Receiving the Marrow by Bowing

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Eihei Dogen

In the practice of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment, what is most difficult is to find a guiding teacher. The guiding teacher should be a strong person, regardless of being a male or female. The teacher should be a person of thusness, with excellent knowledge and wild fox [transformative] spirit, whether living in the past or present. This is the face [essence] of attaining the marrow, the guiding virtue. This is “not ignoring cause and effect,” and “You and I are just this.”

After you encounter your guiding teacher, practice diligently in the endeavor of the way, casting off myriad conditions, without sparing a moment. Practice with heart, practice with beyond heart, practice even with half a heart. In this way, brush off the fire on your head [practice with urgency], or stand on your toes [practice intensely].

If you practice in this way, you will not be destroyed by jealous demons; the ancestor [Huike] who cut off his arm and attained the [Bodhidharma’s] marrow becomes not other [than you]. The master who drops away body and mind is you yourself.

You attain the marrow and are invariably transmitted dharma through your utmost sincerity and trusting heart. There is no path that comes from anything other than sincere trust; there is no direction that emerges from itself.

Thus, you regard dharma as weighty and your own body as lightly weighted. You retreat from the world and make the way your abode. If you consider your own body weightier than dharma, dharma is not transmitted to you and you will not be able to attain the way.

Although the aspiration for making dharma weighty is not limited to a single path, and does not depend on instructions from others, let me make one or two points.

Regarding dharma as weighty means this:

If you encounter someone who maintains the great dharma, having received the acknowledgment—”You have attained my marrow”— whether the person is a pillar or a lantern, a buddha, wild fox, demon, man or woman, you should keep your body and mind on the zazen seat and attend to the person even for immeasurable eons. It is common to attain body and mind, which are just like widely spread rice plants, flax, bamboo, or reed. But it is rare to encounter dharma.

Shakyamuni Buddha Said:

In encountering teachers who expound unsurpassable enlightenment, do not consider their caste or facial appearance; do not dislike their shortcomings or judge their activities. Just value their prajna and feed them daily with one hundred or one thousand ounces of gold. Offer them celestial meals. Sprinkle celestial flowers for them. Bow and pay respect to them three times a day, and do not arouse the mind of confusion.

If you act in this way, the path of enlightenment will certainly have a place. This is how I have practiced since I aroused the aspiration for enlightenment, and now I have attained unsurpassable, complete enlightenment.

Thus, look to trees and rocks, fields and villages, to expound dharma. Ask pillars about dharma and investigate with walls.

In the past, Indra bowed to a wild fox to inquire about dharma. This fox was known as a great bodhisattva. This action by Indra was not based on the fox’s high or low status of being.

However, foolish people who have not heard buddha dharma call themselves great monks and would not bow to younger ones who have attained dharma. Those who have matured practice over a long period of time would not bow to latecomers who have attained dharma. Those who have certificates as masters would not bow to others who have not been certified. Those who are in charge of dharma matters would not bow to other monks who have attained dharma. Those who are bishops would not bow to laymen and laywomen who have attained dharma. Bodhisattvas of three classes and ten stages would not bow to nuns who have attained dharma. Those who are imperial descendants would not bow to retainers who have attained dharma. Such foolish people have neither seen nor heard the buddha way, just like the one who groundlessly left parents and wandered in another land.

When Zhaozhou, Who would later become Great Master Zhenji, of the Tang Dynasty aroused the aspiration for enlightenment and was about to begin a journey, he said to himself, “I will ask about dharma of anyone who surpasses me, even a seven-year-old. I will teach anyone who is behind me, even a one-hundred-year-old.”

When asking a seven-year-old about dharma, an old man like Zhaozhou bows. It is an extraordinary aspiration, the mind art of an old buddha.

It is an excellent custom of study that when a nun has attained the way, attained dharma, and started to teach, monks who seek dharma and study join her assembly, bow to her, and ask about the way. It is just like finding water at the time of thirst.

Zhixian [Guanxi] Of China was a revered teacher in the lineage of Linji.

