New articles by Okumura Roshi in Dharma Eye

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Okumura Roshi is a regular contributor to Dharma Eye, the journal of the Soto Zen Buddhism International Center, providing translation of and commentary on fascicles of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo. Numerous articles are available free online. For a full listing, and the latest articles on Shobogenzo Kannon, please see our DI page dedicated to these articles.

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Copyright 2020 Sanshin Zen Community

Advice to a practitioner

Copyright©2020 Misaki C. Kido
Copyright©2020 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (35)

Given to Zen Person Nin from Mount Kōya


Polishing a tile to make a mirror depends on effort.
We should know this is still stuck halfway along the path.
If you ask the true meaning of coming from the west,
On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.

磨甎作鏡藉功夫 (甎を磨いて鏡と作すは功夫に藉る)
可識斯猶滯半途 (識るべし斯れ猶お半途に滯る、)
若問西來眞的旨 (若し西來の眞の的旨を問わば、)
噴噴地上觜盧都 (噴噴地上に觜盧都す。)

This is verse 34 in Kuchugen and verse 52 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has some differences in the second line:

脚下須知滯半途 (脚下須らく知るべし半途に滯ることを)
We should know that, underneath our feet, we are still halfway along the path.


Given to Zen Person Nin from Mount Kōya

Mount Kōya is a sacred mountain in the northern part of Wakayama Prefecture. In 816 CE, Emperor Saga donated the mountain to Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon tradition (Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism). There Kūkai established Kongōbuji, the main monastery of his Shingon School. There are more than one hundred temples on the mountain. Kūkai’s Shingon School and Saichō’s Tendai School were the two most powerful Buddhist schools in the Heian Period (794–1192). As far as I know, Dōgen Zenji did not have any connection with the Shingon School. Although Keizan’s Denkōroku (Transmission of Light) says that the funeral of Dōgen’s mother took place at the Shingon temple Takao-dera (or Jingoji) near Kyoto, today’s scholars do not think that it actually happened there.

There was one temple on Mt. Kōya which had a connection with Dōgen, through Myōan Eisai (1141–1215), the first Japanese monk who transmitted Rinzai Zen from China, and through Eisai’s main disciple, Taikō Gyōyū (1163–1241), the second abbot of Kenninji. Just as Eisai was already an established Tendai master before he practiced Zen, and continued to have a connection with the Tendai School after establishing Kenninji, Gyōyū was a well-known Shingon monk even before he became Eisai’s disciple, and continued to be afterwards. Gyōyū founded Kongō-zanmai-in, a temple on Mt. Kōya, for the memorial of the third Shogun of Kamakura Shogunate, Minamoto Sanetomo, who was assassinated in 1217. At Kongō-zanmai-in, Zen and Vajrayana were practiced together.

The person in the title of the poem might have been a monk who practiced Zen at Kongō-zanmai-in, visited Kenninji, and there met Dōgen. Since we have no information about who this monk was and when it happened, we need to guess. I think that this verse was composed shortly after Dōgen returned from China, while he was still staying at Kenninji, between 1227 and 1230. Before verse 51 in volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku, the compiler of this volume, Senne wrote a note saying, “From here on these were written in Japan.” If the verses are arranged in chronological order, this would be the second verse written after returning to Japan.[2] I suppose this Zen person Nin was a young Rinzai Zen practitioner, a disciple of Gyōyū, the second abbot of Kenninji and the founder of Kongō-zanmai-in in Mt. Kōya.

Polishing a tile to make a mirror depends on effort.
We should know this is still stuck halfway along the path.

“Polishing a tile to make a mirror” refers to the well-known story about the first meeting of Nanyue Huairang (Nangaku Ejō) and Mazu Daoyi (Baso Dōitsu), which appears at the very beginning of The Recorded Sayings of Mazu. Dōgen appreciates this kōan. He mentions this story in Zuimonki, Shōbōgenzō Kōkyō (Ancient Mirror) and Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin (Acupuncture Needle of Zazen). The story is as follows:

During the Kaiyuan era of Tang Dynasty (713-742), while he (Mazu) was practicing samadhi at Chuanfa temple in Mt. Heng, he met Master Rang. [Master Rang] knew that he was a vessel of the Dharma and asked, “Great Worthy, in [practicing] zazen what do you aim at?”
Mazu said, “I aim at becoming a buddha.”
Rang immediately picked up a piece of tile and polished it [on a rock] in front of [Mazu’s] hermitage.
The master (Mazu) asked, “For what are you polishing a tile?”
Rang said, “I am polishing [a tile] to make a mirror.”
The master said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?”
Rang said, “If it is not possible to make a mirror by polishing a tile, how can you become a buddha by doing zazen?”[3]

