From the treasury of the True Law by Zen Master Dogen15 min read

Dogen was the founder of the Japanese Soto sect, the largest Zen sect in the country.

These are extracts from one of the chapters-compiled by his disciple Ejo.

  1. One day Zen master Dogen told us

For Buddhism, do not begrudge body or life. Even people of the world sacrifice their lives for a principle and ignore their families for the sake of loyalty and keeping faith. Such are called faithful servants, and wise men.

Long ago in China, when Kaotsu (Koso), the Han emperor, was about to make war on a neighbouring kingdom, it chanced that the mother of one of his followers was living in that enemy kingdom. The generals suspected that his loyalties might be divided, and the emperor also feared that the man might go over to the enemy on account of his mother, in which case the army would be at a disadvantage. The mother herself, realizing that her son might come over for her sake, sent a message warning him not to weaken in his loyalty for her sake. “While I live”, she said, “your loyalties may be divided”, and she threw herself on a sword. It is said that in fact the son had never been divided in his loyalty; nevertheless in that war his allegiance to the emperor was deepened.

How much more than this is it in the Buddha-way! Only when there is no divided loyalty can we be true followers of the Buddha-way. Some disciples there are who from the beginning are endowed with wisdom and compassion; others who have them not will acquire them through their practices. Simply throw down body and mind both and turn to the great ocean of Buddhism; entrust yourselves to the teaching and do not have any selfish bias.

In the reign of Kaotsu a wise minister said: “Solving the problems of civil unrest is like untying knots: it must not be hurried. The knot must be carefully observed, then it can be loosened”. The Buddha-way too is like this. You must have a really good grasp of the principle of Buddhism, and so practise. He who really understands the doctrine will be a resolute seeker and will grasp it. No matter how clever and intelligent he may be, if his heart is not in the quest, if he cannot discard his egoity and abandon name and profit, he is no seeker and he cannot grasp truth.

  1. He told us: You students must not practise for yourselves. Practise Buddhism for its own sake alone. It means to cast down your body and mind, keeping nothing back, and turn to the great sea of Buddhism. Thereafter have no concern with rights and wrongs or with your mind; make yourselves servants of Buddhism for its own sake, however hard to do or hard to bear it may be. You must throw away everything that goes against truth, however much you desire to do it. O wise men! Do not hope for some reward from the merit of your practices. Once you have turned to the Buddha-way never look back towards self. Entrust yourself in your practices to Buddhism and have no selfish bias. All the former sages did this. If you have no desires and cravings in your heart, you will be serene.

In the world, those who will not mix with others but live for themselves alone, doing as they like selfishly without regard to the views and feelings of others, are always bad people. It is like that in Buddhism. If you mix with people, follow your teacher and do not set up personal views but correct your thinking, you can easily become a real seeker. A seeker must first understand what poverty is. Discarding name and money, never flattering others but throwing away everything, you become a seeker. The famous monks of the Sung Dynasty in China were all poor men. Their clothes were ragged, and they had no worldly connections.

The registrar of Tientung (Tendo) monastery was named Taoju (Dojo), and he was the son of the Prime Minister. He cut himself off from his family and refused all advantages. His clothes were pathetically threadbare, but he was noted as a man of great virtue and became registrar of that great monastery. I once asked him: “Master, you are the son of the Minister and of a rich family. Why do you wear rags and live in such poverty?” He replied: “Because I am a monk”.

  1. One day he told us

There is a saying that a man’s treasure works his downfallit was so and it is so. The saying came from the case of a man long ago who had a beautiful wife. A man of high position demanded her but the husband would not give her up. Soldiers were sent to surround the house and were about to break in and seize her, and he said: “For your sake I lose my life”. The wife said, “I too for your sake will lose my life”, and she jumped from the tower and was killed. The husband was not killed but lived to tell the story.

Again he told us

Long ago lived a wise man who administered the country as an official. His son had to leave his father on business, and came to say goodbye. The father presented him with a roll of silk. The son said: “You are a man of eminence; where did you obtain this silk?” The father replied: “I am over-paid and it remains”. The son presented the silk to the emperor and told him about it. The emperor was greatly impressed. The son said, “My father hides his greatness but I reveal it; his wisdom is indeed pre-eminent”.

The heart of the story is that though a roll of silk is a small thing, the wise man does not use it merely for himself. Moreover, a wise man conceals his greatness. We are to understand that the roll of silk, as part of the salary, could be used for official purposes (such as a farewell present to his son, a fellow official).

