengi, Zazengi, Zazenshin and other such writings. Earlier in the Hogo, several lines before the passage about “ask for one Koan story,” Dogen criticizes those who “vainly run around seeking outside" (向外馳走), and do not understand “the backward step of turning the head” (囘頭退歩). That first phrase echoes a reference to non-seeking in Shobogenzo Jinzu, which criticizes those who “mistakenly regard running around seeking outside (向外の馳走) as the practice of returning home.” What is more, the expression “backward step of turning the head” (囘頭退歩) echoes two descriptions of Shikantaza Zazen, the first in no less than the early Tempuku version of Fukanzazengi:

… reverse the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing after talk; take the backward step (退歩) of turning the light and shining it back. … engage solely in reversing the body and turning the head (囘頭)

As well, in Shobogenzo-Zazenshin, “The Needle of Zazen,” Dogen retells the famous Koan story in which Nangaku compares Zazen done in order to “make a Buddha” to futile efforts to make a mirror from a tile. Dogen then observes, “ … forward steps and backward steps [退歩] possess the capacity intimately to fill ditches and to fill valleys” and “[Zazen] is ‘throwing away a tile and pulling in a jewel;’ it is ‘turning the head [囘頭] and changing the features.’

There is a further reference in Hogo 8-14 to the Silent Illumination tradition of the Soto School: Dogen requests students to “clarify the withered tree and dead ashes” (枯木死灰), a famous Zen saying which historian Morten Schlütter describes (in his “How Zen Became Zen,” p. 172) as a common description of sitting in Silent Illumination Zazen that was “frequently used in the teachings of twelfth-century Caodong [Soto] masters, but I have found no twelfth-century Chan master from outside the Caodong tradition who used [such expressions] in a positive sense.” One should continue so until oneself becomes a master who "wields [a teacher's] bamboo stick and staff" (竹篦拄杖). Over many months and days, says Dogen, "make this as one piece" (一片に打成して) until becoming able to "use this inexhaustibly" (使用無尽), "round and harmoniously" (円陀陀地).

There is one additional passage of Hogo 8-14 that some say implies working through a kind of "Koan curriculum," a series of Koan cases taken in sequence. However, a close reading shows that not to be “the case.” The passage is:

世の人を見るに、知識に参尋しては、一問未だ委しくせざるに、強いて兼挙喜む。会せるに以て席を退き、杜し て言うこと能わず。未だ三分の話を説かず、何ぞ十成の道を見ん。

Leighton and Okumura render those sentences as:

“Now I see worldly people who visit and practice with teachers, and before clarifying one question, assertively enjoy bringing up other stories. They withdraw from the discussion as if they understand, but are close-mouthed and cannot speak. They have not yet explained one-third of the story, so how will we see a complete saying?”

While that may sound like it is discussing some set series of Koan questions to pass through, the actual meaning is far from so clear: “One question” is simply 一問 which, rather than meaning “one Koan,” just means “one question, one thing to inquire about.” Thus, the passage actually means something closer to, “I see worldly people who … before coming to be fully familiar with one matter … start bringing up other matters. … They still cannot explain a third of what’s said (言うこと), so how will they fully see the Way? [十成の道を見ん]”

As a final point, it should be no surprise at all that Dogen was all about awakening, realization, enlightenment. Zen practice, after all, is always about enlightenment which leaps through this world of separateness, realizing liberation right in this world of separateness. Thus, as one might expect, Hogo 8-14 sometimes speaks of enlightenment in superlative terms, such as, “you will resolve the great matter of life and death” (生死の大事を決択) and “Jian was suddenly enlightened” (堅忽ち省悟す). Our Soto Zen practice would not be Zen practice should it forsake enlightenment and realization. However, we need to be careful about what is envisioned as enlightenment: The strange assertion made by some Soto Zen critics that Soto Zen is “not about enlightenment” is a misunderstanding that comes from the fact that Dogen sometimes spoke out against certain ways of chasing enlightenment, and seemed to criticize emphasis on "Kensho" in some of his writings. Rather, Dogen saw enlightenment manifesting in our every act, word and thought if displaying the dignity of a Buddha’s behavior in that act, word and thought. Furthermore, Dogen constantly emphasized that the enlightenment of a Buddha, seeing with a Buddha’s eye, is found as ever manifesting in this lively world of forms and differences.

There are scenes describing enlightenment in the essay, but none occur during introspection on a word or phrase of a Koan. The closest is Huanting Jian of “Jian was suddenly enlightened,” a happening which occurs right after he is told by his Teacher, “Do not use your thinking to make calculations” (思量卜度) and admonished not to have “even a little involvement with discrimination,” advice on par with the Fukanzazengi’s famous admonishments not to “make the slightest discrimination” and to “give up measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views,” (念想觀の測量を止めて) in its description of Shikantaza. Thereupon, Jian is suddenly enlightened upon experiencing the fragrant scent of lotus flowers, never hidden before him.

In conclusion, while Hogo 8-14 is seemingly not about “Koan Introspection Zazen” on a word or phrase from a Koan, it is replete with Dogen’s love of old Koans, his recommendation that lay students study and chew on Koans profoundly, but also replete with the flavor of our Shikantaza Zazen ways of “non-attaining" too, all together as doorways to awakening to this fragrance which is never hidden.

Gassho, Jundo


* I also read in the same essay (https://www.patreon.com/posts/dogens-for-zen-78785030) the claim that Dogen "does not use the word shikantaza a single time" in his writings. That is also patently not true. In but one teaching of many (Koroku 4-337), for example, Dogen says of shikantaza (祇管打坐, sometimes written 只管打坐, with both 祇管 and 只管 meaning "just" and 打坐 as "sitting"), "Great assembly, do you want to hear the reality of just sitting (祇管打坐), which is the Zen practice that is dropping of body and mind? ..."