After Mazu became a teacher, he said in an instruction to his assembly:

[One Mind is] originally existing and presently existing too; it does not depend on whether we practice the Way by doing zazen or not. Not practicing, not sitting is the pure Tathagata Zen.[4]

This saying is in accord with Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor’s saying which appears in volume five of Records of the Transmission of the Lamp:

Xuejian asked, “All Zen worthies at the capital say that we must practice zazen and learn samadhi to be able to understand the Way. There has been no one who had attained liberation without practicing zazen and samadhi. I wonder what your opinion about this is?”

Huineng replied, “The Way can be realized by the Mind. What does zazen have to do with it? In a sutra it is said, “If you view that the tathagata sometimes sits and sometimes lays down, you are walking in the evil way.” Why? Because the Tathagata never has a place to come from and to go away; is never arising or perishing. This is the pure Zen of the Tathagata. All dharmas are empty and quiescence; this is pure sitting of the Tathagata. Ultimately speaking, there is neither verification (awakening) nor sitting (practice).”[5]

These two comments say that to become a buddha has nothing to do with whether human beings practice zazen or not. Since Nanyue was a disciple of Huineng and the teacher of Mazu, probably Nanyue was referring to this same idea in the story about polishing a tile. Dōgen Zenji makes a very unique interpretation of this story in Shōbōgenzō Kōkyō and Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin. However, in this verse, I think Dōgen is simply saying that this Zen Person Nin is practicing zazen in the same way as young Mazu did, to become an enlightened buddha as if making a mirror by polishing a tile. Possibly, Dōgen thought that this young Zen person was similar to Dōgen himself when he was practicing at Kenninji with Myōzen before they went to China. Dōgen is giving the young monk advice, not simply criticizing him. No matter how hard we practice zazen based on our personal efforts, to practice zazen in order to attain some desirable effect, even if that is to become an enlightened buddha, is not the completion of Buddha Way. While we practice with such an attitude, we are still stuck halfway along the path. This is the same as Dōgen says in Genjōkōan, “Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings.”[6]

If you ask the true meaning of coming from the west,
On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.

Dōgen’s advice is to clarify the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west. He writes that if someone asks him the meaning of Bodhidahrma coming from the west, he would say, “On the ground gushing forth, shut your mouth and sit.” This final line is an unusual expression. “The ground gushing forth,” is a translation of 噴噴地. 噴 (fu’n) means “to spout,” “emit,” or “flush out.” For example, 噴火 (funka) means “volcanic eruption;” 噴水 (funsui) means “jet of water” or “fountain.” I think Dōgen meant that in our zazen, thoughts are springing out one after another almost without ceasing, sometimes as violently as a volcanic eruption, but we let them come and go freely, and just sit silently.

“Shut your mouth and sit” is a translation of 觜盧都 (shiroto). This is a rare expression. According to Zengaku-daijiten (Large Dictionary of Zen Study), this word means to be silent without saying anything. This expression was used by the Song Dynasty Rinzai Zen master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲, Daie Sōkō) when he criticized silent illumination Zen.[7] In this poem, in order to express his own style of practice called shikantaza (just sitting), Dōgen is referencing the expression of a Rinzai master who advocated kanhua Zen[8] to attain the experience of satori.

All different kinds of thoughts and emotions are unceasingly gushing forth or springing out one after another, and yet, we sit silently without grasping, without chasing after or pushing away. Even though we are sitting silently, we are not like a withered tree or dead ashes; even though all different things are happening in our mind, we are sitting quietly without making any karma. Shikantaza is not a method to make a tile (five aggregates) into a mirror (enlightened buddha). But as Dōgen says in Shōbōgenzō Zazenshin, polishing a tile is itself making a mirror; it is not a matter of “a tile” becoming another thing, “a mirror.”

