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.


Dogen’s Poem ‘Everyday Life’ [adapted]

Poetry Dogen’s ‘Everyday Life’ [adapted]

On Unseen Mountain
A scarecrow is
Not in vain


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


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




The whole grass world cannot be seen
In the snowy field
A white heron is hiding himself
Using his own form

Dogen reverses the usual metaphor for non differentiation, darkness, by using whiteness, snow, instead [very richly, I think], and shows how zazen is an activity [hiding] from moment to moment, not a state. And also, what is hidden and what is apparent is reversed. Activity and Differentiation are hidden, but not erased, and Wholeness [which is usually hidden, but always there] is visible, and by illuminating what is usually hidden, we can see that these are both part of the same ‘thing’, even though we can only ever express half [as the Genjokoan says ‘one half is illuminated, the other is dark’].

The poem is my free translation which differs from the poem in Steven Heine’s book of Dogen’s poetry, ‘The Zen Poetry of Dogen’, in which he titles it ‘worship’, but the word literally means ‘prostrations’ which I think is more acute. Master Shohaku Okumura (Sanshin Zen Community, Indiana) gave a translation of this poem at Sanshinji Temple, and for him, the most important part of the poem is ‘using his own form’, and so he reversed the order of the poem, putting the winter grasses at the start of the poem, rather than the end. I have re -rendered “winter grasses” as “the whole grass world”, because I wanted to emphasise the wholeness within which differentiation [grasses] occurs, and thus, the non duality of differentiation and One-ness. I also wanted to re-work the first line to infer that the Wholeness of which we are part cannot be ‘seen’, because we are part of it [although it can be experienced], and also [making the same point] to allow the first line to be read by itself, as well as in conjunction with the second line..