The three teachings

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (40)

Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben


The three teachings’ idle names were originally unspoken.
With one word slightly mistaken all aspects are contrary.
Clearly know both people and objects are without self.
Traversing the mysterious barrier arrive at your own home.[1]

三敎閑名其本寂 (三敎の閑名其れ本より寂なり、)
一言纔錯萬般差 (一言纔かに錯れば萬般差う、)
了知人法兼無我 (人法の兼ねて無我なることを了知すれば、) 
蹈破玄關自到家 (玄關を蹈破して自ら家に到らん。)


Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben

This is verse 39 in Kuchūgen and verse 6 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). Manzan’s version of this verse is identical. It is one of the six poems Dōgen wrote responding to a government official, Wenben. Poem 38 in Kuchūgen, which I introduced last month was also offered to this person.

The three teachings’ idle names were originally unspoken.
With one word slightly mistaken all aspects are contrary.

Like verse 38, this poem also presents the idea of identity of the three teachings, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. As I said in my commentary on the previous poem, Confucius did not talk about anything beyond the phenomenal world. When he was asked about serving ghosts and spirits, he said: “You haven’t learned to serve the living, so how could you serve ghosts?” Then he was asked again, “Might I ask about death?” Confucius said, “You don’t understand life, so how could you understand death?” Confucius’ teaching was about how to live benevolently in this lifetime as a good member of society. Laotsu and Chuang Tzu criticized this worldly teaching of Confucius, and said the Way is beyond conventional social morality.

But during the Song dynasty, influenced by Daoism and Buddhism, Confucians established so-called Neo-Confucianism using metaphysical ideas. These three teachings were considered together as the three legs of a tripod kettle. Government officials were basically Confucianists, but they supported and controlled Daoist and Buddhist institutions to support the system of government centered on the emperor. To become the abbot of a prestigious monastery, Buddhist monks needed to get support from high-ranking government officials. However, there must have been various blends of these ideas. Some officials supported Daoism more than Buddhism, and others liked Buddhism more than Daoism.

It seems Wenben is an experienced practitioner of Zen Buddhism who has this understanding that the three teachings are basically identical in the realm beyond logic and theories. In this understanding, the names, concepts, and rhetoric of the three teachings are not essential; the core of these three teachings is the “unspoken reality” beyond any conceptual thinking. “Unspoken” is a translation of 寂 (jaku), meaning “serene,” “quiet,” or “solitary.” This word was used to describe an aspect of the Daoist “Way.” In Laotsu’s Tao Te Ching it is said, “There was something formless and perfect / before the universe was born. / It is serene (寂). Empty. / Solitary. Unchanging. / Infinite. Eternally present. / It is the mother of the universe. / For lack of a better name, / I call it the Tao (道).”[2] In Chinese Buddhism, this word was used in referring to nirvāṇa (寂滅 jakumetu, Skt. Nirodha). For many Chinese people who didn’t know the Sanskrit word and its meaning in the context of Buddhist teachings, the difference between Daoist “Way” and Buddhist “nirvāṇa” or “enlightenment” was not so distinct.

It seems that the 26-year-old Dōgen accepts this idea; however, in the second line, he is also saying that if we carelessly speak in a syncretic or eclectic way, we will lose the essential meaning of each of the three teachings. We must be careful because having a discussion about ultimate reality is already not ultimate reality itself. Possibly, this is a seed of Dōgen’s later strict criticism opposing the idea of the identity of the three teachings.

Clearly know both people and objects are without self.
Traversing the mysterious barrier arrive at your own home.

 In the third line, Dōgen says the essential points of Buddhist teaching are no-self of people and no-substance of objective things. Traditionally it is said that early Buddhism negated the self (atman) and insisted on no-self (anatman), but Mahāyāna Buddhism negates both the permanent self (atman) and also negates the permanent nature of all objective things. This is called 我法二空(ga ho ni ku: both self and things are empty)

We can find from reading the sutras that Shakyamuni Buddha negated atman and said the self is only a collection of five aggregates or eighteen elements, but he also said that the five aggregates are not substance. He said that the five aggregates are rather like a lump of foam, a bubble, a mirage, a plantain tree, or a magical illusion.[3] No-self of people and no-substance of things are concepts which are not found in either Confucianism or Daoism. As a Buddhist, Dōgen says that these are the most essential points.

