Tag Archives: Shohaku Okumura

Waterfall life

waterfallPhoto copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Can we change our habitual actions?

According to the Yogacara teachers, our life itself is really a neutral and peaceful thing, and yet it develops like the currents in a stream. Here is a quote from the Thirty Verses, a work by the famous Yogacara teacher Vasubandhu, in which he is describing the store-consciousness, also known as the alaya consciousness:

Among these, “maturation” is that called “the store-consciousness” which has all the seeds.
Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, yet it is always endowed with contacts, mental attentions, feelings, cognitions, and volitions.
Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate.
The same for its contacts, etc. It develops like the currents in a stream.

In his Chinese translation of this verse, Xuanzang (Jp. Genjō c. 602 – 664) uses an expression meaning “violent stream.” This means the water flows quickly, even violently – without stopping, always going, like a huge waterfall. In this analogy of a waterfall, “violent stream” or “currents in a stream” means that there is no substance. There is no such thing called “waterfall” because it always changing, it’s always different water. Each time it’s new – so we cannot say this is the Niagara Falls, but it’s there, but it’s always changing, always moving. And the water carries things from different places or different times to this place, to the present. So alaya consciousness is flowing like a waterfall and it transports all things which are stored in this consciousness and these seeds perish each moment and arise each moment. In a sense, this consciousness dies each moment and is born each moment, yet it’s continuous. Each moment it’s new and yet each moment has some continuation. This analogy of a violent stream is a really clear image of what our life is like. When I was born, I was little small living being, and my mind didn’t work so well, or so much, and yet after that my body is always changing, always new, and my mind is always changing. Everything is always new. Our life is like a waterfall or a river.

In Japanese, we have proverb:

三つ子の魂百まで
mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made

Roughly, it means that the mind or spirit of three year-old child or baby persists until they are one hundred years old. Actually, I believe that three years old is around the time children start to think using words. The seeds in this alaya consciousness are not just what is newly created after our birth, but when we are born, we already have some seeds from the past. We inherit from our parents, or as a member of human society we inherit something already. So when we are born we are not completely new, we already have some seeds. And yet we are completely neutral. I think this is really important point. Whatever kind of seeds we have we are always neutral, and that means we can change. Our life is a result of past karma or past causes. We have a connection with the past and still this is a cause towards the future, so in the future who we are depends upon what we do right now. That is the way we can transform ourselves into something new, something better.

We can transform our actions and our way of thinking. That is what Thirty Verses describes in the last part of the work. Roughly speaking there are five steps, and through this practice, our “goal” in Yogacara or Mahayana Buddhism is to become Buddha. From the moment we first arouse bodhi mind, there are five major steps toward becoming Buddha. Yogacarans described what we should do in each of those steps. It’s really detailed – there are actually fifty-two stages within those five steps, and it literally takes more than forever. They believed that when we practice till a certain stage in this lifetime, we can continue to practice from that stage onward during the next lifetime. Indian people of the time believed in reincarnation. We don’t need to believe that – at least, I don’t believe it. Of course, we cannot negate that because we don’t know, so there is no basis either to believe it or to negate it. But either way, the important point is what we do right now. Even if we don’t reincarnate, as an individual person my actions still influence the future even after I die. Since Shakyamuni Buddha practiced and taught in his way, his influence is still there after twenty-five hundred years. Since I studied with my teacher, I practice in this way. In that sense my practice or what I am doing is a kind of reincarnation of my teacher. That is the way one person’s actions or karma influences the future. There is cause and effect, or influence, or seeds. Even if we don’t believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of life after life as an individual, the principal of causation remains true.

The most important thing is what we do right now at this present moment which creates the future. In order to put this into practice, we should really learn our past, not only the past of this individual person from birth, but what human beings have been doing since the beginning of history, or even from the big bang. Everything influences this person and this moment, and each one of us has influence towards the future. We should understand that even though this is a small person, and our action is really small, our action is really universal. Our being, what I am doing, influences and is influenced or created by the whole universe, by the entirety of time. From the beginning of the universe this influence continues to the endless end of the universe.