Once Linji saw Zhixian approaching and grabbed him. Zhixian said, “I understand it.” Linji let him loose and said, “You are free to have a meal here.”

Thus, Zhixian became a student of Linji.

After leaving Linji, he went to see Moshan. She said, “Where are you from?”

Zhixian said, “From the entrance.”

Moshan said, “Why don’t you close it off?”

Zhixian was silent. He made a bow and expressed himself as a student of Moshan’s. Then he asked: “How is Moshan [Mount Mo]?”

Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the buddha way.

Moshan said, “It does not show its peak.”

Zhixian said, “Who is the person inside the mountain?”

Moshan said, “It is beyond man and woman.”

Zhixian said, “How come you don’t change?”

Moshan said, “I am not a wild fox spirit. Why should I change?”

Zhixian bowed. Then he aroused the aspiration for enlightenment and worked as head of the garden for three years.

Later he became the abbot of a monastery and said to the assembly, “I received half a ladle [of gruel] at Old Man Linji’s and another half at Old Woman Moshan’s. So I had a full ladle and have been satisfied up to this moment.”

Now, when we hear this story we long for such an ancient encounter. Moshan was an outstanding student of Gaoan Dayu. Her life vein had the power to become Zhixian’s Old Woman. Linji was an heir of Huangbo, Zen Master Xiyun. His endeavor of the way had the power to become Zhixian’s Old Man. Old Woman means mother, and Old Man means father.

The fact that Zhixian bowed to Nun Liaoran of Moshan and asked for dharma was an excellent example of aspiration, a model for late-comers. It should be called hammering open the gate bar or breaking through a bamboo node.

Nun Miaoxin Was A student of Yangshan. When Yangshan was looking for someone to fill the position of the director of the guest-house at the foot of Mount Yangshan, he asked his senior students, who had served as officers, to make a recommendation. After some discussion, Yangshan said, “Although Miaoxin is a woman, she has heroic aspiration. She should be suited to serve as the director of the guesthouse.”

Everyone agreed, and Miaoxin was appointed to the position. None of Yangshan’s other students resented the decision. As it was not a minor position, those who recommended Miaoxin were careful about this selection.

While Miaoxin filled this position, there was a group of seventeen monks from Shu, in the west, who were on the road in search of a master. On their way to climb up to Yangshan’s monastery, they stopped and stayed at the guesthouse. While they rested in the evening, they discussed the story about the wind and the banner of Huineng, High Ancestor of Caoxi. The seventeen monks’ interpretations were all wrong.

Miaoxin, who overheard the discussion out- side the room, said, “How wasteful! How many pairs of straw sandals have these seventeen blind donkeys worn out? They haven’t even dreamed of buddhadharma.”

Her assistant worker told them that Miaoxin had not approved their understanding. Instead of being upset with her disapproval, the monks were ashamed of their lack of understanding. They got formally dressed, offered incense, bowed, and asked her to teach.

Miaoxin said, “Come closer.”

When the seventeen monks were still get- ting closer, Miaoxin said, “It is not that wind flaps. It is not that the banner flaps. It is not that your mind flaps.”

Hearing her words, all seventeen monks had realization. They thanked her and formally became her students. Soon after, they went back to Shu without climbing up to Yangshan’s monastery. Indeed, this is nothing the bodhisattvas of three classes or ten stages can come up with. It is work transmitted by buddha ancestors from heir to heir.

Thus, even nowadays when the position of abbot or head monk is not filled, you should request a nun who has attained dharma to assume the position. However aged or senior a monk may be, what’s the use of someone who has not attained the way? The master of an assembly should be a person of a clear eye.

Photo by Dietmar Temps

Photo by Dietmar Temps

Those who are drowned in the body and mind of villagers are often so stubborn that even laypeople may ridicule them. It is not worth mentioning in buddha dharma. Some refuse to bow to female teachers who have received dharma transmission. Because these people lack knowledge and study, they are close to animals and far from buddha ancestors.

