Buddhist Meditations
Zen and Ethics: Dogen's Synthesis
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Zen and Ethics: Dogen's Synthesis

Douglas A.Fox
Vol.21 No.1



Philosophy East and West

Copyright @ 1971 by Philosophy East and West

Japanese Buddhism has been enriched  by the lives of a goodly
number  of dynamic, perceptive, often dramatic  and sometimes
erratic  saints.  I think there is little doubt that the most
gifted mind among them was that of Doogen Kigen, who lived in
the first half of the thirteenth century.
  The son of a notable family (his mother was descended  from
the  Fujiwara   clan) ,  Doogen  enjoyed   a  sound  literary
education.  He  began  to devote  his  attention  to Buddhism
nevertheless  while  still very young.  In 1223 he sailed  to
China, like many another  young  monk, to pursue  his studies
and his quest  for understanding, and he remained  there  for
about  four  years, So far  there  is nothing  remarkable  or
unusual  in his story, but a fact which does distinguish  him
from  most  religious  pilgrims  is that  he returned  to his
homeland eventually without a collection  of exotic religious
artifacts  to flourish, yet with a profound  apprehension  of
the meaning  of Zen and a gentle  zeal  to share  widely  and
freely what he had discovered.
  Doogen is frequently  referred  to today as the founder  of
the Soto school  of Zen Buddhism  in Japan, which is entirely
accurate  but, at the same time, a little ironic.  He did not
wish to be thought  of as sectarian;  he had truths  which he
regarded  as Buddhist  rather  than  merely  Zennist, and  he
ardently advocated a method for seeking enlightenment  which,
he felt, was the prerogative  of all Buddhists and not merely
adherents of Soto. His.method was preeminently zazen (his way
is sometimes  called  the way of "zazen-only").  He felt that
the  cross-legged  position  in  which  one  sits  for  zazen
represented  the ideal  unity  of body  and mind  and was  in
itself, fherefore, a step toward the realization of the unity
of all things.
  Doogen  fourided  the Eiheiji  temple  of the Soto  sect in
Echizen  Province, and this remains a center of the sect just
as his method and his spirit remain the heart of Soto to this
day. But his importance transcends his influence in Soto, and
he can  reasonably  be claimed  as the greatest  intellectual
figure  in  Japanese  Zen.   It  is,  consequently,  a  grave
deficiency that very little of his writing has been published
in European  languages  and  that  there  are  few  secondary
sources  available  to Western scholars.  which do justice to
his life or thought.  At the end of this essay is appended  a
bibliography of materials fairly readily available.  The very
brevity of this list should be regarded as a cry for help!
  Doogen's  great work the Shooboogenzoo  is without question
one of Buddhism's  finest  treasures.  It deals  with  a wide
range  of subjects, but  in a style  which  at  times  almost
defies  translation, or even comprehension.  The title of the
work itself, for instance, is formidable. Rather literally it
seems  to  mean  something   like  "The  Correct  Dharma  Eye
Storage," and attempts  to rephrase  it meaningfully  include
such  suggestions  as "A Treasury  of the (Mind's) Eye of the
True  Dharma," "A Treasury  of Knowledge  Regarding  the True
Dharma," and "The Principles  of a Correct  Understanding  of
the Dharma."


