Buddhist Meditations
Zen and Ethics: Dogens Synthesis
Douglas A.Fox
04/08/2011 01:37 (GMT+7)
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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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