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..



My free translation of Master Dogen’s poem Shobogenzo:

In the heart of the dark
The moonlight holding
A small boat drifting
Unmoved by the wind
Unthrown by the waves

Dogen’s poetry – because it is imagistic – makes it easier to express apparent paradox than prose.

We could say that Dogen/The Zen Practitioner (“the small boat”) isn’t moved by the wind and waves (dependent origination) because he isn’t separate from dependent origination/Indra’s Net. But we could also say – reflecting our experience in Zazen – that we sit in the middle (‘heart’) of dependent origination, yet allow it to drop off (“drifting”).

I take “the dark” to be non duality, and “the moonlight” to be the compassionate awareness represented by Avalokitesvara, and so I changed “framing” in Heine’s translation to “holding” to emphasise this.

In the poem, everything is functioning within the whole, yet each is exerting itself completely in its own dharma position.



In zazen we soften the eyes and receive the world.

If we maintain our usual way of looking, we maintain duality. ‘We’ see but the body disappears. If we close our eyes the world disappears.

If we soften the eyes, the whole body becomes an organ of perception.




‘’Whosoever says that the Tathagata goes or comes, stands, sits or lies down, he does not understand the meaning of my teaching. And why? ‘Tathagata’ is called one who has not gone anywhere, nor came from anywhere’’ (Diamond Sutra, verse 29)

The Buddhist state is instantaneous, immediate and cuts off past and future.’Tathagata’ means ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’: the name itself is a description of reality, not ‘existence’ (because that would entail dualism), not ‘no existence’ (because that would entail nihilism) but something luminous hovering in the background, behind our conceptualisations.




In Kuge Dogen comments on a passage from the Surangama Sutra, where the Buddha says:

‘’It is like a person who has clouded eyes

Seeing flowers in space

If the sickness of clouded eyes is cured,

Flowers vanish in space’’

In the chapter Dogen sometimes renders ‘Flowers in space’ as ‘Flowers of Emptiness’ and comments: ‘’When we have seen flowers in space (then) we can also see flowers vanish in space’’.

He takes a straightforward passage as delusion and turns it into a profound reflection on Emptiness.

It seems to me...

When we see the Flowers of Emptiness appear

Then we can see them disappear

When we see the Flowers of Emptiness disappear

Then we can see them appear.

‘Then’ is not one thing following another. ‘Then’ is this time. In this time we can see the Emptiness of all things, neither existent, nor non-existent, and this is instantaneous appearing/disappearing. Disappearing/appearing is one expression of the full dynamic functioning of Emptiness.


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