Japanese Spiritual Poetry – Dogen

(Eihei Dogen lived from 1200 to 1253. He is one of the great figures in the spiritual history of Japan, and generally regarded as the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, with its focus on meditation.)

By Dogen’s time, the Japanese love of poetry had penetrated far beyond the courtly and educated circles, and the art was appreciated by people in all walks of life, coupled with their love of nature. Daisetz Suzuki, in his essay ‘Zen Buddhism and the Japanese love of nature’, dwells on an anecdote about the Monk Saigyo (1118-1190), one of the revered early poets of Japan, a devout Buddhist who lived, for the most part, a wandering life.

One evening when Saigyo needed shelter, he came across a small dilapidated cottage occupied by an elderly couple. He asked to stay the night. The husband refused on the grounds that there was a gaping hole in the roof, and such imperfect hospitality was unworthy of their guest. The wife felt that Saigyo, being a man of religion, should be accommodated.

Saigyo said: ‘Why don’t you mend the hole?’ The husband replied: ‘It’s not as easy as that. It is now autumn, and my wife loves the radiance caused by the moonlight pouring in through the roof. On the other hand, I would like to have the cottage properly covered because I love the sound of the light autumn rain pitter-pattering on the thatch.’

Saigyo accepted this unconventional attitude to home repair. Then he heard the old man say: ‘Our humble hut—is it to be thatched or not to be thatched?’ Saigyo said: ‘A fine poem in the making!’ ‘Complete it,’ urged the wife, ‘and you can stay the night whatever our situation!’

This is the story behind Saigyo’s poem:

Is the moonlight to leak,
Are the showers to patter?
Our thoughts are divided.
Our humble hut—
Is it to be thatched or not to be thatched?

This illustrates the love of nature without the desire to conquer it; to appreciate its beauty and variety, and to tolerate what some would see as its more inconvenient manifestations, such as rain, cold weather or excessive heat. And this acceptance of nature as it is, was taught by Basho, the seventeenth-century master of haiku, who felt it was the true spirit of all art. He wrote:

Saigyo in traditional poetry….and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature throughout the four seasons of the year. Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than a flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon. The first duty of the artist is, therefore, to learn how to overcome such barbarism and animality, to follow nature, to be one with nature.

Eihei Dogen shared this simple refinement, and has left several poems, both in Chinese and Japanese, that give expression to it. Though the Soto branch of Zen emerged out of Dogen’s teaching, it has to be said that he was not interested in founding any sect in his lifetime, and this attribution came after his death.

Buddhism has much in common with Adhyatma Yoga. Both teach that our purpose in life is spiritual illumination. Both hold that this enlightenment is to be uncovered in our own being. The supreme realisation, in both Buddhism and Yoga, is facilitated by the stilling of the mind and a life of benevolence and harmlessness. Both teach that enlightenment involves transcendence of the individual ego—the self.

For Buddha what remains after this transcendence is infinite, nameless, metaphysically self-less—without a self. For Yoga what remains when our little self is transcended is the true Self—also infinite and nameless. The yogis think it helpful to keep this word ‘self’, but in a higher sense. The Buddhists do not think it helpful to use the word ‘self’ because of its personal associations. But the great reality realised by the enlightened ones of both schools is one and the same, and the identification of ultimate reality with our original ‘self’ is signified in many of the Zen writings.

Dogen’s parents were associated with the Japanese court and government in Kyoto, but both died when he was a child. From early on he became attracted to the Buddhist ideal of spiritual illumination. He called this ‘the thought of enlightenment’. For him this idea was not just a promise of liberation from all sorrow and suffering. It is also meant a clear recognition of the fact that our stay in this world is brief and uncertain, and that our only unfailing support is to be found by uncovering the buddha nature or buddha-dharma in the pure and silent depths of our own being. The recognition of the impermanence and ultimate hollowness of worldly life and its rewards, has its supreme compensation in our potentiality for spiritual awakening, liberation and fulfilment. Dogen writes: ‘The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.’

As a young man, Dogen found himself obsessed by a key philosophical and spiritual problem: If Buddhism teaches that we all are essentially the Buddha nature—perfect, enlightened, fulfilled—why are we instructed to seek illumination as if we do not already have it, and to engage in practices that will help to bring it about?

Nourishing this unworldly frame of mind, Dogen became a monk in his early teens, joining the great and studious monastic community on Mount Hiei. He pursued his vocation earnestly but still could get no satisfactory answer to his question. The question again, in his own words, was: ‘If both the outer and inner teachings explain that a person in essence has the Dharma nature and is originally a body of buddha nature, if so why do all the Buddhas of past, present and future arouse the wish for, and seek, enlightenment?’