— • —

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.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Visiting teachers to ask about the way

Herbythyme [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dōgen’s Chinese Poem (17)

「與禪人求頌」 (「禪人の頌を求むるに與う」)

Given to a Zen Person Asking for a Verse

Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.
Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.[1]

尋師訪道是參禪、 (尋師訪道是れ參禪、)
此段風流自古傳、 (此の段の風流古より傳わる、)
誰恨江山千萬疊、 (誰か恨みん江山千萬疊、)
還郷脚下悉良縁。 (郷に還れば脚下悉く良縁。)

This is verse 17 in Kuchugen and verse 64 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). This poem in Menzan’s version is quite different:

瞻風撥草要參禪 (瞻風撥草、參禪を要す
For yearning after [the ancestors’] wind and clearing away the weeds [of our minds], we need to practice Zen.
祖意明明妙不傳 (祖意明明なり妙不傳
The intention of the ancestral master is clear and wonderous, but not-transmitted
恨江山千萬疊 (恨むこと莫れ、江山千萬疊)
Do not regret [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains.
頭頭爲汝闢玄門 頭頭汝が爲に玄門を闢く
Each and every one of them opens the gate of profound [truth] for you.

 

Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen.
This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.

From the beginning of the history of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples were great travelers. They held a three-month practice period during rainy season. The rest of the year, they did not stay in any one place but travelled around. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to travel, saying:

“Go forth for the good of the many, the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the people of the world, for the good and happiness of gods and human beings. Let not two of you take the same road [so that the greatest number of people will be exposed to the teaching]. …There are in the world those whose eyes are covered by little dust, yet because they do not hear the teaching they are far from the Truth. [If they hear it] they will thoroughly understand the Truth. And I too will go to the village of Sena in Uruvela, there to preach the teaching.”[2]

Shakyamuni lived traveling in this way for about forty years, until the very end of his life. Even after monasteries were established, travelling was a very important part of the practice and teaching activities of Buddhist monks.

In the Chinese Zen tradition, the custom of the three-month summer practice period was maintained. Zen monks stayed at a monastery during the summer practice period, but the rest of the year they could travel. In the 8th century, Mazu (Baso) lived in Jiangxi (江西, Jp. Kosei) and Shitou (Sekito) lived in Hunan (湖南, Jp. Konan). These two were considered the two greatest masters of that period. Many monks traveled between their monasteries to attend their practice periods. Even today, practice period is called Goko-e (江湖会), after the names of where they lived. Since then, it is a common practice for Zen monks to travel seeking a teacher best for them. Many Zen koan stories are about making pilgrimage searching for a true teacher.

“This state of fine simplicity” is a translation of 風流 (Ch. fengliu; Jp. furyu) commonly translated as “artistic,” “tasteful,” “distinguished,” or “refined.” In this case, the word means the beyond-worldly, undefiled way of life transmitted from ancient times. Monks traveled only for the sake of searching out authentic teachers with whom to study the Dharma.

Who would begrudge [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains?
Returning home, the ground beneath your feet is always good.

Dōgen Zenji’s first trip seeking the Way was his walk in 1212 from Kohata, Uji to the temple his maternal uncle lived in near Mt. Hiei. According to Dōgen’s biography, Fujiwara Motofusa (his maternal grandfather) wished to adopt him, and was planning for the ceremony to celebrate his coming of age. But Dōgen secretly left home and visited his uncle Ryokan, who was a Tendai monk and lived at the foot of Mt. Hiei. Probably it took Dōgen less than half a day to walk there.

While Dōgen was studying as a novice at the Tendai monastery on Mt. Hiei, it is said that he had a serious question: If all living beings are inherently enlightened, why did buddhas and ancestors have to go through difficult study and practice? In Bendowa, he wrote,

“After arousing bodhi mind and beginning to seek the dharma, I traveled throughout this country and visited various teachers.”

