Dogen, Japanese Texts

What is Essential is Only to Understand with Immediacy – from Dogen’s Hokyo-ki

The Hokyo-ki is a short memoir written by Dogen later in his life that chronicles his exchanges with Master Ju-ching (Tendo Nyojo in Japanese, also known as Rujing). Dogen only spent two years studying under Ju-ching at his monastery on Mount Tiantong, but the master’s teachings were highly transformative for the young Japanese monk and continued to influence him for the rest of his life. The manuscript of Hokyo-ki was only discovered by Dogen’s student Koun Ejo after his death. In this excerpt, he recalls asking his master to explain the paradox of how one can teach that which cannot be taught.


Hokyo-ki – Question 3

Dogen asked: ‘Now, in all corners of the world, abbots and others past and present say, “That which is heard but not heard, seen but not seen, immediate without the least deliberation, is the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs.” With this in mind, the masters raise their fists or lift up a fly whisk, shout loudly or give a blow with a stick. They do not bother to explain to their students what they mean. Neither do they allow them to inquire how the buddhas convert people in its entirety nor to anticipate favorable recompense in the next incarnation. Are the masters following the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs?’ 

Ju-ching replied: ‘If [they said] there were no next incarnation, they would indeed commit the heterodoxy of nihilism. The buddhas and patriarchs established a teaching without any heterodox theory for the sake of the people. If there were no next incarnation, then there would be no present incarnation either. But the present incarnation already exists; how can there be no next incarnation? I have long been a son of the Buddha; how am I to be equated with a heretic? Furthermore, the buddhas and patriarchs taught students that there should be absolutely no second thought simply as an expediency. It is not that there is nothing for a student to attain. If there is nothing to be attained, the student would not be able to seek instruction from a good teacher, nor would the buddhas appear in this world. What is essential is only to understand with immediacy and then all is comprehended. Without faith, without practice and enlightenment, there is neither understanding nor awakening.


From: Dogen’s Formative Years in China by Takashi James Codera