Dōgen, on Dōgen

Dōgen Zenji

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (43)

[Dōgen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself
自賛 Jisan 6

Having eaten the old fist of Taibai,
Bulging eyes see both North Star and cowherd.
Myself is deceived by myself, with nowhere to search.
For your sake, the old woman still moved gently.[1]

喫來太白老拳頭 (喫し來る太白の老拳頭、)
突出眼睛看斗牛 (眼睛を突出して斗牛を看る、)
自被自瞞無覓處 (自ら自に瞞かれ覓むるにところなし、)
老婆為汝尚油油 (老婆汝がためになお油油。)

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[Dōgen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself
自賛 Jisan 6

This is verse 42 in Kuchūgen and Jisan 6 in Volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). Manzan’s version has a small difference in line 4:

扶桑那畔去油油 (扶桑那畔去って油油)
In Japan, I am still moving gently.

Jisan (自賛) is the second section of the three divisions in Volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). Twenty verses are included in this section. This possibly means that there were twenty portraits of Dōgen and that he wrote a praising verse for each of them. Unfortunately, it is not possible to see any portraits of Dōgen painted while he was alive and which are accompanied with his own calligraphy of self-praising verse–except perhaps one.

The oldest and most well-known portrait of Dōgen is stored at Hōkyōji, established by Hōkyō Jakuen (1207–1299), one of Dōgen’s disciples. According to some scholars, the painting stored there was made while Dōgen was alive, and the calligraphy of the praising verse was written by Dōgen himself on fifteenth day of the eighth month in 1249. The fifteenth day of the eighth month is the full moon day, when Dōgen and his sangha often had a party to see the beautiful full moon and compose poems. This painting is called “Dōgen’s portrait watching the moon.” That is why in the painting his eyesight is going upward. Other scholars think the painting was made after Dōgen’s death and the calligraphy was made by someone else.

Jakuen was a Chinese monk who practiced together with Dōgen under the guidance of Tiantong Rujing. After Rujing’s passing away, Jakuen came to Japan to practice with Dōgen. While Dōgen was alive, he took care Rujing’s memorial hall. After Dōgen’s death, he received dharma transmission from the second abbot, Ejō and left Eiheiji. He sat by himself in the mountains not far from Eiheiji for many years. The lord of that region built a temple for him named Hōkyōji. Hōkyō is the name of the era during which Dōgen and Jakuen practiced with their teacher Rujing. Jakuen did not leave any writings, not even a verse. Jakuen’s dharma heir was Giun (1253–1333) who became the fifth abbot of Eiheiji. Beginning with Giun, Eiheiji was taken care of by Jakuen’s lineage for several centuries. The self-praising poem on the portrait is included in Eihei Kōroku, but Menzan did not include this in Kuchūgen. Here is the poem on the portrait:

            一無寄一不収、 (一も寄る無く一も収めず、)

            Autumn is spirited and refreshing as this mountain ages.
            A donkey observes the sky in the well, white moon floating.
            One [the moon] is not dependent; one [the sky] does not contain.
            Letting go, vigorous with plenary of gruel and rice,
            Flapping with vitality, right from head to tail,
            Above and below the heaven, clouds and water are free.[2]


Having eaten the old fist of Taibai,
Bulging eyes see both North Star and cowherd.

Taibai is another name of Mt. Tiantong, on which Rujing’s monastery was located. Here it refers to the abbot of the monastery, Tiangtong Rujing, Dōgen’s teacher.

In the very beginning of Shōbōgenzō Juppō (十方, Ten Directions), Dōgen wrote, “A single fist is nothing other than the ten directions.”[3] “Old fist,” that is, the entirety of the ten-directions, refers to Rujing’s teaching of the network of interdependent origination transmitted from Shakyamuni Buddha through the fifty generations. He had eaten Rujing’s teaching, embodied it and made it himself.

