The spring within a cold flower; a heron in the moonlight

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (46)
Verse on the Fifteenth Day of the First Month

The Spring within a Cold Flower
Dharma Hall Discourse on the Fifteenth [Full Moon] Day of the First Month [1252]

How can white reed flowers covered in snow be defiled by dust?
Who knows that there are many people on the pure earth?
A single plum flower in the cold, with fragrant heart blossoming,
Calls for the arising of spring in the emptiness of the pot of ages.[1]

上元上堂 (上元上堂)

雪覆蘆花豈染塵 (雪、蘆花を覆う、豈に塵に染まんや。)
誰知浄地尚多人 (誰か知らん、浄地に尚お人多きことを。)
寒梅一點芳心綻 (寒梅一點芳心綻ぶ、)
喚起劫壺空處春 (喚起す、劫壺空處の春。)

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Until verse 44 in Kuchūgen, all the verses were taken from Volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). From this verse onward, Menzan selected poems from other volumes. This is verse 45 in Kuchūgen and Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 481 in Volume 7 of Eihei Kōroku. The second line of this verse in Manzan’s version is different:

風光占斷屬當人 (風光占斷、當人に屬す)
The scenery is completely occupied by the very person

Dharma Hall Discourse on the Fifteenth [Full Moon] Day of the First Month [1252]

The Fifteenth [Full Moon] Day of the First Month is called jōgen (上元). This is one of the three gen: (元, origin, foundation): jōgen (上元, upper gen–the 15th day of first month), chūgen (中元, middle genthe 15th day of the 7th month), and kagen (下元, lower gen–the 15th day of the 10th month). In Daoism, these days were celebrated as the birthdays of the three deities. The 15th day of the 1st month has also been celebrated because it is the first full moon day of the year. On the same day in 1251, Dōgen Zenji gave a jōdō (dharma hall discourse) and mentioned that the origin of this day’s celebration is in the mundane world.[2]

This jōdō was given on the 15th day of the 1st month, as the first jōdō of the year 1252. This was the final active year of Dōgen’s life. After this, he gave about fifty more jōdō. His last jōdō was given on the occasion of the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, on the 8th day of the 12th month of the year. In the 6th day of the first month of 1253, Dōgen wrote Shōbōgenzo Hachidainingaku (八大人覚, Eight Aspects of Great Beings’ Awakening), which was his final writing. When he wrote this fascicle, he was aware of that his life was getting closer to the end. He was active until almost the end of 1252 in terms of giving dharma hall discourses. He went to Kyoto in the 8th month of 1253 to get some treatments but passed away there on the 28th day of the same month.

How can white reed flowers covered in snow be defiled by dust?
Who knows that there are many people on the pure earth?

“White reed flowers covered in snow,” is a Zen expression from Case 13, Pa Ling’s Snow in a Silver Bowl of The Blue Cliff Record (Hekiganroku). In the instruction of the case, Yuanwu said, “Clouds are frozen over the great plains, but the whole world is not hidden. When snow covers the white flowers, it’s hard to distinguish the outlines.”

The main case is a monk’s question and the answer by Zen Master Baling Haojian (?–?), a dharma heir of Yunmen Wenyan (864–919).

A monk asked Baling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”
Baling said, “Piling up snow in a silver bowl.”[3]

Kanadeva was the dharma heir of Nāgarjuna and the 15th ancestor of the Zen lineage in India. It is said that he was very eloquent and good at debate. He defeated many non-Buddhist teachers in debates using language. The meaning of the monk’s question was something like this: if the truth is beyond language, what was Kanadeva’s principle for discussing using language.

Baling’s answer was taken from Dongshan Liangjie (807–869)’s expression in the beginning of the well-known poem Hōkyōzanmai (宝鏡三昧, Jewel Mirror Samadhi):


Filling a silver bowl with snow,
Hiding a heron in the moonlight–
When you array them, they’re not the same;
When you mix them, you know where they are.[4]

In the capping words on the main case, Yuanwu said, “A white horse enters the white flowers.” These three expressions: “Filling a silver bowl with snow,” “When snow covers the white flowers,” and “A white horse enters the white flowers,” show the same meaning. All these things are white, and therefore look similar. It is difficult to make distinctions, and yet, these are not one and the same; if we simply think everything is one and the same, that is a mistake. These expressions express the merging of difference and unity, neither one nor two (不一不二). When we use language to express the Dharma, we need to express both sides.

These are poetic expressions of the interpenetration of the ultimate truth and the conventional truth. But in this verse, Dōgen uses the image of the white reed flowers covered by snow as the expression of purity without defilement. I don’t think Dōgen really sees the scenery of white reed flowers covered with snow on that day. In a white world, there is no dust which causes defilement. This image is not only of the world covered completely with snow; their wholehearted practice, the assembly monk’ minds, and the sangha as a whole are free from defilement on this auspicious day. Eiheiji was a small temple in the remote mountains, and yet, Dōgen says there are quite a few practitioners gathered together to practice for the sake of the Dharma on the pure earth. As Dōgen discussed in jōdō 128 of Eihei Kōroku, that assembly is a great monastery even though the number of the monks are small.[5]

A single plum flower in the cold, with fragrant heart blossoming,
Calls for the arising of spring in the emptiness of the pot of ages.

In such a cold and completely white world, only one white plum blossom is blooming. This is another image of the merging of difference and unity. In Shōbōgenzo Baika (Plum Blossom), Dōgen says:

“A plum blossom in the snow” is the one-time emergence of the uḍumbara flower. How often do we see our Buddha Tathagata’s true dharma eye, and yet we miss his blink and fail to smile?

Dōgen says that the plum blossom is the uḍumbara flower which Shakyamuni holds when he wordlessly blinks on the Vulture Peak. We have seen plum blossoms so many times, but we have not noticed that it is Shakyamuni Buddha’s true dharma eye treasury, and we have failed to smile in response as Mahākāśyapa did.

In this verse, Dōgen says that his and the monks’ fragrant hearts are also “blossoming” with the plum blossom. The Chinese character he uses (綻, hokorobu) can mean “to smile.” Even though it is still cold, and everything is covered with snow the same as during winter, because of the single plum blossom he knows it is already spring, and he smiles.

This moment of the encountering of the single plum blossom and the fragrant mind’s smile calls for the timeless spring. “The pot of ages” (劫壺) reference comes from a Chinese classic. The official watchman of a market found out that an old man who owned a medicine shop entered into a pot placed in front of his shop after closing every evening. The watchman asked the old man what he did in the pot. The old man was a mountain wizard. He invited the watchman to enter the pot with him. In the pot there was another world like a paradise. From this story, in Zen literature, “the pot of ages” is used referring to the world of enlightenment before separation of subject and object and before the empty kalpa. Sometimes the spring in the pot is called “timeless spring.”

In this verse, Dōgen is saying that timeless spring is right now, right here, where monks whole heartedly practice for the sake of the Dharma in the cold but beautiful white mountain.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record volume 7, dharma discourse 481, p.428) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] See Dōgen’s Extensive Record, vol.5, p.366.
[3] Translation by Thomas Clearly in The Blue Cliff Record, p.88
[4] Translation by Thomas Clearly in Timeless Spring: A Sōtō Zen Anthology (Weatherhill, 1980), p.39.
[5] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.152.

— • —

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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