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A poem by Dogen - 13th century zen master


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To what shall I
Liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.

Many commentators, led astray by "the languid east" nonsense, and thoughts of maya (understood as "illusion") see such words, understand the poem, as being some some sort of diminution of the individual, and our world as being in a sense unreal.

Sir Edwin Arnold wrote, in his epic poem of the Buddha's life, "The Light of Asia", ended that poem with the words (upon the death of the Buddha as he enters Nirvana):-

"The dewdrop slips into the shining sea". More misunderstanding.

In fact, it is more that the shining sea slips into the dewdrop - yet even that does not capture the Buddhist position, which in fact is a no-position that supecedes all positions.

Getting back to Dogen's poem, here is a more perceptive understanding:-

According to this verse, the entire world is fully contained in each and every one of the innumerable dewdrops, each one symbolic of the inexhaustible contents of all impermanent moments. Here the dewdrops no longer suggest illusion in contrast to reality because they are liberated by their reflection of the moon’s glow. Conversely, the moon as a symbol of Buddha-nature is not an aloof realm since it is fully merged in the finite and individuated manifestations of the dew. Just as the moon is one with the dewdrops, the poem itself becomes one with the setting it depicts.” (Steven Heine)

Thus the particular is seen to contain the universal. Each and every particular. Every moment. Every NOW. In this world, not some imagined "other" promised beyond the grave.

Another astute commentator Hee-Jin Kim invites us to 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 interactive.

So much for illusion, the diminution of the individual!

The Way does not exist to be found. Each moment is the way. 

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Another poem by Dogen:-


Another poem of Dogen:-

In the heart of the night,
Moonlight framing
A small boat drifting,
Tossed not by the waves
Nor swayed by the breeze

The meaning of this, at least for Dogen, can be illuminated by his words found in his "Genjokoan" (the actualisation of reality) He writes:-

If one riding in a boat watches the coast, one mistakenly perceives the coast as moving. If one watches the boat in relation to the surface of the water, then one notices that the boat is moving. Similarly, when we perceive the body and mind in a confused way and grasp all things with a discriminating mind, we mistakenly think that the self-nature of the mind is permanent. When we intimately practice and return right here, it is clear that all things have no fixed self.

Dogen, in his poem, gives voice to the vulnerability of enlightenment. We do not possess enlightenment. It possesses us.

"A clearly enllghtened person falls into the well. How is this so?" (A zen koan)

And Thomas Merton:-

We stumble and fall constantly, even when we are most enlightened.

As I see it, many fear vulnerability. We can cling to being right, of having "all truth" - but Faith is of another order. It is a letting go, trusting in becoming.

Which is the "eastern" way of seeing things. Becoming, not Being. The eastern preoccupation with impermanence is well known to anyone who approaches its poetry, and impermanence can - and does - bring suffering when we cannot trust in the river of change.

But impermanence, if we "let go", can transform the suffering. But Impermanence, it becomes clear, doesn’t mean that things last for a while then pass away: things arise and pass away at the same time. That is, things don’t exist as we imagine they do. Much of our experience of reality is illusory. And this is why we suffer. We attempt to hold onto happiness, as if it is a thing, a state of being, but as William Blake has written:-

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

Therefore Being IS becoming. "God" can become an idol. Faith for me is in letting go. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Poems are not ephemeral things. At best they travel heart to heart. Maybe they can also bring forth true communion, the deepest form of communication. The finger that points at the moon becomes the moon itself.

Reading the various details of Dogen's life in 13th century Japan (a time of great turmoil and social change), of his travels to China, can illuminate his poems, tie them to moments of doubt, to moments of his own illuminations, in time and space.

From Dogen's collection of poetry:-

Attaining the heart
Of the sutra,
The sounds of the
Bustling marketplace
Preach the Dharma

In my own Pure Land path of "no-calculation" the "marketplace" is the dojo (training ground), and everyone you meet is a "master". If not so, we can end up merely meeting ourselves, time and time again.


Moving back "west'......

James Joyce writes in "Ulysses":-

"God is a shout in the street"

From one or two commentaries on the works of James Joyce:-

Bloom (Leopold Bloom of Ulysses) is no perfect hero, but perfection is overrated. Give me a honest human being embracing their mundane humanity any day over a person striving after perfection".

Joyce does not present us with the illusion of a perfect life in this book, a life without pain and sorrow, but in all his honesty Joyce shows us that life as it is and not as we think it should be is worth saying Yes to. The sorrows and difficulties faced in Ulysses are included in Joyce’s affirmation of life, because what good would such an affirmation be if it did not include all of life?

Joyce offers a new litmus test for what we call the hero, not gigantic feats of strength, but small and simple feats of kindness.

And finally:-

An epiphany was not a miraculous dispensation from above but, as Joyce defined it, an insight into 'the soul of the commonest object'

(Kevin Birmingham, from "The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce's Ulysses.")


Simple feats and acts of kindness. So easy to miss, to become deaf and blind to. 

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