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Dōgen’s Vision of the Environment and his Practice of Devotion and Faith
by Taigen Dan Leighton
from The Theory and Practice of Zen Buddhism: A Festscrift for Steven Heine, edited by Charles Prebish and On-cho Ng (Springer, 2022).


In many of his writings, Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253), considered the founder of the Sōtō branch of Japanese Zen Buddhism, celebrates the natural landscape, sansui, literally mountains and waters. He sees this landscape as an inspiration, but also as an active source and agent of awakening teaching, the Buddha Dharma. While this is implied elsewhere in his writings, one of his essays, Keisei Sanshoku “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains,” serves as an explicit bridge from the realm of nature to the important role of faith, devotion, and religiosity in the practice Dōgen advocates.


Eihei Dōgen’s 1240 essay Keisei Sanshoku “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains” appears in one of his masterworks, Shōbōgenzō “True Dharma Eye Treasury.”[1] Near the beginning of this essay, Dōgen refers to a poem by the great Song dynasty poet Su shi, also known by his literary name Su Dongpo (1037-1101; Jpn.: Sotōba):

The sound of valley streams is the universal long broad tongue.

[or: Buddha’s long broad tongue]

The shape of the mountains is no other than the unconditioned body.

[Realizing this,] eighty-four thousand verses came forth throughout the night.

At some later time, how could I say anything about this?

Su shi was a major Chinese cultural figure, celebrated for his calligraphy and painting as well as being a major statesman who was exiled from the capital twice due to political intrigues. Also a Chan practitioner, he is remembered as one of China’s greatest poets. In this verse, Su shi describes his realization that the voice of ultimate awareness, or the very Buddha, is present in the sound of the flowing mountain streams, and that the form, shape, or colors of the mountains are the body beyond conditioning of a buddha. The ultimate is not at all separate from the phenomenal world, the landscape of nature around us. Not only awakened human sages but the very mountains and waters pour forth exalted inspiration.

With this realization, the great poet felt myriads of verses arising in and flowing forth from him. But simultaneous with this outpouring of awakening expression, the poet pondered how he might ever share this wonderous vision with other beings. This question is identical to the Buddha’s own question upon awakening some twenty-five hundred years ago, whether anyone could ever understand what he had realized, and how he could share this awareness. For Śākyamuni Buddha, this led to an acceptance of his role, expounding the four noble truths, and to a lifetime of a range of skillful teaching throughout what is now India.

After quoting the poem, Dōgen relates that Su shi’s verse was approved by his teacher Zhaojue Changzong (1025-1091; Jpn.: Shokaku Jōso), a disciple of Huanglong Huinan (1002-69; Jpn.: Ōryu E’nan), founder of the Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) branch of Linji/ Rinzai Chan. Dōgen traced his own precepts lineage to both this Huanglong branch of Linji as well as his main Caodong/ Sōtō lineage. The other main Linji lineage, the Yangqi (Willow Branch), was the Linji branch that became predominant in Japanese Rinzai Zen.

Commenting on Su shi’s verse, Dōgen calls it regrettable that mountains and waters conceal the awakened sounds and forms, and yet it is delightful at the time when the sounds of the tongue are finally heard and the forms of the body appear. Dōgen wonders whether these sounds and forms are more intimate when concealed or when apparent. This is a stimulating consideration, as Dōgen often points to the inner closeness or intimacy with oneself promoted by his practice of zazen (seated meditation), and how this intimacy is echoed by practitioners in their active relationship with teachers or in their everyday affairs. Dōgen continues in the essay by affirming that bodhisattvas studying the way must know that mountains flow and waters do not flow. Beyond our conventional conceptions, supposedly static forms such as mountains constantly shift, while ephemeral sounds like the flowing streams are constant.

Previous to his realization celebrated in the verse, Su shi had inquired of Changzong about the story of nonsentient beings expressing the Dharma. This is a crucial story in the Caodong lineage central to the awakening of its founder Dongshan Liangjie (807-869; Jpn: Tōzan Ryōkai).[2] The story is complicated, but briefly, Dongshan inquired of two teachers, Guishan Lingyou (771-854; Jpn.: Isan Reiyū) and then Yunyan Tansheng (781-841; Jpn.: Ungan Donjō), about a prior statement by the National Teacher Nanyang Huizhong (d. 776; Jpn.: Nan’yō Echū). When asked about the mind of the ancient Buddha, Nanyang responded that it was wall and tile rubble, and further that the earth and all supposedly nonsentient beings expound the Dharma ceaselessly.[3] The National Teacher’s statement emerged from the developing discourse in parts of pre-Chan Chinese Buddhism about buddha nature not being restricted to humans or even animals, but also for trees and grasses, and even supposed nonsentient beings, and for some teachers even to the nature of all reality itself.[4] Dōgen developed the buddha nature teaching further, clarifying the non-separation of sentient being-buddha nature, explicated by Dōgen via many classic stories about buddha nature in his celebrated 1241 Shōbōgenzō essay Busshō “Buddha Nature.”[5]

After Dongshan’s inquiries about nonsentient beings expounding reality, Guishan would go on to become a founder of one of the five houses of Chan. Yunyan would become Dongshan’s formal lineage teacher, as they would have further significant interactions. After his dialogue with Yunyan about nonsentient beings, Dongshan had some realization and wrote in a verse, “The Dharma expounded by nonsentient beings is inconceivable. Listening with your ears, no sound. Hearing with your eyes, you directly understand.”[6] Later in 1243 Dōgen wrote about this story of Dongshan and the issues involved in a Shōbōgenzō essay Mujō Seppō “Nonsentient Beings Express the Dharma.”[7]

As he continues to comment on Su shi’s verse in “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains,” Dōgen notes that Su shi did not have any realization after hearing Changzong comment on the story from Dongshan, but later that towering waves struck the sky when Su shi heard the sound of the valley streams. However, Dōgen speculates that it was still his teacher’s previous words mixed with the sounds of the streams that awakened Su shi. The impact of teachers’ Dharma expressions is not necessarily immediate, but may seep unto awareness gradually, like the flowing streams. Dōgen further wonders if it was Su shi who awakened, or the mountains and waters themselves that awakened. Elsewhere Dōgen speaks of mountains and waters not only expressing awakening but awakening themselves through practice.

