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January 5, 2015

Dogen and Me: Person, Perspective, Purpose and Place

Hello friends!
Seth has written another exciting blog that looks at poetry derived from Zen practice and its ability to help us connect to the world and each other. This is a great topic! Forging personal and deep connections to both the human and non-human world is a very big piece of the environmental education puzzle.

We would love to hear from you on your own thoughts about how poetry and other forms of art cultivate a sense of place and connection! Please add your comments in the comment box.

USEE Staff

Lately I've been reading some of the poems and sayings of Dōgen.

He lived from 1200 to 1253 in the modern era.  Thought to be born an illegitimate child of a noble family, he was given up to a Buddhist monastery (which acted like orphanages, back then, for unwanted children in many cases) after his mother died at 7 years old.  He was influential in establishing the Soto school of Zen in Japan after studying it under master Rujing in China.

One thing I really like about Dōgen (as well as many other Zen poets) is that he practiced extracting symbolic profundity from any place and any moment by just being aware of what was outside and inside himself, thereby dissolving the boundary between self and world until there were no distinctions.  Oftentimes, making connections between seemingly unconnected things leads to thought-provoking insights.
When my mind is free--
I listen to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
And the drops become
One with me.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Trying to observe the world and his thoughts as with a mirror, Dōgen captured the world in the art of poetry.  With just a few well-chosen words he expressed that the real world was mystical and mysterious because relationships could be found between all things, beings and times.

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Oftentimes, when I get bored with life it is because I have lost awareness of the things and beings around me and the relationships I share with them.  I have lost sight of the mysticism and mystery of just existing.  Dōgen and the Zen poets help my awareness extend beyond myself reawakening a sense of wonder that has a healing affect on my mind.  I don't know how such simple observations/insights captured in such few words can have this effect.
The migrating bird
leaves no trace behind
and needs no guide.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Robert Bly

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
It does not get wet nor can its image be broken.
Although the moon's light is wide and great,
it is even reflected in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Reawakened with a sense of place, I realize all of the amazing things in the environment around me.

"When snow falls,
a heron
uses its whiteness
to disappear."
--poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

"Do not ask where I am going,
For everywhere I step in this world,
I am home."
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Sometimes, we're so caught up in the reel of our own lives, we forget just how amazing, complex and vast the world and universe beyond really are and we forget just how many other beings on Earth and beyond are navigating their own lives in their own little bubbles.  How often do we live right pass one another?  Sometimes loneliness, fear, paranoia, hatred, and insecurity kill the realization of connectedness, interrelatedness and wonder; our perception shrinks to hardline dichotomies like self and other, good and evil, us and them.  We only see strong distinctions everywhere, our judgments become severe, we become disinterested in learning about our differences (losing opportunities to build bridges, losing the insights that come with different perspectives), we cease to believe that everyone and everything has something to teach us, we forget that we too are not perfect and have blind spots.

I won't even stop
at the valley's brook
for fear that
my shadow
might flow into the world.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator
In the spring wind
peach blossoms
begin to fall.
Doubt will not grow
branches and leaves.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

But if we can re-center ourselves and reconnect with the moment, place and beings that we are sharing existence with, perhaps the world will seem less threatening, the differences that divide seem less alien, and the potential to transform it all in a constructive way will be greater than when all seems divided, antagonistic and in disarray.

"A fool sees himself and no other.  A wise man sees others in himself and himself in others."
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Life is opportunity, but many opportunities can only be realized by seeing the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be.  Dōgen was just a human being, but his unique way of seeing and approaching the world was a great contribution to the collective perspective.  His flavor of Zen tries to connect a person with the world as it is, believing that such a connection will lead to many insights and truths.

"If you cannot find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?"
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

I do not know if Dōgen is right in any absolute sense, but knowledge does not necessarily need to settle any questions of universal significance in order to help us learn and grow.  It is amazing enough that his art, after so many centuries, has helped me and others become more aware of the connection we have with the beings, things and time surrounding. 

With this deeper awareness comes the realization that if all beings are interconnected then so are their destinies.  Therefore a sense of responsibility grows that I work to better myself so that I can make my best contribution and that I help others maximize their potential so that they can make their greatest contribution, all working together towards a mutually better world.

Dōgen, seeking to discover a sense of place and connectedness through art led me to attempt the same.  Here is my Zen poem.  I encourage you to write yours.

When the cosmic wind loses its mind in a kaleidoscope tantrum
it blows a dust storm of time across the universe.

The trees on the side of the ever rising Mountain of Life,
keep pulling themselves higher by the root.

They hold fast to the underground network that sustains them.

Each one only perceives
their will against the world.....

Their focus solely on the stars,
who seem reachable in moments of inspiration,

but hopelessly far away
when in doubt........

How close must hardship bring us before we recognize that we are not alone?

=Seth Commichaux

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