One Bright Jewel

From nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Ikka no Myōju

One Bright Jewel

When Spring, 2009 rolled around, Shohaku Okumura was just back from Japan. The Genzo-e retreat was set to begin at Sanshinji in Bloomington, Indiana. And he would spend five days lecturing on Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō Ikka no Myōju. He’d arrive with seven translations of that single chapter.

As you’ll hear in the excerpt below, Hojo-san unequivocally states, “In English, Ikka no Myōju is One Bright Jewel.” Then he shares that six of the seven translations he brought render the title as “One Bright Pearl.” In his understated way, Roshi assesses the muddle with, “To me, this is a problem.”

This anecdote beautifully demonstrates that Okumura’s lectures for the retreat — like his translations — don’t necessarily rely on conventional wisdom. The entire 13 hours of teaching deliver his original scholarship and personal understanding. In that regard alone, these recordings provide an invaluable tool for an exploration of Zen practice that conveys true Dharma.

Determine its value for yourself with the free sample below. It also traces Dogen’s path from 13-year-old Tendai monk in Kyoto to body and mind dropping off in China.

Enjoy this introduction to the sort of analysis and applicability to our practice unavailable anywhere else.

You’ll find the full digital album here.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other albums by Shōhaku Okumura

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

The Tail of the Elephant

Dogen’s Waka 47

Tail of the elephant

(c) Can Stock Photo / frenta; (c) Can Stock Photo / MattiaATH

世の中は Yo no naka wa [People in] this world are like
まどより出づる Mado yori izuru the elephant going out the window.
きさの尾の Kisa no o no Only its tail remains
ひかぬにとまる Hikanu ni tomaru without being pulled [from inside].
さはり斗りぞ Sawari bakari zo [Such a tiny thing becomes] the obstacle
[to renouncing the mundane world].

“An elephant going out a window” is an unusual image.

Menzan changed kisa 象, elephant, to ushi 牛, water buffalo and added the title “A Water Buffalo Passes Through a Window” to this waka, as if Dogen Zenji wrote this poem as a comment on the 38th case of the Mumonkan (Gateless Barrier). The Mumonkan was compiled in 1228, the year before Dogen left China to return to Japan.

Shinchi Kakushin (1207 – 1298) is a Rinzai Zen master who received the Bodhisattva Precepts from Dogen and later went to China — received inka from Wumen Huikai (Mumon Ekai, 1183 – 1260), the compiler of the Mumonkan — and returned to Japan in 1254.

Dogen had passed away in the previous year and probably did not have a chance to read the Mumonkan. According to it, this koan was the saying of Song Dynasty Rinzai Zen master Wuzu Fayuan (Goso Hoen, ? – 1104), and therefore Dogen might have known it. And yet, Dogen never mentions it in his writings nor includes it in the collection of 300 koans in the Shinji Shobogenzo.

In most of the older versions of the collection of Dogen’s waka before Menzan, the animal mentioned in this waka is kisa (elephant) and not ushi (water buffalo). Menzan also changed sawari (obstacle) to kokoro (the mind).

I suppose that these changes were Menzan’s mistakes. The meaning of this poem as a whole became completely different from Dogen’s original.

The eminent modern Rinzai Zen Master Zenkei Shibayama Roshi said in his comments on the case, “This tail is nothing else than the formless form of Reality.”1 Shibayama Roshi also quotes this waka by Dogen Zenji. The translation of this waka in his teisho is as follows:

This world is but the tail of a buffalo passing through a window.
The tail is the mind,
Which knows neither passing nor not-passing.

The last line is Shibayama Roshi’s addition to make the meaning of ‘the mind’ clear. This translation is based on Menzan’s version. It seems to me that Menzan revised Dogen Zenji’s waka in the way that made it compatible with the interpretation of case 38 of the Mumonkan in Rinzai tradition. Traditional commentaries in the Soto Zen tradition have also been based on Menzan’s revised version of this waka. Until the second half of the 20th century, Dogen Zenji had been understood based on the interpretations by Tokugawa period Soto Zen masters.

The story of an elephant going out of a window appears in a sutra entitled The Story of Anathapindada’s Daughter Receiving Ordination (Taishō Tripiṭaka: T0130_.02.0845c09).

Anathapindada was a millionaire who donated the land of Jetavana Vihara to Shakyamuni. In the story, when Kasyapa Buddha, the sixth of the seven buddhas in the past, was alive, there was a king. The king had ten unusual dreams and asked Kasyapa Buddha what the dreams meant. In the king’s first dream, an elephant tried to get out of a room through a window; although rest of its body got out, only its tail remained without being pulled through. Kasyapa Buddha said that this dream was about a situation in the future after Shakyamuni Buddha had passed away. There will be some people, either men or women, who will have left home to become monks, but even though they have done this their minds will still be influenced by greedy attachments to fame and profit regarding mundane things and they will not be able to attain deliverance.

In this waka, Dogen wants to say that there are many people in his time who have left home to become Buddhist monks, but many of them still have some attachment to fame and profit and therefore they are not able to be released from the triple-world of samsara.

