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The three teachings

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (40)

Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben


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

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


Following the Rhyme of Examination Graduate Wenben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dōgen’s Criticism against Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

The Great Way

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (39)

Following the Rhyme of Official Wenben

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

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

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

Following the Rhyme of Official Chief Wenben

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


Following the Rhyme of Official Wenben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuang Tzu, another Daoist philosopher said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Hanging out

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (38)

Given to Examination Graduate Ru


Natural wondrous wisdom itself is true suchness.
Why should we employ Confucian discourse or Buddhist texts?
Rely on sitting at ease at your place, and hang your mouth on the wall.
Friends arrive here and are released from emptiness.[1]

天然妙智自眞如 (天然の妙智自ずから眞如) 
何借儒論及佛書 (何ぞ儒論及び佛書を借らん)
靠坐閑牀掛口壁 (閑牀に靠坐して口を壁に掛く) 
知音到此脱空虚 (知音此に到って空虚を脱す)

This is verse 37 in Kuchūgen and verse 18 of volume ten of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). This verse in Manzan’s version has some differences in the second, third, and fourth lines:

何仮儒書及佛書 (何ぞ儒書及び佛書を仮らん)
Why should we rely on Confucian texts or Buddhist scriptures?
獨坐繩牀口掛壁 (繩牀に獨坐して口壁に掛く)
Sitting alone on the rope-chair, and hang your mouth on the wall.
等閑一實勝千虚 (等閑の一實千虚に勝れり)
One thoughtless reality is superior to thousands of hollow [discussion].

Given to Examination Graduate Ru

Verses 35, 36, 37, 38, and 39 in Kuchūgen were composed while Dōgen Zenji was in China. In volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku, there are fifty verses composed while he was practicing in China. These are the oldest written words by Dōgen while he was a training monk. In front of these verses, the compiler Sen’ne wrote:

Master Dōgen, in the second year of the Baoqing [Hōkyō] era of Song China [1226, wrote the following while] residing at Tiantong Jingde Zen temple on renowned Taibai Mountain in Qingyuan Province.[2]

Dōgen went to China with his master Myōzen in 1223 and stayed at Tiantong monastery where they had a connection through Myōzen’s master, Eisai. Since Myōzen remained there, the monastery became the base for Dōgen. The abbot of the monastery was the Rinzai master Wuji Liaopai, who died in 1224. Although the chronological order is not clear, Dōgen sometimes traveled extensively visiting various Zen masters. When he returned to Tiantong monastery in early 1225, he met Tiantong Rujing who had become the new abbot after Wuji’s passing away. In Shōbōgenzō Menju (Face-to-face Transmission), he wrote:

On the first day of the fifth month in the first year of the Baoqing (Jp. Hōkyō) Era of Great Song China (1225), I, Dōgen, for the first time offered incense-burning and did prostrations in [the abbot’s room] Myōkōdai (Mt. Sumeru Terrace). For the first time my late master, the ancient buddha, saw me, Dōgen.[3]

On the twenty-seventh day of the same month, Myōzen passed away. Dōgen became Rujing’s disciple and practiced intimately with him until he received dharma transmission and went back to Japan in 1227. Dōgen recorded his conversations with Rujing in Hōkyōki (the Record of Hōkyō Era) beginning from the seventh month in 1225. Rujing recognized Dōgen’s sincere practice and understanding of the Dharma. Dōgen wrote this about his practice under Rujing’s guidance:

When I was staying at Tiantong Zen Monastery in great Song China, while the old master Rujing was the abbot there, we did zazen until the third part of the second watch[4] and got up at about the second or third part of the fourth watch[5] to do zazen. The old master sat with the assembly in the monks’ hall. He never took even a single night off. While sitting, many monks fell asleep. The old master walked around hitting them with his fist or his clog, scolding them and compelling them to wake up.[6]

By 1226, I suppose that among the many people associated with Rujing, Dōgen was well known as the eminent disciple of the abbot of Tiantong monastery. Except for verses 35 and 36 about his pilgrimage to the Mt. Potolaka, most of the other verses Dōgen created in China were composed for lay practitioners who were Chinese government officers and their families.

“Examination graduate” refers to the people who have passed the imperial examination called keju (科挙, Jp. kakyo) and qualified to be government officials. Such intellectuals were also called shidafu (士大夫, Jp. shitaifu); scholar-official or literati) and many of them practiced Zen. It seems Verse 14 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku was given to this person’s mother and verse 47 was given to his younger brother.

Natural wondrous wisdom itself is true suchness.

“Natural” is a translation of tianran (天然, Jp. tennen, heaven-thusness). Tianran refers to phenomenal things created by “heaven” without any influence from human beings, or to reality beyond human thinking or desires. This word is similar to ziran (自然, Jp. shizen), meaning (1) being without any human artificial influence and (2) “inherent” or “innate.” Wuweiziran[7] is one of the essential expressions in Daoism.

