The “way” is a common image in many religious traditions for the process of spiritual pursuit. It often implies that a seeker is bound to toil on a long path, wandering about and overcoming numerous obstacles before arriving at the final destination. There is a huge distance between the starting point and the goal. In the context of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle teaching—a developed form of Buddhism that spread through North and East Asia—this process represents the journey a seeker, or bodhisattva, takes to become a fully awakened one, a buddha. The time span between the initial practice and the achieved goal—enlightenment—is described in scriptures as “hundreds and thousands of eons.”

Dogen accepts this image of a linear process of seeking. But he also talks about the way as a circle. For him, each moment of practice encompasses enlightenment, and each moment of enlightenment encompasses practice. In other words, practice and enlightenment—process and goal-are inseparable. The circle of practice is complete even at the beginning. This circle of practice-enlightenment is renewed moment after moment.

At the moment you begin taking a step you have arrived, and you keep arriving each moment thereafter. In this view you don’t journey toward enlightenment, but you let enlightenment unfold. In Dogen’s words, “You experience immeasurable hundreds of eons in one day.”1 The “circle of the way” is a translation of the Japanese word dokan, literally meaning “way ring.” Although this word, which Dogen coined, appears only four times in his writing, it may be taken to represent the heart of his teaching.

This circle of practice-enlightenment describes not only the journey of one individual, but also the process and goal of the entire collection of practitioners of the way throughout past, present, and future. Dogen says, “On the great road of buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way. This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so.”2

Thus the practice of all awakened ones actualizes the practice of each one of us. And the practice of each one of us actualizes the practice of all awakened ones. The practice of each one of us, however humble and immature it may be, is seen as something powerful and indispensable for the entire community of awakened ones. Our life at each moment may be seen likewise in the context of all life.

Dogen usually describes “life” as “birth,” for Buddhism sees one’s life as a continuous occurrence of birth and death moment by moment. He says: “Birth is just like riding in a boat. You raise the sails and row with the pole. Although you row, the boat gives you a ride, and without the boat no one could ride. But you ride in the boat and your riding makes the boat what it is. Investigate such a moment.”3 Dogen’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all things at each moment sheds light on the absolute value of the present moment.


Dogen calls the path of practice-enlightenment “the buddha way.” It is the path of all awakened ones of past, present, and future. He cautions against calling his own community part of the Caodong School, the Zen School, or even the Buddha Mind School. For him this teaching is the universal road of all awakened ones.

The path may be wide and limitless in theory but narrow in practice. Dogen calls it “the great road of buddha ancestors,” the “ancestors” being those who hold the lineage of a certain teaching. In the Zen tradition this lineage is restricted to dharma descendants of Shakyamuni Buddha and Bodhidharma, the First Ancestor in China, and no other teachers are called ancestors.

Following the Zen tradition, Dogen attributes the authenticity of this lineage to the legend about the great assembly of beings at Vulture Peak where Mahakashyapa alone smiled when Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower. The Buddha said, “I have the treasury of the true dharma eye, the wondrous heart of nirvana. Now I entrust it to you.”4 Dogen affirms that this treasury has been transmitted from teacher to disciple, face to face, throughout generations.

The heart of this teaching is zazen, or meditation in a sitting posture, from which all understanding derives. Dogen offers a highly defined way of doing zazen, as well as guidelines for activities in the monastic community. Details of what and how to eat, and what and how to wear, are all presented as indispensable aspects of the life of the awakened ones.

Dogen constantly talks about true dharma, genuine teaching, correct lineage, and correct ways. He often uses the word zheng in Chinese or sho in Japanese many times in one sentence. This is the word that means “genuine,” “true,” or “correct.” Establishing authenticity in understanding and in the daily activities of a monastic community was one of Dogen’s primary concerns as a thinker and teacher.


Enlightenment in the Buddhist context is represented by the Sanskrit word bodhi, which essentially means “awakening.” A buddha, or one who embodies bodhi, is an awakened or enlightened one. In the Zen tradition Shakyamuni, the original teacher of Buddhism, is the main figure called the Buddha.

A buddha can be understood as someone who experiences nirvana and fully shares the experience with others. “Nirvana,” another Sanskrit word, originally means “putting out fire,” which points to a state where there is freedom from burning desire or anxiety, or from the enslavement of passion.

According to a common Asian view that originated in ancient India, one is bound to the everlasting cycle of birth and death in various realms, including those of deities, of humans, of animals, and hell. In Buddhism nirvana is where the chain of such transmigration is cut off and one is free from suffering. That is why the word nirvana is also used as a euphemism for “death.”

