circle of the way



This is part of a series of articles on the arc of Zen thought, practice, and history, as presented in The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern WorldYou can start at the beginning of this series or simply explore from here. 

Dogen: A Guide to His Work


Explore Zen Buddhism: A Reader's Guide to the Great Works 


Chan in China

Zen in Korea

Zen in Japan

> Dogen: A Guide to His Works

Additional Resources

Dogen (1200–1253) is revered as the founder of the Soto school in Japan, and his influence cannot be overstated.  And as mentioned in the previous article, everything changed with him.

The Circle of the Waygives an excellent overview:

Dogen’s oeuvre would be a remarkable achievement just as literature, for its lyric beauty, or as philosophy, for its presentation of Buddhist teachings. But Dogen’s Zen is the Zen of practice, and its deepest value is found in its illumination of the unity of practice and enlightenment.

Shambhala Publications has multiple works by and on Dogen: translations, commentaries, and later commentaries on his output.

Dogen: Japan’s Original Zen Teacher

Although Dogen’s writings have reached wide prominence among contemporary Buddhists and philosophers, there is much that remains enigmatic about his life and writings. In Dogen: Japan’s Original Zen Teacher, respected Dogen scholar and translator Steven Heine offers a nuanced portrait of the master’s historical context, life, and literary output, paying special attention to issues such as:

  • The nature of the “great doubt” that motivated Dogen’s religious quest
  • The sociopolitical turmoil of Kamakura Japan that led to dynamic innovations in medieval Japanese Buddhism
  • The challenges and transformations Dogen experienced during his pivotal time in China
  • Key inflection points and unresolved questions regarding Dogen’s teaching career in Japan
  • Ongoing controversies in the scholarly interpretations of Dogen’s biography and teachings

Synthesizing a lifetime of research and reflection into an accessible narrative, this new addition to the Lives of the Masters series illuminates thought-provoking perspectives on Dogen’s character and teachings, as well as his relevance to contemporary practitioners.

essential dogen

The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master

This is an excellent place to start:  the first book to offer the great master’s incisive wisdom in short selections taken from the whole range of his voluminous works. The pithy and powerful readings, arranged according to theme, provide a perfect introduction to Dogen—and inspire spiritual practice in people of all traditions.

dogen beyond thinking

Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation

Kaz Tanahashi translated and edited this collection of Dogen's works on zazen meditation along with Mel Weitsman, Blanche Hartman, Michael Wenger, Norman Fischer, Katherine Thanas, Reb Anderson, and others.

It has many fasciles from the Shōbō Genzō as well as some others including:

  • ‘‘Recommending Zazen to All People’’, the ‘‘Fukanzazengi," one of the most revered texts in the Soto School, as it summarizes Dogen’s intention for establishing the Zen teaching in Japan.
  • ‘‘On the Endeavor of the Way," or  ‘‘Bendowa.’’ highly revered in the Soto School, as it is the most comprehensive elucidation of dharma throughout Dogen’s teaching career.
Rational Zen

Rational Zen: The Mind of Dogen Zenji

Rational Zen consists of selections from both the Shobogenzo, Dogen's masterwork which you will read about more below, and the Eihei Koroku, or Universal Book of Eternal Peace which until now has been unavailable in English. The translator Thomas Cleary also provides explanations of the inner meanings of Dogen's writings and sayings—the first commentaries of their kind of English. A compendium of authentic source materials further enhances the reader's insight into Dogen's methods, linking them to the great classical traditions of Buddhism that ultimately flowered in Zen.

The Eihei Koroku mentioned above is comprised of instructions to his monks, informal talks, and the famous Instructions to the Cook or Tenzo Kyokun.

The Tenzo Kyokun, Instructions to the Cook

The Circle of the Way gives an excellent overview of Instructions to the cook, the Tenzo Kyokun, which he wrote in 1237:

While Dogen was still living on the docked ship—it seems he had nowhere else to go—an elderly monk from Ayuwang Monastery, where Dahui Zonggao once taught, boarded in search of Japanese mushrooms. Dogen offered him some tea. The old man talked about his life as a monk and his position as cook at Ayuwang. He had walked thirty-four or thirty-five li (about ten miles), he said, hoping to find Japanese mushrooms—a delicacy—to put into a noodle soup.

The conversations he had with this cook became a formative teaching for Dogen.

The work, The Circle of the Way continues,

is literally a job description for a temple cook. . . . Dogen described cooking as a sacred activity. He advised the cook to handle pots and spoons with reverence and treat each grain of rice with as much care and attention as if it were his own eyeball. “Taking up a vegetable leaf manifests the Buddha’s sixteen-foot golden body,” he wrote. "Take up the sixteen-foot golden body and reveal it as a vegetable leaf. This is the power of functioning freely as the awakening activity which benefits all beings."

How to Cook Your Life

How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment

This is a translation of this text, along with a commentary by the Kyoto-based Soto priest Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912–1998).

In drawing parallels between preparing meals for the Zen monastery and spiritual training, he reveals far more than simply the rules and manners of the Zen kitchen; he teaches us how to "cook," or refine our lives. In this volume, Uchiyama Roshi undertakes the task of elucidating Dogen's text for the benefit of modern-day readers of Zen. Taken together, his translation and commentary truly constitute a "cookbook for life," one that shows us how to live with an unbiased mind in the midst of our workaday world.

Instructions to the Cook

Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters

An even more contemporary take on this work is Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life That Matters from Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields.

Instructions to the Cook describes the innovative business model Roshi Bernie Glassman developed to revitalize a poverty-stricken section of Yonkers, New York. Using his own story as a base, Glassman shows how social engagement can be used as a spiritual practice to promote both personal and societal transformation.

The Shōbō Genzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

Undoubtedly Dogen's magnum opus, this a collection of sermons he gave over many years on a wide range of subjects.  The works below include the full translation, works that are commentaries on sections of it, or anthologies that include parts of it.

Note that there are several other titles with "Shōbō Genzō" but which are distinct works.  The main work discussed in this section is sometimes differentiated from the others by calling it Kana Shōbō Genzō.

Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo

Dogen's collection of essays that form the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shōbō Genzō, in Japanese) is a monumental work, considered to be one of the profoundest expressions of Zen wisdom ever put on paper, and also the most outstanding literary and philosophical work of Japan. Kazuaki Tanahashi and a team of translators that represent a Who’s Who of American Zen have produced a translation of the great work that combines accuracy with a deep understanding of Dogen’s voice and literary gifts.

This volume includes a wealth of materials to aid understanding, including maps, lineage charts, a bibliography, and an exhaustive glossary of names and terms—and, as a bonus, the most renowned of all Dogen’s essays, “Recommending Zazen to All People.”

"A vast, beautiful translation of the master work of the Japanese genius Dogen Zenji. English-speaking practitioners will be indebted to Kaz Tanahashi and his associates for this truly magnificent teaching, an indispensable contribution to Zen letters." —Peter Matthiessen (Muryo Roshi)

"A deeply considered and deeply relevant text. Shambhala’s publication of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation of the complete text of Eihei Dogen’s Shōbō Genzō marks a watershed moment for Western Buddhism. With the Tanahashi version, it appears we now have an edition that will receive the sort of attention this great work deserves. Tanahashi’s effort to preserve the particular Japanese difficulty of Dogen’s poetic prose, aided by the excellent work of the poet and Zen teacher Peter Levitt, emphasizes the text’s ambiguity, multiplicity, and resonance of meaning more effectively than other versions." —Norman Fischer, Tricycle

Each Moment is the Universe

Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time

It's easy to regard time as a commodity—we even speak of “saving” or “spending” it. We often regard it as an enemy, when we feel it slipping away before we’re ready for time to be up. The Zen view of time is radically different than that: time is not something separate from our life; rather, our life is time. Understand this, says Dainin Katagiri Roshi, and you can live fully and freely right where you are in each moment.

Katagiri bases his teaching on Being Time, a text that is part of the Shōbō Genzō to show that time is a creative, dynamic process that continuously produces the universe and everything in it—and that to understand this is to discover a gateway to freedom from the dissatisfactions of everyday life. He guides us in contemplating impermanence, the present moment, and the ungraspable nature of past and future. He discusses time as part of our inner being, made manifest through constant change in ourselves and our surroundings. And these ideas are by no means metaphysical abstractions: they can be directly perceived by any of us through meditation.

Flowers Fall

Several of the essays of the Shōbō Genzō are the subject of standalone books.


Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen's Genjokoan

The Genjokoan, or Actualizing the Fundamental Point, is often considered to be the key text within Dogen's masterwork, Shōbō Genzō. The Genjokoan addresses in terse and poetic language many of the perennial concerns of Zen, focusing particularly on the relationship between practice and realization.

Enlightenment Unfolds

Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen

Enlightenment Unfolds presents many of the incisive and inspiring writings of this seminal figure, focusing on essays from his great life work, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, as well as poems, talks, and correspondence. As the editor of this volume, Kaz Tanahashi, describes it,

We present this selection of Dogen’s writings in chronological order. We hope the texts in this book illustrate Dogen as a whole person—not only as a seeker, traveler, teacher, and priest who brought Zen from China to Japan, but as a poet, thinker, scholar, administrator, and woodcarver. The text consists of formal and informal talks, essays, monastic rules, journals, poems, and notes, including Dogen’s words as recorded by his disciples. Some were originally written in Chinese, others in Japanese.

Tanahashi has brought together his own translations of Dogen with those of some of the most respected Zen teachers and writers of our own day, including Reb Anderson, Susan Moon, Edward Espe Brown, Norman Fischer, Gil Fronsdal, Blanche Hartman, Jane Hirschfield, Taigen Dan Leighton, Alan Senauke, Katherine Thanas, Mel Weitzman, and Michael Wenger.

returning to silence

Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Everyday Life

In this book, Dainin Katagiri points to the manifestation of enlightenment right here, right now, in our everyday routine. Genuineness of practice lies in "just living" our lives wholeheartedly. The Zen practice of sitting meditation (zazen) is not a means to an end but is the activity of enlightenment itself. That is why Katagiri Roshi says, "Don't expect enlightenment—just sit down!"

Based on the author's talks to his American students, Returning to Silence contains the basic teachings of the Buddha, with special emphasis on the meaning of faith and on meditation. It also offers a commentary on "The Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance" from Dogen Zenji's Shōbō Genzō, which speaks in depth about the appropriate actions of those who guide others in the practice of the Buddha Way. Throughout these pages, Katagiri Roshi energetically brings to life the message that "Buddha is your daily life."

The Other Shōbō Genzōs

There are two more volumes that include "Shōbō Genzō" in the title. One is the Shōbō Genzō Zuimonki which was writeen by Dogen's student Ejo.  The other is the Mana Shobogenzo, sometimes also called the Shinji Shobogenzo, which is a collection of koans.  Both these works are profiled below.

Record of Things Heard

Record of Things Heard: From the Treasury of the Eye of the True Teaching, Ejo's Shobogenzo Zuimonki

This Zen classic is a collection of talks Dogen, the founder of the Soto School. They were recorded by Ejo, one of Dogen's first disciples, and later his foremost successor. The talks and stories in this volume were written in the thirteenth-century Japan, a time when Buddhism was undergoing a "dark age" of misinterpretation and corruption. It was in this atmosphere that Dogen attempted to reassert the true essence of the Buddhist teachings and to affirm "the mind of the Way" and the doctrine of selflessness. Dogen emphasizes the disciplinary aspect of Zen: meditation practice is presented here as the backbone without which Buddhism could not exist.

The stories in this volume are often humorous and paradoxical, relating the Buddhist teachings by means of example. Commonly in the Zen tradition, discussions between teacher and student and the telling of tales are used to point to a greater truth, which mere theory could never explain.

Dogen relates interesting stories of his travels in China, where the inspiration he found lacking in Japanese Buddhism was flourishing in the Ch'an school of Chinese Buddhism.

true dharma eye dogen

To confuse things a bit, there are several other texts with Shōbō Genzō in their title which are in fact separate works.

The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans

This presents readers with a uniquely contemporary perspective on his profound teachings and their relevance for modern Western practitioners of Zen. Following the traditional format for koan collections, John Daido Loori has added his own commentary and accompanying verse for each of Dogen’s koans. Zen students and scholars will find The True Dharma Eye to be a source of deep insight into the mind of one of the world’s greatest religious thinkers, as well as the practice of koan study itself.

Other Works

Here are a few other works by or focusing on Dogen.

minding mind

Minding Mind: A Course in Basic Meditation

Among the seven meditation manuals included here is A Generally Recommended Mode of Sitting Meditation by Dogen.

One of the main concerns of Dogen’s teaching activity was to alert people to the shortcomings and dangers of incomplete Zen meditation and partial Zen experience. This manual, one of Dogen’s first written works, reflects this concern and outlines an approach to its resolution.

Another manual in this collection is Absorption in the Treasury of Light, written by Dogen's main student, Ejo (1198–1282). Born into an ancient noble family, Ejo became a Buddhist monk at the age of eighteen. After studying Tendai Buddhism, he concentrated on Pure Land Buddhism, then turned to Zen. Eventually he became an apprentice of Zen master Dogen, who soon appointed Ejo his teaching assistant and spiritual successor.

Absorption in the Treasury of Light is Ejo’s own composition. Reflecting Ejo’s background in the esoteric branch of Tendai Buddhism as well as his classical Zen studies, this work shows how to focus on the so-called Dharmakaya, or Reality Body teaching of Buddhism, underlying a wide variety of symbolic expressions. This type of meditation, using scriptural extracts, poetry, and Zen koans, or teaching stories, to register a specific level of consciousness, is called sanzen. There is a great deal of Zen literature deriving from centuries of sanzen, among which Ejo’s Absorption in the Treasury of Light represents a very unusual blend of complexity and simplicity, depth and accessibility.

being upright reb anderson dogen

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts

Dogen authored the Kyojukaimon, or Essay on Teaching and Conferring the Precepts. Being Upright is a short commentary by Reb Anderson on this text which is very important in the Soto Zen lineage and is recited as part of the monthly confession ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center and its sister centers.

This is the teaching of unsurpassed complete perfect awakening,
and the path of practicing and being practiced.
—Dogen, Essay on Teaching and Conferring the Precepts

Continue to the next article in the series: Rinzai Zen >