The Long and Short of It

Poem on “Shortening the Dark Night of Ignorance”


足びきの Ashibiki no
山鳥の尾の yamadori no o no After the long long night,
しだり尾の shidario no as long as
長長し夜も naga -naga shi yo mo the dragging tail of the copper pheasant,
明けてけるかな akete keru kana morning is finally dawning!

Ashibiki no” is a pillow word (decorative word used prefixally in classical Japanese literature) for yama (mountain). “Yamadori” literally means mountain birds, but in Japan, yamadori refers to the copper pheasant (Syrmaticus Soemmerringii) endemic to Japan that has a coppery chestnut plumage and a long tail. “Shidario” is the long, dragging tail of the bird. This modifies “naganagashi” which means very very long. “Ashibikino yamadori no o no shidario no” modifies “naga-nagashi.” And all of the words until here modified “yo,” night.

Until here, the meaning is, “the very long night like the dragging tail of the copper pheasant.” This part is an adaptation of an older famous waka poem from the Manyoshu, attributed to the famous poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (of the late 7th to the early 8th century) and included in Hyakunin-isshu (The Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets). This is a technique of waka called honkadori (adoption from the original waka). Dōgen took the first three lines of this waka from the famous waka, “Ashibiki no yamadori no o no shidario no naga-nagashi yo wo hitori ka mo nemu.” (Must I sleep alone through the long night as long as a tail of the copper pheasant?”) It is said that male and female copper pheasants sleep separately. This waka is about the loneliness of a couple, or family, living separately. Dōgen only changes “wo” to “mo,” that means “even”. Basically this waka is simply saying the long night is ending with the dawn.

In Buddhism, the long night refers to life-and-death transmigrating in the six realms of samsara. Living beings have been living for the long time in the darkness of ignorance. And, even this long night being pulled by ignorance begins to end with dawn, because of the study and practice of the Dharma, or faith in the Buddha’s compassion. This is a common understanding of the long and dark night in Buddhism. It seems this waka describes the surprise, exclamation, and joy of seeing the morning begin to dawn after the long dark night, in the brightness of the morning sun. This is the turning point of our lives from cause and result of the Second and the First Noble Truths to the Fourth and the Third Noble Truths.

In Eiheikoroku Volume 7, Dharma discourse 479, Dōgen quotes a saying by the Buddha:

“Life and death is long; life and death is short. If we rely on greed, anger, and foolishness, then [the cycle of suffering of] life and death is long. If we rely on precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, then this life and death is short.”

According to this saying, the dark night of ignorance is not necessarily long. When we change the foundation of our lives from the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance) to the three basic studies (precepts, samadhi, and wisdom), then the transformation is actualized here and now.

In Shobogenzo Hotsubodaishin (Arousing Bodhi-mind), Dōgen writes:

“Arousing [bodhi-]mind is to arouse the mind of ferrying others before oneself for the first time . . . After having aroused this mind, we further meet with innumerable buddhas and make offerings to them, we see buddhas and hear dharmas, and further arouse bodhi-mind. It is like adding frost on the snow. … When we compare anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (supreme awakening) with first arousing bodhi-mind, they are like the kalpa-gni and the fire of a firefly. However, when we arouse the mind of ferrying across others before ourselves, these two are not at all different . . . This mind is neither one’s self nor others; it does not come [from somewhere else]. However, after having aroused this mind, when we touch the great earth, everything [on the earth] becomes gold, and when we stir the great ocean, [the water in the ocean] becomes sweet dew.”

Dōgen also writes,

“While being within this swiftness of arising and perishing of transmigration in each ksana, if we arouse one single thought of ferrying others before ourselves, the eternal longevity [of the Tathagata] immediately manifests itself.”

These sayings show both sides of Dōgen’s teaching: the long continuous practice, and the immediate transformation.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2016 Sanshin Zen Community

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