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.




My earlier teacher, Jean Baby, who died during our Winter Retreat, said to me once: ‘’ You can’t break the mirror of the self with the head’’.

What I took this to mean is that sitting isn’t a heroic activity. It is simply understanding where delusion and liberation are located.

We can see our delusive and endless tendency to conceptualise, to continually make a map of the world, thinking we need this to navigate our lives. But if we take Emptiness seriously the world is whole, immediate, inconceivable, alive. And it is always prepared to burst through the map we make of it, if we don’t lead with the head, if we just let ourselves fall backwards into reality.

So Liberation, Enlightenment isn’t hidden within ourselves, it is abundantly available if we care to see. We are saved by all beings.


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