Aside from Shōbōgenzō, which is written in Japanese, Dōgen’s other massive masterwork is Eihei Kōroku “Dōgen’s Extensive Record,” which includes his writings in Chinese from throughout his career, but predominately includes short formal Dharma hall discourses to his monks, mostly from his later years after he left Kyoto in 1243 for the northern mountains of Echizen, now Fukui. It comprises the majority of his writings from Eiheiji, the temple he established there, still one of the two headquarter temples of Sōtō Zen. One of the verses from the last of the ten volumes of Eihei Kōroku is from his later years when he wrote about his contemplative life in the mountains, and specifically refers to Su shi’s verse. Dōgen wrote:

Sitting as the night gets late, sleep not yet arrived,

Ever more I realize engaging the way is best in mountain forests.

Sound of valley streams enters my ears; moonlight pierces my eyes.

Other than this, not a thought’s in my mind.[8]

Here Dōgen celebrates the sound of the valley streams, echoing the verse that leads off and inspires “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains.” But in that essay the sounds of the streams and the shapes of the mountains provoked a sudden awakening experience for Su shi. In this verse, Dōgen is describing a settled practice place in the mountains and a sustained sitting practice in which the awakening mountain forms and sounds of the valley streams are ever present as ongoing inspirations.


In Keisei Sanshoku “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains” after discussing Su shi’s verse about the sound of the valley streams and the form of the mountains, Dōgen mentions a few other traditional stories of awakening occasioned by natural landscapes. The first two are about prominent disciples of Guishan, who Dongshan had consulted initially in his inquiry about nonsentient beings expressing the Dharma.

The first story involves Xiangyan Zhixian (d. 988, Jpn.: Kyōgen Chikan). Guishan once said to Xiangyan that he was very knowledgeable, but would he say something from before his parents were born. Xiangyan was struck speechless, could find nothing to say. He consulted his large collection of sutras and Buddhist commentaries. Xiangyan was very well read, it’s well known, but was unable to respond at all. Then he burned all his books, saying, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger.” The books were just painted cakes to him, not the experience of the real thing. He gave up study of the way and became a serving monk, working as a kitchen assistant and serving gruel to the monks. He then asked Guishan for some assistance, but Guishan just said, “If I told you, later you would resent me.” After some years Xiangyan departed and served as groundskeeper at the memorial site of the National Teacher Nanyang, whose teaching about nonsentient beings expressing Dharma had impelled Dongshan’s inquiries, first to Guishan.

One of Dōgen’s most memorable Shōbōgenzō essays, Gabyō “Painting of a Rice Cake” from 1242 is based on this story of Xiangyan.[9] Dōgen starts with this saying by Xiangyan about the painted rice cakes not satisfying hunger, and with characteristic, extensive wordplay he proclaims, for example, that a painted rice cake is the moment of realization, totally turning around the saying’s original meaning. Dōgen adds many more such utterances. For painting rice cakes, rice flour is used. A painting of a mountain is made with rocks and trees. A painting of a person is made from the four great elements and the five skandhas. All buddhas are painted buddhas and all painted buddhas are actual buddhas. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. Dōgen ends up saying, “There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger, you never become a true person. There is no understanding other than painted satisfaction.”[10] Dōgen is not rejecting all study of texts, like Xiangyan he was also well-read. But he is certainly pointing to the primacy of actual practice awareness.

As the story of Xiangyan proceeds, one day he was sweeping the ground in a bamboo grove at the memorial site of the National Teacher Nanyang. He swept up a pebble and it knocked against the bamboo. At this sudden sound, Xiangyan was awakened. He faced the direction toward Guishan, and made offerings and did prostrations. Xiangyan wrote a verse that Guishan later approved, including the lines:

With one blow, subject and object vanish.

I no longer practice to solve things on my own.

In all my activities I celebrate the ancient path,

And do not fall into passivity.[11]

Xiangyan’s awakening triggered by the stone and bamboo led to enhanced active devotion to the ancient way.

Lingyun Zhiqin (n.d.; Jpn.: Reiun Shigon), another disciple of Guishan, had practiced for thirty years. Once when traveling in the mountains, Lingyun rested and saw peach blossoms opened in a distant village. He was suddenly awakened. He wrote this verse, later presented to Guishan:

For thirty years I sought a swordsman.

How many times leaves fell and new ones sprouted.

Once seeing the peach blossoms,

Nothing more to doubt.

Guishan responded that those who enter through conditions never regress. Dōgen comments rhetorically, “Does anyone enter except through conditions? Does anyone ever regress?” Thus Dōgen implies here that all awakening is through interaction with the natural landscape of phenomena.