When even laymen act like this, how much less should we followers of the way think of selfishness! Again, one who really cares for the way should conceal his greatness as a seeker.

It is said that a man asked one of the mountain immortals, “How does one obtain the secret of immortality?” The immortal told him: “If you think of obtaining its secret, you must really care for the way of the immortals”. So the disciple, if he thinks of obtaining the way of the Buddhas and patriarchs, must really care for that way.

  1. He told us

Long ago there was a king. After ruling for some time, he asked all his ministers, “Do I rule well, am I wise?” They all said: “The king rules extremely well and is most wise”. One of them however spoke out and said: “The king is not wise”. “How so?” said the king. The minister said, “Because instead of appointing his younger brother as heir, the king has appointed his son”. The king did not like this and banished him. Later he again questioned a minister, saying, “Am I really benevolent?” The minister said: “Most benevolent”. “Why do you say so?” asked the king.

The minister said: “It is a benevolent ruler who will always have a loyal minister. A loyal minister is one who speaks the truth. That former minister was extremely truthful. This is loyalty in a minister. If the ruler is not benevolent, he will not receive it”. The king was impressed, and recalled the banished minister.

Again master Dogan told us:

During the reign of Shih-huangti (Shikotei) of the Ts’in dynasty in China, the crown prince was going to enlarge the flower-park. The minister said: “Excellent! If the park is enlarged the birds and animals will gather there. Then we can use them to defend the country from invasion”. The plan was dropped. Again the crown prince was going to build a palace with lacquered pillars. “Very right!” said the minister, “once the pillars are lacquered, the enemy will surely be halted”. This plan too was dropped.

This is the real spirit of Confucianism, to use words skilfully to prevent wrong and bring out the right. We must bear in mind these methods of bringing others to reform.

  1. One day a monk asked: The wise man who is not a seeker, and the seeker who has no wisdom-how do we think of them? The master replied: The seeker who has no wisdom often gives up in the end. But the man of wisdom, though not yet a seeker, in the end arouses a spirit of inquiry, as can be verified in many cases at the present time. So the first thing is not to discuss whether there is a spirit of inquiry or not, but to make efforts in the Buddha-way. In following that way, all that matters is poverty.

If we look at the records, esoteric and exoteric, we shall find there were those who from poverty had no home, or who lived afloat on the cold waters, or as hermits in the mountains of Shouyang (Shuyo)-sitting in meditation on the bare earth under a tree or between hillocks in the deep mountains. Others were men of position and wealth, who built palaces resplendent with lacquer and gleaming with jewels. Both are found in the records. Nevertheless, for the present day, the rule is to be in poverty without possessions. When reproving wrong-doers, a warning should be given in the words: “Wealth and many possessions make a man of ostentation”.

  1. He told us

Monks should not feel pleasure at receiving alms. But alms should not be refused. The former Abbot (of Kenninji) Eisai used to say: “To feel pleasure at receiving alms wounds the Buddha’s commandment: but not to show pleasure wounds the feelings of the charitable”.

The proper attitude is, that the alms are not for oneself but for the three Treasures. So you should say to them: “These                 alms are now received dedicated to the three Treasures.”

  1. He told us

It was said in ancient times: “The superior man surpasses a bull in power-but he does not strive against bulls”.

O disciples of the present day! Though you know your wisdom and knowledge to surpass those of others, do not take pleasure in confuting them. Do not rebuke others with abuse, do not look on them with anger in your eyes. The men of today, in spite of great philanthropy and kindness, always antagonize others by rebuking them with abuse. In ancient times Chentsing Kowen (Shinjo Konmon) told his disciples:

“Years ago I became close friends with Yunfeng (Unpo) and we were practising the way. Once he was disputing some doctrinal points with a fellow disciple. In the reading hall their voices rose in argument, and finally they began to abuse and then strike each other. After the quarrel had ended, Yunfeng said to me: `You are a fellow disciple of mine and a good friend; why did you not put in a word when I was arguing with him?’ To this I merely bowed with deep sincerity.

“Later he became a great Zen master in his district, and I too have become an abbot. I saw then that Yunfeng’s dispute was pointless, and the quarrel to which it led was surely wrong. So now realizing that arguing is pointless, I close my mouth and refrain . . .”