In Buddhism, tianran or ziran is used as a name for the non-Buddhist philosophy that negates causality which was taught by Makkhali Gosala, one of the six non-Buddhist teachers in Shakamuni’s time. Later, writing in Shōbōgenzō, Dōgen used this word “tianran” with a negative connotation referring to this non-Buddhist teaching.

“Wondrous wisdom” is a translation of miaozhi (妙智, Jp. myōchi). Innate wondrous wisdom (天然妙智) is not the usual wisdom developed and attained through study and practice, but is naturally endowed to all people from the beginning. This is synonymous with buddha-nature, mind-nature, or original enlightenment in the tathagata garbha theory, mentioned for example in The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna (大乗起信論, Daijō Kishin ron). This innate wisdom is same as One-Mind that is true-suchness (zhenru, 真如, Jp. shinnyo) in that theory. This first line seems to be a description of the essential principle of that theory.

In that theory in The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna, originally One-Mind is pure and without defilement, like peaceful water. Somehow, suddenly the wind of ignorance blows, and waves are caused, that is, our discriminative thinking, which differentiates good/bad, right/wrong, like/dislike etc. We take actions based on such discriminations, we make good or bad karma, and as the result, our life becomes transmigration within samsara. By stopping discriminative thinking, we return to the original One-Mind. Even when we are in delusion and transmigrating in samsara, the original One-Mind is not eliminated; it is hidden but still there, only we cannot see it. Sometimes, it is compared to a diamond hidden in a rock. The One-Mind hidden by delusive discriminating thoughts is called original enlightenment (本覚, Jp. hongaku). When we arouse bodhicitta and practice in order to gradually return to the original One-Mind, that process is called actualization of enlightenment (始覚, Jp. shikaku).[8] Dahui’s kanhua (watching story) Zen put emphasis on the actualization of enlightenment through a kind of break-through experience called kenshō (見性) and Tsaodong (Sōtō) silent-illumination Zen put emphasis on silent sitting as the manifestation of original enlightenment.[9] This idea is also the basis of the famous Zen expression, “separate transmission outside the teachings (教外別伝, kyōge-betsuden).” Later Dōgen criticized this idea in Shōbōgenzō Bukkyō (仏教, Buddha’s Teaching) and Bukkyō (仏経, Buddha Sutras).

 Why should we employ Confucian discourse or Buddhist texts?

Because innate wondrous wisdom is already endowed within all people, and because it is beyond human conceptual, discriminative thinking, any language written in Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist texts cannot be the direct expression of the true reality. This is the fundamental logic behind the idea of the three teachings: that Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are identical (三教一, sankyō-icchi). In this view, the three teachings are an explanation from various perspectives of the ultimate reality which is beyond language and thinking, so that when we return to the ultimate reality, there is no difference among these three teachings. Later, Dōgen strongly criticized this idea in Shōbōgenzō Shohōjissō (諸法実相, The True Reality of All Beings) and Bukkyō (仏経, Buddha Sutras).

Rely on sitting at ease at your place, and hang your mouth on the wall.

The method of returning to the original source, the ultimate reality, is to stop thinking using words, concepts and logic, shut the mouth, and sit. “Hung your mouth on the wall” came from a kōan, Case 46 of Book of Serenity.

Great Master Yuanming of Deshan said to the assembly, “When you get to the ultimate end, you just find the buddhas of all times have their mouths ‘hung on the wall.’ There is still someone who laughs, ha! ha! If you know this one, your task of study is finished.”[10]

The famous Sōtō Zen master Hongzhi, who coined the expression “silent illumination” also used this expression several times. To me, this verse by Dōgen seems like a clear description of silent illumination Zen.

Friends arrive here and are released from emptiness.

Emptiness in this line is 空虚; 空 is empty, 虚 is void. “Being released from emptiness” sounds like the person was released from the wrongly taken poison of emptiness, that is, released from clinging to the view of emptiness. But here it means that, in silent sitting, we are released from discriminative thinking, which is nothing other than empty discussion using words, concepts and logic. Probably that is why Manzan’s version says that, “one thoughtless reality (等閑一実)” is superior to “thousands of hollow [discussion] (千虚).”

In 1226, when he wrote this verse, Dōgen was a twenty-six-year-old training monk in Rujing’s assembly. The intellectual lay practitioners for whom he wrote these poems were high class government officials who were Rujing’s students and also patrons of the monastery. I assume those lay practitioners liked Dōgen, who was a young foreign monk from Japan and yet a brilliant person who could write Chinese poems freely using the correct technique of rhyming corresponding to their poems offered to him. In Hōkyōki, Dōgen recorded his conversation with Rujing regarding Rujing’s poem on the windbell; in this conversation, Rujing recognized Dōgen’s understanding of Chinese poetry.

