Buddhism Dōgen
Taigen Leighton, Charlie Korin Pokorny
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0063


Eihei Dōgen (b. 1200–d. 1253) was a Japanese monk, ordained in Tendai, who visited China from 1223 to 1227 and returned to teach in the Caodong/Sōtō tradition. Considered the founder of the Japanese Sōtō school, his large body of writings are noted for their philosophical depths and evocative, poetic quality. Dōgen’s practice emphasizes zazen, or sitting meditation as a dynamic expression of universal, underlying Buddha nature. He established Eiheiji monastery, still one of the two headquarter temples of the Sōtō school, and emphasized the application of meditative awareness to everyday activities in the monastery, such as cooking and cleaning. Dōgen was most important historically for training a cadre of monks, who over the next several generations spread Sōtō Zen widely in the Japanese countryside. Dōgen’s writings express Mahayana perspectives of interconnectedness and nonduality and famously address the deep awareness and practice of temporal complexity in his teaching of “being time.” Although Dōgen is noted for his meditation teaching, he also wrote collections of koans, and his mastery of the Song Chan encounter dialogue, or koan literature, is remarkable. With a great deal of his writings involving various styles of commentary on the traditional encounter dialogues, he should be regarded as the introducer of this koan literature to Japan. Historically, from the century after his death, his writings were read only by Sōtō priest scholars until they were popularized in the early 20th century. Translations of Dōgen’s writings and spread of Sōtō practice centers have been important to the spread of Buddhism in the West, accompanied by a plethora of contemporary writings about Dōgen.

Historical Context

Dōgen’s teaching career has been a subject of scholarly controversy. After returning from China in 1227 he established a temple just south of Kyoto where he taught from 1233 to 1243. In 1243, for reasons unclear, he abruptly relocated his whole community to the remote mountains of Echizen (current Fukui) in northern Japan, where he established Eiheiji and taught until his final illness in 1252. Scholars have traditionally debated the primacy of a reputed “early Dōgen” and “late Dōgen,” with some extolling the former for his inclusive, universal teaching and critiquing the latter for his exclusivist monastic emphasis, while others have considered only the latter phase as worthy for its emphasis on karma and ethics. Current scholarship considers the reality as more complex, with primary shifts a matter of varied genres and audiences, rather than any major changes of philosophy. Dōgen is considered the founder of one of the Kamakura period “new schools” that rebelled against the Heian establishment Tendai and Shingon schools. His influences include both traditional Mahayana teachings and the Chinese Chan tradition, in both of which he was extremely well versed.

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