Tag Archives: poetry

Ryōkan Interpreted: the true Dharma eye

Collage "Crazy Moon"
Copyright©2021 Tomon Marr
(from the book)

[An extract from Okumura Roshi’s new book: Ryōkan Interpreted.]

Chapter title: Ryōkan and Dōgen

I remember that a long time ago, while staying at Entsūji monastery,
my late teacher upheld the true Dharma eye.
At that time, I experienced the pivotal point for transforming my self.
Therefore, I asked him to let me read the texts, and I intimately practiced following Dōgen’s teachings.
Further, I realized that I had been wastefully using my strength.
After that, I left my teacher and traveled far and wide to practice with other teachers.
What was my affinity with Eihei [Dōgen]?
Wherever I went, I respectfully practiced the teachings of the true Dharma eye.
More years than I can remember have passed away.
I forgot the function, returned to my home country and have been living the idle, lazy life.

— • —

In this second section [of a longer poem], Ryōkan remembers his experience of studying and practicing Dōgen’s teaching of the true Dharma eye treasury while he practiced at Entsūji monastery. His teacher Dainin Kokusen gave instructions on the true Dharma eye. Ryōkan says here only shōbōgen. It is not clear if this refers to the text Shōbōgenzō (with abbreviated because the number of Chinese characters is limited in a line of poetry), or if this refers to the eye that sees true Dharma. Even if shōbōgen in this poem does not refer to the text Shōbōgenzō, I believe Kokusen gave lectures on Dōgen’s writings including Shōbōgenzō. Either way, it is certain that through his teacher, Ryōkan studied Shōbōgenzō. He was inspired by Dōgen’s teaching and asked his teacher to allow him to read the texts by himself. At this time, Shōbōgenzō was not yet published in a woodblock version, which is why Ryōkan asked special permission from the abbot to read a rare and precious hand-copied manuscript.

Entsūji was founded by Tokuō Ryōkō (徳翁良高 1648–1709), one of the dharma heirs of Gesshū Sōko (月舟宗胡 1618–1696) and a dharma brother of Manzan Dōhaku (卍山道白 1636–1715). They pioneered the movement of “returning to Dōgen” in order to restore the uniqueness of the Sōtō School as distinct from the Rinzai School and the newly established Ōbaku School. Ryōkan’s master Kokusen (1723–1791) was one of Tokuō’s dharma grandsons and Entsūji must have owned Shōbōgenzō and other texts by Dōgen, as well as important texts of Zen and Buddhism in general.

By studying Shōbōgenzō, Ryōkan says that he experienced the pivotal point for transforming himself. Until then, he probably thought “Ryōkan” studied and practiced the dharma using his own power and effort to see the true reality of all beings, but he now found that all beings came to him and allowed him to practice. This is one of the most important points of Dōgen’s teaching in Genjōkōan.

Ryōkan practiced at Entsūji for 12 years from 1779 to 1791, from the time he was twenty-two until he was thirty-three years old. Shortly before his death in 1791, Kokusen gave a poem and a staff to Ryōkan. Commonly this is considered to mean Ryōkan received inka (the seal certifying completion of practice) or dharma transmission. Seemingly, he was therefore qualified to be the abbot of a Sōtō temple. And yet when Ryōkan passed away, he was simply called “Ryōkan Shusō (head monk)” on his mortuary tablet. In today’s Sōtō School system, after completing shusō practice, we receive dharma transmission sometime later, and only after copying the sanmotsu (three documents: shisho, kechimyaku, and daiji) and visiting Eiheiji and Sōjiji to do zuise (the ceremony of being abbot for a day). I think it was the same in Ryōkan’s time, but no one, including Ryōkan himself, ever mentioned that he received dharma transmission or copied the three documents or visited Eiheiji or Sōjiji for zuise. Probably, Kokusen passed away before giving transmission to Ryōkan and Ryōkan did not want to receive transmission from another teacher. Or possibly he had already decided not to be a Sōtō Zen temple priest and part of the government-controlled Buddhist system. In any event, Ryōkan left Entsūji around the time his teacher passed away and never returned. He traveled widely for several years until 1796 when he was thirty-nine. We don’t know much about where he visited or what he did during this period. But in this poem, Ryōkan says that wherever he went, he met and respectfully practiced shōbōgen (the true Dharma eye). Again, some people interpret this line as Ryōkan meaning he could read a hand-copied manuscript of Shōbōgenzō at many places, but I don’t agree with this interpretation. I think Ryōkan means that wherever he went he practiced with the essential spirit of Dōgen: “studying the self” and “dropping off body and mind.”

