Tag Archives: Confucius

The three teachings

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (40)

Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben


The three teachings’ idle names were originally unspoken.
With one word slightly mistaken all aspects are contrary.
Clearly know both people and objects are without self.
Traversing the mysterious barrier arrive at your own home.[1]

三敎閑名其本寂 (三敎の閑名其れ本より寂なり、)
一言纔錯萬般差 (一言纔かに錯れば萬般差う、)
了知人法兼無我 (人法の兼ねて無我なることを了知すれば、) 
蹈破玄關自到家 (玄關を蹈破して自ら家に到らん。)


Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben

This is verse 39 in Kuchūgen and verse 6 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). Manzan’s version of this verse is identical. It is one of the six poems Dōgen wrote responding to a government official, Wenben. Poem 38 in Kuchūgen, which I introduced last month was also offered to this person.

The three teachings’ idle names were originally unspoken.
With one word slightly mistaken all aspects are contrary.

Like verse 38, this poem also presents the idea of identity of the three teachings, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. As I said in my commentary on the previous poem, Confucius did not talk about anything beyond the phenomenal world. When he was asked about serving ghosts and spirits, he said: “You haven’t learned to serve the living, so how could you serve ghosts?” Then he was asked again, “Might I ask about death?” Confucius said, “You don’t understand life, so how could you understand death?” Confucius’ teaching was about how to live benevolently in this lifetime as a good member of society. Laotsu and Chuang Tzu criticized this worldly teaching of Confucius, and said the Way is beyond conventional social morality.

But during the Song dynasty, influenced by Daoism and Buddhism, Confucians established so-called Neo-Confucianism using metaphysical ideas. These three teachings were considered together as the three legs of a tripod kettle. Government officials were basically Confucianists, but they supported and controlled Daoist and Buddhist institutions to support the system of government centered on the emperor. To become the abbot of a prestigious monastery, Buddhist monks needed to get support from high-ranking government officials. However, there must have been various blends of these ideas. Some officials supported Daoism more than Buddhism, and others liked Buddhism more than Daoism.

It seems Wenben is an experienced practitioner of Zen Buddhism who has this understanding that the three teachings are basically identical in the realm beyond logic and theories. In this understanding, the names, concepts, and rhetoric of the three teachings are not essential; the core of these three teachings is the “unspoken reality” beyond any conceptual thinking. “Unspoken” is a translation of 寂 (jaku), meaning “serene,” “quiet,” or “solitary.” This word was used to describe an aspect of the Daoist “Way.” In Laotsu’s Tao Te Ching it is said, “There was something formless and perfect / before the universe was born. / It is serene (寂). Empty. / Solitary. Unchanging. / Infinite. Eternally present. / It is the mother of the universe. / For lack of a better name, / I call it the Tao (道).”[2] In Chinese Buddhism, this word was used in referring to nirvāṇa (寂滅 jakumetu, Skt. Nirodha). For many Chinese people who didn’t know the Sanskrit word and its meaning in the context of Buddhist teachings, the difference between Daoist “Way” and Buddhist “nirvāṇa” or “enlightenment” was not so distinct.

It seems that the 26-year-old Dōgen accepts this idea; however, in the second line, he is also saying that if we carelessly speak in a syncretic or eclectic way, we will lose the essential meaning of each of the three teachings. We must be careful because having a discussion about ultimate reality is already not ultimate reality itself. Possibly, this is a seed of Dōgen’s later strict criticism opposing the idea of the identity of the three teachings.

Clearly know both people and objects are without self.
Traversing the mysterious barrier arrive at your own home.

 In the third line, Dōgen says the essential points of Buddhist teaching are no-self of people and no-substance of objective things. Traditionally it is said that early Buddhism negated the self (atman) and insisted on no-self (anatman), but Mahāyāna Buddhism negates both the permanent self (atman) and also negates the permanent nature of all objective things. This is called 我法二空(ga ho ni ku: both self and things are empty)

We can find from reading the sutras that Shakyamuni Buddha negated atman and said the self is only a collection of five aggregates or eighteen elements, but he also said that the five aggregates are not substance. He said that the five aggregates are rather like a lump of foam, a bubble, a mirage, a plantain tree, or a magical illusion.[3] No-self of people and no-substance of things are concepts which are not found in either Confucianism or Daoism. As a Buddhist, Dōgen says that these are the most essential points.

