Dōgen was probably born into a noble family, though as an illegitimate child of Minamoto Michitomo, who served in the imperial court as a high-ranking ashō (亞相, "Councillor of State"). His mother is said to have died when Dōgen was age 7.
At some later point, Dōgen became a low-ranking monk on Mount Hiei, the headquarters of the Tendai school of Buddhism. According to the Kenzeiki (建撕記), he became possessed by a single question with regard to the Tendai doctrine:
As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages — undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment — find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?
This question was, in large part, prompted by the Tendai concept of original enlightenment (本覚 hongaku), which states that all human beings are enlightened by nature and that, consequently, any notion of achieving enlightenment through practice is fundamentally flawed.
The Kenzeiki further states that he found no answer to his question at Mount Hiei, and that he was disillusioned by the internal politics and need for social prominence for advancement. Therefore, Dōgen left to seek an answer from other Buddhist masters. He went to visit Kōin, the Tendai abbot of Onjō-ji Temple (園城寺), asking him this same question. Kōin said that, in order to find an answer, he might want to consider studying Chán in China. In 1217, two years after the death of contemporary Zen Buddhist Myōan Eisai, Dōgen went to study at Kennin-ji Temple (建仁寺), under Eisai's successor, Myōzen (明全).
In 1223, Dōgen and Myōzen undertook the dangerous passage across the East China Sea to China to study in Jing-de-si (Ching-te-ssu, 景德寺) monastery as Eisai had once done.
In China, Dōgen first went to the leading Chan monasteries in Zhèjiāng province. At the time, most Chan teachers based their training around the use of gōng-àns (Japanese: kōan). Though Dōgen assiduously studied the kōans, he became disenchanted with the heavy emphasis laid upon them, and wondered why the sutras were not studied more. At one point, owing to this disenchantment, Dōgen even refused Dharma transmission from a teacher. Then, in 1225, he decided to visit a master named Rújìng (如淨; J. Nyōjo), the thirteenth patriarch of the Cáodòng (J. Sōtō) lineage of Zen Buddhism, at Mount Tiāntóng (天童山 Tiāntóngshān; J. Tendōzan) in Níngbō. Rujing was reputed to have a style of Chan that was different from the other masters whom Dōgen had thus far encountered. In later writings, Dōgen referred to Rujing as "the Old Buddha". Additionally he affectionately described both Rujing and Myōzen as senshi (先師, "Ancient Teacher").
Under Rujing, Dōgen realized liberation of body and mind upon hearing the master say, "Cast off body and mind" (身心脱落 shēn xīn tuō luò). This phrase would continue to have great importance to Dōgen throughout his life, and can be found scattered throughout his writings, as—for example—in a famous section of his "Genjōkōan" (現成公案):
To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.
Myōzen died shortly after Dōgen arrived at Mount Tiantong. In 1227, Dōgen received Dharma transmission and inka from Rujing, and remarked on how he had finally settled his "life's quest of the great matter".
Dōgen returned to Japan in 1227 or 1228, going back to stay at Kennin-ji, where he had trained previously. Among his first actions upon returning was to write down the Fukan Zazengi (普観坐禅儀; "Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen"), a short text emphasizing the importance of and giving instructions for zazen, or sitting meditation.
However, tension soon arose as the Tendai community began taking steps to suppress both Zen and Jōdo Shinshū, the new forms of Buddhism in Japan. In the face of this tension, Dōgen left the Tendai dominion of Kyōto in 1230, settling instead in an abandoned temple in what is today the city of Uji, south of Kyōto. In 1233, Dōgen founded the Kannon-dōri-in in Uji as a small center of practice. He later expanded this temple into the Kōshō-hōrinji Temple (興聖法林寺).
In 1243, Hatano Yoshishige (波多野義重) offered to relocate Dōgen's community to Echizen province, far to the north of Kyōto. Dōgen accepted because of the ongoing tension with the Tendai community, and the growing competition of the Rinzai-school.
