Way of Dharma

The last in a series of three videos on
Dōgen’s waka inspired by The Lotus Sutra

Way of Dharma

© Can Stock Photo

Shōkaku Okumura tells us The Lotus Sutra provides an indispensable key to studying Dōgen. He says, “throughout space and time, each and every thing is connected with everything.” With that foundation, we can grasp what Dōgen Zenji expresses in his five waka poems on the Lotus Sutra.

Going a step further, Okumura-roshi believes what’s true for us today has been true since the “big bang.” By just being, each of us participates in the interconnectedness of all beings. But all it takes is to think about interconnectedness to create a separation. That’s why only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the true reality of all beings.

That might sound to some as a rather hopeless condition. However, in this final video clarifying Dōgen’s waka on the Lotus Sutra, Hojo-san shares the good news that zazen provides a remedy.

A benefit of preparing these materials for posting is the opportunity to “handle the merchandise” more than once. Each new exposure reveals another aspect of the teaching. We’re grateful for the truths each rewind provides.

In that spirit, you’ll find Part One of this series here and Part Two here.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura-roshi
— Video is an excerpt from a September, 2016 talk at Great Tree Zen Temple of Asheville, North Carolina.

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Presentando Il Canto dello Zen

Announcing the Publication of Living by Vow in Italian

Book stores in Italy are now stocking Living by Vow, Shōhaku Okumura’s illuminating overview of Sōtō liturgy. His disciples there arranged for its translation and for Ubaldini to publish it in recent weeks. That same firm printed two other titles by Okumura-roshi in Italy — Realizing Genjōkōan and The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō.

Of course, we celebrate this achievement for the sake of Italian practitioners who now have access to this work. And we commemorate the fruition of a long, arduous task by Roshi’s disciples. But we also mark this occasion for English-speaking readers to discover this book’s gifts — if not for the first time, then, perhaps, in wisdom attained since their initial encounter.

With these thoughts in mind, The Dōgen Institute now offers the Introduction to Living by Vow here in both Italian and English.

Languages frequently resist the sorts of conversions we can make from, say, ounces to milliliters. And this is no exception. We can’t get past the book’s title before subtleties in linguistic meanings jockey for attention.

Our Italian sangha tell us the phrase “Living by Vow” is really complicated to express in that language. And so, it’s published in Italy as “Il Canto dello Zen.” A literal translation could render that as “The Song of Zen.” And they read it as “The Chant of Zen.”

On page one of the Introduction, Roshi tells us “…there is no perfect translation, especially in the case of religious scriptures. A translation optimized for meaning is often difficult to read and chant. But to create a beautiful verse we may have to sacrifice the exact meaning of the original texts.”

Even so, consider the poems we chant that are called “songs.” Take Sekitō’s “Song of the Grass Hut,” for example, and Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen.” If we take the Lotus Sutra as our guide, through our ears, we hear the voice of the Buddha. And everything we encounter is the Dharma.

In that regard, the teachings of Living by Vow would be music to our ears in any language. So let’s connect with the melody already in progress . . .

Il Canto dello ZenIntroduzione in Italiano

Living by VowIntroduction in English

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We express our appreciation to Wisdom Publications for graciously allowing us to post the English-language Introduction to Living by Vow.  In its quest to preserve and share Buddhist literary culture, this nonprofit charitable organization extends the reach of Shōhaku Okumura’s teachings and advances critical scholarship such as his around the world.  http://www.wisdompubs.org/

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Only a Buddha and a Buddha

The second video in a series on Dōgen’s
five waka inspired by The Lotus Sutra


© Can Stock Photo / Konstanttin

Previously, Okumura-roshi elaborated on Dōgen Zenji’s teaching that everything we encounter is Dharma. However, even though we may have aroused the aspiration to study and practice, our conditioning prevents most of us from seeing reality as it truly is. He explains it’s we who create Samsara by viewing ourselves as “subjects” and all else as “objects” we want to possess or avoid.

