The Dharma of Impermanence

Transience Can Spawn Bodhi-Mind

Impermanence

© Can Stock Photo / lilkar

心なき Kokoro naki Even insentient beings
草木も今日は kusaki mo kyo wa such as grasses and trees
しぼむなり shibomu nari wither today.
目に見たる人 meni mitaru hito Seeing them in front of their eyes,
愁へざらめや ure-e zarameya how can people be without grieving?

In his teisho on this waka, Kōdō Sawaki Roshi emphasized the quality of our eyes, whether they are open to see impermanence and whether we can feel grief about the plants’ and our own lives. He compared himself with Dōgen Zenji who deeply realized impermanence by experiencing his mother’s death when he was seven years old.

Seeing the incense smoke at his mother’s funeral, Dōgen aspired to become a Buddhist monk. Sawaki Roshi’s mother died when he was five years old and his father died when he was seven; he was adopted by his aunt, but soon her husband died from a stroke in front of Sawaki Roshi’s eyes in the same year. Then he was adopted by Bunkichi Sawaki.

Though he had such painful experiences, Sawaki Roshi said that he did not really see impermanence; rather, he only worried about who would feed and raise him.

His adopted father Bunkichi was a gambler living in a red-light district. When Sawaki Roshi was eight years old, a middle-aged man died of a stroke in a prostitute’s room nearby. Sawaki Roshi saw the dead man in bed with his wife beside him, crying, “Why did you die in a place like this, of all places?”

Sawaki Roshi was stunned by this miserable scene, and this time impermanence and the impossibility of keeping secrets were inscribed deep in his mind.1 After all, Sawaki Roshi said, “Dōgen Zenji was sharp witted so that he could deeply see impermanence and aroused bodhi-mind by simply seeing the smoke of incense, or withering trees and grasses, but a dull-witted person like me could not feel the same thing until I had much more intense experiences.”

Even though Sawaki Roshi said he was dull-witted compared with Dōgen Zenji, I think he was the only person who had the eyes to see the spiritual meaning of impermanence among the many people who witnessed what happened at the brothel.

All plants — either grasses or trees — know when they sprout, grow, bloom flowers, bear fruits, and wither. Each plant has its own time and season.

If we are mindful, we can see that all things in nature are expressing the Dharma of impermanence. Particularly when we see plants withering, we cannot help but see the transience of our own lives if our eyes are open. We all see that our lives are not at all different from the lives of plants.

Seeing impermanence and feeling grief is a good chance to arouse bodhi-mind. This way of seeing impermanence is essentially different from the common sense of the fragility of life expressed by many Japanese poets. Seeing impermanence and feeling grief is not necessarily negative in Buddhism, especially in Dōgen’s teachings.

Dōgen Zenji says in Shōbōgenzō Hotsu bodaishin (Arousing Bodhicitta):

In general, arousing [bodhi-]mind and attaining the Way both depend on the instantaneous arising and perishing [of all things]. … In this way, whether we wish in our minds or not, being pulled by our past karma, the transmigration within the cycle of life and death continues without stopping for a single ksana *. With the body-mind that is transmigrating in this manner through the cycle of life and death, we should without fail arouse the bodhi-mind of ferrying others before ourselves. Even if, on the way of arousing the bodhi-mind, we hold our body-mind dear, it is born, grows old, becomes sick, and dies; after all, it cannot be our own personal possession. … Our lives arise and perish within each ksana. Their swiftness is like this. Moment after moment, practitioners should not forget this principle. 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.2

Seeing impermanence is not a negative thing in Buddhism even though we feel sad. It is a good chance to arouse bodhi-mind and aspire to practice what the Buddha taught. As Shakyamuni Buddha said in the Sutra on the Buddha’s Bequeathed Teaching, within the practice, the Buddha’s indestructible Dharma Body is actualized.

In the beginning of Shōbōgenzō Genjōkōan Dōgen said, “Therefore, flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.” Then at the end of the same fascicle he wrote, “Since the wind’s nature is ever-present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.”3

By seeing the reality beyond our self-centered desire or expectation, we see our lives are connected with all beings. This waka might have a connection with the case 27 of the Blue Cliff Record “Yunmen’s The Body Exposed, The Golden Wind”:

A monk asked Yunmen, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yunmen said, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”
. 4

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

1 See The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō (Kōshō Uchiyama, Wisdom Publicatins) p.235.
2 Okumura’s unpublished translation.
3 Okumura’s translation in Realizing Genjōkōan (Wisdom Publications, 2010), p.1, p.5
4 The Blue Cliff Record (Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, 1977) p.176.

* An instant; an infinitesimal unit of time.

> Other Waka by Dōgen


Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

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