We Are Alone, Snow All Over: Commentary on Dogen’s “Plum Blossoms” (Part 6)

Photo by Mark Ostrander

Photo by Mark Ostrander

What follows is the last installment of the “Plum Blossom” series based on talks that Dainin Katagiri Roshi gave during Rohatsu sesshin in 1988. This was Roshi’s last Rohatsu Sesshin and one of the last talks he gave before he began his engagement with cancer that ended with his death on March 1, 1990.

The recordings for these talks were transcribed by David Casacuberta (deep thanks!) and edited by me. You can find the other installments in the series here:

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

2. Gassho Like Falling Snow

3. The Old Plum Tree Bursts into Bloom

4. Plum Blossoms IV for Katagiri Roshi’s 24th Memorial Day

5. Having Inconceivable Good Fortune

Katagiri Roshi was a deeply emotional and reflective person with an inclination to explore the darker aspects of our natures. While I was working on this final section, I was deeply moved by the flavor of Katagiri Roshi’s dharma, especially the subtle feeling he conveyed for the sublime quality of human life. These were the two foci in his teaching – darkness and sublimity – that he expresses during the talk with “We are alone, snow all over.”

Katagiri Roshi frequently lectured on Dogen’s Shobogenzo. I came to view these talks as conversations between Katagiri Roshi and Dogen. One of the main themes in the present conversation is Dogen’s deep esteem for his teacher, Rujing. Largely because of this, I have inserted myself into the conversation to offer some balance, I hope, and a modern perspective that favors more of a collaborative approach to the teacher-student relationship.

In what follows, all italicized sections are Dogen’s words. For the sake of consistency, Katagiri Roshi’s comments are headed with “Dainin” and my comments with “Dosho.” I also use the first names of other teachers.

I’ve reflected on whether the blog format is fitting for this piece due to its length and weighty content and finally decided to go ahead. To fully enter the piece, I suggest sitting quietly, reading slowly, paying attention, and playing freely.

Thank you.

Now in Great Song China, both inside and outside of its one hundred and eighty regions, there are uncountable mountain temples and town temples. Many monks abide there, but those who have not seen Rujing are many, and those who have seen him are few. Further, fewer have heard his words, not to mention those who have personally met with him face to face. Even fewer have been allowed to enter his chamber. Among these few, how many have been allowed to take refuge in his skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, eyeball and face?

Rujing did not easily allow monks to join his monastery. He would say, “Those who are accustomed to a lax way-seeking mind cannot stay in this place.” He would chase them out and say, “What can we do with those who have not realized original self? Such dogs stir people up. They should not be permitted to join the monastery.” 

I have personally seen and heard this. I think to myself, “Which roots of unwholesome actions made it impossible for them to abide with the master even though they were from the same country? With what fortune was I allowed not only to join the monastery, but to enter the chamber whenever I wished, to take refuge in his venerable form, and to listen to the dharma words, even though I was someone from a remote country? Although I was foolish and ignorant, it is an excellent causal relationship that is not at all hollow.”

When Rujing was giving guidance in Song China, there were those who could receive personal guidance from him and those who could not. Now that he has left Song China, it is darker than dark night.Why? Because there is no old buddha like Rujing—before or after him. Therefore, you who study later should think about this upon hearing these words. Do not think that human and heavenly beings everywhere see and hear this dharma wheel.

The plum blossoms in snow is the emergence of an udumbara blossom. How often do we see the eyeball of the true dharma of our Buddha Tathagata but do not smile, missing his blink? Now we authentically receive and accept that plum blossoms in snow are truly the Tathagata’s eyeball. We take them up and hold them as the eye at the top of the head, as the eye of the eye.

When we enter into plum blossoms and fully study them, there is no room for doubt to arise. They are already the eyeball of “Alone above and below the heavens, I am the honored one,” and again, “most honored in the world of phenomena.”

