Being one with chocolate, how does that work?

image © 2019 David S. Thompson

I’m confused about name and form, and the idea that if you end the subject-object relationship, and see what was formerly an object as part of yourself, you drop the attachment to it— practically speaking, how does that work? If I have a piece of chocolate, and try to end the subject-object relationship with that piece of chocolate, it’s a part of me, but I still want to eat it.


According to Buddha when we sit letting go of thought, or keep our karmic consciousness idling, then name and form (namarupa) disappears, ceases to exist. Do you believe this? I really believe this. This [holds marker] ceases to be a brown marker to me, this is just as it is. We let go of the name and evaluation, and try not to do anything with this. It’s there, but this is not a brown marker, we don’t make a judgment whether this is useful or not useful. It’s still here but it ceases to be namarupa. At that time, as in Dogen Zenji’s expression, it starts to be the Buddha Dharma, or to reveal itself just as it is. This is not namarupa or the object of my perception, but this is just as it is. That is just what Dogen Zenji says at the very beginning of Genjokoan, “When all dharmas are Buddha Dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings.” When we let go of all of our different thoughts in zazen, all things cease to be namarupa and start to be Buddha Dharma. That is the time we can practice with all different dharmas. But still this is it. It doesn’t change, but the relationship between this person and this thing has changed. We encounter this not as a namarupa or object of my judgment or evaluation, but this is just as it is. It has its own form, nature, body, energy, and function. That is when I can practice with this [holds marker], when this starts to show the reality of all beings, impermanence, egolessness, and interdependent origination. As far as I perceive this as a brown marker, I have some connection or relationship. I’m hooked within this connection of a person who has a desire and the object of my desire to write or do something meaningful or valuable for this person. If we stop all those hooks, this thing starts to reveal the reality of all beings. It becomes a buddha that teaches us and shows us the reality of all beings. So it becomes a teacher. The relationship and meaning of this being becomes different. It’s still here but it ceases to be namarupa and starts to be Buddha Dharma.

In our zazen we can really completely let go of all perceptions or thinking or evaluation or anything. But when we get out of the zendo this starts to be namarupa again and we have of deal with namarupa. Practice within our daily lives is more complicated. What Buddha taught in the Sutta Nipata is not the end of the teaching. There is the Mahayana teaching and also what Dogen teaches: how we can live based on this teaching of Buddha. As a Mahayana Buddhist or bodhisattva we have to work within the society with all beings. We cannot sit twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Somehow, we have to work or interact with other people with different ideas, opinions or views. We have to deal with namarupa. How can we deal with namarupa if we cannot avoid contact with namarupa?

I think what Dogen is saying, and what Mahayana Buddhism is teaching, is that there is another way to avoid contact even though we are working together with things, and that is to become one with this. As Dogen Zenji said in Tenzo Kyokun, when you work in the kitchen you should be one with the rice, water, or fire. That is another way this ceases to be namarupa, and yet remain a part of my life. One way of “avoiding” contact is to really let go of everything and sit facing the wall. Another way is to encounter this as one thing. That is the question Dogen is answering in Bendowa: whether this can be applied only during zazen or if this can also be applied in our daily lives. This is a kind of difficult point, a delicate point. We have to really think deeply.

As far as the chocolate— I think you can eat it; but it depends on your physical condition. Sugar can be a poison depending upon your condition. You have to consider the relationship between the chocolate and you. A baby doesn’t have a concept of the mother’s milk. Cats and dogs also don’t have names or concepts, still they know what they can eat, or what they need to keep them alive. Probably there is no “perception” in Buddhist terms, but they have five skandhas and food is probably something to them. Maybe cats and dogs don’t eat what they need out of desire but out of necessity. Cats don’t eat more than they need, but we humans eat even when we know it’s a poison. To eat too much delicious food harms our bodies, but still I want to eat it. That is because we think this is important, this is expensive, or this is delicious, or I cannot eat if I don’t eat right now. I think this is a problem caused by our mind or thinking, and I think that is desire. But the appetite of babies or cats and dogs is not desire. It’s a necessity, they only eat as much as they need. They are more enlightened than us.

But if I want the chocolate, then the chocolate is namarupa, an object of my desire. If I just eat it without thinking or considering my healthy condition, we are in need of wisdom. Even if this brown marker ceases to exist as namarupa, still this can be used as a marker. But this cannot be a piece of chocolate, we cannot eat this. When we start to think whether to eat this piece of chocolate or not, a kind of wisdom arises to see what happens when I eat this. That is what we do in our daily lives— we have to deal with this. When we start to question our relationship with this chocolate, then the chocolate becomes Buddha Dharma. Chocolate is teaching us to consider whether we are being led by our desire or wisdom. I think that is our practice in our daily lives. We have to deal with this. If we eat it without thinking, just because we want to eat it, just because I like it, then this is really namarupa. But when we stop one moment and think whether this is a good thing or not or what the action of eating this causes to these five skandhas, then we start to learn about this thing and that thing.

