“My” story

Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, do not measure it with your mind or speak about it using words.
Just cast aside and forget your body and mind and throw them into the house of
Buddha; then all is done by Buddha. When we go on following this [practice] we are
released from life-and-death and become buddhas without using our strength or
consuming our mind. Who then continues to stagnate within mind?

– from Shōbōgenzō Shōji

The first thing Dōgen says in this passage is that this life-and-death is not within the realm of thinking, or within the story we create in our mind. Even though it’s necessary to keep creating the story to live, it’s important to know that it is a story, a product of our mind.

Actual life-and-death is happening on the ground of real reality. That real reality is called “zenki” in Dogen’s writings, or here, “the house of Buddha.” Instead of throwing our body and mind into “my” story, we place this entire body and mind on the ground of true reality, by letting go of my story. To me, that is what Dōgen means here. When we do this, Dōgen says, “then all is done by Buddha.”

I don’t think “Buddha” is a person; I don’t think the Buddha referred to is Amitabha Buddha or the other-power. This “all is done by Buddha” means, as Dogen wrote in Zenki, that when we are alive, we are sailing on a boat, and the boat cannot move by itself. The boat needs water, wind, and all the other things. The person sailing on the boat, and the boat, and the ocean, and the other things are working together. I think that is what “all is done by Buddha” means.

My thinking, my expectation, my ability to make stories – where I came from and where I am going – that is what I created in my mind, that is a story. When I was the high-school teenager, I wanted to find the real thing, the thing which was not created by me. I have found that there is no such thing. What I am doing here is based on my story, my vision, or dream. When I went back to Kyoto from Valley Zendo, Uchiyama Roshi encouraged me to create a place where I can study and practice zazen and Dogen’s teachings with people from outside Japan. I started to work on it, and my translation work is part of that plan. The first twelve years, I worked in Japan but somehow it didn’t work, so I came back to this country again. This is all my plan and a dream or vision; that is my story. To me, without this story, made up in my mind, I cannot do anything. So for me, this vision or plan or idea or vow is important. Without the story, we cannot do anything. But at the same time, this is a vision, “my story.”

The story can be interrupted any time, depending on the weather of the ocean. Even if I try to do my best, this boat could be wrecked at any time depending upon the overall conditions of the world, depending upon the condition of this total function. Yet my story is a driving force of my sailing, and it gives me the direction of which way I should go.

It’s important to understand this is a production of my mind. Even though this vow is not for my personal profit, still, this is my personal vow or vision. We need our personal view or creation, or history, and yet this history should not be self-centered, if we are bodhisattvas. So, at any time, I need to be able to give it up. But if I try to do this, and this is meaningful not only for this person but for other people, then I have trust or faith that those people would continue. Even if my boat disappears, some people might continue going in the same direction. I think that is my faith.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

— • —

For further study:

    • For another article on Shōbōgenzō Shōji, covering the famous Alive or Dead koan, see this article.
    • You’ll find the entire digital album Life & Death: 9 lectures on Shōbōgenzō Zenki and Shōji for sale here.

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Dōgen’s question

© Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (14)


Given to a Zen Person

Essence and expression are penetrating, before we glimpse the ground.
Arriving at this, who can be at peace?
Too bad the echo of wind in the pines doesn’t reach a deaf ear.
Dew from bamboo is repeatedly dropping in front of the moon.[1]

宗説倶通瞥地先 (宗説倶に通ず瞥地の先)
誰人到此可安然 (誰人か此に到って安然たるべき)
松風愧響聾人耳 (松風響きに愧ず聾人の耳)
竹露屡零納月邊 (竹露屡零ちて月邊に納る)

This is verse 14 in Kuchugen and verse 55 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is one of the 3 poems titled “Given to a Zen Person” in Kuchugen. This poem in Menzan’s version has slight differences in lines 2, 3, and 4:

到此解參玄  (誰か能く此に到って參玄を解す):
Arriving at this, who can understand attending the profundity.
松風響聾人耳 (松風空しく響く聾人の耳):
The echo of wind in the pines is in vain to a deaf ear
竹露屡零月邊  (竹露屡かに零つ月の邊):
Dew from bamboo is repeatedly dropping by the cool moon.


