Shobogenzo Zuimonki

Book 1


In an evening talk Dogen said,

“Suppose someone comes to talk about his business, and asks you to write a letter to solicit something from someone, or to help him in a lawsuit, etc. but you turn down his request excusing yourself on the grounds that you are not a man [of the secular world 1 ], that you have retired and have nothing to do with mundane affairs, and that it is not appropriate for a recluse to say something that is not suitable to lay people. Although this may seem like the way of a recluse, you should examine your deeper motivation. If you reject the request because you think you are a monk who has left the secular world and people might think ill of you if you say something unsuitable for a recluse, this still shows ego-attachment to fame and profit.

“In each situation that you are faced with, just consider carefully; do anything which will bring even a little benefit to the person who is before you, without concern for what people will think of you. Even if you become estranged from your friends or quarrel with them because they say you did something bad and unbecoming of a monk, it is not important. It would be better to break off with such narrow-minded people. Even though outwardly it may seem to other people that you are doing something improper, the primary concern should be to break off your ego-attachment inwardly and throw away any desire for fame. A buddha or bodhisattva cuts off even his own flesh and limbs when someone asks him for help. How much more, then, should you be willing to help someone who asks you just to write a letter. If you reject his request, being concerned with your reputation, you are showing deep attachment to your ego. Although others may think that you are not a holy man and say inappropriate things, if you throw away your concern for fame and bring even a little benefit to others, you correspond with the true Way. We find many examples of ancient sages who appear to have had this attitude. I also consider this true. It is an easy thing to help a little by writing a letter when your supporters or friends ask you to say something which is a little bit unexpected.”

Ejo responded, “That is really true. Of course it is all right to tell others what is good and beneficial to them. But, how about the case in which someone wants to take another’s property by some evil means, or someone tries to slander another? Should we still transmit such messages?”

Dogen replied, “It is not for us to decide whether it is reasonable or not. We should explain to the person that we are sending the letter because someone asked us to do so, and tell him to deal with it reasonably. The person who receives the letter and has to deal with the problem should decide whether it is right or wrong. It is also wrong to ask the person to do something unreasonable about matters which are out of our field.

And, although it is apparently wrong, if you have a friend who respects you and whom you feel you could not go against, either for good or bad, and he requests your support to do something wrong and unacceptable through you, listen to his request once, and in your letter write that you have been asked importunately, and that the matter should be dealt with reasonably. If you treat each situation in this way, no one will hold a grudge. You must consider things like this very meticulously in every encounter or situation. The primary concern is to cast aside the desire for fame and ego-attachment in whatever situation.”

  1. The word Dogen used is hinin which literally means ‘non-human’. In ancient Japan, monks were sometimes called hinin, because they abandoned the secular world. In the age of Dogen, people who left degenerate temples were called hinin, yosutebito (one who abandons the world), or tonseisha (escaper from the world). They practiced in various ways and eventually formed the so-called New Buddhism of the Kamakura period. Here Dogen criticizes some of those who were indifferent towards helping others on the excuse of being hermits.