Beyond Our Grasp

A waka suggesting reality outside of thought

如何なるか Ika naru ka
仏と謂うと Hotoke to iu to If someone asked me,
人問はば Hito towaba “What is Buddha?”
かいやか下に Kaiya ga shita ni [I would say], “There is ice
つららいにけり Tsurara i ni keri underneath the kaiya.”


© Can Stock Photo / Foto-Ruhrgebiet

The first half of this waka is not difficult at all. This is a simple question asking what Buddha is. But the second half that is the answer to this question, is difficult because we are not sure what “kaiya” refers to.

It is said that this is an old word used from the time of the Manyōshu (the oldest collection of waka poems compiled in 9th century).

According to the traditional commentaries, there are three possibilities:

1. 鹿火屋 (deer fire hut)
2. 蚊火屋 (mosquito fire hut)
3. 蚕屋 (silkworm hut)

Ya means “roof” or some kind of a structure like a hut or a shack.

The first possibility is a hut to make a fire in the night, meant to chase deer away and protect vegetables or grains.

Mosquitos and other insects will come to the fire. There is the following proverb: “The summer insects fly to their death in a flame of their own accord.”

A silkworm hut needed to be kept warm, so that sericulturists made fire whenever necessary.

Steven Heine translated this word as “a mosquito net.” Rev. Rosan Yoshida’s translation is “silkworm hut.” All these three words have something to do with fire and heat.

Kaiya” for us is like the Sanskrit word “saindhava” which has four different meanings: salt, a cup, water, and a horse. Dōgen Zenji wrote one fascicle of Shobogenzo OsakusendabaKing Seeks Saindhava.” The servant needed to know exactly what his king was asking when he said, “Give me the saindhava.”

If the king asked saindhava when he wanted to wash his face, the servant gave him some water. If the king asked saindhava during a meal, the servant gave him some salt. If the king asked saindhava after eating, the servant offered a cup for some drink. If the king asked saindhava when he wanted to go out, the servant brought a horse.

The wise servant could know what the word meant depending upon what the king was doing at that moment. However, we don’t know even what “kaiya” meant, because we don’t know what Dōgen was seeing or thinking when he wrote this waka. We need to guess.

In modern Japanese, “tsurara” refers to an icicle, a hanging piece of ice formed by freezing of dripping water. Both Heine and Yoshida translated this word as “icicle.” But according to a dictionary of Japanese archaisms, in classic Japanese before Tokugawa period (1603-1867), “icicle” was called “taruhi (垂氷, hanging ice)” and “tsurara” refered to “ice” in general in the horizontal surface of water. I don’t understand how ice can be formed underneath some kind of a hut or a shack?

In Fukanzazengi, Dogen says, “In doing zazen, the koan manifests itself; it cannot be ensnared.” In this case, “koan” refers to the reality before or beyond human thinking.
—Shōhaku Okumura

Anyway, here are two opposite things that cannot be together: fire/heat and ice. The traditional commentaries interpreted this waka poem showing interpenetration of ji (事) and ri (理), or hen (偏) and sho (正), that refer to the absolute reality and the conventional reality, the principle and the phenomena, etc. They referenced a quote by Zen Master Caoshan Benji (Sozan Honjaku, 840-901) saying, “Within fire, cold ice is formed (燄裡寒氷結).” This expression by Caoshan is a part of his verses on the Five Ranks.

Today’s commentator, Akio Matsumoto, who is not a Soto Zen master or scholar, but rather an expert of Japanese literature, introduced a waka poem composed by Fujiwara Kinzane (1043 – 1107) included in a collection of waka, Horikawa Hyakushu (One Hundred Waka Poems in the Era of Emperor Horikawa) in which almost the same expressions appears: “kaiya ga shita mo koori shinikeri (かひ屋がしたも/氷しにけり、Ice is formed even underneath the kaiya).”

Koori” is common word for ice. According to Matsumoto, in this waka, “kaiya” was a device for catching fish. A bundle of twigs of trees was put under water. Small fish stayed in the bundle of twigs, then people lifted it up and caught the fish. In the winter, a roof was put above such a device to prevent the surface of the water from freezing. The roof was called “飼屋, kaiya.”

Kinzane described the scenery of an exceptionally cold winter day, the temperature was much colder than usual and even underneath the roof (kaiya), water was frozen and people could not catch any fish.

I like this interpretation better than the traditional one. In his waka poems, when Dōgen describes the scenery of seasons, he usually does not refer to any phenomena that is not possible to see. If we interpret in the first way, “ice in the fire,” this is something we cannot see in the phenomenal world. Then this waka becomes an expression of a philosophical idea. “Ice in the fire” becomes an expression of the concept of interpenetration of opposite things. I don’t think that is what Dōgen would do at least in his waka poems. His expressions of nature in his waka are pretty much a sketch of what he sees.

Then what does this waka mean if we adopt the second interpretation?

Kaiya” is a device to catch fish invented by human beings. However, it is too cold to get fish. The man-made device does not work when the temperature is colder than expected.

I think, Dōgen is saying that Buddha is something beyond what human beings can hold with our thinking mind. In Fukanzazengi, Dōgen says, “In doing zazen, the koan manifests itself; it cannot be ensnared.” In this case, “koan” refers to the reality before or beyond human thinking. “Cannot be ensnared” literally means that there is no way to catch it using net and cage (籮籠, raro), that is a device to catch the bird (reality) and a cage to keep it as our possessions.

I think this waka is saying that Buddha is something beyond all human agency to grasp because we are a tiny part of it. Dōgen likes the expression from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “Only Buddha together with Buddha.” We have to open our hands of human thinking and let go. Then the Buddha that is beyond human thinking is revealed.

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

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