Amongst his voluminous writings, the Fukanzazengi, Dōgen’s Universal Recommendation of Zazen, is probably his most important.
Yet, it’s an anomaly because, while Dōgen is celebrated for his originality, his Fukanzazengi is, in large part, a copy of an earlier text by Chinese Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse; ‘A written manual on Zen meditation’. Chang-lu wrote this about 130 or so years before Dōgen.
(It’s not unique for Dōgen’s to respond to the writings of another. He rewrote the Zazenshin poem of Hongzhi to emphasize dynamism over tranquility. There’s also some parallels between his death poem and Hongzhi’s death poem).
What Dōgen does in the Fukanzazengi is to take the original text, miss out the starting paragraph and put in four introductory paragraphs of his own. And at the end he also adds a number of paragraphs. But the central part of the text strongly resembles Chang-lu’s text.
There’s some instructions which Dogen misses out. For instance, Chang-lu admonishes: “do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced and unsettled”. He also tells the practitioner to press their tongue against their hard palate.
Neither of those passages appear in Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi.
The most striking difference however is right in the middle of Chang-lu’s text, where there is the following passage:
“Therefore it is said: to seek a pearl we should still the waves.
If we disturb the water it will be hard to get.
When the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear”.Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse;
That passage doesn’t appear in Dōgen’s text.
Chang-lu is using a familiar Buddhist metaphor within which the water represents the mind. The wind is the wind of delusion which makes the water choppy. When the water is choppy it cannot accurately reflect anything. It’s like the personal karmic mind, lost in confusion. The true nature of the mind is obscured. However when the water is calm, the true mind can show itself. It can clearly and tranquilly reflect the moon, like a mirror.
With Chang-lu we also get the further subsidiary metaphor of the pearl. When the water is still, when the mind is quiet, the depth of the water/mind is apparent, revealing at the greatest depth the pearl of the mind, which we might take as a reference to Buddha nature.
In his poetry, translated into English by Steven Heine, Dōgen radicalizes this image. For him the wind and the waves are not negative. The aim of practice is not to eradicate the wind and hence calm the water.
For example, in one of his poems ( entitled, significantly, ‘Shobogenzo’) he uses the image of a small boat drifting amidst the waves.
In the heart of the night
The moonlight framing
A small boat drifting,
Tossed not by the waves
Nor swayed by the breezeMaster Dogen’s poem, “Shobogenzo”
The small boat is presumably the individual practitioner. The boat is undisturbed by the wind and the waves because the boat is empty of a person.
The wind and the waves, instead of being equated with delusion, are now equated with a dynamic vision of interdependence.
We can see his transformation of this metaphor most clearly in another of his poems, ‘A special transmission outside the teaching’:
The dharma, like an oyster
washed atop a high cliff
even waves crashing against
the reefy coast, like words,
may reach but cannot wash it away.Master Dogen’s poem, “A special transmission outside the teaching”
We can see here that Dōgen further radicalizes Chang-lu’s image, bringing to the surface very interesting questions regarding the relationship between language and practice—and many other things.
He takes us from a rather clichéd image of tranquility, a metaphor in grave risk of petrification, to a point where the radicalised image breaks free of specific symbolic interpretation, and is restored to its creative expressive potential.
And that makes it possible for us to make new responses. For example, when I read this poem it seemed to me that the cliff was the practitioner in Zazen. A cliff is, as it were, part of the universal body of all beings but it lacks a head. Or rather, it’s part of this body because it lacks a (personal) head. Except in this case, it does have a head—the oyster. We don’t practice from the perspective of the self. We, as it were, lose our head. But we don’t become mindless.
That was simply my perspective at that moment. It might not be yours. And may not remain mine. The point is that once the image is radicalized, then an infinity of perspectives become possible; feeding back into the dynamism, creativity and limitless expression of the revitalized metaphor.
My response to this poem:
In Zazen we are a high cliff
white as bone.
The ocean’s push
is a baby’s hand.
The dharma is written everywhere
like white ink on white paper.