Essence and expression are penetrating, before we glimpse the ground.
Arriving at this, who can be at peace?

“Essence and expression” is a translation of 宗説 (shu-setsu). 宗 (shu) is the original truth or reality beyond thinking, discriminating, conceptualizing, to which buddhas and ancestors awaken. 説 (setsu) is talking, expressing, explaining, teaching, or expounding the original reality.

When Shakyamuni Buddha completed awakening, he discovered the original reality, the Dharma, but he hesitated to share it with others. He thought it was too subtle, profound, fine, and difficult to perceive for people who are lost in desire, cloaked in darkness. But after being requested three times by the God Brahma, he made up his mind to teach. He said, “The gateway of ambrosia [deathlessness] is thrown open for those who have ears to hear.” What the Buddha taught using language to the five monks was the first turning of the dharma wheel. The Buddha’s act of teaching to lead others to the truth is 説 (setsu).

“To glimpse the ground” is a translation of 瞥地 (becchi) which means to take a glance at the truth. 瞥 (betsu) means to get a glance; that is, to see with half an eye, not thoroughly seeing. Dogen Zenji uses this expression in the beginning of Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen):

Even if you are proud of your understanding, are enlightened in abundance, and obtain the power of wisdom to glimpse the ground of buddhahood; even if you gain the Way, clarify the mind, resolve to pierce heaven, that is only strolling on the border of the buddha way. You are still, almost always, lacking the vivid path of emancipation.

As the result of our personal efforts, we understand and feel, “I have some awakening experience to the truth,” but according to Dogen, such a result is just strolling on the border of the buddha way. It is not really entering the buddha way; something is still lacking.

In Genjokoan, Dogen Zenji says,

When the Dharma has not yet fully penetrated into body and mind, one thinks that one is already filled with the dharma. When the dharma fills the body and mind, one thinks that something is [still] lacking.

Here in this poem, Dogen is saying that even prior to such a small result of personal efforts, the essence and its expressions are always penetrating. Basically, what he is saying is the same with the several lines in the very beginning of Fukanzazengi:

Originally, the Way is complete and universal. How can we distinguish practice from enlightenment? The Vehicle of Reality is in the Self. Why should we waste our efforts trying to attain it? Still more, the Whole Body is free from dust. Why should we believe in a means to sweep it away? On the whole, the Way is never separated from where we are now. Why should we wander here and there to practice?

However, this does not mean we can be relaxed and at peace without making any effort. In the next paragraph of the Fukanzazengi, Dogen says we should continue to practice following the examples of Shakyamuni Buddha and Bodhidharma. Their practice is not for the purpose of gaining something.

Too bad the echo of wind in the pines doesn’t reach a deaf ear.
Dew from bamboo is repeatedly dropping in front of the moon.

松風 (shofu, or matsu-kaze) refers to soughing of the wind through pine trees. In Japanese poetry this expression was often used to express the solitary and serene scenery of a seashore. The sounds of the wind through the pine trees is the Buddha’s voice. However, unless our ears are open, we don’t hear the message from the Buddha.

竹露 (chikura, or take no tsuyu) is a drop of dew on a blade of bamboo leaves. When the temperature goes down below the dew point, water vapor in the air condenses to form droplets on the surface of the bamboo leaves. On each and every drop of dew, the moonlight is reflected. However, when sun rises and the temperature goes up, the dew drops will evaporate and disappear. Within a tiny drop of dew, boundless moon light is reflected, and yet it does not last long. As Dogen writes in Genjokoan, this is the expression of each and every phenomenal being including ourselves. This is the way all things are existing, not only for special enlightened people as the result of their personal efforts. However, if our eyes are not open, we don’t see the significance of Buddha’s radiant light.