Thus, heavenly blossoms in heaven, heavenly blossoms in the human world, mandara blossoms raining from heaven, great mandara blossoms, manjushaka blossoms, great manjushaka blossoms, and all blossoms of inexhaustible lands in the ten directions are one family of plum blossoms in snow. Because they bloom as offerings of plum blossoms, billions of blossoms are one family of plum blossoms. They should be called young plum blossoms. Furthermore, flowers in the sky, flowers on the earth, and flowers of samadhi are all the large and small members of plum blossoms’ family.

To form billions of lands within blossoms and to bloom in the land is the gift of plum blossoms. Without the offering of plum blossoms there is no offering of rain or dew. The life vein consists of plum blossoms.

Dainin: First Dogen mentions the situation of Buddhism in China in those days and about his teacher, Tiantong Rujing (1162-1228), the most important Zen teacher who transmitted the Buddhadharma properly. There were many mountain temples and city temples but not many people who had seen Rujing much less the opportunity to listen to his teaching.

Instead, probably people were complaining and trying to understand Buddhism in terms of their own views and their own knowledge. That’s why even though they listen to the Rujing’s dharma talks, they didn’t understand him so it was very difficult for them to receive completely and to respect his skin, flesh, bones, and marrow.

This also applies to Japan with many temples there, but even when I was young, there were not many people who tried to listen to the famous teachers or Buddha’s teaching.

Even in Buddha’s Shakyamuni’s age, three million people knew about Buddha Shakyamuni presence, another three million people didn’t know about Buddha’s Shakyamuni’s presence, and three other million completely ignored his presence.

Whatever age arises, such things happen.

Dosho: Oh, we miss so much! Our attention going this way and that, squirming like worms, scanning for opportunities and threats. And then this short life is at an end.

Many people missed Rujing. Millions are said to have missed even Shakyamuni. I lived a block away from Dainin for a year and didn’t know he existed, all the while suffering in my boarding-house room reading Tolstoy, Melville, Ginsberg and Snyder, looking for something, not knowing the way I would find to give meaning to this life was just down the block, waiting for some fortuitous circumstance to bring it to bloom.

Rujing did not easily allow monks to join his monastery. He would say, “Those who are accustomed to a lax way-seeking mind cannot stay in this place.” He would chase them out and say, “What can we do with those who have not realized original self? Such dogs stir people up. They should not be permitted to join the monastery.”

Dainin: “Original self” means, “What intention do you have?” If you want to seek for the truth, your intention must be strong. That strength is already the first stage of realizing the original self.

Dogen mentions that not many people knew Rujing because his master’s way of Buddhist practice was pretty strict. Dogen uses the word “dog” for practitioners who create distractions. You know dogs bark pretty often. That means such people are boisterous. When I was at Eiheiji monastery, among the monks there were several such people. When I was seriously practicing, they always put me down saying, “You are crazy,” and many other things, interrupting the practice.

Dosho: Oh, those boisterous dogs stirring people up! We have met them and they are us.

We have a way of being suspicious of those who take their practice more seriously than we do at any given moment, who are more in touch with the fragility and fleeting quality of this life.

Rujing, Dogen, and Dainin all sing the same tune – along with Tou-shuai:

“You make your way through the darkness of abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your original self. Now, honored one, where is your original self?”

I have personally seen and heard this. I think to myself, “Which roots of unwholesome actions made it impossible for them to abide with the master even though they were from the same country? With what fortune was I allowed not only to join the monastery, but to enter the chamber whenever I wished, to take refuge in his venerable form, and to listen to the dharma words, even though I was someone from a remote country? Although I was foolish and ignorant, it is an excellent causal relationship that is not at all hollow.”

Dosho: In my case, I sometimes wonder how a working-class white boy from the swamps of northern Minnesota gets the dharma chances that I’ve had. From apprenticeship with Dainin in the teaching of Dogen and embodying it through Soto forms, and then to koan introspection with the great one-doing of Tangen, the supportive kindness Daido, the friendship and keen wisdom of Myoun. Certainly, I have been blessed with some great and invisible good fortune that is unaccounted for by how I have blundered along in this life.