In the poem, Ryōkan remembers that in his youth, he studied and practiced following Shōbōgenzō and other teachings of Dōgen. However, after returning to Echigo when he was thirty-nine years old, he gave it up, and as he expressed it, “I have been living the idle, lazy life.” “Lazy life” is a translation of sorai (疎懶). So means “negligent” or “careless” and rai means “lazy,” “dull,” or “idle.” An example of the same kind of person is Hanshan (寒山, Kanzan). This “laziness” is not completely negative and Ryōkan’s lifestyle after returning to Echigo is a typical example of “Zen laziness.” Ryōkan loved Hanshan’s poems. One of Ryōkan’s famous poems is:

For my entire life, I have been too lazy to rise in the world.
I live freely, leaving everything to heaven’s truth.
In my bag, three measures of rice.
By the fireside, a bundle of firewood.
Who inquires after the trace of delusion and realization?
Why do I care for the dusts of fame and profit?
In the night rain, inside my grass-hut
I stretch my legs leisurely.

Ryōkan doesn’t care for social climbing but leaves everything to “heaven’s truth.” Heaven’s truth (天真, tenshin) means reality as-it-is before being processed by human thinking. Ryōkan’s poem might have been inspired by a poem by Hanshan:

All my life too lazy to work
favoring the light to the heavy.
Others take up a career,
I hold onto a sutra,
a scroll with nothing inside.
I open it wherever I go.
For every illness it has a cure
and heals with whatever works.
Once your mind contains no plan
wherever you are it is alert.[1]

When Ryōkan says, “I am too lazy to rise in the world,” this “world” includes the Buddhist temples as a part of the worldly social system. At some time of his life, as he wandered here and there, I think that Ryōkan found he could not live like Dōgen because, internally, his impractical personality could not work with others within an organization and, externally, because of the situation of the Sōtō School and its temples. He had to create his own lifestyle and practice as a bodhisattva inspired by Dōgen’s teaching, but without imitating Dōgen’s style as it was practiced at Sōtō Zen monasteries of the time.

However, there may be a difference between the Chinese “lazy” Zen monks and Ryōkan, for Ryōkan could not be completely lazy; he is not one hundred percent comfortable being a “lazy” Zen monk. Sometimes, he feels shame or even guilt for having left his family responsibilities and for having discontinued the diligent monastic practice that Dōgen carried out. His mind is ambivalent even though he knows he cannot change his way of life. To me, this is an attractive aspect of Ryōkan. Probably the Chinese Zen monks had the same kind of internal entanglements, but Zen literature as it comes down to us is hagiography created by later people about legendary monks whom they worshiped; it makes no mention of their internal dilemmas.

— • —

[1] Red Pine, trans., The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, (Port Townsend, Wash: Copper Canyon Press, 2000), p.209.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More Ryōkan


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Just published! The Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758–1831) is known throughout the world for his deep and delightful lyric verses, evoking the beauty of nature and the precious and transitory nature of everyday life. In his new book, the internationally-known Zen Buddhist commentator and author Shohaku Okumura newly translates poems by Ryōkan and provides commentary on Ryōkan’s life and works, for the enjoyment of lovers of poetry and for Buddhist practitioners alike. This handsome volume commences with an essay by Tonen O’Connor, Resident Priest of Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, and is enhanced with the inclusion of photography of Roykan’s beloved “Snow Country” by Hoko Karnegis, Vice Abbot of Sanshin Zen Community. Tomon Marr, a disciple of O’Connor, has graced the cover and chapter headings with contemporary works of mixed media in response to Ryōkan.

Ryōkan Interpreted: Conflict and harmony on the path

Monotype with collage
“The Path”
Copyright©2021 Tomon Marr
(from the book)

[An extract from Okumura Roshi’s new book: Ryōkan Interpreted.]