Even from one piece of chocolate we can see the entire universe, because everything is connected with this one piece of chocolate. The chocolate is in front of me because of the farmers who grow the cocoa plants and the people who worked making chocolate at a factory, and people who transported it from where it was made to in front of me. When we see this chocolate, we can see the entire net of interdependent origination. After that we have to make a decision to eat it or not. Then the chocolate really becomes a teacher of dharma. It’s not a mystical thing, this is really a day-to-day ordinary thing. But if we are careful, we can study dharma even from one piece of chocolate. I think that is what Dogen is saying. Does it make sense?

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community


Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (19)


Autumn Moon

The fifteenth night [full moon] of the eighth month, facing the moon each person [in the assembly] composed a verse about the moon. This moon is not the moon of the heart, not the moon in the sky, not yesterday’s moon, not the night moon, not the round moon, and not the crescent moon. I suppose it is the autumn moon. How is it?

Although golden waves are not calm, [the moon] lodges in the river.
In refreshing air it shines on high, and all the ground is autumn.
Reed flowers on the Wei River, snow on Song Peak,
Who would resent the endlessness of the long night?[1]

金波非泊雖河宿、 (金波泊まらず河に宿ると雖も、)
爽気高晴匝地秋、 (爽気高く晴れて匝地秋なり、)
渭水蘆華嵩嶽雪、 (渭水の蘆華嵩嶽の雪、)
誰怨長夜更悠悠。 (誰か怨みん長夜更らに悠悠たることを。)


This is verse 19 in Kuchugen and verse 74 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, there is a slight difference in the first line only of this poem:

金波非止亦非流 (金波止まるに非ず亦た流るるに非ず 
Golden waves neither stay nor flow

In Eihei Koroku, this poem has a long introduction as above. In east Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, a celebration called the harvest moon is held on the full moon day of the eighth month. In Japan we call it o-tsuki-mi (お月見 moon-vewing). People offer moon-viewing dumplings (tsukimidango 月見団子) together with Japanese pampas grass (susukiススキ). On this occasion, Dogen Zenji holds a gathering, writing poems with his assembly of monks. Each one of the monks composes a poem on the full moon. Dogen loves the moon as the symbol of the Dharma of interconnectedness and penetration of each and myriad phenomenal things and the vast, infinite moonlight. The oldest portrait of Dogen Zenji stored at Hokyoji is called the moon-viewing portrait (月見の像).

In this introduction, Dogen says that the moon they are seeing today is not the moon of the heart (心月 shin-getsu, mind-moon), not the moon in the sky (天月 ten-getsu, heaven-moon), not yesterday’s moon (昨月 saku-getsu, yesterday-moon), not the night moon (夜月 ya-getsu, night-moon), not the round moon (円月 en-getsu, round- or complete-moon), and not the crescent moon (尖月 sen-getsu, sharp-pointed-moon), but the autumn moon (秋月 shu-getsu). I don’t quite understand what this introduction means. The autumn moon and the other names of the moon he mentions here do not negate each other. The autumn moon cannot be the spring, summer, or winter moon, but it can be the heart-moon, heaven-moon, etc. Actually, these are the expressions used by Dogen himself in Shobogenzo Tsuki (Moon) and in Genjokoan. Possibly Dogen is asking his monks not to express the moon in the way he has already in his writings, but rather to create something unique from their own hearts.

In his teisho on this poem, Sawaki Roshi mentions that “the autumn moon” is taken from a poem by Hanshan (寒山 Kanzan, Cold Mountain):

吾心似秋月  My mind is like the autumn moon
碧潭清皎潔  clear and bright in a pool of jade
無物堪比倫  nothing can compare
教我如何説  What more can I say.[2]

In this reading, the autumn moon is really a symbol of the pure and clear mind, which is what shin-getsu (mind-moon) means.

Although golden waves are not calm, [the moon] lodges in the river.
In refreshing air it shines on high, and all the ground is autumn.

