Tonight, I’d like to continue our study of Dogen Zenji’s waka poetry, and I will once again use Steven Heine’s excellent translation and interpretation as the basis for my talk. There’s a traditional saying about Zen, ascribed to Bodhidharma, that says that Zen is a “special transmission outside the teachings, with no reliance on words and letters”. This idea conforms to what may have been our initial idea about Zen, that enlightenment, whatever that is, lies completely outside of our words and ideas and that some sort of breakthrough into nonconceptual understanding is required. This is the idea behind a lot of our clichés about Zen (and Zen-related themes) – David Carradine in Kung Fu, or Luke Skywalker being told to let go of the conscious mind and rely on instinct.
A unique part of the heritage of Soto Zen is Dogen’s radically different understanding of language. For Dogen, all forms of communication, written or oral, and even discursive thought are part of our inherently awakened mind. For Dogen, awakening must be expressed symbolically through language. It’s not that language is some sort of a tool that is used for the higher purpose of teaching the dharma, it’s that language itself is the dharma. Dharma is somehow embedded in language. In his fascicle Bendowa, Dogen writes: “Let it go and it fills your hand – it is unbound by singularity or multiplicity. Speak and it has already filled your mouth – it is not restricted by lesser or greater.” If we can accept the notion of nonduality, then of course language is not something separate from awakening. It’s simply the symbolic way that awakening expresses itself.
In Japanese aesthetics, the term yugen refers to the mysterious profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested in a poem. The Japanese poet Chomei, who lived around the same time as Dogen, said that yugen conveys a profundity of mystery and tranquility “only when many meanings are compressed into a single word, when the depths of feeling are exhausted yet not expressed, when an unseen atmosphere hovers over the poem”. This is related to another concept in Japanese aesthetics, yojo, which refers to the abundance of overtones of feeling in a poem. Dogen plays around with many of these ideas in the following waka poem:
The dharma, like an oyster
Washed atop a high cliff:
Even waves crashing against
The reefy coast, like words,
May reach, but cannot wash it away
Now the conventional interpretation of this poem is in line with our simple ideas about Zen and language, that the dharma resides on a lofty peak, above the crashing waves of discourse. The dharma is thus somehow above or outside of language and really isn’t accessible by words, even those of the sutras. But, as is often the case, the meaning of this poem requires digging a little deeper into the translation and into the subtlety of the Japanese language.
What is translated here as ‘the reefy coast, like words’ is, in Japanese kaki mo tsukubeki, which has many layers of meaning. First, the word kaki can mean ‘oyster’ so there’s this feeling that the reason why the oyster is on the cliff to begin with is because the waves put it there. In other words, the Dharma finds its place beyond words because of language itself. There’s a traditional Mahayana image of water representing the absolute and waves representing the relative. So in this image, the oyster has been cast out of the absolute background into the relative by a particular wave, but it totally depends on the water for its location.
Kaki can also mean writing, or more generally, language and communication. Here it’s modified by the word tsukubeki, which means ‘must exhaust’ or ‘must reach’. So this line also means something like ‘language must reach/must exhast’ the dharma. Not only can the dharma be expressed in language, it actually must express the dharma, or (the other way around), dharma must be expressed. The dharma cannot escape the necessity of communication. This idea is extended in the next line (nori naraba koso). Nori means ‘seaweed’ and (apparently) it can also mean dharma. Seaweed is also cast out of the ocean like an oyster and thus underscores the connection between conceptual discourse and realization.
Here’s another poem from Dogen that uses different imagery to get at a similar point:
To what shall
I liken the world?
Shaken from a crane’s bill
Dogen often uses images of reflections in water to describe how totality is expressed in the individual. The dewdrop is also used as an image of impermanence, and the moon is used as an image of Buddha-nature, so here this means that the dharma is completely embodied in the evanescent. And there’s a sense that Buddha-nature is not standing apart from the finite and particular since it fully merges with each thing. In the same way, each word or phrase expresses Buddha-nature as well. In fact, all expressions completely realize the authentic mind of awakening, which is identical with transient reality. In this sense, this poem is not pointing to some idea of awakening, but is itself the complete embodiment of the awakened mind.