Dōgen’s Waka Poems

Themes, connections and the unfathomable

We offer this study page to help make Master Dōgen’s waka a meaningful practice resource. Please think of it as a living document. We will amend and modify it as we continue to make associations between Shōhaku Okumura’s translations, references and commentary. He teaches us reality isn’t a fixed concept. Happily, that includes this page.

About wakawakapage-0476023-200x150
Waka is a very traditional, short form of Japanese poem. The oldest collection, titled Man’yōshū, was compiled in the 9th century and contains more than 4,000 compositions. Members of every social class throughout Japan — from emperor to peasant — contributed to it. So it seems by Dōgen’s time, in the 13th century, waka was a well-embraced literary genre. Its poems contain 31 syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. By comparison, the more familiar haiku is shorter, with only 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern.

About Dōgen Zenji’s waka
dogen-200x150Dōgen’s genius with words gave him several outlets for teaching. Okumura-roshi tells us giving Dharma discourses, composing Chinese poems and writing Shōbōgenzō were more favored means of expression for Dōgen than waka. Even so, he was good at it, and Japanese people found them very accessible. Unlike some other works, Dōgen wrote waka entirely in the Japanese language. We have 60 or so today thanks to someone collecting them about 100 years after his death.

You’ll find some waka we’ve posted have titles with this format:

Honrai no menmoku wo yomu
Poem expressing “Original Face”

Honrai no menmoku is actually the title — “Original Face” in this instance. And wo yomu translates as “A poem on” or “Poem expressing.” As you read the ideograms left to right in this example, the first character in red, 本来面目, is wo yomu. The following characters represent Honrai no menmoku.

Seasons   |   Scriptures   |   Expressions   |   References | Chronology

Significance of the Seasons

When Okumura-roshi began translating Dōgen’s waka poems, he started with those about the seasons. For one thing, the four seasons are very important in Japanese culture. For another, he felt that even though short and simple, these waka expressed a very deep understanding of Dharma. Apparently, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata shared this view. His tribute to the season-oriented poem, “Original Face,” piqued interest well beyond Zen circles.

Original Face, part one      |      Original Face, part two

In some titles below, the poem may be about or inspired strictly by the season. In others, the season may only be mentioned, either in the waka or commentary. As you see, some titles fall into more than one season, especially those involving transition from one to the other.






New Year

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Buddhist Scriptures

The first of Dōgen’s waka we posted back in September, 2013 was on The Lotus Sutra.  By June, 2016 we had posted all five of his waka inspired by that teaching.

The Lotus Sutra

References to The Lotus Sutra

Other Sutras Referenced

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Core Concepts and Expressions

These mostly-familiar phrases spun from Zen teachings are linked to waka postings where they appear.

Waka Named the Same as Other Works

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Other of Dōgen’s Works

Hōjō-san has drawn upon Dōgen’s abundant catalog of writings to illustrate and clarify aspects of his waka. The specific works that follow are linked to the waka commentary that reference them.

Eiheikoroku Vol. 7, Dharma discourse 479
Eiheikoroku Vol. 9
Katto and Mujo-seppo
Genjokoan, also here & here & here
Chiji Shingi
Shobogenzo Bodaisatta-Shishobo, also here
Shobogenzo Bukkyo
Shobogenzo Bussho
Shobogenzo Daigo
Shobogenzo Dotoku
Shobogenzo Genjokoan
Shobogenzo Gyoji
Shobogenzo Hokke-ten-hokke
Shobogenzo Hotsu-bodaishin, also here & here
Shobogenzo Hotsumujoshin
Shobogenzo Immo
Shobogenzo Keisei Sanshoku, also here & here
Shobogenzo Kie-sambo
Shobogenzo Osakusendaba
Shobogenzo Sansuikyo
Shobogenzo Shime
Shobogenzo Shoaku Makusa
Shobogenzo Shoji
Shobogenzo Shukke-kudoku
Shobogenzo Sokushinzebutsu
Shobogenzo Tsuki, also here
Shobogenzo Yuibutsu-yobutsu
Shobogenzo Zuimonki, also here & here
Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 3-14
Tenzo Kyōkun, also here


The following waka titles, grouped by year, appear in the order we published them here.






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All material copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community