by Eihei Dogen

English version by Steven Heine
Original Language Japanese

A white heron
Hiding itself
In the snowy field,
Where even the winter grass
Cannot be seen.

-- 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

Looking out the window this morning, I saw a quiet world, mist trickling in among the winter-bare branches, yesterday's snow still new upon the ground. I thought of this poem...


It may not seem obvious with the first reading... Why does Dogen entitle this poem "Worship"? What does a white heron in snow have to do with worship?

Let's contemplate the imagery of this poem a bit. "A white heron / hiding itself / in a snowy field..." Have you ever watched a heron fishing, wading at the edge of a lake? It is completely focused, and even when it moves it seems utterly still. Because of these qualities, the heron becomes a symbol of the Zen meditator. You have a being of white -- the heron, the meditator -- disappearing into an environment of white -- the snow. In fact, the heron is not passively disappearing, it is actively engaged in the process; it is "hiding itself" in the snow. How does the heron hide itself? Through its stillness.

Snow is often used in Zen poetry to suggest the true nature of the world when finally perceived by the enlightened awareness. Everything is seen as one, the same, radiant, "white" -- everything comes to rest in the interpenetrating glow of being. The idea of separation is lost in that light. Beings and objects, yourself included, are suddenly recognized as one fluid continuity in that "snowy field."

So this is what true worship is, according to Dogen: Through deep, focused meditation to recognize your own bright nature in the midst of the still, bright field of being -- and to let the sense of a separate (little) self fade as you gently merge into that radiance of interbeing.

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