When I asked about the meaning of the final line of this verse, Rev. Keishi Miyakawa kindly made a thorough investigation and suggested some other possible ways to interpret 噴噴地 and 觜盧都. But in this essay, since I don’t have enough time to thoroughly study it, I interpret it in the way Rev. Taigen Leighton and I understood when we made the translation of Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

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[1] Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–52, p.623) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,
[2] See Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.623.
[3] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Sun Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-tsu and the Hung-chou School of Ch’an. (Cheng Chien Bhikshu, Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley1992) p.59.
[4] Ibid., p.68. The original reads: 本有今有、不仮修道坐禪。不修不坐、即是如來清淨禪。
[5] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (by Randolph S. Whitfield), p.86.
[6] Translation from Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), p.1.
[7] mokushō Zen (黙照禅)
[8] kanna Zen (看話禅)

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

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For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2020 Sanshin Zen Community

Within one year, two springs

Copyright©2020 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (34)

On a Year with Two Beginnings of Spring


The severe winter has not yet ended, but early spring arrives.
What’s the use of stretching out my legs?
Leaping from their own natures, [winter and spring] merge together;
Within one year, two springs.[1]

嚴冬未極早春臻 (嚴冬未だ極まらざるに早春臻れり、)
何処便宜雙脚伸 (何ぞ便宜に処して雙脚を伸べん、)
跳自頂門相透出 (自らの頂門を跳んで相い透出す、)
一枚年内兩枚春 (一枚の年内に兩枚の春あり。)

This is verse 33 in Kuchugen and verse 97 of volume 10 of Eiheikoroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has some differences in the first, second and third lines:

嚴冬未極秦元臻 (嚴冬未だ極まらざるに秦元臻れり、)
The severe winter has not yet ended, but spring arrives.
好箇便宜雙脚伸 (好箇の便宜、雙脚を伸べん、)
Since this is a good fortune, I stretch out my legs.
非舊非新相透出 (舊に非ず新に非ず相い透出す、)
Neither the old [year] nor the new [year]; [both years] merge together;

The severe winter has not yet ended, but early spring arrives.
What’s the use of stretching out my legs?

To understand the meaning of the title of this verse, we need some knowledge about the old calendar used in East Asian countries including China, Korea, Japan, and so on. We commonly call the current Gregorian calendar a solar calendar (太陽暦, taiyo-reki) and the one we used in Japan until 19th century a lunar calendar (太陰暦, taiin-reki). However, strictly speaking, the older calendar is called a luni-solar calendar (太陽太陰暦, taiyo-taiin-reki). This calendar is a combination of the number of months based on the moon phases and the four seasons based on the positions of the sun.

For the seasons, one year is divided into portions around each of the two solstices and the two equinoxes: winter solstice (冬至, toji); summer solstice (夏至, geshi); spring equinox (春分, shunbun); and autumn equinox (秋分, shubun). Each of the four portions are divided by midpoints into half, making eight portions. The midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox is called “the beginning of spring (立春, risshun),” the midpoint between spring equinox and summer solstice is called “the beginning of summer (立夏, rikka),” the midpoint between summer solstice and autumn equinox is called “the beginning of autumn (立秋, risshu),” and the midpoint between autumn equinox and winter solstice is called “the beginning of winter (立冬, ritto).” Spring is between risshun and rikka, summer is between rikka and risshu, autumn is between risshu and ritto, and winter is between ritto to risshun. These seasons are determined based on the position of the sun and the earth. These eight portions are further divided into three periods each, making a total of twenty-four seasonal periods (節気, sekki).

The first month of a new year begins around risshun. However, the movement of the sun as seen from the earth and phases of the moon do not completely match. A lunar month is the period from the new moon day to the day before the next new moon day, which is twenty-nine or thirty days. In the lunar calendar, twelve months is approximately 354 days, about eleven days less than the solar calendar. To prevent too much difference between the dates and the season, every three years, an extra month is added. In a leap year, there are thirteen months.

In some years risshun can be in the twelfth month, before the New Year’s Day. This is what the title of this verse, “On a Year with Two Beginnings of Spring (一年有兩立春)” means. In the year Dōgen composes this verse, they have the first “beginning of spring (risshun)” in the first month, and in the twelfth month, they have another beginning of spring (risshun), prior to the next year arriving.

According to commentaries on this verse, in the later years of Dōgen’s life they had “the beginning of spring” twice: in 1248 (the third day of the first month and the fourteenth day of the twelfth month) and in 1251 (the seventh day of the first month and the eighteenth day of the twelfth month). Therefore, this verse was probably composed in the twelfth month of either 1248 or 1251.