Golden waves (金波) refers to the moonlight reflected on the surface of river water. A commentary suggests that this river is the Milky Way, which in Japanese is called the river in the heavens (天の河 amanogawa). But I think that in this case, a river on the earth is a better interpretation. This is the same scenery Dogen writes about in Genjokoan, “Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water.” The water is constantly moving, and the moonlight looks as if it is moving too, and yet it also looks as if it is not moving. This is the same as is stated in Manzan’s version: “Golden waves neither stay nor flow.”

The moon is shining in the boundless sky within the clear, brisk autumn air. In Shobogenzo Tsuki (Moon), Dogen quotes the saying by Zen Master Panshan Baoji:

The mind-moon is alone and completely round. Its light swallows the myriad phenomenal things. The light does not illuminate objects. Nor do any objects exist. Light and objects simultaneously vanish. Then what is this?

In his commentary on this, Dogen says,

The myriad phenomenal things are moonlight, not myriad phenomenal things. This is why the light swallows the myriad phenomenal things. Because the myriad phenomenal things naturally swallow moonlight completely, the light swallowing light itself is referred to as light swallowing the myriad phenomenal things.[3]

He interprets this scenery as the complete interpenetration of all phenomenal things and the entirety of Indra’s net. Later, he also says that the moon vomits phenomenal things, that is, moonlight is moonlight and phenomenal things are phenomenal things. He is expressing the reality in which oneness and multiplicity both vanish and yet are completely there. This is what is meant by the second line, “In refreshing air it shines on high, and all the ground is autumn.” Each and every thing and the moonlight express the beauty of universal autumn.

Reed flowers on the Wei River, snow on song Peak,
Who would resent the endlessness of the long night?

Dazu Huike, the second ancestor of Chinese Zen, lived by the Wei River. Song Peak was where Bodhidharma sat for nine years at Shaolin temple. These two places are not far away from each other. When Huike first visited Bodhidharma, the mountain was covered with snow. In Dogen’s poem, the white moonlight is illuminating reed flowers and snow which are both white. This is the scenery of a cool and peaceful world, free from the heat of the burning house of samsara.

Reed flower (蘆, roka) is used in case 13 of The Blue Cliff Record:

When snow covers the white flowers, it’s hard to distinguish the outlines.
A white horse enters the white flowers.[4]

“The white flowers” in the original Chinese is “蘆花 reed flowers.” In The Blue Cliff Record, these expressions are used with the same meaning as in a line from Treasure Mirror Samadhi (宝鏡三昧, Hokyozanmai) composed by Dongshan (洞山 Tozan), the founder of Chinese Caodong (Soto) school:

Filling a silver bowl with snow,
Hiding a heron in the moonlight[5]

All phenomenal things are illuminated by white moonlight. It is quiet, peaceful, cool, and undefiled scenery in which both difference and unity are completely integrated. This is also the scenery of our zazen.

Dogen says it is difficult to stop viewing the moon and go to bed because the moon is not only beautiful but also expresses the Dharma, in which we are the part of the moon. Shortly before his passing away in 1253, he saw the full moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth month in Kyoto, and he composed his last waka poem:

また見んと 思ひし時の 秋だにも 今夜の月に ねられやはする
Mata min to / omoishi toki no /  aki da nimo / koyoi no tsuki ni  / nerare yawasuru

I wasn’t sure if I could expect to see autumn again
gratefully I see the full moon of this night
How is it possible for me to sleep?

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-71, p.629) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] Translation by Red Pine, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000. P.39
[3] Unpublished translation copyright 2019 Shohaku Okumura.
[4] Translation by Thomas Cleary (The Blue Cliff Record, Shambhala, 2005) p. 88
[5] Translation by Thomas Cleary (Timeless Spring: A Soto Zen Anthology, Weatherhill, 1980) p.39.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Peach and plum, pine and bamboo

Copyright©2019 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (18)


Snowy Night in Spring

Peach and plum blossoms under snow and frost are not what I love.
In green pines and emerald bamboo, so much cloudy mist.
Even though not yet stained with chicken skin and crane hair,
For some decades I have abandoned fame and gain.[1]

桃李雪霜非愛処 (桃李雪霜愛処に非ず、)
青松翠竹幾雲煙 (青松翠竹幾くの雲煙ぞ、)
鶏皮鶴髪縦無染 (鶏皮鶴髪縦い染むること無くとも、)
名利抛來數十年 (名利抛て來る數十年。)

This is verse 18 in Kuchugen and verse 71 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This poem in Menzan’s version is quite different. Only the last line is the same:

桃李假娟我曷憐 (桃李娟を假るも我れ曷んぞ憐まん)
I don’t appreciate peach and plum blooming beautifully,
松杉失翠或應悁 (松杉翠を失う或た應に悁うべし)
Rather I have pity on the pines and cedars losing their green color [being covered by the snow].
道人忘卻紛飛意 (道人忘卻す紛飛の意)
A person of the Way forgets the [monkey-] mind that is jumping around in disorder.
名利抛來數十年 (名利を抛って來る數十年)
For some decades, I have abandoned [desire for] fame and gain.


