Japanese Master Eihei Dōgen (19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253) was not only a key figure in the development of Japanese Zen practice and the founder of the Soto school of Zen in Japan, but he was also a remarkable poet. This discovery came as a surprise after finishing the book Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace, translated by scholar Steven Hein.
Although Dōgen is generally considered to be more of a philosopher than a poet, his poems were praised by many scholars and writers. In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for literature, opened his acceptance speech by citing a Waka (thirty-one-syllable Japanese poem) composed by Dōgen. In the speech, entitled “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself”, Kawabata commented on the profound influence of different aspects of Zen on his writing, beginning with the following verses:
In the spring, cherry blossoms,
In the summer the cuckoo,
In autumn the moon, and in
winter the snow, clear, cold.
This poem is notable, according to Kawabata, because “by a spontaneous though deliberate stringing together of conventional images and words, it transmits the very essence of Japan.”
The complete translations of Dōgen’s Wakas along with a representative selection of his Kanshis (Chinese verses) are beautifully presented by Steven Heine in Zen Poetry of Dōgen. This collection not only reflects the subtleties of Zen Buddhism but also captures personal reflection of Dōgen’s unique voice and his poetic genius, as we can see in the following poems (English version by Steven Heine
Original Language Japanese):
To what shall
I liken the world?
Shaken from a crane’s bill.
One of six verses composed in An’yoin Temple in Fukakusa, 1230:
Drifting pitifully in the whirlwind of birth and death,
As if wandering in a dream,
In the midst of illusion I awaken to the true path;
There is one more matter I must not neglect,
But I need not bother now,
As I listen to the sound of the evening rain
Falling on the roof of my temple retreat
In the deep grass of Fukakusa.
True person manifest throughout the ten quarters of the world
The true person is
Not anyone in particular;
But, like the deep blue color
Of the limitless sky,
It is everyone, everywhere in the world.
The moon reflected
In a mind clear
As still water:
Even the waves, breaking,
Are reflecting its light.
In the stream
In the stream,
To the dusty world,
My fleeting form
Casts no reflection.
Ching-ch’ing’s raindrop sound
Because the mind is free —
Listening to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
The drops become
One with me.
Coming or Going
The migrating bird
leaves no trace behind
and does not need a guide.
The bridge of dreams
Floating on the brief spring night
Soon breaks off:
Now from the mountaintop a cloud
Takes leave into the open sky.
One of fifteen verses on Dogen’s mountain retreat:
Joyful in this mountain retreat yet still feeling melancholy,
Studying the Lotus Sutra every day,
Practicing zazen singlemindedly;
What do love and hate matter
When I’m here alone,
Listening to the sound of the rain late in this autumn evening.
Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home,
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.
Paperback, 208 pages
Published: October 15th 1997 by Tuttle Publishing
Original Title: The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace
ISBN 0804831076 (ISBN13: 9780804831079)
Edition Language: English