He was eventually advised to go to China to seek the solution. China at this time was enjoying a golden age of culture and spirituality associated with the Dynasty of Sung or Song. There was a flowering of the inner teachings of the Buddha practised in many monasteries, and the development of that fresh expression of the spiritual wisdom that we identify as Zen.

As always, there were different schools, each advocating methods that would enable us to transcend the thinking process and realise the immediacy and infinity of experience beyond thought. The supreme skill to be understood and applied was this transcendence of the mind. But how?

One approach was to prescribe riddle-like questions which, from an intellectual point of view, were unanswerable, but which would engage and vex the mind of the aspirant to such an extent that eventually the normal thinking processes would subside and give way to a higher and wordless intuition or realisation. Dogen refers to many of these challenges in his writings. Here is just the beginning of one:

The master was fanning himself. The disciple said: The nature of the wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’

The interchange goes on, and the aim is not to give a reasonable answer but, through pondering, to gain an intuition of the state of consciousness in which the great question, or baffling interchange, was formulated. In this indirect way, some previously immovable obstruction in our mind would be loosened and shifted, admitting a flood of light from our buddha-nature.

Dogen found in China that these Zen ‘koans’ or ‘cases’, had become the main method of training. He himself believed in a range of practices, such as deep meditation, stilling the mind, resting in the eternal now of the present moment, practising what might be called ‘not thinking’, as well as studying the traditional teachings and anecdotes that had been handed down by what he calls ‘the buddha ancestors’. His own emphasis is always on meditation. Everything had to be brought back to the work of stilling the mind, whether we are formally sitting in meditation or engaged in some sort of activity.

So while in China, he was a little discontented with the dominance of koan-based training, until he remembered he had been told that a certain abbot, named Rujing, was the only authentic practitioner of the way. Dogen, who was now 25, went to visit Rujing at his mountain monastery, and the ageing master seemed to recognise him. Dogen has written this about their meeting:

I first offered incense and bowed formally to him in his room, and he also saw me for the first time. Upon this occasion he transmitted the dharma finger to finger, face-to-face, and said to me: ‘The dharma-gate of face-to-face transmission of buddha to buddha, ancestor to ancestor, is realised now.’

Something passed between them which brought resolution and finality to Dogen’s spiritual quest. He said that through this he had completed his life’s study of ‘the great matter’. He later wrote:

I was able to enact his face-to-face transmission by dropping away body and mind, and I have established this transmission in Japan.

The Zen school sometimes asserts that its approach is heart-to-heart transmission outside of Buddhist scripture. Rujing, Dogen’s master, denied this view. He said the great way is not concerned either with inside or with outside. So there was no rigidity, no adherence to a view or dogma. Dogen came to teach, above all, the importance of meditation, supported by the right attitude of mind.

To pursue this path one had to be a genuine seeker, and to maintain what he called joyful mind, kind mind and great mind. Joyful mind is a mind where we always count our blessings and discount our woes. He defined kind mind as being the mind of a good parent—selfless and nursing a parental attitude to all living beings. And great mind, he said, is a mind that is like a great mountain or a great ocean. It is free from any partiality or exclusivity. It accepts the seasons of nature, the experiences of life, as they are, and with an equal eye. He said the true aspirant never forgets these three kinds of mind: joyful, grateful mind; kind, parental mind; great mind rooted in impartiality and acceptance.

Regarding this kind of mind, Dogen wrote this poem, which one imagines was written early in his career. It refers to the Buddhist sentiment of wishing enlightenment for all beings—in a sense seeing the enlightenment of all as important, if not more so, as one’s own.

Awake or asleep
in a grass hut,
what I pray for is
to bring others across
before myself.

Another one, also written before his awakening, is:

Although this ignorant self
may never become a buddha,
I vow to bring
others across
because I am a monk.

This sentiment seems to have undergone a radical change. He came to realise that this preoccupation with others would hinder pure practice. He wrote:

Proceed with the mind which neither grasps nor rejects, a mind unconcerned with name or gain. Do not practise buddha dharma with the thought that it is to benefit others.

And he warned:

People in the present world, even those practising the buddha dharma, have a mind which is far apart from the way. They practise what others praise and admire, even though they know it doesn’t accord with the way.