Dōgen’s eyes are transformed in in such way he can see both north and south. 斗牛 (to-gyū) is abbreviation of 北七星 (hokutoshichisei, the seven stars of the dipper in the north, the Big Dipper) and 牽星 (kengyūsei, cowherd star, Altair). The Cowherd star is well-known because of the old Chinese story regarding the origin of the Qixi Festival (七夕, tanabata). The cowherd boy (Altair) and the weaver girl (Vega) loved each other, but they could not meet because the Silver River (Milky Way) blocked them. The Emperor of Heaven allowed them to meet once a year on seventh day of the seventh month.

The Big Dipper is in the north and Altair is in the south. “Being able to see both” might refer to another old story which appears in the Book of Serenity, Case 68. A man was good at astronomy and familiar with the signs of heavens. As he was looking between the North star and Altair, there was always a strange phenomenon to be seen. Inspired by the phenomenon, he and his friend found a pair of swords. The swords were two dragons. In the story, the dragon-swords might be the symbols of universal energy, yin and yan.

Here however, I think Dōgen means that his eyes are transformed into the true dharma eye (shōbōgen, 正法眼)that can see both the conventional truth (here) and the ultimate truth (there).


Myself is deceived by myself, with nowhere to search.
For your sake, the old woman still moved gently.

In Dōgen’s Extensive Record, he sometimes uses the expressions “to deceive” and “to be deceived” in terms of the relation between Tiantong Rujing and himself. For example:

Dharma Hall Discourse 1–48:
Somehow I just met my late teacher Taintong [Rujing]. However, I was not deceived by Tiantong. But Tiantong was deceived by this mountain monk.[4]

Dharma Hall Discourse 1–167:
“I cannot avoid deceiving my late teacher.”[5]

Dharma Hall Discourse 1-184, on the Memorial Day for Tiantong Rujing [1246]:
Don’t say that my late teacher deceived his disciple.
Rather, Tiantong was deceived by Dōgen.[6]

In this verse, Dōgen says he was deceived by himself. I have been considering what this means. In Shōbōgenzō Kattō, Dōgen quotes Rujing’s saying: “Bottle gourd vines intertwine with bottle gourd vines.” Then he said, “Bottle gourd vines intertwining with bottle gourd vines are the buddha-ancestors studying buddha-ancestors, and buddha-ancestors verifying and being in accord with buddha-ancestors.”[7] He says the teacher (Rujing) and the disciple (Dōgen) study and verify each other. When the vines of two gourd plants intertwine each other, we cannot see the separation.

I don’t think ‘deceiving’ and ‘being deceived’ means that there is something negative between Dōgen and Rujing. However, I cannot think of any positive meaning in this word. Possibly he is saying, although the teacher and his student are identical (not two), yet they are different, individual persons (not one).

But here, he says that he is deceived by himself. “With nowhere to search” might mean because nothing is hidden, the reality of all beings is always revealed everywhere. This is same as “eyes are horizontal, and nose is vertical.” But if so, why does he say he is deceived by himself? It might make sense if he says that he used to be deceived by himself in seeking the truth somewhere else, but now he is not deceived by anything and he doesn’t seek the truth anywhere else. So, I still don’t have any good answer as to what this means.

Finally, in this poem, Dōgen says he is like an old woman sharing his practice and teaching, watching, and protecting his disciples. 油油 (yūyū) means moving slowly and calmly like water in a big river flowing slowly. As a Chinese character, 油 means oil. Oil does not flow fast like water, so this word means moving slowly, not abruptly. It seems this verse was composed in Dōgen’s final years. The common image of Dōgen Zenji is as a strict teacher, and not so gentle. But in his final years, he might have become like an old lady toward his disciples. Dōgen once gave a caution to Tettsū Gikai, the third abbot of Eiheiji, for his lack of old-lady heart or grand-motherly heart.

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[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10 [Dōgen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself 6, p.604) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, 10-Jisan 3, p.602–3.
[3] 拳頭一隻、只箇十方なり。
[4] In Manzan’s version, this sentence is, “Immediately recognizing that eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical, I was not deceived by anybody, and returned to my homeland with empty hands.” See Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.111.
[5] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.192.
[6] Dōgen’s Extensive Record. p.203
[7] Okumura’s unpublished translation.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

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For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

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