399. The Withered Winter Grasses

Dogen’s poem “Prostrations” can be translated in various ways. One is as follows: 

The withered grasses
beneath a field of snow
A white heron conceals itself 
using its own form.


For Dogen, prostrations are the same as zazen. 

There are two versions of the poem. The difference is that one reads ‘ the withered/bowed grasses’, and the other reads ‘the winter grasses’. I prefer the first, because, given the snow, it is plainly winter, so the word ‘winter’ is superfluous.

The first two lines of the poem suggest to us that, just like the grass in winter, as it were, bows over, when we bow, something happens. The ‘snow’ happens.

The winter snow falls on the grass without the grass intending it, without the grass making it come about. Nonetheless, the snow falls and covers all the little grasses.  As it were, the snow makes the grasses a field of being, intimate with each other, intimate with the snow. 

Likewise, as practitioners, when we engage in this practice of prostrations, we’re not doing so alone. We are not an isolated blade of grass, but rather we are going forward with all beings. It is not a weight but a solidarity that causes us to drop to the ground.

The snow functions as an emblem of non-duality, wholeness, and intimacy.

The second part of the poem ( which tends to get more attention) centres on the white Heron, which is often used in Chinese poetry to indicate something noble, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful.

The two images of the snow and the Heron combine two separate images from The Jewel Mirror Samadhi, which was attributed to Dongshan although almost certainly not written by him. 

So in the second part of the poem we’ve got this image of what appears to be a still white field of snow ( non differentiation, peaceful equanimity, zazen) but within an apparent stillness, this very active Heron is concealing  itself. 

What that conveys for us is within our zazen, within our practice of non-duality, there is something vital and wondrous which is not our personal property, although we are intimate with it. It’s nothing to do with our ego. Yet is about to burst out of our heart, actualising space