Peach and plum blossoms under snow and frost are not what I love.
In green pines and emerald bamboo, so much cloudy mist.

It is difficult for me to understand this poem in the Monkaku-bon version. This is a poem about snow falling in a spring night. The Chinese character桃 (Ch. Tao, Jp. momo, Prunus persica) is peach and the Chinese character 李 (Ch. Li, Jp. sumomo, Prunus salicina) is usually called plum in English. This is different from ume(梅, Japanese apricot, Prunus mume) though that is also called “plum” in English. These characters (桃李 peach and plum) are often used together. For example, there is a famous saying from Shiji (Jp. Shiki, 史記) by Simaqian (Jp. Shibasen, 司馬遷) about the virtuous personality of a general who was respected by all people:

桃李不言下自成蹊 (桃李言わざれども下自ら蹊を成す)
Peach and plum do not say anything but underneath these trees, naturally a trail is made.

Their flowers are beautiful and their fruits are tasty, so many people come to the trees and naturally make a trail. This might be a rough equivalent to the English proverb: “Good wine needs no bush.” In Chinese culture, peach is also a symbol of longevity.

Ume blooms at Eiheiji in the very early spring when the ground is completely covered with snow. Dogen loves the image of ume blossoms in the snow. Peach and sumomo (translated as “plum”) bloom in mid-spring after the snow has melted away. If the peach and plum flowers were covered with snow, it must have been really unusual weather. In this poem, Dogen writes that on a spring night, they had unusually late snow on the peach and plum blossoms. But he says he does not love them.

Right after moving from Kyoto to Echizen, Dogen saw snowfall on the bright leaves in the fall. He was moved by the beauty and composed a waka poem:

In the month of long nights
it snowed
on the bright leaves
Why don’t those who see this
compose a poem?

Although the situation in his Chinese poem is similar to this waka, white snow on the bright fall leaves and snow on the spring flowers, in his Chinese poem he says he does not love the scenery. The expression Dogen uses is 非愛処 (not a place to love) – the same expression Shitou (Jp. Sekito) used in his “Song of the Grass-hut”— “I don’t love what worldly people love (世人愛処我不愛).” This seems to be quite a strong negation. Exactly what does he not love? The flowers of peach and plum, or the snow and frost which cover the beautiful flowers and possibly damages them, making them unable to produce their fruit?

In the second line, he says that the green colors of pine needles and emerald bamboo are also covered by the cloudy mist so that they are not seen clearly. The green color of pine needles and bamboo is commonly appreciated as the symbol of fidelity and constancy. Things beautiful and faithful are covered by the snow and the mist. What does this scenery mean to Dogen?

Even though not yet stained with chicken skin and crane hair,
For some decades I have abandoned fame and gain.

Chicken skin (鶏皮) refers to a winkled face of an aged person. Crane hair (鶴髪) means white hair like a crane’s feather. These are symbols of aging. It seems that Dogen says he is not yet so old. Nyo (名) is fame and ri (利) is profit. He has abandoned his desire for fame and profit since the time he became a Buddhist monk at the age of thirteen. As he often said and wrote, being free from the desires for fame and profit is one of the most important virtues for a Buddhist monk.

I don’t quite understand this poem in Monkaku version. The relationship between the first three lines and the last line is not clear to me. Peach and plum blossoms and the green color of pine and bamboo are beautiful, and people love them. But spring snow and mist cover their beauty. Smooth skin and black hair are desirable symbol of youth, but gradually change into chicken skin and crane hair – like the spring snow and cloudy mist which cover the beautiful colors of flowers, pine needles, and bamboo. It seems that although Dogen is getting closer to old age, he has neither love nor hatred for these things. Or possibly he expresses that even though he has abandoned worldly values such as fame and profit since he was young, he still feels some sadness when he sees that the aging process is already beginning.

Menzan’s version of this poem is more understandable to me. In this version, Dogen does not say that he sees peach and plum blossoms covered with snow and frost. He simply says he does not appreciate their luxurious beauty that most worldly people love. What he actually sees is the green colors of pine needles and cedar leaves getting covered and hidden by the snow. He has sympathy for them, for keeping their faithfulness and beauty even when covered by snow. In this version, peach and plum represent what worldly people love, and pine and cedar trees covered with snow are not appreciated by worldly people, who don’t even come to see them.