Nirvana is often described in Buddhist scriptures as “the other shore.” One crosses the ocean of birth and death toward the shore of total freedom. In Mahayana teaching bringing others across the ocean of suffering to the shore of enlightenment is considered to be as important as or even more important than bringing oneself over. Those who vow to dedicate their lives to this act of “ferrying” others are called bodhisattvas, or beings who are dedicated to bodhi. In some schools of Mahayana, Zen in particular, there is a strong emphasis on the immediacy of enlightenment, indicating that the ocean of birth and death is itself nirvana.

As quoted earlier in this introduction, Dogen says, “Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.” Thus, nirvana is one of the four elements in a practitioner’s spiritual activity. For Dogen, nirvana is inseparable from enlightenment, and it is inseparable from one’s practice at each moment. In other words, there is no authentic practice that lacks enlightenment or nirvana.

While Dogen discusses aspiration, practice, and enlightenment in detail, he does not explain the last element, nirvana, which seems to be an invisible element in his teaching. It is as though he talks about the experience of nirvana without using this word.

Nirvana is regarded as the realm of nonduality, where there is no distinction between large and small, long and short, right and wrong, appearing and disappearing, self and other. It may be called reality itself, or the absolute place beyond time and space. This is a realm that cannot be grasped objectively. The intuitive awareness or transcendental wisdom that goes beyond dualistic, analytical thinking and leads us into this realm is called prajna in Sanskrit.

Dogen calls this place of inner freedom the buddha realm. It is where one is many, part is whole, a moment is timeless, and mortality is immortality. To experience this beyondness in the midst of the passage of time, change, and decay is a miracle. For Dogen, this miracle can happen each moment, as each moment of duality is inseparable from a moment of nonduality.

Duality and nonduality, change and no-change, relative and absolute, coexist and interact with each other. Dogen calls the experience of this dynamic “actualizing the fundamental point.” It is an immediate but subtle and mysterious unfolding of nirvana within a life of change and decay. Dogen suggests that we can realize this dynamic of “not one, not two” by going into and maintaining the deep consciousness that is experienced both in zazen and in daily activities conducted in a meditative state of body and mind.


Enlightenment is commonly seen as a spiritual breakthrough experience. Scriptures say that Shakyamuni Buddha, upon seeing the morning star after days of rigorous meditation, suddenly realized that mountains, rivers, grass, and trees had all attained buddhahood. When a monk was sweeping his hermitage yard, a pebble hit a bamboo stalk and made a cracking sound, and he was awakened. As in these examples, a dramatic shift of consciousness occurs after a seeker goes through a period of intense pursuit and has an unexpected transformative experience. The breakthrough may not only be an in-depth understanding of reality, but a physical experience—such as an extraordinary vision, release of tension, and feeling of exuberance.

In the Zen tradition many stories of this sort are studied as exemplary cases of great enlightenment. In the Linji School and its Japanese form, the Rinzai School, such enlightenment stories are used systematically as koans to help students break through the conventional thinking that is confined by the barrier of dualism.

Dogen himself often quotes enlightenment stories of earlier masters and comments on them. Koans were certainly important elements for his teaching. But Dogen’s journal of studies with Rujing does not mention any occasion when Rujing gave him a koan to work on, nor do any of Dogen’s writings suggest that he himself used this method for guiding his own students. Unlike teachers of the Linji way, Dogen did not seem to use koans as tasks for students to work on and pass, one after another. In fact he often used the word koan to mean reality itself, translated here as “fundamental point.”

Here lies the paradox of enlightenment. On the one hand, when one practices the way of awakening, there is already enlightenment moment after moment. On the other hand, one has to endeavor long and hard to achieve a breakthrough. Dogen says, “There are those who continue realizing beyond realization.”5 Thus, enlightenment unfolds itself, but the unfolding is fully grasped by one’s body and mind only when one has a breakthrough. In other words, unfolded enlightenment is initially subconscious awakening, which is spontaneously merged with conscious awakening at the moment of breakthrough.

The koan studies of the Linji-Rinzai line are an excellent method for working consciously toward breakthrough. By contrast, Dogen’s training method was to keep students from striving toward breakthrough. Although he fully understood the value of breakthroughs and used breakthrough stories of his ancestors for teaching, he himself emphasized “just sitting,” with complete nonattachment to the goal of attainment. But isn’t freedom from attachment an essential element for achieving breakthroughs?


