Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma

Principles of Zazen
(Shôbôgenzô zazen gi)


The Principles of Zazen (Zazen gi) is said to have been composed in the eleventh month of 1243, at Yoshimine shôja, the monastery in Echizen (modern Fukui Prefecture) to which Dôgen, had moved in the summer of the same year. This brief work is somewhat different in character from most of the texts of the Shôbôgenzô: it is not an essay commenting on themes in the Chinese Zen literature but rather, as its title suggests, a set of instructions for the practice of zazen. Thus, it shares much with Dôgen's more famous treatment of meditation, the Fukan zazen gi (Universal Promotion of the Principles of Zazen), as well as with his account of zazen given in the Bendô hô (Rules for Pursuing the Way), both of which were likely composed in the years following his move to Echizen.

The title, zazen gi (Chinese, zuochan yi, which might also be rendered "procedures" or "rites of zazen"), was used for a genre of practical manuals on Zen meditation in China. The best known example of this genre in the Southern Song when Dôgen visited there was the Zuochan yi included in the Pure Rules of the Zen Park (Chanyuan qinggui), a monastic code composed in 1103 by Changlu Zongze. Dôgen borrowed heavily from this work in composing his own meditation instructions. Yet he was also critical of Zongze's understanding of Zen and went on to introduce into his instructions several crucial passages alluding to the sayings of other Chinese Zen masters.

The most important innovations in our text are thought to reflect the account of meditation presented in Dôgen's Shôbôgenzô essay Lancet of Zazen (Shôbôgenzô zazen shin). This work, originally composed in 1242 and apparently presented to Dôgen's monks soon after his move to Echizen, discusses two kôan on zazen known as "Nanyue polishes a tile" and "Yueshan's not thinking", both of which appear in the Principles of Zazen. Although, in the Lancet, Dôgen gives more attention to the former story, it is the latter that stands out in our text. Here, as in the Fukan zazen gi, "Yueshan's not thinking" is given as the very content of zazen, what Dôgen calls in both texts "the art" of the practice. Consequently, this passage has become central to the interpretation of Dôgen's meditation teaching and has received much attention in Sôtô commentary.

This translation is based on the text in Mizuno Yaoko, Shôbôgenzô, vol. 1 (1993), pp. 222-225. Examples of other English translations of the Zazen gi can be found in Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, "Dôgen's Fukanzazengi and Shôbôgenzô zazengi", The Eastern Buddhist, New Series 6, 2 (1973), pp. 115-128; Nishiyama Kôsen and John Stevens, tr., Shôbôgenzô, vol 1 (1975), pp. 39-40; Okumura Shôhaku, ed. and tr., Shikan taza: An Introduction to Zazen (1985), pp. 59-62; Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed., Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dôgen (1985), pp. 29-30; Yokoi Yûhô, tr. The Shôbô-genzô (1986), pp. 129-131; and Carl Bielefeldt, Dôgen's Manuals of Zen Meditation (1988), pp. 177-181. This online translation has previously appeared in Zen Quarterly 11:2-3 (1999), pp. 5-8.