The practice of Dogen and his monks practicing on a remote mountain is like the faithfulness of cedars and pines. As a person of the Way, he is free from the monkey-mind that jumps in a disorderly way among beautiful and valuable things such as peach and plum blossoms in the worldly system of value. Rather, Dogen identifies himself with the pine and cedar trees in the snow. He has been living in this way for several decades since he became a Buddhist monk, even before he moved to Echizen. Faithful and continuous practice of just sitting without gaining mind, that is good for nothing, is not appreciated in the market place, but Dogen Zenji is completely committed to the practice.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-71, p.628) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Buddha’s view

image by: James Spurrier CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Are a human being and a buddha different?

A common idea in Buddhism is that we are deluded human beings, buddhas are enlightened, and it takes more than forever to become a Buddha. In early Buddhism people thought that no one can become a buddha, but in Mahayana Buddhism we are Buddha’s children – bodhisattvas are Buddha’s children – and if we continue to practice, even though it takes more than forever, we can become a buddha. So there is a connection. In a sense, living beings are a cause – now we start to study this Dharma as a cause and when we become really mature then we can become a buddha. So it’s not completely separated. Buddhas and living beings have a connection. Actually, when we read Dogen’s writings, different people or figures are teaching in different buddha-lands. That is because especially in Mahayana Buddhism, there isn’t just one Buddha.

In early Buddhism people thought Buddha was the only one; there was Shakyamuni, and no other Buddha. But I think Shakyamuni himself said that he didn’t create anything new, but that he was a person who discovered an old castle hidden in the forest. This analogy means there must have been someone else who found or discovered the same thing. I think that in the next stages of Buddhist history people started to think there were other buddhas. They thought there were seven buddhas in the past, that Shakyamuni was the seventh in a series of Buddhas, and yet he was one Buddha at one time, and in one world. So in this world, after Sakyamuni died and until Maitreya Buddha appears after fifty-seven billion years or so, we have no buddha. Subsequently, Mahayana Buddhists began to think that this universe is not the only universe. There must be many other universes and worlds. So in this world until Maitreya appears there is no Buddha, but there must be many other buddha-lands, and at this present moment other buddhas are teaching in different buddha-lands. They created many buddhas, numberless buddhas such as Amithaba Buddha in the western world.

Yet Buddha also said that each and every thing, all beings are a buddha, including ourselves, because each and every thing is empty. Emptiness is the reality to which the Buddha awakened. This reality and a buddha who awakens to that reality is the same thing. The Lotus Sutra says that only a buddha together with a buddha can see that reality. We cannot see it, we cannot talk about it, we cannot express it using words or language. What we have to remember is there are two layers of reality. One is the way we view things using our thinking mind. Another is going beyond this discriminating mind, that is what buddha means. We are bodhisattvas, Buddha’s children. If we want to become a buddha and if we vow to practice and follow that way, we have to follow Buddha’s darshana, Buddha’s way of viewing things. So as a bodhisattva somehow we need both. This is the point – we need both. If Buddha’s darshana or Buddha’s insight is really beyond our reach then Buddhism and buddhas have nothing to do with us. We are living beings within muddy water and still we want to bloom the flower of dharma. So our life has a contradiction or paradox. Even though we are independent individuals, limited and conditioned, still we want to study and practice and manifest this infinite, boundless reality that can be seen only by buddhas together with buddhas. How can we share Buddha’s way of viewing things within this life? That is a very essential point of bodhisattva practice. According to Dogen Zenji the pivotal point or joint of these two is our zazen.

In common buddhist terms living beings and buddhas are different. But when we discuss about our zazen, or Dogen’s teaching, and also Mahayana teachings, buddhas and living beings are just one reality. Buddhist teaching is really strange. We have to understand it in many different layers or profundities. When we see the reality from the deepest point of view (Buddha’s view) there is no such distinction between Buddha and a living being. But from a human perspective we aren’t Buddha. We are so different from Buddha. Even though we aspire to study the dharma, still this aspiration is self-centered. “I want to find the truth.” “I want to live in a better way then I live now.” So it’s still ego-centered. Even our motivation to study dharma is still self-centered. If I think living beings and Buddha is one and the same, if so, why do I have to practice? Why do I have to study? In fact, that was the original question Dogen had when he was fifteen years old. So please keep that question in your mind. I think it is important.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

    • For a translation of the Lotus Sutra sometimes used by Okumura Roshi, see this book.

