A Theravada Zen Monk: Dogen Zenji

Shotai de la Rosa

At the very moment we are sitting, what about that sitting? Is it a flip? Is it ‘brisk and lively’? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it making? Is it without making? Are we sitting within sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind?”
— Zanmai ō zanmai  (Tr. Carl Bielefeldt)

In 2005 my teacher, Shohaku Okumura Roshi, suggested that I read Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts by Hajime Nakamura. It was the first time that I got in touch with the life and teachings of he who came to be the most remarkable and inspiring human being in my life: the Buddha. I then started to do some research about his teachings. Professor Nakamura’s book was just an appetizer, and I was hungry for a full meal.

Apart from a year in Japan (2006-2007), my research continued until I came in contact with the work of the Thai Forest Tradition monk Venerable Ajaan Geoff, better known as Thanissaro Bhikkhu. I visited Wat Metta, his monastery in San Diego County, twice, and was impressed with the simple everyday life, with the luxury of sitting meditation at will with no restrictions, with his availability, and his straightforwardness. A little more than a year ago I decided to move from Indiana to California, and ever since I have been spending most of my time in the Metta Forest Monastery.

zafusLittle by little, I learned more about the Buddha’s teachings in the words of Ajaan Geoff and several other Thai Forest masters: the four noble truths, not as doctrine, but as strategies that have a task that needs to be done; the skandhas as activities, and not what constitutes a person; annica, anatta and dukkha as perceptions, and not as characteristics of existence; dependent co-arising as non linear events without an agent; precepts as protection for oneself and others; breath as energy, and not only as the air going in and out from the nose; not-self as strategy, a technique of perception; generosity as the number one virtue; the importance of making merit, whether being a layperson or a monk; the cultivation of the brahmaviharas (metta, karuna, mudita and upekha) to cultivate good will, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity toward all living beings; jhana or dhyana, not as a “brain washing”, but stages of deep samadhi able to rewire the brain; the mind, not in the brain, but using the brain (the mind not located in any specific part of the body), and more.

To my astonishment, I found out that Ajaan Geoff is a great admirer of Dogen. One of his students told me that Ajaan Geoff asked him to study the Tenzo Kyokun and the Shobogenzo. What a surprise! A Theravada monk recommends the study of the teachings of a Zen Master.

I asked Ajaan Geoff about his view of Dogen and the following is what he wrote:

My first exposure to Dogen came in 1975. I had returned from Thailand after completing my teaching fellowship with the Oberlin-Shansi Association. During my time in Thailand I had spent three months studying with Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, a teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition, and I wanted to devote my life to Buddhist practice. Part of the Oberlin-Shansi fellowship included a year back at Oberlin College, so I decided to use that opportunity to take courses in the Religion department. It so happened that James Kodera was on the Oberlin faculty, and he was offering a seminar in Zen Buddhism. That seminar was my first exposure to Dogen: both in reading Prof. Kodera’s PhD. thesis on Dogen, which later became his book Dogen’s Formative Years in China; and in reading a translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Of all my readings for the seminar, the latter book most impressed me as being similar in spirit and substance to my experience of studying with Ajaan Fuang. As for Dogen’s account of his time in China, the incident that most impressed me was his account of “dropping body and mind.” This seemed to me then –and still does now –very similar to what counts as stream-entry in the Theravada map of awakening experiences.

The following year, when I decided to return to Thailand to resume practicing under Ajaan Fuang, I stopped over in Japan to visit a Japanese friend. When he asked me which Japanese sites I wanted to visit, Eihei-ji was high on the list. We spent one evening and morning there, and I had the opportunity to pay my respects at Dogen’s tomb. When I returned to the States in 1991, I obtained a new translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki, and often read from it during the morning meditations at Metta Forest Monastery.”

zafusIn Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Robinson, Willard L. Johnson and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, he writes that for Dogen “There is a logic to Awakening . . . but it requires a special kind of thinking.” According to the Ajaan, in Shobogenzo Zanmai o zanmai Dogen Zenji wrote: “There is sitting of dropping off the body and mind, which is different from sitting of dropping off body and mind…You must thoroughly investigate perception, intention, and consciousness”. Ajaan adds: “In this case, non-thinking functions more like ‘de-thinking’, deconstructing any and all potential unspoken assumptions where thought might abide.” For Dogen, he says, “Awakening is not a static state produced at the end of practice; instead, it was expressed in the non-thinking that formed the heart of the practice all along. Thus he later formulated the position that the cultivation of the path is, in and of itself, the authentication of Awakening. Instead of waiting to attain Awakening at the end of the Path, one should look to see it authenticated as the process of correctly cultivating the path itself.” To me this statement, in Dogen’s teachings, means that practice and enlightenment are not two different aspects. In other words, Awakening, or Enlightenment, is not something to attain at the end of the Way, but a constant process that must be trustworthy through the developing of the proper practice of the Way itself.

My thoughts about the monk’s view are developed below, through my own insights into Dogen’s teachings.

