Peach and plum, pine and bamboo

Copyright©2019 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (18)

「春雪夜」「春雪の夜」

Snowy Night in Spring

Peach and plum blossoms under snow and frost are not what I love.
In green pines and emerald bamboo, so much cloudy mist.
Even though not yet stained with chicken skin and crane hair,
For some decades I have abandoned fame and gain.[1]

桃李雪霜非愛処 (桃李雪霜愛処に非ず、)
青松翠竹幾雲煙 (青松翠竹幾くの雲煙ぞ、)
鶏皮鶴髪縦無染 (鶏皮鶴髪縦い染むること無くとも、)
名利抛來數十年 (名利抛て來る數十年。)

This is verse 18 in Kuchugen and verse 71 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This poem in Menzan’s version is quite different. Only the last line is the same:

桃李假娟我曷憐 (桃李娟を假るも我れ曷んぞ憐まん)
I don’t appreciate peach and plum blooming beautifully,
松杉失翠或應悁 (松杉翠を失う或た應に悁うべし)
Rather I have pity on the pines and cedars losing their green color [being covered by the snow].
道人忘卻紛飛意 (道人忘卻す紛飛の意)
A person of the Way forgets the [monkey-] mind that is jumping around in disorder.
名利抛來數十年 (名利を抛って來る數十年)
For some decades, I have abandoned [desire for] fame and gain.

 

Peach and plum blossoms under snow and frost are not what I love.
In green pines and emerald bamboo, so much cloudy mist.

It is difficult for me to understand this poem in the Monkaku-bon version. This is a poem about snow falling in a spring night. The Chinese character桃 (Ch. Tao, Jp. momo, Prunus persica) is peach and the Chinese character 李 (Ch. Li, Jp. sumomo, Prunus salicina) is usually called plum in English. This is different from ume(梅, Japanese apricot, Prunus mume) though that is also called “plum” in English. These characters (桃李 peach and plum) are often used together. For example, there is a famous saying from Shiji (Jp. Shiki, 史記) by Simaqian (Jp. Shibasen, 司馬遷) about the virtuous personality of a general who was respected by all people:

桃李不言下自成蹊 (桃李言わざれども下自ら蹊を成す)
Peach and plum do not say anything but underneath these trees, naturally a trail is made.

Their flowers are beautiful and their fruits are tasty, so many people come to the trees and naturally make a trail. This might be a rough equivalent to the English proverb: “Good wine needs no bush.” In Chinese culture, peach is also a symbol of longevity.

Ume blooms at Eiheiji in the very early spring when the ground is completely covered with snow. Dogen loves the image of ume blossoms in the snow. Peach and sumomo (translated as “plum”) bloom in mid-spring after the snow has melted away. If the peach and plum flowers were covered with snow, it must have been really unusual weather. In this poem, Dogen writes that on a spring night, they had unusually late snow on the peach and plum blossoms. But he says he does not love them.

Right after moving from Kyoto to Echizen, Dogen saw snowfall on the bright leaves in the fall. He was moved by the beauty and composed a waka poem:

In the month of long nights
it snowed
on the bright leaves
Why don’t those who see this
compose a poem?

Although the situation in his Chinese poem is similar to this waka, white snow on the bright fall leaves and snow on the spring flowers, in his Chinese poem he says he does not love the scenery. The expression Dogen uses is 非愛処 (not a place to love) – the same expression Shitou (Jp. Sekito) used in his “Song of the Grass-hut”— “I don’t love what worldly people love (世人愛処我不愛).” This seems to be quite a strong negation. Exactly what does he not love? The flowers of peach and plum, or the snow and frost which cover the beautiful flowers and possibly damages them, making them unable to produce their fruit?

In the second line, he says that the green colors of pine needles and emerald bamboo are also covered by the cloudy mist so that they are not seen clearly. The green color of pine needles and bamboo is commonly appreciated as the symbol of fidelity and constancy. Things beautiful and faithful are covered by the snow and the mist. What does this scenery mean to Dogen?

Even though not yet stained with chicken skin and crane hair,
For some decades I have abandoned fame and gain.

Chicken skin (鶏皮) refers to a winkled face of an aged person. Crane hair (鶴髪) means white hair like a crane’s feather. These are symbols of aging. It seems that Dogen says he is not yet so old. Nyo (名) is fame and ri (利) is profit. He has abandoned his desire for fame and profit since the time he became a Buddhist monk at the age of thirteen. As he often said and wrote, being free from the desires for fame and profit is one of the most important virtues for a Buddhist monk.

I don’t quite understand this poem in Monkaku version. The relationship between the first three lines and the last line is not clear to me. Peach and plum blossoms and the green color of pine and bamboo are beautiful, and people love them. But spring snow and mist cover their beauty. Smooth skin and black hair are desirable symbol of youth, but gradually change into chicken skin and crane hair – like the spring snow and cloudy mist which cover the beautiful colors of flowers, pine needles, and bamboo. It seems that although Dogen is getting closer to old age, he has neither love nor hatred for these things. Or possibly he expresses that even though he has abandoned worldly values such as fame and profit since he was young, he still feels some sadness when he sees that the aging process is already beginning.

Menzan’s version of this poem is more understandable to me. In this version, Dogen does not say that he sees peach and plum blossoms covered with snow and frost. He simply says he does not appreciate their luxurious beauty that most worldly people love. What he actually sees is the green colors of pine needles and cedar leaves getting covered and hidden by the snow. He has sympathy for them, for keeping their faithfulness and beauty even when covered by snow. In this version, peach and plum represent what worldly people love, and pine and cedar trees covered with snow are not appreciated by worldly people, who don’t even come to see them.

The practice of Dogen and his monks practicing on a remote mountain is like the faithfulness of cedars and pines. As a person of the Way, he is free from the monkey-mind that jumps in a disorderly way among beautiful and valuable things such as peach and plum blossoms in the worldly system of value. Rather, Dogen identifies himself with the pine and cedar trees in the snow. He has been living in this way for several decades since he became a Buddhist monk, even before he moved to Echizen. Faithful and continuous practice of just sitting without gaining mind, that is good for nothing, is not appreciated in the market place, but Dogen Zenji is completely committed to the practice.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-71, p.628) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

2 thoughts on “Peach and plum, pine and bamboo

  1. Pingback: Peach and plum, pine and bamboo | The Dōgen Institute | The Land of the Wu 巫

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