Eternity within impermanence
|朝日待つ||asahi matsu||The dewdrops on a blade of grass,|
|草葉の露の||kusaba no tsuyu no||waiting for the morning sunrise,|
|ほどなきに||hodo naki ni||[are existing] only for a short while.|
|急ぎな立ちそ||isogina tachi so||Autumn wind in the field!|
|野辺の秋風||nobe no akikaze||“Don’t begin to blow in a hurry.”|
A dewdrop is beautiful and yet stays only for a short time. There are expressions such as 露珠 (roshu), a dewdrop that is as beautiful as a jewel and 露華 (roka), dewdrops shining in the sunlight like flowers. Our life, that is precious but impermanent without perpetual self-nature, is also compared to a dewdrop (露命, romei), dewdrop-like life. Dogen Zenji used this expression several times, for example, in Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen):
Furthermore, your body is like a drop of dew on a blade of grass; your life is like a flash of lightening. Your body will disappear soon; your life will be lost in an instant.1
While I stayed at Valley Zendo in western Massachusetts, I worked harvesting blueberries at a blueberry farm for a few weeks in the summer for several years. In the early mornings, the blueberry field was so beautiful. Each and every blueberry and the leaves on the plants were covered with dewdrops. In the morning sun, the many acres of the blueberry field looked like a carpet of bright jewels. However soon after sun rose a little higher and the air got warm, all of the dewdrops completely disappeared.
In this waka, Dogen describes dewdrops on a blade of grass on an early autumn morning. The dewdrops stay only for a short while on a blade of grass until the sun rises. When the cold autumn wind blows, even the grass on which the dewdrops stay will wither. Seeing this scenery of the change of season, we human beings feel loneliness and sadness, and have some sympathy or even compassion toward the dewdrops and the grasses. We see our lives are the same as theirs. Soon or later we will all disappear, and we don’t know when.
This is the same reality as Kamo no Chomei wrote about in the Hojoki, which I introduced previously. However in the case of Dogen, this is not a pessimistic view of life. He sees beauty and dignity of life in impermanence. As Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo Genjokoan, every dewdrop reflects the boundless moon light. He sees eternity within impermanence. He also writes in Tenzo Kyokun (Instruction for the Cook):
“Although drawn by the voices of spring, do not wander over spring meadows; viewing the fall colors, do not allow your heart to fall. The four seasons cooperate in a single scene; regard light and heavy with a single eye.”2
We see that spring will come again and plants, flowers, insects, birds and all living beings will become active again. We don’t need to be overwhelmed by the cold autumn wind.
1 Okumura’s unpublished translation.
2 Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A translation of Eihei Shingi (Taigen Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, SUNY), p.49
Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi
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