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Experiencing Chinese Chan

Still unable to find contentment, at age twenty-three Dogen resolved to go to China and experience Chan teachings firsthand. So in the spring of 1223 he and Myozen shipped out for China, intending to visit Buddhist establishments there. When they arrived local officials kept delaying his permissions to travel, leading to a long stay aboard ship.

It was there that experienced his first taste of Chan fervor and devotion that impressed him deeply. This lesson was at the hands of a sixty-year-old Chinese cook from a Chan monastery who visited the ship to purchase some Japanese mushrooms. Dogen became involved in an animated conversation with the old monk and, since his monastery was over ten miles away, out of courtesy invited him to stay the night on board ship. However, the old tenzo monk (one in charge of monastery meals) insisted on returning, saying duty called. But, Dogen pressed, surely there must be others who could cook in such a large , monastery, and besides cooking was hardly the point of Zen. As Dogen later recalled his own words:

"Venerable sir! Why don't you do zazen [Zen meditation] or study the koan of ancient masters? What is the use of working so-hard as a tenzo monk?"

On hearing my remarks, he broke into laughter and said, "Good foreigner! You seem to be ignorant of the true training. and meaning of Buddhism."

In a moment, ashamed and surprised at his remark, I said to him, "What are they?"

"If you understand the true meaning of your question, you will have already realized the true meaning of Buddhism," he answered.

At that time, however, I was unable to understand what he meant.

Finally able to travel, Dogen visited many monasteries in China, including those of a branch of Linji traceable back to the koan master Dahui (Lesson 24), different from the fading school Eisai had encountered. But Dogen was unmoved, writing later:

Although there are in China a great number of those who profess themselves to be the descendants of the Buddhas and patriarchs, there are few who study truth and accordingly there are few who teach truth . . . Reciting a few words of Linji and Yunmen they take them for the whole truth of Buddhism. If Buddhism had been exhausted by a few words of Linji and Yunmen, it could not have survived till today.

Dogen's Chinese Master, Rujing

Just as he was about to abandon China and return to Japan, fate took a turn that, in retrospect, had enormous importance for the future of Japanese Buddhism. A monk he met on the road told him that the monastery he had first visited and found lacking now had a new abbot, a truly enlightened master, Rujing. Rujing became Dogen's ideal of what a Zen teacher should be, and the habits—perhaps even the eccentricities—of this aging teacher were translated by Dogen into the model for monks in Japan.

Rujing was, above all things, uncompromising in his advocacy of meditation or zazen. He might even have challenged Bodhidharma for the title of its all-time practitioner, and it was from Rujing's Chan that Dogen took his cue. Although Chan was still widespread, Rujing seems to have been the one of the only remaining advocates of intensive meditation in China, and a chance intersection of history brought this teaching to Japan. Significantly, he was one of the few Caodong masters ever to lead this important Linji monastery. Rujing was a model master: strict but kindly; simple in habits, diet, dress; immune to the attractions of court recognition; and an uncompromising advocate of virtually round-the-clock meditation.

Dogen recorded these words of Rujing from a private talk:

What I mean to say is that buddhas and patriarchs, from their very first inspiration, sit in meditation with the vow to gather together all the qualities of buddhahood. Therefore in their sitting meditation they do not forget sentient beings, do not forsake sentient beings - they always have loving thought even for insects and vow to rescue them. Whatever virtues they have, they dedicate to all; therefore the buddhas and patriarchs are always in the world of desire practicing meditation and working on the way. In the world of desire only this world provides the best situation. Cultivating all virtues one attains to gentility and ease of mind.

Zazen means the dropping away of mind and body!

Rujing never asked anything of his monks he did not also demand of himself, even when advanced in years. He would strike nodding monks to refresh their attention, while lamenting that age had so diminished the strength in his arm it was eroding his ability to create good monks.

The story of Dogen's final enlightenment at the hands of Rujing is a classic of Japanese Zen.

All the monks were sitting in meditation in the meditation hall one early morning when the man next to Dogen dozed off — a common enough occurrence in early-morning sessions. But when Rujing came by on a routine inspection and saw the sleeping monk, he was for some reason particularly rankled.

Rujing roared: "Zazen means the dropping away of mind and body! What will you get by sleeping?"

Dogen, sitting nearby, was at first startled, but then an indescribable calm, an ecstatic joy washed over him.

Rujing immediately recognized his enlightenment to be genuine and he conferred upon Dogen the seal of patriarchal succession of his line of the Caodong sect. After two more years of study Dogen returned to Japan.

We can assume that Dogen's study with Rujing at a Linji monastery included koan study. As Dogen tells the story, he took with him back to Japan the koan collection Blue Cliff Record, which he copied his last night in China.

He also brought the fire of a powerful idea—pure meditation—that formed the basis for the Japanese Soto school of Zen.