Now, we turn directly to the Lotus Sutra. Not only is it the subject of Dōgen’s first five waka poems, it’s the key to understanding them. Roshi points to two chapters that stand out — Chapter Two, Skillful Means, and Chapter 16, The Lifespan of the Tathagata.

Drilling down further, Hōjō-san tells us the most important teaching in Chapter Two is Shōhō Jissō, The True Reality of All Things. This permeates the five waka we’re studying. He adds it’s the most important teaching in the Lotus Sutra when studying Dōgen. In this video, it’s apparent we only have access to it because Shakyamuni’s key disciple, Shariputra, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

This great Mahayana teaching of interconnectedness gives us an invaluable understanding of our lives. And with that foundation, we’ll return to the waka poems inspired by Dōgen Zenji’s experience of this true reality.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura-roshi
— Video is an excerpt from a September, 2016 talk at Great Tree Zen Temple of Asheville, North Carolina.

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

The Pure Land Itself Is Near

The first video in a series on Dōgen’s
five waka inspired by The Lotus Sutra

Shōhaku Okumura speaking

Shōhaku Okumura provides fresh insights into Dōgen’s Lotus Sutra waka.

For anyone seeking a better understanding of Master Dōgen’s work, The Lotus Sutra may provide an opening. It’s revered as one of the most important Mahayana sutras. But it’s also the most important sutra of the Tendai school where Dōgen was originally ordained.

Even after he became a Zen master, Dōgen continued the study he began as a young monk, investigating its meanings as a scripture. He also drew upon it for his own writing as he matured. And most significantly, he directly experienced how The Lotus Sutra reveals itself throughout existence. As Okumura-roshi has already explained, it’s so much more than a fundamental Buddhist text.

So it should come as little surprise that in his first four waka poems, Dōgen Zenji would illustrate the essence and vitality of the Lotus Sutra in the world. Understanding its scope, we come to understand how, in his fifth waka, he might lament that so few people realize what they’re a part of.

In this nearly eight minute video, Shōhaku Okumura reads the first five of Dogen’s collected waka poems in their original Japanese and with his English translation. Then he places them in the context of our lives here and now.

In future video posts, Roshi will guide us through the Lotus Sutra to a better understanding of Dōgen’s waka and their link to the suchness of reality.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura-roshi
— Video is an excerpt from a September, 2016 talk at Great Tree Zen Temple of Asheville, North Carolina.

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Beyond Our Grasp

A waka suggesting reality outside of thought

如何なるか Ika naru ka
仏と謂うと Hotoke to iu to If someone asked me,
人問はば Hito towaba “What is Buddha?”
かいやか下に Kaiya ga shita ni [I would say], “There is ice
つららいにけり Tsurara i ni keri underneath the kaiya.”


© Can Stock Photo / Foto-Ruhrgebiet

The first half of this waka is not difficult at all. This is a simple question asking what Buddha is. But the second half that is the answer to this question, is difficult because we are not sure what “kaiya” refers to.

It is said that this is an old word used from the time of the Manyōshu (the oldest collection of waka poems compiled in 9th century).

According to the traditional commentaries, there are three possibilities:

1. 鹿火屋 (deer fire hut)
2. 蚊火屋 (mosquito fire hut)
3. 蚕屋 (silkworm hut)

Ya means “roof” or some kind of a structure like a hut or a shack.

The first possibility is a hut to make a fire in the night, meant to chase deer away and protect vegetables or grains.

Mosquitos and other insects will come to the fire. There is the following proverb: “The summer insects fly to their death in a flame of their own accord.”

A silkworm hut needed to be kept warm, so that sericulturists made fire whenever necessary.

Steven Heine translated this word as “a mosquito net.” Rev. Rosan Yoshida’s translation is “silkworm hut.” All these three words have something to do with fire and heat.

Kaiya” for us is like the Sanskrit word “saindhava” which has four different meanings: salt, a cup, water, and a horse. Dōgen Zenji wrote one fascicle of Shobogenzo OsakusendabaKing Seeks Saindhava.” The servant needed to know exactly what his king was asking when he said, “Give me the saindhava.”