The point of this poem is the difference between months based on moon phase, and seasons based on the movement of the sun. In the lunar calendar, from New Year’s Day to the end of the third month is the spring; the fourth to sixth month is summer, seventh to ninth month is autumn, and tenth to the end of the twelfth month is winter. But in this year, the beginning of spring comes again within the twelfth month in the lunar calendar, yet it is still winter according to the solar calendar. Dōgen uses this confusion of the luni-solar calendar as a metaphor of the interpenetration of two opposite things, in this case the cold, snowy, and dark winter and the sunny, warm, bright spring. He further uses this analogy to imply interpenetration of samsara-nirvana, delusion-realization, practice-verification, and deluded living beings-enlightened buddhas. These are neither one nor two. This is what Dōgen said in the beginning of Shobogenzo Genjokoan.

In other of his poems, Dōgen uses the image of a plum blossom in the snow, or the song of a warbler in the snow, or white snow on the colorful autumn leaves to express the same interpenetration and the reality of everything without any fixed self-nature. For example:

隙もなく / ゆきはふれども / たにの戸に / はる来にけりと / うぐひすぞなく
Hima mo naku / yuki wa furedomo / tani no to ni / haru kinikeri to / uguisu zo naku

Although it is snowing ceaselessly
at the gate of the mountain valley
the warbler is singing,
“Spring has already come”

In another short poem, Dōgen also expresses the interpenetration of autumn and winter using snow on the bright leaves:

長月の / 紅葉の上に / 雪ふりぬ / 見ん人誰か / 歌をよまざらん
Naga-tsuki no / momiji no ue ni / yuki furinu / min hito dareka / uta wo yoma zaran

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

In the poem from Kuchugen, Dōgen says that even though spring has come, we cannot use this as an excuse to stop practicing and lay down, stretching out our legs.

Leaping from their own natures, [winter and spring] merge together;
Within one year, two springs.

“Leaping from their own natures” is a translation of 跳自頂門. 跳 means to leap,”自 is “self” or “one’s own,” and 頂門 means “the top of the head.” This means winter and spring do not have fixed self-nature, but they can intermingle with each other. I think Dōgen used this metaphor to express that we should always continue to practice without stagnating in the spot we have reached. Interpenetration of practice (winter) and realization (spring) means that there is no time when we can stop practicing. Even when we are sleeping or resting, that is part of continuous practice. We need to sleep or rest in the most efficient way to restore strength to continue to practice. When we are sick, to take good care of our body and mind is our practice.

Within our practice here and now, there are both practice and realization, samsara and nirvana. Even though we have aroused bodhi-mind, received bodhisattva precepts, and taken the bodhisattva vows, still we are ordinary deluded living beings. We are always in the process of walking the bodhisattva path. After his awakening, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Unshakable is my liberation of mind; this is my last birth; now there is no more renewed existence.” Unfortunately, we cannot say the same thing about ourselves, because our practice is always incomplete. Our transformation is not as deep and decisive as Shakyamuni’s. In addition, because of the bodhisattva vows, we need to walk in the path with all beings in samsara endlessly, until all living beings will have entered nirvana. But from another perspective, we are already in nirvana called, “no-abiding nirvana (無住所涅槃, mujusho-nehan). We find nirvana here and now right under our feet while we walk the bodhisattva path.

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[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10-97, p.637) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

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For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2020 Sanshin Zen Community

Teacher and student: the dog’s buddha nature

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have a buddha-nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “Yes.”
The monk said, “Since it has, why is it then in this skin bag?”
Zhaozhou said, “Because he knows yet deliberately transgresses.”
Another monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have a buddha-nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”
The monk said, “All sentient beings have buddha-nature—why does a dog have none, then?”
Zhaozhou said, “Because he still has impulsive consciousness.”[1]

The koan about Zhaozhou’s (Jp. Joshu’s) dog appears as Case 18 in the Shoyoroku (Book of Serenity). The main point of the interpretation of this koan in the Shoyoroku concerns Zhaozhou’s teaching method. In the first part of the koan, Zhaozhou offers buddha nature by saying “u,” indicating yes, a dog does have buddha nature. In other words, “Here it is, you have a buddha nature”– it’s a kind of encouragement. You have a precious jewel, so you have to take care of this and practice. In the second part of the koan, to the another monk, who has already matured in practice, and doesn’t rely on whether or not he has buddha nature, Zhaozhou removes this encouragement by saying “mu,” indicating that a dog does not have buddha nature. Zhaozhou says there’s no such thing called buddha nature.

