The Dharma drum

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (45)

[Dōgen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself
自賛 Jisan 15

Bamboo splints and ox skins used for counting
Total more than eleven hundred.
Before, I placed this smelly skin-bag on the drumhead,
On the mountain of ignorance beating thundercloud.[1]


— • —

This is verse 44 in Kuchugen and Jisan 15 in Volume 10 of Eiheikoroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has a slight difference in the second line:

千一百有餘枚 (千一百有餘枚)
Total more than twenty-one hundred.


Bamboo splints and ox skins used for counting
Total more than eleven hundred.

According to commentaries, “bamboo splints” and “ox skins” are some kinds of devices used to count things, for example, the number of cattle. In this case, they are used to count the time, days, or years. In Monkaku’s version, it says, “total more than eleven hundred,” and in Manzan’s version, “total more than twenty-one hundred.”

Some commentaries on Manzan’s version say that this is the number of years after Shakyamuni Budddha’s death. In Shobogenzo Ango (Practice Period), Dogen Zenji mentions Shakyamuni Buddha’s example of the 90-day ango, and says, “It has been two thousand one hundred ninety-four years since then. Today is in the third year of the Kangen era [1245].”[2] His new monastery, Daibutsuji (later the temple name was changed to Eiheiji) was constructed in 1244, and he and his sangha moved into there in the autumn of the same year. Beginning the 4th month of 1245, he held the first summer 90-day ango (practice period) at the new monastery. If Dogen composed this jisan verse in that year, this number might be the year from Shakyamuni’s ango.

Other commentaries on Manzan’s version interpret this as the number of the days since Daibutsuji was established by Dogen. If so, this poem was composed around 1250 – 1251, about six years after the completion of Daibutsuji. 

In the case of Monkaku’s version, there is no possibility of considering this as the number of years after Shakyamuni’s ango or death. This is the number of days since Dogen established his new monastery in Echizen, around 1247 to 1248, about three years after his sangha moved to Daibutsuiji. This is also around the time Dogen visited Kamakura for about half a year. In any event, the first two lines of this poem are only about the number of years or days.

Before, I placed this smelly skin-bag on the drumhead,
On the mountain of ignorance beating thundercloud.

In the third and fourth line, he mentions the analogy of the poisoned drum (塗毒鼓, zudokko), which appears in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra. There, it is said that a person invented a new poison and put the poison on a drumhead. When he beat the drum in a crowd, everyone who heard drum died. The sutra says that the Parinirvana Sutra itself is the same as the poisoned drum. All people who hear the sound of the Sutra become released from the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance).[3]

In the third line, Dogen says that he placed his body (smelly skin-bag) on the drumhead. The drumhead of a Japanese drum is commonly made of ox skin. This might be related to the ox skin in the first line of this verse. This means Dogen became an instrument for making the sound of the Dharma, to allow his assembled practitioners to be free from the three poisonous minds.

The final line is taken from a poem by Chinese Zen Master Tong’an Changcha (同安常察, Doan Josatsu,?―?), who lived in the early Song dynasty, in the 10th century. He was not a well-known Zen Master. He was a dharma descendent of Daou Yuanzhi (道吾円智, Dogo Enchi, 769 – 835), the dharma brother of Yunyan Tansheng (雲巌曇晟, Ungan Donjo, 780 – 841). A collection of the ten poems by Tong’an entitled The Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth (十玄談, Jugendan) is included in chapter 29 of Jingde Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (景徳伝燈録, Keitoku Dento-roku, 1004). “Depth (玄, gen)” in “Unfathomable Depth” is the same word as gen in Kuchugen (句中玄, Depth in Phrase). Dogen quotes one line of the 9th poem of the collection, entitled “Turning Ranks.”

転位  (位を転ず)
披毛戴角入鄽來 (披毛戴角して鄽に入り來たる。)

Covered with hair and horned, I enter the town.
A blue lotus flower opens in fire.
In the ocean of delusion, I come to be the rain and dew [of Dharma].
Above the mountain of ignorance, I form a thundercloud.
I blow out the burning charcoal below [to save the beings in] the water boiling in the fireplace’s iron pot.
I splinter the blade-trees and the sword-mountains.
I don’t remain bound by a golden chain at the gate of profundity.
Walking within the [realms of] different kinds, I will transmigrate [in samsara] for now.[4]

“Turning Ranks” refers to one of the two aspects of the bodhisattva path. A bodhisattva vows to become a buddha, that is, walking upward to attain awakening. And a bodhisattva vows to save all beings, that is, walking downward to walk with all beings in samsara. “Turning ranks” means to turn direction and go downward to work with all living beings. That is what “Covered with hair and horned, I enter the town” means. In a similar expression, a few Zen masters said that they wished to be born as a water buffalo to work in the muddy rice fields after their death.

Dogen uses the fourth line of this poem but changes one kanji. By doing so, he changes the meaning. He himself is the dharma drum that makes a roll of thunder like a lion’s roar; he is the poisoned drum for the people suffering within samsara. To do so, he needs to practice and teach within samsara, as his master Rujing admonished:

“Buddhas and ancestors vow to save all living beings and dedicate all the merit of their practice to all living beings. They therefore practice zazen within the world of desire.”[5]

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10- [Dogen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself 15, p.607) © 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 Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi), p.726.
[3] Nirvana Sutra: A Translation of Dharmakshema’s Northern Version (translated by Kosho Yamamoto), p.90.
[4] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Unfathomable Depths: Drawing Wisdom for Today from a Classical Zen Poem (Sekkei Harada, translated by Daigaku Rumme and Heiko Narrog, Wisdom Publications), p.6.
[5] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala), p.22.

— • —

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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