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Waterfall life

waterfallPhoto copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Can we change our habitual actions?

According to the Yogacara teachers, our life itself is really a neutral and peaceful thing, and yet it develops like the currents in a stream. Here is a quote from the Thirty Verses, a work by the famous Yogacara teacher Vasubandhu, in which he is describing the store-consciousness, also known as the alaya consciousness:

Among these, “maturation” is that called “the store-consciousness” which has all the seeds.
Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, yet it is always endowed with contacts, mental attentions, feelings, cognitions, and volitions.
Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate.
The same for its contacts, etc. It develops like the currents in a stream.

In his Chinese translation of this verse, Xuanzang (Jp. Genjō c. 602 – 664) uses an expression meaning “violent stream.” This means the water flows quickly, even violently – without stopping, always going, like a huge waterfall. In this analogy of a waterfall, “violent stream” or “currents in a stream” means that there is no substance. There is no such thing called “waterfall” because it always changing, it’s always different water. Each time it’s new – so we cannot say this is the Niagara Falls, but it’s there, but it’s always changing, always moving. And the water carries things from different places or different times to this place, to the present. So alaya consciousness is flowing like a waterfall and it transports all things which are stored in this consciousness and these seeds perish each moment and arise each moment. In a sense, this consciousness dies each moment and is born each moment, yet it’s continuous. Each moment it’s new and yet each moment has some continuation. This analogy of a violent stream is a really clear image of what our life is like. When I was born, I was little small living being, and my mind didn’t work so well, or so much, and yet after that my body is always changing, always new, and my mind is always changing. Everything is always new. Our life is like a waterfall or a river.

In Japanese, we have proverb:

mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made

Roughly, it means that the mind or spirit of three year-old child or baby persists until they are one hundred years old. Actually, I believe that three years old is around the time children start to think using words. The seeds in this alaya consciousness are not just what is newly created after our birth, but when we are born, we already have some seeds from the past. We inherit from our parents, or as a member of human society we inherit something already. So when we are born we are not completely new, we already have some seeds. And yet we are completely neutral. I think this is really important point. Whatever kind of seeds we have we are always neutral, and that means we can change. Our life is a result of past karma or past causes. We have a connection with the past and still this is a cause towards the future, so in the future who we are depends upon what we do right now. That is the way we can transform ourselves into something new, something better.

We can transform our actions and our way of thinking. That is what Thirty Verses describes in the last part of the work. Roughly speaking there are five steps, and through this practice, our “goal” in Yogacara or Mahayana Buddhism is to become Buddha. From the moment we first arouse bodhi mind, there are five major steps toward becoming Buddha. Yogacarans described what we should do in each of those steps. It’s really detailed – there are actually fifty-two stages within those five steps, and it literally takes more than forever. They believed that when we practice till a certain stage in this lifetime, we can continue to practice from that stage onward during the next lifetime. Indian people of the time believed in reincarnation. We don’t need to believe that – at least, I don’t believe it. Of course, we cannot negate that because we don’t know, so there is no basis either to believe it or to negate it. But either way, the important point is what we do right now. Even if we don’t reincarnate, as an individual person my actions still influence the future even after I die. Since Shakyamuni Buddha practiced and taught in his way, his influence is still there after twenty-five hundred years. Since I studied with my teacher, I practice in this way. In that sense my practice or what I am doing is a kind of reincarnation of my teacher. That is the way one person’s actions or karma influences the future. There is cause and effect, or influence, or seeds. Even if we don’t believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of life after life as an individual, the principal of causation remains true.

The most important thing is what we do right now at this present moment which creates the future. In order to put this into practice, we should really learn our past, not only the past of this individual person from birth, but what human beings have been doing since the beginning of history, or even from the big bang. Everything influences this person and this moment, and each one of us has influence towards the future. We should understand that even though this is a small person, and our action is really small, our action is really universal. Our being, what I am doing, influences and is influenced or created by the whole universe, by the entirety of time. From the beginning of the universe this influence continues to the endless end of the universe.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Visiting teachers to ask about the way

Herbythyme [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (17)

「與禪人求頌」 (「禪人の頌を求むるに與う」)

Given to a Zen Person Asking for a Verse

Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.
Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.[1]

尋師訪道是參禪、 (尋師訪道是れ參禪、)
此段風流自古傳、 (此の段の風流古より傳わる、)
誰恨江山千萬疊、 (誰か恨みん江山千萬疊、)
還郷脚下悉良縁。 (郷に還れば脚下悉く良縁。)

This is verse 17 in Kuchugen and verse 64 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). This poem in Menzan’s version is quite different:

瞻風撥草要參禪 (瞻風撥草、參禪を要す
For yearning after [the ancestors’] wind and clearing away the weeds [of our minds], we need to practice Zen.
祖意明明妙不傳 (祖意明明なり妙不傳
The intention of the ancestral master is clear and wonderous, but not-transmitted
恨江山千萬疊 (恨むこと莫れ、江山千萬疊)
Do not regret [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains.
頭頭爲汝闢玄門 頭頭汝が爲に玄門を闢く
Each and every one of them opens the gate of profound [truth] for you.


Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.

From the beginning of the history of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples were great travelers. They held a three-month practice period during rainy season. The rest of the year, they did not stay in any one place but travelled around. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to travel, saying:

“Go forth for the good of the many, the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the people of the world, for the good and happiness of gods and human beings. Let not two of you take the same road [so that the greatest number of people will be exposed to the teaching]. …There are in the world those whose eyes are covered by little dust, yet because they do not hear the teaching they are far from the Truth. [If they hear it] they will thoroughly understand the Truth. And I too will go to the village of Sena in Uruvela, there to preach the teaching.”[2]

Shakyamuni lived traveling in this way for about forty years, until the very end of his life. Even after monasteries were established, travelling was a very important part of the practice and teaching activities of Buddhist monks.

In the Chinese Zen tradition, the custom of the three-month summer practice period was maintained. Zen monks stayed at a monastery during the summer practice period, but the rest of the year they could travel. In the 8th century, Mazu (Baso) lived in Jiangxi (江西, Jp. Kosei) and Shitou (Sekito) lived in Hunan (湖南, Jp. Konan). These two were considered the two greatest masters of that period. Many monks traveled between their monasteries to attend their practice periods. Even today, practice period is called Goko-e (江湖会), after the names of where they lived. Since then, it is a common practice for Zen monks to travel seeking a teacher best for them. Many Zen koan stories are about making pilgrimage searching for a true teacher.

“This state of fine simplicity” is a translation of 風流 (Ch. fengliu; Jp. furyu) commonly translated as “artistic,” “tasteful,” “distinguished,” or “refined.” In this case, the word means the beyond-worldly, undefiled way of life transmitted from ancient times. Monks traveled only for the sake of searching out authentic teachers with whom to study the Dharma.

Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.

Dōgen Zenji’s first trip seeking the Way was his walk in 1212 from Kohata, Uji to the temple his maternal uncle lived in near Mt. Hiei. According to Dōgen’s biography, Fujiwara Motofusa (his maternal grandfather) wished to adopt him, and was planning for the ceremony to celebrate his coming of age. But Dōgen secretly left home and visited his uncle Ryokan, who was a Tendai monk and lived at the foot of Mt. Hiei. Probably it took Dōgen less than half a day to walk there.

While Dōgen was studying as a novice at the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, it is said that he had a serious question: If all living beings are inherently enlightened, why did buddhas and ancestors have to go through difficult study and practice? In Bendowa, he wrote,

“After arousing bodhi mind and beginning to seek the dharma, I traveled throughout this country and visited various teachers.”

Probably he visited teachers at the various temples on Mt. Hiei, teachers at Kojōin within Onjōji (Miidera), another main monastery of the Tendai school, located by Lake Biwa and near Mt. Hiei, and some teachers in Kyoto area, possibly including Eisai at Kenninji. Since Dōgen practiced at Mt. Hiei until he was seventeen years old, it is difficult for me to think that he could have traveled extensively outside of the Kyoto area. All of the above places are within the distance of a one-day walk.

When Dōgen writes, “travelling [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains,” he may be writing about his own experiences. In other works, he writes about his travel from Japan to China and about making pilgrimage in China. By the time he met his teacher Tiantong Rujing in the fifth month of 1225, he had traveled quite extensively – probably from the end of the summer practice period in the seventh month of 1224 until the beginning of the practice period in the fourth month of 1225. He visited many Zen monasteries and at least seven Zen masters. It seems he was disappointed because he did not find a true teacher for himself. But when he returned to Tiantong monastery, he found that a great teacher was waiting for him, the new abbot of the monastery, Rujing (Nyojo).

However, in this poem, he writes that all of the experiences he had during this pilgrimage were meaningful and appreciated. Traveling through many mountains and rivers, visiting many villages, towns, and cities, meeting with various people, and experiencing hard times and good times must have been a wonderful way of studying the Dharma in a very concrete way. The process of travelling was equally important and educational as achieving the goal, finding a true teacher.