Dogen Zenji is the second most important human being for me. His life and his teachings have been a source of inspiration. He lived what he taught, his devotion to zazen, his precept on celibacy, his advocacy for no fame and profit and living in poverty without clinging to food and clothing, freedom from personal opinions, the non existence of a Zen school, being in harmony with others, his respect and study of the Tripitaka (I love what he said at the end of Eihei Koroku K 5.361: “There are certainly arhats in the world. With good and bad, how could there not be the process of cause and effect?”). Eheiji, at his time, was a very remote temple with limited access, mokugyo-zafusand adverse weather conditions: “If this greatest cold does not penetrate into our bones, how will the fragrance of plum blossoms pervade the entire universe?” (EK 34). Greatest cold and humid heat were not an excuse not to keep sitting, as he said, day and night. About precepts: “The essential point in practicing the Way is casting aside your tendency (from the past) to cling to certain things. If you first change your physical behavior, your mind will be reformed as well. Firstly, carry out what is prescribed to do and avoid what is prohibited in the precepts; then your mind will reform itself.” (Zuimonki 6-7). Also: “If you follow the demeanor and behavior prescribed in the precepts, your body will be at ease, your behavior will be appropriate, and you will not disturb other people. Therefore abandon bodily pleasures, caused by egocentric views and thoroughly follow the Buddha’s precepts.” (Zuimonki 2-24). The third major precept in the Kyojukaimon, originally, is about being celibate, refraining for sexual engagement for monks, similar to the third major of the Bodhisattva Precepts (Bonmokyo) where there is prescribed celibacy for monks and avoidance of sexual misconduct for lay-bodhisattvas.

It is well known that as Buddhists we should listen to the Dharma (in modern times reading as well), probe by ourselves that it works, and attain it. In Zuimonki 6-6 is written: “An ancient person said: ‘Listen, see, attain.’ Further: ‘If you haven’t attained, see. If you haven’t yet seen, listen.’ He meant that seeing is superior to listening, attaining is superior to seeing. If you haven’t attained you should see. If you haven’t seen you should listen.”

In my study and practice of Dogen’s teachings I have been, of course, influenced by my teacher Okumura Roshi, a well known Dogen scholar. However, I also became interested in the study of Dogen’s teachings by several academics, especially by Professor Steven Heine. When I was living near Miami I met Dr. Heine and together we organized, with great success, a conference on Dogen at the Florida International University. When deciding on the phrase to be included in the poster with Dogen’s picture, I wrote something and sent it to Dr. Heine. He wrote back telling me that what I wrote was my priest’s point of view of Dogen, and sent something else with a different tone. This was the first warning I got about how to view Dogen: there was more to Dogen than I thought. Actually, I felt there was more Dogen in Dogen: a very alive Dogen with no affiliation. At the end, we combined parts of the two views for the poster.

zafusDogen lived a life of sila, samadhi and prajna 24/7. His shikantaza is the unity of these three pillars of Buddhist practice guided (or inspired) by hishiryo. My understanding of the term is that while sitting in meditation or zazen, we don’t think (shiryo) or engage in distracting thinking (fushiryo), but go beyond thinking and not thinking (hishiryo), beyond the dichotomy of both, subverting the unity of concealed internal conjectures (“de-thinking”). When we sit like this, letting go acts like a monitor, keeping under systematic review any surviving hidden abiding of distracted thoughts, meaning any thought about past, or future, or any thought that has nothing to do with sitting itself.  This is, in my view, the mindfulness of zazen, keeping sitting itself in mind. In other words, sitting, if correctly done, is a function within the body that triggers dropping off body and mind.

There are at least two ways to see the body: 1) as just as the four elements, or better, four properties that by themselves are empty of an agent: wind, fire, liquid, solid, or 2) as one of the five aggregates, activity which is empty of an agent as well: form. The remaining aggregates are mind activities based on past experiences: feeling, perception, fabrication and consciousness. The mind has no specific location in the body, and the body itself does not feel, does not perceive, does not fabricate, does not have consciousness because neither the four properties, nor form itself can do it.

Mind, called citta by the Buddha according to the Pali Canon, is used to mean both consciousness and heart. The mind has no location but goes everywhere. Although its nature is bright and clear it is constantly involved in one of its favorite games: unskillful and unwholesome mental fabrications (sankhara). Sitting provides us the unique possibility to see how the mind plays, to comprehend it, and to stop it.

During zazen as the king of samadhi, the solid ground of body and mind is seeing as it comes to be; sense perceptions comes to a halt, consciousness is bright and clear. There is a taste of liberation, a glimpse of Nirvana. This is a conscious experience that happens without our control, but as a natural result of deep concentration or samadhi.  This is Dogen’s shinjin datsu raku (dropping off body and mind). In my view this is the meaning of zazen as a gate of liberation. A gate is a means of access, an opening for entrance or exit. Dogen’s zazen is a door that brings about liberation.


Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Richard H. Robinson, Willard L. Johnson and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Paperback. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA, US.

Shōbōgenzō-Zuimonki. Sayings by Eihei Dōgen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejō. Tr. Shohaku Okumura. Soto-Shu-Shumucho. Ninth Printing 2012.

shotai-bwShotai de la Rosa

Shotai de la Rosa began her practice in her native Colombia and has also practiced in Spain, Italy, Japan and California. She received transmission from Shohaku Okumura in 2005, then later founded her own temple in Hialeah, FL and helped to found one in Bogota. With Densho Quintero she translated Heart of Zen into Spanish and she made a Spanish translation of the Eihei Koroku from her teacher’s English translation.