According to Dogen’s biography, Kenzeiki, while he was studying at the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei as a novice monk, he had a question, “Both the exoteric and esoteric teachings say that, from the beginning [human beings are endowed with] dharma-nature. [We are] naturally the self-nature [buddha-]body. If so, why did all buddhas in the three times have to arouse [bodhi-]mind to seek awakening?” I think what he is saying in this poem is the answer to that question. We need to continue to study and practice and keep our eyes and ears open to see and hear the Buddha’s voice and body expressed in each and every phenomenal thing. By doing so, we don’t get anything, but we put ourselves on the ground of original reality.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-55, p.624) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Is “Buddha’s Life” the same as Buddha-nature?


Is “Buddha’s Life” the same as Buddha-nature?

If we think of Buddha-nature as a certain part of our life, not our entire life or not the entire network, but something that is fixed and stored and hidden in our individual life, then that is different from Buddha’s Life. What Dogen is discussing in Shobogenzo Buddha-nature is the same thing as Buddha’s Life in the following passage from Shobogenzo Shoji:

This present life-and-death is the Life of Buddha. If we dislike it and try to get rid of it, we would lose the Life of Buddha. If we desire to remain [in life-and-death] and attach ourselves to it, we would also lose the Life of Buddha. What would be retained is simply the appearance of Buddha. Only when we don’t dislike life-and-death and don’t desire life-and-death do we first enter the mind of Buddha.

The first sentence of this paragraph is a well-known saying of Dogen. I think Dogen was the first Buddhist master who said such a thing so clearly: “This present life-and-death is the Life of Buddha.” Of course, within Mahayana Buddhism that teaching and its meaning was already there, but I think Dogen was the first who clearly mentions that this life-and-death is Buddha’s Life.

Usually “life” in Japanese is seimei, which is a scientific or medical word. The Japanese word Dōgen used is on-inochi (御いのち). Inochi is life and on makes the word polite, using the word in a respectful way. In Japanese we sometimes put “o” or “on” or “go” before nouns or verbs for that reason. For example, mizu is water, but we call it o-mizu to show our respect for this thing. We call this robe I am wearing o-kesa. Rice is kome but we call it o-kome, we almost never say kome. We say o-kome or o-misu to express our respect to each and every being, because all beings are Buddha-dharma. In this passage, I translate this on by making the ‘L’ (of life) a capital letter.

This life is Buddha’s Life. Our life and death is Buddha’s Life. We need to appreciate and venerate our life and everything which keeps our life continuing. That means everything. Without water or air or food and other people’s and other beings’ support, we cannot keep this life. So, we venerate our life and all beings as a part of our life, as Buddha’s Life, not as my personal life as an individual. Of course, this personal life as an individual is also part of Buddha’s Life.

As Uchiyama Roshi said, “We bow to all beings.” When I receive water before I give a lecture, I bow and receive it. When the Jisha brings these texts, I bow and receive it. When we receive food during meals, we bow each time we receive. This bow is an expression of our appreciation and gratitude— not just to the person who is serving, but also to the tenzo for preparing the food and to all the farmers who worked to produce the food and to all the support from nature such as sunlight, and water. Within this bow, our gratitude toward all beings is included. Often, we just bow without thinking, or without thinking what this means, but this has a very important meaning, if we are aware, if we have the eye and ear to appreciate it. Our life and death is Buddha’s Life, this is the basis of Dogen’s teaching and our practice.

So even though the Buddha taught that life is marked by suffering, he also prohibited killing, in the Vinaya precepts. To monks, killing other beings is like killing ourselves. We always have to say “yes” to life, and appreciate life. That is the Precept of “Not Killing.” When people sometimes think that Buddhism is a kind of negative religion which does not appreciate life, that is not true. The Buddha taught that we need to appreciate life, and that we can transform our life from samsara to nirvana, from suffering to the cessation of suffering. The Buddha taught that this is possible, and yet, we should not cling to life, because when we cling to life, then we create samsara. If we dislike or hate or negate this life, then we negate Buddha’s Life.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute hopes to offer 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 another article on Shobogenzo Shoji, covering the famous Alive or Dead koan, see this article.
    • You’ll find the entire digital album Life & Death: 9 lectures on Shōbōgenzō Zenki and Shōji for sale here.