Chapter title: Strolling without a Care

A spring wind brought gentle rain,
Soaking the grass roof during the night.
Sleeping below in peace,
How does the dweller know
The happenings of the floating world?
At daylight, as blue mountains appear,
Spring birds begin their song on the branches of trees.
I, too, leave my hermitage to wander
With no particular place to go.
A stream supplies water to the distant village,
Radiant flowers shine on the green mountains.
Who is that old man leading the ox?
Whose son carries the hoe?
The four seasons revolve without cease,
In each season, each person does his own work.
Ah! What do I do?
I simply stand for a long time at the gate
Of my hometown.

— • —

Within Ryōkan there were always two points of view that were sometimes in conflict and sometimes in harmony. This is a source of his poetry. In order to understand his poems, we need to understand his internal viewpoints that were at odds with one another. This is why I have talked about Chuang Tzu and Ryōkan’s life [earlier in the book].

The above is one poem by Ryōkan that I really like that illustrates what was happening deep in his mind.

This is a poem about a spring day. The original Chinese here for spring wind” is tōfu (東風), which literally means east wind; but in Chinese poetry this expression refers to the spring wind. In the winter the wind always comes from the north, especially in the area where Ryōkan lived, and it’s very cold, so when the wind blows from the east, people are happy because spring is arriving. In Echigo this is the time, after a long, cold, and gloomy winter, when people become active and start working in the fields. During the winter Ryōkan could not go out to do begging (takuhatsu). Now it’s getting warm, flowers are starting to bloom, people are starting to work, and Ryōkan is leaving his hermitage to walk down to the village to do begging. Following is the poem, broken out by sections:

A spring wind brought gentle rain,
Soaking the grass roof during the night.
Sleeping below in peace,
How does the dweller know
The happenings of the floating world?

There may have been a fireplace in his room, but during the night the fire would go out and it would become really cold so he didn’t sleep well during winter. But now, in the springtime, it is warmer, and he sleeps well. He does not need to think of “the floating world.”

“The floating world” means this world in which we live that is always changing and where there

is nothing to rely on. This is a very well-known expression in Japanese, ukiyo. Probably you know the Japanese wood block printings called ukiyo-e, a term that means a painting of the floating world. Even though, on one hand, it is the source of sadness, fear and anxiety, Japanese people have a sense that they enjoy these changes and the floating impermanence of the world. Because Ryōkan is

a good for nothing person, he has no job and he doesn’t need to care about success and failure, or whether he is up or down in the floating world. That is what he’s writing about here in this poem. This does not mean, however, that he was indifferent to people’s suffering.

At daylight, as blue mountains appear,
Spring birds begin their song on the branches of trees.
I, too, leave my hermitage to wander
With no particular place to go.

Although the words Ryōkan uses are not the same as the words that appear in Chuang Tzu, the meaning is the same. Even though he’s walking along for begging, he has no appointments and no schedule, so he can start walking whenever he is ready. There’s no one who expects him, so there’s no care about where he should go or by what time he must be somewhere. His walking is really strolling without a care.

A stream supplies water to the distant village,
Radiant flowers shine on the green mountains.
Who is that old man leading the ox?
Whose son carries the hoe?

Ryōkan is walking in the very beautiful scenery of the spacious rice fields of Echigo. He sees some farmers already working in the field. I’m pretty sure he knew everyone there, but because he saw those people working in the fields from a distance, he could not tell exactly who that person was. This means that he was a kind of observer or outsider in relationship to the people working hard in the field. Children also helped their parents farm, and each year children look different, getting bigger and bigger, so even though he probably knew who the boy was, because boys change, he wonders from which family this one comes. Ryōkan was watching and observing the people working.

Farmers do the same thing every year and in ancient times farmers’ work was very hard. They had to do many things every day and began to work from very early in the morning before sunrise and continued to work until sunset. But Ryōkan had no such work. He was walking without a care so when he wrote this part of the poem, I think he had mixed feelings. On one side, he had a sense of guilt. He had escaped from his family business and was spending his life just begging to get some food and if he has time, writing poems, and sleeping when he feels the need. He is living a good-for-nothing life but these people are living a busy life with a lot of hard work. He feels separate from them and yet he cannot be completely free from his connection to these hard-working people. He was not like Han Shan (Cold Mountain), the Chinese hermit. Cold Mountain also wrote many beautiful poems, but although Ryōkan loved Cold Mountain’s poems, he couldn’t be like him, for Cold Mountain was truly a hermit and never cared about people in the world. Ryōkan was much closer to people in his world. Therefore, he struggles within himself as he describes those people working so hard.

