Bathing with the Baby Buddha

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (50)
Bathing with the Baby Buddha 

Our Buddha Tathagata was born today,
and at once took seven steps in all ten directions.
Who knows that with each step he gave birth to many buddhas?
These buddhas are simply transmitting today’s voice.[1]

「浴佛」 「浴佛」
我佛如來今日生 (我が佛如來今日生まれ、)
十方七歩一時行 (十方に七歩し、一時に行く。)
誰知歩歩生諸佛 (誰か知る、歩歩に諸佛を生むことを。)
諸佛單傳今日聲 (諸佛、今日の聲を單傳す。)

This is verse 49 in Kuchūgen and a part of Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 98 on the occasion of Buddha’s Birthday. The jōdō was given on the 8th day of the 4th month in 1242 at Kōshōji, and is recorded in Volume 1 of Eihei Kōroku. In this text, this is the second of the nine dharma discourses on the Buddha’s Birthday. Dōgen Zenji began the discourse by reciting this verse, which is the same in both Manzan’s and Monkaku’s versions.

Bathing with the Baby Buddha

In Dharma Discourse 495, given in 1252, (the last dharma discourse he gave on the Buddha’s birthday), Dōgen describes the story of the Buddha’s birth following a Chinese text. The Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya was returning to her parents’ palace to give birth. On her way, she arrived at Lumbini Park, and Shakyamuni was born there. The newborn baby stood up by himself:

At that very time, jeweled lotuses blossomed to support the bodhisattva’s feet. Heavenly beings rained down flowers upon the bodhisattva. Then he took seven steps in each of the four directions, and gazed to the four directions without blinking. The words naturally emerged from his mouth, “Within the world, I am the most excellent. Within the world, I am the most venerable. From today on my share of births have been exhausted; this is my final body, and I will become a buddha.”[2]

According to Buddhist scholars, we find a similar saying in a Pali Sutta. After the Buddha completed the ultimate awakening and determined that he would teach, he walked from Buddha Gaya to Deer Park in Sarnath to teach the five monks who used to practice asceticism with him. On his way, he met the Ājīvika named Upaka, who was struck by the dignified appearance of the Buddha. Ājīvika was the name of a group of acetic practitioners led by Makkali Gosāla, one of the six teachers who were contemporaries of the Buddha. Upaka asked the Buddha, “Who is your teacher? Whose Dhamma do you profess?” A part of the Buddha’s answer is:

I have no teacher, and one like me
Exists nowhere in all the world
With all its gods, because I have
No person for my counterpart.
I am the Accomplished One in the world,
I am the Teacher Supreme.
I alone am a Fully Enlightened One
Whose fires are quenched and extinguished.[3]

In this Sutta from the Pali, the Buddha said that because of his awakening, he was the supreme teacher. Yet, before he started to teach, the Buddha had no real necessity to compare himself with other teachers and say he was the greatest teacher. I suppose this saying was put into the Buddha’s mouth by later Buddhist biographers. After Buddhism became a religious institution, biographers wanted to make him superior to other teachers. Scholars suppose that later in the development of the Buddha’s biography, the meaning of this saying was used as the words of the newborn baby Buddha, even before he had done anything. Biographers wanted to say that when he was born, it was predetermined that he was going to become the Buddha.

Even later in Buddhist history, in China, the sentence, “Above the heaven and underneath the heaven, I alone am the Honored-One, (tenjo-tenga yuiga dokuson, 天上天下唯我独尊)” appeared in The Great Tang Chronicles of the Western World (大唐西域記, Daito-Saiiki-ki) written by Hsuan Tsang (玄奘, Genjō, 603–664). Since then, this expression has been considered to be what the baby Buddha said. However, this saying was created in the process of deification of the Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha did not claim that he was a god or someone who was empowered by a god/God, rather he said he was a human being. But soon after his death, Buddhists began to deify him, and this saying is, in a sense, the final arrival point of those efforts.

It seems Zen masters did not appreciate such efforts to make the Buddha into a superhuman being. In Zen tradition, there is a famous, iconoclastic comment by Yunmen Wenyan (Unmon Bunen, 雲門文偃, 864–949). After introducing the birth story, Yunmen said, “Had I witnessed this at the time, I would have knocked him dead with one stroke and fed him to the dogs in order to bring about peace on earth!”[4]

Our Buddha Tathagata was born today,
and at once took seven steps in all ten directions.

