Tag Archives: teisho

The Dharma of Impermanence

Transience Can Spawn Bodhi-Mind

Impermanence

© Can Stock Photo / lilkar

心なき Kokoro naki Even insentient beings
草木も今日は kusaki mo kyo wa such as grasses and trees
しぼむなり shibomu nari wither today.
目に見たる人 meni mitaru hito Seeing them in front of their eyes,
愁へざらめや ure-e zarameya how can people be without grieving?

In his teisho on this waka, Kōdō Sawaki Roshi emphasized the quality of our eyes, whether they are open to see impermanence and whether we can feel grief about the plants’ and our own lives. He compared himself with Dōgen Zenji who deeply realized impermanence by experiencing his mother’s death when he was seven years old.

Seeing the incense smoke at his mother’s funeral, Dōgen aspired to become a Buddhist monk. Sawaki Roshi’s mother died when he was five years old and his father died when he was seven; he was adopted by his aunt, but soon her husband died from a stroke in front of Sawaki Roshi’s eyes in the same year. Then he was adopted by Bunkichi Sawaki.

Though he had such painful experiences, Sawaki Roshi said that he did not really see impermanence; rather, he only worried about who would feed and raise him.

His adopted father Bunkichi was a gambler living in a red-light district. When Sawaki Roshi was eight years old, a middle-aged man died of a stroke in a prostitute’s room nearby. Sawaki Roshi saw the dead man in bed with his wife beside him, crying, “Why did you die in a place like this, of all places?”

Sawaki Roshi was stunned by this miserable scene, and this time impermanence and the impossibility of keeping secrets were inscribed deep in his mind.1 After all, Sawaki Roshi said, “Dōgen Zenji was sharp witted so that he could deeply see impermanence and aroused bodhi-mind by simply seeing the smoke of incense, or withering trees and grasses, but a dull-witted person like me could not feel the same thing until I had much more intense experiences.”

Even though Sawaki Roshi said he was dull-witted compared with Dōgen Zenji, I think he was the only person who had the eyes to see the spiritual meaning of impermanence among the many people who witnessed what happened at the brothel.

All plants — either grasses or trees — know when they sprout, grow, bloom flowers, bear fruits, and wither. Each plant has its own time and season.

If we are mindful, we can see that all things in nature are expressing the Dharma of impermanence. Particularly when we see plants withering, we cannot help but see the transience of our own lives if our eyes are open. We all see that our lives are not at all different from the lives of plants.

Seeing impermanence and feeling grief is a good chance to arouse bodhi-mind. This way of seeing impermanence is essentially different from the common sense of the fragility of life expressed by many Japanese poets. Seeing impermanence and feeling grief is not necessarily negative in Buddhism, especially in Dōgen’s teachings.

Dōgen Zenji says in Shōbōgenzō Hotsu bodaishin (Arousing Bodhicitta):

In general, arousing [bodhi-]mind and attaining the Way both depend on the instantaneous arising and perishing [of all things]. … In this way, whether we wish in our minds or not, being pulled by our past karma, the transmigration within the cycle of life and death continues without stopping for a single ksana *. With the body-mind that is transmigrating in this manner through the cycle of life and death, we should without fail arouse the bodhi-mind of ferrying others before ourselves. Even if, on the way of arousing the bodhi-mind, we hold our body-mind dear, it is born, grows old, becomes sick, and dies; after all, it cannot be our own personal possession. … Our lives arise and perish within each ksana. Their swiftness is like this. Moment after moment, practitioners should not forget this principle. While being within this swiftness of arising and perishing of transmigration in each ksana, if we arouse one single thought of ferrying others before ourselves, the eternal longevity [of the Tathagata] immediately manifests itself.2

Seeing impermanence is not a negative thing in Buddhism even though we feel sad. It is a good chance to arouse bodhi-mind and aspire to practice what the Buddha taught. As Shakyamuni Buddha said in the Sutra on the Buddha’s Bequeathed Teaching, within the practice, the Buddha’s indestructible Dharma Body is actualized.

In the beginning of Shōbōgenzō Genjōkōan Dōgen said, “Therefore, flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.” Then at the end of the same fascicle he wrote, “Since the wind’s nature is ever-present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.”3

By seeing the reality beyond our self-centered desire or expectation, we see our lives are connected with all beings. This waka might have a connection with the case 27 of the Blue Cliff Record “Yunmen’s The Body Exposed, The Golden Wind”:

A monk asked Yunmen, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yunmen said, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”
. 4

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

1 See The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō (Kōshō Uchiyama, Wisdom Publicatins) p.235.
2 Okumura’s unpublished translation.
3 Okumura’s translation in Realizing Genjōkōan (Wisdom Publications, 2010), p.1, p.5
4 The Blue Cliff Record (Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, 1977) p.176.

* An instant; an infinitesimal unit of time.

> Other Waka by Dōgen


Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

The Tail of the Elephant

Dogen’s Waka 47

Tail of the elephant

(c) Can Stock Photo / frenta; (c) Can Stock Photo / MattiaATH

世の中は Yo no naka wa [People in] this world are like
まどより出づる Mado yori izuru the elephant going out the window.
きさの尾の Kisa no o no Only its tail remains
ひかぬにとまる Hikanu ni tomaru without being pulled [from inside].
さはり斗りぞ Sawari bakari zo [Such a tiny thing becomes] the obstacle
[to renouncing the mundane world].

“An elephant going out a window” is an unusual image.

Menzan changed kisa 象, elephant, to ushi 牛, water buffalo and added the title “A Water Buffalo Passes Through a Window” to this waka, as if Dogen Zenji wrote this poem as a comment on the 38th case of the Mumonkan (Gateless Barrier). The Mumonkan was compiled in 1228, the year before Dogen left China to return to Japan.

