Sparrows and Crows in the Vast Universe

Copyright©2023 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (63)

Sparrows and Crows in the Vast Universe
268. Dharma Hall Discourse


After twenty-one days of facing the tree, and doing walking meditation,
the morning star appeared and illuminated the Milky Way.
Unexpectedly he sat and broke through the vajra seat.
Who could fathom the wall-gazing of our house?[1]

This is verse 62 in Kuchūgen and the final part of Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 268 in Volume 4 of Eihei Kōroku. This dharma hall discourse was given during the summer practice period sometime between 5th day of 5th month and 17th day of 7th month in 1248. This verse in Manzan’s version is the same as Monkaku’s version.

Sparrows and Crows in the Vast Universe
Dharma Hall Discourse

Except for the final sentence and this poem, the entirety of dharma hall discourse 268 is a quotation of Zen master Huanlong Huinan’s[2] instruction to his assembly of monks:

When you climb a mountain you should reach the peak. When you enter the ocean you should reach the bottom. If you climb a mountain and don’t reach the peak, you will not know the unlimited vastness of the universe. If you enter the ocean and don’t reach the bottom, you will not know the shallows or depths of the blue-green sea. If you already know the unlimited vastness and the shallows and depths, you can overturn the four oceans with one kick, and topple Mount Sumeru with one push. As for a person who opens their hands like this and reaches home, how could he not be aware of the sparrows singing and crows cawing among the cypress trees? Do you all want to understand this clearly?[3]

Huinan was the founder of one of the two sub-schools of the Linji (Rinzai) School of Chinese Zen, the Huanglong (黄龍, Ōryū ) sect.[4] Eisai[5] transmitted this lineage to Japan. Since Dōgen’s teacher Myōzen[6] was Eisai’s disciple, Dōgen originally practiced the Zen of the Huanglong sect until Myōzen died in 1225, at which time Dōgen became a disciple of Tiangtong Rujing.

In his instructions, Huinan says that we should study and practice Zen teaching as thoroughly as if climbing to the pinnacle of the high mountain and seeing the boundlessness of the universe, or as if going down to the sea floor to understand how the depth of the sea. Then we can be completely free from our habitual ways of thinking and worldly ways of viewing things, turning over the entire ocean and pushing away Mt. Sumeru. We will be able to see the true reality of all beings as it is, the ultimate reality. When we have such a grand view, we can also see the tiny, phenomenal beings such as the sparrows and crows and their activities; in other words, we can also see concrete day-to-day reality. The cypress trees refer to the famous kōan of Zhaozhou (趙州, Jōshū), concerning the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West, that is not the object of mind. I suppose Huinan mentioned sparrows and crows with the same meaning as the cicada and the little dove which appear in the very beginning of Chuang Tzu.[7] The cicada and the little dove laugh at the big bird, P’eng, which beats the water for three thousand miles, whirling up vast gale storms, then climbs ninety thousand miles on the wind. With his images, Huinan talks about interpenetration of the ultimate reality and the conventional reality.

This poem is Dōgen Zenji’s expression of his understanding of Huinan’s discourse. He is saying that what we experience in our zazen is the interpenetration of the ultimate truth (expressed through such a grandiose viewpoint) with the conventional truth (in which tiny birds are flying in a small, limited range). We are just such small living beings as those little birds, and yet, we are flying the entire sky, as Dōgen says in Genjōkōan.

After twenty-one days of facing the tree, and doing walking meditation,
the morning star appeared and illuminated the Milky Way.

The first line of this poem, “After twenty-one days of facing the tree, and doing walking meditation, (觀樹經行三七日)” is taken from the long verse at the end of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, entitled Skillful Means. In the original verse in the Lotus Sutra, twenty-one days (三七日, san-shichi nichi, three times seven days) of sitting facing the tree and doing walking meditation (經行, kinhin) refers to the period of several weeks right after Buddha’s awakening. During this period of time, he enjoyed liberation and considered the possibility of teaching others, but hesitated to do so. Then Brahmā and other heavenly gods requested that he teach. Finally, he made the decision to teach using the skillful means of the gradual teachings of the three vehicles. The Buddha had awakened to the ultimate truth, but he thought it was not possible to share it with ordinally beings right away, therefore, he decided to teach using skillful means for three kinds of people: sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. But now, according to the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha begins to teach the ultimate truth, the true reality of all beings. This is the main theme of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

However, in the second line, Dōgen mentions that after the twenty-one days, the morning star appeared and illuminated the Milky Way. “Morning star” is a translation of Sanskrit word, aruna, which means “dawn” or “the morning star (Venus).” For this Sanskrit word, many Chinese translations use 明星 (myōjō, the bright star), which can be seen at the border of the dark night and the bright morning. In the Buddha’s biography, the morning star is always associated with the moment of his awakening. In that narrative, the star appears before the twenty-one days of facing the tree and doing walking meditation. However, Dōgen says the morning star appeared after the twenty-one days. I wonder if Dōgen made a careless mistake, or if he intentionally made such a change. I am pretty sure he intentionally made this twist. For him, this poem is not information regarding the historical events around Shakyamuni’s awakening. In the same long verse in Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, it is said:

You should know, Shariputra,
I originally took a vow,
Wanting to enable all living beings to be equal to me,
Without any distinctions.

