HyC Adventures
The Poetics of Perception
Dogen's Metaphors of Enlightenment





Metaphors of Enlightenment





Moon and Water





When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed.




Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass.




Realization does not destroy person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.




The depth is the same as the height. [To investigate the significance of] the length and brevity of time, we should consider whether the water is great or small, and understand the size of the moon in the sky.



This is from Dogen’s Genjokoan (現成公按), the first fascicle of his masterwork, Shobogenzo (正法眼藏), The True Dharma-Eye Treasury.


The Japanese text of the excerpt can be found in the Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (大正新修大藏經) Vol. 82, No. 2582, page 24a24-b04.





Dogen’s Waka

on Impermanence













To what shall I

Liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.



Pay particular attention to the pivotal word “shaken.” Many examples could be given of static images of the moon in a dewdrop or the moon reflected in still water but, by virtue of being shaken, the metaphor becomes dynamic. And not just one, but a constellation of dewdrops originate, each one shining with an image of the moon, dependent upon the shaking of the crane’s bill. Lasting only for a brief moment, only as long as they are airborne, the dewdrops enjoy expansive movement in the air before showering down in a cascade of shimmering light. Dogen’s little nocturne, with the crane and moonlight and a mist of dewdrops shaken into the air, overflows with meaning. Indeed, the word “dew” derives from the Indo-European root dheu-, meaning “to flow.”


Waka (和歌) is a form of poetry with 5 lines, 31 syllables, and a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, a pattern that can be seen in the Japanese pronunciation of the above poem:


Yo no naka wa

Nani ni tatoen

Mizudori no

Hashi furu tsuyu ni

Yadoru tsukikage.



This waka is from a collection of poetry by Dogen known as:



Sansho Doei


Verses on the Way

from Sansho Peak


Shohaku Okjumura, a Soto Zen priest, comments:


“Within this short poem, I think the essential point of Mahayana Buddhist teachings is vividly expressed.”



Translation of Japanese text by Steven Heine (in his book, The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace)


Eternal Peace (永平) was the name Dogen gave to the monastery he founded and oversaw for the last decade of his life. The mountain where the monastery was located was known by the same name.


The character for eternal () is pronounced ei in Japanese and this is also the pronunciation of the last character () in the title of Dogen’s poetry collection. If the two characters are placed side by side:




it can be clearly seen that forms the right-hand side of . is what is known as a “phonetic,” thus giving a clue to the pronunciation of .





Petals of Words







Will their gaze fall upon

The petals of words I utter,

Shaken loose and blown free

by the spring breeze

As if only the notes

Of a flower’s song?



Emphasis mine. With the first waka in mind, Dogen would have us stop and wonder once again about the word shaken. And about impermanence. The flowers from which his petals of words are shaken loose and blown free are, perhaps, the flowers of emptiness.



This is another waka by Dogen from Sansho Doei (傘松道詠).


Translation by Steven Heine who comments:


The personification “flower’s song” makes an association with “petals of words,” highlighting the twofold nature of language. From a conventional standpoint Dogen criticizes philosophical discourse and poetic symbolism as being no more than mere ornaments or artifice like shimmery blossoms in the spring breeze. Yet the deeper significance of the association between words and flowers indicates that language, as a manifestation of impermanence, is fully identical with the true realization of the Dharma. —The Zen Poetry of Dogen, p. 185





The Fan Metaphor



Dogen closes the Genjokoan fascicle of the Shobogenzo with a koan known as “There is No Place the Wind Does Not Circulate.” The koan, in its original Chinese, goes like this:



One day when master Baoche of Mount Magu was fanning himself, a monk asked, “The nature of wind abides everywhere, and there is no place it does not circulate. Master, for what reason, then, do you sit there fanning yourself?”



Baoche replied, “You only know the principle that the nature of air abides everywhere, but you do not know the meaning of the idea that there is no place it does not circulate.”



The monk asked, “What is the principle that there is no place it does not circulate?”



Baoche just sat there fanning himself. The monk prostrated himself before the master.



Baoche then said disparagingly, “If the manner of teaching of a Zen master is ineffective, even if I should offer a thousand explanations, it would not be useful instruction.”



Dogen then comments:



The genuine experience of Buddha Dharma and the vital path that has been correctly transmitted are like this.



To say we should not wave a fan because the nature of wind is ever present, and that we should feel the wind even when we don’t have a fan, is to know neither ever-presence nor the wind’s nature.



Since the wind’s nature is ever-present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.



The Chinese text of the koan can be found in the Xuzangjing (續藏經) Vol. 79, No. 1557, page 45c18-21.


The Japanese text of Dogen’s comments can be found in the Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (大正新修大藏經) Vol. 82, No. 2582, page 25a09-15.






Zen Koans
Four 12th-Century Zen Letters
Dogen's Metaphors of Enlightenment
Dogen Preaches on Nonduality
Dogen's Fukanzazengi: A Tale of Three Texts
Two Zen Cooks Show Dogen the Way
The Karma of Words: A Poem by Bai Juyi
The Zen Koan
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