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Birds suffering in the cold

Ohara Koson [Public domain]

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (13)



How can the three realms and ten directions be all one color?
Who would discuss the difference between human and heavenly beings?
Do not convey talk of birds suffering in the cold.
The lake with no heat of anxiety is on the snowy mountain.[1]

三界十方何一色 (三界十方何ぞ一色なる)
誰論天上及人間 (誰か論ぜん天上及び人間)
莫傳寒苦鳥言語 (傳うることなかれ寒苦鳥の言語)
無熱惱池在雪山 (無熱惱池は雪山に在り)


This is verse 13 in Kuchugen and verse 91 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is the last of the four poems about “snow” in Kuchugen. Monkaku’s version and Menzan’s version of this poem are exactly the same.

How can the three realms and ten directions be all one color?
Who would discuss the difference between human and heavenly beings?

“The three realms” is a translation of tri-loka in Sanskrit. The three realms refer to the realm of desire (kama-dhatu), the realm of material (rupa-dhatu), and the realm without material (arupa-dhatu). In the first realm (desire) people are transmigrating within six realms, or divisions (hell, the realms of hungry ghosts, of animals, asura, humans, and the six kinds of heavenly beings) depending on the karma they made in the previous lifetime. Beyond the six realms composing kama-dhatu, there are two more realms— realms of meditation with and without material things. Together, the three realms are samsara, in which living beings are transmigrating. “The three realms” is also used as a common Buddhist term for “everywhere” or “the whole world.”

“The ten directions” is a translation of the Sanskrit word, dasadis, that is, the four cardinal directions (north, east, south, west), the four intermediate directions (northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest), and the zenith and nadir. This also refers to the entire world. However, this expression is often used to refer to all buddhas or all buddha-lands in the entire ten-direction world.

Here, Dogen uses “the three realms” for the entire world in which all living beings are transmigrating in samsara, and “ten directions” for the entire world as buddha-land. In the very beginning of Shobogenzo Hokke-ten-hokke (The Dharma-flower Turns the Dharma-flower), Dogen writes, “‘Within the buddha-lands in the ten-directions’ is ‘only being’ of the Dharma-flower. (十方佛土中者、法華の唯有なり。)” Both “the three realms” (samsara) and “the ten directions” (buddha-lands) are the entire world. It is not a matter of there being two entire, different worlds separate from each other. Yet, samsara and buddha-lands are different depending upon our attitudes toward our lives.

During the winter in Echizen where Dogen lived, the entire world is covered completely with white snow. It becomes a world of “one color,” non-discrimination. There is no distinction between samsara and nirvana. It is without question that there is no separation between the realms of human and heavenly beings. Depending upon how we live, the entire world becomes the world of suffering and transmigration in samsara, or the buddha-land. These are not two separate places and yet they are different.

Do not convey talk of birds suffering in the cold.
The lake with no heat of anxiety is on the snowy mountain.

“Birds suffering in the cold” is a translation of kankucho (寒苦鳥). It is said there is an imaginary bird with such a name in the Himalaya (雪山, Snowy Mountain), although I don’t find any reference to the Sanskrit name of this bird in the scriptures. In Japanese Buddhist texts, this bird is mentioned. There is a pair of these birds living in the high snowy mountains in the Himalaya region. In the night, when it is extremely cold, the female bird repeatedly says, “Cold is killing me. Cold is killing me.” Then the male bird says, “Let’s make a nest tomorrow. Let’s make a next tomorrow.” However, when the sun rises and it becomes warm, they forget the plan of making a nest, and just enjoy the daytime. When night comes again, they complain in the same way. They repeat this every day and every night though their entire lifetime. When they suffer with cold, they complain and make up their minds to make a nest where they can sleep comfortably, but when the sun rises and it becomes warm, they forget about the cold night, and their plan to make a nest is never carried out.

The way these birds live refers to the life of samsara. When we have sad or painful experiences, we make a resolution to study and practice the Dharma to find a path for liberation. But when the difficult time is over, we forget such a resolution. And we repeat this again and again. That is why Dogen says we should not convey the birds’ message; once you arouse bodhi-mind, we should make a determination to study and practice single-mindedly.

