Dogen and No-Self

Many Zen Buddhists, or just Buddhists in general, know Dogen’s famous quote about “studying the self”. It’s a popular reminder of what Buddhism is all about. I’ve seen various translations in various books, but I have yet to see an example of a bilingual translation until now:

I always like to see translations like this, because I’ve learned to distrust English translations of Buddhist texts that don’t include any references to the original language.  There are a lot of bad Buddhist quotes and translations floating around, and even something simple as the Buddhist “nembutsu” or reciting the Buddha’s name, gets mistranslated a lot. More on that in an old post.

Anyhow, I digress.  Looking at Dogen’s original writing, a few things I noticed as a language nerd:

  • Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.
  • Similarly, the spellings are different: instead of saying toiu, it is spelled toifu, though it was probably pronounced the same.
  • Not surprisingly, Dogen uses some obscure Zen-Buddhist terms that even the Japanese language site above has to provide footnotes for, such as Goseki (悟迹) which means the period after Enlightenment.

Anyhow, regardless of the language, this quotation is still one of the best in Buddhism in my opinion.  Even Buddhists have to pause and remember to take stock about why they’re practicing Buddhism.  Contemporary history is rife with examples of Buddhist teachers who went off the rails, and of course this can happen to anyone, so it’s good to remember why we practice Buddhism.  Dogen’s words are a good reminder for us all.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Dogen and No-Self”

  1. “Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.” Hey, easy, Erasmus, your new-fangled philology will surely blow minds! (OK, sorry, that was overly sarcastic. 😉 ) Please give us all a heads up when you’re heading off the rails! I’ll bring the popcorn! 🙂

    I agree with you 100% that one has to be suspicious of translation. But that’s a lonely position to take. North America is filled with ‘qualified Buddhist teachers’ who re-phrase and re-package Buddhist language with new (completely new) meanings. I have seen some of Chögyam Trungpa’s students (talk about one to ‘go off the rails’!) use Tibetan words and then completely mistranslate them! And if you point it out, the adoring acolytes will attack you. 40 years of anti-intellectual Zenism, plus America’s larger anti-intellectual bias, doesn’t help, either! So it goes…

    Thank you for sharing this site. 😉 It’s very useful for us language geeks!



    1. Yeah, call me Captain Obvious. ;-p

      Yeah the repackaging of bad and incorrect translations of Buddhist texts is something I saw in the past, but a lot more since I took up Sanskrit studies. Even really simple translations were flagrantly wrong or overtly sectarian.

      And, like you said, when people question the translations it brings out dogmatic reactions in some people.


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