If such people are deeply determined to throw their body and mind wholeheartedly into buddhadharma, buddhadharma takes pity on them without fail. Foolish humans and devas still have the capacity to feel the truth. How should the authentic dharma of all buddhas not have compassion to respond to sincere hearts? Even mud, rocks, sand, and pebbles have hearts to be affected by sincerity.

Today, nuns stay in monasteries of Great Song. When the attainment of dharma by one of them is acknowledged and she is appointed abbess of a nunnery by the government, she ascends the teaching seat in the monastery where she is staying. All monks, including the abbot, assemble, stand, and listen to her dharma discourse. Some monks ask questions. This has been the custom since ancient times.

One who has attained dharma is a true authentic buddha and should not been regarded as the same as before. When we see the person, someone who is new and extraordinary sees us. When we see the person, today sees today.

When arhats, pratyeka-buddhas, or bodhisattvas of the three stages and ten classes come to a nun who maintains the treasury of the true dharma eye, they should bow and ask about dharma, and she should receive their bow.

Why are men special? Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the buddha way.

Also, Those Who Are Called laity in Song China are people who have not left their households. Some of them are married and have their abodes. Others are celibate but may still have much worldly concern. However, monks with cloud robes and mist sleeves visit laypeople who have clarified dharma, bow to them, and inquire about the way, just as they do to masters who have left their households. They should also do so to accomplished women and even to animals.

On the other hand, even a one-hundred-year-old monk who has not dreamed of the essentials of buddha dharma cannot be closed to men and women who have attained dharma. Such a person should not be respected more than as a host or a guest.

Even seven-year-old girls who practice buddha dharma and express buddha dharma are guiding teachers of the four types of disciples [monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen]; they are compassionate parents of sentient beings. They are like dragon princesses who have attained buddhahood. You should make an offering and respect them just as you respect buddha tathagatas. This is an authentic custom of the buddha way. Those who do not know this custom and do not receive it should be pitied.

Written at the Kannondori Kosho Horin Monastery on the clear-bright day [the fifteenth day from spring solstice], the second year of the En’o Era [1240].

Postscript—There have been women on the throne in Japan and China. The entire land is ruled by the monarch, and all people become her subjects. This is not done to respect the human form but to respect the position. Since of old, nuns have been respected solely for their attainment of dharma, and not for their human form.

Again, if there is a nun who has become an arhat, all the merits that follow the four fruits come and assemble around her. Who among humans and devas comes close to the merits of the four fruits? No devas in the three realms can equal the merits; none of them are worth as much. So, they all revere the merits.

Photo by Dietmar Temps

Photo by Dietmar Temps

Furthermore, who would not revere someone who has aroused the great heart of the bodhisattva and received transmission of the Tathagata’s authentic dharma? Not to revere such a person is naturally ridiculous. Not to revere your own unsurpassable enlightenment is to foolishly slander dharma.

In Japan, some daughters of the emperor or ministers have positions similar to that of the empress. Some empresses hold Buddhist titles. Some of these women have shaven heads and other don’t. Monks who are greedy for fame and love to receive benefits rush to their houses and keep hitting their foreheads on these women’s footwear. This is even lower than being their retainers. There are many of those who become their servants and simply grow old. What a pity that they were born in this remote small nation and are not aware that this is a corrupt custom! This does not happen in India or China, but only in our country. It is lamentable.

They shave their faces and heads in vain and break the Tathagata’s authentic dharma. It is a serious wrongdoing. It is sad that they forget that the worldly path is made of dreams, phantoms, and empty blossoms, and are bound as servants of these women. They act like this for the sake of a worldly path. Why don’t they revere those who should be revered for the sake of unsurpassable enlightenment? They act like this because they have little aspiration to regard dharma as weighty and they are not filled with the aspiration to seek dharma.

When they greedily receive treasures, they think it is justifiable to receive donations, particularly from women. When you seek dharma you should have an aspiration that goes beyond this kind of thinking. If you do so, grass, trees, and walls will give out true dharma; all things in heaven and earth will offer true dharma. This is a principle you should know without fail. Even if you meet a true teacher, if you don’t arouse this aspiration to seek dharma, you won’t receive the benefit of dharma water. Endeavor thoroughly.

