Dogen’s teachings themselves require a solid understanding of Chinese koan literature. As William Bodiford points out in his Soto Zen in Medieval Japan, Dogen used “more than 580 koans” in his teachings. In the Kana Shobogenzo, Dogen elaborates on fifty-five koans, quoting them in their entirety, and he refers to some of them more than two hundred and eighty times. In the Eihei Koroku, ninety-nine koans are quoted, and one hundred and nine are mentioned at least briefly, and so on in Dogen’s other writings. Clearly, we can no longer assert Dogen was flatly opposed to koans.
Dogen knew about the standardized method of koan study prevalent in both the Soto and some lineages of the Rinzai School where, instead of having to “see into” a koan, practitioners could simply memorize the answers. He also knew of Dahui’s huatou or “short cut” method of working with koans. This method emphasized seeing into the main point of a koan, but did not delve into its subtler details.
In contrast to these formulaic approaches, Dogen’s study and understanding of koans had much more breadth and depth. Using a linguistic style unparalleled in the history of koan literature, Dogen addressed both the key phrases of each case, as well as the secondary—yet equally important—points nestled in the dialogues. He frequently examined koans from the perspective of the Five Ranks of Dongshan (J. Tozan). And he pointed out the questions that should be addressed in each case, challenging practitioners to examine them deeply.
These three characteristics of Dogen’s approach to koan introspection—his unique use of language, treatment of the Five Ranks of Dongshan and meticulous study of all aspects of a koan—set Dogen’s writings on koans far apart from the traditional commentaries available in the Zen literature. They are what makes a careful comparative reading of Dogen’s Kana Shobogenzo and his other writings with the Song Dynasty collections so valuable to modern koan practitioners.
To fully appreciate Dogen’s treatment of koans, it is critical to differentiate between koan study and formal koan introspection in the context of a vital teacher-student relationship. Koan study tends to rely on the intellect. It aims to shed light on the basic Buddhist teachings communicated in the koan in a similar way that a teacher will comment on a case in a teisho or formal discourse, clarifying the koan’s key points. In koan introspection, on the other hand, a student sits with the koan in zazen, letting go of trying to solve or understand it, but rather embodies it as a whole body-and-mind experience. The teacher then tests the student’s direct insight in dokusan, private face-to-face interviews.
Dokusan demands that one directly and dynamically present one’s own understanding. Because of this, it can be said that there is no one answer to a koan. Seeing into a koan requires the embodiment of a certain state of consciousness. It is this direct seeing into a koan that the teacher looks for and tests to determine the clarity of the student’s understanding. And it is this direct understanding that is at the heart of realization.
In my own training, my first encounter with Dogen’s singular way of dealing with koans was through that intimate teacher-student relationship. Maezumi Roshi asked me to work with a set of miscellaneous koans I had already passed through with a previous teacher. I refused. Instead of arguing with me, Maezumi Roshi instructed me to sit shikantaza. Soon after, I came across Dogen’s “Genjokoan” and brought a few questions about it into face-to-face teachings. Maezumi encouraged me to sit with Dogen’s lines in zazen, treating them as koans. With time, reading other chapters of the Kana Shobogenzo, I began to develop a deepening appreciation of the way Dogen presented koans with an unprecedented degree of depth and scope. Later still, as my traditional koan training evolved, it became increasingly clear to me that Dogen was a true master of the koan form, offering an amazing vista of the Buddhadharma through his koan treatment.
As a Zen teacher, my chief interests in the two Shobogenzos are Dogen’s unique way of commenting on koans in the Kana Shobogenzo, as well as the choice of koans he collected in the Mana Shobogenzo, especially as they may affect contemporary Western practitioners.