Tag Archives: Genjokoan

Transience Within Boundless Nature

Today, we repost a commentary by Okumura Roshi as one possible way to reflect on recent events.



世中は Yononaka wa To what can this world
何にたとへん nani ni tatoen be compared?
水鳥の mizudori no The moonlight
はしふる露に hashi furu tsuyu ni reflected in water drops
やどる月影 yadoru tsukikage splashed from a waterfowl’s beak.


This is the tenth waka in the 13 addendum waka in the Shunjusha text. It appears only Menzan’s Sanshodoei collection. It is not certain where Menzan found this verse; if it was composed by Dōgen, he expressed the beauty of impermanence and his insight regarding the interpenetration of impermanence and eternity.

A waterfowl dives into the water of a pond and comes up to the surface. It shakes its bill; water drops are splashed. In each and every one of the droplets, the boundless moonlight is reflected. The water drops stay in the air less than a moment before returning to the pond. Each of them is as bright as the moon itself.

Dōgen sees the scenery in the moment a waterfowl shakes its beak and water drops are splashed. Each and every droplet reflects the boundless moonlight. He thinks our lives in this world is the same. Our lives are as impermanent as the water drops, and yet, as he wrote in Genjōkōan, the boundless moonlight is reflected. In Shōbōgenzō Hotsubodaishin (Arousing Bodhi-mind), Dōgen wrote:

Our lives arise and perish within each ksana. Their swiftness is like this. Moment after moment, practitioners should not forget this principle. While being within this swiftness of the arising and perishing of transmigration in each ksana, if we arouse one single thought of ferrying others before ourselves, the eternal longevity [of the Tathagata] immediately manifests itself.

From the end of the Heian Era (794 – 1192) to the beginning of the Kamakura era (1192 – 1333), Japan experienced a transition in social structure and political power. The emperor’s court had been losing its power and the warrior (samurai) class had been getting more and more powerful. In the process of the growth of the warrior class, there were numberless civil wars between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan, even in the capital, Kyōto. Finally in the end of twelfth century, the Shogunate government was established in Kamakura by Minamoto Yoritomo. Concurrent with this transition in society were lots of natural disasters. People saw piles of dead bodies on the bank of Kamo River in Kyōto. They believed that the age of final-dharma (mappo) had begun in 1052. They saw the impermanence of society and also people’s lives.

In the very beginning of the famous Tale of the Heike it is said:

The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.[1]

“Gion Shoja” refers to the Buddhist monastery in India and “sala flower” refers to the flower of the sala tree in Kushinagara where Shakyamuni passed away. It is said that when Shakyamuni passed away, the sala trees gave forth flowers in full bloom out of season.

Dōgen’s contemporary, Kamo no Chomei (1153 – 1216), wrote an essay entitled Hojoki (My Ten-Foot Hut) in 1212, one year before Dogen became a monk at Enryakuji in Mt. Hiei. Chomei wrote about the situation in the capital, Kyōto. He recorded that they had many natural disasters such as great fires, whirlwinds, typhoons, earth quakes, etc. beside the destruction caused by the civil wars between Heike and Genji clans. In the beginning of Hojoki he wrote:

[1] Though the river’s current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.

[3] Nor is it clear to me, as people are born and die, where they are coming from and where they are going. Nor why, being so ephemeral in this world, they take such pains to make their houses pleasing to the eye. The master and the dwelling are competing in their transience. Both will perish from this world like the morning glory that blooms in the morning dew. In some cases, the dew may evaporate first, while the flower remains—but only to be withered by the morning sun. In others, the flower may wither even before the dew is gone, but no one expects the dew to last until evening.[2]

These are the well-known examples of people’s sense of transience and the vanity of life in the mundane world at the time of Dōgen. Dōgen’s insight into impermanence is very different from those pessimistic views of fleeting world. As he expresses in this waka, although seeing impermanence is sad and painful, still, that is the way we can arouse bodhi-citta (way-seeking mind) and also see the eternity within impermanence.

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[1] Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
[2] Translation by Robert N. Lawson, on Washburn University website

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

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Where chrysanthemums bloom

enrei-ka           Copyright©2019 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (20)


Speaking of Aspiration with Brother Monks on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month

Last year on the ninth month, leaving this place.
This year on the ninth month, coming from this place.
Stop dwelling on passing days, months, and years.
Look with delight in the undergrowth where chrysanthemums bloom.

去年九月此中去 (去年九月此の中より去り、)
九月今年自此來 (九月今年此れ自り來る)
休憶去來年月日 (去來の年月日を憶うこと休みね、)
懽看叢裡菊花開 (懽び看る叢裡菊花開けたり。)

This is verse 20 in Kuchugen and verse 75 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). There are differences in the title, the third, and the fourth lines of this poem in Manzan’s version.

Meeting again with Brother Monks on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month

去年九月此中去 (去年九月此の中より去り)
[You] left here in the ninth month of last year.
九月今年自此來  (九月今年自ら此に來る)
[You] come here in the ninth month of this year.
拈卻古來年月日 (來の年月日を拈卻し)
Taking up the days, months, and years that have gone,
凭欄一笑菊花開  (欄に凭って一笑すれば菊花開く)
Leaning on the handrail and laughing with each other, chrysanthemums bloom.


Last year on the ninth month, leaving this place.
This year on the ninth month, coming from this place.

