Dogen’s 2 ‘Zazen’ poems

Master Dogen wrote two virtually identical poems about zazen.

The earlier version [which is taken from Steven Heine’s translation] reads as follows:

The moon mirrored
By a mind free
Of all distractions, 
Even the waves breaking
Are reflecting its light.

The later version [again Heine’s translation] reads:

The moon reflected
In a mind clear
As still water
Even the waves breaking
Are reflecting its light.

In these translations, the two poems are remarkably similar. There’s two sections, and the second section, about the waves breaking, the last two lines of the poem, are identical in both.

The third line, which in Heine’s versions are different, are identical in the original Japanese, albeit with one important difference. The word ‘sumu’ in the earlier poem means ‘residing’, and goes with ‘uchi’, which means ‘within’ or ‘inside’, but in the later poem ‘sumu’ means ‘becoming clear’ so there is an association with ‘mizu’ [water].

As a translation choice, Heine renders the first lines of both poems very similarly, but in the earlier poem the Japanese gives a sense of being quietened, whereas in the later version the emphasis is more on clarity, in the sense ‘cloudedness disappears’, which matches up with the changed meaning of sumu.

Apart from that, what’s the difference?

I think the material difference is the second line and specifically the change in one word. The  second line in Japanese in the early version reads ‘kokoro no uchi ni’ and in the later version reads ‘kokoro no mizu ni’.There’s a change of one word: from free to clear.

Why did Dogen feel the necessity to change it? The purpose of the two poems is the same,  a description of zazen practice as wholehearted activity and not the cultivation of tranquillity understood as calmness, the absence of thought, the absence of emotions and so on. The two poems are identical in their description of meditation, not in terms of quietude or tranquillity but as fully engaged non-dualistic practice.

I think the reason for the change is that what the second version makes clear is that the essence of mind in zazen, the ‘water’ in the poem, isn’t to be still, it is to be clear. And if the mind is clear then it makes no difference if there’s a lot of activity [waves] or very little activity.

And if the essence of  the mind is to be clear, we can see in practical terms how the water metaphor might play out. In the first version, at least in Heine’s translation, the word distractions is mentioned explicitly and it’s not mentioned in the second. It’s not mentioned in the second because the distractions are mentioned implicitly, by their absence. Often distractions are thought of in terms of dust, that’s often a metaphor that’s used like ‘mind dust’. We can see that water which is clear, whether enlivened or whether tranquil, will reflect moonlight. We can also see that dirty water – water which isn’t clear, water covered over with  the mind dust of picking and choosing, liking and hating whatever’s arising within experience  isn’t going to reflect the moon. The essence of the mind is clearness.

The essence of mind in Zazen is to be spacious: not  excluding anything, not  restricting attention to objects of love and hate but holding everything in equanimity, like space. That’s how we should practise.