Who could measure the ocean of merit?

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (37)

Continuing the Previous Rhyme from Mount Potalaka


The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
I strain my ears and see the face of Kanjizai.
Upholding this, who could measure the ocean of merit?
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.[1]

潮音霹靂海崖間 (潮音霹靂たり海崖の間、)
側耳辺看自在顔 (耳辺を側てて看る自在の顔、)
拈此誰量功徳海 (此れを拈じて誰か量らん功徳海、)
只教回眼見青山 (只だ眼を回らしめて青山を見るのみ)


This is verse 36 in Kuchūgen and verse 28 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this is verse 45 and there are some differences in each line:

潮音霹靂斷崖下 (潮音霹靂たり斷崖の下、)
The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
湧現分明自在顔 (湧現分明なり自在の顔、)
The face of Kanjizai appears clearly.
至者誰量功徳海 (至る者誰か量らん功徳海、)
Among the visitors, who could measure the ocean of merit?
回望眼見青山 (只だ眼を回らして青山を見るのみ)
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.

Continuing the Previous Rhyme from Mount Potalaka

This is the second verse concerning Dōgen Zenji’s pilgrimage to the sacred place of Avalokiteśvara on Mount Potalaka. It is not clear if he visited the same place again and composed another verse continuing the first rhyme, or if he created the second verse thinking that somehow the first did not fully express what he wanted to say. In his teishō on this verse, Kōdō Sawaki Rōshi said that Dōgen Zenji might have visited the place twice.

The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
I strain my ears and see the face of Kanjizai.

Sawaki Rōshi visited China for four months in 1934 to make pilgrimage to the sacred places of Zen masters. The first place to which he paid a visit was Mount Potalaka. Sawaki Rōshi said that reading the first line of this verse, he could see that Dōgen Zenji had actually visited the place, because his description of the spot below the cliff was exactly the same as Rōshi saw seven hundred years later.

According to Sawaki Rōshi, the place was in the precinct of a temple named Fau-si (法雨寺, Hōu-ji, Dharma Rain Temple) established in 16th century. The temple was located near the ocean cliff. There was a shrine hall named Chaoyin-tang(潮音堂, Chōon-do, Rolling-tide Voice Hall) right on the cliff, where waves incessantly crashed against the rocky cliff and made a roaring sound in a cave.

The name of the temple, “Dharma Rain” and the shrine hall, “Rolling-tide Voice” are from the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, often called Kannon-kyō (観音経). Close to the end of the final verse of the sutra, it says:

悲體戒雷震 慈意妙大雲 澍甘露法雨 滅除煩惱焔
(悲體の戒は雷震のごとく 慈意の妙は大雲のごとく 甘露の法雨を澍ぎ 煩惱の焔を滅除す.)
Precepts from his compassionate body shake like thunder.
His compassion is like a great cloud
Pouring Dharma rain like nectar,
Quenching the flames of affliction![2]

“His compassionate body” is a translation of 悲體 (hi-tai, body of compassion). The character 悲is a translation of Sanskrit word karuṇā, one aspect of Buddha’s compassion, wishing others to be free from suffering. In this case, 體 could be interpreted as essence instead of body. Avalokiteśvara’s teaching as the precepts are powerful like thunder.

“His compassion” is a translation of 慈意 (ji-i, compassionate thought or intention). Ji (慈) is a translation of Sanskrit word maitrī, another aspect of Buddha’s compassion, wishing others to be happy. Avalokiteśvara’s compassionate mind is like a great cloud that covers the entire sky. From the great cloud of compassion, the dharma teachings fall down like rain drops to extinguish the flame of the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance) that make our life into the burning house of samsara.

The name of the shrine hall, Chaoyin (潮音, Chō-on) came from another part of the verse:

妙音觀世音 梵音海潮音 勝彼世間音 是故須常念
(妙音・觀世音 梵音・海潮音 勝彼世間音あり 是の故に須らく常に念ずべし。)
Wonderful voice, regarder of the cries of the world,
Brahma-voice, voice of the rolling tide,
World-surpassing voice –
He should always be kept in mind.

