Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (49)
Verse from Dharma Hall Discourse 516
Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

「示衆」 (「示衆」)

面壁坐禪佛祖傳 (面壁坐禪は佛祖の傳なり)
不同外道二乘禅    (外道・二乘の禅に同じからず)
機先開得機先眼 (機先に開き得たり、機先の眼)
譬如臘月火中蓮    (譬えば臘月の火中の蓮の如し)

— • —

The buddha ancestors transmit zazen facing the wall,
Which is not the same as the meditation of the two vehicles or those out-side the way.
The eye that sees before anything happens can open before anything happens,
Just like the lotus blossom in flames in the twelfth month.[1]

This is verse 48 in Kuchūgen and a part of Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 516 in Volume 7 of Eihei Kōroku. After a long presentation, Dōgen Zenji recites this verse at the end of the jōdō. This verse in Manzan’s version and Monkaku’s version are the same.

Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

 The date of Dharma Hall Discourse 516 is not known, but it was presented after Discourse 515 on the anniversary of Tiantong Rujing’s death (the seventeenth day of the seventh month of 1252), and before the dharma discourse on the Mid-Autumn Day (on fifteenth day of the eighth month). On twenty-eighth day of the eighth month in the next year, 1253, Dōgen Zenji passed away. This Dharma Hall Discourse is his teaching on zazen given about one year before his death.

It is interesting that in this dharma discourse, Dōgen quotes the Nāgarjuna’s saying about the difference between bodhisattvas’ zazen and other types of meditation practices. This saying is from the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa. (Daichidoron, 大智度論), Nāgarjuna’s commentary on the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Dōgen had discussed this same teaching of Nāgarjuna with his teacher Rujing about twenty-five years prior; Dōgen recorded their conversation in Hōkyōki.

Rujing had repeated Nāgarjuna’s criticism against the zazen practice of non-Buddhists and the two vehicles. Nāgarjuna said non-Buddhist practitioners’ zazen has three sicknesses: attachment, mistaken views, and arrogance. While practitioners of the two vehicles do not have attachment, because they don’t see the true reality of all beings, their compassion is weak. Rujing then said the following about the buddha-ancestors’ zazen:

In buddha-ancestors’ zazen, they wish to gather all Buddhadharma from the time they first arouse bodhi-mind. Buddha-ancestors do not forget or abandon living beings in their zazen; they offer a heart of compassion even to an insect. Buddha-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.[2]

Some Dōgen scholars from Japan such as Yaoko Mizuno (水野弥穂子) and Shūdō Ishii (石井修道) suppose that Hōkyōki is not simply a copy of the records Dōgen wrote while he was practicing with Rujing, and which were then left alone until Dōgen’s death; they maintain that these records were organized and written down in the later years of Dōgen’s life.[3] If that is true, Discourse 516 might be evidence that Dōgen was working on that project around this time.

In Discourse 516, Dōgen says that many Zen practitioners in Song dynasty China do not understand the point of bodhisattvas’ zazen. At the end of the discourse, he recites this concluding verse:

The buddha ancestors transmit zazen facing the wall,
Which is not the same as the meditation of the two vehicles or those out-side the way.

“Zazen facing the wall” is translation of menpeki zazen (面壁坐禪). This famous expression was originally used in the biography of Bodhidharma. In Volume three of the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, it is said that, after arriving in China, Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu and had a short conversation, but the emperor did not understand what he said. Then Bodhidharma crossed the Yangzi River and went to the north. He stayed at Shaolin Temple on Mt. Song and sat facing the wall all day in silence for nine years. People didn’t understand what he was doing and called him “the wall-gazing Brahman.”

In kōan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity, more importance has been placed upon his conversation with Emperor Wu than on his sitting facing the wall. But Dōgen Zenji says at the end of Shōbōgenzo Zanmai-O-Zanmai (三昧王三昧, Samadhi that is King of Samadhis):

The First Ancestor, Venerable Bodhidharma, came [to China] from the West [India], and spent nine years at Shaolin temple on Shaoshi Peak of Mt. Song, sitting zazen with full-lotus posture, facing the wall, for nine years. Since then until now, the head crown and the eyeball of the Buddhadharma has penetrated throughout China. The life-vein of the First Ancestor is nothing other than full-lotus sitting. Before the First Ancestor came from the West, people in the East land did not know full-lotus sitting; after his coming from the West, [full-lotus sitting] became known. Therefore, without leaving a monastery, wholeheartedly just sitting in full-lotus posture day and night for an entire lifetime from the beginning to the end, even for ten-thousand lifetimes, without pursuing anything else, is the samadhi that is the king of samadhis.[4]

The eye that sees before anything happens can open before anything happens,
Just like the lotus blossom in flames in the twelfth month.

