Category Archives: Uncategorized

Alive or Dead: the study of our times

A message from Okumura Roshi

From February 25 to March 16 of this year, I was in Europe. I visited four Zen centers in Italy, Greece, and France. Fortunately, even though the influence of coronavirus was increasing, the practice events at these centers went well. The final place I was to visit was London, but the event had to be cancelled.

On March 16th, I returned to Bloomington, about the time the US government banned entrance to all from Europe except US citizens and permanent residents. After returning to Sanshinji, I have been staying in the temple trying avoid contact with other people except for my family. Because Sanshinji has been closed since the day I returned, it is not difficult to live without coming into contact with people. Fortunately, I have had no health problems. During this quiet time, I am focusing on preparation for future Genzo-e and writing books.

Since April 1, I have been sitting one period of zazen in the morning from Monday to Friday, and I do morning service by myself. In addition to the usual morning service, I chant the Enmeijukku Kannonkyo and dedicate it to the people whose lives were taken, to those who are sick, to the care givers, and to all people, who are all facing this problem together.

For the two-day event in London, I was going to talk about Shobogenzo Shoji (Life-and-death) and Shobogenzo Zenki (Total Function). During this period of the pandemic, Dogen Zenji’s teachings on life-and-death and total function of interdependent origination are very relevant for all of us. I would like to visit London and share the teachings in these fascicles of Shobogenzo when the pandemic is gone.

Uchiyama Roshi once said that, when people in the society do not know what to do because of confusion, the best thing we can offer is sitting immovably, silently, and peacefully with upright posture.

When I sit by myself, I feel a connection with all people.

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Below we are republishing content regarding Shoji, modified from an earlier Dōgen Institute post. Two more extracts from lectures on Shoji and Zenki will follow in subsequent weeks.
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Alive or dead?

Life and death


Dōgen Zenji held the collected Ch’an (Zen) kōans of the Blue Cliff Record in high esteem. Its contents were compiled by Ch’an Master Yuanwu Keqin — Engo in Japanese — who also provided commentary. So it’s no surprise that he might appear in Dōgen Zenji’s own writings.

We find Engo mentioned in Fascicle 42 of Shōbōgenzō titled Zenki. Okumura Roshi translates the title as Total Function.

Engo is also referenced in Fascicle 93, Shōji, or Life and Death.

Okumura Roshi lectured on those two texts in November, 2009 during the five-day Genzo-e Retreat at Sanshinji. In the following audio clip from that gathering, he introduces us to those chapters with a famous kōan from the Blue Cliff Record. It’s Case 55, Alive or Dead. It involves Master Dogo and his student Zengen.

Roshi describes what transpires between master and disciple when they visit a home where there’s been a death. It provokes a burning question for Zengen. Tapping the coffin, he asks his master, “Alive or dead?”

In telling the story, Hojo-san allows us to experience the perspective of both disciple and master. Even more, we can share the insights he brings to these works through his own translation of the texts.

What is alive? What is dead? What is total function?

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.
This is the first of a series of three posts on Zenki and Shoji.
You can find the original version of the content on Shoji here.

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For further study:

    • Life & Death: 9 lectures on Shōbōgenzō Zenki and Shōji — You’ll find the entire digital album here.

> More recordings by Shōhaku Okumura

Copyright 2020 Sanshin Zen Community

End of year gratitude


Dear friends,

Here, at the end of the year, we would like to offer our thanks to our readers, listeners, and viewers. There are three things for which we would like to thank you.

Thanks to your efforts, we have reached our goal in raising funds for the matching grant from The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism. Over the next year-plus, we will be working to implement a system to make video offerings available to you. Some of these will be freely available, and others will be provided on a subscription basis, so that we may begin to build a self-sustaining structure. Thank you for your support in raising these funds.

The second thing for which we would like to offer our thanks is for your participation on our websites, and for reading our publications. We have almost 500 people who have subscribed to posts directly from the Dogen Institute website, and we now have over 3,000 Facebook followers. Many of you have also read books by Okumura Roshi and our other authors, which have been produced with the support of our Dogen Institute volunteers. We trust that this indicates that many people are enjoying Okumura Roshi’s writings about Buddhism, about Zen, and about Dogen Zenji.

The third thing is that we thank you for your practice. Our hope that the things you read, hear, and see on our websites are supportive of your practice, in whatever form that may take.

