Dogen’s tears

Japanese Zen philosopher Dogen (1200-53) always strikes the reader as a paragon of intellect. His insight, dogged pursuit of philosophical questions, and his ability to examine questions from every perspective makes him the model Zen thinker. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that his nearest contemporary Western counterpart was the medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

At the same time, Dogen is the archetypal “serious” personality: dry, aloof, reserved. Dogen wrote poems, but his poetry lacks the emotional and sensitive perspective that truly animates better poetry. Such sentiment is not romantic but reflective, insightful, and understands the whole with more than the mind alone.

Dogen’s poetry reads like intellectual commentary put into verse, as in this example:

Snow covering the red blossoms,
Unfettered by the dusty world;
Is it too cluttered even in this secluded mountain —
Who can really say?
When a single plum blossom opens,
Therein is held the awakening
Of the exquisite beauty of spring.

Sometimes this intellectualism makes the poem simply awkward:

The mountain filled with leafless trees
Crisp and clear on this autumn night;
The full moon floating gently above the cluster of roofs.
Having nothing to depend on,
And not climbing to any place;
Free, like steam rising from a full bowl of rice.

Here the equation of “free” and “steam” evoke the sense of enlightenment mingled with impermanence and evanescence, and the mundaneness of rice intends to appeal to a wabi standard. But here the equivalences only work at an intellectual level. Again, there is no emotional involvement in the setting.

But Dogen also writes poetry “in the style of Saigyo.”

The Japanese Buddhist poet Saigyo (1118-90) wrote more familiarly. Emotion is an essential ingredient of his verse, not as romanticism but as melancholy and solitude. Saigyo helped pioneer the maturation of sabi and the short verse that would endear him for centuries later. He was Basho’s model poet, Basho in turn being the preeminent haiku poet, capturing image, feeling, and wabi-sabi in the shortest possible verse, in scintillating and moving evocations. All of these characteristics are already found in Saigyo.

Dogen clearly admires Saigyo and he tries to capture these poetic elements. With this set of poems, Dogen’s poetic efforts are somewhat warmer, but only when he adheres closely to seasonal words and images, less so when he adds an interpretation to them.

Thus we have snow, mountains, moon, plum blossoms, the thatched hut, the cuckoo and the cricket — all of the requisite images, but still we labor to see how Dogen feels. He will tell us in one poem that “even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation / you can never forget the meaning of sadness” — but we just don’t know if he is really sad or how it really feels to be sad because he doesn’t express melancholy.

Perhaps this is always the intellectual’s weakness but it cannot be the poet’s. Dogen’s best poem in the style of Saigyo hints at emotion in a tantalizing way that reflects his own ambiguity about expressing feelings. Perhaps it helps to know that Dogen’s parents died when he was still young.

This best poem contains the last lines cited above. Watch for the source of tears in this summary poem of Dogen’s path. Is it the bamboo or is it the poet at the end of dawn’s meditation?

The unspoiled colors of a late summer night,
The wind howling through lofty pines —
The feel of autumn approaching;
Swaying bamboos keep resonating,
Shedding tears of dew at dawn;
Only those who exert themselves fully
Will attain the Way.
But even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation,
You can never forget the meaning of sadness.