“What you say is profound and has the mark of greatness. I composed this poem while I was at Chingliang monastery. Although people praised it, no one has ever penetrated it as you do. I acknowledge that you have the Eye. You must compose poems in this way.”[11]

However, Dōgen was not in a position where he could argue about Zen Buddhist teachings with those government officials. I guess what he wrote in this poem might be the common understanding of Chinese Tsaodong (Sōtō) school’s silent illumination Zen, with the ideas of “special transmission outside teachings,” and “three teachings are identical.” I am not sure if this poem is the straightforward expression of his understanding at that time in 1226 or if he already had some questions about the theory. In Hōkyōki, we find that he questioned Rujing about these points. I feel that even though Dōgen’s shikantaza (just sitting) is similar to silent-illumination Zen, the theoretical basis is different. In any event, it took Dōgen some more time until he could clearly express his insight regarding these ideas.

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[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–18, p.614) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Dōgen’s Extensive Record p.610
[3] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[4] About eleven p.m.
[5] About two-thirty or three a.m.
[6] Okumura’s unpublished translation of Chōenji-bon Zuimonki 3–19.
[7] Wuwei (無為Jp. mui, without-action, effortless action) plus ziran (自然, Jp. shizen).
[8] See The Awakening of Faith (translated by Yoshito S. Hakeda. Columbia University Press, 1967) p.36–37.
[9] See How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Morten Schlutter, Kuroda Institute, 2008) p.119–21.
[10] Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogue (Thomas Cleary, The Lindisfarne Press, 1990), p.194.
[11] See Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom: Three Fascicles from Shōbōgenzō with Commentaries (Kōshō Uchiyama, Wisdom Publications, 2018) p.7.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

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For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Who could measure the ocean of merit?

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (37)

Continuing the Previous Rhyme from Mount Potalaka


The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
I strain my ears and see the face of Kanjizai.
Upholding this, who could measure the ocean of merit?
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.[1]

潮音霹靂海崖間 (潮音霹靂たり海崖の間、)
側耳辺看自在顔 (耳辺を側てて看る自在の顔、)
拈此誰量功徳海 (此れを拈じて誰か量らん功徳海、)
只教回眼見青山 (只だ眼を回らしめて青山を見るのみ)


This is verse 36 in Kuchūgen and verse 28 of volume 10 of Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record). In Manzan’s version, this is verse 45 and there are some differences in each line:

潮音霹靂斷崖下 (潮音霹靂たり斷崖の下、)
The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
湧現分明自在顔 (湧現分明なり自在の顔、)
The face of Kanjizai appears clearly.
至者誰量功徳海 (至る者誰か量らん功徳海、)
Among the visitors, who could measure the ocean of merit?
回望眼見青山 (只だ眼を回らして青山を見るのみ)
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.

Continuing the Previous Rhyme from Mount Potalaka

This is the second verse concerning Dōgen Zenji’s pilgrimage to the sacred place of Avalokiteśvara on Mount Potalaka. It is not clear if he visited the same place again and composed another verse continuing the first rhyme, or if he created the second verse thinking that somehow the first did not fully express what he wanted to say. In his teishō on this verse, Kōdō Sawaki Rōshi said that Dōgen Zenji might have visited the place twice.

The ocean waves crash like thunder below the cliff.
I strain my ears and see the face of Kanjizai.

Sawaki Rōshi visited China for four months in 1934 to make pilgrimage to the sacred places of Zen masters. The first place to which he paid a visit was Mount Potalaka. Sawaki Rōshi said that reading the first line of this verse, he could see that Dōgen Zenji had actually visited the place, because his description of the spot below the cliff was exactly the same as Rōshi saw seven hundred years later.

According to Sawaki Rōshi, the place was in the precinct of a temple named Fau-si (法雨寺, Hōu-ji, Dharma Rain Temple) established in 16th century. The temple was located near the ocean cliff. There was a shrine hall named Chaoyin-tang(潮音堂, Chōon-do, Rolling-tide Voice Hall) right on the cliff, where waves incessantly crashed against the rocky cliff and made a roaring sound in a cave.

The name of the temple, “Dharma Rain” and the shrine hall, “Rolling-tide Voice” are from the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, often called Kannon-kyō (観音経). Close to the end of the final verse of the sutra, it says:

悲體戒雷震 慈意妙大雲 澍甘露法雨 滅除煩惱焔
(悲體の戒は雷震のごとく 慈意の妙は大雲のごとく 甘露の法雨を澍ぎ 煩惱の焔を滅除す.)
Precepts from his compassionate body shake like thunder.
His compassion is like a great cloud
Pouring Dharma rain like nectar,
Quenching the flames of affliction![2]

“His compassionate body” is a translation of 悲體 (hi-tai, body of compassion). The character 悲is a translation of Sanskrit word karuṇā, one aspect of Buddha’s compassion, wishing others to be free from suffering. In this case, 體 could be interpreted as essence instead of body. Avalokiteśvara’s teaching as the precepts are powerful like thunder.

