As a young man in the early 1940s, Nishijima became a student of the noted Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Nishijima received a law degree from Tokyo University and began a career in finance. It was not until 1973, when he was in his mid-40s, that Nishijima was ordained as a Buddhist priest. His preceptor for this occasion was Rempo Niwa, a former head of the Soto Zen sect. Four years later, Niwa gave him inka, formally accepting him as one of his successors. Nishijima continued his professional career until 1979.
During the 1960s, Nishijima began giving regular public lectures on Buddhism and Zen meditation. Since the 1980s, he has lectured in English and has had a number of foreign students, including American author Brad Warner. A group of his students has organised as the Dogen Sangha.
Nishijima is the author of several books in Japanese and English. He has also been a notable translator of Buddhist texts: working with Chodo Cross, Nishijima compiled the only complete English version of Dogen‘s 95-fascicle Kana Shobogenzo; he also translated Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo. As of December, 2005, he is currently working on an English translation of Nagarjuna‘s of the Middle Way”>Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā).
Three philosophies and one reality
While studying the Shobogenzo, Nishijima developed a theory called “three philosophies and one reality”, which presents his distinctive interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, as well as explaining the structure of Dogen‘s writing. According to Nishijima, Dogen carefully constructed the Shobogenzo according to a fourfold structure, in which he described each issue from four different perspectives. The first perspective is “idealist”, “abstract”, “spiritual”, and “subjective”; Nishijima says this is the correct intepretation of the First Noble Truth, (in mainstream Buddhism the first Noble truth is dukkha). The second perspective is “concrete”, “materialistic”, “scientific”, and “objective” (in mainstream Buddhism the second Noble truth is samudaya). The third perspective is described as an integration of the first two, producing a “realistic” synthesis; (mainstream, nirodha). The fourth perspective is reality itself, which Nishijima argues cannot be contained in philosophy or stated in words, but which Dogen attempts to suggest through poetry and symbolism. In mainstream Buddhism, the fourth Truth is the Eightfold Path.
- How to Practice Zazen (1976), with Joe Langdon
- To Meet the Real Dragon: Seeking the Truth in a World of Chaos (1992), with Jeffrey Bailey
- A Heart to Heart Chat on Buddhism with Old Master Gudo (2004), with James Cohen
- of the Shinji Shobogenzo
- on the koan “Joshu’s dog”, along with an excerpt from Dogen’s Kana Shobogenzo