Students today should think this over. Once having resolved to exert yourself in the Buddha-way, practise hard without wasting a moment. How can you afford the time to dispute with others? For in the end it leads to no good to either. This applies in matters of doctrine-still less of course should one dispute meaninglessly on worldly matters.

The superior man surpasses the bull in power-but he does not strive against bulis. Though I know the doctrine better than another, I should not argue and confute him,

But if a real student comes and asks, then the doctrine must not be withheld. It must be declared to him. But let him ask three times before you answer once. Be terse and to the point.

After looking at the incident of Chentsing, I realized that the same tendency was in myself also, and taking warning from this, I thenceforth never argued points of doctrine.

FROM THE TREASURY OF THE TRUE LAW BY ZEN MASTER DOGEN-2 Further extracts from this collection of the teachings of the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen sect-compiled by his disciple Ejo.

  1. Zen Master Dogen told us

The ancients often said: Do not pass your time uselessly. And again, do not waste your time in vain.

Disciples of today! Begrudge even a moment of your time. The dew of our life so easily disappears; time slips away fast. For the little that yet remains, do not devote yourselves to sideissues. Just practise the Buddha-way at all costs.

People these days say that it is too difficult to abandon one’s feeling for father and mother, or to disobey one’s superiors, or to leave wife and children, or to leave the family without support, or to face the scorn of the world. Or they say they are too lacking in the requirements, and unworthy to practise the Buddha-way. At the mercy of their emotions like this, they cannot break the bond with superiors and parents, cannot give up the family. Following the ways of the world, they clutch after money. So their whole life passes vainly away, and surely at the moment of death they are filled with remorse.

Sit in quiet and determine what truth is, and then quickly make up your mind to arouse the spirit of search. Superiors and parents cannot give us Satori; nor can family and dependants relieve our sufferings. Money cannot cut the circling in birthand-death, nor can worldly people help us. If you will not practise, on the ground that you are unworthy, then how will you ever attain the way?

Just throw down absolutely everything and turn wholly to practising the way. Do not consider what may happen.

  1. He told us

In practising the way, you must without fail abandon egoity. Though you master a thousand scriptures and ten thousand commentaries, if you do not give up clinging to self, you will finally fall into a pit of demons.

An ancient says: “Unless your body and mind are of the Buddha-truth, how can you become a Buddha, how can you be a patriarch?” and so on.

To free oneself from egoity means to throw body and mind into the great ocean of the Buddha-truth, and to pursue it by your practices through all pains and sorrows. Perhaps you fear that others will despise you when they see you begging. While you have such a notion, how could you ever obtain entry into the Buddha-truth? Forget all worldly feelings and views; you have simply to practise, entrusting yourself to truth.

Wondering whether you will be able to do it, and then feeling that you cannot-this comes from holding on to self. Wondering how people will look on you, and being afraid of what they may think, is the root of clinging to self. You must just practise the Buddha-way; do not follow after the way of the world.

  1. One day Ejo asked: How should we disciples study the way in the monastery?

He told us

Just practising Zazen hard. Practise your meditation on a high place or a low, but do not meet people to gossip. Be as if deaf, as if dumb, and devote yourselves to sitting alone in Zazen. 11.      One day after Zazen practice he told us:

Tatao Kutsuan (Daido Kokusen) said: “Sitting facing the wind and sleeping facing the sun-these things are higher than wearing cloth-of-gold in a man of the time” and so on.

These words are attributed to that ancient, but they seem a little doubtful. Does “man of the time” mean a worldly man of profit and loss? If so, the comparison is too unworthy and the saying inappropriate. Or does he refer to a man practising the way? If so, what does he mean by saying “higher than wearing cloth-of-gold” ? If we look into the heart, it seems there is still some feeling of valuing cloth-of-gold highly. But a sage would not be so. He has no clinging either to gold and gems or to bricks and pebbles. So Shakyamuni Buddha accepted the rice and milk from the cowgirl, and also took and ate horse-oats. They were the same to him. To the Buddha-truth there is neither fight nor heavy, but to men there is shallow and deep. Nowadays if a man is given gold and jewels, he refuses them because they are heavy to carry, but he will take and cherish sticks and stones because they are lighter! Gold and gems originally come out of the earth, and so do sticks and stones. Why does he refuse the one because of its weight and cherish the other for its lightness” ‘ If we look into the heart, the sin is the same whether it is clinging to something heavy which one gets or cherishing when it happens to be light.

This point is something over which students must be careful.

Translated by Trevor Leggett

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