The four seasons revolve without cease,
In each season, each person does his own work.

This means the four seasons go around in the same way each year, and following the change of seasons, people’s lives repeat the same process. In the spring, they start to work in the fields, during summer they work hard taking care of the rice and the vegetables, in the fall they harvest, and during winter they work inside the house. People worked all year round following the change of the seasons and each person had something to do. Farmers worked on farming and craftsmen followed their craft and merchants managed their business. This is the teaching of Confucianism. In each occupation each person has to work diligently. Ryōkan was outside of that cycle, and yet not completely free from the idea that everyone has their own occupation within a community and must do their best, and make an effort to keep the community in good shape. So next he asks himself a question:

Ah! What do I do?
I simply stand for a long time at the gate
Of my hometown.

He had left home and leads his life the way Chuang Tzu described, seeing the world from up high. In terms of Buddhism and Zen practice this is to be free from discrimination, accepting everything without discriminating. To be beyond discrimination is a kind of enlightenment, and yet he still has a concern for people in the world, which is a very good quality in this poem. He was not really like that big bird; he understands and has sympathy with the small birds. He knows that he is a small bird like other people and yet the difference is that he’s useless. He enjoyed this and yet had a sense of guilt. His life was simple but his psychology was not so simple.

This poem of Ryōkan’s attracted me because I feel the same kind of contradiction. When I left home and became a Buddhist priest, I had the same sense of guilt. I was also the oldest son, and within Japanese culture I had a responsibility to take care of my parents even though my family didn’t have a family business. My family had been merchants in Osaka for six generations, but because of the fires at the end of World War II my family lost everything. In a certain way, I appreciated this because it released me from my family responsibilities. If my family hadn’t lost their wealth, I might have been the person who had to take care of it. But because my family lost everything, my father said to me when I was a teenager, “You are free, you have nothing to inherit.” I trusted and accepted what my father said. But for my father, for me to become a Buddhist monk was a lot more than he expected. My parents were not happy at all when I became a monk and I had a sense of guilt that I had given up my responsibility toward my family. I really resonate with what Ryōkan felt.

In the last lines of the poem, Ryōkan answers his own question about what to do by simply standing at the gate of his home town. “My hometown” means his family’s district; he was now living there again, so even though he had left home he couldn’t leave the place. He is still not free from the world in which he was born, and yet he cannot live as a normal member of that world. I think this is a difficulty for him even though he has a certain confidence in the way he lives.

In Chuang Tzu’s story, when the cicada and the little dove laughed at the big bird, I feel that the big bird, Chuang Tzu himself, looked down and laughed at those small living beings. Ryōkan does not think he is a greater being than the farmers. I think this is the difference between Chuang Tzu’s philosophy and the bodhisattva practice of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Ryōkan was a bodhisattva, not Taoism’s Perfect Man.

— • —

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More Ryōkan


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Just published! The Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758–1831) is known throughout the world for his deep and delightful lyric verses, evoking the beauty of nature and the precious and transitory nature of everyday life. In his new book, the internationally-known Zen Buddhist commentator and author Shohaku Okumura newly translates poems by Ryōkan and provides commentary on Ryōkan’s life and works, for the enjoyment of lovers of poetry and for Buddhist practitioners alike. This handsome volume commences with an essay by Tonen O’Connor, Resident Priest of Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, and is enhanced with the inclusion of photography of Roykan’s beloved “Snow Country” by Hoko Karnegis, Vice Abbot of Sanshin Zen Community. Tomon Marr, a disciple of O’Connor, has graced the cover and chapter headings with contemporary works of mixed media in response to Ryōkan.

Ryōkan Interpreted: finger pointing at the moon

Ryōkan no Sato Art Museum—Washima, Niigata
Copyright©2021 Hoko Karnegis

[An extract from Okumura Roshi’s new book: Ryōkan Interpreted.]