“The mysterious barrier” is a translation of 玄関 (genkan). 玄 means “darkness” or “profundity,” one of the important concepts in Daoism. Kan (関) means a barrier, such as when used in the title of the famous kōan collection, 無門関 (Mumonkan, The Gateless Barrier). In Tao Te Ching it is said, “Yet mystery and manifestations / arise from the same source. / This source is called darkness (玄). / Darkness within darkness (玄之又玄). The gateway to all understanding.”[4] This word was adopted in Zen Buddhism to refer to the ultimate reality beyond discriminative thinking. At Chinese Zen temples, the main entry hall of a temple building is called genkan (the gate to the darkness). This tradition was continued in Japanese Zen temples; and owing to that tradition, the entrance of any Japanese house is called genkan even today.

Dōgen is saying that to see emptiness of both the self and objective things is the gate to ultimate reality, and that this is our own original home.

Dōgen’s Criticism against Poetry

The last five poems I introduced, Kuchūgen 35 to 39, are all written in 1226 and probably 1227, during Dōgen’s stay at Tiantong monastery in China. This period might have been the most satisfying and happiest time in his life. In 1225, although he had lost his Japanese teacher Myōzen, he found Rujing, his authentic teacher. Under the guidance of abbot Rujing, he practices zazen alongside sincere training monks, following a very strict schedule, as he describes in some episodes in Zuimonki. He is able to study the Dharma one-on-one with Rujing. He is allowed to visit the abbot’s room freely when he has questions to ask; Dōgen’s questions and Rujing’s responses were recorded in Hōkyōki. By 1226, he has a circle of acquaintances which includes very well-educated lay practitioners. He enjoys genuine practice, dharma study with an authentic teacher, and a group of people with whom he exchanges poetry. After returning to Japan, when he founds his first monastery, Kōshōji in Fukakusa, he might have wished to create such a community.

In Zuimonki 3–9, Dōgen talks to his assembly at Kōshōji regarding writing poetry:

In my childhood, I was fond of studying classic literature on Chinese history and other texts. Up to that point, reading both Buddhist and non-Buddhist texts was necessary to [go to China] and transmit the Dharma, and to become familiar with the local Chinese language. I thought it was important, and in fact, it was an extraordinary thing even in worldly society. Lay people also appreciated it as exceptional and wonderful.

I think that Dōgen is talking about his experiences with the people who practiced with him at Rujing’s assembly. However, in the same talk, he criticizes writing poems with too much of a focus on literary techniques:

Although in a sense it was necessary, when I reflect deeply on it now, it was a hindrance to studying the Way. When we read Buddhist scriptures, if we understand the meaning of the sentences phrase by phrase, we can grasp the principle expressed by the words. However, people tend to pay more attention to the rhetorical devices such as couplets, rhythm, and tone. They judge them as good or bad, and then think about the meaning as an afterthought. Therefore, it is better to understand the meaning from the beginning without caring about such things. Also, in writing dharma words, trying to write according to the rules of rhetoric or being unable to write without thinking of rhyming and tone are the fault of having too much knowledge. Let the language and style develop as they may. What is most important is to write down in detail the truth we want to communicate. Even though people in future generations might think that our rhetorical technique is poor, for the Way it is essential to enable them to understand the truth. This is the same for other fields of study as well.[5]

When I started to practice zazen and read talks such as this in Zuimonki, I stopped writing poems and other hobbies to focus on zazen practice and studying Buddhist teachings. I am still happy about the decision. However, this does not mean that Dōgen discontinued writing Chinese poems or encouraged people not to write poems. Even at Eiheiji, he had a poetry-writing gathering with his monks, writing poems on the words of Rujing about the harvest full moon, as I have discussed in earlier commentaries. We find more than four hundred Chinese poems in Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record) and more than fifty waka poems. I am also happy that I can read, appreciate, and write about Dōgen’s Chinese poems.

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[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–6, p.611) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Tao Te Ching (by Stephen Mitchell, Harper Collins,) p.25.
[3] The Samyutta Nikaya Part III section 22, No. 95 (3) A Lump of Foam (p.951).
[4] Tao Te Ching (by Stephen Mitchell, Harper Collins) p.1.
[5] Okumura’s translation of Chōenji-version of Zuimonki, which will be published from Wisdom Publications.

