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.”

As Dogen pored over his ancient texts, a Chinese monk inquired, “What are you reading the analects for?”

Dogen replied, “I think it will help me understand how the ancients lived.”

“What for?” asked the monk.

“Then when I return home, I can educate people about it.”

“What for?”

“To save all living beings.”

“What for?”

Dogen was stymied. What for, after all? There was no “what for,” there was only the Way, and only one way to the Way, that of zazen, meditation. That insight became the core of Zen’s Soto branch, which reveres Dogen as its founder.

All this we learn in “Shamon Dogen” (“Dogen the Monk”), a biography of Dogen written in 1926 by the eminent philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960), who, as Steve Bein writes in his introduction to his translation, rescued Dogen from 600 years of oblivion outside the Soto establishment.

Watsuji’s purpose was twofold. First, he says, “the essence of our own culture cannot be properly understood without taking such religious figures (as Dogen) into account.” Secondly, he felt a kinship with Dogen’s mission, that of cleansing Japanese Buddhism of its worldliness and corruption. The establishment of Watsuji’s own day, steering Japan on a headlong course of modernizing Westernization, was, he felt, no less corrupt, no less in need of purification. Dogen’s teaching he saw as purifying fire.

There is in truth nothing gentle about it. Gentleness was embodied in a rival teaching, that of Dogen’s contemporary Shinran (1173-1263). Shinran’s compassion for the suffering masses was such that he circulated tirelessly among them, preaching rebirth in a “Western paradise” for all who called on Amida Buddha, the Buddha of boundless light who had vowed not to enter paradise himself until all humanity had been saved.

Nonsense, snapped Dogen; “a terrible delusion.” Watsuji writes, “He had but one comment for those who were starving and suffering all around him: ‘You should contemplate impermanence.'” Rebirth, for Dogen, was not for just anyone. It involved the grimmest austerities, the ultimate renunciation. “Cast aside the world,” he wrote, “and make the Way your dwelling.” The command to “cast aside” implies someone who commands and someone who obeys. That’s false, a delusion that must be overcome. One must “cast off body-mind.” What’s left? Emptiness. Now we are on the threshold of truth. Zazen is the road to it, a steep, rocky road — “just sitting” for hours on end, regardless of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, hemorrhoids and worse. “What,” Dogen demanded, “would be the point of keeping my body healthy” — or alive, for that matter — “if I could not do zazen?” His teacher in China had struck a monk who dozed off during meditation, scolding him, “To practice zazen one must cast off body and mind. How dare you indulge in sleeping?” Looking on, Dogen, suddenly enlightened, cried, “Body-mind is cast off! Body-mind is cast off!”

Dogen offered, and demanded, “blind obedience to the patriarchs.” Watsuji explains: “To enter the Way you must throw away thoughts of good and evil as you have divided them in your own mind, forget your own conveniences, likes and dislikes, and follow the words and practices of the patriarchs regardless of whether they are good or evil. … In so doing, a new world of truth opens up for the first time.” A stern truth: “Buddhism does not exist for the sake of human life; human life exists for the sake of Buddhism.”

“Zen,” wrote the modern Zen master Daisetsu T. Suzuki (1870-1966) in 1958, “has entered internally into every phase of (Japanese) cultural life.” Almost any art one thinks of that is characteristically Japanese — haiku poetry, noh drama, ink painting, flower arranging, tea ceremony, swordsmanship and war (if they are properly classed as arts), germinated and flowered directly under Zen influence. Many artists were priests. Those who weren’t were at least acolytes. The absence of any vital Zen presence in Japanese culture and thought today is as good a symbol as any of what modernity has cost Japan — or, one could as easily say, of how modernity has freed Japan. It all depends on what you think of “casting off body-mind.” Truth, or self-annihilation? Both, Dogen would have said, but the modern mind can follow an ancient mind just so far.

Modern culture pampers the body-mind, especially the body. When Dogen was a boy studying at Kenninji Temple under Eisai, Japan’s first Zen master, the monks were fairly starving. A wealthy patron donated a roll of silk. This could be exchanged for gruel. There was general rejoicing, Eisai’s as happy as anyone’s. But then a layman came along begging for help. Without a flicker of hesitation Eisai handed him the silk. To his disciples he said, “We monks should follow the path of the Buddha together. It shouldn’t be a big deal to … die of starvation.”

When it’s not a big deal to die of starvation, enlightenment reigns.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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