A Zen monastery has often been likened to a forest, where the monks practice like trees and grasses growing together in peace and harmony. In Eiheiji, we devote ourselves to an ongoing wholehearted effort in accordance with the teachings of Zen Master Dōgen, the founder of Eiheiji.
Zazen is the fundamental practice, and is not for the purpose of obtaining some certification of a spiritual enlightenment. Enlightenment is important, but it is not an object which we will be able to attain someday after practicing step-by-step zazen. Zazen practice itself manifests the enlightenment of the Buddha.
The practice is not only zazen, but also every ordinary activity in our daily life: eating, walking, cleaning up and so on. This is because our life is not anything besides what is in front of us, right here, right now.
Zen Master Dōgen, who founded Eiheiji, was born in Kyoto in 1200 during the Kamakura period. His mother died in the winter when he was eight years old. It is said that he first became determined to become a Buddhist monk when he saw the wisp of smoke rising from the incense offered for his mother and he realized how transient everything in life is. He left his home and was ordained at Mt. Hiei in the spring of 1212, when he was 12 years old. There he began to practice the teachings of Buddha and studied many sutras.
While living on Mt. Hiei, Dōgen visited various teachers and asked them about the Buddhist practice, but he was not satisfied with their answers.
One day, a highly experienced priest advised him, “You should go to China to seek what the true teachings of Buddha really are. There the Buddhist monks still continue to practice the same zazen as Shakyamuni Buddha did.” In 1223, he became determined to go to China with Myōzen, one of the disciples of Zen Master Eisai.
On arriving at the port of China, Dōgen met an elderly monk of Aikuōzan (Ayuwangshan) who served there as the Tenzo: the head cook of the monastery.
They spoke for a while and then the Tenzo said to Dōgen: “You do not yet understand practice, and you do not yet know what words mean.”
Later, he met the Tenzo again and they continued their Zen dialogue,
“What is practice?”
The elderly monk answered,
“It’s just in front of you! It is your life itself. There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”
Dōgen asked further,
“What do words mean”
The Tenzo simply counted to five, implying:
“Words are empty if they are not put to work; the sutras are empty if you do not practice them. You are Buddha only through practice.”
Dōgen was deeply impressed, and he began to realize something for the first time: Even if we are originally enlightened beings, we never appear as Buddha without practicing in accordance with the teachings of the sutras. That is to say, practicing and awakening are not separable but one.
After traveling to various Zen monasteries and visiting several teachers in China, Dōgen finally met Zen Master Nyojō (Rújìng), the master he had been looking for. Nyojō invited Dōgen to come and ask him about anything at any time, without worrying about the traditional manners for doing so. He did then ask many questions, for he was earnestly seeking the Buddha Dharma. Zen Master Nyojō accompanied him carefully and led him to the true way.
One day, when Dōgen was practicing zazen with other monks, one of them fell asleep. Master Nyojō scolded the monk with both severity and compassion:
“ Zazen is to drop off body and mind! Don’t sleep while you are practicing zazen!”
Dōgen was completely awakened by these words. After that period of zazen, Dōgen visited the master and presented his understanding of dropping off body and mind. He was finally allowed to receive the Buddha Dharma transmitted from Shakyamuni Buddha down to Master Nyōjo. Yet even after the transmission from his master, Dōgen continued to practice diligently. There is no end to our practice.
In 1227, Dōgen returned to Japan and wrote Fukanzazengi (“Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”), in which he presents the correct form of zazen as he had experienced it in China. This is a form which had been transmitted since Shakyamuni Buddha, from master to disciple for generation after generation, and which was different from the style then practiced in Japan. Starting with this writing, he went on to compose many works including the Shōbōgenzō (“The True Dharma Eye Treasury”) Genjō-Kōan (“Actualization of Reality”) and Tenzo-Kyōkun (“Instructions for the Cook”), in order to leave the true teachings to later generations. These were written at Kōshōji, the first monastery founded by Dōgen in Fukakusa, Kyoto.
In 1243, Dōgen, at the age of 43, accepting an invitation from his lay disciple, Yoshishige Hatano, moved to Echizen province, which is today a part of Fukui Prefecture. In the following year, Dōgen founded Daibutsuji monastery. Two years later, the name was changed to Eiheiji monastery. At Eiheiji, following the teachings of Zen Master Nyojō, he devoted the rest of his life to transmitting the true Buddha Dharma and training disciples. He said that It was not important that he have many disciples, and that it would be sufficient, if there was even just one practitioner who could truly carry on his teachings.
Ten years after Eiheiji’s founding, Dōgen’s health seriously deteriorated. He moved to the residence of his lay disciple in Kyoto to receive medical treatment. Despite all efforts, he passed away in 1253 at the age of 53.
In Eiheiji, about 150 practitioners are still practicing wholeheartedly everyday, following the teachings of Zen Master Dōgen.