Commonly, it is said the baby Buddha walked seven steps in four quarters: east, south, west, north. “Seven steps” might have come from the number of the stars in the constellation Big Dipper. In the Buddhacharita, it is said he was like the constellation of the seven Rsis.[5] Here Dōgen interestingly says that the baby walked in all ten directions: the four directions, the midpoints between each of the four directions, and then up and down. For a newborn baby, even standing up on two legs and walking seven steps in four directions is unthinkable. How could he walk up and down?

But I don’t think this is Dōgen’s careless mistake. He is not really talking about the legend of the Buddha’s birth. I think this has something to do with what he writes in Shōbōgenzo Juppō (十方, Ten Directions) written in 1243:

The entire ten-direction world is the entire-body of the Sramana. One hand points to the heaven as heaven, one hand points to the earth as earth. Although it is thus, [the Buddha said,] above the heaven and underneath the heaven, I alone am the Honored-One. This is the entire ten-direction world as the entire body of the Sramana.[6]

Here, the “Sramana” refers to Shakyamuni. Dōgen interprets this story as showing that the baby Buddha was one with the entire network of interconnectedness with all beings in the ten-directions. The Buddha and the ten-direction world are born together. In Zen tradition, when he attained awakening, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “When the bright star appeared, I, together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously completed the Way.” This saying expresses the same principle, that the Buddha attained awakening and lived together with all beings within Indra’s Net.

Who knows that with each step he gave birth to many buddhas?
These buddhas are simply transmitting today’s voice.

The second line of this verse is about the interconnectedness with all beings within space; here, the third line of the poem (“Who knows that…”) points out the interconnectedness with other buddhas and bodhisattvas within time. From his birth until his entering Nirvāṇa, in each of his steps, the Buddha gave birth to innumerable buddhas. The Buddha’s walking was the origin of all buddhas, past, present, and future. His teaching activities were the source of inspiration to create the images of the seven buddhas of the past in the Pali teachings, and the innumerable buddhas in the ten directions and three times in the Mahāyāna teachings. In Shōbōgenzo Gyōji, Dōgen says:

Because of the continuous practice of all buddhas in the past, present and future, all buddhas in the past, present and future are actualized.

Dōgen also says about our practice and the buddhas’ and ancestors’ practice:

Therefore, because of the buddhas’ and ancestors’ continuous practice, our continuous practice is actualized, and our own great Way is penetrated. Because of our own continuous practice, the continuous practice of all buddhas is actualized, and the great Way of buddhas is penetrated.[7]

In the final line of the poem, Dōgen says that all buddhas and ancestors have been transmitting “today’s voice.” “Today’s voice” is “Above the heaven and underneath the heaven, I alone am the Honored-One, (天上天下唯我独尊).” “Simply transmitting” is a translation of tanden (単伝). In the very beginning of Bendōwa, Dōgen writes:

All buddha-tathagatas together have been simply transmitting wondrous dharma and actualizing anuttara samyak sambodhi for which there is an unsurpassable, unfabricated, wondrous method.”

This line of the poem may mean that the only thing that has been transmitted as “today’s voice” is the wondrous dharma, or that the wondrous dharma is transmitted from one teacher to one disciple.

Although Discourse 98 is about the story of the Buddha’s birth, I think Dōgen is talking about our practice within the network of interdependent origination. Later in Discourse 98, he says:

Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha… For a long time our Buddha has bathed the assembly of monks; today the assembly of monks pours water on our Buddha.[8]

Without Shakyamuni’s birth, leaving home, practice, awakening, turning the dharma wheel, and entering nirvāṇa, there would be no such tradition called Buddhism. Then it would not have been possible for us to study and practice today. The Buddha’s practice from his birth enables us to practice today. On the other hand, if no one had become his disciple and continued his practice and teaching, the Buddhist tradition would not exist. Without our practice here and now, the Buddha’s and ancestors’ practice and awakening are only records in the Buddhist scriptures. Even though our practice is incomplete, our practice is the only way Buddha’s life continues. At the very end of Discourse 98, Dōgen says:

Great assembly, let’s go together to the Buddha hall and bathe our Buddha.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record, Volume 1, Dharma Hall Discourse 98, p.136) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, Volume 7, p.442 -443.
[3] The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, 26 Ariyapariyesanā Sutta: The Noble Search, p.263.
[4] Master Yunmen: From the Record of the Chan Teacher “Gate of the Clouds” (Urs App, Kodansha International, 1994) p.194.
[6] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[7] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[8] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.136.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:
See Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2022 Sanshin Zen Community

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