  In any case, the purpose  of the present  paper  is to take
one section  of this work (that entitled  Shoakumakusa) which
is concerned  with  a Zen approach  to ethics  and to see how
Doogen relates  the typical  Zen subjectivism  and Mahaayaana
ontology  to  two  primary  ethical  questions: Whence  comes
value? and What  is the relation  of being  and doing? I must
acknowledge   at  the  outset  that  I  am  indebted  for  my
translation  of Doogen's  material, as well as for much else,
to Professor Hiroshi Sakamoto of Otani University.(l)
  Two qualities distinguish Doogen's intellectual  life.  The
first is a profound dedication  to the experience of dhyaana,
the gathering  and intensifying  of one's  mental  powers  in
acute concentration, and the second  is that eager spirit  of
inquiry which typifies the outstanding philosopher.  His work
constantly demontrates the interrelation of these two forces,
and the chief  target  of both  is the  discovery,.experience
and, so far as this  is possible, the discussion  of what  he
sometimes calls the "Unborn," or, in more familiar Mahaayaana
terminology, the  dharmakaaya  or 'sunyataa, or one  of their
  Let us begin, then, by briefly specifying whatever can be
specified  about  this  Unborn  which  he.seeks,and which  he
presents as his basic metaphysical and ethical concept.
  In another  part of the Shooboogenzoo--the  section  called
Busshoo--Doogen says, "all being is the Buddha-nature. A part
of all being we call 'sentient  beings.'  Within  and without
these  sentient  beings  there  is  the-sole   being  of  the
Buddhanature."And  this  Buddha-nature  is,  to  use  Western
terms, the Absolute  Reality which persists  behind the mists
of  our  deluded  egotism  and  of  the  ephemeral  world  of
transient and particular realities. When all that is illusion
is gone; this is what remains; when all that can die is dead,
this is what survives;  when all false meanings are dispelled
this  is  the  Truth.   A  later  Japanese   Zennist,  Bankei
(1622-1693), using  the  phrase  "Buddha-mind"  where  Doogen
might have used "Buddha-nature," echoes lucidly the sentiment
of Doogen when he says: "What everyone  of you received  from
your parents  is none  other  than  the Buddha-mind, and this
mind has never been born and is in a most decided manner full
of wisdom  and  illumination.  As it is never  born, it never
dies....  The  Buddha-mind  is  unborn, and  by  this  unborn
Buddha-mind all things are perfectly well managed."(2)
  This Absolute, call it what you will, is clearly  immortal.
But  for  Doogen, it  is  not  its  failure  to die  that  is
decisive, but its failure to be born, for birth and death are
really inseparable, and when birth has occurred not only

1 Passages  quoted herein from Doogen are taken from a rather
tentative  translation  designed  as a basis  for  discussion
rather than for publication. The edition of the Skooboogenzoo
on which they are based is the Iwanami-bunko edition of 1939,
edited by Professor  Sokuo Etoo of Komazawa  University.  The
chapter   under  discussion,  Shoakumakusa,  occupies   pages
147-157 in this text.
2 D. T. Suzuki, Sayings of Bankei (Tokyo, 1941),p.33.  p.33.


is death  inevitable, but  birth  is always  birth  into  the
illusion  of  separate  identity,  of  egotism, of  erroneous
discrimination.  So our only refuge  from the Angst  which is
the inescapable  consequence  of false  discrimination  is to
find a Truth which is itself beyond even birth.
  The  Ultimate  Truth, the  ground  of  our  being, is  that
Reality  or Absolute  which  we may call  by many  names, but
which Doogen often likes to call simply the Unborn.
  Here, then, is Doogen's  basic  metaphysical  principle  or
entity.  It must  be recognized  that  this  Unborn  is not a
static "something" unmoved and unmoving.  It is dynamic. That
which is born is, in some sense, the self-expression  of that
which is not. Yet this is, perhaps, a somewhat misleading way
of putting  the  matter  because  to speak  of things  as the
self-expression  or  the  manifestation  of  the  Unborn  may
suggest that we are referring  to some tangible substance  or
essence which crops up in various  shapes.  Rather, the truth
is that particularity really exists,and has existed from time
immemorial, even though all particular  things are transient.
All  such  particular, transitory  existence  is finally  not
other than the dharmakaaya  or Absorute, yet the Absolute  is
not divided. We have, however this fractures logic, to affirm
at once both that particularity  exists and that nevertheless
one thing alone is real-the Uriborn Absolute.
  In any case, the Unborn is the ground not only of being but
of becoming, and therefore  of all endeavor including  ethics
and  morality, and  for  the  sake  of  convenience  we shall
continue to speak metaphorically  of these and all particular
things or events as its self-expression.
  Here, then, is a very basic  presupposition  which  we must
keep in mind as we proceed to look briefly at some aspects of
Doogen's moral philosophy.
  Doogen  begins  the  chapter-of  the  Shooboogenzoo  we are
considering  by quoting  a familiar  passage  which occurs in
several  places throughout  the Buddhist  scriptures:

                  The Buddha  said,
                  Do not commit evil;
                  Do good devotedly;
                  Purify  your mind.
                  This is the precept of all Buddhas.