The two stories of disciples of Guishan are followed by a brief exchange with Changsha Jingcen (d. 768; Jpn.: Chōsa Keishin), who was asked by a monk, “How does one return the mountains, rivers, and the great earth to oneself?” Changsha responded, “How does one return oneself to the mountains, rivers, and the great earth?” Dōgen here reaffirms and emphasizes the intimate relationship between people and the whole natural environment. Changsha had moreover emphasized the need for the practitioner to actively engage that relationship.[12]

These stories all point to the importance of the natural, phenomenal world as a focus and trigger of awakening. However, one of the most influential early commentaries on the Shōbōgenzō is by the fifth abbot of Eiheiji, Giun (1253-1333), consisting of four-line verses for each of the sixty-essay edition of Shōbōgenzō. This commentary became the only one studied until the 17th century. Giun’s verse on Keisei Sanshoku directly echoes Su shi’s verse, but begins with the capping phrase, “Transcends seeing and surpasses hearing.”[13] This capping phrase points to something beyond perception, which resonates with Dōgen’s early teaching of the self-fulfillment samādhi, to be discussed in the next section, and leads into aspects of the later devotional sections of Keisei Sanshoku.

After all the previous stories in the Keisei Sanshoku essay, Dōgen goes on to speak about the situation of his contemporary practitioners in Japan and to the serious dangers to practitioners of seeking fame and gain. Amid these reflections are embedded Dōgen’s expressions of the importance of vow, faith, repentance, and confession. These devotional concerns in Keisei Sanshoku have been integrated into a chant used in modern Sōtō liturgy. Before returning to focus on Dōgen’s celebration of the process of faith, I will look at two other Shōbōgenzō essays that amplify and deepen Dōgen’s related vision of the critical importance of the natural landscape.


The young Dōgen returned from four years of practice in China in 1227 “with empty hands,” but with transmission in the Caodong/ Sōtō lineage and with a new approach to zazen, seated meditation practice. One of his first major writings, in 1231, was Bendōwa “Talk on Wholehearted Practice of the Way.”[14] It was not part of the early editions of Shōbōgenzō, although it is part of the modern inclusive ninety-five essay editions. Bendōwa expresses Dōgen’s vision and proclamation of the inner deep meaning of zazen, especially in the portion of the essay called jijuyu zanmai, the “Self-Fulfillment or Self-Enjoyment Samādhi (meditation),” which is chanted as part of modern Sōtō liturgy.

This “Self-Fulfillment Samādhi” claims an extraordinary relationship between practice and the natural landscape, the world of phenomena. Dōgen says, “When one displays buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samādhi for even a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes awakening.”[15] This proclamation is an extraordinary, radical perspective, inconceivable to conventional logic. Stating that by taking the posture and attitude. or mudra, of a buddha in body and mind, even for a short time, one effects the awakening of all phenomena and of all space itself, Dōgen removes this practice from the realm of self-help or of the personal self at all. For him this practice is intimately connected with the whole environment of the practitioner. In many ways the whole body of Dōgen’s work in the rest of his life might be seen as commentary on this one sentence. This radical claim is amplified further in the passages that immediately follow this sentence.

Dōgen goes on to say that the zazen practitioner and the awakening of all things “intimately and imperceptibly assist each other.” At this time “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out buddha work, therefore everyone receives the benefit.” In this early writing Dōgen is exposing a reality in which humans and the natural landscape are not only intimately interrelated, but actually are mutually supportive and assist each other. This imperceptible mutual assistance between practitioner and the environment is an extraordinary viewpoint. The world supports us and we support the world when we express this awakened presence. All are involved in the “buddha work.” Furthermore, this mutual interaction is not only between humans and the so-called natural world of earth, grasses, and trees, but for Dōgen also interactive with fences, walls, and tiles, what we might think of as “unnatural” human-made artifacts. This echoes the subject of Dongshan’s early inquiry about nonsentient beings expounding the Dharma. Dongshan cited the response of the National Teacher Nanyang about the mind of the ancient Buddha as wall and tile rubble.

In this writing about the function of zazen and the awakening of all space, or reality, Dōgen is speaking about the natural landscape, but also the whole phenomenal world as including humans, who are implicated in the natural landscape and the meaning of zazen practice. He echoes or foreshadows the subtle, ephemeral beauty of the landscape paintings of China and Japan, in which humans are subtly included. The people appear therein as small figures, pilgrims walking along trails or sitting in hermitages, blended in amid the much vaster landscapes. People are integrated with the natural landscape of mountains and waters, but only as one element, not as the masters or stewards of the environment, but capable of mutual interactive guidance with the natural world.


One of Dōgen’s key works describing the richness of our landscape is the lengthy Shōbōgenzō essay, Sansuikyō “The Mountains and Waters Sutra” from 1240, his only writing that he designates as a sutra.[16] It is recorded as having been presented later in the same year as the Keisei Sanshoku where Dōgen discussed Su shi’s verse on the sound of the streams and the forms of the mountains. Thereby we might well see this “Mountain and Water Sutra” as an extension of Keisei Sanshoku. However, it must be noted that Dōgen was continuously re-editing many of his Shōbōgenzō essays throughout his life. Earlier or later passages from these various renditions are still being found in attics of Sōtō temples. Versions published in the modern ninety-five fascicle editions, which may be especially relevant for issues addressed here in Keisei Sanshoku, might not reflect the original 1240 essays.[17]

It is far beyond the scope of this chapter to offer a full discussion of Dōgen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” fully worthy of the sutra designation, but I will simply mention several passages that express Dōgen’s vision of the natural landscape and the interplay and function of mountains and waters. Dōgen’s essay might alternatively be translated simply as the “Landscape Sutra,” as sansui, literally mountains and water, as a compound means “landscape.”