Probably he visited teachers at the various temples on Mt. Hiei, teachers at Kojōin within Onjōji (Miidera), another main monastery of the Tendai school, located by Lake Biwa and near Mt. Hiei, and some teachers in Kyoto area, possibly including Eisai at Kenninji. Since Dōgen practiced at Mt. Hiei until he was seventeen years old, it is difficult for me to think that he could have traveled extensively outside of the Kyoto area. All of the above places are within the distance of a one-day walk.

When Dōgen writes, “travelling [crossing] many thousands of rivers and mountains,” he may be writing about his own experiences. In other works, he writes about his travel from Japan to China and about making pilgrimage in China. By the time he met his teacher Tiantong Rujing in the fifth month of 1225, he had traveled quite extensively – probably from the end of the summer practice period in the seventh month of 1224 until the beginning of the practice period in the fourth month of 1225. He visited many Zen monasteries and at least seven Zen masters. It seems he was disappointed because he did not find a true teacher for himself. But when he returned to Tiantong monastery, he found that a great teacher was waiting for him, the new abbot of the monastery, Rujing (Nyojo).

However, in this poem, he writes that all of the experiences he had during this pilgrimage were meaningful and appreciated. Traveling through many mountains and rivers, visiting many villages, towns, and cities, meeting with various people, and experiencing hard times and good times must have been a wonderful way of studying the Dharma in a very concrete way. The process of travelling was equally important and educational as achieving the goal, finding a true teacher.

I did not need to travel to find my teacher. A classmate at my high school allowed me to read Uchiyama Roshi’s book, and Roshi lived in Kyoto not far from where I lived in Osaka. After coming to the USA in 1975, I travelled from California to Massachusetts twice – once by car with several friends, and another time alone by Greyhound bus. I also travelled from Valley Zendo to New York City regularly to do sesshin there for a few years around 1980, sometimes by bus and other times by hitch-hiking. I studied many things about American people from those travel experiences.

From 1997 to 2010, I travelled much more extensively by airplane to visit many Zen centers in the USA from the West coast to the East coast, from Alaska to Florida. But traveling in the air is different than traveling on the earth. Sitting on a small seat in an airplane is not interesting at all. The only meaningful way to spend the time is reading a book or working on a laptop computer. I could do such things at my home much more comfortably.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10-64, p.626) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

[2] Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts volume 1 (Hajime Nakamura, Kosei, 2000) p.285-286.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

Photo copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

For people in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, this is a really important point. Yogacara teachers thought there are two kind of Buddha-nature. One is Buddha-nature as a principal or idea, another is Buddha-nature as practice or actual life. As a principal, everything is Buddha-nature – all people have Buddha-nature, but as an actuality, there are some people who hear about dharma or Buddha’s teaching and it’s not attractive to those people. “Buddha’s teaching” means the teaching of emptiness, beyond any kind of self-and-other dichotomy. This doesn’t mean those people are evil or bad, but those people cannot see the emptiness of beings; so they can be a very moral person, or a very nice person, but their understanding or way of viewing things is dualistic – “I want to be a good person so I try to be generous or do something for other people.” This kind of attitude is not bad. Yet this is blind to the reality of emptiness, of no beings, no one who is doing good things, and no person who can be helped.

When we really look deeply into ourselves, we find this person, and we cannot believe this person has Buddha-nature. It’s really important to know that. It’s easy to just think or believe that all human beings have Buddha-nature, it’s a really nice thought. Yet if we honestly reflect on ourselves, even though we hear Buddha’s teaching, still we attach, and cling to this person. Still we think, “Me first.” Even though we understand Buddha’s teaching, and even though we practice zazen or Buddha’s teaching, still we try to protect this person before other people. If we really deeply see this selfishness or egocentricity, it’s more honest to say, “I don’t have Buddha-nature.“ There is no possibility for me to become Buddha. For the followers of Yogacara, it is more important to see this incompleteness or egocentricity and deep selfishness than to simply believe all beings have Buddha-nature.

