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Kusen

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

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Kusen

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.

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Kusen

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

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Kusen

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.

Dogen

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.

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Kusen

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.

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Kusen

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.

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Kusen

Mujo

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.

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Kusen

Dogen’s Poem ‘Kyoto’

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

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.

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Kusen

Dogen’s Poem ‘Everyday Life’ [adapted]

Poetry Dogen’s ‘Everyday Life’ [adapted]

On Unseen Mountain
A scarecrow is
Not in vain

Commentary:

The scarecrow standing over a small rice paddy would often be dressed in black, like a monk. He protects that which feeds all beings. So, Dogen is talking about the practitioner and the dharma, and the relationship between them.

Because the scarecrow is fully expressing himself, the rice, the birds, the mountain and all things can fully express themselves. Likewise the bird. Likewise the mountain.

Because the mountain is unseen, the eyes of duality are closed. Because this is so, all being leaps out of a picture and is whole, not fractured.

The scarecrow does not eat yet all things are fed

Since, unlike a Hungry Ghost, the scarecrow is not

smeared across time

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Kusen

Wanshi’s Zazenshin

At the end of the Zazenshin fascicle, master Dogen quotes a poem by Master Wanshi. Wanshi’s emphasis is on the illuminating power of zazen, its capacity for serene reflection. Dogen then re-writes the poem, but changes the emphasis from reflection to exertion. Each of us must offer up their own version, and this is mine:

Pivotal essence of every buddha

Diamond point of every patriarch

Beyond thinking : making real

Beyond piecing together : vividness

Beyond thinking : making real

We are naturally intimate with it

Beyond figuring out, vividness

Your True Self

This making real is intimate with us

There has been no distortion

This vividness is naturally you

Nothing to do with getting or losing

Here there is no distraction

Discarding nothing yet free

Not a matter of right or wrong

Aiming for nothing yet fully exerting

The water is clear, right to the bottom

Fishes swim like fish

The sky is vast, clear to the heavens

Birds are flying like birds