At the age of four, Dogen’s understanding of Chinese poetry immediately showed that he was not going to be an ordinary human being. From that very age his behavior was not that of a mediocre child; he behaved like a buddha, so serene, so graceful, not interested in toys. All children are interested in toys, teddy-bears…who cares about poetry?
But, fortunately or unfortunately, his father died when he was only two years old and his mother died when he was seven. Dogen used to say later on to his disciples, when he became a fully-fledged master in his own right, that everybody thought it was a misfortune: “What will happen to this beautiful, intelligent child?” But in his deepest heart he felt it was an opportunity; now there was no barrier.
Modern psychologists will perhaps understand it: you may be grown up – fifty, sixty, seventy – your father and mother may be dead…still they dominate you in a very psychological way. If you silently listen to the voices within you can work out that, “This voice comes from my father, or from my mother, or from my uncle, or from my teacher, or from the priest.”
Dogen used to say, “It was a great opportunity that both the people who could have distracted me, who loved me and I loved them…and that was the danger. They died at the right time. I am infinitely grateful to them just because they died at the right time without destroying me.”
It is something very strange for a seven-year-old child to understand this. It has been discovered only now by the psychologists that man’s greatest barriers are the father, the mother. If you want to be a totally free consciousness you have to drop, somewhere on the way, your teddy-bears, your toys, the teachings that have been forced upon you. They have all been of good intent, there is no question about it, but as it is said in an ancient proverb, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Just good intentions are not enough; what is needed is a conscious intention, which is very rare. To find a father and mother with a conscious meditative energy is just hoping for the hopeless.
When his mother died Dogen was translating the most significant Buddhist scripture, Abhidharma – “the essence of religion” – from Chinese into Japanese. He showed every sign of a tremendous future. And at the age of seven, when his father and mother had both died, the first thing he did – which is unbelievable – was to become a sannyasin. Even the neighbors, relatives, could not believe it. And Dogen said, “I will not miss this opportunity. Perhaps if my father and mother were alive, I might not have left the world in search of truth.” He became a sannyasin and started searching for the master.
There are two kinds of seekers who become interested in truth. One starts looking for scriptures: he may become a great intellectual, he may become a giant, but inside there will be darkness. All his light is borrowed, and a borrowed light is not going to help in the real crises of life.