** In fact, Soto teachers today still commonly reflect on the classic Koans in offering teachings, and encourage students to study them, although perhaps not as much as in Dogen’s day, for focus has turned more toward piercing the very same Wisdom found in the Genjo Koan of everyday life. However, that is a topic for another day.

03-14-2023, 07:02 AM
Great read and so informative! Thanks, Jundo [emoji1374]


03-14-2023, 09:22 AM
Examining almost any page of Dogen’s Shobogenzo or Eihei Koroku belies that fact, for one immediately encounters wall-to-wall classic Koans, together with Sutra stories, popular legends, famous and obscure poetic references and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist citations, all riffed on in Master Dogen’s wild style.

It's almost like he had a fakebook of standards, and used them in all his gigs, but making his own versions of them.


Ryūmon (Kirk)


03-14-2023, 11:04 AM
thank you, Jundo.

[emoji1374] aprapti


03-14-2023, 11:37 AM
That is a great exposition. Thank you, Jundo! I am just reading Steven Heine's 'Dogen and the Koan Tradition' which is further illuminating on that subject.

In the other direction, it is often said that Rinzai teachers such as Hakuin were against sitting practice, but Hakuin clarifies in his Orategama:

I do not mean to say that sitting in meditation should be despised or contemplation damned. Of all the sages, the men of wisdom of the past and of today, there is not one that perfected the Buddha Way who did not depend on Zen meditation. The three essentials, precepts, meditation and wisdom, have always been the very center of Buddhism. Who would dare to take them lightly?


03-14-2023, 02:35 PM
Thank you, Jundo! Gassho2

03-14-2023, 04:35 PM
Thank you



03-14-2023, 04:45 PM
Thank you, Jundo!

03-14-2023, 06:31 PM
This is very interesting. I am so glad you shared this. As someone who was in Soto for several years and then in a tradition that does Koans, and yearning to return to Soto for the very reason of how Soto treats Koan study, I can attest there certainly is a difference. In the Korean Zen (Seon) tradition, they DO NOT use Koans. They use Hwadu (Ch. Hua Tou or Gongfu meditation {not to be confused with martial arts or style of making tea}). This is to use the "word-head" of a koan or a point beyond which words and speech are used. Typical Hwadu is something like "What is this?" or "Who am I?" In a Koan for example Case 12 from the Mumonkan, Zuigan Calls Master, the "word-head" would be, "What (or who) is the true Master?" It was not until the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn studied with Japanese Rizai teachers that he started using Koans in the Rinzai way. Traditional Seon does not do this. It uses the head of speech to go to the place beyond words and letters, to the place before thinking occurs (or to say before the internal dialogue). In traditional Seon, it is considered that both elements of Lin Chi and Caodong existed. However, they used the method of Master Dahui of the Lin Chi school of Hwadu method and not the style of formal Dokusan around question and answers like is used in American Korean Zen and Japanese Rinzai Zen. In fact, Zen Master Seung Sahn had a very specific way in which Koans (Kong-Ans) were to be answered. They were answers only he had for these koans and no others would be fully accepted. There was the "Japanese" answer and then there was the Kwan Um answer. This was a huge difference from what I experienced in how Soto approached koans. I was fortunate to actually have studied traditional Soto soon after studying in the White Plum /Sanbo Kyodan tradition, so I was able to see the difference. Up until that time, I thought that Sanbo Kyodan was Soto.

I believe that Dogen's use of Koans differs from both of these methods as he was interested in these stories as a pointer to something in practice. It was not to grab ahold of the speech or to solve a riddle to reach kensho. It was to highlight certain important aspects of the teachings so that the student had these as guides and examples of practice. It is interesting that in the American Korean tradition, my continued use of shikantaza as my practice was cautioned, because they believed that people are not ready for shikantaza until the koans are solved. Shikantaza is what the Zen Masters practice after their "homework" is complete. I never saw it that way. I have always seen koans in Soto practice as gengokoan, finding a way to manifest the Buddha Dharma in every little thing we do. My first Soto teacher, Dai-En Bennage always said that Koans are important as a way to investigate how the many riddles of life present themselves and how we may deal with those riddle. But, for her the only way to test a student was not if they solved a Koan but how they cleaned their bowls during oryoki, walked kinin in the zendo, and just overall how they carried themeselves in the sangha. When one fully embodies practice, it shows. I guess this is why it was challenging to reconcile that the only way to demonstrate the awakened state was to deliver an approved answer to a koan. As Charolette Joko Beck said in an interview, she said that she knew many people that have solved hundreds of koans and most of them were not very nice people. That is why she put the emphasis on zazen and working with our core beliefs that keep us from our true nature.

I have always looked at zazen and the practice of shikantaza exactly in the way that Dogen describes in Fukanzazengi:

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right dharma is manifesting itself and that from the first dullness and distraction are struck aside.



03-14-2023, 09:40 PM
Hi all

I like Daiman's response to this. I never intuitively felt that the koan, as a 'test' was of much use to me. I always believed there was too much cultural knowledge tied up in many of them to make sense to an Englishman. Nonetheless, I do enjoy reading the koans with commentaries 'in plain english', rather than just more abstract 'jargon'. I never studied with a Rinzai group at any point, as I was looking broadly at what for of Buddhism made intuitive sense to me, and that spotlight quickly fell on Soto Zen, so here I am and will remain.

Gassho, Tokan


03-20-2023, 10:58 AM