This verse is about sound (音, yin, on); this character is a part of Avalokiteśvara’s name 觀音 (Ch. Guanyin, Jp. Kannon). The sound (voice) of his compassionate teaching is wonderful or wonderous. It is the voice of the bodhisattva who sees the cries of the world. “Brahma-voice” is a translation of Sanskrit word, brahma-susvara, meaning clean, undefiled voice. The wonderous voice, powerful like the voice of the rolling tide, is revealing the ultimate truth beyond the worldly, karmic life of suffering.

I think that when Dōgen uses the expression 潮音 at the very beginning of this verse, he expects his readers know these expressions from the Kannon-kyō. Ocean waves, crashing against the rocky cliff, incessantly make roaring sounds.

In the second line, he uses the other translation of the name Avalokiteśvara, Kanjizai (観自在, Seeing Freely) which appears, for example, in the Heart Sūtra. Dōgen says he “strains his ears” to see the face of Avalokiteśvara, or Kanjizai. Straining his ears to see the Bodhisattva’s face sounds unusual, but “Kannon” literally means “seeing the sound.” Dōgen twists this expression and says that he sees Avalokiteśvara’s face with his ears.

These expressions, “hearing with eyes” and “seeing with ears” came from a poem by Dongshan (洞山, Tōzan). They appear at the end of a dialogue between Dongshan and his teacher Yunyan (雲巌, Ungan), regarding the expression “the expounding Dharma of Insentient beings (無情説法, mujō seppō).” The poem is as follows:

How wonderous! How wonderous!
The expounding of the Dharma by insentient beings is unthinkable.
If I tried to hear it with the ears, it would never be possible to understand.
Only when I hear the voice with my eyes am I able to know it.[3]

Upholding this, who could measure the ocean of merit?
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.

In some suttas in the Pali Nikaya, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that when the six sense organs encounter the six objects of the sense organs, the six consciousnesses arise. Together, these are called the eighteen elements. When there are eighteen elements as cause, there is the dependent origination of contact→ sensation→ perception→ craving (taṇhā)→ clinging (upādāna). From perception, we have another stream of dependent origination, thinking→ mental proliferation (or conceptualization, papañca) → discrimination (vikalpa). These are the two aspects of things happening within our mind based on the separation and relation between subject (six sense organs) and object (emotion and conceptual thinking). These two sides of our karmic consciousness are also interdepending on each other. When we take actions based on conceptualized, distorted ways of thinking and self-centered emotions influenced by the three poisonous minds, we create wholesome or unwholesome karma and we transmigrate within the six realms of samsara.

When we clearly see the reality of impermanence, no-self (no-substance, anatman), and suffering of all the eighteen elements, we are released from the cycle of transmigration. For example, the Heart Sūtra says, “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajñā paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.” Later in the Sutra, it is said that all eighteen elements are empty.

In the case of Dōgen’s practice, our immovable sitting of letting go of thought is itself prajñā paramita. When we see things from dropping off body and mind, we see all myriad things are Buddhadharma. I think that is what Dōgen is saying in the 3rd and 4th lines of this verse. There is no way to measure the vastness of the ocean of merit, the network of interdependent origination. Whatever we see, for example the scenery of the blue mountains and the ocean, has no separation from Mt. Potalaka. Each and everything in the ocean and mountains are expounding the dharma of Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Avalokiteśvara is a symbol of this interdependence in which myriad things are supporting each other.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–28, p.616) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Translations by Gene Reeves from The Lotus Sūtra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic (Wisdom Publications, 2008) p.378–379.
[3]This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Dōgen discusses this kōan in Shōbōgenzō Mujō-seppō (The Dharma-expounding of Insentient beings).

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

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