Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma
Book 9

Old Buddha Mind
(Kobutsu shin)

Translated by
Carl Bielefeldt



According to its colophon, the Old Buddha Mind (Kobutsu shin, also sometimes read Kobusshin) was delivered in the fourth month of 1243, at Rokuharamitsuji, an old temple in the eastern part of Kyoto. In Dôgen's day, this section of the city was dominated by local representatives of the new warrior administration recently established in Kamakura; and it is thought that Dôgen was invited to teach there by his chief patron in the administration, Hatano Yoshishige, who maintained a residence in the neighborhood.

Several months before he delivered the Old Buddha Mind, Dôgen had taught the Zenki at this residence. These two texts are among the shortest in the Shôbôgenzô, perhaps a reflection of the attention span of an audience that may have included Hatano's warrior colleagues. They are also among the last teachings Dôgen would deliver in the capital: three months after producing the Old Buddha Mind, he was on his way to Hatano's home district of Echizen, where he would subsequently establish his community at Eiheiji.

The text of the Old Buddha Mind is divided into two sections -- the first dealing with the term "old buddha" (kobutsu); the second, with the title theme itself. In the former section, Dôgen is at pains to distinguish his sense of "old buddha" from that in common use in the broader Buddhist community, where it typically refers to the buddhas of the past -- i.e., the sequence of seven buddhas culminating in Sâkyamuni. Dôgen introduces here the Zen use of the term in reference to the ancestors of the tradition and argues (to a Japanese audience for which these would have been somewhat novel claims) that all the great masters of the tradition should be understood as buddhas, that there can be more than one such buddha in the world at the same time, and that such buddhas are not merely past but occur throughout (and beyond) past and present. He then goes on to cite and comment on several examples of the Zen usage of "old buddha."

The second section of the text turns to the title theme. Here, the discussion focuses especially on the famous saying by the Sixth Ancestor's disciple Nanyang Huizhong (d. 775) that the old buddha mind is "fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles." In his comments, Dôgen plays freely with the expression "old buddha mind," resolving it into the "old buddha" that expresses himself as the world, the "old mind" that enacts and verifies the buddha, the "mind buddha" that is always old, and even the curious locution "buddha old" (sic) that forms the mind. He then goes on to warn us not to take the "fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles" of this saying for granted but to study what they really are.

Finally, after brief comments on the saying by the Tang-dynasty figure Jianyuan Zhongxing that the "old buddha mind" means "the world collapses in ruins," Dôgen returns to his opening theme to remind us that the old buddha mind occurs both before and after the seven buddhas, and (lest we think we have understood it) that the old buddha mind is "sloughed off" before the old buddha mind.

In the following translation, based on the text appearing in Dharma Eye 13 (autumn 2003), we have kept the annotation to a minimum. A more fully annotated version will subsequently appear here. For other English translations of this chapter of the Shôbôgenzô, see Kôsen Nishiyama and John Stevens, Shôbôgenzô, volume 1 (1975); Hee-jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness (1985) (partial); and Yokoi Yûhô, The Shôbô-genzô (1986).