Buddhist Teachers, Zen Buddhism, Zen Masters

Who is Dogen Zenji?

Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) was a Japanese Zen master, philosopher, and poet who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan.

He is widely considered one of the greatest Zen masters in history and is revered for his profound teachings on the nature of reality and the practice of meditation. 

This biography will explore Dogen’s life and teachings, including his early years, spiritual awakening, travels, and writing.

Dogen’s Early Years

His upbringing shaped Dogen’s early years in a noble family in Kyoto, Japan. His father was a high-ranking government official. Dogen was raised in a privileged environment with access to education and cultural opportunities.

At a young age, Dogen was sent to study at a local temple, where he first encountered Zen Buddhism. He was drawn to the teachings and began to study under the guidance of his teacher, Myozen. Dogen was a serious student and quickly developed a deep commitment to Zen practice.

Despite his privileged upbringing, Dogen faced several challenges in his early years. His mother died when he was young, a significant loss for him. He also struggled with health problems, affecting his Zen practice.

Despite these challenges, Dogen remained dedicated to his practice and continued to study and meditate. His commitment to Zen would eventually lead him to travel to China to study under the guidance of the Zen master, Rujing. This journey would profoundly impact his life and the development of his teachings.

A combination of privilege and challenge marked Dogen’s early years. His upbringing gave him access to education and cultural opportunities. Still, he also faced personal struggles and obstacles that would shape his spiritual journey. Ultimately, his deep commitment to Zen practice and his desire to understand the nature of reality would guide him throughout his life.

Spiritual Awakening

At 24, Dogen had a profound spiritual awakening while reading a passage from the Lotus Sutra. He later wrote, “I realized that the true nature of all things could not be grasped by the intellect or understood by words. It can only be experienced directly, in the present moment.” This experience marked a turning point in Dogen’s life and set him on a path of spiritual seeking and inquiry.

Dogen’s spiritual awakening was a profound experience that fundamentally transformed his understanding of the nature of reality. He had been studying and practicing Zen Buddhism for several years. Still, it wasn’t until he had a direct experience of the true nature of things that he felt he truly understood the teachings.

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”


According to Dogen, his awakening occurred while reading a passage from the Lotus Sutra. The exact details of what he experienced are unclear, but he later wrote about it. He described it as a moment of direct insight into the true nature of all things, which he realized could not be grasped by the intellect or understood through words alone.

For Dogen, the experience of awakening was not just a one-time event. He saw it as an ongoing process of deepening understanding and realization. He believed that through meditation, one could cultivate the ability to directly experience the true nature of reality and awaken to the fundamental reality of Buddha nature.

Dogen’s awakening was a transformative experience that set him on a spiritual inquiry and practice path. It gave him a deep sense of purpose and meaning, and he devoted the rest of his life to sharing his teachings and helping others awaken to the true nature of reality.

Traveling to China

Dogen’s travels were a pivotal moment that significantly impacted his spiritual development and the evolution of his teachings. After many years of study and practice in Japan, Dogen strongly desired to travel to China under the guidance of the great Zen masters there.

In 1223, Dogen embarked on a perilous journey across the sea to China. The journey was dangerous, and Dogen and his companions faced several challenges, including a shipwreck and a pirate attack. Despite these setbacks, Dogen was undeterred and eventually made it to China.

In China, Dogen spent several years studying under the guidance of the Zen master, Rujing. During this time, Dogen deepened his understanding of Zen and had a profound spiritual awakening that would shape the rest of his life.

Dogen also spent time traveling throughout China and visiting other Zen monasteries. He studied under several other Zen masters, including Nyojo, who would become one of his closest friends and supporters.

Dogen also learned about Zen’s different practices and traditions in China during his travels. He observed the emphasis on zazen, or seated meditation, and the use of koans, or riddles, to deepen understanding and insight. These experiences would significantly influence the development of his teachings and his approach to Zen practice.

Dogen’s travels were a transformative experience that deepened his understanding of Zen and helped shape his approach to practice and teaching. His time in China and his encounters with other Zen masters would influence the development of his unique style of Zen and his approach to meditation.

Founding Eihei-ji Temple

Dogen Zenji’s founding of Eihei-ji temple is considered one of Japan’s most important events in the history of Zen Buddhism. After returning from China, Dogen began to teach and preach his unique form of Zen, emphasizing the practice of zazen and the concept of non-duality.

In 1244, Dogen founded Eihei-ji temple in the mountains of present-day Fukui prefecture, which became one of the two head temples of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan. The temple was designed to be a place where monks could practice zazen and study the teachings of Dogen in a rigorous and disciplined environment.

Eihei-ji temple quickly became a Zen practice center in Japan, attracting many students from all over the country. Dogen’s teachings and methods of practice proved to be very effective, and many of his students went on to become important Zen masters in their own right.

“Those who seek the easy way do not seek the true way.”