“The ninth day of the ninth month” is called choyo (重陽, Ch. chongyan), one of the five seasonal festivals called sekku (節句): the seventh day of the first month (人日, jinjitu), the third day of the third month (上巳, joshi / jomi), the fifth day of the fifth month (端午, tango), the seventh day of the seventh month (七夕, tanabata), and the ninth day of the ninth month (重陽, choyo). These were considered days marking changes in the seasons. The dates and names came from China, but Japanese people had developed these festivals for praying for the well-being of people during each season. On each occasion people offered certain seasonal flowers and foods. March 3rd (Girls’ Festival / Dolls’ Festival), May 5th(Boys’ Festival / Iris Festival), and July 7th (Star Festival) are still observed today.

Choyo (重陽) literally means “double yan” because 9 is the largest odd number that is considered yan (陽). Even numbers are considered as yin (陰). This day is called the Double Ninth Festival or the Chrysanthemum Festival. In the ancient Japanese imperial court, they held a party for viewing chrysanthemum flowers on this day. It seems Dogen Zenji has some kind of gathering with his assembly monks on this occasion for viewing chrysanthemum flowers and asks them to compose a poem on their aspirations.

Dogen is saying that the last year’s ninth day of ninth month left this place, and this year’s ninth day of the ninth month came from this place. The subject of these two lines is the time, the ninth day of the ninth month. “This place” does not refer to some particular place on the earth, but to the entirety of the network of interdependent origination. Time is coming and going within this network the same as each and every being, including ourselves.


Stop dwelling on passing days, months, and years.
Look with delight in the undergrowth where chrysanthemums bloom.

In the third line, Dogen says that we should stop dwelling on or thinking about time (days, months, and years) that is flowing within the linear stream from the past to the future through the present. Commonly we think of time in this way. Dogen does not negate this way of viewing time, but he says that is not only way to think about time. His insight about time is very unique, as many people have discussed.

Studying Dogen’s writings, I think he considered time in three ways. The first is the common way: time flows from the past to the future through the present. The second is the time that is the absolute present. The past has gone; therefore, it does not exist anymore. The future has not yet come; therefore, it does not exist yet. The only actual time is the present. In Genjokoan, he says:

Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays at the position of ash, with its own before and after.[2]

At this present moment, firewood is completely dwelling in the dharma position of firewood. In the past it was a live tree, but the time of a live tree has already gone. There is no live tree anymore. In the future, after the firewood is burned, the firewood will be completely gone and only ash will be there. And yet, ash is not here and now at all. The past is not reality anymore and the future is not reality yet. Only this present moment is actual. That is what “past and future are cut off” means.

Uchiyama Roshi said that this present has no length. If there is the slightest length, we can still cut it into half and one part is in the past and another part is in the future. For example, consider 10:00 a.m. 9:59 a.m. is not yet 10:00 a.m.; 10:01 a.m. is already not 10:00 a.m. When we take a closer look at this, no matter how many 9’s after 9:59 we add (9:59999…), it will never become 10:00a.m. No matter how many zeros we add, if we had a 1, (10:0000…1), it is already not 10:00 a.m. The present of 10:00 a.m. has no length. That means all there is is the past that has already gone, and the future that has not yet come. The present is only a boundary between the not-existing past and the not-existing future. The present is 0. Time disappears when we look at in this way.

The third way of considering is time that does not flow. In Bendowa Dogen says:

Therefore, even if only one person sits for a short time, because this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all times, it performs everlasting buddha guidance within the inexhaustible dharma world in the past, present, and future.[3]

In our zazen, we sit at this absolute present, then, we are one with all the time and all beings. This is the time that does not flow. From the moment of big bang until the present, time does not flow, there is only one whole moment without any segments. Segments such as a second, an hour, a day, a month, a year, a century, and so on are only the production of human thinking. Beyond observation and measurement by human beings, time is one whole moment without any segments.

In the third line, Dogen says we should stop thinking of times grasped in the conventional way, in which we make a story of our karmic life. In zazen, we settle in the absolute present of here and now, then the time that does not flow appears. I call it eternity.

When we are completely being here and now, it is delightful to see the chrysanthemums. In his teisho on this poem, Sawaki Roshi mentioned that the chrysanthemum is called enrei-ka (延齢花), which means present “the flower which prolongs one’s longevity.” When we sit in zazen, and when we do things dwelling right here and now, being free from a self-made karmic story, the buddha’s eternal life is revealed right there. This is what Sawaki Roshi meant when he said, “It’s pointless for human beings merely to live a life that lasts seventy or eighty years.”[4]

In Manzan’s version, this is not a philosophical poem about time but a very straightforward expression of Dogen’s joy at meeting his brother monks again. The title is, “Meeting again with Brother Monks on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month.” The subject of the first two lines is his brother monks. “This place” refers to Eiheiji. His brother monks left Eiheiji on the ninth day of the ninth month the previous year, and they returned on the same day of the current year. Dogen express his joy at meeting them again. They talk about what happened to them during the year in which they did not see each other. When they laugh with each other leaning on the handrail, they find beautiful chrysanthemums blooming.

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[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-75, p.629) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

[2] Realizing Genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications, 2010) p.2.

[3] The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama roshi (translated by Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton, Tuttle Publishing, 1997) p.23.

[4] The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (Wisdom) p.205.

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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 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Being one with chocolate, how does that work?

image © 2019 David S. Thompson

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

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

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

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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.

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[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.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community