That is the difference between Yogacara philosophy and tathagatagharba theory. In tathagatagharba theory, our life is Buddha-nature itself, and yet somehow it has been covered with dirt, or delusion/selfishness. Essentially our life is good, and yet our selfishness or delusion is like a guest. Somehow it comes from outside and clings to this, covers this Buddha-nature. Therefore, what we should do is see the Buddha-nature and take this dirt away from it and polish it. Then original Buddha-nature starts to be revealed. That is the basic idea of tathagatagharba theory. Yogacara is different. According to those teachers, our alaya consciousness is not Buddha-nature, it’s always neutral. So it can be good or bad depending upon our action. In that sense, this practice or teaching is more actual, it’s not an abstract thing. I think from this point of view, the theory of Buddha-nature or tathagatagarba is kind of abstract. Therefore, it’s an important point when we study Yogacara, to see things from this point of view. When we study tathagatagarba theory, we should see things from that point of view. Those two points can be contradictory. And yet another viewpoint, the Madhyamnika, is also different. Seeing our life from different perspectives, the important point is what this means for this person.

Of course we can say this is true, this is my way; we can take one of these points of view as my point of view. “This is most familiar to me, I think this is the best way.” And yet my attitude, or the so called zen attitude is that we don’t stand on either point of view, but see them as perspectives on this life, this person. We don’t stand upon, or take any view or any point of view. That is the basic attitude of “zen people,” zen practitioners. They study and yet they try to forget; they try not to use those theoretical or philosophical terms. Instead, zen people try to show the reality within reality without using those logical frameworks, or theory. That’s why zen stories, zen questions and answers, or zen expressions are really concrete. They don’t discuss what is Buddha-nature – they just show it. They don’t discuss whether we have Buddha-nature or not but just try to show it by direct action. So as a zen practitioner, it is important to study the systems of philosophy or theory in any of the schools in Buddhism; they can be the ground or soil of our practice. And yet we have to put any philosophical theory into our own lives at this moment, right now right here. Then – what do you do, how do we live based on any theory or philosophy? That is a characteristic point in zen.

— • —

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.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

A river in the ocean


By Greg Shirah (lead animator)
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio: Gulf Stream Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures,
Public Domain, Link

How was Dōgen’s practice of zazen inspired by the Lotus Sutra?

Actually, this is not an easy answer – at genzo-e retreats, I often talk for five days about this!

In the Lotus Sutra, I think there there are two chapters which were very important for Dōgen. One is the second chapter, called “Skillful Means.” This chapter talks about the interdependence of each being and their interconnectedness within time and space. I think this was the source of Dōgen’s insight about time and space. Each and every thing exists only within a relationship throughout space and time.

Another important chapter is Chapter 16, “Life Span of the Tathagata.”  Our life is to be born, stay for awhile, and disappear or die. In the case of Shakyamuni, he was born at a certain time in India and lived for eighty years. This life of the Buddha as nirmanakaya is the result of his long practice for more than five hundred lifetimes. Shakyamuni became Buddha in that final lifetime, as Buddha; this is samboghakaya. Both Buddha’s life as an actual person, (as nirmanakaya), and Shakyamuni Buddha as a result of many lifetimes of practice (as samboghakaya) are taking place within Buddha’s eternal life, (the dharmakaya). The important point in the Lotus Sutra is that those three bodies of Buddha – the nirmanakaya as an actual human being, resulting from long practice as the samboghakaya, and the dharmakaya – are really one. These are not three different things. Our life, not only Buddha’s, but life, and not only that of human beings, but each and every existence is within Buddha’s eternal life. That’s why our practice is to encounter the dharma and start to study and practice and continue and mature little by little. That process of our practice is taking place within Buddha’s eternal life.