“The Mountains and Waters Sutra” commences with another of Dōgen’s radical assertions, “The mountains and waters of the immediate present are the actualization of the path of the ancient buddhas. Together occupying their own dharma positions, they have fulfilled the virtues of thorough exhaustiveness. Because they have been active since before the kalpa of emptiness, they are the livelihood of the immediate present. Because they are the self since before any subtle signs emerge, they are the penetrating liberation of actual occurrence.” Dōgen here expresses the ontological primacy of the mountains and waters and of the natural landscape as the present manifestation of the awakening process of all buddhas. He places this landscape prior to all temporality, while also embodying all time. The concrete landscape of mountains and waters functions as the substantiation of ultimate reality. It may be seen as the Dharmakaya, the awakened body of all reality. Thus this landscape expresses for Dōgen the self that precedes and includes all limited selves.

The next section introduces the theme of mountains walking, expressed in the utterance of the important Caodong lineage teacher Furong Daokai (1043-1118; Jpn.: Fuyo Dōkai), who established standards for monasticism in the Caodong/ Sōtō tradition. Furong Daokai said, “The green mountains are constantly walking. A stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.”  Dōgen comments in various ways, “Mountains lack none of their proper qualities; accordingly, they are constantly settled and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking. The walking of the mountains is like that of people. Do not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to walk like humans. … Because the green mountains are walking, they are constant, and their walk is swifter than the wind; yet those in the mountains do not notice this, do not know it.” The mountains, our image of stability, indeed are constantly eroding, and the animals, trees, and even rocks that are their surface features, their skins, are constantly shifting, albeit at varying paces. In geological time scales, mountains and even continents certainly move here and there.

Dōgen continues, “They who doubt that the mountains walk do not yet understand their own walking. It is not that they do not walk, but that they do not yet understand and have not yet clarified walking itself.[18] To understand one’s own walking one must also understand the walking of the green mountains. The green mountains are neither sentient nor nonsentient; the self is neither sentient nor nonsentient. Therefore, we can have no doubts about these green mountains walking. We do not realize that we must clarify the green mountains on the basis of innumerable dharma realms.” From the perspective of a sutra, or from multiple phenomenal realms, our existence, while smaller and shorter than that of mountains, walks alongside mountains, even if we are on such a different scale as to make this imperceptible to us. But Dōgen appeals to a radical imagination.

In Dōgen’s “Mountains and Water Sutra,” as for mountains so for water. Further along in the essay, he says, “Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor awakening. Frozen, it is harder than diamond; who could crack it? Melted, it is softer than milk; who could break it? This being the case, we cannot doubt the many qualities it realizes.” After surveying the range and fluidity of the forms of water, Dōgen turns to how it is apprehended by varying beings. “Seeing mountains and rivers differs according to the type of being seeing them. There are beings who see what we call water as a jeweled necklace. This does not mean, however, that they see a jeweled necklace as water. How, then, do we see what they consider water? Their jeweled necklace is what we see as water. Or, again some see water as wondrous flowers, though it does not follow that they use flowers as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging flames or as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see water as a palace or a pavilion, or as the seven treasures or jewels. Others see water as woods and walls, or as the dharma nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and essence of mind. Men see these as water. And these different ways of seeing are the conditions under which water is dead or alive. Thus, what different types of beings see is different; and we should reflect on this fact. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?” Here Dōgen demonstrates the paltry limitations of our conventional human perceptions and viewpoints, but also he opens up possibilities for many wider varying awarenesses.

Toward the end of this colorful and provocative essay, Dōgen declares, “It is not the case simply that there is water in the world; within the realm of water there are worlds. And this is true not only within water: within clouds as well there are worlds of sentient beings, within wind, within fire, within earth there are worlds of sentient beings. Within the dharma realm there are worlds of sentient beings, within a single blade of grass, within a single staff there are worlds of sentient beings. And wherever there are worlds of sentient beings, there, inevitably, is the world of buddhas and ancestors.” Dōgen adds, “As for mountains, there are mountains hidden in jewels, there are mountains hidden in swamps, mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness.” Here Dōgen opens up the deep complexity, interconnectedness, and mutuality of mountains, waters, and all entities, including even human beings. Within all these realms and dimensions buddhas exist and function, though often hidden, beyond the capacity of beings’ awareness.

American Zen pioneer and poet Gary Snyder in his masterpiece The Practice of the Wild has an illuminating chapter commenting directly on Dōgen’s “Mountains and Water Sutra.” Snyder notes, “One does not need to be a specialist to observe that landforms are a play of stream-cutting and ridge-resistance and that waters and hills interpenetrate in endlessly branching rhythms. The Chinese feel for land has always incorporated this sense of a dialectic of rock and water, of downward flow and rocky uplift, and of the dynamism and ‘slow flowing’ of earth-forms.” Snyder here clarifies the literal dynamic interplay and functioning of mountains and waters underlying all their metaphoric resonances in Dōgen’s sutra. Snyder adds, “’Mountains and waters’ is a way to refer to the totality of the process of nature. As such it goes well beyond dichotomies of purity and pollution, natural and artificial. The whole, with its rivers and valleys, obviously includes farms, fields, villages, cities, and the (once comparatively small) dusty world of human affairs.”[19] Snyder’s comments clarifying mountains and waters as the expression of totality set the stage for Su shi’s sudden realization of the streams’ sounds as the voice of the ultimate and the mountains’ forms as the very body of awakening. Su shi’s resulting poetic outpouring flows on through the ages, for example in the writings of Eihei Dōgen and Gary Snyder.


