The Red Flesh Ball of a Decayed Tree

As I may have mentioned, in our Monday Night Dogen Study we’ve been working through the Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment (click here for the list).

Here’s Dogen’s explanation of mindfulness – something that appears five times on the list.

“The root of mindfulness is the red flesh ball of a decayed tree.”

This fascicle of the Shobogenzo is one of the most difficult in the whole collection and Dogen’s comments on the Five Faculties and Five Powers, the source of the above line, are the most intense and difficult that we’ve tackled so far.

In the heart of this section, Dogen moves into hyper-koan-ese, a language of Dogen’s own creation, often with multiple koan references in the same sentence. Koan fragments are mixed and matched, transposed and fused, in dialogue with each other, and purely presenting the dharma.

A few words, like “red flesh ball” and “decayed tree” have a whole world of meaning and Dogen plays fast and furious with a wide range of koan references, vividly hopping along.

The wild horse of Dogen’s discourse leaps from meaning and metaphor to pure presentation, galloping along at a break-neck speed. The whole business seems most appropriate for advanced koan students.

Take this, for example: “The root of mindfulness is the red flesh ball of a decayed tree.”

“Red flesh ball” refers to Rinzai’s statement, “The true person of no rank is coming in and out through the gates of your senses. Those who have not witnessed proof, look! look!”

“Red flesh ball” is the literal translation of “true person.”

Seems that realizing the true person of no rank is a precondition for appreciating mindfulness in Dogen Zen. Otherwise it really doesn’t communicate. But he doesn’t stop there. The red flesh ball true person is a decayed tree.

“Decayed tree” refers to the following koan that Dogen uses as the main dish in Shobogenzo #65, “Dragon Song:”

“Touzi was asked by a monk, ‘Is there a dragon singing in a decayed tree?’ Touzi replied, ‘I say there is a lion roaring in the skull.’”

“Dragon” in this body of work is not the kind of dragon that kidnaps princesses. Apparently European dragons were into that kind of thing. East Asian dragons not only shed their skin but their bones too and so represent a revolution of the heart.

I’d parse “decayed tree” then like this – this battered and beaten life itself is exactly the song of transformation.

The song of transformation this broken down life sings is the real deal, the red flesh ball, and that’s what mindfulness is – not a split consciousness observing itself, but just whole body of life and death dancing on the keyboard, the whole heart of life and death, scanning the blog post.

“The root of mindfulness is the red flesh ball of a decayed tree.”

Got it?

Happy New Year and May All Conditions Be Favorable
Guidelines for Studying the Way – Why?
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
Shikantaza: Busy, Busy Karmic Consciousness – When Will it Rest?
  • Myozan

    Well done, maestro! I meet you in that place.

  • http://JustThis( Alan

    But that’s ok.


  • David Clark


    “Red flesh ball” as the literal translation of “true person.” brings to mind a recent controversy in the news. Perhaps a “true person” is pure meat, raw and genuine, not mixed with the “pink slime” of preconceived thinking and fixed views, someone direct and not the product of deceitful marketing.

    I can’t speak for others, but my own life often feels like it’s lived in a storm-blasted tree. Though quite battered, there are also quite a few lovely green shoots sprouting in the Spring. It seems to suit me better every day.


  • Harry

    I guess I shouldn’t wait for the nice minty smell of mindfulness then :-)

    Thanks & Regards,


    • doshoport

      “Minty?” T’ain’t everything in the Emerald Isle minty?

  • desiree

    Got it. Enough to wrestle with it at least. :)

    I really like your rendering of the Record of Rinzai Part1 #3. …

    The part about dragons is like dessert!!

  • Tallis Grayson

    Now that’s just beautiful. See I could not have appreciated Dogen’s statement on face value, thank you for your explanation Dosho. Reminds me of Cohen’s lyrics ‘Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ (And I have noticed light coming out of those cracks too.) Thanks for reminding me of the value of being broken. Tallis