Shinchi Kakushin (1207 – 1298) is a Rinzai Zen master who received the Bodhisattva Precepts from Dogen and later went to China — received inka from Wumen Huikai (Mumon Ekai, 1183 – 1260), the compiler of the Mumonkan — and returned to Japan in 1254.

Dogen had passed away in the previous year and probably did not have a chance to read the Mumonkan. According to it, this koan was the saying of Song Dynasty Rinzai Zen master Wuzu Fayuan (Goso Hoen, ? – 1104), and therefore Dogen might have known it. And yet, Dogen never mentions it in his writings nor includes it in the collection of 300 koans in the Shinji Shobogenzo.

In most of the older versions of the collection of Dogen’s waka before Menzan, the animal mentioned in this waka is kisa (elephant) and not ushi (water buffalo). Menzan also changed sawari (obstacle) to kokoro (the mind).

I suppose that these changes were Menzan’s mistakes. The meaning of this poem as a whole became completely different from Dogen’s original.

The eminent modern Rinzai Zen Master Zenkei Shibayama Roshi said in his comments on the case, “This tail is nothing else than the formless form of Reality.”1 Shibayama Roshi also quotes this waka by Dogen Zenji. The translation of this waka in his teisho is as follows:

This world is but the tail of a buffalo passing through a window.
The tail is the mind,
Which knows neither passing nor not-passing.

The last line is Shibayama Roshi’s addition to make the meaning of ‘the mind’ clear. This translation is based on Menzan’s version. It seems to me that Menzan revised Dogen Zenji’s waka in the way that made it compatible with the interpretation of case 38 of the Mumonkan in Rinzai tradition. Traditional commentaries in the Soto Zen tradition have also been based on Menzan’s revised version of this waka. Until the second half of the 20th century, Dogen Zenji had been understood based on the interpretations by Tokugawa period Soto Zen masters.

The story of an elephant going out of a window appears in a sutra entitled The Story of Anathapindada’s Daughter Receiving Ordination (Taishō Tripiṭaka: T0130_.02.0845c09).

Anathapindada was a millionaire who donated the land of Jetavana Vihara to Shakyamuni. In the story, when Kasyapa Buddha, the sixth of the seven buddhas in the past, was alive, there was a king. The king had ten unusual dreams and asked Kasyapa Buddha what the dreams meant. In the king’s first dream, an elephant tried to get out of a room through a window; although rest of its body got out, only its tail remained without being pulled through. Kasyapa Buddha said that this dream was about a situation in the future after Shakyamuni Buddha had passed away. There will be some people, either men or women, who will have left home to become monks, but even though they have done this their minds will still be influenced by greedy attachments to fame and profit regarding mundane things and they will not be able to attain deliverance.

In this waka, Dogen wants to say that there are many people in his time who have left home to become Buddhist monks, but many of them still have some attachment to fame and profit and therefore they are not able to be released from the triple-world of samsara.

In Shobogenzo Keiseisanshoku (Sounds of Valley Streams and Colors of Mountains) Dogen says:

Moreover, we should not forget the aspiration we aroused when we first sought the Buddha Way. What I want to say is that when we first aroused bodhi-mind, we didn’t seek the Dharma for the sake of others and we abandoned fame and profit. Without seeking fame and profit, we simply aspired to attain the Way. We never expected to be venerated and receive offerings from the king and ministers. However, such causes and conditions for [the desire for fame and profit] are present now. [Fame and profit] are not what we expected originally or what we sought after. We did not expect [to be] involved in entanglements with human and heavenly affairs. And yet foolish people, even if they have aroused bodhi-mind, soon forget their original aspiration and mistakenly expect offerings from human and heavenly beings. And when they receive them, they are delighted, thinking that the virtue of the Buddha-dharma has been realized. When kings and ministers come frequently to take refuge, [such people] think this is the manifestation of their Way. This is one of the demons afflicting the practice of the Way. Even though we should not forget the compassionate mind [toward such people], we should not be delighted [when such people venerate us]. 1

In this waka, Dogen uses the story of the elephant’s tail from the Agama to criticize many of the Japanese Buddhist monks of his time. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki he said the same thing as in Keiseisanshoku, for example in section 6-21 of the Choenji version (5-20 of Menzan’s version):

Nowadays, some people seem to have renounced the world and left their families. Nevertheless, when examining their conduct, there are those who are not yet true home-leavers. As a home-leaver, first of all, we must depart from our [ego-centered] self as well as from [desire for] fame and profit. Unless we become free from these, even if we urgently practice the Way as if extinguishing a fire enveloping our head, or devote ourselves to diligent practice as hard as [people who] cut off their hands or legs, it will only be a meaningless trouble that has nothing to do with renunciation. 2

This is not a problem only about Indian monks after Shakyamuni’s death and Japanese monks at the time of Dogen. In the United States today, Buddhist institutes are not as large as in India or medieval Japan, so I don’t think people become Buddhists monks/priests for the sake of fame and profit. Still, we may make the same kind of mistakes on much smaller scale in our practice.

When we compete with other people and want to consider we are better than others, or we want other people to consider us as superior practitioners to them, or if we study Buddhist teachings to show others that we have better knowledge, our motivation is not genuine bodhi-mind. We are moved by our ego-centered desire to be winners in the competition. This is the way we ourselves create samsara within our own Buddhist practice. That is the tiny tail of the elephant that binds us to samsara.

— • —

1 This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1 (Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross) p.92
2 This is Okumura’s unpublished translation of the Choenji version. Another translation is in Shobogenzo-zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejo (Shohaku Okumura, Sotoshu Shumucho) p.191

> Other Waka by Dōgen


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