Chapter title: Poems and Poetry

Relying upon a finger, we see the moon
Relying upon the moon, we understand the finger.
Moon and finger
Are neither the same nor different.
This expedient analogy is for guiding beginners.
Having seen reality as it is,
There is neither moon nor finger.

— • —

This is a poem by Ryōkan. In Zen teaching this point is often expressed as the moon in the sky and a finger used to point out the moon, with the finger being words or verbal expression, and the moon being reality itself. Often in Zen teaching we are cautioned, “Don’t see the finger, but see the moon directly.” The assumption is that any teachings or expressions or poems are merely methods or tools to point to the moon, so we should not look at the finger but see the moon, reality itself. When someone points to the moon so that we can see the reality of it, it’s just a tool to help us find the moon. This understanding is a very common teaching in Zen. Instead of reading sutras or Buddhist texts, we should practice and actually experience what is written and taught in the scriptures. That is the meaning of this analogy. We should not see the finger but the moon.

This analogy is used in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Śuraṅgama Sūtra. For example, it is said in the Śuraṅgama Sūtra,

You and others like you still listen to the Dharma with conditioned minds, and therefore you fail to understand its real nature. Consider this example: suppose someone is pointing to the moon to show it to another person. That other person, guided by the pointing finger, should now look at the moon. But if he looks instead at the finger, taking it to be the moon, not only does he fail to see the moon, but he is mistaken, too, about the finger. He has confused the finger, with which someone is pointing to the moon, with the moon, which is being pointed to.[1]

This analogy is often used in various Zen texts including The Blue Cliff Record (Hekigan-roku) or Book of Serenity (Shōyōroku). This is one of the origins of the Zen catchphrase about a separate transmission outside the teachings.

Since Dōgen did not appreciate the idea of a separate transmission outside the teachings, he did not use this analogy of a finger pointing to the moon. I cannot find this expression in any fascicle of Shōbōgenzō. I found only a single example of his using this analogy, in a verse included in Volume 10 of the Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record), probably composed while he was in Song China.[2]

As a result of his understanding of Dōgen, Ryōkan did not completely agree with the traditional Zen viewpoint in which teaching was seen as merely expedient means. Expression using words and concepts is important for sharing reality with other people. Although it is viewed within the Buddhist tradition as a skillful means, according to Dōgen and Ryōkan their verbal expression is not merely skillful means. I think this is what Ryōkan is saying in this poem.

If we really see the moon, we see that the finger is a part of the moon. It’s not that the moon is reality and the finger is not. The finger, or the words we use, are part of reality. To distinguish between reality and the verbal expression of reality creates two separate things and makes reality itself more important than its expression using words.

This is one of the most important points of Dōgen’s teaching. In Dōgen Zenji’s teaching, verbal expression of our direct experience is very important; he called this expression dōtoku. means to say or speak something. Dōgen says that if we really experience something, we need to say something, we need to speak about that reality.

Katagiri Dainin Rōshi, who died in 1990, was the founder of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Several of his books have been published and the first one is Returning to Silence. One of Katagiri Rōshi’s most famous teachings is “Shut your mouth and just sit.” This is really returning to silence. Don’t think, don’t talk. Close your mouth and just sit. This shows the importance of experience, of actual practice.

But the title of his second book is You Have to Say Something. These two go together. Shut your mouth and just sit, and yet you have to say something. How can you speak without opening your mouth? And when we open our mouth and say something, that speaking, that saying, our words, should be an expression of silence. How to express silence using words is another aspect of our practice. How can we speak? How can we express something? How can we share that experience with other people?

Dōgen’s point is that unless you find a way to express what you experience within silence your experience is not genuine. Your insight is not deep enough and you should keep sitting. Once you have a certain insight, you have to put it into words. Otherwise, your practice is not complete. In this case, the finger is really important. The finger or verbal expression is not simply expedient means, but part of the moon. In a sense, how can the moon express itself using our mouth? How can we ourselves, including our brain, how can this body and mind be a part of the moon?