“The lake with no heat of anxiety” (無熱惱池) is a translation of Anavatapta, which means “no heat or fever.” In Indian cosmology, there is a huge lake on the northern side of Himalaya mountains named Anavatapta, which is the source of the four great rivers in India: the Ganges, Indus, Oxus, and Sita. It is said that in the lake a dragon king whose name is Anavatapta is living. “No heat of anxiety” means no suffering. What Dogen is saying here is that the place where the birds are suffering in the cold and the lake of no suffering are both in the same place, the Himalaya. Probably this poem has something to do with the koan Dogen discusses in Shobogenzao Shunjuu (Spring and Autumn):

Once, a monk asked Great Master Dongshan Wuben, “When cold or heat comes, how should we avoid it?”
The master said, “Why don’t you go to the place without cold and heat?”
The monk said, “What is the place without cold and heat like?”
The master said, “When it’s cold, kill the acarya with cold. When it’s hot, kill the acarya with heat.”[2]

I suppose Dogen composed this poem to admonish and encourage the monks in his assembly and himself during the cold and gloomy winter in Echizen. Once we begin to complain about the conditions we are practicing in, our life becomes samsara and we want to escape. However, when we settle down right there and find something interesting and meaningful, the same place can be the buddha-land.

I studied this when I lived in Massachusetts. The winter in western Massachusetts is much colder and longer than winter in the Osaka and Kyoto area in Japan, where I grew up and had lived most of my life. In Massachusetts, during the transition between winter and spring, we had some warmer days like a sign of spring but then we had snow and ice on the road, again and again. In the first few years, I felt depressed and had some difficulty enjoying that time of the year. The only thing I could do was keep sitting until the real spring wind began to blow.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-91, p.636) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

[2] Okumura’s unpublished translation.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Is everything perfect the way it is?

Photo by James Steakley [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Is everything perfect the way it is?

In Buddhism, we talk about the three treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Traditionally in Mahayana Buddhism it is said that there are three kinds of Three Treasures. In my translation, the first kind of Three Treasures is the Absolute Three Treasures, but I don’t know if “absolute” is the correct English word for this. In Japanese it is ittai sanbo (一體三寶). Ittai literally means “one body,” and sanbo is Three Treasures; so this refers to the Three Treasures as one body, not three separate things as one body. However, ittai refers to more than those three treasures. This “one body” means seamless, no separation: within the network of interdependent origination everything is interconnected. In the analogy of Indra’s net, although we only see the knot, the thread is transparent, so we see each knot as an individual or independent being, yet everything is connected. This is “one body,” not only within space, but within time. Everything is interconnected within the present moment, within space and time; from beginningless beginning until endless end is one seamless moment. We separate time using seconds or hours or days, one week, one year, one century or one light year. This separation is made by us to make it more understandable, graspable, comprehensible, and convenient, but within time itself there is no such division. This seamless reality has three virtues: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is what ittai sanbo means. Another way to say it is the body of reality. When we see this one seamless body including space and time, we call these the Three Treasures.

One part of Kyōjukaimon, which reflects Dōgen’s teachings about the precepts, discusses the Three Treasures. In Kyōjukaimon, Dogen first says this about the Absolute Three Treasures: “The unsurpassable true awakening is the Buddha Treasure.” This unsurpassable true awakening is anuttara-samyak-sambodhi— reality itself. There is no such thing that awakened to what is this reality. Within reality there is no observer, no person who sees the truth. Because everything is inside, because everything is a part of the network of interdependent origination, there is no observer, nothing outside of the network. So, there is no one who awakened to reality. When we say unsurpassable true awakening, reality itself is awakening; no one and nothing is deluded, nothing has illusion. One of the knots, one of us, has illusion or delusion or delusive perceptions, and we all have it, but that kind of illusion is part of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. Everything is included, nothing is excluded.