In Shobogenzo Keiseisanshoku (Sounds of Valley Streams and Colors of Mountains) Dogen says:

Moreover, we should not forget the aspiration we aroused when we first sought the Buddha Way. What I want to say is that when we first aroused bodhi-mind, we didn’t seek the Dharma for the sake of others and we abandoned fame and profit. Without seeking fame and profit, we simply aspired to attain the Way. We never expected to be venerated and receive offerings from the king and ministers. However, such causes and conditions for [the desire for fame and profit] are present now. [Fame and profit] are not what we expected originally or what we sought after. We did not expect [to be] involved in entanglements with human and heavenly affairs. And yet foolish people, even if they have aroused bodhi-mind, soon forget their original aspiration and mistakenly expect offerings from human and heavenly beings. And when they receive them, they are delighted, thinking that the virtue of the Buddha-dharma has been realized. When kings and ministers come frequently to take refuge, [such people] think this is the manifestation of their Way. This is one of the demons afflicting the practice of the Way. Even though we should not forget the compassionate mind [toward such people], we should not be delighted [when such people venerate us]. 1

In this waka, Dogen uses the story of the elephant’s tail from the Agama to criticize many of the Japanese Buddhist monks of his time. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki he said the same thing as in Keiseisanshoku, for example in section 6-21 of the Choenji version (5-20 of Menzan’s version):

Nowadays, some people seem to have renounced the world and left their families. Nevertheless, when examining their conduct, there are those who are not yet true home-leavers. As a home-leaver, first of all, we must depart from our [ego-centered] self as well as from [desire for] fame and profit. Unless we become free from these, even if we urgently practice the Way as if extinguishing a fire enveloping our head, or devote ourselves to diligent practice as hard as [people who] cut off their hands or legs, it will only be a meaningless trouble that has nothing to do with renunciation. 2

This is not a problem only about Indian monks after Shakyamuni’s death and Japanese monks at the time of Dogen. In the United States today, Buddhist institutes are not as large as in India or medieval Japan, so I don’t think people become Buddhists monks/priests for the sake of fame and profit. Still, we may make the same kind of mistakes on much smaller scale in our practice.

When we compete with other people and want to consider we are better than others, or we want other people to consider us as superior practitioners to them, or if we study Buddhist teachings to show others that we have better knowledge, our motivation is not genuine bodhi-mind. We are moved by our ego-centered desire to be winners in the competition. This is the way we ourselves create samsara within our own Buddhist practice. That is the tiny tail of the elephant that binds us to samsara.

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1 This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1 (Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross) p.92
2 This is Okumura’s unpublished translation of the Choenji version. Another translation is in Shobogenzo-zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejo (Shohaku Okumura, Sotoshu Shumucho) p.191

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Dropping Off Body and Mind

From nine talks on Shobogenzo Daigo

Fallen Flowers Never Go Up the Tree

In the Hōkyōki, Zen Master Dōgen relates the intimate discussion with his teacher Nyōjō (Rujing) concerning zazen and dropping off body and mind — shinjin datsuraku.

Shōhaku Okumura provides commentary on this in Fallen Flowers Never Go Up The Tree, a series of nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Daigō (Great Realization).

In this excerpt, we learn Hōkyōki also establishes the oneness of Dōgen Zenji’s practice-realization. But as with Shakyamuni, his actual enlightenment experience remains undisclosed, because he never discussed it.

This commentary is extracted from 13 hours of teaching by Shōhaku Okumura on Shōbōgenzō Daigō. It’s a work essential to penetrating Dogen Zenji’s understanding of awakening — a term with widely varying interpretations.

The full digital album is available here.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other albums by Shōhaku Okumura

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Lyrics on the Wind

The verses of blooms borne aloft

Blooms borne aloft

© Can Stock Photo / kostins

春風に Haru kaze ni
吾が言の葉の Waga koto no ha no By the spring wind
散りぬるを Chirinuru wo My words are blown and scattered
花の歌とや Hanano uta to ya People may see them
人のながめん Hito no nagamen The song of flowers

 “Koto no ha” (言の葉) literally means “leaves of word” that refers to words in general or a waka poem. In a spring day, flowers, probably cherry blossoms, are blown by the wind and falling. Dōgen’s mind is also blown by the spring wind and a waka poem was generated using the leaves of words. This is what “my words are blown and scattered” means. This also means Dōgen does not cling to his words that are scattering.

In Shobogenzo Keiseisanshoku (Sounds of Valley Stream and Colors of Mountian), Dōgen comments on Su Shi’s poem that says the sounds of valley stream are voices of Shakyamuni’s expounding the Dharma and the colors of the mountains are the pure body of the Buddha.  When we are liberated from the five aggregates of attachment (panca upadana skandha), the objects of our sense organs cease to be nama-rupa (the objects of our thoughts and desires). Then, as Dōgen says in the beginning of Genjokoan, we see myriad things as Buddha-dharma.

When Dōgen writes this poem on falling flowers, he is expounding this truth. And yet, common people probably think that his poem is about the admiration of the beauty of the falling flowers as nama-rupa (objects of our sense organs). Snow, moon, and flowers are such common motifs in waka poems that people consider any waka about flowers as hackneyed and not well appreciated.

In The Zen Poetry of Dōgen, Steven Heine offers another possible interpretation. He suggests “the song of flowers” means the song sung by the flowers. When people read Dōgen’s poem, they might think the poem is the singing by flowers. It is not a poem written by people observing the flower and write about their beauty as observation from human perspective. This is a very unusual interpretation.


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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

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.

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.

Part One of this series is here and Part Three 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