Shobogenzo Zuimonki

Book 2


In an evening talk, Dogen said,

“Students of the Way, it is of no value to be known by people in the secular world as a person of wisdom or wide knowledge. If there is even a single person who is really seeking the Way, you should not refuse to explain the dharma of the buddhas and patriarchs to whatever extent you are able. Even if someone has made an attempt on your life, if he asks sincerely to hear the true Way, you must not hold a grudge but explain the dharma to him. Except in such cases, it is entirely useless to display your knowledge of the scriptures of the Exoteric or Esoteric teachings or of non-Buddhist texts. If someone comes and asks you about these things, you needn’t feel bad at all in replying that you don’t know. Since you feel ashamed of being despised for your ignorance and you consider yourself stupid, if you study the Buddhist and non-Buddhist classics widely to become a man of knowledge and study various things to understand secular affairs or to show your knowledge, this is a terrible mistake. This is truly meaningless for studying the Way. On the other hand, pretending not to know what you know is also wrong precisely because it is a difficult (pose to take) and is unnatural, creating a respectable image and giving an appearance of humility. It is best not to know from the outset.

In my childhood, I was fond of studying non-Buddhist classics1 and other texts. Until I went to China and received the dharma transmission, I had been reading both Buddhist and non-Buddhist books, in order to become familiar with the local Chinese language. I thought it was important, and in fact, it was an extraordinary thing in secular society. People also appreciated it as unusual and wonderful.

Although in a sense it was necessary, when I reflect on it now, it was a hindrance to studying the Way. When you read Buddhist scriptures, if you understand the meaning of the sentences phrase by phrase, you will grasp the reality expressed through the words. However, people tend to pay attention to the writing styles—such as antitheses, rhythms, and tones. They judge them as good or bad, and then think about the meaning as an afterthought. Therefore, it is better to understand the meaning from the beginning without caring about such things. In writing dharma-discourses as well, trying to write in accordance with the rules of rhetoric or being unable to write without thinking of rhyming and [maintaining proper] tones are the fault of having too much knowledge.

Let the language and style develop as they may; what is most important is to write down in detail the truth you want to communicate. Even though people in future generations might think that your rhetorical technique is poor, it is essential for the Way to enable them to understand reality. It is the same for other fields of study.

I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya2 was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism. After he abandoned3 his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School4, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school. He replied, “I have forgotten everything. I don’t remember a single word.” Thus, he did not answer the priest’s question. This should be the ideal bodhi-mind. He must have remembered something, but he did not talk about things he thought were useless. I think that people who wholeheartedly practice nenbutsu must be like this. Students today should also cultivate this attitude. Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely. Needless to say, you should not begin studying it now.

People of the Way who truly devote themselves to practice should not read even the collections of the recorded saying of the Zen masters. You should understand through this example the uselessness of other kinds of books.

  1. According to Kenzei-ki (the oldest biography of Dogen), Dogen was reading Riko Hyakuei (The Hundred Poems of Liqiao) by the time he was four years old. At seven, he was reading Moshi , Saden , and at nine, he was reading Kusharon (Abhidharma Kosa). The text says that Dogen was as brilliant as Monju. When he became sleepy while studying, he stuck a needle in his thigh. He studied unusually hard encouraging his mind.
  2. Ku-amîdabutsu is another name for Myohen (1142–1224). He studied Sanron (Nagarjuna’s philosophy), and Shingon (Esoteric Buddhism). He practiced in Nara and on Mt. Koya. Later he became a disciple of Honen, the founder of Japanese Pure-Land Buddhism, and changed his name to Ku-Amidabutsu.
  3. The word Dogen used is tonsei which literally means to escape from the world. Originally it meant to leave the secular world and become a monk. But in the Kamakura period it denoted a person who had already become a monk and had left even the society of monks to concentrate on practice.
  4. This school concentrated on the recitation of Amida’s name, ‘Namu-Amidabutsu’, which means, “[I pay] homage to Amida Buddha.”