First Zhaozhou gave buddha nature – here you are, you have buddha nature, so practice diligently, take care of it, become free from your delusion, and the beauty of this jewel reveals itself. That is a type of teaching for beginning students. To the mature student, Zhaozhou said there’s no such thing called buddha nature. It’s just an illusion. So he took it away, and he knew that student would be all right without that concept of buddha nature. For Zhaozhou himself, buddha nature is neither “u” nor “mu,” but he could say “u” or “mu” depending on the person’s need. That is basically the interpretation in Shoyoroku of the story of a dog’s buddha nature.

In a funny way, a teacher is always deceiving students, and the student neither perfectly nor completely trusts the teacher. That is a problem. If you are lucky, you meet the right teacher, but as a beginner we cannot really evaluate the teacher, so we cannot tell whether this teacher is trustworthy or not. This is a really difficult point, but this is what Uchiyama Roshi said – the teacher is just an ordinary human being. In this case, the teacher he was referring to was Sawaki Kodo Roshi – he was a really great teacher. But  Uchiyama Roshi practiced very closely with Sawaki Roshi for twenty-five years, until his death, so he knew Sawaki Roshi was not a special person, but an ordinary human being. Uchiyama Roshi’s important point was to understand that all people, even Zen masters, are ordinary human beings. But as students we need to study Dharma from that person.

In this case from the Book of Serenity, the Dharma we need to study is about buddha nature and karmic nature, or karmic consciousness. Even  a great teacher like Sawaki Roshi has both. Uchiyama Roshi said many people studying with Sawaki Roshi were attracted by his karmic features. Sawaki Roshi was a very strong, strict, and very attractive person, as a karmic being. Many people practiced with Sawaki Roshi because of that attraction. But that was not Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma, according to Uchiyama Roshi. What Sawaki Roshi did was just sitting. Not so many people sat like Sawaki Roshi, but they loved to listen to Sawaki Roshi talking. Uchiyama Roshi said that we as students need to study the person’s Dharma, not the person’s karma. Karma means karmic attribute – their good points and bad points, as they are the person’s – how can I say? – characters, or personalities. But as a beginner we cannot tell which is Dharma which is karma.

Somehow I became attracted to Uchiyama Roshi’s way of life. At that time I knew nothing about Buddhism, or Zen. I didn’t know even what he was doing. But somehow what he wrote in his book and how he lived his own life was very attractive to me. So somehow I was sucked into that path. I was so fortunate that it was when I was seventeen years old; now I am sixty-five, so more than forty years I walked this path, only this path, and I have no regret. I think it’s really a rare thing. I know some people who have had some difficulty with their teachers and then quit their practice. There’s no one hundred percent safe way. Somehow we have to find our own path. It’s really difficult to make judgments about teachers. When we judge and evaluate teachers, then we can’t be really a true student. We have to accept everything the teacher can offer to be a real student. But we cannot tell if what the person is offering is really true Dharma or not, because we don’t know yet. So we need to go through a really difficult process to find out if this is really my teacher, and if I really want to be this person’s student. This is not an easy path. On the one hand we have to accept everything from the teacher, and at the same time, we have to doubt.

Dogen said in Shobogenzo Jisho zanmai that whether we study Dharma following the teacher or following the text, we’re studying the self – ourselves. So that means we have to – how can I say? – accept everything the teacher can offer, and yet we should not rely on that person. It’s kind of contradictory, but both are important. That means we need to walk on our own legs, our own feet.

That is another thing Uchiyama Roshi taught me. It was right on the day after I was ordained as a priest. For the ordination ceremony – I was twenty-two years old – my father came, and as a greeting to Uchiyama Roshi, my father asked him, “Please take care of my son.” The next day Uchiyama Roshi said to me, “Even though your father asked me to take care of you, I cannot take care of you. It’s not possible. You have to walk on your own legs.”

Uchiyama Roshi also said he never watches his students, but he is walking toward the path he needs to walk, toward the direction he needs to walk. That’s his own practice. If I want to be his disciple, I need to walk toward the same direction with my own legs. To me, this is a really interesting thing. Basically what he said is: “Don’t rely on me.” Therefore, I accept this teaching, and I try not to rely on him, except as an example of Dharma practice. And by doing this, I completely rely on him. So both are there. This teacher-student relationship I think is the same as the one between parents and children. The parents’ goal is to raise children to make them independent – “Don’t rely on me, or on us.” But to do so, the children need to rely on the parents. This is an interesting aspect of our life.

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[1] Thomas Cleary, trans., Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues (Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 2005), p. 76.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of perspectives on koans from Okumura Roshi. This is the first of the series. These perspectives are taken from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other posts on koans

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