Essentially, Dōgen is saying that even before we start practice, when we know nothing about Buddhism, we are already within the Way, within Buddha’s eternal life. And within the Way we practice the Way. We study and practice toward the Way. Our process of studying and growth is taking place within Buddha’s dharmakaya. From the very beginning, we are already at the goal and yet we have to make an effort to get closer to the goal, the Way, though we are already there. I think this kind of paradoxical idea came from the Lotus Sutra. This is the main point of Dōgen’s expression that practice and enlightenment (or verification) are one. When we practice we are already there, within the Way, within Buddha’s eternal life. So this is not something we need to go and get, because we are already there, and yet in our practice of each moment we need to go toward the Way. Our practice resembles a river that flows toward the ocean. The river has direction, toward the ocean – and yet this entire process of flowing toward the ocean is happening within the ocean. A modern Japanese poet expressed this as “a river flowing in the ocean.” A river flowing in the ocean is my image of Dōgen Zenji’s practice inspired by the Lotus Sutra.

— • —

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.

— • —

For further study:

    • For a translation of the Lotus Sutra sometimes used by Okumura Roshi, see this book.

> Other Questions and responses


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Taking another step

(c) Can Stock Photo / flamiaki8

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (16)

「與禅人」

Given to a Zen Person

Clouds disappearing in the blue sky, a crane’s mind at ease;
Waves constant on the ancient shore, a fish swims slowly.
Who can focus their eyes on this vague edge?
From the hundred-foot pole, take another step.[1]

雲斷青天鶴意閑 (雲青天に斷えて鶴の意閑かなり、)
浪連古岸魚行漫 (浪は古岸に連なって魚の行くや漫なり、)
誰人眼著此参際 (誰人か眼を此の参際に著けん)
百尺竿頭一進間 (百尺も竿頭一進の間)

This is verse 16 in Kuchugen and verse 59 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is the last poem titled “Given to a Zen Person” in Kuchugen. In Menzan’s version there is a slight difference in line 3:

設人著眼及斯際 (設し人眼を著けて斯の際に及ばば)
If someone focuses one’s eyes and reaches this boundary,

Clouds disappearing in the blue sky, a crane’s mind at ease;
Waves constant on the ancient shore, a fish swims slowly.

On reading this poem, I imagine Dogen Zenji standing on the rocky, coastal cliff facing the Japan Sea not far from Eiheiji. Clouds are disappearing and the entire sky is becoming completely blue. Only one white crane is flying in the clear sky. The coast seems as solid as if it has been existing there from ancient times without any change, and waves are incessantly breaking on the shore and retreating one by one. A fish is slowly and freely swimming underneath peaceful blue waves. The sky and the ocean are entirely blue, and only the crane and the waves breaking at the foot of the cliff are white. The entire world is beautiful and peaceful. Within the infinite sky and ocean, a crane and a fish – tiny living beings – are also peacefully and joyfully flying and swimming. Infinity and eternity and restless coming and going in impermanence are both there.

In Japan, traditionally the crane is a symbol of happiness and longevity. It is said a crane’s life span is a thousand years. Today, the origami (paper folding) crane is well known as a symbol of peace.

In Shobogenzo Zazenshin (Acupuncture Needle of Zazen), Dogen Zenji quoted the poem by Hongzhi Zhengjue[2] entitled Zazenshin and composed his own poem with the same title. At the end of his poem, Hongzhi wrote:

The water is clear to the bottom, a fish is swimming slowly.
The sky is infinitely vast, a bird is flying far away.[3]

The final part of Dogen’s Zazenshin is:

The water is clear to the earth, a fish is swimming like a fish.
The sky is vast and extends to the heavens, a bird is flying like a bird.[4]

It is clear that the motif of the first two lines of the poem to a Zen person derive from these other poems on zazen. They are a depiction of the scenery of our zazen. In his comments on Hongzhi’s Zazenshin, Dogen says that the water in which the fish swims is not the water in the external world. The water has no boundary, no bank or shore. A fish is swimming but we cannot measure how far is it moving, because there is no bank from which we survey it. The sky in which the bird is flying is not the space suspended in the firmament. The sky is never concealed or revealed and it has neither outside nor inside. When the bird is flying through the sky, it is flying the entire universe. When the bird is flying, the entire sky is also flying. In zazen, even though we are simply sitting immovably, right here and now, we are flying or swimming together with the entire universe. In this flying and swimming, there is no goal, no purpose, no task, therefore the crane’s mind is at ease, and the fish swims slowly in a relaxed manner.

