Dogen’s Waka: 2 Poems, 2 Commentaries

First poem and commentary by John Fraser:

My free translation of Master Dogen’s poem Shobogenzo:

波も引き風もつながぬ捨小舟 月こそ夜半のさかひ成けり

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.

John Fraser

Second poem with my translation:

夏冬も思ひに分ぬ越の山 ふる白雪も鳴るいかづちも

summer and winter
so different from my thoughts
of the Koshi mountains
white snow will fall
and thunder will crackle

In this Waka poem (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) Zen master Dogen questions the often inflexible human mindset with this example of viewing nature, time and the world around within fixed rules. In the Koshi hills around him is seen and felt the continual yet spontaneous reality of nature and universe, cutting through a preconceived idea of the seasons in his thoughts as being linearly placed and defined in time one after the other – in the second 7-7 part of the poem he contrasts his stereotyping idea by writing that it can snow heavily or rumble with thunder and lightning at any time of the year. The changing and interweaving elements of nature are beyond thought and language.


recent notes