The experience of nonduality is the basis for the Buddhist teaching of compassion. When one does not abide in the distinction between self and other, between humans and nonhumans, and between sentient beings and insentient beings, there is identification with and love for all beings. Thus, the wisdom of nonduality, prajna, is inseparable from compassion.

An action that embodies compassion is wholesome and one that does not is unwholesome. Any action, small or large, affects self and other. Cause brings forth effect. Thus, the dualistic perspective of Buddhist ethics—good and bad, right and wrong—is based on nondualism.

Here emerges a fundamental dilemma of Buddhism. If one focuses merely on prajna, one may say that there is no good and bad, and one may become indifferent and possibly destructive. On the other hand, if one only thinks of cause and effect, one may not be able to understand prajna. The legendary dialogue of Bodhidharma with Emperor Wu of southern China is revered in the Zen tradition exactly because it illustrates this dilemma in a dramatic way:

The Emperor said, “Ever since I ascended the throne, I have built temples, copied sutras, approved the ordination of more monks than I can count. What is the merit of having done all this?”

Bodhidharma said, “There is no merit.” The Emperor said, “Why is that so?”

Bodhidharma said, “These are minor achievements of humans and devas, which become the causes of desire. They are like shadows of forms and are not real.”

The Emperor said, “What is real merit?”

Bodhidharma said, “When pure wisdom is complete, the essence is empty and serene. Such merit cannot be attained through worldly actions.”

The Emperor said, “What is the foremost sacred truth?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing sacred.”

The Emperor said, “Who is it that faces me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

The Emperor did not understand.6

Thus the primary concern of the Zen practitioner has been described as the experience of “the pure wisdom” that sees reality as “empty and serene.” This experience was regarded as the source of all scriptural teachings. Often Chinese Zen Buddhists talked about the transmission of teachings “outside scriptures.” Are living buddhas, or those who are awakened, free from ethics? Are they free from cause and effect?

The Zen answer to this question may be found in the parable of Baizhang and an earlier Zen teacher, who was reborn as a wild fox because of his belief that he was free from cause and effect.7 This story clearly illustrates that practitioners of the “pure wisdom” of nonduality have no license to abandon ethics. It is not a coincidence that Baizhang, a great master of eighth- and ninth-century China, was credited with establishing guidelines for monastic communities.

Mahayana Buddhism calls for the six completions as the essential elements for arriving at nirvana. They are: giving, ethical conduct, perseverance, enthusiasm, meditation, and prajna. The first five may be seen as elements for sustaining compassion in prajna. Thus, keeping and transmitting the precepts are the core of Zen teaching.

Soon after beginning to study with Rujing in China, Dogen expressed his concern about the widespread tendency to overemphasize the “here and now” and disregard the future effect of practice. Rujing agreed with Dogen about his concern and said, “To deny that there are future births is nihilism; buddha ancestors do not hold to the nihilistic views of those who are outside the way. If there is no future there is no present. This present birth definitely exists. How could it be that the next birth doesn’t also exist?”8

Dogen’s own understanding on this issue is clear in his fascicle “Identifying with Cause and Effect” in The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, where he says, “Thus, the significance of studying cause and realizing effect is clear. This is the way of buddhas and ancestors…. Those of you who have pure aspiration for enlightenment and want to study buddha-dharma for the sake of buddhadharma should clarify causation as past sages did. Those who reject this teaching are outside the way.”9 Thus, Dogen makes it clear that authentic Zen practice is not divorced from the teachings expressed in scriptures. For him deep trust in and identification with causation should be the foundation for practice of the way.


In the following notes, SG = Shobogenzo, The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, of Eihei Dogen.

1Dogen, Home-leaving.

2Dogen, Continuous Practice, Fascicle One. See p. 114.

3Dogen, Undivided Activity. See p. 173.

4Dogen, SG Mitsugo (Intimate Language). See p. 179.

5Dogen, Actualizing the Fundamental Point. See p. 35.

6Dogen, Continuous Practice, Fascicle Two. See p. 137.

7Dogen, SG Shinjin Inga (Identifying with Cause and Effect). See p. 264.

8Dogen, Journal of My Study in China. See p. 3.

9Dogen, Identifying with Cause and Effect. See p. 264.

From Enlightenment Unfolds, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, © 1999 by San Francisco Zen Center. Reproduced with permission from Shambhala Publications,

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