Having stated his text, so to speak, Doogen next isolates the
first part of it- "Do not commit evil"--and begins to expound
its meaning  at some length.  He does the same, subsequently,
for each section  of the verse, but we shall have space  only
to consider  his treatment  of this first  line.  Since this,
however, will  produce  the  essence  of his view  about  the
questions we have in mind, we can be satisfied.
  Every Buddha, it seems, has left us this injunction against
evil.  On  the  face  of  it, it  seems  both  a trivial  and
imprecise  command  and  suggests  the image  of the faithful
Buddhist   as  a  sort  of  simpleminded   Oriental   Puritan


with the negative  function  of avoiding  whatever  orthodoxy
disapproves. Doogen, however, sees this injunction in quite a
different  way.  It is important not because it is a piece of
good, if pedestrian, advice but because  it is pregnant  with
ontological illumination.  To put the matter briefly, "Commit
no  evil"  is  the  self-expression  of the  Unborn, and  the
practice of it is the Unborn itself in action. He says, "This
'Do not commit evil' is not something  contrived  by any mere
man.  It is the Bodhi (the Supreme Enlightenment) turned into
words.... It is the (very) speaking of Enlightenment."
  The significance  of this is that the Enlightenment  spoken
of here cannot be separated from Ultimate Reality itself.  It
is an important  Mahaayaana  understanding  that the Absolute
and the knowing  of the Absolute  are identical--the  knowing
and the  being  are  one.  Consequently, to say that  "Do not
commit evil" is the very speech of Bodhi means that it is the
self-expression  of the Absolute.  Having  established  this,
Doogen goes on: "Being moved by the Supreme Enlightenment one
learns  to aspire  to commit  no evil, to put this injunction
into practice, and as one does so the practice-power  emerges
which covers all the earth, all wortds, a11 time,
and a11 existences without remainder."
  To understand this important sentence it is essential to
realize  that  for Doogen  the "practice-power," that is, the
power  by which  a man  performs  what  is good  and  attains
enlightened  urideystanding  is not simply  the power  of the
individual  ego, the sort  of thing  a man  boasts  of as his
"willpower."  It is, rather, the Bodhi-power or Dharma-power,
the Absolute itself conceived as power.
  While  our last quotation,therefore, is rather  unclear, it
seems to mean that the practice-power  which is manifested as
the Buddhist applies himself to avoiding  evil (the power not
to do evil) and the injunction not to do evil are united. "Do
not commi, evil"  is, in a sense, the verbal  self-expression
of  the   Absolute   and  jts  fuifillment   is  the   active
self-expression of the same.Absolute.
  Doogen  goes on: "The just  man at precisely  the moment(of
the practicepower emerging) is the one in whom we see that no
evils  will ever be committed, even if he appears  to visit a
place full of the temptation  to evil, or to meet a situation
fraught with seduction  to evil, or to have friendly  contact
with  evil doers."  That is to say, this man is now free from
the power of evil and free for good because  the power of the
Truth (the Dharma-power), the Ab-  solute conceived as power,
finds expression  in him and even as him.  He does not merely
know truth, he is Truth and consequently does Truth, which is
to say that he inevitably does no evil.
  In short, Doogen's  insight overcomes  the false dualism of
word  and  deed: the  command  to perform  and the  power  to
perform   are  essentially   identical,  and  this  unity  of
performance and command is rooted in the Unborn. Doogen's way
of putting this is picturesque:

a pine-tree  in spring is neither non-existent  nor existent,
but it is (absolutely) the  "do not commit";  a chrysanthemum
in autumn is neither existent nor non-


existent, but it is (absolutely) "do not commit"; Buddhas are
neither  existent  nor non-existent, but they are the "do not
commit";  a pillar, a lattern, a brush, a stick  are none  of
them  existent  or  non-existent,  but  (absolutely) "do  not
commit"; one's own self is neither existent nor non-existent,
but (absolutely) "do not commit."