Returning to the essay Keisei Sanshoku “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains,” after the first section with Su shi’s verse and the traditional stories of awakening experiences in the world of natural phenomena, what follows takes an interesting turn. The second portion of the essay proceeds by affirming that thanks to the virtue of the sounds of the valley streams and the colors of the mountains, the great earth and all sentient beings simultaneously attain the way and countless buddhas awaken upon seeing the morning star. This is clearly not a matter of merely personal liberation. Dōgen urges his contemporaries to be inspired by these examples and strongly warns against concern for fame and gain. He expresses special concern for people of Japan, and laments that they do not seek the Dharma simply for the sake of Dharma, but instead seek personal praise.

Dōgen then introduces encouragements to arouse the vow to aspire for awakening. The rest of the Keisei Sanshoku essay intersperses warnings against practice aimed at seeking personal gain with devotional encouragements for arousing vow, confessing the patterns of misguided, unwholesome karma, and arousing faith. Many of these devotional passages are compiled in a separate text, Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon “Great Ancestor Eihei’s Words for Arousing the Vow,” which is part of Sōtō liturgy.

The devotional material in Keisei Sanshoku begins: “As soon as you arouse the aspiration for awakening, even if you transmigrate in the six realms and four forms of birth, transmigration itself will become practical vows of awakening. Although you may have wasted time so far, before this present life ends you should immediately vow, ‘Together with all sentient beings may I hear the true dharma from this birth throughout future births.” In keeping with contemporary Buddhist cosmology, Dōgen’s vow applies to his concern for assuring his beneficial activity in whatever future realms he is born into. He continues, “When I hear the true dharma, I will not doubt or distrust it. When I encounter the true dharma, I will relinquish ordinary affairs and uphold the buddha dharma. Thus, may I realize the way together with the great earth and all sentient beings.’ This vow is the ground for genuine aspiration. Do not slacken in this determination.”

Dōgen emphasizes a vow that includes all beings and extends through all time. Immediately thereafter, Dōgen notes that Japan is a remote country and Japanese people are extremely ignorant. He warns those who aspire to the way and to awakening to keep their practice private, not to seek praise for their practice. He recounts examples going back to the time of Śākyamuni Buddha in India of people who sought praise or rewards for their practice. Dōgen describes seeking fame and gain by practitioners as a disease, and he recommends instead the admirable aspiration to seek the way joyfully. He speaks about the legendary Chan founder Bodhidharma, and how the leading teachers of the time in China, Bodhiruci and Guangtong, proud of their status, attacked Bodhidharma “like wild animals.” He warns that the merit of practice may lead to worldly power, but this is a trap that leads away from true understanding and practice.

Most of the rest of the Keisei Sanshoku invokes devotional practice. The text proceeds: “Endeavor wholeheartedly to follow the path of earlier sages. You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way. Look for a teacher and search for understanding with all-encompassing effort, as they come down from the heavens or emerge from the earth. When you encounter the teacher as they invoke sentient beings as well as nonsentient beings, hear them with the body, and listen with the mind. To hear with the ear is an everyday matter, but to hear with the eye is not always so. When you see buddha, you see self-buddha and other-buddha, a large buddha or a small buddha. Do not be frightened by a large buddha. Do not be contemptuous of a small buddha. Just see large and small buddhas as valley sounds and mountain colors, as the broad long tongue and as eighty-four thousand verses. This is liberation, this is complete seeing. … An earlier buddha said: ‘It covers heaven, it encompasses the earth.’ This is the purity of the spring pine and magnificence of autumn chrysanthemums.” Here Dōgen emphasizes the role of a good teacher, and compares their function to the seasonal splendors of the natural world.

Dōgen then warns that any who who have not realized this awareness should not guide others, lest they harm these students. Much of what follows is incorporated in the “Eihei Kōso Hotsuganmon.” He states that those who are lazy or insincere should earnestly repent before the buddhas. “Doing so, the power of repentance will rescue and purify you. This power will nurture faith and effort free from hindrance. Once pure faith emerges, self and others are simultaneously transformed. This benefit reaches both sentient and nonsentient beings. Repenting, one declares: ‘Although my past unwholesome actions have accumulated, causing hindrance in the study of the way, may buddhas and ancestors release me from the burden of these actions, and liberate me. May the merit of practicing dharma fill inexhaustible phenomenal worlds, and may compassion be extended to me.’” Although invoking buddhas and ancestors for support, Dōgen’s faith is not merely belief in some external entities, but confidence in the possibilities of awakening and universal liberation. His repentance and confession are not about some fundamental sin or guilt, but of habitual karmic patterns that obstruct practical ability to foster awakening in self or others.

Dōgen continues expressing this faith, “Before awakening, buddha ancestors were as we. Upon awakening, we shall come to be buddha ancestors. When you look at buddha ancestors you are a buddha ancestor. When you look at their aspiration for awakening, you have the aspiration. Working with compassion this way and that, you achieve facility and you drop off facility. Accordingly, Longya (835-923; Jpn.: Ryūge) said:[20]

If you did not attain awakening in the past, do so now.

Liberate this body that is the culmination of many lifetimes.

Before awakening, ancient buddhas were like us.

When awakened we will be like those of old.

“This is the understanding of a realized buddha. We should reflect on it. This is the exact point of a realized buddha. With repentance you will certainly receive invisible help from buddha ancestors. Confess to the buddhas with mind and body. The power of repentance melts the roots of unwholesomeness. This is the single color of true practice, the true mind of faith, the true body of faith.”