David S. Thompson
Director, Dogen Institute
Sanshin Zen Community

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Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Bring video to Dōgen Institute with a matching grant


Dear Dōgen Institute readers and listeners,

We have exciting news to share in our fundraiser this fall! The Dōgen Institute has received a matching grant from The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism to help enter the world of online video. Our ongoing mission is to provide opportunities for all who are interested in the study of Dōgen Zenji and his teachings. Now, we are receiving significant help towards that mission, and need your support to receive this gift.

Please donate to our effort

Please donate to our effort

As you may know from the Dogen Institute website, we currently offer publications and audio primarily by Shohaku Okumura Roshi about Dogen Zenji, Buddhism, and Zen in general. Okumura Roshi has spent a lifetime practicing and studying Dogen’s teachings, and shares what he has learned through books, articles, posts on our website, audio albums, and soon, with your help, on video.


Video distribution presents certain challenges, which we have been able to identify and propose as a project. We plan to provide videos of Okumura Roshi’s lectures, and other dharma events. We believe the enhancement of video technology may help people to understand and relate to the important, but complex and subtle teachings which Okumura Roshi so carefully explains.

We need your help!

We are very pleased and grateful that The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism has endorsed this project, and is willing to help make it a reality. We need to raise $3,250 or more in order to receive matching funds. Without your help, we won’t receive this grant.

Our vision is to bring these videos to light, and to make them available for people to subscribe to online. As in all our offerings, we hope to have some available free, and others available via paid subscription to help sustain our efforts. We’re excited to contemplate this model, and have further steps in mind if our initial efforts go well. But we can’t do anything without you! Please use the button above on this page to donate specifically to this effort.

Help us, and please contribute today.

With gratitude,

David S. Thompson
Director, Dōgen Institute

If you wish to make a recurring donation, please visit our Donations page, and use the PayPal button there, which will provide you that option.

If you wish to make a donation by mail, please make your check payable to “Sanshin Zen Community,” enter “DI video” in the memo field, and send your check to the following mailing address:

Sanshin Zen Community
Box 1577
Bloomington, IN
USA 47402

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Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

“My” story

Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, do not measure it with your mind or speak about it using words.
Just cast aside and forget your body and mind and throw them into the house of
Buddha; then all is done by Buddha. When we go on following this [practice] we are
released from life-and-death and become buddhas without using our strength or
consuming our mind. Who then continues to stagnate within mind?

– from Shōbōgenzō Shōji

The first thing Dōgen says in this passage is that this life-and-death is not within the realm of thinking, or within the story we create in our mind. Even though it’s necessary to keep creating the story to live, it’s important to know that it is a story, a product of our mind.

Actual life-and-death is happening on the ground of real reality. That real reality is called “zenki” in Dogen’s writings, or here, “the house of Buddha.” Instead of throwing our body and mind into “my” story, we place this entire body and mind on the ground of true reality, by letting go of my story. To me, that is what Dōgen means here. When we do this, Dōgen says, “then all is done by Buddha.”

I don’t think “Buddha” is a person; I don’t think the Buddha referred to is Amitabha Buddha or the other-power. This “all is done by Buddha” means, as Dogen wrote in Zenki, that when we are alive, we are sailing on a boat, and the boat cannot move by itself. The boat needs water, wind, and all the other things. The person sailing on the boat, and the boat, and the ocean, and the other things are working together. I think that is what “all is done by Buddha” means.

My thinking, my expectation, my ability to make stories – where I came from and where I am going – that is what I created in my mind, that is a story. When I was the high-school teenager, I wanted to find the real thing, the thing which was not created by me. I have found that there is no such thing. What I am doing here is based on my story, my vision, or dream. When I went back to Kyoto from Valley Zendo, Uchiyama Roshi encouraged me to create a place where I can study and practice zazen and Dogen’s teachings with people from outside Japan. I started to work on it, and my translation work is part of that plan. The first twelve years, I worked in Japan but somehow it didn’t work, so I came back to this country again. This is all my plan and a dream or vision; that is my story. To me, without this story, made up in my mind, I cannot do anything. So for me, this vision or plan or idea or vow is important. Without the story, we cannot do anything. But at the same time, this is a vision, “my story.”