Those Who Are Extremely stupid think that women are merely the objects of sexual desire and treat women in this way. The Buddha’s children should not be like this. If we discriminate against women because we see them merely as objects of sexual desire, do we also discriminate against all men for the same reason?

For the cause of defilement, men can be the object, women can be the object, those who are neither men nor women can be the object, phantoms and flowers of emptiness can be the object. There were those who were trapped by impure conduct while looking at images on water or gazing at the sun. Gods can be the objects, demons can be the objects. We cannot finish counting all the causes of impure conduct. It is said that there are eighty-four thousand objects. Do we not look at them or discard them all?

The Precept Scripture says, “The [sexual] use of one of the two parts of a male body or the three parts of a female body is a grave crime. Those who have committed this crime should be expelled from the sangha.” Thus, if we exclude those who become the objects of sexual desire, we have to exclude all men and women so that they have no chance to be ordained. Thoroughly investigate this.

There are men outside the way who have no wives. Although they don’t have wives, if they do not enter buddhadharma, they are those outside the way who hold wrong views.

Among the Buddha’s disciples, there are laymen and laywomen who are married. Although they are married, they are the Buddha’s disciples; no others among humans and devas can stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

There was a foolish monk who made a vow never to look at a woman, birth after birth, world after world. What was this vow based on—the worldly method, buddha dharma, the outsider’s method, or the celestial demon’s method?

What is the fault of women? What is the virtue of men? There are unwholesome men, and there are wholesome women. Hoping to hear dharma and leave the household does not depend on being female or male.

Before becoming free from delusion, men and women are equally not free from delusion. At the time of becoming free from delusion and realizing the truth, there is no difference between men and women.

If you vow for a long time not to look at women, do you leave out women when you vow to save numberless sentient beings? If you do so, you are not a bodhisattva. How can you call it the Buddha’s compassion? This is merely nonsense spoken by a soaking-drunk shravaka. Humans and devas should not believe in such a practice.

If you exclude those who have broken precepts, you may exclude all bodhisattvas. If you exclude those who may break precepts in the future, you may exclude all bodhisattvas who arouse the aspiration for enlightenment. If you exclude them in such a way, you need to exclude everyone. Then, how can buddha dharma be actualized? To make such vows is the mad intention of fools who don’t know buddha dharma. It should be lamented.

If you make such a vow [as not looking at women], is it that Shakyamuni Buddha and all bodhisattvas in his lifetime had broken precepts? Was their aspiration for enlightenment shallower than yours? Quietly ponder this.

Was it not possible for the ancestor who was entrusted with dharma [Mahakashyapa] and all bodhisattvas during the Buddha’s lifetime to practice unless they made such a vow? With such a vow, not only unable to awaken women, you are also unable to go and hear women who have attained dharma and expound dharma for humans and devas. If you don’t go and hear them teach, you are not bodhisattvas but those outside the way.

When we look at Great Song China, there are monks who seem to have trained for a long time merely counting the sands in the ocean [studying letters] and wandering around in the ocean of birth and death. On the other hand, there are women who have studied with teachers, endeavored in the way, and become guiding teachers of humans and devas.

There was an old woman who refused to sell a rice cake [to Deshan] and discarded it. What a pity, there are male monks who count the sands in the ocean of teaching and have never dreamed of buddhadharma!

When you see an object, learn to clarify it. Being scared of it and only trying to avoid it is the teaching and practice of shravakas in the Lesser Vehicle. If you give up the east and hide in the west, it is not that there is no object in the west. Even if you keep escaping, there are objects afar and objects nearby. This is not the way of emancipation. The farther away you push objects, the deeper you may be attached to them.


Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) founded the Soto School of Zen in Japan after traveling to China and training under Rujing, a master of the Chinese Cadong lineage.

From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Volume I, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Copyright ©2010 by the San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted by arrangement of the Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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