Dogen’s Zazen poem

Dogen wrote many poems directly or indirectly about Zazen, but there’s one in particular which is of considerable interest, because it’s almost an identical  poem to one written very shortly before.

In Steven Heine’s wonderful book, “The Zen Poetry of Dogen”  the earlier poem, which he’s entitled “Zazen Practice” goes as follows:

“The moon mirrored

by a mind free of all distractions 

even the waves, breaking

are reflecting its light.”

The slightly rewritten version is entitled ‘Zazen’


“The moon reflected

in a mind clear as still water 

even the waves, breaking

are reflecting its light.”

Both poems have a similar two-part structure. The second part, “even the waves breaking are reflecting its light,” is identical and the first part is almost identical.

The second part is something we’re familiar with in Dogen’s writings. He’s radicalising the traditional metaphor that ‘successful’ meditation is “like the moon being reflected in still water.”

In other words,  we’re undisturbed, we see reality as it is. He radicalises that by saying that the moon’s light is always there. So whether the moon is fragmented into a million pieces on the breaking waves or is in one piece when, for instance, it’s reflected on a still pond, it’s the same moon. 

By clear implication the purpose of meditation, as it were, is not quietude or tranquillity, but non-duality.  And that is seen in a way that’s not quietistic, but dynamic, inclusive, whole and expressive.

That’s a very important point in Dogen.  But why the slight change? 

I think that the first version of it retains a shred of dualism between ‘moon’ and ‘mind’. 

And, the use of ‘distractions’ comes with the possible implication that we should be free of them. Not distractions in the sense of splitting: the ego interjecting itself into the totality in a dualistic way, but distractions seen as mental activity full stop. Obviously the removal of the word takes away that erroneous implication.

The moon is always reflected, because – thanks to interdependence – everything is relationship. Everything is expression. Everything is experience. There’s not an original moon and then the moon’s reflection is added on later. The moon is always reflected: in the still pond of our eyes, in the tranquil water, in the waves, in our mind, and so on. 

And apart from that, the moon doesn’t exist. Because nothing does.