In accord with this vow of long ago
Everything is now fulfilled,
For I transform all living beings
And lead them all into the Buddha way.[8]

Shakyamuni Buddha is talking to Shariputra, but here Shakyamuni is not merely speaking as the historical person born in India around 2,500 years ago. This Shakyamuni is at the same time, the dharma-kāya, the saṃbhoga-kāya, and the nirmāṇa-kāya buddha. In Tendai teachings, it is said that these three buddha bodies are simply one Buddha. Dōgen is talking about buddha’s awakening in this framework, and he is talking about zazen as jijuyū-zanmai in the same way, as the interpenetration of the ultimate truth and the conventional reality. Our day-to-day zazen practice is like the tiny birds’ activities, but also expresses the ultimate universal reality.

Unexpectedly he sat and broke through the vajra seat.
Who could fathom the wall-gazing of our house?

The vajra seat (金剛座, kongō-za) is a translation of vajrâsana (diamond seat) and refers to the place under the bodhi tree where Shakyamuni was sitting when he awakened. It is said that the thousand buddhas of the past kalpas sat in the same place and entered diamond samadhi. This place is also called the Bodhimaṇḍa (道場, dōjō, place of enlightenment) in Buddhagaya (Pali. Bodhgayā).

“Sat and broke through” is a translation of 坐破 (zaha); za (坐) is sitting and ha (破) is breaking through. This expression is used, for example, in Shōbōgenzō Gyōji (行持, Continuous Practice). Dōgen wrote about Zen master Changqing Huileng,[9] saying that he practiced at the monasteries of his teacher Xuefeng Yicun[10] and his elder dharma brother Xuansha Shibei[11] for about twenty-nine years. During that time, he practiced zazen thoroughly and broke twenty zafu (round cushion). Dōgen praised him:

Those who love zazen nowadays regard Changqing as an excellent ancient example. There are many who long for him, but few measure up to him.[12]

Dōgen probably took this expression about the vajra seat from his teacher Rujing’s saying, which he quotes in the same fascicle: “I always wanted to break through the vajra seat.”[13]

“Wall gazing” is a translation of 壁観 (hekikan). The expression refers to Bodhidharma’s sitting practice. In the earliest Zen text regarding Bodhidharma, the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, the entrance of principle (one of the two entrances), is described:

If one discards the false and takes refuge in the True, one resides frozen in “wall contemplation,” in which self and other, ordinary person and sage, are one and the same; one resides fixedly without wavering, never again to be swayed by written teachings. To be thus mysteriously identified with the True Principle, to be without discrimination, serene and inactive: this is called the entrance of principle.[14]

“Wall contemplation” is another translation of 壁観 (hekikan). As John McRae discussed in his book Seeing through Zen, the exact meaning of hekikan is not clear. But here Dōgen uses this expression as the name of his zazen practice described as jijuyū-zanmai. He is saying that his and his monks’ zazen practice in their monks’ hall at Eiheiji is the same as Shakyamuni Buddha’s and Bodhidharma’s practice. This is in accordance with what he writes in The Way of Zazen Recommended Universally (普勧坐禅儀, Fukanzazengi):

Moreover, consider Shakyamuni Buddha who was enlightened from birth; to this day you can see the traces of his sitting in straight posture for six years. And Bodhidharma who transmitted the mind-seal; even now you can hear of the fame of his facing the wall for nine years. These ancient sages practiced in this way. Why can we, people of today, refrain from practice![15]

In dharma hall discourse 272 of Monkaku’s version, there is a poem which is similar to “Sparrows and Crows in the Vast Universe.”

惜矣身心脱落、  Cherish the dropping away of body and mind.
眼睛霹靂昭雲漢。Eyes like lightning illuminate the Milky Way.
可怜坐破金剛座、Value sitting that breaks through the vajra seat.
誰識吾家之壁観  Who knows the wall-gazing of our house?[16]

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record volume 4, dharma hall discourse 268, p.259) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] (黄龍慧南, Ōryū Enan, 1002–1069)
[3] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.259.
[4] Another faction is Yangqi (楊岐, Yogi) sect founded by Yangqi Fanghui (楊岐法会, Yogi Hoe, 992–1049).
[5] (栄西、1141- 1225)
[6] (明全, 1184–1225)
[7] See Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint,1997), p.4.
[8] Translation by Gene Reeves in The Lotus Sutra, (Wisdom Publication) p.89.
[9] (長慶慧稜, Chokei Eryo, 854–932)
[10] (雪峰義存, Seppō Gison, 822–908)
[11] (玄沙師備, 835–908)
[12] See Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Tanahashi, Shambhala), p.368.
[13] Ibid. p.377
[14] Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (John R. McRae, University of California Press, 2003) p.29.
[15] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[16] Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p. 262. In Manzan’s version, this dharma hall discourse is not included.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:
See Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

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