It is true not only in zazen – in our daily lives we also live together with all beings in the entire world. Dogen Zenji writes in Genjokoan:

When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When the bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole space and vigorously acts in every place. However, if a bird departs from the sky, or a fish leaves the water, it immediately dies. We should know that [for a fish] water is life, [for a bird] sky is life. A bird is life; a fish is life. Life is a bird; life is a fish.[5]

Kodo Sawaki Roshi said the same thing using modern colloquial expressions:

It’s impossible for a fish to say, “I’ve swum the whole ocean,” or for a bird to say, “I’ve flown the entire sky.” But fish do swim the whole ocean, and birds do fly the entire sky. Both killifish and whales swim the whole river and ocean. This isn’t a matter of quantity, but quality. We work with our bodies within only three square feet, but we work the whole heaven and earth.[6]

Who can focus their eyes on this vague edge?
From the hundred-foot pole, take another step.

“This vague edge” refers to the boundary between the fish and the ocean, between the bird and the sky, and between the ocean and the sky. We see the boundary but it is not clear, and actually there is no such definite boundary. All beings in the entire universe are living together with others at the intersection of absolute oneness and phenomenal multiplicity in the network of interdependent origination.

To see the emptiness of all beings, particularly ourselves, to be free from self-clinging, and to vow to live harmoniously together with all beings and the entire world is called dropping off body and mind. To do so, we need to take one more step at the top of the hundred-foot pole.

Unfortunately, because of our self-clinging, when we feel we have such a peaceful insight or experience, almost always, we think that “I” am able to see and experience such a great, beautiful, and peaceful reality. No other people can see the Dharma as clearly as “I” can. Or more commonly, we think that “I” am no good, “I” cannot reach and experience such a state. This is how we lose body and mind that is dropped off, and cling hard to the top of the hundred-foot pole. This is a caution from Dogen Zenji to a Zen person like us.

— • —

[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-57, p.624) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Jp. Wanshi Shokaku, 1091-1157
[3] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[4] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[5] Okumura’s translation (Realizing Genjokoan, Wisdom Publications, 2010) p.4.
[6] Okumura’s translation (Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, Wisdom Publication, 2014)

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

At the bottom of rushing waters

photo ©David S. Thompson

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (15)

「與禅人」

Given to a Zen Person

Who hates ignorance, which is simply the autumn dew?
From the beginning, true form is actually within this.
Its remains are hard to see at the bottom of rushing waters.
Bound up it’s easy to transform the self we receive.
[1]

無明誰惡唯秋露 (無明誰か惡まん唯だ秋の露、)
實相元來此裡眞 (實相元來此の裡に眞なり、)
留而難知流水底 (留めて知り難し流水の底)
結來變易承當身 (結び來ては變じ易し承當の身)

This is verse 15 in Kuchugen and verse 57 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This is the second of three poems titled, “Given to a Zen Person” in Kuchugen. This poem in Menzan’s version has slight differences in lines 1 and 3:

無明誰惡艸頭露 (無明誰か惡まん艸頭の露)
Who hates ignorance, which is dew on a blade of grass?

難知流水底(留め得て知り難し流水の底)
Even if possible to remain, it is hard to know what there is at the bottom of rushing water.

Who hates ignorance, which is simply the autumn dew?
From the beginning, true form is actually within this.

Ignorance is a translation of mumyo (無明), literally “lack of brightness (knowledge).” In Sanskrit, this is avidya. Avidya is the first of the twelve links of causation, and the root cause of suffering and transmigration within samsara. Because of ignorance, we cannot see reality as it is. We take action with distorted visions of things inside and outside of ourselves. In Yogacara teachings, it is like a person in the dark seeing a piece of rope as a poisonous snake and becoming frightened. In an opposite case, we might see something dangerous, and yet, because of a lack of knowledge or attentiveness, we ignore it. Influenced by such distorted views, we have desires to make things our possession or to escape from them. We take actions to fulfill such desires and our lives become chasing after some things which are desirable and escaping from other things we dislike. These are the functions of the three poisonous minds: greed, hanger/hatred, and ignorance. As a result, we make mistake after mistake and we lose the sight of the peaceful foundation of our lives.

