Nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō
Master Dōgen tells the following story in Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō. We’ve created a composite version from talks by Shōhaku Okumura now available in our latest bandcamp audio release. It’s entitled “Radiant Light: 9 talks on Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō.”
The Tang Emperor Xianzong1 requested someone to bring the buddha’s relics from Famen Temple to the palace for making offerings to them. On that occasion, in the night, people saw the radiant light. The emperor was greatly delighted.
In the early morning of the next day all his retainers presented letters of congratulation saying, “It is the response of the sacred to His Majesty’s sacred virtue.”
At the time, there was a minister whose name was Hanyu Wengong2. He had studied buddha dharma at the end of the seat of a buddha-ancestor. Wengong alone did not write a letter of congratulation.
Emperor Xianzong asked, “All the other retainers have presented letters of congratulation. Why do you not present a letter of congratulation?”
Wengong answered, “Your humble retainer has taken a look at a Buddhist text. It is said that the buddha light is not blue, yellow, red, or white. The light we had this time is the radiant light of the dragon-gods as the sign of their protection.”
The Emperor asked, “What is the buddha-light like?”
Wengong did not answer.3
As Dōgen tells it, the ministers of the Chinese Emperor wrote letters to him offering congratulations upon the appearance of light from the Buddha’s relics, but one person, Wengong, did not. Wengong said that light appearing from the Buddha’s relics is not Buddha’s light.
Okumura-rōshi reveals, “When I first read just Dōgen’s writing Kōmyō, I really didn’t understand the point of this fascicle. In order to understand what Dōgen is discussing, especially in this story of the Buddha’s relics emitting light, we need to study the original meanings of this word “kōmyō” in Buddhist scriptures. I think even Dōgen Zenji studied those kind of things, so he was very familiar with those categorizations of the different kinds of light. By studying how this word has been used in Buddhism, both in early Buddhism and later in the Mahayana sutras, I started to understand the point of Dōgen’s discussion.”
When we read Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō, the difference between kōmyō as an object of our eye sense organs and the kind of kōmyō that is not the object of our eyes is really important.
The discussion in this story is about the difference between these two kind of kōmyō — in Sanskrit these are even two different words, but when the Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, somehow these were translated by the same word. So please keep it in your mind that these two kōmyō are really two different things. One is the object of our eyesight and another is the light emitted by Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or other beings, even from human beings.
So in this story, Wengong said that the light emitted by the relics is not buddha’s light—that kind of light should be something that cannot be seen by our eyesight; that is the point of this story.
But Dōgen kind of made a twist, which is another main point of this fascicle Kōmyō.
If Buddha’s Dharma body is this entire universe, even all those colors which are the object of eyesight are not outside of Buddha’s light— so this is kind of a twist.
Those things we usually see are not Buddha’s light, but Buddha’s light is not separate from those things we see and experience in day-to-day life.
The fascicle discusses the relationship between these two. Those kinds of light are not Dōgen’s creation, but this kind of structure of the light — Buddha’s light, and the monk’s light or practitioners light — and the connection between these two things, is a main point of this writing Kōmyō.
And Rōshi thinks a third point is made by asking: when we see — often our eyes are open to this Buddha’s light — how should we live? What does our life look like?
At the end of Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō, Dōgen introduces a few more kōan stories of Chinese Zen masters, and finally he mentions that the abbot returns to the abbot’s room, the tenzo goes to the kitchen, and monks go to the zendo. That is how we emit this light. Not only do monks return to the sōdō or monk’s hall (in other words, sitting, meditation practice, or zazen) but the tenzo goes to kitchen and the abbot goes to abbot’s room — the kind of usual day-to-day activity within the monastery. That is how we can live being illuminated by Buddha’s light.
This is a kind of an introduction to Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō4.
Radiant Light: 9 talks on Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō — you’ll find the entire digital album here.
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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Rōshi
“Radiant Light: 9 talks on Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō” is also available for sale on the Dōgen Institute’s audio page.
Photograph by: Jon Fife. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode. Disclaimer. Link to materials. Original photograph modified for use in this instance. We offer our thanks to Mr. Fife for his permission to use this photograph.
[1 ] The Tang Emperor Xianzong (Kenso) reigned 806-821. He was father of the two emperors, Muzong (Bokuso, 821-825) and Xuanzong (Senso, 847-860). Xianzong was also grandfather of the three emperors, Jingzong (Keiso, 825-827), Wenzong (Bunso, 827-841), and Wuzong (Buso, 841-846).
[2 ] Hanyu (Kan Yu) Wengong (Bunko) also had a pen name, Tuizhi (Taishi).
[3 ] Shōbōgenzō Kōmyō, unpublished translation copyright 2017 by Shōhaku Okumura
[4 ]Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community