What  is  meant  here, of  course, is that  a pine  tree, for
example, should  be seen  not as a natural  object  only, but
more importantly  as the "do not commit," that is, as another
manifestation  of that same ultimate  which is the reality of
both the command not to commit evil and the power to obey it.
In other  words, particularity, as we find it in the command,
and  in  the  power  to  act,  and  in  a  pine  tree, and  a
chrysanthemum  and so on indefinitely  is, even  while  it is
genuine    particularity,    nevertheless    the    Absolute.
Particularity  has existed from beginningless time, yet it is
also  true  that the dharmakaaya  or Unborn  encompasses  all
particularities  in such  a way  that, while  not  destroying
them, it is itself not divided by them.
  All this raises the trite sentence  "Do not commit evil" to
a new and surprising  level of complexity and importance.  It
is not merely a rule, a Buddhist  Boy Scout motto;  it is the
way that "that which eternally is" expresses'  its character,
and  therefore  I must  consider  myself  in some  degree  of
alienation.  from Truth and Reality, bound in some measure to
illusion, while  it is ever a self-conscious  struggle  on my
part  to  obey.   "Do  not  commit   evil"  must  become   my
subjectivity;  it must not remain an externally imposed rule.
When  it is truly  my subjectivity  and my true self, then my
self is no longer  that separate  finite  ego of which I once
boasted, but is none other than the Unborn, the Absolute, the
Eternal Truth. Doogen resorts to a metaphor to illustrate the
nature of the transformation  we undergo in the process he is
discussing.  He says, "Just as the Buddhahood-seed  grows  by
favorable  conditions,so  the  (very) favorableness  of those
favorable conditions derives from the Buddhahood-seed."  That
is, the subjectivizing  of the "Commit no evil"can be likened
to the growth  within  us of the seed of true Buddhahood, and
this seed, the favorable  conditions  for its growth, and the
process  of growth  are  all  alike  the  Unborn.  Among  the
"favorable  conditions"  for this  growth  of the Buddha-seed
within  us is, of course, the diligent  practice  of Doogen's
beloved zazen.
  But now we come to what seems at first to be a considerable
dilemma.  All that has been said so far points to an ontology
which might best be described as "dynamic" monism.  Buddhists
are rather inclined  to reserve the term "monism"  for Indian
thought  concerning   Brahman,  and  since  they,  at  least,
understand  this  in  a very  static  way--Brahman  is always
pictured  in Japanese  writing as utterly  unmoved, a sort of
unchanging  block--they  prefer  not to associate  their  own
highly dynamic Absolute with the term "monism." But monist in
some respects  (or at least nondualistic) it surely  is, even
though it is anything  but static and however it embraces all
the changes and emergences of


