“…Dogen provided us with profound insight into the nature of philosophizing activity. To him what mattered most was not the relative significance of theoretical formulations, but how and what we did with the ideas and values inherited from our past—in other words, the authenticity of our philosophic activity. The issue was not so much whether or not to philosophize as it was how to philosophize—in total freedom with body-mind cast off. The philosophic enterprise was as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as was zazen. And significantly enough, this view implied that philosophic activity itself was a koan realized in life.”
–Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist (1975) (Republished in 2004 as, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist)
Some westerners, introduced to Zen Buddhism through the writings of DT Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki, Phillip Kapleau, and a handful of others, were stunned by their first encounter with the works of Eihei Dogen. The writings of the 13th century master, who most knew only as “the founder of Soto Zen in Japan,” seemed to directly contradict some of the most central tenets of Zen as portrayed to the West. They showed little evidence of the iconoclasm or disdain for verbal and written teachings as had often been suggested as characteristic of Zen. Absent too was the “one method” exponent of “pure Zen”, an unflinching advocate of “just sitting” (shikantaza) who had little use for koans, as the Soto founder was usually portrayed by both Rinzai and Soto representatives.
In fact, Dogen’s voluminous writings testify to just the opposite. Nearly all of them make extensive use of the classic koan literature, citing it far more than any other source and demonstrating a particularly profound mastery of it. Like many classic Zen masters, Dogen also frequently cites the Buddhist sutras (scriptures) to both clarify and verify his own points. Unlike most masters, however, Dogen also asserts the need for practitioners to engage in extensive, and intensive, study—of sutras as well as the sayings (koans) and records of the ancestral Zen masters. Going further, Dogen’s writings meticulously examine and expose fallacious views that Zen can be realized apart from intellectual effort. Dogen’s work lucidly reveals the fact that asserting, saying, or proclaiming that the truth of Zen cannot be transmitted through verbal and written teachings not only deny the evidence; it is absurd. Anyone ascribing to such a position cannot dispute this. According to Dogen, to truly adhere to such a view compels one to embrace the ultimate futility of language; assertions of dispute would be as meaningless as assertions of admission.