In the second class on the Tenzokyokun, we got to what I was unironically calling the meat of the piece – marrow would be the more suitable zen term, I realised later. At the heart of it is Xuedou’s poem, which we read in three different translations; more than other parts of the text, the variations made for interesting thinking. I like to use a variety of translations where possible so that we don’t lean too heavily on individual words, but learn to triangulate and see what might lie in the middle.
Dogen has been talking about the relative and the absolute leading into this section, and his encounters with a skilled Chinese monk show him how to approach the burning questions of his own practice – ‘What are words and phrases? What is wholeheartedly engaging the way?’ – which Xuedou’s poem adds resonance to:
One character, three characters, five and seven characters.
Having thoroughly investigated the ten thousand things, none have any foundation.
At midnight the white moon sets into the dark ocean.
When searching for the black dragon’s pearl, you will find they are numerous. (Leighton and Okumura translation)
One, seven, three, five –
The truth you search for cannot be grasped.
As night advances, a bright moon illuminates the whole ocean;
The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.
Looking for the moon, it is here, in this wave, in the next. (Tom Wright translation)
With the letter of ‘one’, that of ‘seven’, or that of ‘three’ or that of ‘five’,
I have thus exhausted myriads of phenomena,
And yet I have found no substantial basis behind them.
The night grows late and the white moon
Sheds its beams over the ocean.
Having sought a black gem, I’ve found many of them in the depths of this ocean. (North American Institute of Zen and Buddhist Studies translation).
Dogen goes on to say, crucially, that you can reach understanding ‘through words and phrases’. While we typically think of realisation as being beyond conceptual thought, Dogen is not allowing words and phrases to remain separate from the conditions for realisation.