Gautama’s eyes

Photo copyright David S. Thompson

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (12)



The five-petal flower opens; a sixth [snowflake] petal’s added.
Though daytime with blue sky, it’s as if there were no light.
If someone asks what color I see,
These are Gautama’s old eyes.[1]

五葉華開重六葉、 (五葉華開いて六葉を重ぬ、)
青天白日似無明、 (青天白日明無きに似たり、)
若人問我看何色、 (若し人我に何なる色をか看ると問わば、)
此是瞿曇老眼睛 (此れは是れ瞿曇の老眼睛。)

This is verse 12 in Kuchugen and verse 88 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is one of the 4 poems about “snow” in Kuchugen. In Manzan’s version, there is a little difference in the first line:

The five-petal flower opens; one petal is added.

And the second line is completely different:

Being blown by a clear wind, snowflakes are fluttering

The five-petal flower opens; a sixth [snowflake] petal’s added.
Though daytime with blue sky, it’s as if there were no light.

The five-petal flower (五葉華) refers to a plum blossom, which has five petals. Plum blossoms bloom in mid-winter to early spring, typically around January until late February. It is highly regarded as a symbol of winter and a forerunner of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are blooming lively in the winter snow, radiating with a subtle elegance. They are the symbol of perseverance and hope, as well as beauty, purity, and the brevity of life.

This expression “five petals” has also a connection with the transmission verse of Bodhidharma:


I originally came to this country
To transmit the Dharma and save deluded beings.
When the single flower opens into five petals
Then the fruit will ripen naturally of itself.

“A sixth [snowflake] petal’s added (重六葉)” can be translated as “six-petal flowers are added.” Because a snow crystal is hexagonal, in Chinese literature snow is sometimes called a six-petal flower. This line describes the scenery of midwinter to early spring. The entire earth is covered in snow, but plum blossoms— the earliest flower— are already blooming on a branch. It is continually snowing on the blossoms.

Even though it was a fine day with blue sky, when it begins to snow, the brightness of the sky disappears. It is still cold and gloomy winter. In the phrase, “It’s as if there were no light,” “no light” (無明) can mean, “lacking wisdom,” or “ignorance.”  Even though the flower of buddha’s awakening is already open through our practice, we still feel we are in the darkness of ignorance.

If someone asks what color I see,
These are Gautama’s old eyes.

In these two lines, “old eyes” and “color” of the blossoms have a relationship with each other. “Color” is the object of “eyes.” However, Dogen says that the plum blossoms he is seeing are Buddha’s eyes. This refers to Tiantong Rujing’s poem on the occasion of Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. In Shobogenzo Baika (Plum Blossom), Dogen Zenji quotes this poem from his teacher Tiantong Rujing’s Dharma Hall discourse:


At that time when Gautama lost his eyeball,
In the snow, there was only single branch of plum blossoms.
Right now, thorns are growing everywhere.
Rather I laugh at the spring wind blowing lively.[2]

Rujing says that when Shakyamuni Buddha attained awakening while sitting under the bodhitree, the Buddha lost his eyes, that is, when he saw the reality of no-self (anatman), the dichotomy between subject (eyes) and object (bright star) is dropped off. He found interdependent origination with all beings. That is the meaning of the famous expression, “I, together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously attain the Way.”

In the same manner, in Dogen’s Chinese poem, the dichotomy of subject (eyes) and object (plum blossoms) is dropped off. Dogen says that the Buddha’s lost eyes appear as the plum blossoms in front of his own eyes. The plum blossoms in the snow are the Buddha’s lost eyes.

Rujing also says that when the Buddha had awakening under the bodhi tree, there was only one awakened person in the world, but later in the history of Buddhism, when the spring wind blew, many branches grew everywhere. Here is Dogen’s comment on Rujing’s poem:

The plum blossom in the snow is the emergence of an udumbara flower. How often do we see our Buddha Tathagata’s eyeball of the true dharma, and yet we miss his blink and we fail to smile? Right now, we have authentically transmitted and accepted that the plum blossom in the snow is truly the Tathagata’s eyeball. We take it up and hold it as the eye at the top of the head, as the pupil within the eye. When we further go into the plum blossom and penetrate into them, there is no reason for doubting it. It is already the eyeball of “above and below the heavens, I alone am the honored one,” and it is “the most honored one within the dharma world.

In this passage, “an udumbara” is a name of a tree that is said to bloom only once every three thousand years. Because it blooms so rarely, this flower is used in similes to indicate something extremely rare and precious, such as the appearance of a buddha in the world or the chance of encountering the buddhadharma during one’s lifetime. Dogen is saying here that each time we see plum blossoms is the only time we can see them. If we miss it now, we cannot see it again. Next year’s plum blossoms are not this year’s blossoms. Even though we encounter such precious Dharma here and now, we almost always fail to smile and accept it as buddhadharma. If we can see the blossoms in the snow as buddha’s eyes, we must be very grateful. This is what Dogen expresses in this Chinese poem.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-87, p.635) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

[2] This poem and the following comment by Dogen are Okumura’s unpublished translation.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community

2 thoughts on “Gautama’s eyes

  1. Friend

    Beautiful poem and very profound. Without the Okumura Roshi’s comments on linking the literature and sources. We wouldn’t have chances to read Dogen’s poem like this.

    Thank you for helping us see the blossoming of the flower from the Buddha, Bodhidharma and through Dogen to our modern age.

    sabba danam dhamma danam jinati
    Of all gifts, the gift of Dharma excels all.
    – Dhammapada

  2. erikleo

    A wonderful post. Recently I have been contemplating how we can avoid what I call Groundhog Day ‘imprisonment.’ You know; the repetitive nature of life: get up, go to work, eat, go to sleep, wake up. Actually, the only way I know how, is to meditate; sitting and working meditation! Otherwise it is all too easy to slip into Groundhog Day consciousness!


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