His followers built a comprehensive center of practice there, calling it Daibutsu Temple (Daibutsu-ji, 大仏寺). While the construction work was going on, Dōgen would live and teach at Yoshimine-dera Temple (Kippō-ji, 吉峯寺), which is located close to Daibutsu-ji. During his stay at Kippō-ji, Dōgen "fell into a depression". It marked a turning point in his life, giving way to "rigorous critique of Rinzai Zen". He criticized Dahui Zonggao, the most influential figure of Song Dynasty Chán.
In 1246, Dōgen renamed Daibutsu-ji, calling it Eihei-ji. This temple remains one of the two head temples of Sōtō Zen in Japan today, the other being Sōji-ji.
Dōgen spent the remainder of his life teaching and writing at Eihei-ji. In 1247, the newly installed shōgun's regent, Hōjō Tokiyori, invited Dōgen to come to Kamakura to teach him. Dōgen made the rather long journey east to provide the shōgun with lay ordination, and then returned to Eihei-ji in 1248. In the autumn of 1252, Dōgen fell ill, and soon showed no signs of recovering. He presented his robes to his main apprentice, Koun Ejō (孤雲懐弉), making him the abbot of Eihei-ji.
At Hatano Yoshishige's invitation, Dōgen left for Kyōto in search of a remedy for his illness. In 1253, soon after arriving in Kyōto, Dōgen died. Shortly before his death, he had written a death poem:
Fifty-four years lighting up the sky.A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds.Hah!Entire body looks for nothing.Living, I plunge into Yellow Springs.
Dōgen often stressed the critical importance of zazen, or sitting meditation as the central practice of Buddhism. He considered zazen to be identical to studying Zen. This is pointed out clearly in the first sentence of the 1243 instruction manual "Zazen-gi" (坐禪儀; "Principles of Zazen"): "Studying Zen ... is zazen". Dōgen taught zazen to everyone, even for the laity, male or female and including all social classes. In referring to zazen, Dōgen is most often referring specifically to shikantaza, roughly translatable as "nothing but precisely sitting", which is a kind of sitting meditation in which the meditator sits "in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content". In his Fukanzazengi, Dōgen wrote:
For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.
Dōgen called this zazen practice "without thinking" (hi-shiryo) in which one is simply aware of things as they are, beyond thinking and not-thinking - the active effort not to think.
The correct mental attitude for zazen according to Dōgen is one of effortless non-striving, this is because for Dōgen, enlightenment is already always present.
The primary concept underlying Dōgen's Zen practice is "oneness of practice-enlightenment" (修證一如 shushō-ittō / shushō-ichinyo).
For Dōgen, the practice of zazen and the experience of enlightenment were one and the same. This point was succinctly stressed by Dōgen in the Fukan Zazengi, the first text that he composed upon his return to Japan from China:
To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.
Earlier in the same text, the basis of this identity is explained in more detail:
Zazen is not "step-by-step meditation". Rather it is simply the easy and pleasant practice of a Buddha, the realization of the Buddha's Wisdom. The Truth appears, there being no delusion. If you understand this, you are completely free, like a dragon that has obtained water or a tiger that reclines on a mountain. The supreme Law will then appear of itself, and you will be free of weariness and confusion.
The "oneness of practice-enlightenment" was also a point stressed in the Bendōwa (弁道話 "A Talk on the Endeavor of the Path") of 1231:
Thinking that practice and enlightenment are not one is no more than a view that is outside the Way. In buddha-dharma [i.e. Buddhism], practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner's wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice.
For Dōgen, Buddha-nature or Busshō (佛性) is the nature of reality and all Being. In the Shōbōgenzō, Dōgen writes that "whole-being is the Buddha-nature" and that even inanimate things (grass, trees, etc.) are an expression of Buddha-nature. He rejected any view that saw Buddha-nature as a permanent, substantial inner self or ground. Dōgen held that Buddha-nature was "vast emptiness", "the world of becoming" and that "impermanence is in itself Buddha-nature". According to Dōgen:
Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.
