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By Sara Isayama

While many people in the West, who practice Buddhism, and Zen, are aware of Dogen’s writings on meditation, they may be much less aware of the mystical side of him.

Dogen was a deeply religious person, with great faith in the Buddha Nature, and was also a very mystical person. In the first article in this series, we talked a bit about why some people may be less aware of some of Dogen’s more mystical sides, and in this article we explore more deeply into some of the visions that Dogen experienced.

Of the many famous visions that appeared to Dogen, one of the most famous, is that of the appearance of 16 Arahants that appeared on the branches of an ancient pine tree in the front of Eiheiji (see the figure below) This vision took place during an Arahant ceremony at Eiheiji, and, during the ceremony, not only did the 16 Arahants appear, but also statues of the Arahants appeared to glow, just as they did in a previous ceremony at a previous temple (at Mount Tiantai).

Dogen took this as an auspicious sign that the offerings of the ceremony had been accepted.

He himself wrote about these experiences here:

“As for other examples of the appearance of auspicious signs, apart from [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the case of] the rock bridge of Mount Tiantai, [in the province] of Taizhou, in the great kingdom of the Song, nowhere else to my knowledge has there been one to compare with this one. But on this mountain [Kichijōsan, the location of Eiheiji] many apparitions have already happened. This is truly a very auspicious sign showing that, in their deep compassion, [the Arahats] are protecting the men and the Dharma of this mountain. This is why it appeared to me.”

Another of the more famous visions of Dōgen, was that of when he was traveling in China. There are several versions of this story, but the oldest on record, found in the *Dōshōan keifu*, talks about how Dōgen, and Dōshō were traveling in China, and Dōgen fell gravely ill. According to the record : “Dōgen was lying on the ground, his ‘body and mind about to leave him’ when an old white-haired woman appeared out of thin air and offered a herbal pill to Dōgen’s companion, Dōshō. Taking the pill from Dōshō, the Zen Master recovered almost immediately.

Seeing Dōgen come back from the brink of death, Dōshō (or Dōgen according to the variant version) pleaded with this mysterious person to reveal who she was and what the formula for making the pill was. She disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared, but not before uttering the formula for the medicine and that she was the Japanese deity Inari in disguise.”¹

This encounter is illustrated in the plate below.


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This herbal pill, known as *Gedokugan,*  later became an important part of the Soto School, and became instrumental in spreading Soto Zen throughout Japan.²

Another such incident occurred, when Dōgen was on the eve of departure from China, and the dragon king Shōhō Shichirō helped Dōgen copy a Buddhist text, and then also helped protect him on his journey home.³ Dogen also had another famous vision that was so powerful, that other people present could also see it, on the journey home, which I will discuss in a later post.

1. This text can be found in manuscript form in the *Dōshōan monjo*, at Eiheiji. For more on this see: Gedokuen: Dōshōan’s ‘Poison-Dissolving’ Medicine. (2003). In B. Faure (Ed.), Grafting the Bodhi tree: The Chan and Zen traditions in ritual and cultural contexts. New York, NY: RoutledgeCurzon.


2. See: Williams, D. R. (2005). The other side of Zen: A social history of Sōtō Zen : Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3. See: Faure, B. (1996). Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


I offer the merit of this post to all beings. May all beings be at peace. May all beings know great compassion, wisdom and joy. Homage to the Buddha. Homage to the Dharma. Homage to the Sangha.


*See Part 1 here.
Sara IsayamaSara Isayama is a Buddhist scholar and layperson, who is a practitioner of the Soto Zen linage of Coadong/Ts’ao-tung Buddhism. She has been a formal Buddhist practitioner for 15 years, having taken the Precepts in 2005 after which spending some time living and training in a monastic environment. She practices in the Manzan line of Soto Zen, in Jiyu-Kennett’s lineage, and lives in Washington State with her spouse. She spends her spare time transcribing obscure Buddhist texts, and writing about the Dharma in the view that the gift of the Dharma excels all other gifts. As a scholar, she has particularly focused on the Buddha’s teachings in the Sutra’s, Dogen and Keizan’s spiritual lives, and the history of Soto Zen and Buddhism in Japan, as well as in China.
Editor: Ty H Phillips