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.


The Moon in Water

Just when my longing
to see the moon over Kyoto 
one last time grows deepest 
the moon I behold this autumn night 
leaves me sleepless for its beauty.

Dogen  wrote this poem towards the end of his life.  It’s contained within a marvelous book by Steven Heine “The Zen Poetry of Dogen.” The poetry is a great way to engage with the feeling-ness of Dogen.

When he wrote the poem he was mortally ill and required to leave Eiheiji in the mountains and go to Kyoto for medical treatment.

Kyoto at that time was the center of Japanese society and culture, and was the society into which Dogen had been born.

In the poem he catches himself picturing the moon over Kyoto and then realizes that that moon is the same moon that he’s looking at right now. 

Dogen often uses the phrase “the moon in water”. In this poem is the realization that the moon reflected in the water of his imagination is the same moon which is reflected in the water of his eye now.

That moon is always the same moon. Without it being reflected in water there is no moon:  there is no moon apart from its reflection in the heart of another.

 It doesn’t matter if the water is tranquil and peaceful, energetic or disturbed. It doesn’t matter if it has one moon or a thousand, or countless shards of light .

Or if one moon has a billion oceans. 


This world of samsara is a stormy ocean

This world of samsara is a stormy ocean
Sometimes we are drowning, clinging to the debris of the self
Sometimes we are ecstatic fish, thrown about like lumps of electricity
In the vast aliveness

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


Master Dogen’s poem ‘Special transmission outside the scriptures’ (adapted)

Master Dogen’s poem ‘Special transmission outside the scriptures’ (adapted)

The Dharma, like an oyster,
Thrown, onto the cliff peak
Waves crashing against the wall of bone
Like words
May reach but cannot wash it away

In the common usage, Zen is:

A special transmission outside the sutras
No reliance on words or letters.

When we are sitting, sometimes we are like a cliff. And in that way, sometimes we experience vast space, sometimes tranquillity. Sometimes storms, sometimes faraway birds. Sometimes, as if the weight of the whole ocean pushes against

this faith cliff, this practice cliff.


Master Dogen’s poem ‘Zazen Practice’

Master Dogen’s poem ‘Zazen Practice’:

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

We have a primitive idea what a symbol is. Usually, we think it’s like a code. So, in this case, ‘Moon’ will mean ‘Enlightenment’, or ‘Buddha Mind’, something like that. But a symbol is like a real person: it has infinite expression.

In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Dogen said that “the bodhisattva of compassion, practicing zazen with the whole body, sees the five skandas are empty, and relieves all suffering”

So, we can see that one face of the symbol of the moon is Avalokitesvara, whose ‘whole body’ is the whole Universe, whose hands are the moonlight, whose eyes are the space above and the ground below, both holding the mind waves, enabling each wave to break, not through stillness but

through light

Zazen Practice:

at peace
within the heart
the clear moon
even the smashing waves
reflecting light

(trans. Shogen)

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Artwork by Blair Thomson


189. Moon in a dewdrop

This life is described as being like a dewdrop in The Diamond Sutra, and Dogen elaborates on this image in his poem:

To what should I compare this life?
Dewdrops, thrown from a crane’s bill.


We imagine dewdrops, thrown into empty space, reflecting the moon, still, in the same vast space.

But what we need to understand is that if there were no dewdrops, there would be no moon. The sky really would be empty. There is no Buddha waiting in Tusita heaven, or anywhere else. There is no preexisting moon, no preexisting world. Both are born together with this dewdrop person. Both exist in this dewdrop eye. When the dewdrop falls, the world falls.

The image of each dewdrop reflecting the moon, reflecting everything, is reminiscent of Indra’s Net, but with two differences. Indra’s net is still, but the dewdrop is thrown; it’s dynamic and temporal. And Indra’s net is in a galaxy unknown to us, but Dogen’s dewdrop is this person in this world, re-created.


181. The sixth ancestor

All the Zen lineages trace their ancestry back to the sixth ancestor Huineng, who, so the story goes, obtained a secret transmission from the fifth anscestor Hongren. In the story, Hongren asks his monks to write a poem about zazen. His chief disciple, Shenxiu, was the only one who responded. Huineng criticised the poem. In response, Hongren recognised Huineng as his true successor, and gave him transmission.