When Rujing was giving guidance in Song China, there were those who could receive personal guidance from him and those who could not. Now that he has left Song China, it is darker than dark night.Why? Because there is no old buddha like Rujing—before or after him. Therefore, you who study later should think about this upon hearing these words. Do not think that human and heavenly beings everywhere see and hear this dharma wheel.

Dainin: When I was fourteen, my mother died. Before her death, she was in bed for several years so I hadn’t felt her presence. She was always upstairs in bed. Then one morning I was at school and I was told of her death. Immediately, I felt the whole world become dark. I lost energy to do anything. At that time, I realized how important the presence of a mother can be, even if she didn’t do anything for us.

For Dogen, Rujing’s death was like entire darkness, a big loss, not only for him and also for the monks in China and Japan but a big loss for the human world, the cosmos, the whole universe, because his teacher was a great teacher.

We should study his words seriously and take joy from his dharma words.

Dosho: For Dogen, Rujing was the great teacher and so he referred to him as the old Buddha. A student finding their “old Buddha” can be of great significance. A quality of energy and clarity for seeking the original self arises that seems completely out of the realm of one’s ordinary experience. In the process of wholeheartedly seeking the original self we might also reclaim the “great teacher” projections.

In China in Dogen’s time, there were other great teachers. For example, Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), author of the Gateless Barrier, gave the talks that became the classic guide for both Soto and Rinzai practitioners for the next 800 years just about the time Dogen was in China.

So Dogen isn’t speaking the definitive historical truth here.

As for Rujing, The Record of Rujing is generally considered to be characteristic of teachers in his generation and does not stand out as exceptional. Indeed, without Dogen, Rujing would have been a minor footnote in Ch’an history.

In other places in his writings, Dogen praises Rujing for frequently giving dharma talks, for joining the monks in zazen, and for being available for what we might call dokusan throughout the day and night. This was especially true for Dogen – after he and Rujing met, Rujing invited him to come to his room for dharma interview any time. Ironically, then, Dogen’s vertical praise for Rujing is due to his teacher’s willingness to engage in a quite horizontal relationship.

So Dogen seems to be speaking through his feelings here – his extreme praise a true expression for the extreme indebtedness he felt for Rujing’s compassionate teaching.

That this praise didn’t come for some fourteen years after Rujing’s death is one of the mysteries in Dogen studies. In fact, for the first decade or so after Rujing’s death, Dogen says very little about Rujing. Speculations by Buddhist scholars to explain the sudden eruption in Rujing-related passages in Shobogenzo range from political posturing to social psychology.

I think that it took Dogen a while to know that he was alone and appreciate his late teacher.

Still, there are at least a couple dangers in Dogen putting Rujing way up high, elevating the him to heights only a dead person could endure, such that this aspect of Dogen’s Zen ought not be emulated today.

First, uncritically accepting Dogen’s view might lead to an admiration for the good old days when there were really great teachers around and discourage practice now with the bunch of bozos we have teaching today (present company included), in a No Zen Teachers in the West way.

The second danger in Dogen’s attitude here is that it might block our practice from becoming mature – not that it had that effect on Dogen, of course. For our own spiritual maturity, it is vital that we go beyond our teachers, finding a way now to express the way. If we put our teachers up too high and ignore their basic humanness, we betray them and ourselves.

We can’t really go beyond someone (of our own imagination) that is forever exceeding all expectations of basic humanness.

And we don’t have to deify our teachers to do the work. More than that, when we deify, we aren’t doing the work.

The plum blossoms in snow is the emergence of an udumbara blossom. How often do we see the eyeball of the true dharma of our Buddha Tathagata but do not smile, missing his blink? Now we authentically receive and accept that plum blossoms in snow are truly the Tathagata’s eyeball. We take them up and hold them as the eye at the top of the head, as the eye of the eye.

