The Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi

This famous zen poem has popped up in my mind recently, and been added to the collection of the chants I recite to myself while walking around. Last summer at Tassajara, I read a couple of books that dealt with it and the teachings it includes, of which I would recommend Taigen Leighton’s Just This Is It.  If you want to read one translation of the poem, here is the Zen Center version.
Recently I picked up a copy of Zen is Eternal Life, by Jiyu Kennett, the founder of Shasta Abbey, and found a very different translation, which I dimly remember reading years ago – something, I realise, that has informed my understanding of some of the opaque lines.

As Tozan says in the poem, ‘Just to depict it in literary form is to stain it with defilement’. I read that now in the way that I read Dogen talking about ‘words and phrases’ in the Tenzokyokun: he is not completely dismissing words, as we have to use them to be understood – when action is not itself sufficient, and none of us can see Dogen, or Tozan, in action now, but we can read their words. For me the key word there is ‘just’. Words themselves are not enough.
I am fond of saying that translations can show us the lack inherent in words, but at the same time, looking at two versions, our minds can work to find a new meaning that lies somewhere in between the words we read. This can be put to the test by looking at just these two versions of a few lines of The Jewel Mirror Samadhi, which testify to the density of the original poetic expression:

Subtly included within the true,
Inquiry and response come up together.
Communing with the source, travel the pathways,
Embrace the territory and treasure the road.
Respecting this is fortunate; do not neglect it.
Naturally real yet inconceivable,
It is not within the province of delusion or enlightenment.
With causal conditions, time and season,
Quiescently it shines bright.
In its fineness it fits into spacelessness,
In its greatness it is utterly beyond location.
A hairsbreadth’s deviation
Will fail to accord with the proper attunement. (Zen Center translation)

The absolute ‘upright’ holds, as it is,
Many phenomena within its own
Delicate balance. When a trainee asks
A question matching answer always comes
From the Zen master; so that he may bring
The trainee to the ultimate of Truth
The master uses skillful means. Trainees
Embrace the ultimate, masters contain
The means; correctly blended this is good.
Avoid one-sided clinging; this is all
The natural and superior Truth that does
Attach itself to no delusion or
Enlightenment. It calmly, clearly shows
When all conditions ripen; when minute
Infinitesimally small becomes;
When large it transcends all dimension, space;
Even the slightest twitch will surely break
The rhythm. (Shasta Abbey translation)

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