Ryōkan and Dōgen said that if we think that the finger and the moon, or the expression of Dharma and the Dharma itself, are two separate things, this is already dualism. For Dōgen, studying sutras and texts is very important. There’s no separation between language and reality. Both are important, because the finger is part of the moon. This is how Dōgen and Ryōkan understand the moon. The way we can express it, using our words to communicate with other human beings is, I think, what Ryōkan is doing when he says there is neither finger nor moon because they are one thing.

— • —

[1] Hsüan Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society, eds., The Śuraṅgama Sutra: A New Translation (Ukiah, Calif: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2009), “Visual Awareness Is Not Dependent upon Conditions.”
[2] Verse 27 in volume ten of Dōgen’s Extensive Record, p.616: “He’s melted like a piece of iron, / Gone we don’t know where, like snowflakes. / The jade rabbit in the sky is not down in the pool’s depths. / Why not cease your finger pointing, and see the real moon?” This is one of two verses on the death statement of a person named Ran (Nen in Japanese). Probably the finger pointing to the moon was mentioned in the statement of the dead person.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More Ryōkan


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Publication day! Now available! The Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758–1831) is known throughout the world for his deep and delightful lyric verses, evoking the beauty of nature and the precious and transitory nature of everyday life. In his new book, the internationally-known Zen Buddhist commentator and author Shohaku Okumura newly translates poems by Ryōkan and provides commentary on Ryōkan’s life and works, for the enjoyment of lovers of poetry and for Buddhist practitioners alike. This handsome volume commences with an essay by Tonen O’Connor, Resident Priest of Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, and is enhanced with the inclusion of photography of Roykan’s beloved “Snow Country” by Hoko Karnegis, Vice Abbot of Sanshin Zen Community. Tomon Marr, a disciple of O’Connor, has graced the cover and chapter headings with contemporary works of mixed media in response to Ryōkan.

The Dharma drum

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (45)

[Dōgen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself
自賛 Jisan 15

Bamboo splints and ox skins used for counting
Total more than eleven hundred.
Before, I placed this smelly skin-bag on the drumhead,
On the mountain of ignorance beating thundercloud.[1]

篾束牛皮纔算來(篾束牛皮纔かに算え來るに)
一千一百有餘枚(一千一百有餘枚、)
昨鞔這箇臭皮袋(昨に這箇の臭皮袋を鞔って
無明山上打雲雷(無明山上に雲雷を打つ)

— • —

This is verse 44 in Kuchugen and Jisan 15 in Volume 10 of Eiheikoroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this verse has a slight difference in the second line:

千一百有餘枚 (千一百有餘枚)
Total more than twenty-one hundred.

 

Bamboo splints and ox skins used for counting
Total more than eleven hundred.

According to commentaries, “bamboo splints” and “ox skins” are some kinds of devices used to count things, for example, the number of cattle. In this case, they are used to count the time, days, or years. In Monkaku’s version, it says, “total more than eleven hundred,” and in Manzan’s version, “total more than twenty-one hundred.”

Some commentaries on Manzan’s version say that this is the number of years after Shakyamuni Budddha’s death. In Shobogenzo Ango (Practice Period), Dogen Zenji mentions Shakyamuni Buddha’s example of the 90-day ango, and says, “It has been two thousand one hundred ninety-four years since then. Today is in the third year of the Kangen era [1245].”[2] His new monastery, Daibutsuji (later the temple name was changed to Eiheiji) was constructed in 1244, and he and his sangha moved into there in the autumn of the same year. Beginning the 4th month of 1245, he held the first summer 90-day ango (practice period) at the new monastery. If Dogen composed this jisan verse in that year, this number might be the year from Shakyamuni’s ango.

Other commentaries on Manzan’s version interpret this as the number of the days since Daibutsuji was established by Dogen. If so, this poem was composed around 1250 – 1251, about six years after the completion of Daibutsuji. 

In the case of Monkaku’s version, there is no possibility of considering this as the number of years after Shakyamuni’s ango or death. This is the number of days since Dogen established his new monastery in Echizen, around 1247 to 1248, about three years after his sangha moved to Daibutsuiji. This is also around the time Dogen visited Kamakura for about half a year. In any event, the first two lines of this poem are only about the number of years or days.