Dainin: Dogen is trying to say what we should transmit the dharma. But what is “dharma?”

The passage says that the udumbara flower blooms every three thousand years. If you want to receive the buddhadharma, the most important point is to receive plum blossoms and see the dynamic movement in everything.

If you receive this dharma, it is exactly the same as plum blossom or udumbara flowers that bloom every three thousand years. It is very rare, but that is why it is so precious.

If you live in this world as a human being, whatever way you follow, the most important point is to take responsibility for something important about human life and transmit this to the next generation. For a Zen priest, this is dharma transmission, passed from generation to generation through the whole world.

When we enter into plum blossoms and fully study them, there is no room for doubt to arise. They are already the eyeball of “Alone above and below the heavens, I am the honored one,” and again, “most honored in the world of phenomena.”

Dainin: In terms of the deep understanding of time, you are exactly alone in the whole world. Nobody around you to depend on. When we die, we can experience this. We are completely alone. There may be many people around, but nobody can help. Maybe we will feel people’s kindness. Nevertheless, we are alone, snow all over.

Our life is just a scarlet plum blossom blooming in the snow.

In the realm of perfect aloneness, we have to let the flower of our life bloom. Then our life becomes dharma and we can see the sublimity of human life. That’s why Buddha Shakyamuni mentions, Alone above and below the heavens, I am the honored one.

Dosho: And also “most honored in the world of phenomena.” Entering plum blossoms is to enter the softly falling rain outside the window just now – jer jer jer jer. Just this, most honored in the world of phenomena.

Thus, heavenly blossoms in heaven, heavenly blossoms in the human world, mandara blossoms raining from heaven, great mandara blossoms, manjushaka blossoms, great manjushaka blossoms, and all blossoms of inexhaustible lands in the ten directions are one family of plum blossoms in snow. Because they bloom as offerings of plum blossoms, billions of blossoms are one family of plum blossoms. They should be called young plum blossoms. Furthermore, flowers in the sky, flowers on the earth, and flowers of samadhi are all the large and small members of plum blossoms’ family.

Dainin: When the scarlet plum blossom blooms in the snow, this is peace. Letting the flower of our life bloom in complete aloneness is called “snow all over.” At that time, our life is really blooming. That life is exactly the same life of trees, rain, thunderstorms, snow, heavenly blossoms, human blossoms.

The land all covered in the ten directions. That is plum blossoms blooming. If you realized how lonely you are in this world and you go deeply into this aloneness you can see that there is nothing to depend on. Just emptiness – fully energetic and alive. You can stand up there. That is pure energy of life, like a scarlet plum blossom blooming in the snow. Everything exists like this.

I am here and let the flower of my life bloom right now. It is one family of plum blossoms among the many, many plum blossoms. It means everything exists like plum blossoms blooming in the snow. One Buddha appears. One plum blossom Buddha exists.

This happens through the virtue of plum blossoms. In the realm of snow all over, they bloom through the virtue of plum blossoms. Billions of blossoms are one family of plum blossoms. So everything is the same: the trees, birds, you, everything is exactly the same as plum blossoms in snow all over.

Thanks to the virtue of plum blossoms, we can see myriad things in this world, including suffering and our consciousness from century after century. Many lands you can see.

Dosho: “That is plum blossoms blooming.” That is you you-ing.

To form billions of lands within blossoms and to bloom in the land is the gift of plum blossoms. Without the offering of plum blossoms there is no offering of rain or dew. The life vein consists of plum blossoms.

Dainin: Rain and dew are in the same state of existence as plum blossoms. Scarlet plum blossoms in snow; this is rain; this is dew. Rain has its own virtue to make everything wet and to grow. We have the great opportunity to receive and transmit this dharma from century after century.

Dosho: After last nights rain, a cool wind blows through the window and chills me through and through. How refreshing!

Print Friendly


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X