The story can be interrupted any time, depending on the weather of the ocean. Even if I try to do my best, this boat could be wrecked at any time depending upon the overall conditions of the world, depending upon the condition of this total function. Yet my story is a driving force of my sailing, and it gives me the direction of which way I should go.

It’s important to understand this is a production of my mind. Even though this vow is not for my personal profit, still, this is my personal vow or vision. We need our personal view or creation, or history, and yet this history should not be self-centered, if we are bodhisattvas. So, at any time, I need to be able to give it up. But if I try to do this, and this is meaningful not only for this person but for other people, then I have trust or faith that those people would continue. Even if my boat disappears, some people might continue going in the same direction. I think that is my faith.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

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For further study:

    • For another article on Shōbōgenzō Shōji, covering the famous Alive or Dead koan, see this article.
    • You’ll find the entire digital album Life & Death: 9 lectures on Shōbōgenzō Zenki and Shōji for sale here.

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Are sentient beings already Buddhas?

Free audio extract from: Bendowa 3: nine lectures on Shobogenzo Bendowa

“As I talked about this morning [in the previous lecture], whether we attain the way or not does not depend on the condition of the world, or the [present] age. We only use our treasure. And as Dōgen said, whether we attain it or not can only be known by the person who practices. Like when we drink water, we know whether it’s cold or warm. It only depends on the self, not the condition of this world. Then, what is this self? That is the next natural question.

This is a very subtle point. Dogen says our practice and verification has nothing to do with the world, it’s only up to our determination or aspiration, whether or not we practice. It’s totally up to us, up to the self. When we practice, we ourselves know whether enlightenment/verification is there or not. So it totally depends upon us, not the outside situation. Then [we have] this teaching of the self, and another understanding of the same word ‘self’. It’s almost the same, but very subtly different. And this small difference makes a big difference. I think that’s the point of this question.”

Dōgen himself asked his own teacher, Tiantong Rujing (Tendo Nyojo) about awakening, the role of the self, and what the self knows.

Listen to the talk:

Please follow this link to Sanshin’s bandcamp page for the entire digital album.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Rōshi

> Other albums by Shōhaku Okumura

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community

The entire world studies itself through this person

Photo © David S. Thompson

The entire world studies itself through this person

Today we feature the third of three excerpts from Okumura Roshi’s new book, The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Sansuikyo, edited by Shodo Spring (Wisdom Publications). Okumura Roshi begins by quoting from Dōgen’s Sansuikyo, paragraph seven:

The blue mountains devote themselves to the investigation of walking; the East Mountain studies “moving over the water.”

Here Dogen identifies the subject who does this walking, this studying about mountains and waters. Usually when we read this we think that we are studying Dogen’s teaching about mountains and waters, so the subject is me. Whenever we study Dharma or practice zazen, we think “This person is studying the Dharma,” or “This person is trying to find the meaning of our life.” But Dogen says here that a person’s inquiry is not simply one’s own inquiry: it is mountains studying mountains, and this entire world studying itself through this person’s inquiry.

Planet Earth is a tiny product of the evolution of this universe. We human beings are a tiny and relatively new part of nature on this small planet. And yet, somehow we have an ability to observe the planet, the solar system, other galaxies and even the entire universe, and we try to understand what they are, what is really happening, what is the origin of this movement of the universe. We even think about the meaning of all this movement. This is our attempt to see reality, to understand the meaning of our lives and this world. But we can look from another direction and say that because we are a part of the universe, the entire world is using human beings to see itself. In this sense the entire universe is studying itself through us.

We usually don’t see it this way. We think we study for the sake of this person. When we see our activity from a broader perspective, we can’t be selfish. We can’t use things around us as resources or materials simply to make this person happy. I think this is an important difference.

I sometimes imagine the universe before human beings appeared on this small planet. That was the universe without any observer. No one sees it, thinks of it, understands it, or evaluates it. No one sees color or hears sound. In this case, is there color or sound at all? To me that is a mysterious world. In the history of the universe from the big bang, the universe was without any observer until recently. Things were just happening, without being considered right or wrong, good or bad, well or poorly done. This is an amazing thought to me.

Who is studying? Who is inquiring? In the case of Buddha Dharma, Buddha studies Buddha’s way through our practice. Or Dharma studies Dharma itself through this person, because this person is part of the Dharma. The term “dharmas” means all beings. Capital Dharma means the way all beings are. Dharma just means how we are, but we usually try to get something from it. That is a kind of distortion. According to Dogen, when I sit, it is not Shohaku sitting; zazen is sitting Shohaku. Studying other subjects can be the same.

