Visiting teachers to ask about the way

Herbythyme [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (17)

「與禪人求頌」 (「禪人の頌を求むるに與う」)

Given to a Zen Person Asking for a Verse

Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.
Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.[1]

尋師訪道是參禪、 (尋師訪道是れ參禪、)
此段風流自古傳、 (此の段の風流古より傳わる、)
誰恨江山千萬疊、 (誰か恨みん江山千萬疊、)
還郷脚下悉良縁。 (郷に還れば脚下悉く良縁。)

This is verse 17 in Kuchugen and verse 64 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). This poem in Menzan’s version is quite different:

瞻風撥草要參禪 (瞻風撥草、參禪を要す
For yearning after [the ancestors’] wind and clearing away the weeds [of our minds], we need to practice Zen.
祖意明明妙不傳 (祖意明明なり妙不傳
The intention of the ancestral master is clear and wonderous, but not-transmitted
恨江山千萬疊 (恨むこと莫れ、江山千萬疊)
Do not regret [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains.
頭頭爲汝闢玄門 頭頭汝が爲に玄門を闢く
Each and every one of them opens the gate of profound [truth] for you.


Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.

From the beginning of the history of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples were great travelers. They held a three-month practice period during rainy season. The rest of the year, they did not stay in any one place but travelled around. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to travel, saying:

“Go forth for the good of the many, the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the people of the world, for the good and happiness of gods and human beings. Let not two of you take the same road [so that the greatest number of people will be exposed to the teaching]. …There are in the world those whose eyes are covered by little dust, yet because they do not hear the teaching they are far from the Truth. [If they hear it] they will thoroughly understand the Truth. And I too will go to the village of Sena in Uruvela, there to preach the teaching.”[2]

Shakyamuni lived traveling in this way for about forty years, until the very end of his life. Even after monasteries were established, travelling was a very important part of the practice and teaching activities of Buddhist monks.

In the Chinese Zen tradition, the custom of the three-month summer practice period was maintained. Zen monks stayed at a monastery during the summer practice period, but the rest of the year they could travel. In the 8th century, Mazu (Baso) lived in Jiangxi (江西, Jp. Kosei) and Shitou (Sekito) lived in Hunan (湖南, Jp. Konan). These two were considered the two greatest masters of that period. Many monks traveled between their monasteries to attend their practice periods. Even today, practice period is called Goko-e (江湖会), after the names of where they lived. Since then, it is a common practice for Zen monks to travel seeking a teacher best for them. Many Zen koan stories are about making pilgrimage searching for a true teacher.

“This state of fine simplicity” is a translation of 風流 (Ch. fengliu; Jp. furyu) commonly translated as “artistic,” “tasteful,” “distinguished,” or “refined.” In this case, the word means the beyond-worldly, undefiled way of life transmitted from ancient times. Monks traveled only for the sake of searching out authentic teachers with whom to study the Dharma.

Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.

Dōgen Zenji’s first trip seeking the Way was his walk in 1212 from Kohata, Uji to the temple his maternal uncle lived in near Mt. Hiei. According to Dōgen’s biography, Fujiwara Motofusa (his maternal grandfather) wished to adopt him, and was planning for the ceremony to celebrate his coming of age. But Dōgen secretly left home and visited his uncle Ryokan, who was a Tendai monk and lived at the foot of Mt. Hiei. Probably it took Dōgen less than half a day to walk there.

While Dōgen was studying as a novice at the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, it is said that he had a serious question: If all living beings are inherently enlightened, why did buddhas and ancestors have to go through difficult study and practice? In Bendowa, he wrote,

“After arousing bodhi mind and beginning to seek the dharma, I traveled throughout this country and visited various teachers.”

Probably he visited teachers at the various temples on Mt. Hiei, teachers at Kojōin within Onjōji (Miidera), another main monastery of the Tendai school, located by Lake Biwa and near Mt. Hiei, and some teachers in Kyoto area, possibly including Eisai at Kenninji. Since Dōgen practiced at Mt. Hiei until he was seventeen years old, it is difficult for me to think that he could have traveled extensively outside of the Kyoto area. All of the above places are within the distance of a one-day walk.

When Dōgen writes, “travelling [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains,” he may be writing about his own experiences. In other works, he writes about his travel from Japan to China and about making pilgrimage in China. By the time he met his teacher Tiantong Rujing in the fifth month of 1225, he had traveled quite extensively – probably from the end of the summer practice period in the seventh month of 1224 until the beginning of the practice period in the fourth month of 1225. He visited many Zen monasteries and at least seven Zen masters. It seems he was disappointed because he did not find a true teacher for himself. But when he returned to Tiantong monastery, he found that a great teacher was waiting for him, the new abbot of the monastery, Rujing (Nyojo).

However, in this poem, he writes that all of the experiences he had during this pilgrimage were meaningful and appreciated. Traveling through many mountains and rivers, visiting many villages, towns, and cities, meeting with various people, and experiencing hard times and good times must have been a wonderful way of studying the Dharma in a very concrete way. The process of travelling was equally important and educational as achieving the goal, finding a true teacher.

I did not need to travel to find my teacher. A classmate at my high school allowed me to read Uchiyama Roshi’s book, and Roshi lived in Kyoto not far from where I lived in Osaka. After coming to the USA in 1975, I travelled from California to Massachusetts twice – once by car with several friends, and another time alone by Greyhound bus. I also travelled from Valley Zendo to New York City regularly to do sesshin there for a few years around 1980, sometimes by bus and other times by hitch-hiking. I studied many things about American people from those travel experiences.

From 1997 to 2010, I travelled much more extensively by airplane to visit many Zen centers in the USA from the West coast to the East coast, from Alaska to Florida. But traveling in the air is different than traveling on the earth. Sitting on a small seat in an airplane is not interesting at all. The only meaningful way to spend the time is reading a book or working on a laptop computer. I could do such things at my home much more comfortably.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10-64, p.626) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

[2] Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts volume 1 (Hajime Nakamura, Kosei, 2000) p.285-286.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

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