If the king asked saindhava when he wanted to wash his face, the servant gave him some water. If the king asked saindhava during a meal, the servant gave him some salt. If the king asked saindhava after eating, the servant offered a cup for some drink. If the king asked saindhava when he wanted to go out, the servant brought a horse.

The wise servant could know what the word meant depending upon what the king was doing at that moment. However, we don’t know even what “kaiya” meant, because we don’t know what Dōgen was seeing or thinking when he wrote this waka. We need to guess.

In modern Japanese, “tsurara” refers to an icicle, a hanging piece of ice formed by freezing of dripping water. Both Heine and Yoshida translated this word as “icicle.” But according to a dictionary of Japanese archaisms, in classic Japanese before Tokugawa period (1603-1867), “icicle” was called “taruhi (垂氷, hanging ice)” and “tsurara” refered to “ice” in general in the horizontal surface of water. I don’t understand how ice can be formed underneath some kind of a hut or a shack?

In Fukanzazengi, Dogen says, “In doing zazen, the koan manifests itself; it cannot be ensnared.” In this case, “koan” refers to the reality before or beyond human thinking.
—Shōhaku Okumura

Anyway, here are two opposite things that cannot be together: fire/heat and ice. The traditional commentaries interpreted this waka poem showing interpenetration of ji (事) and ri (理), or hen (偏) and sho (正), that refer to the absolute reality and the conventional reality, the principle and the phenomena, etc. They referenced a quote by Zen Master Caoshan Benji (Sozan Honjaku, 840-901) saying, “Within fire, cold ice is formed (燄裡寒氷結).” This expression by Caoshan is a part of his verses on the Five Ranks.

Today’s commentator, Akio Matsumoto, who is not a Soto Zen master or scholar, but rather an expert of Japanese literature, introduced a waka poem composed by Fujiwara Kinzane (1043 – 1107) included in a collection of waka, Horikawa Hyakushu (One Hundred Waka Poems in the Era of Emperor Horikawa) in which almost the same expressions appears: “kaiya ga shita mo koori shinikeri (かひ屋がしたも/氷しにけり、Ice is formed even underneath the kaiya).”

Koori” is common word for ice. According to Matsumoto, in this waka, “kaiya” was a device for catching fish. A bundle of twigs of trees was put under water. Small fish stayed in the bundle of twigs, then people lifted it up and caught the fish. In the winter, a roof was put above such a device to prevent the surface of the water from freezing. The roof was called “飼屋, kaiya.”

Kinzane described the scenery of an exceptionally cold winter day, the temperature was much colder than usual and even underneath the roof (kaiya), water was frozen and people could not catch any fish.

I like this interpretation better than the traditional one. In his waka poems, when Dōgen describes the scenery of seasons, he usually does not refer to any phenomena that is not possible to see. If we interpret in the first way, “ice in the fire,” this is something we cannot see in the phenomenal world. Then this waka becomes an expression of a philosophical idea. “Ice in the fire” becomes an expression of the concept of interpenetration of opposite things. I don’t think that is what Dōgen would do at least in his waka poems. His expressions of nature in his waka are pretty much a sketch of what he sees.

Then what does this waka mean if we adopt the second interpretation?

Kaiya” is a device to catch fish invented by human beings. However, it is too cold to get fish. The man-made device does not work when the temperature is colder than expected.

I think, Dōgen is saying that Buddha is something beyond what human beings can hold with our thinking mind. In Fukanzazengi, Dōgen says, “In doing zazen, the koan manifests itself; it cannot be ensnared.” In this case, “koan” refers to the reality before or beyond human thinking. “Cannot be ensnared” literally means that there is no way to catch it using net and cage (籮籠, raro), that is a device to catch the bird (reality) and a cage to keep it as our possessions.

I think this waka is saying that Buddha is something beyond all human agency to grasp because we are a tiny part of it. Dōgen likes the expression from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “Only Buddha together with Buddha.” We have to open our hands of human thinking and let go. Then the Buddha that is beyond human thinking is revealed.

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Study of Truth

Branching Streams Lead the Way

Main menu study link
In his waka poems, Master Dōgen succinctly presents life’s phenomena as myriad expressions of one ultimate truth.

