Advice to a practitioner

Copyright©2020 Misaki C. Kido
Copyright©2020 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (35)

Given to Zen Person Nin from Mount Kōya


Polishing a tile to make a mirror depends on effort.
We should know this is still stuck halfway along the path.
If you ask the true meaning of coming from the west,
On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.

磨甎作鏡藉功夫 (甎を磨いて鏡と作すは功夫に藉る)
可識斯猶滯半途 (識るべし斯れ猶お半途に滯る、)
若問西來眞的旨 (若し西來の眞の的旨を問わば、)
噴噴地上觜盧都 (噴噴地上に觜盧都す。)

This is verse 34 in Kuchugen and verse 52 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has some differences in the second line:

脚下須知滯半途 (脚下須らく知るべし半途に滯ることを)
We should know that, underneath our feet, we are still halfway along the path.


Given to Zen Person Nin from Mount Kōya

Mount Kōya is a sacred mountain in the northern part of Wakayama Prefecture. In 816 CE, Emperor Saga donated the mountain to Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon tradition (Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism). There Kūkai established Kongōbuji, the main monastery of his Shingon School. There are more than one hundred temples on the mountain. Kūkai’s Shingon School and Saichō’s Tendai School were the two most powerful Buddhist schools in the Heian Period (794–1192). As far as I know, Dōgen Zenji did not have any connection with the Shingon School. Although Keizan’s Denkōroku (Transmission of Light) says that the funeral of Dōgen’s mother took place at the Shingon temple Takao-dera (or Jingoji) near Kyoto, today’s scholars do not think that it actually happened there.

There was one temple on Mt. Kōya which had a connection with Dōgen, through Myōan Eisai (1141–1215), the first Japanese monk who transmitted Rinzai Zen from China, and through Eisai’s main disciple, Taikō Gyōyū (1163–1241), the second abbot of Kenninji. Just as Eisai was already an established Tendai master before he practiced Zen, and continued to have a connection with the Tendai School after establishing Kenninji, Gyōyū was a well-known Shingon monk even before he became Eisai’s disciple, and continued to be afterwards. Gyōyū founded Kongō-zanmai-in, a temple on Mt. Kōya, for the memorial of the third Shogun of Kamakura Shogunate, Minamoto Sanetomo, who was assassinated in 1217. At Kongō-zanmai-in, Zen and Vajrayana were practiced together.

The person in the title of the poem might have been a monk who practiced Zen at Kongō-zanmai-in, visited Kenninji, and there met Dōgen. Since we have no information about who this monk was and when it happened, we need to guess. I think that this verse was composed shortly after Dōgen returned from China, while he was still staying at Kenninji, between 1227 and 1230. Before verse 51 in volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku, the compiler of this volume, Senne wrote a note saying, “From here on these were written in Japan.” If the verses are arranged in chronological order, this would be the second verse written after returning to Japan.[2] I suppose this Zen person Nin was a young Rinzai Zen practitioner, a disciple of Gyōyū, the second abbot of Kenninji and the founder of Kongō-zanmai-in in Mt. Kōya.

Polishing a tile to make a mirror depends on effort.
We should know this is still stuck halfway along the path.

“Polishing a tile to make a mirror” refers to the well-known story about the first meeting of Nanyue Huairang (Nangaku Ejō) and Mazu Daoyi (Baso Dōitsu), which appears at the very beginning of The Recorded Sayings of Mazu. Dōgen appreciates this kōan. He mentions this story in Zuimonki, Shōbōgenzō Kōkyō (Ancient Mirror) and Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin (Acupuncture Needle of Zazen). The story is as follows:

During the Kaiyuan era of Tang Dynasty (713-742), while he (Mazu) was practicing samadhi at Chuanfa temple in Mt. Heng, he met Master Rang. [Master Rang] knew that he was a vessel of the Dharma and asked, “Great Worthy, in [practicing] zazen what do you aim at?”
Mazu said, “I aim at becoming a buddha.”
Rang immediately picked up a piece of tile and polished it [on a rock] in front of [Mazu’s] hermitage.
The master (Mazu) asked, “For what are you polishing a tile?”
Rang said, “I am polishing [a tile] to make a mirror.”
The master said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?”
Rang said, “If it is not possible to make a mirror by polishing a tile, how can you become a buddha by doing zazen?”[3]

After Mazu became a teacher, he said in an instruction to his assembly:

[One Mind is] originally existing and presently existing too; it does not depend on whether we practice the Way by doing zazen or not. Not practicing, not sitting is the pure Tathagata Zen.[4]

This saying is in accord with Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor’s saying which appears in volume five of Records of the Transmission of the Lamp:

Xuejian asked, “All Zen worthies at the capital say that we must practice zazen and learn samadhi to be able to understand the Way. There has been no one who had attained liberation without practicing zazen and samadhi. I wonder what your opinion about this is?”

