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Buddhism in daily life - Dōgen Zenji's (1200-1253) and Gudō Nishijima Rōshi's (b. 1919) teachings in Finland through 'Kajo Zendo' Zen Buddhist group by Markus Laitinen

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Good day everyone! I'm very happy and pleased to be in here today and I'm feeling very humble about this opportunity to speak to you a little about Buddhism. I would like to thank Marju Broder and the whole Estonian Nyingma for inviting me here.


At the right at the beginning, I would like to emphasize that although I'm studying comparative religion at the University of Helsinki, I'm not here to speak as a university student. Although I made my BA thesis about the enlightenment in the Sanbō Kyōdan Buddhist context and I'll continue studying Buddhism academically, I'm not here to talk as a beginner scholar. I'm here to talk about Buddhism as a Buddhist, as a human being.

As the topic of my presentation says, I'm going to speak a little about Buddhism in daily life and especially how it's seen in Finland through my Zen group Kajo Zendo which relies heavily on the teachings of Eihei Dōgen and Gudō Nishijima Rōshi. But let me start by telling something about myself because maybe that can help you understand something of our Finnish Zen group and why I chose to bring Sōtō Zen in Finland.

We're practicing in master Dōgen's tradition. Eihei Dōgen who lived in the 13th century, was the founder of the Japanese Sōtō Zen school. I'm a Zen monk in master Dōgen's lineage through Gudō Nishijima Rōshi's lineage which can be traced back all the way to Dōgen himself – Japanese Buddhists have been very strict about this. Nishijima Rōshi is over 90 years old and he has been practicing zazen almost 80 years. His student Peter Rocca is my Zen teacher and they both are very good friends of mine. Nishijima Rōshi received Dharma transmission from the late Rempō Niwa Rōshi who was the head of the Sōtō sect, the abbot of Eiheiji, the temple established my master Dōgen. My Zen teacher Peter Rocca has received Dharma transmission from Nishijima Rōshi, so I'm tied very closely to the origins of master Dōgen himself.

Master Dōgen is well-known for his simple and realistic attitude towards daily life. He said in one of the collection of his teachings called Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki:

[A]s long as you have a mind, you can distinguish between good and evil. As long as you have hands and feet, you have the ability to join your palms together and to walk about. Therefore, there is no such thing as not having the equipment to practice Buddhism. All human beings are born with this potential; this is not so of those born in the animal world. Students of the Way, do not wait until tomorrow. This very day, this very moment, practice in accordance with the teaching of the Buddha.[1]

”Therefore, there is no such thing as not having the equipment to practice Buddhism. All human beings are born with this potential.” We all can practice Buddhism and there are no places,no circumstances where it wouldn't be possible. We live in the daily life and we die in the daily life. If we can't practice Buddhism then, when can we? This has been a very important teaching to me because I have always felt that I'm not welcome into traditional Buddhist circles. Of course I would have been welcomed, I'm sure, but I have always felt differently because I've been quite a bad boy in the past.

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As you all know, there are an enormous amount of Buddhist traditions to practice in. Traditionally it is said that in Buddhism there are 84 000 different paths to practice Buddhism. Therefore, everyone can found their own path in the wide field of Buddhism. Master Dōgen's teachings have been helping me a lot during my life and basically I haven't seriously tried other traditions. I grew up with skate- and snowboarding, hip hop and punk music. I have used a lot of drugs and alcohol in the past and although I've been without intoxicants for years, I'm gonna carry the heavy load of my past actions deep in my heart forever. I've been practicing Buddhism, zazen, sitting meditation promoted by master Dōgen since 1996, over 15 years. Zazen was in my life even when I used drugs and stuff – I learned in a very concrete way the teaching of suffering and how my mind is craving things. During all these miserable and also happy years master Dōgen's teachings have been with me and the simple message of those teachings have rescued me kind of saying: you can practice Buddhism in your daily life. Perhaps I was lucky because I found my path from those 84 000 paths when I was only 16 years old.

One of the most important teachings of Buddhism is that you can be yourself. My teacher Peter Rocca has said:

[I]t's not always easy to be ourselves. Because we think maybe there's something wrong with us, or other people won't like us or we won't fit in and things like that. But one thing we can learn from Buddhism is that just to be ourselves is the best way. That's why we're here.[2]

We all make mistakes in our lives, but still, we can always start again, always make a fresh start. Buddhism can teach us how to learn from our mistakes, to prevent making the mistakes again. It's not foolish or idealistic to say that Buddhism, the practice of zazen truly saved my life. But now you know something about me. Now let me tell you more about the group and the tradition I'm practicing in.

Gudō Nishijima Rōshi established his Zen group in Japan during '80's. He started to gave lectures and teaching in English and pretty soon his group was full of Western people practicing zazen. His group was named as ”Dogen Sangha” and nowadays his students who have received Dharma transmission from him, have established their own groups all over the world. This loose affiliation can be called as ”Dogen Sangha International” but it's only a loose definition for it, because all groups are individual and unique: there are no so-called ”Dogen Sangha rules” or other doctrines,member lists or other organized guidelines to follow. Everything in common with all groups is that all groups are following the zazen teached by master Dōgen and all groups are led by a person ordained in the Nishijima Rōshi's lineage: every groups are therefore practicing strictly in the master Dōgen's tradition, in the lineage of Nishijima Rōshi.


Dogen Sangha is known for it's simple approach to the practice of Buddhism: everyone can practice Buddhism, everyone can practice zazen. Nishijima Rōshi believes that it's important to practice Buddhism in our own time: we are not living in the ancient times, we're living in the modern era. Nishijima Rōshi is emphasizing a lot that as Buddhists, we should be good citizens, good husbands and wifes, mothers and fathers – there are no need to practice Buddhism outside of our own lives. When we're at the office, at home, at the university, at the gym, we can always express the Buddha-nature within us. We can be good human beings to ourselves and to others where ever we are. That's kind of the main idea of Dogen Sangha and also the main idea of Gautama Buddha's teachings.

In Finland we have many different traditions and groups to practice Buddhism. When I started to practice Dōgen's Sōtō Zen as a young rebel during 1996, I was practicing alone. I had to practice zazen alone until 2009 when I established the historically first Sōtō Zen group in Finland – like I told, I wasn't interested of other traditions at all, so only chance, it seemed, was to create my own group. Before establishing the group, I was ordained as a Buddhist in Japan at May 2009 by my teacher Rocca and after he, Nishijima Rōshi and his successor, Brad Warner, gave their approval, I was allowed to launch my group in Finland.

Basically only a teacher can run a group, so because I'm not a teacher and I haven't received Dharma transmission, Peter is our group's teacher. And to be honest, I don't care of becoming a teacher, I don't care of receiving Dharma transmission. But anyway, basically this all means that I decide everything what is happening in my group and I'll ask Peter if I don't know something. Peter trusts me completely and he has gave me free hands to do whatever I want to do. He has said to me ”it's your group, you make the decisions.”

It was pretty surprising to notice that right from the beginning, people found our group and started to practice zazen with us. I named the group as ”Dogen Sangha Finland” and it became very popular soon. It has even received some academic interest when Johannes Cairns, a student from the East Asian studies at the University of Helsinki made his BA thesis with a title ”Tracing the Rhetoric of Contemporary Zen - Dogen Sangha and the Modernization of Japanese Zen Buddhism In the Light of a Rhetorical Analysis of a Weblog.". You can find it from the internet, if you like. It's a really good study.

I changed the name as ”Kajo Zendo” during 2010 because sometimes people seemed to think that my group is some kind of McDonald's franchise, McDogen Sangha. They seemed to forgot that master Dōgen's, Nishijima Rōshi's and my teacher Peter Rocca's teachings are the essence of my group – but still every Dogen Sangha group is unique, led by their own leaders. We're naturally still a Dogen Sangha group, but only the name changed.

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I changed the name because I thought it would be good if the name itself would reflect much better the context where we are practicing in. We're not living in the distant mountains or in Japan. We're living in modern Finland, as normal citizens, as working, studying, ordinary human beings, some having families (like me) and so on. Kajo Zendo as a name has a lot of meanings: kajō is a Japanese and also a Finnish word. In Japanese, kajō means ”daily life, ordinary life”. In Finnish it means shimmering or a glow. Kajō is also a chapter in Shōbōgenzō, a monumental Buddhist work written by master Dōgen. Zendo is a place to practice zazen, so it can be said that the name of my group means something like ”a shimmering possibility to practice ordinary Zen in our daily lives.” Heh, pretty romantic, eh?

Remember the symbolic definition of having 84 000 different paths? It seems that Kajo Zendo has filled one important slot from those 84 000 paths. People told me that they had been waiting for a Buddhist group in Finland that it's not too ritualistic, not too religious. Lots of people have been interested of practicing Buddhism and zazen but they have felt that Buddhist groups are too ritualistic, too religious in Finland; that it's not easy to go to practice with them because you have to learn quite many Buddhist concepts and many manners, you kind of have to act like a religious person, chant sutras and so on. I have always loved Dogen Sangha because it is so easy to approach: all you have to do is just ”shut up and sit down”, like our lineage's current leader, Nishijima Rōshi's successor, also my good friend Brad Warner has said.

Naturally same goes with Kajo Zendo: everyone can come, everyone can go. We don't have member lists and to be honest, I don't actually care how many people will come and go. Our doors are always open to everyone, no matter if you're a Buddhist or not, a Christian, a Muslim and so on. The only requirement is to practice zazen according to our tradition, to master Dōgen's teachings, to Buddhism. I'm very strict about that. We can laugh and have fun, but when it's time to practice zazen, we're taking it very seriously. We're an official Sōtō Zen group and although all of us are not Buddhists, I as a leader, as a Buddhist, I'm keeping the Buddhist guidelines alive as good as I can. But people doesn't have to adapt into Buddhism if they don't want to: all they have to do at least, is to practice zazen like it supposed to be practiced in our tradition. No exceptions in that.

I think it's important that people can come to practice zazen with us and skip the Buddhist teachings and philosophies if they like to. And like I will tell you later on in this presentation, zazen is actually the whole Buddhism, it contains everything needed. But if zazen helps people in their daily life, making them more balanced, that's great! Maybe they will be interested of Buddhism later on, maybe not. I don't think that's important because Buddhism doesn't fit for everyone. That's why we have different religions that everyone can choose what they like most. But at least I'm offering, we all are offering an opportunity for them. My teacher said before I launched the group that ”it doesn't matter at all if no one will show up. It is the most important to keep the possibility for people to come to practice zazen together. So you should keep the group existing even if no one will show up.”

I think it's important to realize that we all human beings are different. We all have our own problems, our own past, our own happy moments. But we are all living in the same reality. Unfortunately sometimes in Buddhism too it is common that people don't know if they're allowed to express their mistakes or to show other practitioners that they are human beings who are making mistakes. There's a risk that Buddhist practice can turn into hypocrisy where people are hiding their true emotions or their past actions. Many of us wants to give a better picture of ourselves and many are escaping into so-called ”Buddhist bubble” where everything is perfect and normal. I've been doing that and I do it still sometimes. We all act like that sometimes. But it's very important to talk about that, not to hide or not to run away. Gautama Buddha has said we should doubt all teachings, test them by ourselves before accepting them or abandoning them. By pretending to be someone else than ourselves, can't be a fruitful base to grow as a human being.

We can't turn ourselves into some enlightened and pure masters if we don't face the reality first. We have to face the reality, it is inevitable in Buddhism. Although it may be inspiring to live in the Buddhist bubble, unfortunately that's not the reality. We can only find the reality from where we are right now. We can only find the reality in our daily life.


Gudō Nishijima Rōshi has said:

[G]autama Buddha taught us that life is action. It is just action, action, action – one after another. It is getting up, washing our faces and eating breakfast. It is eating, sleeping and washing our clothes. There is no excitement in such activities. They are very simple, very repetitive and monotonous. It seems tedious to do the same things, day after day, year after year, but, tedious or not, such activities are the fundamental basis of life. This is the Buddhist understanding, the Buddhist viewpoint or orientation. Buddhism states that life is eating, sleeping and washing clothes. Eating, sleeping and washing clothes are the essence of life in the real world.
So if we are to know the real world, we must see it as it is. We must learn to appreciate the simple and monotonous activities which are the real basis of our lives, our culture and our civilization. Such an outlook is contrary to our usual way of thinking. To attain such an outlook, we need a kind of revolution in our bodies and minds. Such a revolution can occur only through the practice of zazen. Zazen can teach us to appreciate and enjoy the simple activities which are the basis of life. When we practice zazen, we can transcend boredom and excitement.[3]

As a Sōtō Zen Buddhist, my practice is zazen. But zazen is similar to other Buddhist practices. That's why there are said to be 84 000 different paths that everyone can find a practice that fits into their lives, into their body and minds. Zazen fits into my life. Sometimes I hear misunderstandings and criticism that how it is possible only to practice zazen, sitting meditation, no need to chant sutras or to study teachings? Well, this truly is a big misunderstanding.

Master Dōgen has written himself:

[I]f you now think that the samādhi of the buddhas, the supreme and great Dharma, is idle sitting without doing anything, you are a person who insults the Great Vehicle. [Such] delusion is so deep that it is like being in the ocean and saying there is no water.[4]
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Za means to sit and zen means meditation or a state of meditation, derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna. The form of zazen in our tradition is called shikantaza in Japanese. It means ”just sitting”. It indeed would be foolish to think that only sitting can help us to realize the true nature of ourselves. But no, zazen doesn't mean that. That is not ”just sitting”. In our tradition we sit zazen basically 40-50 minutes at time, in a very strict form, legs crossed and back straight – Dōgen said in Fukan-zazengi, in one of his early works, that it is ”sitting like a mountain”. It can be pretty painful and hard for a beginner, but everyone can learn it. In sesshins, Zen retreats, we're sitting many hours per day. But if Buddhism would be only sitting meditation, even a monkey could be a great Zen master! Who knows, maybe a monkey is, but that's not the point. The point is that zazen is much more in our tradition than just sitting meditation. Nishijima Rōshi has said, ”zazen is Buddhism itself. Buddhism is zazen.”[5]

What does that mean? Nishijima Rōshi's words are not a kôan, a paradoxical Zen riddle. ”Zazen is Buddhism itself. Buddhism is zazen.” Because we're living in daily life, our practice can not be anywhere else than in our daily life. Therefore, if every moment of our lives doesn't contain the Buddhist practice, there is no practice at all. The practice of Buddhism is not an on-off practice. Either we practice or not. Like Jedi master Yoda has said in fictional Star Wars movie saga ”do or do not. There is no try.”

The practice of Buddhism should be in everywhere. In our jobs, in our homes, in our daily lives. We can practice zazen, Buddhism always, everywhere – zazen is everything. But if we don't regularly sit down, to learn to know our body and mind through concrete zazen, we can't expand zazen into everything because, like Buddha taught, our mind is deluded, full of craving into mind's world such as thoughts, fantasies, emotions. The attitude that we have while practicing zazen on our meditation cushion, we should have the same attitude when we're living our daily lives: we can do always our best. When we eat, we just eat. When we walk, we just walk. When we sit, we just sit. That is zazen.

We need guidelines to help our practice. For me, they are the 16 Bodhisattva Vows, the Precepts that I took in the ordination ceremony in Japan. But they are only guidelines. No one can't follow them all the time. We need Buddhist teachings, we need guidelines, but in the end, they are only words. They're not the reality. We can only understand ourselves and therefore the reality through ourselves, through our own practice, through our own experience. Teachings, philosophies and words can help us, but we can't base our practice on them. The finger pointing to the Moon is not the Moon itself.


Let me tell you a short story regarding this: once there was a man who loved dragons very, very much. He collected statues of dragons, he painted dragons and he dreamed of dragons. One time a real dragon was behind his window and when this man saw a real, living dragon, he scared to death. He scared to death because a real dragon was something different than what he had been dreaming of. Reality is always different than what we're thinking.

I would like to conclude and to end my presentation with the words from Gudō Nishijima Rōshi:

(Master Dōgen) said that zazen was a state like the sea. The sea, like humanity itself, is a unity of two worlds. The surface of the sea is like the mind. At times it is dark and stormy – full of violent waves and chaotic movement. At other times it is clear, bright and calm – like a mirror or a mountain lake on a peaceful summer day. These are only the passing moods of the sea. They exist only on the surface of the water.
At the bottom of the sea, there is perpetual darkness, stillness and peace. Here there are no storms or violence. The great body of the sea is unperturbed by the fluctuating moods of the surface world. In this it is like the human body when it assumes the posture of zazen. To take our seats on the round, black cushions, fold our legs and straighten our backs is to settle into the state of original peace and contentment. When we take the posture of zazen, day after day, our bodies learn their standard condition. They welcome the chance to return to the silent state, to the deep calm of the sea. When we have found this state, nothing can disturb our sense of inner harmony and repose. The stormy moods of the mind simply cannot persist for long. To balance the body is to balance the mind. To practice zazen is to enter the state which always exists beneath the fleeting surface storms. It is to enter the state like the sea.
But images of the sea are only images. Words are only words. They can suggest the real, but they cannot capture the real itself. In the end, Master Dogen himself could say nothing of the ineffable state of in zazen. So finally he said what must be said: zazen is just zazen. In the end, all things are just as they are. This is the ultimate Truth, the final conclusion. Many people suppose that zazen is a way to attain the Truth, but such people are deluded by misty images of the Dragon. To practice zazen is to meet the Real Dragon. It is to become the Dragon itself. Thus, zazen is the Truth itself. It is Buddhism itself. Zazen is zazen.[6]

Thank you very, very much.


  1. A Primer of Sōtō Zen. A translation of Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki by Reihō Masunaga. University of Hawai'i Press, 1971. p. 72.
  2. Peter Rocca's internet blog The Stupid Way, a blog post Tale of the Two-eyed Monkey:
  3. To Meet the Real Dragon, Gudo Nishijima with Jeffrey Bailey. 4th edition. Dogen Sangha Publications, 2009. p.198.
  4. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 1. Translated by Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross. 2nd printing. Windbell Publications, 1998. Chapter Bendowa, p. 7.
  5. To Meet the Real Dragon, Gudo Nishijima with Jeffrey Bailey. 4th edition. Dogen Sangha Publications, 2009. p.177.
  6. Ibid., 216-217.


Written by Markus Laitinen for the Buddhism and Nordland conference (Tallinn, Estonia, September 15th-17th 2011)