We cannot say reality is perfect, because perfect is a relative to imperfect. There is no such comparison we can make. This is just as it is. We cannot say it is perfect or the more perfect thing or not, because reality includes everything and there is nothing to compare with reality itself, and no way to judge it. There is no one who can judge it because everyone who is thinking is inside of reality. In my understanding, that is what “absolute” means. No one can judge reality, no one can praise reality, and everything is included within. That is what “beyond discrimination” means. Beyond discrimination is not a condition of our psychology in which we try not to make discriminations. Reality itself is beyond discrimination, and yet within reality all of us are making discriminations, and yet reality itself cannot be seen, cannot be evaluated. We cannot do anything about this. We cannot say this is a good thing or a bad thing or perfect or imperfect. There is no way to evaluate this reality. That is what ittai or absolute means.

When Dogen Zenji says the “unsurpassable true awakening,” it means reality itself, the one body reality itself, is Buddha Treasure. That is what Dharmakaya means. Buddha and awakening is one thing. We may believe that when Shakyamuni awakened, he started to see reality as an object, but if we think in that way it is not a correct understanding. When Buddha awakened to reality, he and things— reality, awakening, and wisdom— is really one thing. That is what ittai, “One Body, Three Treasures” means.

In Kyōjukaimon, Dōgen next says, “The reality that is pure and free from defilement is Dharma.” Being free from defilement means being free from clinging or delusion or desires. Finally, Dōgen says that “The virtue of peace and harmony is the Sangha treasure.” Each and everything within this one seamless reality is the Sangha treasure. All beings are Sangha treasure as One Body or Absolute Three Treasures. They are within peace and harmony. So, as Absolute-One Body-Three Treasures this seamless reality as one body including entire time and space is Buddha, and is Dharma, and is Sangha. There is no separation.

We must be careful. When I talk in this way, this is not reality itself. This is my understanding or my thought of One Body reality. Don’t think that what I am saying is reality. Reality itself is beyond what I am saying now. None of us can perceive this one seamless reality. If we perceive it, that is an illusion. So we cannot see it, but as Dogen says in Jijuyū Zanmai, somehow it is there.

This reality is what we take refuge in. This is the shelter, this is home. Home means wherever we go, we return to reality. We are born within reality, we are living within reality; we are dying within reality. This is a shelter, this is a home, this where we live, and nothing else. This absolute reality is Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and we take refuge within this absolute reality.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute hopes to offer 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:

    • The Three Treasures, and “The Verse of the Three Refuges” are discussed in this book: Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts, by Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications, 2012. Paperback, 220 pages, $19.95.

      This immensely useful book explores Zen’s rich tradition of chanted liturgy and the powerful ways that such chants support meditation, expressing and helping us truly uphold our heartfelt vows to live a life of freedom and compassion. Also in Italian from Ubaldini Editore (Introduzione in Italiano qui), and in German from  Werner Kristkeitz Verlag.

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community

Gautama’s eyes

Photo copyright David S. Thompson

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (12)



The five-petal flower opens; a sixth [snowflake] petal’s added.
Though daytime with blue sky, it’s as if there were no light.
If someone asks what color I see,
These are Gautama’s old eyes.[1]

五葉華開重六葉、 (五葉華開いて六葉を重ぬ、)
青天白日似無明、 (青天白日明無きに似たり、)
若人問我看何色、 (若し人我に何なる色をか看ると問わば、)
此是瞿曇老眼睛 (此れは是れ瞿曇の老眼睛。)

This is verse 12 in Kuchugen and verse 88 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is one of the 4 poems about “snow” in Kuchugen. In Manzan’s version, there is a little difference in the first line:

The five-petal flower opens; one petal is added.

And the second line is completely different:

Being blown by a clear wind, snowflakes are fluttering

The five-petal flower opens; a sixth [snowflake] petal’s added.
Though daytime with blue sky, it’s as if there were no light.

The five-petal flower (五葉華) refers to a plum blossom, which has five petals. Plum blossoms bloom in mid-winter to early spring, typically around January until late February. It is highly regarded as a symbol of winter and a forerunner of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are blooming lively in the winter snow, radiating with a subtle elegance. They are the symbol of perseverance and hope, as well as beauty, purity, and the brevity of life.

