Not depending.

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詠不立文字
Furyu monji wo yomu
Poem on “Not Depending on Words and Letters”

言ひすてし    その言葉の     外なれば        筆にも跡を    留めざりけり
Ii suteshi       sono koto no ha no   hoka nareba   fude ni mo ato o   todome zari keri

Because [the Dharma] is
outside the words
I spoke,
it does not leave any traces
in [my words written using] a brush.

“Not depending on words and letters” (furyu monji) is a famous slogan of Zen. This expression is often used together with “mind-to-mind transmission” (i-shin-den-shin). According to scholars, this expression was coined in the second half of 8th to the first half of 9th century in China, that is, around the time of Mazu and Shitou. Jeffrey Broughton suggests this expression may have begun with Zongmi (780-841).

Zongmi wrote in the Chan Prolegomenon,

“Bodhidharma received dharma in India and personally brought it to China. He saw that most of the scholars of this land had not yet obtained dharma, that their understanding was based merely on [scholastic] nomenclature and numerical [list,] and that their [dhyana] practice was concerned only with phenomenal characteristics. Because his desire was to inform them that the moon does not lie in the finger [pointing at the moon] and that dharma is our mind, he just [raised the slogan] “a mind-to-mind transmission (i-shin den-shin); no involvement with the written word (furyu monji).” (Jeffrey Broughton, Zongmi on Chan, Columbia University Press)

Since then, together with “separate transmission outside teaching” (kyoge betsuden), this expression has been used as a catch-phrase of Zen to declare its superiority to other Buddhist schools based on certain Buddhist scriptures.

However, it is interesting that Dogen used this expression, “not depending on words and letters” neither in Shobogenzo nor Eiheikoroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record) at all. He used “a mind-to-mind transmission” in two fascicles, Katto (Entanglement) and Mujo-seppo (Insentient Being Expounding Dharma). In the latter, Dogen used the expression in a negative way.

We must be careful when we read this waka and consider what Dogen expressed in this poem about this cliché. Dogen never negated significance of expressions using language. In Shobogenzo Dotoku (Being Able to Speak) Dogen wrote,

“When we are able to speak of the speakable, we do not-speak of the unspeakable. Even if we recognize that we are able to speak of the speakable, unless we do not penetrate the fact that the unspeakable is what we are not able to speak, we have not yet attained the face of the buddha-ancestors or the marrow of the buddha-ancestors.”

In this waka, Dogen does not say that we should stop using the brush. We should understand and express what we can express until the limit, but we should see the unspeakable cannot be spoken of. Dogen’s style is going beyond thinking by thinking thoroughly. This is the same as his saying, “seeing forms and seeing no-form is seeing the Tathagata.”

Copyright 2015 Sanshin Zen Community

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