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

A Gentle, Caring Way of Life: Dreaming of Dharma Transmission Plum Blossoms July 24, 2013

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.

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