The temple became known as a center of scholarship and intellectual inquiry. In addition to providing a space for Zen practice, Eihei-ji also served as a center for disseminating Dogen’s teachings. Dogen wrote many of his most important works while living and teaching at Eihei-ji.

Today, Eihei-ji temple continues to be an important center of Zen practice in Japan. Thousands of people visit the temple every year to study and practice under the guidance of the current head priest. The temple is also an important site of pilgrimage for Zen practitioners from around the world, who come to pay their respects to Dogen and to experience the power and serenity of this sacred place.

Dogen’s writing

Dogen’s writings are considered some of the most important and influential in the history of Zen Buddhism. He wrote extensively on Zen practice, philosophy, and the nature of reality, and his works continue to be studied and revered by practitioners of Zen around the world.

Dogen’s most famous work is the Shobogenzo, a collection of 95 essays exploring a wide range of Zen practice and philosophy topics. The essays are written in a poetic and often cryptic style. They draw on various sources, including Buddhist scripture, Chinese literature, and personal experience. If you’re inclined, you could read the Shobogenzo-zuimonki, which consists of Dharma discourses given by Dogen and originally transcribed by his Dharma successor, Koun Ejo Zenji.

One of the key themes in Dogen’s writings is the concept of impermanence. He saw impermanence as a fundamental aspect of reality, and he believed that it was essential to fully understand and accept all things’ impermanent nature to achieve enlightenment.

“Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. Take heed, do not squander your life.”


Another important theme in Dogen’s writings is the concept of zazen or seated meditation. He believed that meditation was the most effective way to directly experience the true nature of reality, and he emphasized the importance of consistent and dedicated practice.

Dogen’s writings also explore the nature of time, space, and causality and the relationship between the self and the world. He saw these concepts as interconnected and believed that a deep understanding of them was essential to spiritual growth and awakening.

Dogen’s writings are characterized by their depth, complexity, and poetic language. They continue to inspire and challenge practitioners of Zen, and they have profoundly influenced Zen Buddhism’s development over the centuries.

Dogen’s Teachings

Dogen’s teachings are centered around the practice of Zen Buddhism and the realization of the true nature of reality. He believed the key to spiritual awakening was the direct experience of reality, which could be achieved through zazen (seated meditation).

One of the core teachings in Dogen’s Zen philosophy is the concept of shikantaza, which translates to “just sitting.” This practice involves meditation without any particular goal or object of focus. Instead, the practitioner simply observes their thoughts and experiences as they arise, without judgment or attachment.

Dogen also emphasized the importance of mindfulness and awareness in daily life. He believed that the practice of Zen was not limited to meditation but should be integrated into all aspects of life. This included being mindful of one’s thoughts, words, and actions and cultivating a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all things.

Another key teaching in Dogen’s philosophy is the concept of non-duality. He saw the world as fundamentally interconnected and believed the separation between self and other was an illusion. He taught that one could better understand reality’s nature by letting go of the ego and embracing the oneness of all things.

Dogen’s teachings also emphasized the importance of community and support in the practice of Zen. He believed that spiritual awakening was not an individual pursuit but something achieved through the support and guidance of a community of practitioners.

Dogen’s teachings emphasize the practice of mindfulness, meditation, awareness, and the realization of the true nature of reality. They continue to be studied and practiced by Zen practitioners worldwide. They have had a profound impact on the development of Zen Buddhism.

Influence on Future Zen Masters

Dogen’s teachings and writings profoundly impacted the development of Zen Buddhism. They paved the way for many famous Zen masters who followed in his footsteps. One of his most famous disciples was Ejo, who helped to compile and edit Dogen’s writings after his death. Ejo also served as the head priest of Eihei-ji temple and helped to spread Dogen’s teachings throughout Japan.

Keizan Jokin, another of Dogen’s disciples, is considered one of the most important Zen masters in Japanese history. He further developed Dogen’s teachings and established his school of Zen, known as the Soto school. Keizan is also known for developing koan practice, a form of Zen training that uses paradoxical statements and questions to help students gain insight into the nature of reality.

Other famous Zen masters who were influenced by Dogen’s teachings and were born after his time include Kodo Sawaki, who was instrumental in reviving Zen practice in Japan following World War II, Taisen Deshimaru, who played a significant role in bringing Soto Zen to Europe and establishing several Zen centers in France, and Shunryu Suzuki, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and played a key role in the development of Zen in the United States.

To this day, Dogen’s teachings and writings continue to inspire and influence Zen practitioners around the world. His legacy can be seen in the teachings and practices of many of the most famous Zen masters throughout history, including those born after his time.


Dogen Zenji’s life and teachings continue to inspire and influence Zen practitioners around the world. His emphasis on meditation, the present moment, and the true nature of reality remain central to Zen Buddhism today.

Dogen’s legacy is a testament to the enduring power of spiritual inquiry and the transformative potential of awakening to the true nature of reality.