A Gentle, Caring Way of Life: Dreaming of Dharma Transmission Plum Blossoms

One of the many sweet things about teaching through the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training (click here for the latest update – another due out soon) is sharing some of my old teacher, Katagiri Roshi, with the students through his recorded talks that are connected with the sections of the first course, Guidelines for Studying the Way. A couple practitioners have asked for transcription projects to work more closely with Roshi’s teaching. Here’s one that was transcribed by David Casacuberta (thank you, David!) and edited by yours truly.


In the dharma transmission ceremony there are three kinds of documents. One is the “kechimyaku,” or “blood vein,” the Buddhist family lineage. The second is called “daiji” or literally, “great matter.” It is an expression of the philosophical background for dharma transmission manifested through a diagram.

Third one is ”shisho” (“letter of succession”) and what I want to address today. The shisho document also presents the lineage and your name added with the buddhas and ancestors who are all buddha. Shisho is proof of the truth that you are buddha and that you have joined the buddhas and ancestors.

The shisho paper we use has a design of plum blossoms. In Japan we have two kind of plum blossoms: white and scarlet. They bloom in winter, from the end of December to January. In my temple, we had scarlet plum blossoms blooming between the end of the year and the beginning of January. There was snow all over, the ground was covered with snow and nothing could be seen. Completely white.

When you see nothing, only white, still there is something – the pure sense of life itself. In that situation scarlet flowers bloom. Those flowers blooming is like a huge shock given to you as a pure sense of life, energy. New life is ongoing but you can’t see it.

Just like here [Minneapolis]. Lake Calhoun freezes completely, all covered with snow, completely white, blue-white. You can feel a pure sense of life energy there, always moving. Right there in the snow. Right in the middle of the ground, covered with snow, the scarlet flower blooms.

In Japan, during New Year’s Day we offer three kind of flowers to buddhas at shrines in front of the gate of the house: bamboo, pine, and plum flowers. Bamboo represents patience, never broken by snow. Bamboo also represent differentiation and segmentation, differentiation in equality. Also we offer pine branch, green all year around, never changing.

Plum flowers are offered because they represent the pure sense of life energy, blooming in cold weather, very strong, rooted in the earth, always watching with the whole universe.

Dogen Zenji talks about shisho and plum bloosoms in the Shobogenzo Document of Heritage. Dogen went to China to study Buddhism when he was 24 and visited several Zen monasteries, trying to see an authentic document of heritage, shisho. Dogen writes,

“When I visited Mount Tiantai and Mount Yadang in the later Bao-qing Era [1225-1228], I went to Wannian monastery of Pingtian [on Mount Tiantai]. The abbot there was Priest Yuanzi of Fu Region, under whom the monastery had prospered. Upon my first greeting him, Abbot Yuanzi talked about the teaching of the buddha ancestors. When he mentioned Yangshan’s dharma succession from Great Guishan, he said ‘You haven’t seen the document of heritage here in my quarters, have you?’”

Guishan and Yangshan were related as teacher and disciple. When Yangshan got dharma transmission from his teacher, Guishan, his teacher asked him, “What do you think about dharma transmissions, lately.”

Yangshan said, “There is a great man [Guishan] who has been seriously besmirching dharma transmission.”

Then the teacher said, “How about you?”

Yangshan said: “Lately I forgot about dharma transmission. I don’t know what it is. All I can do is to sleep when I feel sleepy, and eat when I feel hungry. So I have nothing to say about dharma transmission.”

Guishan said, “It is pretty hard to reach that spiritual state.”

Yangshan knew well about dharma transmission but he didn’t attach to the meaning of dharma transmission. Dharma transmission sounds as if we have to get something from the teacher, from the universe. Yes, you have to get it. Then dharma transmission comes to being but there is no explanation for dharma transmission.

“When I feel sleepy I just sleep” means that dharma, buddhas, god or whatever you say, all are working in this life. Nothing to say about something special, like “my body is buddha” or “my body is dharma” because this body is already dharma.

