This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Dogen


I value clarity and simplicity, especially in spirituality. Yet the subject often gives rise to mystifying ideas and language. From now on I want to avoid these, when genuinely avoidable, in my inquiry.

In 2014, not long before he became ill, Thich Nhat Hanh retranslated the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, foundational to Mahayana Buddhism, and revised his commentary. Although brief, the sutra develops Buddhist emptiness teachings and therefore the Buddhist view of non-duality. After more than sixty years of monastic study and practice, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that a flower is made only of non-flower elements, so we can say that the flower is empty of separate self-existence. But that doesn’t mean that the flower is not there. “When you perceive reality in this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage in favour of the rose”.

Thich Nhat Hanh worked at making Buddhism accessible to a modern Western audience, because the teachings of Buddhism are not one, but many. When Buddhism enters a new country, that country always acquires a new form of Buddhism. As part of his own teaching, he invented the term ‘interbeing’. Yet he is also true to tradition. In thirteenth century Japan, Zen Master Eihei Dogen taught that “enlightenment is just intimacy with all things”. Such intimacy nourishes the seed of compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh offers essentially the same understanding to other peoples in another time.


Simplicity and complexity, elegance and wisdom combined in the poetry of Japanese Zen. I notice that I respond more strongly to such poetry than I do to didactic texts about meditation and philosophy.


To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.


I particularly love this poem. The apparent naturalism of the imagery makes it powerful and accessible to anyone. Yet for me, this poem also brings up wider issues about reading and interpretation. The poet’s location in place, time and culture do make a difference. Ehei Dogen (1200-1253) was one of the first to transmit Zen Buddhism from China to Japan and was founder of the Soto School. His poem is a waka – a 31 syllable form predating the invention of haiku. Dogen is a key figure in both Japanese Buddhism and Japanese literature.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of all Japanese schools including Zen, the moon stands for Buddha-nature. So the poem teaches a familiar Mahayana truth that the moon (Buddha-nature) is completely reflected in every one of the countless dew drops (all things) without discrimination, namely one in all, all in one. This understanding is accompanied by a sense of fragility and impermanence within nature – strongly present in Japanese culture independently of Buddhism and reinforced by Buddhist teaching. Dogen gives us elegance and complexity in a 31 syllable form.

Hee-Jin Kim*, a modern Zen scholar, takes this further, bringing out Dogen’s sensitivity to history as well as to nature. He draws attention to the word ‘shaken’: each dew drop holds a full yet shaken reflection of the moon. Dogen lived in what was seen as a dark and ill-starred time in Japanese history. Many Buddhists thought that even their path was compromised and talked of degenerate dharma (mappo). Kim understands Dogen as resisting this ideology of despair whilst fully aware of the collective turmoil. On this reading, the poem asserts that timelessness is experienced within, and only within, momentariness, even when the times are stressed.


To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.


* Hee-Jin Kim Dogen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen Albany, New York: State University, 2007 (At the time of publication Hee-Jin Kim was Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. He is also the author of Dogen-Kigen: Mystical Realist).


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