How these encouragements to faith and repentance relate to the appreciation and connection to the natural landscape invoked in the first part of the essay may not be immediately clear. In his brief closing to the essay Dōgen says, “When you have true practice, then valley stream sounds and colors, mountain colors and sounds all reveal the eighty-four thousand verses. When you are free from fame, profit, body, and mind, the valley streams and mountains are also free and generous. Through the night the valley stream sounds and mountain colors do and do not actualize the eighty-four thousand verses. When your capacity to talk about valley streams and mountains as valley streams and mountains is not yet mature, who can see and hear you as valley stream sounds and mountain colors?”

It is striking that an essay that initially focuses on the awakening power and wonder of the natural landscape, embodied in the shapes and colors of mountains and the sounds of valley streams, should culminate in a call for repentance of karmic transgressions and for the importance of faith. The relationship of appreciation of the natural environment to devotional practices such as repentance and confession would not necessarily seem obvious to traditional Western perspectives, and not to a conventional view of Zen Buddhist practice. Perhaps more expected responses to the power of nature are expressed by Su shi’s verse in a sense of wonder and awe. One might also anticipate a spiritual sense of deep gratitude at this experience. But Su shi invokes a related sense of responsibility to share this awakening with others. “At some later time, how could I say anything about this?” Xiangyan similarly seems impelled by the pebble striking bamboo to devoting himself to sharing this awareness. In another dialogue mentioned by Dōgen earlier in the essay, Changsha asked, “How does one return oneself to the mountains, rivers, and the great earth?” It is the responsibility invoked in this question that Dōgen emphasizes in the second half of Keisei Sanshoku.

Dōgen examines the actual practices of sharing the awakening process with others. He emphasizes how self-aggrandizement hinders spreading of the true practice. Deeply embedded karmic habits of seeking fame and gain are obstructions and require, along with clear awareness, repentance and confession to uproot. Dōgen recommends calling on the example and inspiration of the ancestral teachers and their dedication. Even while exalting these ancestral teachers, he expresses their humanity, their fundamental congruity with his current students and their capacities. Dōgen affirms that with such trust, that with expressions of repentance and faith, practitioners might actually be able to express something to encourage others in this process. Thus, we can see Dōgen’s exhortations to repentance and devotion as actual practical instructions in response to Su shi’s question, how to share with others the wonders of the mountain colors as the form of the Buddha body and the sound of the valley streams as the Buddha’s voice. Here Dōgen provides a link between his own deep appreciation of our environmental landscape, common to his Japanese culture, and devotional religious practices that support this awareness of interconnectedness and responsibility.


Much of the last devotional section of Keisei Sanshoku is incorporated in a Sōtō shū liturgical text called Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon “Great Ancestor Eihei [Dōgen’s] Words for Arousing Vow.” The historical relationship between the two texts is unclear. It might seem reasonable to speculate that the liturgical text was extracted from some edition of the Shōbōgenzō essay. At least the original rendition of Keisei Sanshoku was reportedly compiled in 1239 or 1240, but Dōgen regularly revised these essays throughout his life. In a personal communication, William Bodiford reported that at least part of the Hotsuganmon text is from a piece of paper in Dōgen’s calligraphy from late 1247 written in Kamakura. Dr. Bodiford speculates that this Hotsuganmon was incorporated into a version of Keisei Sanshoku sometime between 1248 and 1252.[21] However, in a later discussion Bodiford admitted to uncertainty about the chronology.

Here is a translation of the Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon:

We vow together with all beings, from this life on throughout numerous lifetimes, not to fail to hear the true dharma. Hearing this we will not be skeptical and will not be without faith. Directly upon encountering the true dharma, we will abandon mundane affairs and uphold and maintain the buddhadharma; and finally, together with the great earth and all animate beings, we will accomplish the Way.

Although our previous unwholesome karma has greatly accumulated, producing causes and conditions that obstruct the Way, may the buddhas and ancestors who have attained the buddha way be compassionate to us and liberate us from our karmic entanglements, allowing us to practice the Way without hindrance. May the merit and virtue of their dharma gate fill and refresh the inexhaustible dharma realm, so that they share with us their compassion. Ancient buddhas and ancestors were as we; we shall come to be buddhas and ancestors. Venerating buddhas and ancestors, we are one with buddhas and ancestors; contemplating awakening mind, we are one with awakened mind. Compassionately admitting seven and accomplishing eight obtains advantage and lets go of advantage.

Accordingly, Longya said:
“What in past lives was not yet complete, now must be complete.
In this life save the body coming from accumulated lives.
Before awakening ancient buddhas were the same as we.
After awakening we will be exactly as those ancient ones.”

Quietly studying and mastering these causes and conditions, one is fully informed by the verified buddhas. With this kind of repentance certainly will come the inconceivable guidance of buddha ancestors. Confessing to buddha with mindful heart and dignified body, the strength of this confession will eradicate the roots of wrongdoing. This is the one color of true practice, of the true mind of faith, of the true body of faith.[22]

Whatever the relationship and chronology between Keisei Sanshoku and Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon, the latter is almost certainly attributable to Dōgen himself. Such short Hotsuganmon texts existed in China, Korea, and Japan before Dōgen, and were written by a number of early Sōtō successors of Dōgen, very likely inspired by him.[23] The phrase hotsuganmon was used in a number of Mahāyāna Sutras for passages in which particular buddhas, such as Amitabha, or bodhisattvas, such as Samantbhadra, aroused particular sets of vows. But Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan sources refer to numbers of short texts called hotsuganmon by historical figures describing particular expressions of vows. Among those that might have inspired Dōgen are the hotsuganmon texts by the early Chan master Yongjia Xuanjie (675-713; Jpn.: Yōka Genkaku) and by his contemporary, the Korean Huayan (Hwaeom) master Uisang (675-702).[24] Yongjia, a successor of the Chan Sixth Ancestor, is best known for his long poem “Song of Awakening,” and he was cited six times by Dōgen in his Eihei Kōroku. Yongjia’s hotsuganmon is five and a half times longer than Dōgen’s. It features detailed descriptions of what positive qualities Yongjia hopes to receive in his future lives in order that he may have happy circumstances, serve Buddha, and help awaken suffering beings. He also details qualities he wishes to avoid, such as stinginess, and not to suffer many particular hellish consequences. Here is a small sample from near the beginning of Yongjia’s hotsuganmon, somewhat similar in tone to Dōgen:

I now bow my head to the ground, taking refuge in the Three Treasures.