Then, according to this great way, what thought should we have when practising meditation? There is a line in a poem by a later Zen master, Hakuen: ‘Taking as thought the thought of no thought’. The aim is to calm and reduce the thinking processes to a minimum. Thought is movement and limitation. Ephemeral, it can never be held unchanged in the mind, therefore it should be released. Here is a poem written by Dogen during his time of apprenticeship, so to say:

Evening hours of zazen (meditation) advance.
Sleep hasn’t come yet.
More and more I realise
Mountain forests are good for efforts in the way.
Sounds of the valley brook enter the ears,
Moonlight pierces the eyes.
Outside this, not one further instant of thought.

This is an environment we ourselves may be unlikely to experience. But something of this atmosphere and aspiration can be infused into our life if we set our mind on it and have no other big plans. Otherwise our big plans will come first, and the inner quest will be put off.

According to Dogen, we all have in us what he calls ‘the source of sacredness’. The spiritual teachers, as it were, give out a kind of wake-up shout, giving us a chance to turn around and see what they are offering. This is all they need to do. It is up to us whether we turn or not. Dogen quotes an older verse:

Two thirds of your life has passed
Not polishing even a spot
Of your source of sacredness.
You devour your life,
Your days are busy with this and that.
If you don’t turn around at my shout
What can I do?

One of Dogen’s great insights is that practice and enlightenment are ultimately identical. This encouraging teaching goes back to the idea that if we are originally the buddha nature, and if the source of sacredness is within us all the time, why do the enlightened ones urge us to seek for enlightenment through practice—as if we don’t already have it, and as if a good deal of effort were required in order to advance towards it. In spite of this, Dogen holds that practice and enlightenment are in some sense identical and interpenetrate each other, and this applies even to the first meditation of a beginner.

We may say: ‘It is all very well to make this assertion, but it contradicts experience. Here I am with a mind that is buzzing with thoughts and a body that finds it hard to remain still, with no relief or gratification at all from the tranquillity of nirvana.’

So if enlightenment is the same as practice, we may conclude that such ‘enlightenment’ is worthless; or that there is some self-deception at work; or that this happy position may apply to some gifted people, but not to oneself; or, this saying of the master has a subtle and profound meaning that will reveal itself to us, in us, if we take it to heart.

This last option is the true one. Enlightenment is great, there is no deception, and it applies to us. When Dogen speaks of practice, he first means practice by a mind that has ‘the thought of enlightenment’—that recognises the transiency of this entire world, and hence can picture a position of detachment from it.

This practice is also to be pursued by what he calls a way-seeking mind—a mind that finds meaning in the spiritual way of transcendence and wants to be identified with it.

Then, when we enter into practice, we need to detect and overcome the mental condition of not-practising. The problem with our practice is that we carry into it the habits of ‘not-practising’. Instead of being here and now in our meditation, we are then and there in the world of our thoughts and worries (and we do not doubt the reality of that world, and hence ignore its transiency.) We sit in one place but our thoughts are somewhere else—in shop or office, club or snackbar, communing with family or friends—anywhere, but not here-now. Not least, we carry into our practice our sense of our personal self, of being me, and, naturally, we have a defensive determination to stay me, with all the views and opinions that make me what I am, and which dim ‘the thought of enlightenment’.

But true practice is to set aside mental clutter and the sense of individuality, as we shed our clothes when taking a bath. And in this psychological nakedness, what remains? It is our source of sacredness—the buddha nature. In Dogen’s words:

Just forget yourself for now and practice inwardly—this is one with the thought of enlightenment.

The buddha way is under everyone’s heel. Immersed in the way, clearly understand right on the spot. Immersed in enlightenment, you yourself are complete.

This selflessness is called true self or original face.

When we turn back to Adhyatma Yoga, we find our affirmations like ‘I am peace. I am light. One ocean of consciousness exists—that am I,’ are always in the present tense. It is the same teaching that practice and illumination are interfused. If we can shed from our practice everything that is not-practice—the mind lost in thoughts and self-views—then our realisation will cancel out everything that is not realisation.

Here are three more short poems by Dogen. The first suggests our path is a homecoming in the deepest sense:

The village I finally reach
deeper than the deep mountains
the capital
where I used to live!

The next poem may suggest how the illumined understanding registers the transient thoughts but is never tainted by them, and retains the poise and discernment to deal with the phenomenal world:

Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

Lastly, a typical Zen expression of fearless independence.

An explosive shout cracks the great empty sky;
Immediately clear self-understanding.
Swallow up buddhas and ancestors of the past.
Without following others realise complete penetration.

* A selection of Dogen’s writings, preceded by a short account of his life and teachings, is contained in Moon in a Dewdrop, ed. K Tanahashi, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1985. Quotations from Dogen’s writings are gratefully derived from this source.

This article is from the Winter 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.