Before, I placed this smelly skin-bag on the drumhead,
On the mountain of ignorance beating thundercloud.

In the third and fourth line, he mentions the analogy of the poisoned drum (塗毒鼓, zudokko), which appears in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra. There, it is said that a person invented a new poison and put the poison on a drumhead. When he beat the drum in a crowd, everyone who heard drum died. The sutra says that the Parinirvana Sutra itself is the same as the poisoned drum. All people who hear the sound of the Sutra become released from the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance).[3]

In the third line, Dogen says that he placed his body (smelly skin-bag) on the drumhead. The drumhead of a Japanese drum is commonly made of ox skin. This might be related to the ox skin in the first line of this verse. This means Dogen became an instrument for making the sound of the Dharma, to allow his assembled practitioners to be free from the three poisonous minds.

The final line is taken from a poem by Chinese Zen Master Tong’an Changcha (同安常察, Doan Josatsu,?―?), who lived in the early Song dynasty, in the 10th century. He was not a well-known Zen Master. He was a dharma descendent of Daou Yuanzhi (道吾円智, Dogo Enchi, 769 – 835), the dharma brother of Yunyan Tansheng (雲巌曇晟, Ungan Donjo, 780 – 841). A collection of the ten poems by Tong’an entitled The Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth (十玄談, Jugendan) is included in chapter 29 of Jingde Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (景徳伝燈録, Keitoku Dento-roku, 1004). “Depth (玄, gen)” in “Unfathomable Depth” is the same word as gen in Kuchugen (句中玄, Depth in Phrase). Dogen quotes one line of the 9th poem of the collection, entitled “Turning Ranks.”

転位  (位を転ず)
披毛戴角入鄽來 (披毛戴角して鄽に入り來たる。)
優鉢羅花火裏開。(優鉢羅花は火裏に開く。)
煩惱海中爲雨露。(煩惱海中に雨露と爲り。)
無明山上作雲雷。(無明山上に雲雷と作る。)
鑊湯爐炭吹教滅。(鑊湯爐炭も吹いて滅せしめ。)
劒樹刀山喝使摧。(劒樹刀山を喝して摧かしむ。)
金鎖玄關留不住。(金鎖玄關に留り住せず。)
行於異類且輪回。(異類に行じて且く輪回す。)

Covered with hair and horned, I enter the town.
A blue lotus flower opens in fire.
In the ocean of delusion, I come to be the rain and dew [of Dharma].
Above the mountain of ignorance, I form a thundercloud.
I blow out the burning charcoal below [to save the beings in] the water boiling in the fireplace’s iron pot.
I splinter the blade-trees and the sword-mountains.
I don’t remain bound by a golden chain at the gate of profundity.
Walking within the [realms of] different kinds, I will transmigrate [in samsara] for now.[4]

“Turning Ranks” refers to one of the two aspects of the bodhisattva path. A bodhisattva vows to become a buddha, that is, walking upward to attain awakening. And a bodhisattva vows to save all beings, that is, walking downward to walk with all beings in samsara. “Turning ranks” means to turn direction and go downward to work with all living beings. That is what “Covered with hair and horned, I enter the town” means. In a similar expression, a few Zen masters said that they wished to be born as a water buffalo to work in the muddy rice fields after their death.

Dogen uses the fourth line of this poem but changes one kanji. By doing so, he changes the meaning. He himself is the dharma drum that makes a roll of thunder like a lion’s roar; he is the poisoned drum for the people suffering within samsara. To do so, he needs to practice and teach within samsara, as his master Rujing admonished:

“Buddhas and ancestors vow to save all living beings and dedicate all the merit of their practice to all living beings. They therefore practice zazen within the world of desire.”[5]

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[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10- [Dogen’s] Verses of Praise on Portraits of Himself 15, p.607) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org
[2] Treasury of the True Dharma Eye : Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi), p.726.
[3] Nirvana Sutra: A Translation of Dharmakshema’s Northern Version (translated by Kosho Yamamoto), p.90.
[4] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Unfathomable Depths: Drawing Wisdom for Today from a Classical Zen Poem (Sekkei Harada, translated by Daigaku Rumme and Heiko Narrog, Wisdom Publications), p.6.
[5] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala), p.22.

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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


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