Gail Sher • Dharma Talks

Plum Blossoms Amid Fallen Snow: Dogen’s Chinese Kanshi

Plum Blossoms Amid Fallen Snow: Dogen's Chinese Kanshi

From the time of Shakyamuni, Buddhist masters have questioned the ability of language to express reality beyond discrimination and conceptualization, and yet these masters all tried to express this reality using language, including Dogen.  That said, sometmes it can be difficult for students of the Way to grasp what Dogen is saying.  To help his monks (and us, students from later generations) recall important points, Dogen encapsulated many of his teachings into short poems that we might hold lightly in our minds.  For this purpose he wrote a total of 60 Japanese waka and 450 Chinese kanshi.  (Kan means Chinese and shi means poetry.)  Later, in the 17th-18th century, a certain Soto Zen scholar-monk named Menzan Zuihō, when he was old, thought what a shame it was that many young practitioners do not have access to these poems which are brief and uncomplicated and truly helpful for understanding Dogen.  So he made a collection of them for our sake.  One prevelant theme is snow, a symbol for the unity of the one and the many.  Another is advice to a Zen person who had either asked Dogen a question directly or requested advice in a letter.  In this series we will look at six of his kanshi carefully and listen to numerous others and a few of my own for fun.

First Talk: Plum Blossoms Amid Fallen Snow

“For many years I merely saw that mountains had snow. This winter, suddenly I realize that snow completes mountains.”


Date/Time: October 30, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes

Second Talk: Deepening Dusk in Early Winter

“Huike was not permitted to enter Bodhidharma’s room. He stood in the snow almost until dawn. At that time, it was the final month of a year, and a very cold day. It is said that it was the night of the 9th day of the 12th month. Even if it was not heavily snowing, the winter night in the deep mountains is not aplace a human being can stand on the outside ground. It was a dreadful time of the year; even a joint of bamboo would be broken with cold. Therefore, a huge amount of snow covered the entire earth, both mountains and peaks. Huike sought the Way in the snow. We cannot imagine how hard it was.”


Date/Time: November 6, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes

Third Talk: Gautama’s Old Eyes

Rujing says that when Shakyamuni Buddha attained awakening while sitting under the bodhitree, the Buddha lost his eyes, that is, when he saw the reality of no-self, the dichotomy between subject (eyes) and object (bright star) is dropped off. He found interdependent origination with all beings. That is the meaning of the famous expression, “I, together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously attain the Way.”

Date/Time: November 13, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes

Fourth Talk: Thank You Very Much, I Have No Complaints Whatsoever

“When we find the joy of our life in our composure, we don’t know what it is, we don’t understand anything, then our mind is very great, very wide. Our mind is open to everything, so it is big enough to know before we know something. We are grateful even before we have something. “

—Suzuki Roshi

Date/Time: November 20, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes

Fifth Talk: Poem Given to a Zen Person as a Gift

As a bodhisattva I vow NOT to enter nirvana. To stay in samsara we need karmic consciousness that creates ignorance. We need ignorance to stay in samsara to help all beings.

Date/Time: December 4, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes

Sixth Talk: From the Hundred-Foot Pole, Take Another Step

“When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When the bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole space and vigorously acts in every place.”


Date/Time: December 11, 2022 | 10:00 a.m. (Pacific Time)

Duration: 60 minutes