“His compassion” is a translation of 慈意 (ji-i, compassionate thought or intention). Ji (慈) is a translation of Sanskrit word maitrī, another aspect of Buddha’s compassion, wishing others to be happy. Avalokiteśvara’s compassionate mind is like a great cloud that covers the entire sky. From the great cloud of compassion, the dharma teachings fall down like rain drops to extinguish the flame of the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance) that make our life into the burning house of samsara.

The name of the shrine hall, Chaoyin (潮音, Chō-on) came from another part of the verse:

妙音觀世音 梵音海潮音 勝彼世間音 是故須常念
(妙音・觀世音 梵音・海潮音 勝彼世間音あり 是の故に須らく常に念ずべし。)
Wonderful voice, regarder of the cries of the world,
Brahma-voice, voice of the rolling tide,
World-surpassing voice –
He should always be kept in mind.

This verse is about sound (音, yin, on); this character is a part of Avalokiteśvara’s name 觀音 (Ch. Guanyin, Jp. Kannon). The sound (voice) of his compassionate teaching is wonderful or wonderous. It is the voice of the bodhisattva who sees the cries of the world. “Brahma-voice” is a translation of Sanskrit word, brahma-susvara, meaning clean, undefiled voice. The wonderous voice, powerful like the voice of the rolling tide, is revealing the ultimate truth beyond the worldly, karmic life of suffering.

I think that when Dōgen uses the expression 潮音 at the very beginning of this verse, he expects his readers know these expressions from the Kannon-kyō. Ocean waves, crashing against the rocky cliff, incessantly make roaring sounds.

In the second line, he uses the other translation of the name Avalokiteśvara, Kanjizai (観自在, Seeing Freely) which appears, for example, in the Heart Sūtra. Dōgen says he “strains his ears” to see the face of Avalokiteśvara, or Kanjizai. Straining his ears to see the Bodhisattva’s face sounds unusual, but “Kannon” literally means “seeing the sound.” Dōgen twists this expression and says that he sees Avalokiteśvara’s face with his ears.

These expressions, “hearing with eyes” and “seeing with ears” came from a poem by Dongshan (洞山, Tōzan). They appear at the end of a dialogue between Dongshan and his teacher Yunyan (雲巌, Ungan), regarding the expression “the expounding Dharma of Insentient beings (無情説法, mujō seppō).” The poem is as follows:

How wonderous! How wonderous!
The expounding of the Dharma by insentient beings is unthinkable.
If I tried to hear it with the ears, it would never be possible to understand.
Only when I hear the voice with my eyes am I able to know it.[3]

Upholding this, who could measure the ocean of merit?
Just turn your eyes and see the blue mountain.

In some suttas in the Pali Nikaya, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that when the six sense organs encounter the six objects of the sense organs, the six consciousnesses arise. Together, these are called the eighteen elements. When there are eighteen elements as cause, there is the dependent origination of contact→ sensation→ perception→ craving (taṇhā)→ clinging (upādāna). From perception, we have another stream of dependent origination, thinking→ mental proliferation (or conceptualization, papañca) → discrimination (vikalpa). These are the two aspects of things happening within our mind based on the separation and relation between subject (six sense organs) and object (emotion and conceptual thinking). These two sides of our karmic consciousness are also interdepending on each other. When we take actions based on conceptualized, distorted ways of thinking and self-centered emotions influenced by the three poisonous minds, we create wholesome or unwholesome karma and we transmigrate within the six realms of samsara.

When we clearly see the reality of impermanence, no-self (no-substance, anatman), and suffering of all the eighteen elements, we are released from the cycle of transmigration. For example, the Heart Sūtra says, “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajñā paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.” Later in the Sutra, it is said that all eighteen elements are empty.

In the case of Dōgen’s practice, our immovable sitting of letting go of thought is itself prajñā paramita. When we see things from dropping off body and mind, we see all myriad things are Buddhadharma. I think that is what Dōgen is saying in the 3rd and 4th lines of this verse. There is no way to measure the vastness of the ocean of merit, the network of interdependent origination. Whatever we see, for example the scenery of the blue mountains and the ocean, has no separation from Mt. Potalaka. Each and everything in the ocean and mountains are expounding the dharma of Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Avalokiteśvara is a symbol of this interdependence in which myriad things are supporting each other.

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[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record 10–28, p.616) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Translations by Gene Reeves from The Lotus Sūtra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic (Wisdom Publications, 2008) p.378–379.
[3]This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Dōgen discusses this kōan in Shōbōgenzō Mujō-seppō (The Dharma-expounding of Insentient beings).

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems

Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community