“The mysterious barrier” is a translation of 玄関 (genkan). 玄 means “darkness” or “profundity,” one of the important concepts in Daoism. Kan (関) means a barrier, such as when used in the title of the famous kōan collection, 無門関 (Mumonkan, The Gateless Barrier). In Tao Te Ching it is said, “Yet mystery and manifestations / arise from the same source. / This source is called darkness (玄). / Darkness within darkness (玄之又玄). The gateway to all understanding.”[4] This word was adopted in Zen Buddhism to refer to the ultimate reality beyond discriminative thinking. At Chinese Zen temples, the main entry hall of a temple building is called genkan (the gate to the darkness). This tradition was continued in Japanese Zen temples; and owing to that tradition, the entrance of any Japanese house is called genkan even today.

Dōgen is saying that to see emptiness of both the self and objective things is the gate to ultimate reality, and that this is our own original home.

Dōgen’s Criticism against Poetry

The last five poems I introduced, Kuchūgen 35 to 39, are all written in 1226 and probably 1227, during Dōgen’s stay at Tiantong monastery in China. This period might have been the most satisfying and happiest time in his life. In 1225, although he had lost his Japanese teacher Myōzen, he found Rujing, his authentic teacher. Under the guidance of abbot Rujing, he practices zazen alongside sincere training monks, following a very strict schedule, as he describes in some episodes in Zuimonki. He is able to study the Dharma one-on-one with Rujing. He is allowed to visit the abbot’s room freely when he has questions to ask; Dōgen’s questions and Rujing’s responses were recorded in Hōkyōki. By 1226, he has a circle of acquaintances which includes very well-educated lay practitioners. He enjoys genuine practice, dharma study with an authentic teacher, and a group of people with whom he exchanges poetry. After returning to Japan, when he founds his first monastery, Kōshōji in Fukakusa, he might have wished to create such a community.

In Zuimonki 3–9, Dōgen talks to his assembly at Kōshōji regarding writing poetry:

In my childhood, I was fond of studying classic literature on Chinese history and other texts. Up to that point, reading both Buddhist and non-Buddhist texts was necessary to [go to China] and transmit the Dharma, and to become familiar with the local Chinese language. I thought it was important, and in fact, it was an extraordinary thing even in worldly society. Lay people also appreciated it as exceptional and wonderful.

I think that Dōgen is talking about his experiences with the people who practiced with him at Rujing’s assembly. However, in the same talk, he criticizes writing poems with too much of a focus on literary techniques:

Although in a sense it was necessary, when I reflect deeply on it now, it was a hindrance to studying the Way. When we read Buddhist scriptures, if we understand the meaning of the sentences phrase by phrase, we can grasp the principle expressed by the words. However, people tend to pay more attention to the rhetorical devices such as couplets, rhythm, and tone. They judge them as good or bad, and then think about the meaning as an afterthought. Therefore, it is better to understand the meaning from the beginning without caring about such things. Also, in writing dharma words, trying to write according to the rules of rhetoric or being unable to write without thinking of rhyming and tone are the fault of having too much knowledge. Let the language and style develop as they may. What is most important is to write down in detail the truth we want to communicate. Even though people in future generations might think that our rhetorical technique is poor, for the Way it is essential to enable them to understand the truth. This is the same for other fields of study as well.[5]

When I started to practice zazen and read talks such as this in Zuimonki, I stopped writing poems and other hobbies to focus on zazen practice and studying Buddhist teachings. I am still happy about the decision. However, this does not mean that Dōgen discontinued writing Chinese poems or encouraged people not to write poems. Even at Eiheiji, he had a poetry-writing gathering with his monks, writing poems on the words of Rujing about the harvest full moon, as I have discussed in earlier commentaries. We find more than four hundred Chinese poems in Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record) and more than fifty waka poems. I am also happy that I can read, appreciate, and write about Dōgen’s Chinese poems.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–6, p.611) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] Tao Te Ching (by Stephen Mitchell, Harper Collins,) p.25.
[3] The Samyutta Nikaya Part III section 22, No. 95 (3) A Lump of Foam (p.951).
[4] Tao Te Ching (by Stephen Mitchell, Harper Collins) p.1.
[5] Okumura’s translation of Chōenji-version of Zuimonki, which will be published from Wisdom Publications.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.