Dogen an Anomaly?
There is no doubt that Dogen was unique, or that his Zen was unorthodox – if it simply conformed to the orthodoxy of his day there would be nothing to distinguish as ‘Dogen’s Zen.’ Often portrayed as a brilliant, but misunderstood reformer, Dogen commonly comes across as an eccentric outsider, an isolated figure advocating an unusual if not exclusive form of Zen.
The narrow focus that is the nature of scholarly works often fails in its conclusions to adequately account for the great diversity of Shobogenzo. At the same time traditional accounts tend to muddle the particular significance of facets that make up that diversity by the liberal use of generalization.
It is clear that, in his day, Dogen was widely misunderstood and neglected. It is also clear that he was subjected to hostility by various sources of orthodox authority. And while there is little reason to doubt that Dogen spennt most of the last decade of his career in the isolated Echizen province teaching a relatively small group of disciples, it is important to note that his isolation was evidently more compelled than chosen.
Dogen spent the first half of his teaching career living and preaching in and around the Japanese Capitol. Much of his time appears to have been dedicated to securing support for reforms from those in authority – some of whom were members of his own family. At the time Japan was suffering severe instability resulting from the combined forces of the chaotic rise of the warrior class and a calamitous series of natural disasters, droughts, and plagues.
As a Buddhist master Dogen was convinced of Buddhism’s capacity to alleviate the suffering he witnessed at every level of society. Further, he was convinced his vision of the Buddha-Dharma was authentic, while much proclaimed by the orthodox institutions was off the mark, dangerously corrupt, and falling ever deeper into degeneration. While his expression on these points was not without tact and diplomacy it was advanced with authority and conviction. And while the increasing influence of his message was matched by increasing resistance from the orthodoxy, Dogen resolutely refused to moderate his views to mollify authorities. After enduring increasing hostility by institutional authorities for more than a decade, Dogen was formally charged with heresy. It was only after his defense was officially rejected that Dogen left the Capitol and established himself in the isolated Echizen province.
Finally, the question of Dogen’s uniqueness and isolation needs to be considered in light of the fact that he was only one of a number of ‘unique and isolated’ Buddhist masters that appeared during this tumultuous period of Japanese history. The vastly influential Buddhist masters Honen Bo Genku (1133-1212), Myoan Eisai (1141-1215), Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), and Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282) all faced similar challenges in their own reformation efforts. Like Dogen, they too were ostracized, isolated, and subjected to hostility from orthodox authorities to greater or lesser degrees. These and other factors, including fierce sectarian rivalry (sometimes involving the participation of ‘warrior monks’), unprecedented levels of corruption in temple politics, and widespread monastic laxity and degeneration strongly suggest that ‘uniqueness and isolation’ were more characteristic of Dogen’s era, than of his vision.