Dōgen's conception of Time-Being (Uji, 有時) is an essential element of his metaphysics in the Shōbōgenzō. According to the traditional interpretation, "Uji" here means time itself is being, and all being is time." Uji is all the changing and dynamic activities that exist as the flow of becoming, all beings in the entire world are time. This view has been developed by scholars such as Steven Heine, Joan Stambaugh and others and has served as a motivation to compare Dōgen's work to that of Martin Heidegger. Recently, however, Rein Raud has argued that this view is not correct and that Dōgen asserts that all existence is momentary, showing that such a reading would make quite a few of the rather cryptic passages in the Shōbōgenzō quite lucid.
Another essential element of Dōgen's 'performative' metaphysics is his conception of Perfect expression (Dōtoku, 道得). "While a radically critical view on language as soteriologically inefficient, if not positively harmful, is what Zen Buddhism is famous for," it can be argued "'within the framework of a rational theory of language, against an obscurantist interpretation of Zen that time and again invokes experience.'" Dōgen distinguishes two types of language: monji 文字, the first, – after Ernst Cassirer – "discursive type that constantly structures our experiences and—more fundamentally—in fact produces the world we experience in the first place"; and dōtoku 道得, the second, "presentative type, which takes a holistic stance and establishes the totality of significations through a texture of relations.". As Döll points out, "It is this second type, as Müller holds, that allows for a positive view of language even from the radically skeptical perspective of Dōgen’s brand of Zen Buddhism."
Dōgen was sometimes critical of the Rinzai school for their formulaic and intellectual koan practice (such as the practice of the Shiryoken or "Four Discernments") as well as for their disregard for the sutras:
Recently in the great Sung dynasty of China there are many who call themselves "Zen masters". They do not know the length and breadth of the Buddha-Dharma. They have heard and seen but little. They memorize two or three sayings of Lin Chi and Yun Men and think this is the whole way of the Buddha-Dharma. If the Dharma of the Buddha could be condensed in two or three sayings of Lin Chi and Yun Men, it would not have been transmitted to the present day. One can hardly say that Lin Chi and Yun Men are the Venerable ones of the Buddha-Dharma.
Dōgen was also very critical of the Japanese Daruma school of Dainichi Nonin.
Dogen's perspective of virtue is discussed in the Shōbōgenzō text as something to be practiced inwardly so that it will manifest itself on the outside. In other words, virtue is something that is both internal and external in the sense that one can practice internal good dispositions and also the expression of these good dispositions.
While it was customary for Buddhist works to be written in Chinese, Dōgen often wrote in Japanese, conveying the essence of his thought in a style that was at once concise, compelling, and inspiring. A master stylist, Dōgen is noted not only for his prose, but also for his poetry (in Japanese waka style and various Chinese styles). Dōgen's use of language is unconventional by any measure. According to Dōgen scholar Steven Heine: "Dogen's poetic and philosophical works are characterized by a continual effort to express the inexpressible by perfecting imperfectable speech through the creative use of wordplay, neologism, and lyricism, as well as the recasting of traditional expressions".
Dōgen's masterpiece is the Shōbōgenzō, talks and writings—collected together in ninety-five fascicles. The topics range from monastic practice, to the equality of women and men, to the philosophy of language, being, and time. In the work, as in his own life, Dōgen emphasized the absolute primacy of shikantaza and the inseparability of practice and enlightenment.
Dōgen also compiled a collection of 301 koans in Chinese without commentaries added. Often called the Shinji Shōbōgenzō (shinji:"original or true characters" and shōbōgenzō, variously translated as "the right-dharma-eye treasury" or "Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma" ). The collection is also known as the Shōbōgenzō Sanbyakusoku (The Three Hundred Verse Shōbōgenzō") and the Mana Shōbōgenzō, where mana is an alternative reading of shinji. The exact date the book was written is in dispute but Nishijima believes that Dogen may well have begun compiling the koan collection before his trip to China. Although these stories are commonly referred to as kōans, Dōgen referred to them as kosoku (ancestral criteria) or innen (circumstances and causes or results, of a story). The word kōan for Dogen meant "absolute reality" or the "universal Dharma".