This is a typical characteristic of Zen Buddhism. Body is alive and that’s it. That’s why the teacher said it is pretty hard to reach that spiritual state.

When Abbot Yuanzi mentioned Yangshan’s heritage from Great Guishan, he said “You [Dogen] haven’t seen the document of heritage here in my quarters, have you?”

Dogen replied, “No, unfortunately I haven’t.”

“Abbot Yuanzi got up, took out the document of heritage and holding it up he said, ‘Following the dharma admonition of Buddha ancestors, I haven’t show this to even a close disciple or an old attendant monk. But when I went to the city to see the governor and stay there as I do occasionally, I had a dream. In this dream, a distinguished priest who seemed to be Zen Master Damei (literally, “Great Plum”) appeared, holding a branch of plum blossoms he said, “If a true man comes who has disembarked from a boat do not withhold these  flowers.” And he handed me the plum blossoms. Still in the dream I exclaimed, “Why shouldn’t I give him thirty blows before he leaves the boat?” Then before five days had passed, you came to meet me, elder [Dogen]. Of course, you have disembarked from a boat, and this document of heritage is written on brocade that has a design of a plum blossom. Since you must be the one Damei was referring to, in accordance to the dream, I have taken this document out. Do you wish to inherit dharma from me? I would not withhold it if so.’”

Dogen didn’t accept Dharma transmission from him but he was very moved because this abbot was very kind and ready to give dharma transmission to Dogen.

“I [Dogen] could not help being moved. Although I should have requested to receive a document of heritage from him, I only offered incense, bowed, and paid him homage with deep respect. At that time an attendant named Faning was present. He said that it was the first time he had ever seen the document of heritage….

[Dogen continued] “[Later I ] stayed at the entry hall of the Husheng Monastery on Mount Damei. At that time I had an auspicious dream that ancestor Damei came up to me and gave me a branch of plum blossoms in full bloom. This image of the ancestor was worthy of great respect. The branch was one foot tall and one foot wide. Aren’t these plum blossoms as rare as an udumbara blossom? This dream was as real as being awake. I have never before told this story to anyone in China or Japan.”

In other words, Dogen had the same dream that the abbot had. Even though he was very moved by this dream, Dogen said that “I’ve never before told this story to anyone in China or even in Japan.”

Normally after having such a dream you want to talk about it, and if you have inspiration from that dream to attain such a spiritual state. You become over-proud of yourself while talking about these spiritual experiences. But Dogen didn’t tell it to anybody. Very quietly he kept it in his heart.

This is a gentle, caring way of life.

It’s Not So Easy: The Apprenticeship Model for Zen Training
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Reaching Out a Hand: Birth, Death, and Raw Zen
Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
  • Robert Schenck

    I love this story from Paul Reps’ “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”:

    In modern times a great deal of nonsense is talked about masters and disciples, and about the inheritance of a master’s teaching byfavorite pupils, entitling them to pass the truth on to their adherents. Of course Zen should be imparted in this way, from heart to heart, and in the past it was really accomplished. Silence and humility reigned rather than profession and assertion. The one who received such a teaching kept the matter hidden even after twenty years. Not until another discovered through his own need that a real master was at hand was it learned that the teaching had been imparted, and even then the occasion arose quite naturally and the teaching made its way in its own right. Under no circumstance did the teacher even claim “I am the successor of So-and-so.” Such a claim would prove quite the contrary.

    The Zen master Mu-man had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. “I am getting old,” he said, “and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I also have added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship.”

    “If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it,” Shoju replied. “I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is.”

    “I know that,” said Mu-nan. “Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol of having received the teaching. Here.”

    The two happened to be talking before a brazier. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.

    Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: “What are you doing!”

    Shoju shouted back: “What are you saying!”

    • doshoport

      Thanks, Robert. I’m left wondering what was in that book!

      • Robert Schenck

        Impeccable credentials, I suspect.
        : )