Zazen: Just Turn the Light Around

The essential instruction for zazen practice in the Zen tradition from Shitou’s (700-790) “Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage” to Dogen’s (1200-1253) “Universal Recommendations for Zazen” to today is just this simple phrase:

“Just turn the light around to illuminate.”

Reading Charles Egan’s Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown: Poems by Zen Monks of China, I stumbled upon a striking little tidbit of context for this phrase.

Egan translates the phrase as “shine the reflections back” and notes that the Chinese phrase “…(huiguang fanhao) – the term in general use refers to the glow of colored light in the sky at sunset.”

I find myself returning to reflect on zazen as the glow of colored light in the sky at sunset.

Looking at several translations of Dogen’s Universal Recommendations, I see that most have something like “turn the light around to illuminate the self.” Or “turn the light and shine it inward.”

The text itself, though, has no character for “self” or “inward.” Literally the whole sentence is “Just learn the backward step, turning the light around to illuminate.”

Granted, the English is a bit awkward and we’re left wanting a specific subject. Like “Illuminate what?” Just the point, imv, and an important one for practice.

Most translations also drop “just.”

This “just” also seems like a rather important practice detail.

“Just turn the light around.”

  • Tom Eickenberg

    Thank you Dosho, I find haveing several translations of old texts helpfull in trying to understand/see what the old master is pointing to.
    Gasho Tom

  • Daniel Terragno

    Turn the light around (what do you see?) You are right, there is no “self” in the writing and no “inward”. It is like “turn the light around and shine it on the one that is holding it”. I always imagine a powerful flash light, flip it back….What is it, what do you see?

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Daniel!

  • Tom Eickenberg

    Thank you Dosho, I find haveing several translations of old texts helpfull in trying to understand/see what the old master is pointing to.
    Gasho Tom

  • Harry B

    Nice one, Dosho.

    There are a couple of ‘settings’ in Dogen’s records on zazen (and it’s probably significant that I’m relying on translations):

    On one hand he talks about it as being “simply the Dharma gate of repose
    and bliss” (Berkley Zen Centre online trans.), while on another hand he
    talks about sitting ‘as if your hair were on fire’… what’s with them



    • doshoport

      Hey Harry,

      Same fruit, different slice.

      Palms together,

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    迴光返照 or 囘光返照

    both pronounced “huiguang fanhao”

    迴 / 囘 movement returning, turn around, turn; revolve; rotate

    shine, light

    movement in reverse, to go back, return, restore, revert.

    to shine, illumine, reflect and their variations such
    as shining, illumination, and reflection.

    Some additional variations:

    Turn around the light to restore the shining.

    Turning around the light restores reflection.

    Turn around the light and reflect back.

    Turn around the light to revert to illumination.

    Return to illumination by turning around the light.

    “Turning around the light” is the Chinese poetic way of referring to
    the Sanskrit term “paravrtti,” i.e., practicing or engaging in
    turning around, which is the primary message of the Lankavatara Sutra that
    teaches to turn around awareness from a belief in objectified things and have
    one’s own realization of the noble knowing of the Tathagata. The turning around takes place at the seat of consciousness the alayavijnana or mind ground

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Greg, lovely detail.


    • Alex

      Very very well put. One nit though: 照 is zhao, not hao.

      • Gregory Wonderwheel

        LOL! Yes my “happy fingers” jumped over the “z” in “fanzhao” (with diacritical marks fǎnzhào).

        • Alex

          Wonderwheel I like your style. I had never seen your blog before, just bookmarked it.

          On the extremely narrow topic of Zen translations, have you seen First Dogen Book by Bob Myers? It’s downloadable from his website:

          and available on Amazon. I don’t read Japanese but I love his approach, which is detail oriented to say the least. He breaks down pretty much every sentence of Bendowa and tells you where other translators have gone astray. It certainly compares favorably with Tanihashi which is the translation I read first. I also like the Nishijima / Cross translation of Fukanzazengi although that doesn’t have the rich Kanji data that a Chinese reader such as yourself would appreciate.

  • Mike Cross

    Hi Dosho,

    I stopped by with a view to plugging your book in the blog post I am preparing for tomorrow — usual arrangement, either $ or £ will be fine ;-).

    But having stumbled on this post, I cannot resist adding my own two-pennyworth, which is namely that recently I tend to favour

    “Learn the backward step of turning your light and letting it shine.”


    “Learn the backward step of turning light and letting it shine.”

    The first character in the sentence, as I have always read and recited it, is not sunawachi (just) but subekaraku, which I take simply as indicating an imperative (one should).

    May the force continue to be with you,