This is the poem, as often translated into English:

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind the bright mirror
At all times we should polish it
And not let dust collect

However, the original Chinese reads something like:

Body is bodhi tree
Mind like clear mirror stand
At all times diligently polish
Do not let dust settle

When we first hear the poem in its normal translation, we imagine that Shenxiu is talking about your body and your mind, and that your mind is like a bright mirror which needs to be kept clear of the dust of thoughts by the effort of Zazen. That ties in with an individualistic, mindful, psychological sense of what zazen is.

Except, the poem doesn’t actually say that.

Let’s consider the actual text.

The body is the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment. So it is associated with that, obviously. But also, it is an unusual tree because it’s hollow. So it’s also a symbol of interdependence.

Is this the personal body, or not? Or both? Or neither?

When we hear that the mind is like a mirror, we form an image of a mirror, on a stand, in a room, that we polish through our effort, and so keep bright. But where in this image is the bodhi tree? Is it in the room, with the mirror, or not? And shouldn’t the (personal) body be the stand of the mirror? And what is the stand anyway, and how does it relate to the mirror/mind?

The original text doesn’t make clear who or what is being polished. The translations do, and it seems clear why. What would we be polishing, if not a mirror? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

But obviousness is the co-conspirator of deception.

If we rephrase it as something like “with vigorous effort, the dust does not settle anywhere”, we may start to get somewhere.

If dust appears in vast space, moved here and there by the vigorous life of the air, both illuminated by light, there’s no problem. The problem arises when the dust settles. Not because it becomes anything different, but because space is eradicated. There’s just dust, and the dust becomes fixed. And what it comes to rest on becomes fixed too, as ‘me’, ‘objective world’, ‘mirror’, and so on.


This very mind itself is buddha

Is it a mandarin duck
Or a seagull bobbing?
I can hardly tell:
White plumes rising and falling
Between the standing waves

This poem by Dogen is entitled ‘This very mind itself is Buddha’

When buddhists say that mind is Buddha, or world is mind, or suchlike, they don’t mean that the world is inside your head. They mean that there is no ‘inside’. Everything is this one piece of exertion/expression.

We are not caught by our imaginings, floating in front of us like gossamer, but by ‘reality’. The world is not a corpse, waiting to be identified truly or falsely. It is the illuminating cascade of momentary expression/exertion. In this moment, the duck. In this moment, the seagull. In this moment, the drumming of the rain. In this moment, the flooding of the heavens.

If you wish to lift up the head of the world, lift this head.



Mujo (Impermanence)

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops
Shaken from a crane’s bill

Although at first glance Dogen is expressing familiar themes within Japanese poetry of the poignancy of transient beauty, the sadness inherent in the awareness that all things are impermanent, his real intention in the poem is to show the wholeness of everything. There is no Nirvana, no Being (Moonlight) except within Samsara, within beings. The Moon is reflected in the clouds, in the rain, in the dewdrops, in the river, in the ocean, in the eye, in the mind, in the heart. And apart from this reflection, there is no moon.

Cranes were said to live for a thousand years, and the poem can also be seen as a poetic response to Case 3 of The Blue Cliff a Record. In that case, Baso is unwell ( in fact, he is dying). The Temple Superintendent asked him how he was and he replied ” Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha”

The reference is to the Sutra of the Buddhas Names. According to the sutra, the lifespan of the Sun Face Buddha is 1,800 years, while the lifespan of the Moon Face Buddha is just a day.

Baso was alluding to the double aspect of beings. We occupy a particular momentary dharma position, and at the same time each being is all being, eternal. Momentary and eternal. Dogen radicalises the momentariness, and so emphasises the unity of all being. Although the dewdrops are transient, the water of life does not go.


Dogen’s Poem ‘Kyoto’

Is surely still ablaze with autumn.
In this deep mountain
It hailed this morning
It hails this evening

In this poem, Dogen contrasts the secular life – Kyoto- with the life of Zazen.

The image of the white hail falling on the white mountain, gives a sense of monotony, of sameness, of time passing slowly. We would rather be somewhere else, but we choose to be here.

Very often, it is the same familiar state that we keep returning to during Zazen, and it’s usually disagreeable: boredom, anxiety, disappointment, pain. Hail.

The ego is the membrane between the noise and this familiar state. But it is within this state, which we always wish vainly away, this darkness, that what we are seeking is concealed, concealed in plain sight.