“True form” is a translation of jisso (実相), which is an abbreviation of shoho jisso (諸法実相), true reality of all things, which comes from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra. In my understanding, shoho jisso is the teaching that each and every unique, individual thing can exist as it is only in the relation with all other things throughout time and space. In the case of seeing a piece of rope as a snake and becoming frightened, by seeing it more carefully and mindfully, we may find it is not a snake but a rope, and further, we may discover the rope as a collection of some kind of fiber, therefore it is also empty.

This is a common understanding of “ignorance” and “true form” in Mahayana Buddhism. We need to become free from ignorance and see the true reality by attaining wisdom (prajna). Here Dogen is saying something one step further. For example, in Chapter 7 of the Vimalakirti Sutra, The Dharma-door of Nonduality, the bodhisattva Vidyuddeva declared, “‘Knowledge (vidya)’ and ‘ignorance (avidya)’ are dualistic. The natures of ignorance and knowledge are the same, for ignorance is undefiled, incalculable, and beyond the sphere of thought. The realization of this is the entrance into nonduality.”[2]

A bodhisattva has made a vow not to enter nirvana but to stay in samsara to walk with all living beings. For a bodhisattva to hate and escape from “ignorance” and to seek after “true form” is another duality, which creates another samsara within our practice. A bodhisattva who sees non-duality does not hate “ignorance,” because ignorance does not have self-nature, it is impermanent like dew on a blade of a grass in autumn. In the same way, a bodhisattva does not chase after “true form” to make it their personal possession. As Dōgen’s poem implies, when the sun rises, dew-like ignorance will disappear into the air. Water vapor in the air becomes dew on the grass and then returns to the air depending upon the temperature. “Ignorance” is empty, that is why the transformation from taking action based on ignorance to seeing true form is possible. Even when we see a rope as a poisonous snake, the poisonous snake does not really exist. We can see that both the snake and the rope are empty. We don’t need to be afraid of and escape from delusions caused by ignorance. In Gakudo-yojinshu (Points to Watch in Practicing the Way), Dogen Zenji says:

You must understand that we practice within delusions and attain realization before enlightenment. At that moment, you will comprehend that boats and rafts are merely yesterday’s dream and will be able to cut off your previous views based on words which bind you like a vine or a snake.[3]

Its remains are hard to see at the bottom of rushing waters.
Bound up it’s easy to transform the self we receive.

Depending upon the temperature and numberless other factors, water changes its form as vapor, dew, or ice. Our mind is the same. Unfortunately, in our case as immature bodhisattvas, the transformation from “ignorance” to “true form” is not thorough and decisive. Depending upon the conditions inside and outside of ourselves, our mind is rapidly changing its form, as vapor, dew, or ice. Our minds are like a rushing of waters. It is really hard to see what is at the bottom of our ever-changing mind conditions. Sometimes we feel we are free from the five aggregates of attachment (panca upadana skandha) by seeing their emptiness, but the next moment, our body and mind function in variety of self-centered ways as the five aggregates of attachment. The body and mind we received when we were born very easily transforms back and forth between self-centeredness and selflessness. That is the reason we need to practice mindfully and continuously, moment by moment. If we think that we are permanently free from ignorance because we had some sort of “enlightenment experience,” such an attitude can be the worst form of self-clinging.

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[1] (Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-57, p.624) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.

[2] The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture (translation by Robert A. F. Thurman, The Pennsylvania State University Press), p.74.

[3] Heart of Zen: Practice without Gaining-mind (Sotoshu Shumucho,1988), p.12.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


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“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.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

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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