Lectures that Dōgen gave to his monks at his monastery, Eihei-ji, were compiled under the title Eihei Kōroku, also known as Dōgen Oshō Kōroku (The Extensive Record of Teacher Dōgen’s Sayings) in ten volumes. The sermons, lectures, sayings and poetry were compiled shortly after Dōgen’s death by his main disciples, Koun Ejō (孤雲懐奘, 1198–1280), Senne and Gien. There are three different editions of this text: the Rinnō-ji text from 1598; a popular version printed in 1672 and a version discovered at Eihei-ji in 1937 which, although undated, is believed to be the oldest extant version. Another collection of his talks is the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Gleanings from Master Dōgen’s Sayings) in six volumes. These are talks that Dōgen gave to his leading disciple, Ejō, who became Dōgen’s disciple in 1234. The talks were recorded and edited by Ejō.
The earliest work by Dōgen is the Hōkojōki (Memoirs of the Hōkyō Period). This one volume work is a collection of questions and answers between Dōgen and his Chinese teacher, Tiāntóng Rújìng (天童如淨; Japanese: Tendō Nyojō, 1162–1228). The work was discovered among Dōgen’s papers by Ejō in 1253, just three months after Dōgen’s death.
Other notable writings of Dōgen are:Fukan-zazengi (General Advice on the Principles of Zazen), one volume; probably written immediately after Dōgen’s return from China in 1227Bendōwa (弁道話, "On the Endeavor of the Way"), written in 1231. This represents one of Dōgen's earliest writings and asserts the superiority of the practice of shikantaza through a series of questions and answers.Eihei shoso gakudō-yōjinshū (Advice on Studying the Way), one volume; probably written in 1234Tenzo kyōkun (Instructions to the Chief Cook), one volume; written in 1237Bendōhō (Rules for the Practice of the Way), one volume; written between 1244 and 1246.
The concept of oneness of practice-enlightenment is considered so fundamental to Dōgen's variety of Zen — and, consequently, to the Sōtō school as a whole — that it formed the basis for the work Shushō-gi (修證儀), which was compiled in 1890 by Takiya Takushū (滝谷卓洲) of Eihei-ji and Azegami Baisen (畔上楳仙) of Sōji-ji as an introductory and prescriptive abstract of Dōgen's massive work, the Shōbōgenzō ("Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma").
Though Dogen emphasised the importance of the correct transmission of the Buddha dharma, as guaranteed by the line of transmission from Shakyamuni, his own transmission became problematic in the third generation. In 1267 Ejō retired as Abbot of Eihei-ji, giving way to Gikai, who was already favored by Dōgen. Gikai introduced esoteric elements into the practice. Opposition arose, and in 1272 Ejō resumed the position of abbot. Following Ejō's death in 1280, Gikai became abbot again, strengthened by the support of the military for magical practices. Opposition arose again, and Gikai was forced to leave Eihei-ji. He was succeeded by Gien, who was first trained in the Daruma-school of Nōnin. His supporters designated him as the third abbot, rejecting the legitimacy of Gien.Koun Ejō, commentator on the Shōbōgenzō, and former Darumashū elderGiin, through EjōGikai, through EjōKeizanGien, through EjōSenne, another commentator of the Shōbōgenzō.
Jakuen, a student of Rujing, who traced his lineage "directly back the Zen of the Song period", established Hōkyō-ji, where a strict style of Zen was practised. Students of his played a role in the conflict between Giin and Gikai.
A notable successor of Dogen was Keizan (瑩山; 1268–1325), founder of Sōji-ji Temple and author of the Record of the Transmission of Light (傳光錄 Denkōroku), which traces the succession of Zen masters from Siddhārtha Gautama up to Keizan's own day. Together, Dōgen and Keizan are regarded as the founders of the Sōtō school in Japan.