I did not need to travel to find my teacher. A classmate at my high school allowed me to read Uchiyama Roshi’s book, and Roshi lived in Kyoto not far from where I lived in Osaka. After coming to the USA in 1975, I travelled from California to Massachusetts twice – once by car with several friends, and another time alone by Greyhound bus. I also travelled from Valley Zendo to New York City regularly to do sesshin there for a few years around 1980, sometimes by bus and other times by hitch-hiking. I studied many things about American people from those travel experiences.

From 1997 to 2010, I travelled much more extensively by airplane to visit many Zen centers in the USA from the West coast to the East coast, from Alaska to Florida. But traveling in the air is different than traveling on the earth. Sitting on a small seat in an airplane is not interesting at all. The only meaningful way to spend the time is reading a book or working on a laptop computer. I could do such things at my home much more comfortably.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10-64, p.626) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

[2] Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts volume 1 (Hajime Nakamura, Kosei, 2000) p.285-286.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

Photo copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

For people in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, this is a really important point. Yogacara teachers thought there are two kind of Buddha-nature. One is Buddha-nature as a principal or idea, another is Buddha-nature as practice or actual life. As a principal, everything is Buddha-nature – all people have Buddha-nature, but as an actuality, there are some people who hear about dharma or Buddha’s teaching and it’s not attractive to those people. “Buddha’s teaching” means the teaching of emptiness, beyond any kind of self-and-other dichotomy. This doesn’t mean those people are evil or bad, but those people cannot see the emptiness of beings; so they can be a very moral person, or a very nice person, but their understanding or way of viewing things is dualistic – “I want to be a good person so I try to be generous or do something for other people.” This kind of attitude is not bad. Yet this is blind to the reality of emptiness, of no beings, no one who is doing good things, and no person who can be helped.

When we really look deeply into ourselves, we find this person, and we cannot believe this person has Buddha-nature. It’s really important to know that. It’s easy to just think or believe that all human beings have Buddha-nature, it’s a really nice thought. Yet if we honestly reflect on ourselves, even though we hear Buddha’s teaching, still we attach, and cling to this person. Still we think, “Me first.” Even though we understand Buddha’s teaching, and even though we practice zazen or Buddha’s teaching, still we try to protect this person before other people. If we really deeply see this selfishness or egocentricity, it’s more honest to say, “I don’t have Buddha-nature.“ There is no possibility for me to become Buddha. For the followers of Yogacara, it is more important to see this incompleteness or egocentricity and deep selfishness than to simply believe all beings have Buddha-nature.

That is the difference between Yogacara philosophy and tathagatagharba theory. In tathagatagharba theory, our life is Buddha-nature itself, and yet somehow it has been covered with dirt, or delusion/selfishness. Essentially our life is good, and yet our selfishness or delusion is like a guest. Somehow it comes from outside and clings to this, covers this Buddha-nature. Therefore, what we should do is see the Buddha-nature and take this dirt away from it and polish it. Then original Buddha-nature starts to be revealed. That is the basic idea of tathagatagharba theory. Yogacara is different. According to those teachers, our alaya consciousness is not Buddha-nature, it’s always neutral. So it can be good or bad depending upon our action. In that sense, this practice or teaching is more actual, it’s not an abstract thing. I think from this point of view, the theory of Buddha-nature or tathagatagarba is kind of abstract. Therefore, it’s an important point when we study Yogacara, to see things from this point of view. When we study tathagatagarba theory, we should see things from that point of view. Those two points can be contradictory. And yet another viewpoint, the Madhyamnika, is also different. Seeing our life from different perspectives, the important point is what this means for this person.

Of course we can say this is true, this is my way; we can take one of these points of view as my point of view. “This is most familiar to me, I think this is the best way.” And yet my attitude, or the so called zen attitude is that we don’t stand on either point of view, but see them as perspectives on this life, this person. We don’t stand upon, or take any view or any point of view. That is the basic attitude of “zen people,” zen practitioners. They study and yet they try to forget; they try not to use those theoretical or philosophical terms. Instead, zen people try to show the reality within reality without using those logical frameworks, or theory. That’s why zen stories, zen questions and answers, or zen expressions are really concrete. They don’t discuss what is Buddha-nature – they just show it. They don’t discuss whether we have Buddha-nature or not but just try to show it by direct action. So as a zen practitioner, it is important to study the systems of philosophy or theory in any of the schools in Buddhism; they can be the ground or soil of our practice. And yet we have to put any philosophical theory into our own lives at this moment, right now right here. Then – what do you do, how do we live based on any theory or philosophy? That is a characteristic point in zen.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community