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The Poetics of Perception
Dogen's Certificate of Succession





Dogen’s Certificate of Succession:

A National Treasure


Hyatt Carter







This is a picture of the “certificate of succession” that was formally presented to Dogen in 1227 by Master Rujing, abbot of Tian-tong monastery in China. The purpose of the document is to certify that there was a person-to-person transmission of the Dharma, or Truth, between Rujing and Dogen, and that Dogen is Rujing’s Dharma heir.


The certificate is preserved at Eihei-ji, the Zen temple that Dogen founded in 1244, and has been officially designated as a national treasure of Japan. Since this document, and all it signifies, marks the genesis of the Japanese school of Soto Zen, with Dogen as founder, it has great religious value and is highly revered by the Soto faithful.


“Certificate of succession” is 嗣書 in Chinese and these two characters are at the top right of the document and, in smaller characters, also at the top left. The Japanese pronunciation of this term is shisho.





The circle in the picture, formed by Chinese characters, represents the unbroken line of succession from Shakyamuni Buddha to Dogen.


Note the eight characters in a vertical line in the center of the circle:




The first four characters name the founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni:





Two lines are drawn through Shakyamuni’s name.


The line of the left leads down to, and is drawn through, the name of his successor, Mahakasyapa (摩訶迦葉), the first patriarch. This line continues, up and then down, through the name of his successor, Ananda (阿難). And so on, the line weaving its way around the circle through, in successive order, all the patriarchs and ancestors in the Buddhist lineage. The line “ends,” bottom center, with Dogen’s name—




—and then returns, completing the circle, to Shakyamuni. What Dogen has received from Shakyamuni, via the line of transmission, he now gives back to the founder.


The name preceding Dogen’s in the circle is that of his Chinese Master, Rujing (如凈), under whose guidance Dogen experienced enlightenment. Rujing’s signature, with the monastery seal, is at the lower left of the document—as in the following line where the signature is duplicated:




The Tian-tong monastery seal, designated as such by a notation (天童號印), follows the two characters that form his name (如凈). The notation, in smaller characters, is to the left of the seal.


Here, in tabular form, is a duplication of the Chinese text at the bottom of the picture:







































Some of the spacing is not the same, especially in the way the smaller characters are aligned, but that’s as close as I could get it in a digital duplication. The smaller characters are not part of the original certificate but were added later, as notations, pointing out the various seals () in the document.


Since the document reads from right to left, I’ll take the columns in that order:


Column 1: Names the document as Buddha Ancestors (佛祖) Lineage (命脉) Contractual Agreement (證契)


Column 2: Notation—Tian-tong (天童) seal


Column 3: Specifies Dogen (道元) as recipient of the document


Column 4: Place and time—Great Song (大宋) China, Bao-Qing Era (寶慶), 24th year of the Sexagenary Cycle (丁亥) or 1227


Column 5: Notation—Sangha (三寶) seal


Column 6: Rujing signature (住天童如凈 - Reside Tian-tong [Temple] Rujing) and seal.


Column 7: Notation—Tian-tong (天童) seal


And here, also in tabular form, are the 51 patriarchs, or ancestors, whose names are listed in the circle of succession. For the Chinese masters, beginning with number 29, I have included their four-character names, but only the unbracketed characters appear in the document.  


1. 摩訶迦葉



2. 阿難



3. 商那和修



4. 優波毱多



5. 提多迦



6. 彌遮迦



7. 婆須密



8. 佛陀難提



9. 佛陀蜜多



10. 婆栗濕婆



11. 富那夜奢



12. 阿那菩提



13. 迦毘摩羅



14. 那伽閼樹那



15. 迦那提婆



16. 羅睺羅多



17. 僧伽難提


18. 僧伽耶舍



19. 鳩摩羅多



20. 闍夜多



21. 婆修槃頭



22. 摩拏羅



23. 鶴勒那



24. 師子菩提



25. 婆舍斯多



26. 不如密多



27. 般若多羅



28. 菩提達摩



29.[ 神光] 慧可

Shen-guang Hui-ke


30. 僧璨



31. [東山] 道信

Dong-shan Dao-xin


32. [黃梅] 弘忍

Huang-mei Hong-ren


33. [曹溪] 慧能
Cao-xi Hui-neng

34. [青原] 行思
Qing-yuan Xing-si

35. [石頭] 希遷
Shi-tou Xi-qian

36. [藥山] 惟儼
Yao-shan Wei-yan

37. [雲儼] 曇晟
Yun-yan Tan-cheng

38. [洞山] 良价
Dong-shan Liang-jie

39. [雲居] 道膺
Yun-ju Dao-ying

40. [同安] 道丕
Tong-an Dao-pi

41. [同安] 觀志
Tong-an Guan-zhi

42. [梁山] 緣觀
Liang-shan Yuan-guan


43. [大陽] 警玄
Da-yang Jing-xuan

44. [投子] 義青
Tou-zi Yi-qing

45. [芙蓉] 道楷
Fu-rong Dao-kai

46. [丹霞] 子淳
Dan-xia Zi-chun

47. [真歇] 清了
Zhen-xie Qing-liao

48. [天童] 宗珏
Tian-tong Zong-jue

49. [雪竇] 智鑑
Xue-dou Zhi-jian

50. [天童] 如淨
Tian-tong Ru-jing

51. 道元



I will end with a Dogen story.


Before the shisho, or certificate of succession, was bestowed on him, and while visiting various monasteries in China, Dogen had the good fortune to see and examine a shisho. He wrote about the experience as follows.


“Around the seventh lunar month of the previous year [1223], in the Hall of Serene Light, Chief Officer Shiko had told me about the shisho in secret. I had asked the chief in passing, ‘Nowadays, what person would have one in their possession?’ The chief said, ‘It seems that the venerable abbot has one in his room. In future, if you cordially request him to bring it out, he will surely show it to you.’ After hearing these words, I never stopped hoping, day or night. So in that year (1224), I cordially put my humble request to brother monk Chiyu. I did so with all my heart, and the request was granted. The base on which the certificate was written was a lining of white silk, and the cover was red brocade. The rod was precious stone, about nine inches long. The scroll’s extent was more than seven feet. It was never shown to an idle person.


“I thanked Chiyu at once, and then went straightway to visit the abbot, to burn incense and to bow in thanks to Master Musai. At that time Musai said, ‘This sort of thing is rarely able to be seen or known. Now, venerable brother, you have been able to know of it. This is just the real refuge in learning the truth.’ At this my joy was uncontainable.


“Later I thought inwardly, ‘It would be very difficult indeed to see and to hear this sort of thing without the mystical help of the Buddhist patriarchs. Why should a stupid fellow from a remote land be so fortunate as to see it?’ My sleeves became damp with tears of gratitude.”


From Dogen’s Shobogenzo “Shisho,” Nishijima-Cross translation.






Zen Koans
Four 12th-Century Zen Letters
Dogen's Metaphors of Enlightenment
Dogen's Certificate of Succession
Dogen Preaches on Nonduality
Dogen's Fukanzazengi: A Tale of Three Texts
Two Zen Cooks Show Dogen the Way
The Karma of Words: A Poem by Bai Juyi
The Zen Koan
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