Date and Place Written: 1239, Kannon-dori-kosho-horin-ji temple (Fukakusa)
Fascicle number and English title in Hubert Nearman translation: 7. On Washing Yourself Clean
Fascicle number and English title in Nishijima/Cross translation: 7. Washing
Fascicle number and English title in Tanahashi translation: 7. Cleansing
Fascicle number in 12, 28, 60 and 75 fascicle editions: 54 (75)
Commentaries: Don’t Be A Jerk chapter 12
Audio reading:


This is one of two fascicles of Shōbōgenzō (the other being Senmen) in which Dōgen gives very detailed instructions on the art of washing oneself.  This may seem a little strange but it from the view that practice is a seamless inclusion of all parts of life, as well as from a necessarily formal and structured approach to temple living. 

Dōgen recounts dialogue between the Sixth Patriarch and his student pointing to the fact that practice and enlightenment are not tainted, and nor are sentient beings.  However, he quotes several sutras which emphasise the need for monks to practice cleanliness and pray while washing that all beings will be washed free of the three poisons (greed, anger and delusion).  He makes a comparison between Buddhist practice, which aims to ‘purify the mind’, and physical washing.

Dōgen states that monks should cut their fingernails on both hands and laments the state of the nails of some priests in China who do not do this.  Likewise, he affirms that hair should not be allowed to grow long.  Dōgen quotes his teacher, Rujing, who emphasises the importance of shaving the head and cutting the nails.

He goes into some detail about how to wash the anus and urethra in early Buddhist outside toilets, then moves on to the use of temple toilets (known as tosu ‘the east office’, sei ‘the toilet’, or shi ‘the side building).  Instructions are given on the use of a long towel and how to hang the monk’s robe (Jp. kesa, Skrt. kaṣaya) during the toileting process.   The Pure Standards for Zen Monasteries is quoted as recommending going to the toilet well before the need becomes urgent to avoid haste and anxiety. 

Further detailed toileting instructions are presented involving the use of straw ‘toilet’ sandals, ‘shit sticks’, ash, water from a bucket, honey locusts (pods from a legume tree) and rubbing fragrant wood on your clean hands.  Monks are requested to focus on the task at hand and neither make unnecessary noise nor use it as a time for idle chat with other monks.  Tasks should be done carefully and not hurried.

Dōgen considers dignified conduct such as this to be the natural behaviour of all buddhas and Buddhist patriarchs and an expression of Buddhahood itself.

It is said that the toilet building should be built in the east or south , not the west or north. Following dignified forms is declared to be essential when building temples based on traditional principles.

Kōans and Stories

“The Sixth Patriarch [Huineng; Jp Daikan Eno] asks Zen Master Dai-e [Nanyue Huairang; Jp Nangaku Ejo] of Kannon-in temple on Nagaku-an mountain, “Do you rely on practice and experience or not?
Dai-e says, “It is not that there is no practice and experience, but the state can never be tainted.”
The Sixth Patriarch says, “Just this untainted state is that which buddhas guard and desire.  You are also like this.  I am also like this.  And the ancestral masters of India were also like this””

Important passages

“There is practice-and-experience that Buddhist patriarchs have guarded and maintained.  It is called not being tainted.” 

“[E]ven though the body-and-mind is not tainted, there are Dharma-practices of purifying the body and there are Dharma-practices of purifying the mind.”

“Water is not always originally pure or originally impure.  The body is not always originally pure or originally impure.  All dharma are also like this.  Water is never sentient or non-sentient, the body is never sentient or non-sentient, and all dharmas are also like this.  The preaching of the Buddha, the World-Honored One, is like this.  At the same time, to wash is not to use water to clean the body; rather when we are maintaining and relying upon the Buddha-Dharma in accordance with the Buddha-Dharma, we have this form of behaviour and we call it ‘washing’.  It is to receive the authentic transmission of a body-and-mind of the Buddhist Patriarch immediately; it is to see and to hear a phrase of the Buddhist Patriarch immediately; and it is to abide in and to retain a state of brightness of the Buddhist Patriarch clearly.  In sum, it is to realize countless and limitless virtues.”

“My late Master, the eternal Buddha, spoke stern words of warning to priests throughout the country who had long hair or long nails.  He said “Those who do not understand the importance of shaving the head are not secular people and are not monks; they are just animals.  Since ancient times, was there any Buddhist patriarch who did not shave the head?  Those who do not understand the importance of shaving the head are truly animals.””

“When you hang your cord on the pole, do not hang it on top of another so that cord and cord become confused and entangled.  Actions like these all purify the Buddha’s land, and adorn the Buddha’s kingdom, so do them carefully and do not hurry.”

“Thus, at a place of the truth where we strive in pursuit of the truth, we should consider this behaviour [washing] to be foremost.  How could we not bow to the Three Treasures?  How could we not receive people’s prostrations?  And how could we not bow to others?  In the place of truth of a Buddhist patriarch, this dignified behaviour is always done, and people in the place of truth of a Buddhist patriarch are always equipped with this dignified behaviour.  It is not our own intentional effort; it is the natural expression of dignified behaviour itself.  It is the usual behaviour of the buddhas and the everyday life of the patriarchs.”

“If we hope to build a place of practicing the truth, or to establish a temple, we should follow the Dharma-form which the Buddhist patriarchs have authentically transmitted.  We should just follow the Dharma-form which has been authentically transmitted as the right tradition.  Because it is the traditional authentic transmission, its virtue has accumulated again and again.”

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