Rare and Precious

Poem on the joy of engaging Buddha-dharma

Aoi-gusa

Decorative aoi-gusa at a Hollyhock Festival

嬉しくも Ureshiku mo How delightful!
釈迦の御法の Shaka no mi-nori no I am able to meet
あふみ草 Afumi-gusa Shakyamuni’s Dharma.
かけても外の Kaketemo hoka no I will never walk
道をふまばや Michi o fumabaya on any other path.

The meaning of this waka is as I’ve translated above. However, this waka has a second image. In the other version, afumi-gusa is afui-gusa, that is aoi-gusa in modern Japanese. Gusa is kusa, which is grass. Aoi is usually translated as hollyhock. However hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is a tall plant that can grow 3 – 10 feet tall. Hollyhock is called tachi-aoi (standing aoi) in Japanese. The plant in this waka is a low plant called futaba-aoi (aoi with two leaves, Asarum caulescens Maxim).

Futaba-aoi has been used as the emblem of Kamo Shrines—Kamigamo Jinja and Shimo-gamo-jinja—since ancient times. The festival of these Shrines on May 15th is one of the three main annual festivals in Kyoto even today called Aoi-matsuri (translated as Hollyhock Festival). On the occasion of the festival, aoi-gusa is used as the decoration everywhere. Later in history, futaba-aoi was used as the crest of Tokugawa shogunate family.

Possibly, Dogen Zenji wrote this waka to someone on the day of Aoi-matsuri, or aoi-gusa was blooming in front of him.
—Shohaku Okumura

Anyway, “afui” in this waka is used as a paronomasia (pun) with au (to meet or encounter). Kake in kaketemo, which means “not at all” in the context of this waka, can also mean “to hang”. On the day of Aoi-matsuri, aoi-gusa was hung everywhere. So, the hidden image of this waka is the scenery of early summer on the occasion of Aoi-festival.

I am not sure what the connection between the joy of meeting with Buddha-dharma and Aoi-festival can be. Possibly, Dogen Zenji wrote this waka to someone on the day of Aoi-matsuri, or aoi-gusa was blooming in front of him.

What he expressed in this poem is very simple and straightforward, not requiring much explanation. In Shobogenzo Shukke-kudoku (Virtue of Leaving Home), Dogen wrote about how rare and precious is our encountering Buddha-dharma:

Not only have we received a human body which is difficult to receive; but also we have encountered Buddha-dharma which is rare to encounter. We should immediately discard all [mundane] associations, leave home and study the Way right away. Kings, ministers, wives, children, and relatives can be encountered wherever we go. Buddha-dharma is as difficult to encounter as the udumbara flower [that blooms only once every three thousand years].[1]

And in Shobogenzo Kie-sambo (Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures), Dogen quotes Shakyamuni’s statement about why we should take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha:

Being fearful of oppressive suffering, many people take refuge in [the gods enshrined] in mountains, parks, forests, solitary trees, shrines, and so on. Taking refuge in such gods is neither excellent nor precious. By taking refuge in such gods, it is not possible to be liberated from the many kinds of suffering.

If all beings take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and, within the Four Noble Truths, they clearly observe [reality] with wisdom, they will understand their suffering, the cause of suffering, the eternal transcendence of suffering, and the eightfold noble path that leads to the peace in nirvana. Taking refuge in them is most excellent and precious. By taking refuge [in the three treasures], it is possible to be liberated from the many kinds of suffering.”[2]

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shohaku Okumura Roshi
[1] Unpublished translation. Another is in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Book 4 (by Nishijima and Cross), p.151.
[2] Unpublished translation. Another is in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Book 4 (by Nishijima and Cross), p.178.

> Other Waka by Dōgen


Copyright 2016 Sanshin Zen Community
Image by Cathy Cawood [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0], via JAPAN in PICTURES

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