On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

Mar 13 2019

Shodoka - Song of Awakening

Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665-713)

Commentary by Koda Sawaki (1885-1965)

Seize the root, don't worry about the branches,

Just like the transparent jewel swallowed up by the light of the moon

The Mind of the Way

This is the most important verse in Shodoka. An old adage says: "In the age of the last Dharma, people do not seek true reality, but desire the divine powers." True reality is the essence and the original source, while divine powers are merits. We like the merits and dislike the essence. We love to receive a salary, we don't love the work; we love the reward, we don't love the effort.

Nevertheless, the main thing is true reality. The divine powers are only appendages. Seize the root, don't worry about the branches. We must seek the truth without worrying about divine powers. Let us seize the essence of things; the rest is secondary and unimportant. When we have an accurate and panoramic view of our nature, what does it matter whether others criticize or admire us? Still, the majority of people seek only praise.

It it written in Dogen's Gakudoyojinshu: "They throw out the root and run after the leaves...When something enjoys people's favor, they practice it, even while knowing that it is contrary to the Way.  They abstain from practicing what is neither praised nor renowned, when they know it is the true Way. What sadness!"

Later on he explains the reason for this: "Some are taught to seek awakening outside of the mind, others to be reborn in another land. Such doctrines are sources of error and confusion, they are responsible for wrong thoughts. Suppose that someone gives you a good medicine and doesn't show you how to use it, the illness that you contract will be worse than if you had taken poison.

"In our country, it seems that since ancient times there haven't been good doctors capable of giving good medicines nor anyone to verify the effects. It is already so difficult to eliminate the sufferings and diseases of life, and we would wish to escape from the pains of old age and death! All that is the fault of the masters and not that of the disciples!"

Only the mind of the Way is important. Whether or not the theoretical doctrine is of great depth doesn't enter into consideration! Seize the root, don't worry about the branches. Go directly to the mind of the Way. The rest is secondary. Without dwelling upon appearances or seeking profit, question yourself about the rightness of your own practice, and if it's perfectly correct, the fact that others criticize you or heap you with praise is without importance. This verse contains the essence of Shodoka.

A Total View of the Pure Truth

Just like the transparent jewel swallows the light of the moon. This image symbolizes the one who seizes the root without worrying about the branches. Traveling back upstream within the poem, we reach the passage: the gate of unconditioned reality that one clears at a leap, entering the land of the Buddha...the three bodies and four wisdoms are perfected in their body....and we arrive at their source: This tranquil person of the Way who has attained awakening and ceased studying and acting.

What then is this transparent jewel whose breadth, height, and depth are without limit, within which the past, the present, and the future transpire? The Zen of the Buddha, of course. This pure jewel is our original body, our essence, the target of our quest.

In the Daijo kishin-ron the pure jewel signifies the essence of mind, the true reality. Each individual sees reality differently, according to their abilities and disposition. Because of our senses we have an erroneous view of reality. The sutra tells us: "The original body of the true Dharma is neither produced nor destroyed. It manifests itself thanks to the power of the vows of great compassion. In our original mind there is neither coming nor going, whereas in our illusory body all is production and destruction."

Just like the transparent jewel swallows the light of the moon. We understand this phrase with our intellect, but not in the depths of our heart. Mental constructions cloud the transparency of the crystal, just as tinted glasses intercept the rays of the sun. The goal of our practice is to clean the jewel, to restore its original purity and transparency so that its tone, colorless and transparency, when placed on a green cloth radiates green, on a red cloth red, and on a white cloth white. In truth, this crystal, though colorless and without stain, always appears different.

Shigetsu Zenji wrote: "When the sea is agitated it's difficult to recover a gem from the depths of the water." If our mind is disturbed by the waves of illusion, we will not recover true reality. It is the role of religion to show us the existence of this eternal transparency.

"When my mind is at peace,

everything around is tranquil.

The day stretches out

with the innocence of a little child.

The calm of the mountain resembles the ancient days."

To stretch the day gives a sense to life and makes us happy. The length of the day is of variable dimension. There are people of short days and people of long days. Some, although on a tight schedule all year long, realize a balance sheet of very positive activity. Others have no time for leisure and complain that the days are too short, yet when one looks at what they garnered over the preceding year, there's nothing there.

To stretch out time is happiness, and time is extraordinarily long when one does zazen, while an hour, two hours, or even the entire night passed in chatting and drinking with friends are nothing.When the day stretches out like a little child, it's because it's filled with very rich content.

They say that during zazen illusions abound in the consciousness, but, in fact, these are not illusions. It's our mind's contents that are manifesting, and we have every reason to be astonished. "That's me! How insignificant!"

There are all sorts of things within us, the devil and Buddha, lust and bestiality; in truth our substance is very rich. There's no notion of time and space. There is paradise and hell. Just as the light of the moon penetrates the transparent jewel, we are perfectly reflected in the mirror of our mind.

Our mind contains billions of thoughts and not merely three thousand as the texts say. Like a kaleidoscope, the mind produces infinite combinations of images. In the peace of zazen, one realizes that all the Buddhist philosophies, whether Tendai with its three thousand thoughts or Kusha with its seventy five categories, are incapable of drawing up a list of the contents of the mind. The psychic phenomena are infinite.

Seated in zazen posture, we exhibit the calm of the mountain in ancient days. Zazen is the fundamental and eternal posture that, without discontinuity, traverses past, present, and future. It has not changed since Shakyamuni. The day stretching out like a little child is eternally new, and in the peace of the mountain you become the eternal figure of the past.

Seated simply, you become a Buddha living just as the transparent jewel swallows the light of the moon. This single phrase contains the essence of Buddhism.

Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665-713)

Commentary by Kodo Sawaki


Only the mind of the Way is important. Whether we ever have our own song of awakening as expressed in the Shodoka, if we manage to keep close to the mind that seeks the Way, we are doing well here. The more extreme the shared reality becomes, the more centered in the Way we settle. What else is there?

Sometimes, like now, less is more....

Sending the peace of the mountain,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen