The monk Dogen lived in dreadful times. A revolution culminating in 1185 had brought to power warriors who for centuries had served perhaps the most unwar-like aristocracy in world history, the effete but highly cultured ladies and gentlemen of the Heian Period (794-1185). Their day was done. They were swept aside. Sterner times lay ahead.

Dogen (1200-53) was born into a noble but impoverished Kyoto family. The new regime's footing was still tenuous. Revolt simmered, pestilence raged, famine fed desperation, which fed crime and death en masse. Corpses rotted and stank in the streets. It was horrible.

Dogen's mother, dying when the boy was 8, urged him to enter a monastery. This he did. At Kenninji Temple he studied under the priest Eisai, who only a few years earlier had brought Zen Buddhism to Japan from China. Dogen himself went to China in 1223. China was the fountainhead. Japan was hopeless, its religious establishment grasping, corrupt and ignorant. "We should feel sorry for this remote little country," said Dogen, "where teachers can only transmit phrases and recite names."