Universally, for all living beings, I give rise to bodhicitta.

For all those living beings drowning in the sea of suffering,

may all buddhas, the dharma, and sangha bring forth their power.

May kindness, compassion, and skillful means uproot all suffering,

without giving up the expansive vow to aid all living beings.

By the transforming power of unhindered salvation without exhaustion,

may living beings as numerous as the sands of the Ganges attain true awakening.

I speak this verse:

I repeatedly bow my head to the ground, taking refuge in all buddhas in the ten directions

and three times, the dharma and sangha, receiving the power of the Three Treasures.

With determined heart, giving rise to the vow to practice unsurpassed bodhi,

I now resolve to give over this life to reach the completion of true awakening.[25]

Dōgen may have also been inspired by important Japanese Buddhist predecessors who wrote hotsuganmon texts. The great Saichō (767-822), founder of the Tendai school in which Dōgen was initially ordained, was reportedly the author of the Rōzan Hotsuganmon that Dōgen may likely have known, although Saichō’s authorship has been questioned by modern scholars.[26] Closer in time to Dōgen, Jōkei (1155-1213) an influential teacher of the traditional Japanese Hossō or Yogacara school also wrote a hotsuganmon text.[27]

A few important followers of Dōgen in the century after his life wrote short hotsuganmon texts that survive.[28] These included his immediate disciple Kangan Giin (1217-1300), who visited China after Dōgen’s death and returned to establish an important, still surviving branch of Sōtō in Kyushu, the Japanese Southern island. The fifth abbot of Eiheiji, Giun (1253-1333), aside from his hotsuganmon text, wrote an important commentary in verse form on the sixty chapter version of Shōbōgenzō, which remained the primary commentary on Dōgen for centuries.[29] Keizan Jōkin (1268-1335) is the third generation successor of Dōgen and is considered the second founder of Sōtō Zen, responsible for its wide spread, and also wrote a short hotsuganmon text. Here is Kangan Giin’s complete hotsuganmon, similar in sincerity and devotion to Dōgen’s:

In the authentic sanzen of China, it is necessary above all to arouse sincere heart and pure vow, to put yourself in the sight of the buddha ancestors, offer incense and make prostrations, and entreat the buddhas. May the ocean of vows of the three jewels be dedicated to this body received from our father and mother. May lack of faith in every fluctuation or condition be wiped away, and from our current body until reaching the buddha body may we serve buddha and not be separated from the buddha dharma through lifetimes and generations of birth and death. May we fully liberate sentient beings from all locales and situations without becoming weary. Whether atop the sharp trees of sword mountain or inside a fiery furnace of molten iron [in hell realms], simply hold this true dharma eye treasury [shōbōgenzō], taking responsibility and managing it everywhere. Humbly we request the buddha ancestors, who have verified the three jewels, to protect and attend to this.[30]


The hotsuganmon texts are a traditional devotional form that long preceded Dōgen and that he perpetuated such that some of his successors continued them. Whether the Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon text was extracted from the Shōbōgenzō essay Keisei Sanshoku “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains” or inserted into a later version, the full essay that exists today links together both traditional stories celebrating the virtues and liberative impacts of the natural landscape and Dōgen’s devotional invocation of vows and karmic repentance. Su shi’s dramatic realization sparked by the sounds of the valley streams and the shape of the mountains inspired both Su shi and Dōgen. In many of his writings Dōgen speaks of the inspiration from the natural landscape and his deep sense of wonder and gratitude.

Dōgen’s radical view of the environmental landscape and its liberative power is not limited to the traditional anecdotes of awakening experiences in the essay “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains.” In the “Self-Fulfillment Samādhi” section of Bendōwa he proclaims the active but imperceptible mutual guidance of practitioner and environment, with space or reality itself awakening. In the “Mountains and Waters Sutra” Sansuikyō he reveals the subtle interplay and nuanced functioning of the landscape that is the backdrop for the practice he expounds. Throughout these expressions are invocations of gratitude to the buddhas and ancestors and to the beauty and inspiration of the landscape. But in “The Sound of the Streams, the Shape of the Mountains” Keisei Sanshoku, the text’s celebration of natural landscape links directly, seamlessly to a devotional call to dedication and to vows of beneficial awakening activity for all beings and repentance of hindrances from personal karma that obstruct such vows. Thereby appreciation of nature and devotional practice, including even repentance and confession, are intertwined for Dōgen.


