Impermanence

by Eihei Dogen

English version by Steven Heine
Original Language Japanese

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.

-- from The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace, by Steven Heine

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I went for a walk yesterday along a nearby lake. The sun was out, but the cold... below zero. So cold the snow on the ground was a crystalline powder, causing the sunlight to dance in a thousand ways upon the white. The sun fooled me when I set out on my walk; I didn't wear warm enough clothing. Minutes out I had to re-wrap my scarf, winding it up and around my whole head leaving only a narrow slit for my eyes to peer out. I would expect a land asleep, shut down, merely surviving the cold, but instead I saw a world alive with the play of sunlight. Pines and junipers still green, somehow vibrant with their mysterious life beneath mottled mantles of dazzling white, mazes of squirrel tracks running among them along the snow-covered ground. And here I stand, witnessing it all from beneath my layers, trying not to be an alien in this harsh, beautiful world that is also my home. I say my hellos, a little too quickly, before the cutting cold sends me back home...

==

This poem by the Japanese Zen master Dogen paints a beautiful poetic image, but what does it really mean? What do moonlight and dewdrops have to do with a description of the world?

The moon, as I've said elsewhere, is a common spiritual metaphor used to describe enlightenment. Moonlight would be understood to mean the radiance of pure awareness that permeates the universe.

Here, that moonlight, that awareness, is "reflected / In dewdrops." Water is often used in Zen poetry as a symbol for the experience of the world -- it is tangible, yet ephemeral; it cannot be stopped or grasped. In the form of dew, it is in it's most fleeting form, ready to disappear at the slightest heavenly warmth.

Each dewdrop can be seen as an individual experience of the world or, alternately, an individual experiencer of the world. Each drop may appear separate, but they are of one substance. Although these worldly experiences do not generate light of their own, they reflect the light of pure awareness. Each drop, in fact, fully reflects the whole moon. There may be one moon above, but each person and each experience contains the full reflection of that moon within.

This is what Dogen is saying when he answers the question "To what shall / I liken the world?" Our notion of ourselves, our experiences, these are "the world." And, though this world is fleeting, it still offers us glimpses of the enlightenment that permeates all things, so long as we look at what is reflected within.



Recommended Books: Eihei Dogen

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) The Soul is Here for its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures





Impermanence