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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©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

The Great Way

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (39)

Following the Rhyme of Official Wenben

The great way has continuously pervaded.
How can Peng and Ying be found outside?
Strolling along with a staff, chanting in loud voice,
This lump of red flesh arouses the ancient wind.[1]

大道從來一貫通 (大道從來一貫通ず、)
蓬瀛豈在外辺中 (蓬瀛あに外辺の中にあらんや、)
逍遙曳杖高声誦 (逍遙し杖を曳いて高声に誦す、)
赤肉團頭起古風 (赤肉團頭に古風を起こす)

This is verse 38 in Kuchūgen and verse 9 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has some differences in the title, second, third, and fourth lines:

Following the Rhyme of Official Chief Wenben

蓬瀛何必壺中 (蓬瀛何ぞ必ずしも壺中に在らん、)
How can Peng and Ying be necessarily in the jar?[2]
逍遙世外誰人識 (逍遙世外誰人か識る
Strolling along outside the world, who knows where he is?
赤肉團邊振古風 (赤肉團邊に古風を振う)
With his lump of red flesh, he waves the ancient wind.


Following the Rhyme of Official Wenben

This is another poem Dōgen wrote for a government official. The person’s name is Wenben (文本, Jp. Bunpon). Six more poems (numbers 2–7) in volume 10 of Dōgen’s Extensive Record[3] are for this person; next month’s poem, Kuchūgen verse 39 is one of them.[4] “Following the Rhyme” means Dōgen uses the same rhyme as in a poem given by Wenben. To do so, Dōgen would have needed to know the sound and tone of each Chinese word and the strict rules of rhyming in Chinese poetry.

The great way has continuously pervaded.
How can Peng and Ying be found outside?

“The great way” is a translation of dadao (大道, daido). In Chinese Buddhism, dao (道) is used as a translation of several Sanskrit words, such as bodhi (awakening),[5] marga (usually translated into English as path),[6] and gati (destination).[7] From a Buddhist perspective, the great way might refer to the Buddha’s unsurpassed awakening.

However, before Buddhism was introduced to China, Dao (道) was already one of the most important words for both Confucianism and Daoism. In Confucianism, just as the celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon, and the stars move around the same orbital way, and also just as the four seasons repeat in a certain order each year, people thought that each and every thing in this universe has its own way. They thought there must be a certain way we human beings should walk, following a certain order as a member of society.

“Continuously pervaded” is a translation of 一貫 (ikkan, consistency). There is a famous story containing this expression. “Confucius said, “Teng! There’s single thread stringing my Way together (吾道一以貫之).” Then his student Teng explained to his colleagues, “Be loyal to the principles of your heart, and treat others with that same loyalty. That is the Master’s Way. There is nothing more.”[8] The Confucian Way is the virtuous personality of human beings as members of society.

In Daoism, Dao (道) is considered as nothingness (無mu) beyond any concepts or words, and from which all phenomenal beings are born. Dao is something without name and therefore cannot be spoken. Laotsu said:

The Dao that can be spoken of is not the ever-constant Dao.
The name that can be named is not the ever-constant name.
That which is without-name is the beginning of heaven and earth.
That which possesses a name is the mother of the ten thousand creatures.[9]

Chuang Tzu, another Daoist philosopher said:

The Great Way is not named; Great Discriminations are not spoken; Great Benevolence is not benevolent; Great Modesty is not humble; Great Daring does not attack.”[10]

The meaning of “the great way” is different in each of the three teachings. But in this poem, Dōgen uses “the great way” as the truth before separation into the three teachings, beyond any words, concepts, or language.

Peng and Ying (蓬瀛, Hō, Ei) refer to the names of two of the five mythological islands in the eastern sea where Daoist immortals live. There is no agony and no winter in these lands; rice bowls and wine glasses never become empty no matter how much people eat or drink from them; and there are enchanted fruits growing in Peng that can heal any ailment, grant eternal youth, and even raise the departed.[11]

In this poem, Dōgen wrote about The Great Way using Confucius’ expressions from the Analects and using the names of the Daoist utopia. What he meant is that The Great Way is the oneness of concrete human virtuous quality and the Daoist Way beyond the human world. Daoist utopia is not somewhere out there, but where we are now. That is the same as Zen Master Zhauzhou said in the following conversation about the Great Way:

