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

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 can be understood to express 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 Haiku Enlightenment: New Expanded Edition The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace The Soul is Here for its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures
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