[1] Yaoko Mizuno, ed. Shōbōgenzō, vol. 2 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1993) 107-27. Excerpts herein are my own renderings except where noted. I have consulted the following translations. Thomas Cleary, trans. Rational Zen: The Mind of Dōgen Zenji (Boston: Shambhala, 1993) 116-96. Francis Cook, trans. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002). Originally published (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978) 101-14. Kazuaki Tanahashi, trans, and ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Vol. 1 (Boston: Shambhala, 2010) 85-94. Gudō Wafu Nishijima and Chōdō Cross, trans. Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1 (Woods Hole, MA: Windbell Publications, 1994) 85-96. Shōbōgenzō consists of various historical compilations of many of Dōgen’s essays. The largest version, referred to here, includes ninety-five essays.
[2] Taigen Dan Leighton, Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness (Boston: Shambhala, 2015), chapter one, “Nonsentient Beings Expounding the Dharma,” 19-32.
[3] William Powell, trans. The Record of Tung-shan (University of Hawaii Press, 1986) 24.
[4] Leighton, Just This Is It, 21-25.
[5] Mizuno, Shōbōgenzō, vol. 1, 72-126. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe. The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002) 59-98. Nishijima and Cross, Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 2, 1-32.
[6] Leighton, Just This Is It, 26.
[7] Mizuno, Shōbōgenzō, vol. 3, 54-73. Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 548-57. Nishijima and Cross, Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 3, 113-124.
[8] Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans. Dōgen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of Eihei Kōroku (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010) 639.
[9] Mizuno, Shōbōgenzō, vol. 2, 97-106. Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 444-49. Nishijima and Cross, Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 2, 277-84.
[10] Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 449.
[11] Leighton and Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record, 411.
[12] Changsha, disciple of Nanquan (748-835; Jpn.: Nansen) and Dharma brother of Zhaozhou (778-897; Jpn.: Jōshu), was the teacher who encouraged students to take a step from the top of a hundred-foot pole.
[13] Steven Heine, Flowers Blooming on a Withered Tree: Giun’s Verse Comments on Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020) 128.
[14] Mizuno, Shōbōgenzō, vol. 1, 11-49. Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton, The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa With Commentary by Kōshō Uchiyama Roshi (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1997). Waddell and Abe. The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, 7-30. Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 3-22. Nishijima and Chōdō Cross, trans. Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1, 1-23.
[15] Okumura and Leighton, The Wholehearted Way, 22. The Self-Fulfillment Samādhi is the section beginning, “For all ancestors and buddhas who have been dwelling …” and ends with the beginning of the long section of questions and answers.
[16] Mizuno, Shōbōgenzō, vol. 2, 184-204. Thomas Cleary, trans. Shōbōgenzō: Zen Essays by Dōgen. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991) 87-101. Carl Bielefeldt, trans. “Sansuikyō” in Shohaku Okumura, The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dōgen’s “Sansuikyō” (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2018) 15-36. Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, 154-164. Nishijima and Chōdō Cross, trans. Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo. Book 1, 167–179. Excerpts provided in this section are the author’s renderings, with above translations consulted.
[17] I am indebted to personal communications with William Bodiford for clarification of this process and the complexity of dating Shōbōgenzō fascicles. See also William Bodiford “Textual Genealogies of Dōgen” in Steven Heine, Dōgen: Textual and Historical Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) 15-41. Steven Heine has offered much helpful work on the variety of Shōbōgenzō editions, for example in Flowers Blooming on a Withered Tree, and in Steven Heine, Readings of Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).
[18] For a highly illuminating study of human walking, see Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). Solnit is herself a zazen practitioner.
[19] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1990) 109. See also Snyder’s monumental book-length poem, at least partially inspired by Dōgen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996).
[20] Longya Judun (Jpn.: Ryūge Koton) was a successor of Caodong/ Sōtō founder Dongshan Liangjie. Dōgen praises Longya highly as a founding ancestor of his family lineage, see Leighton and Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record, 315-316.
[21] In his personal communication, William Bodiford noted that this explanation for the source of Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon from a 1247 writing from Kamakura is from a brief explanation from Ito Shūken in Dōgen Zenji Zenshū, vol. 7.
[22] For this translation by Taigen Dan Leighton, see: For an alternate translation, background, and sources see Shōhaku Okumura. “Original Vow and Personal Vow” in Shōhaku Okumura et al, Boundless Vows, Endless Practice: Bodhisattva Vows in the 21st Century (Bloomington, Indiana: Sanshin Zen Community Dōgen Institute, 2018) 3-5. Eihei Kōsō Hotsuganmon is included in Eihei Koso Gosuikun (Instructions by High Ancestor Eihei) published by Eiheiji in 1976.
[23] I am deeply indebted and grateful to Korin Charlie Pokorny, fellow faculty member of the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, for his unpublished extensive research into hotsuganmon texts. I am citing in what follows in this chapter only a small fraction of what he uncovered. Also very helpful was supplementary research by Kokyo Henkel.
[24] See Hwaŏm i: The Mainstream Tradition, , in: The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Edited by Richard D. McBride II.
[25] From a draft translation by Kokyo Henkel, used by permission, from Taisho Volume 48, Text 2023 (1064b16 – 1065a28).
[26] See Paul Groner, Saichō: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series, 1984) 208n, for this text’s source, and Groner’s claim of its unreliability.
[27] See James L. Ford, “Jōkei and the Rhetoric of ‘Other-Power’ and ‘Easy Practice’ in Medieval Japanese Buddhism” in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/2 (Spring, 2002), 67-106. The text is called the Busshari Kannon Daishi Hotsuganmon “Vow to the [Buddha’s] Relics and the Great Sage Kannon.”
[28] For hotsuganmon texts and backgrounds for Giun, Kangan Giin, and Keizan Jōkin, see Okumura, “Original Vow and Personal Vow” in Okumura et al, Boundless Vows, Endless Practice, 17-28.
[29] Heine, Flowers Blooming on a Withered Tree.
[30] Translation by Taigen Dan Leighton. See also Okumura, “Original Vow and Personal Vow” in Okumura et al, Boundless Vows, Endless Practice, 23.