Painting a scroll

National Palace Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (23)

「六月半示衆」 (六月半衆に示す)

Presented to the Assembly in the Middle [Full Moon Day] of the Sixth Month

Pull yourself by your own nose.
Summer practice period is for painting a scroll.
From now on, only thirty days remain.
Directly make diligent effort to save your head from fire.[1]

自家鼻孔自家牽 (自家の鼻孔自家牽く)
一軸画図九夏天、 (一軸の画を図く九夏の天、)
今後僅残三十日、 (今より後僅かに残る三十日、)
直須精進救頭燃。  (直に須く精進して頭燃を救うべし。)


This is verse 23 in Kuchugen and verse 79 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). There is a slight difference in line 2 of Manzan’s version:

一片工夫九夏天(一片の工夫 九夏の天)
The ninety-day summer practice period is one piece of effort.


Pull yourself by your own nose.
Summer practice period is for painting a scroll.

“Summer practice period” (Skt. varsa, varsika) is a Buddhist tradition dating from Shakyamuni Buddha’s time. The Sanskrit word varsa means “rain.” In India, during the three-month rainy season, Shakyamuni Buddha prohibited monks’ travel in order to prevent the killing of insects and worms while walking on muddy roads. The monks stayed together in one place to focus on studying dharma and practice. Monks were allowed to make a simple hermitage in which to stay during the period. Later, Buddhist monasteries were established as places to stay during the three-month practice period. The rest of the year, the Buddha and the monks were travelling. The practice period is called ge-ango (夏安居, summer peaceful abiding) in Japanese.

This tradition has been continued at Chinese and Japanese Zen monasteries even today. Usually the summer practice period began on the 15th day (the full moon day) of the 4th lunar month and completed on the 15th day of the 7th month. A monk’s dharma age was counted based on how many times the monk had completed the practice period. Those who had attended the practice period more than five times were called acarya (阿闍梨, ajari), and those who had more than ten times were called upadhyaya (和尚, osho) and were able to be a teacher.

Dōgen Zenji put emphasis on the significance of the summer practice period. He wrote Shobogenzo Ango (Peaceful Abiding) in which he describes the formal ceremonies for the beginning and the end of the practice period.

Since the time of the King of the Empty Eon there has been no practice higher than this practice. Buddha ancestors have valued it exclusively, and it is the only thing that has remained free of the confusion caused by demons and deluded people outside the way. In India, China, and Japan all descendants of buddha ancestors have participated in the practice period, but deluded people outside the way have never engaged in it. Because it is the original heart of the single great matter of buddha ancestors, this teaching of practice period is the content of what is expounded from the morning of the Buddha’s attaining the way until the evening of pari-nirvana. There are Five Schools of home leavers in India, but they equally maintain a ninety-day summer practice period and without fail practice it and realize the way; and in China none of the monks in the Nine Schools have ever ignored the summer practice period. Those who have never participated in the summer practice period in their lifetimes cannot be called buddha disciples or monks. Practice period is not only a causal factor; it is itself practice-realization, it is itself the fruit of practice.[2]

The expression “pull yourself by your own nose” comes from the way ancient farmers tamed an ox by making a hole in the ox’s nostril and putting a ring through it. Then when the farmer took the ox to where they had to work, he pulled a rope tied to the ring. Here Dōgen is saying that monks who participate in the practice period should be self-motivated to actively practice together with others. They should not be like an ox who is pulled by others and practice only because they are forced to do so.

“Painting a scroll (一軸画図)“ is a difficult expression to understand. Possibly this expression has something to do with what Dōgen wrote in Shobogeno Zazenshin (Acupuncture Needle of Zazen). In this fascicle, Dōgen introduced the story of Nanyue (Nangaku)’s polishing a tile. In the story, Nanyue visited his disciple Mazu (Baso) who was always sitting.

Once Nanyue visited Mazu and asked, “Great worthy, what do you aim at (図, zu) in practicing zazen?”
Baso said, “I am aiming at becoming Buddha (図作佛).”

In his comments on this story, Dōgen interprets “aiming at (図)” as “painting” or “illustrating.” He says,

We should know, Mazu is saying that zazen is, without fail, aiming at becoming-buddha. Zazen is always the aiming of becoming-buddha (作佛の図).

Dōgen interprets this Chinese character 図 as “painting.” He also says:

Do not become stuck in loving a carved dragon, we should go forward and love the real dragon. We should study that both the carved dragon and the real dragon have the power of forming clouds and rain. Neither value the remote nor disparage what is remote. Be accustomed and intimate with the remote. Neither disparage what is close nor value the close. Be accustomed and intimate with the close. Do not take the eyes lightly nor attach too much weight to the eyes. Do not put too much weight to the ear nor take the ears too lightly. Make both the ears and eyes sharp and clear.

In this poem Dōgen says that our nothing special, day-to-day practice according to Buddha’s teaching during the practice period is painting buddha, the same as our zazen. Even though our practice is not mature enough, much less perfect, still as he says in Shobogenzo Ango:

Therefore, to see a practice period is to see buddha; to realize a practice period is to realize buddha; to practice a practice period is to practice buddha; to hear a practice period is to hear buddha; and to study a practice period is to study buddha.[3]

From now on, only thirty days remain.
Directly make diligent effort to save your head from fire.

This poem was composed on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, that is, around the middle to the end of July in the solar calendar. It is the hottest and most humid time of the year in Japan. Probably Dōgen sees that his monks are tired both mentally and physically. He wants to encourage them to practice diligently for another thirty days. “To save your head from fire (救頭燃)” is an analogy used in some sutras. When we have a fire on our head, we immediately and wholeheartedly rush to extinguish it to save our head from burning, without thinking. Dōgen Zenji uses this expression in Gakudo-yojinshu, Shobogenzo Zazengi, and a few other fascicles. In the same way, Dōgen encourages his monks to practice wholeheartedly during the final thirty days of the practice period.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10-79, p.631) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

[2] Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala) p.739-740

[3] Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala) p.741

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

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