A monk asked, “What is the Way?”
The master (Zhauzhou) said, “It’s just outside the fence.”
The monk said, “I’m not asking about that.”
The master said, “What ‘way’ are you asking about?”
The monk said, “The Great Way.”
The master said, “The great way leads to the capital.”[12]

It seems Dōgen uses the Confucian concrete ethical expression and the Daoist idea of beyond-worldly utopia to show the Middle Way of Buddhism between ultimate truth and conventional truth. It seems that this is a happy integration of the three teachings, even though later Dōgen would criticize this idea. When he was twenty-six years old, it seems that he was enjoying the exchange of poems with Chinese scholar-officials in this way. This might have been the happiest time of Dōgen’s life.

Strolling along with a staff, chanting in loud voice,
This lump of red flesh arouses the ancient wind.

I suppose this person Wenben is a Zen practitioner and an excellent poet. When he has some time free from his duties in the office, he visits Rujing’s monastery to practice. Sometimes, he composes poems and walks leisurely within the temple grounds chanting his poems in a loud voice. Since he walks with a staff, he is probably an elderly person. Dōgen must have liked and respected him. “This lump of red flesh” is a well-known expression from Linji’s famous saying, “Here in this lump of red flesh there is a True Man with no rank. Constantly he goes in and out the gates of your face.”[13]

“The ancient wind” is a translation of gufeng (古風, kofu) commonly meaning old style, or old fashion. But in Zen literature, it is used differently. For example, in the Blue Cliff Record (Hekiganroku), this expression appears in the verse for case 20, “Lung Ya’s Meaning of the Coming from the West.” “When has dead water ever displayed the ancient way? (死水何曾振古風).”[14] As Dōgen wrote in Shōbōgenzō Kobutsushin (古仏心, the Ancient-buddha-mind), this “ancient” means “going beyond ancient and present, and penetrate through ancient and present.”[15] That is, it is the wind of the Great Way. Dōgen says that Wenben’s body is fanning the wind of Ancient Buddha.

It seems Dōgen was happy to practice strict zazen under the guidance of Rujing and with intellectual and literary people like Wenben. He wrote in Bendōwa:

In Great Song China nowadays the Emperor and great ministers, educated and common people, men and women, all are attentive to the Ancestral Way. Military and civilian officials all aspire to study the Way in Zen practice. Of those who so aspire, many will certainly open and clarify the mind ground. Obviously, this shows that secular duties do not obstruct buddha-dharma.[16]

When he wrote this, he might have been thinking of people such as this government official. Later in his life, he will change his opinion on this point too.

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[1] Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–9, p. 612 © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] “The jar” comes from a Chinese classic on the Daoist immortals. There was a world of immortals in a jar made from the dried shell of a bottle gourd.
[3] Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–9, p. 610–611).
[4] It is interesting to note that the three poems in Kuchūgen which Menzan selected out of fifty poems Dōgen wrote in China are all related to the idea of the identity of the three teachings, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.
[5] For example, anuttara samyakusambodhi is 無上道
[6] The Eightfold Noble Path is 八正道
[7] The six realms of samsara is 六道
[8] Quotations translated by David Hinton in The Analects: Confucius (Counterpoint, 1998).
[9] Dao De Jing by Lao Zi: A Minimalist Translation by Bruce R. Linnell, PhD, 2015. Https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49965/49965-h/49965-h.htm
[10] Translation by Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press,1964), p. 39.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Penglai
[12] Translation by James Green in The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu (Shambhala, 1998), p. 108. This is the same as “All roads lead to Rome.” “The capital” in Zhauzhou’s saying is the actual name of the capital city, Changan (長安, eternal peace); in Buddhism, these Chinese characters can mean “nirvāṇa.” The road we walk in everyday life leads to nirvāṇa. Dōgen might interpret this as the identity of practice and verification (修証一如).
[13] Translation by Burton Watson in The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi (Shambhala, 1993) p. 13.
[14] Translation by Thomas Cleary in The Blue Cliff Record (Shambhala,1977) p. 135.
[15] See Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala, 2010) p. 469.
[16] Translation by Shohaku Okumura & Taigen Daniel Leighton in The Wholehearted Way: A translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa with Commentary by Kōshō Uchiyama Rōshi (Tutle,1997) p.36.

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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©2021 Sanshin Zen Community