“Before anything happens” is a translation of kisen (機先); ki (機) is function or work — the same as ki in zenki (全機, total function). “Before anything happens” means reality before being processed with human discriminative thinking, that is, just sitting keeping our hand of thought open. Within just sitting, the Dharma eye can be open. This does not mean that we can see the so-called reality of all beings as the object of our eyes or the object of our mind, but that this full-lotus sitting is itself prajñā.

“The lotus blossom in flames,” is a translation of kachūren (火中蓮). This expression appears, for example, in Chapter 8, The Buddha Way of The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Burton Watson’s translation into English of the Chinese translation by Kumarajiva is:

To live as a lotus among flames –
this may be deemed a rare thing.
To exist amid desire yet practice meditation –
this too is rare![5]

Yongjia Xuanjue (永嘉玄覚, Yōka Genkaku, 665–713), a disciple of the Sixth Ancestor Huineng, used this expression in his well-known poem Song of Awakening (証道歌, Shōdōka):

Within this world of desires, it is the power of seeing and knowing that permits the practice of zen.
The lotus that blooms in the fire is indestructible.[6]

“The power of seeing and knowing” is a translation of chiken riki (知見力); chiken is a translation of Sanskrit word “darśana,” which means “seeing,” “vision,” “insight,” or “understanding.” Jñāna-darśana-pāramitā (the perfection of knowledge and vision) is another name of prajñā-pāramitā (perfection of wisdom). In our practice of zazen within samsara, there is the function of the power of vision or wisdom which sees impermanence, no-self, suffering, and emptiness.

Rujing said that because of their compassion, buddha-ancestors practice zazen within the world of desire. Dōgen expresses this same zazen as a lotus blossom in flames. “In flames” refers to the burning house of samsara, the world of desire. As a bodhisattva, we don’t escape from the burning house, but practice zazen right there. This is an expression of no-abiding nirvāṇa (mujūsho nehan, 無住処涅槃) of bodhisattvas, who do not stay in samsara because of wisdom but do not enter nirvāṇa because of compassion.

In our zazen we don’t negate our discriminative thinking. Samsara is still there, but we just let thoughts come and go without grasping, fighting against, or eliminating them. We don’t take any action based on them. The thoughts are not “my” thoughts as objects of my mind. Even though there is a wall in front of “my” eyes, it is not the object of this person sitting. The sounds of birds’ singing or the wind’s blowing might be out there and enter “my” ears, but those are not the objects of this person sitting. Thoughts are the same. “I” am just sitting, and these thoughts are just coming and going there as they are. “We” are free from samsara even though we are right within samsara. I think this is a very meaningful practice right now within the pandemic. We try to see impermanence and suffering, without being overwhelmed by them.

“The twelfth month,” is rōgetsu (臘月) that is another name of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is called rōhatsu (臘八), which means the eighth day of the twelfth month. Dōgen combines two common Zen expressions related to lotus blossoms: rōgetsu no ren (臘月の蓮) lotus blossom in the twelfth month (December), and kachū no ren (火中の蓮), lotus blossom in a fire. In an ordinary sense, lotus blossoms bloom in the summer not in the winter, in the water not in the fire, so when Dōgen uses both of these expressions he means something extremely rare, or something that cannot exist in reality.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record Volume 7, Dharma Hall Discourse 516, p.459–460) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dōgen (Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala,1999), p. 21.
[3] Yaoko Mizuno: Hōkyōki (Koza Dōgen 3, Dōgen no Chosaku, Shunjusha, 1980) p.221.
Shudo Ishii: Saigo no Dōgen: Junikan-bon Shōbōgenzo to Hōkyōki (Junikan-bon Shōbōgenzo no Shomondai, Daizo shuppan,1991), p.367.
[4] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[5] Burton Watson’s translation in Vimalakīrti Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1997), p.102.
Robert Thurman’s translation from Sanskrit manuscript is:
Just as it can be shown that a lotus
Cannot exist in the center of a fire,
So they show the ultimate unreality
Of both pleasures and trances.
The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti, (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p.70.
[6] Translation by Tonen O’Connor in Commentary of the Song of Awakening (Merwin Asia, 2015), p.13

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:
See Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

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