This study or practice is part of the walking of blue mountains.

The East Mountain studies ‘moving over the water.’ Hence, this study is the mountains’ own study.

Here Dogen refers to Ummon’s saying, which he quotes later:

The mountains, without altering their own body and mind, with their own mountain countenance, have always been circling back to study [themselves].

Dogen says our practice is the mountains’ study. The mountains do not alter their own body and mind—mountains are just mountains, with their own mountain countenance. Mountains are just mountains, and have always been circling back to study themselves.

“Circling back” is a translation of kai to. Kai means to circle around and to is path, road, or street. This is an unusual expression. I don’t think Dogen used this expression in any other writings. According to commentaries, this kai to means “here and there.” “Here” means this present moment and “there” means the eternal Buddha, prior to anything happening, prior to even the kalpa of emptiness. Nikon, this present moment, is here, and eternity is there. In the first sentence of this writing he says that this present moment is one with eternity. That is the meaning of “These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas.” This expression kai to means turning between this present moment and eternity. Mountains turn back and forth between this moment and eternity.

The meaning of this is the same as Dogen’s saying in Tenzokyokun that when you cook you should invite the Buddha from the Buddha Hall and make the Buddha into the vegetables. He said to invite a sixteen-foot Buddha body and make it into one stalk of greens. In other words, any vegetables that we chop or cook are actually Buddha’s body. Also the person who is cooking and the activity of cooking must manifest the sixteen-foot Buddha body. Even though this moment is one with eternity, also we make it one with eternity by cooking in this way.

This particular person is working with particular things. But this particular action can be the practice of turning between this moment and eternity, or between this person and the world. Oneness of this moment and eternity, oneness of the particular and universal, this is what Dogen is always trying to show us. “Moon in a dewdrop” is an expression of the same reality. We are tiny like a drop of dew, but within this momentary drop the entire universe is reflected. In Mahayana teaching, this is expressed as “within a mustard seed, Mt. Sumeru is stored; or within a pore of the skin, the great ocean is stored.”

This is Dogen’s point. The same point is found in much of Japanese culture: eternity expresses itself within impermanence; the infinite manifests itself within the finite. If you read haiku you can recognize this. A famous example is Matsuo Basho’s

“Old pond,
a frog jumps in,
the sound of water.”

Instead of conducting an abstract philosophical discussion, a haiku shows eternity by describing things in one moment.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community


Fire and flowers

Photo © David S. Thompson

Practicing with the ugliness of the mountains

Today we feature the second of three excerpts from Okumura Roshi’s new book, The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Sansuikyo, edited by Shodo Spring (Wisdom Publications).

As the person who is living in this body and mind, I experience a great difference between following my personal desire and following my vow as a bodhisattva. The quality of my life is very different. From outside, my life and everyone else’s are the same: we are born, eat some food, spend a certain period of time, and die. We are sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy. That’s all.

But as a person who is living with this particular body and mind, within this particular society, there are differences. Each one of us has to choose which way to go. The four bodhisattva vows are our compass for our journey on the path of practice. We take a vow and practice toward infinity; vow gives us this direction. We have to directly go into the mountains and see the mountain peaks from inside.

Practicing in the mountains, if we see only the beauty of the mountains we are not bodhisattvas. We need to see the ugly part of the mountains too. And somehow we need to take care of that ugly and painful part. Mountains are not only beautiful and virtuous, they can be sometimes, violent and merciless. Each one of us has different tendencies, capabilities, vows, desires, and hopes. The way each of us works for the sake of this mountain can be different. In my case I think the best contribution I can make to human society is to practice as a Soto Zen Buddhist, and try to transmit what I studied and practiced in Japan to this country. This is my activity as a person of limited capability.

We are all limited and shaped by our karma. How can this particular person make this mountain better for all beings? This question is the meaning of the bodhisattva vow, for every Dharma practitioner. Everybody likes beautiful expressions or poems. It is careless to think our practice is just to appreciate the beautiful scenery in the mountain. Instead, we have to discover how to practice with the ugliness within ourselves and this mountain, and work to make the world even a little better. In this way we can find the beauty of the mountain even within its ugliness.

Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community