our  temporal  and  relative  sphere.  However,  if  Doogen's
ontology is not dualistic, must it not follow that the "evil"
which  one is not to do either  does not exist  or is as much
the character of the Absolute as the good we are to do?
  In a rather diffcult  passage  Doogen says: "Examining  the
problems of the evil referred  to, three kinds of disposition
are to be distinguished: the good, the evil  and the neutral.
The  evil  is (indeed) one  of them.  Nevertheless, the  evil
disposition  is, as much  as the good and the neutral, in its
essence  birthless.  They  are all birthless, immaculate  and
finally  real." Hiroshi Sakamoto  interprets  this as meaning
that the Unborn is the reality of all that is.  Consequently,
when a mind turns  to evil, even that by which and with which
it does evil (its energies and so on) must be the Unborn. Not
only the good but also the evil disposition is birthless, and
consequently   in  its  true  and  essential   nature  it  is
"immaculate."  Its  quality  as "evil," then, is not finally,
decisively,  or   ontologically   alien   to   the   Absolute
Reality,but (and here I take leave of Professor Sakamoto) may
perhaps  be thought  of metaphorically  as karmic  dust which
adheres  to the disposition  and blurs its reflection  of the
Unborn. If this is too dualistic an image, its "evilness" may
be  considered  to.be  so  only  relatively  and  within  the
realm-of  our present relative  existence, but not to be evil
in  that   finally   Real   realm   which   is  the  Absolute
itself.'Perhaps  it could  be said that the Unborn  "maketh
even the wrath of man to praise him!"
  Possibly  Doogen  himself  can help  us to see more clearly
what he means.  In another passage  he says: "We have a truth
which declares:'one twisting, one letting loose.' At the very
moment of the practice-power's  emergence  (in us), the truth
that evil does not violate man is recognized, and at the same
time the truth  that man does not destroy, that which  is the
essential  nature  of the evil is also realized."  The.phrase
"one twisting, one letting loose" is probably an epigrammatic
way of pointing  to the law of causation.  Every twisting  is
followed by a letting loose. Every act has a consequence. So,
in the moment  when the Dharma-power, that is, the Unborn  as
the power-to do the good, emerges in us we come to know, as a
consequence, that what we formerly  did as evil actually  did
not damage that which we truly are--the  Unborn-and  that our
doing  good, while  it  destroys  the  form  of  evil  or the
appearance  of evil in this transient  world of shadows, does
not destroy  that which is in the ground  of the evil as well
as the good--again, the Unborn.
  To  recapitulate   a  little  before  pressing  on  to  our
conclusion: the great Absolute, void of all distinctions  and
oppositions, 'suunyataa, the  Buddha-nature, the  Buddha-mind
or whatever  synonym  we choose  to employ, is the  Real, the
finally unborn and undying ground of all that appears  in the
temporal  and particularized  level of our mundane existence.
Here is the ground of the injunction  to do good, and here is
the power  to fulfill  the injunction, and both are one.  And
here, too, is the reality  of each piece of human  existence.
This does not


mean that the Unborn fragments  itself and that you and I are
respectively  pieces  of  it;   in  its  essence  it  remains
undivided, and  it  "expresses  itself"  as you  and  as  me.
Consequently, to be enlightened  is to know  yourself  as the
Absolute;  but it is also to know, quite  paradoxically, that
I,  too,  am  the  Absolute   and  that  the  story   of  our
relationship at this relative level is, as D.  T. Suzuki puts
it, a story  about  the interpenetration  of Absolutes.  This
means  that the evil we do to each other  is what the strange
blindness and ignorance of one manifestation  of the Absolute
does to another, yet at the supraempirical level the Absolute
is not damaged.
  By ignoring logic, which can never be adequate to grasp and
express the truth, the Buddhist  of Doogen's stamp can, then,
affirm   at  once  the  inviolability   of  Reality   in  its
Absoluteness, and  the  relative  reality  of  the  evil  and
ignorance of particular  men.  And since what matters is that
enlightenment  should break out throughout  the relative  and
empirical  level and not that evil should be recompensed  and
punished, it follows  that while we must ever operate at this
empirical  level, our obligation  is not merely to do good in
an amorphous  fashion, but especially  to do good which  will
provoke the awakening of our fellows. The need-especially but
not exclusively for enlightenment-of  our fellows is the root
of our ethical  behavior, and therefore  ethical  theory  may
never be legalistic, reduced to a fixed Program  of rules and
regulations, but  must  be contextual  and  flexible.  Doogen
criticizes  the rigidity of Hiinayaana ethics for this reason
and remarks, ("a 'Sraavaka's  abiding  by the 'Sila  (ethical
norm) might-in some cases be replaced for the bodhisattva  by
the  violation  of  the  same  'Sila."  The  Mahaayaanist  is
coommonly  inclined  to see the Hiinayaanist  as bound by the
letter   of  the   law,  while   he  himseIf   is  bound   by
karunaa,compassion, which  often  means  the transcending  or
suspension of the law.
  In conclusion, then, we see in Doogen a skillful attempt to
relate  Zen  subjectivism  and  Mahaayaana  ontology  to some
primary  questions  of ethics:Whence comes value? and What is
the relation  of being  and doing? As the Zennist  seeks  the
Absolute  within  himself, so Doogen  places  the  ground  of
ethics, the "Commit  no evil"  and the power  to obey, within
us, for both are really  one, the Absolute  itself.  It is in
this  essentially  Absolute  nature  of whatever  is that the
values which must find expression  as the "good" of out lives
arise.  And when the "Commit  no evil" has fully  become  our
subjectivity--that  is, when  we have  overcome  the illusion
that our irrevocable  and unique  particularity  is the final
Truth-we know that there is no distinction in essence between
being and doing: the command and its fulfillment are one, the
unborn and undying Truth: This is why the fully awakened  man
acts without hesitation, naturally  and spontaneously.  There
is  no  barrier  of  self-conscious  reflection  between  the
stimulus  and his response.  His acting  is his being, and he
needs no puzzled  intermission  between  the impulse  and the



