Summary by Jenny Jackson. Edited by Mark Unno 2/4/02

Carl Bielefeldt's "Recarving the Dragon: History and Dogma in the Study of Dogen"

Carl Bielefeldt delves into the life and teachings of Dogen, raising critical questions regarding the origins of his beliefs and the changes they underwent. The reader is asked not to blindly accept Dogen as a Zen master and founder of the Soto school but instead to reevaluate conceptions of Dogen to determine his true place and importance in Zen history.

Dogen is one of the more obscure Zen masters due to the small size of the Soto school in Medieval Japan and the lack of focus on him by modern scholars. The conventional hagiography (sacred biography) of Dogen contends that as a novice, Dogen was concerned with "the question of how to understand Buddhist practice, given the Mahayana doctrine of inherent enlightenment" (25). To answer this, he embarked on a religious search that led him to China where he met the master Ju-ching who imparted to him the shobo genzo, or the true Buddhism that has been preserved from the time of Sakyamuni himself (26). From Ju-ching, Dogen also found the answer to his question on enlightenment - the meditation of just sitting. In this practice, one "abandons his conscious efforts to acquire Buddhahood, sloughs [drops] off body and mind, and abides in his inherent enlightenment" (26). It is in this practice that Dogen's teachings differ from other Zen schools. Dogen brought these ideas back to Japan and founded the Soto school.

However, upon deeper inspection, there is little historical evidence to prove that Dogen actually learned from Ju-ching or that Ju-ching was an important Zen figure at all. And in his early writings, Dogen hardly cites his Chinese master or holds him up as a special figure. In fact, he places equal emphasis on the importance of all five houses of Zen, including that of Lin-chi, a supposed rival of Ju-ching (whom Dogen later criticizes greatly). Yet, Dogen's ideas change markedly over the course of his ministry, and Ju-ching is praised later on, held up as the only transmitter of the true dharma. It was over a decade after his return to Japan that Dogen changed his beliefs and began pitting his school against the Lin-chi tradition.

One explanation for this change asserts that Dogen was merely becoming more enlightened the more he practiced; thus, his understanding of Zen developed and his teachings reflected that (39). Another idea asserts that a copy of Ju-ching's sayings arrived in Japan at this time, and Dogen was so upset with the lack of understanding of his master's principles shown in document form that he realized he was the only preserver of the true dharma, and it was up to him alone to share it with others (39).

Dogen also changed his notions on laymen and Buddhism. In his later writings, he asserts that the laity cannot be saved because there are too many obstacles and distractions in the lay life. This change may have come about due to the narrowing scope of his audience over time. Dogen chose to move to a smaller community, taking a band of outcast Rinzai (the more popular form of Zen at the time) monks with him, several from the Daruma school; thus, he no longer had to appeal to a lay audience.

These changes in Dogen's beliefs and his seeming distance from his master's ideals raise significant questions about the ideology of the shobo genzo. If he received the true dharma, then why did his teachings change? And because Dogen's followers didn't adhere to all that he taught (they were influenced by the rival Rinzai tradition), Dogen didn't do an adequate job of passing the shobo genzo along. Thus, Dogen must be carefully scrutinized before he can be labeled as a leading Zen master.