Huineng replied, “The Way can be realized by the Mind. What does zazen have to do with it? In a sutra it is said, “If you view that the tathagata sometimes sits and sometimes lays down, you are walking in the evil way.” Why? Because the Tathagata never has a place to come from and to go away; is never arising or perishing. This is the pure Zen of the Tathagata. All dharmas are empty and quiescence; this is pure sitting of the Tathagata. Ultimately speaking, there is neither verification (awakening) nor sitting (practice).”[5]

These two comments say that to become a buddha has nothing to do with whether human beings practice zazen or not. Since Nanyue was a disciple of Huineng and the teacher of Mazu, probably Nanyue was referring to this same idea in the story about polishing a tile. Dōgen Zenji makes a very unique interpretation of this story in Shōbōgenzō Kōkyō and Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin. However, in this verse, I think Dōgen is simply saying that this Zen Person Nin is practicing zazen in the same way as young Mazu did, to become an enlightened buddha as if making a mirror by polishing a tile. Possibly, Dōgen thought that this young Zen person was similar to Dōgen himself when he was practicing at Kenninji with Myōzen before they went to China. Dōgen is giving the young monk advice, not simply criticizing him. No matter how hard we practice zazen based on our personal efforts, to practice zazen in order to attain some desirable effect, even if that is to become an enlightened buddha, is not the completion of Buddha Way. While we practice with such an attitude, we are still stuck halfway along the path. This is the same as Dōgen says in Genjōkōan, “Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings.”[6]

If you ask the true meaning of coming from the west,
On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.

Dōgen’s advice is to clarify the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west. He writes that if someone asks him the meaning of Bodhidahrma coming from the west, he would say, “On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.” This final line is an unusual expression. “The ground gushing forth,” is a translation of 噴噴地. 噴 (fu’n) means “to spout,” “emit,” or “flush out.” For example, 噴火 (funka) means “volcanic eruption;” 噴水 (funsui) means “jet of water” or “fountain.” I think Dōgen meant that in our zazen, thoughts are springing out one after another almost without ceasing, sometimes as violently as a volcanic eruption, but we let them come and go freely, and just sit silently.

“Shut your mouth and sit” is a translation of 觜盧都 (shiroto). This is a rare expression. According to Zengaku-daijiten (Large Dictionary of Zen Study), this word means to be silent without saying anything. This expression was used by the Song Dynasty Rinzai Zen master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲, Daie Sōkō) when he criticized silent illumination Zen.[7] In this poem, in order to express his own style of practice called shikantaza (just sitting), Dōgen is referencing the expression of a Rinzai master who advocated kanhua Zen[8] to attain the experience of satori.

All different kinds of thoughts and emotions are unceasingly gushing forth or springing out one after another, and yet, we sit silently without grasping, without chasing after or pushing away. Even though we are sitting silently, we are not like a withered tree or dead ashes; even though all different things are happening in our mind, we are sitting quietly without making any karma. Shikantaza is not a method to make a tile (five aggregates) into a mirror (enlightened buddha). But as Dōgen says in Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin, polishing a tile is itself making a mirror; it is not a matter of “a tile” becoming another thing, “a mirror.”

When I asked about the meaning of the final line of this verse, Rev. Keishi Miyakawa kindly made a thorough investigation and suggested some other possible ways to interpret 噴噴地 and 觜盧都. But in this essay, since I don’t have enough time to thoroughly study it, I interpret it in the way Rev. Taigen Leighton and I understood when we made the translation of Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

— • —

[1] Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–52, p.623) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] See Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.623.
[3] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Sun Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-tsu and the Hung-chou School of Ch’an. (Cheng Chien Bhikshu, Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley1992) p.59.
[4] Ibid., p.68. The original reads: 本有今有、不仮修道坐禪。不修不坐、即是如來清淨禪。
[5] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (by Randolph S. Whitfield), p.86.
[6] Translation from Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), p.1.
[7] mokushō Zen (黙照禅)
[8] kanna Zen (看話禅)

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2020 Sanshin Zen Community

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