We’ve been posting his waka here for nearly three and a half years. That amounts to over forty published so far. A lot of phenomena. And still only one ultimate truth.

This single story has a truth to be studied. Do you want to thoroughly understand this truth?
—Dōgen Zenji

With few exceptions, each waka with its accompanying commentary stands as an independent entity. Shōhaku Okumura has distilled a wide array of resources into concise, illuminating pointers to the often-subtle message of each poem.

While each blossom is uniquely beautiful, a bird’s perspective shows us an entire field of beauty. Seeing the whole landscape shows us what a single bloom does not — a lot of cross pollination.

main menu study link

(c) Sanshin Zen Community

Today we invite you to share that bird’s-eye view. The STUDY link of our main menu now directs you to a page dedicated to Dōgen’s Waka Poems.
Waka study page
Once you visit, it’s all very evident how you might work with the contents. But suffice it to say you can better see how the waka and commentary relate to each other and also to an array of Dōgen’s other work.

Waka study page
As stated on the page, we intend to make updates as we find connections between Okumura-roshi’s commentary, references and waka translations. In the meantime, please follow the branching streams wherever they may lead you.

If there’s a purpose to the waka it’s transmitting Buddha Dharma. If there’s a meaning, we hope one stream or the other leads you to it.

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Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Silently Expressing Dharma

Linking the beauty of the seasons
to the waka, “Original Face

water, roots and moss

(c) Can Stock Photo / photoshot44

Honrai no menmoku
Original Face

春は花 Haru wa hana Spring, flowers
夏ほととぎす natsu hototogisu summer, cuckoos
秋は月 aki wa tsuki autumn, the moon
冬雪きえで fuyu yuki kiede winter, snow does not melt
すずしかりけり Suzushi kari keri All seasons pure and upright.

Original face is a well-known Zen phrase used to invoke fundamental truth. It dates back to Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Ch’an which became Zen. The Platform Sutra describes Huineng asking a former adversary to put aside dualistic thoughts of good and bad to see his original face. Today, the teaching is most often associated with the question, “What is your original face before your parents were born?”

Here’s Okumura-roshi’s take on it.

Now, we ask how the beauty of the seasons in Dōgen’s waka, Original Face, relates to this basic Zen teaching. Roshi introduces the following koan to approach an answer. It’s the very first case in the Book of SerenityShōyōroku — compiled by Ch’an Master Hongzhi, or Wanshi in Japanese. The koan is aptly titled The World Honored One Ascends the Seat.

One day, the World Honored One ascended the seat.
Manjusri struck the gavel and said,
“Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma;
the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus.”
The World Honored One then got down from the seat.

Shakyamuni never speaks to the assembly expecting his teaching. Hōjō-san elaborates on how this represents the Zen tradition of silently-expressed Dharma.

To make a connection between the seasons and this reality beyond language or duality, we turn to a verse Master Hongzhi wrote about the koan.

The unique breeze of reality—do you see?
Continuously creation runs her loom and shuttle,
Weaving the ancient brocade, incorporating the forms of spring,
But nothing can be done about Manjusri’s leaking.

Each line presents an aspect of the raw, unprocessed reality Roshi described earlier.

The unique breeze of reality—do you see?

Continuously creation runs her loom and shuttle,

Weaving the ancient brocade, incorporating the forms of spring,

Before addressing the last line of the verse, Roshi tells us interconnectedness is what links the scenery of each season to non-dual reality — Original Face. And Manjusri’s leaking presents the conundrum of Zen. We must rely on words to relay what words cannot express. It’s an issue that confronts even the wise Bodhisattva Manjusri and Shakyamuni Buddha.

Roshi tells us Dōgen’s waka poem, Original Face, is the same as Manjushri’s leaking. It’s something extra, but through this something extra we can open our eyes to reality, itself.

This waka and its commentary begin HERE

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Translation of Case #1 and Hongzhi’s verse by Thomas Cleary
Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura-roshi
– Video excerpts are from a September, 2016 talk at the Zen Center of Asheville in North Carolina.

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community