This expression “five petals” has also a connection with the transmission verse of Bodhidharma:


I originally came to this country
To transmit the Dharma and save deluded beings.
When the single flower opens into five petals
Then the fruit will ripen naturally of itself.

“A sixth [snowflake] petal’s added (重六葉)” can be translated as “six-petal flowers are added.” Because a snow crystal is hexagonal, in Chinese literature snow is sometimes called a six-petal flower. This line describes the scenery of midwinter to early spring. The entire earth is covered in snow, but plum blossoms— the earliest flower— are already blooming on a branch. It is continually snowing on the blossoms.

Even though it was a fine day with blue sky, when it begins to snow, the brightness of the sky disappears. It is still cold and gloomy winter. In the phrase, “It’s as if there were no light,” “no light” (無明) can mean, “lacking wisdom,” or “ignorance.”  Even though the flower of buddha’s awakening is already open through our practice, we still feel we are in the darkness of ignorance.

If someone asks what color I see,
These are Gautama’s old eyes.

In these two lines, “old eyes” and “color” of the blossoms have a relationship with each other. “Color” is the object of “eyes.” However, Dogen says that the plum blossoms he is seeing are Buddha’s eyes. This refers to Tiantong Rujing’s poem on the occasion of Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. In Shobogenzo Baika (Plum Blossom), Dogen Zenji quotes this poem from his teacher Tiantong Rujing’s Dharma Hall discourse:


At that time when Gautama lost his eyeball,
In the snow, there was only single branch of plum blossoms.
Right now, thorns are growing everywhere.
Rather I laugh at the spring wind blowing lively.[2]

Rujing says that when Shakyamuni Buddha attained awakening while sitting under the bodhitree, the Buddha lost his eyes, that is, when he saw the reality of no-self (anatman), the dichotomy between subject (eyes) and object (bright star) is dropped off. He found interdependent origination with all beings. That is the meaning of the famous expression, “I, together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously attain the Way.”

In the same manner, in Dogen’s Chinese poem, the dichotomy of subject (eyes) and object (plum blossoms) is dropped off. Dogen says that the Buddha’s lost eyes appear as the plum blossoms in front of his own eyes. The plum blossoms in the snow are the Buddha’s lost eyes.

Rujing also says that when the Buddha had awakening under the bodhi tree, there was only one awakened person in the world, but later in the history of Buddhism, when the spring wind blew, many branches grew everywhere. Here is Dogen’s comment on Rujing’s poem:

The plum blossom in the snow is the emergence of an udumbara flower. How often do we see our Buddha Tathagata’s eyeball of the true dharma, and yet we miss his blink and we fail to smile? Right now, we have authentically transmitted and accepted that the plum blossom in the snow is truly the Tathagata’s eyeball. We take it up and hold it as the eye at the top of the head, as the pupil within the eye. When we further go into the plum blossom and penetrate into them, there is no reason for doubting it. It is already the eyeball of “above and below the heavens, I alone am the honored one,” and it is “the most honored one within the dharma world.

In this passage, “an udumbara” is a name of a tree that is said to bloom only once every three thousand years. Because it blooms so rarely, this flower is used in similes to indicate something extremely rare and precious, such as the appearance of a buddha in the world or the chance of encountering the buddhadharma during one’s lifetime. Dogen is saying here that each time we see plum blossoms is the only time we can see them. If we miss it now, we cannot see it again. Next year’s plum blossoms are not this year’s blossoms. Even though we encounter such precious Dharma here and now, we almost always fail to smile and accept it as buddhadharma. If we can see the blossoms in the snow as buddha’s eyes, we must be very grateful. This is what Dogen expresses in this Chinese poem.

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[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-87, p.635) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

[2] This poem and the following comment by Dogen are Okumura’s unpublished translation.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community

New article by Okumura Roshi in September 2018 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 latest article on Ikka Myoju: One Bright Jewel, please see our DI page dedicated to these articles.

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Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community