1.  Primary source material

Anesaki, Masaharu.  History of Japanese Religion Rutland, Vt.
    and Tokyo:
    Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963. A few verses on page 208.
Chan, Wing-tsit, et al.  The Great Asian Religions. New York:
    The Macmillan Co., 1969, pp. 284-288.
Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Harper &
    Row, 1966.  A short section  on "Being and Time" from the
    Shooboogenzoo is included.
Masunaga, Reihoo.  The Soto  Approach  to Zen.  Tokyo: Layman
    Buddhist Society Press, n.d.  Contains primary as well as
    secondary material.
Stryk, Lucien, ed.  World of the Buddha.  New York: Doubleday
    & Co., 1968. Some verses and a sermon.

2.  Secondary material

Anesaki, Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion. Rutland, Vt.
    and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963.
Bapat, P. V., ed. 2500Years of Buddhism. Delhi: Government of
    India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1959.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. A History of Zen Buddhism.  Translated by
    Paul Peachey. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.
Ejo, Koun.  Shooboogenzoo Zuimonki.  Lecture notes by a pupil
    of Doogen;  available  in a cheaply duplicated  form from
    some Zen temples.
Eliot, Sir Charles.  Japanese Buddhism. London: Edward Arnold
    & Co., 1935.
Iino,  Norimoto.   "Doogen's  Zen  View  of  Interependence."
    Philosophy East and West ⒙⒑, no. 1 (Apr. 1962), 51-57.
Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Harper &
    Row, 1966.
Kitagawa,  Joseph  M.  Religion  in  Japanese  History.   New
    York:Columbia University Press,  1966.
Moore, Charles A., ed. The Japanese Mind. Honolulu: East-West
    Center Press, 1967.
.   Philosophy  and  Culture  East  and  West.  Honolulu:
    University of Hawaii Press, 1962.
.   Ways  of  Thinking  of  Eastern  Peoples.   Honolulu:
    East-West Center Press, 1964.
Ross, Nancy  Wilson.  Three Ways of Asian  Wisdom.  New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1966.


Saunders,  E.   Dale.   Buddhism   in  Japan.   Philadelphia:
    University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.
Suzuki, D.  T.  Zen and Japanese Culture.  New York: Pantheon
    Books, 1959.
Tsunoda, Ryusaku; de Bary, William T.;   and  Keene,  Donald,
    eds.  Sources of Japanese  Tradition.  New York: Columbia
    University Press, 1964

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