It’s nighttime, 1987, and a younger version of myself is curled up in a tent on the slopes of Mount Adams in the Washington Cascades, dog at her feet, tired after a long day’s work in the woods, reading by flashlight Moon in a Dewdrop, a collection of writings by Eihei Dogen, a thirteenth-century Japanese Zen monk and teacher. The book is filled with strange and wondrous poetic passages that I read over and over again, not understanding at all but moved by them nonetheless:
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
The language feels like the barely visible deer paths I follow through the hills, a beckoning, a brushstroke leading into a realm I can sense but not see, like the distant thrumming of a waterfall far above and out of sight. I have just begun to practice meditation and have not even attended my first vipassana retreat, but these words are a door opening into a new life.
Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice.
Moon in a Dewdrop was a small collection of Dogen’s writings, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi, a renowned calligrapher, peace activist and translator. Now, more than two decades later, Tanahashi and thirty-four collaborators—Zen poets, teachers and scholars—have completed a beautifully bound two-volume, translation of Dogen’s masterwork, Shobo Genzo, or, in English, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.
San Francisco Zen Center supported Tanahashi’s work on the translation for thirty-three years, and in October 2010 hosted a celebration of the book’s completion, which this reviewer attended. The poet and Zen teacher Peter Levitt, the volume’s associate editor, described the intimacy of going through the entire final manuscript with Tanahashi word by word, four or five times, “to try to find Dogen every time.” Levitt also spoke about the quality of intimacy that he finds in Dogen, saying that Dogen asks us to “be willing to know the world in the world’s own terms, find out what things are from within themselves, how each thing leans into everything else.”
Why does this publication matter to the larger Buddhist community? Dogen offers a tremendously broad and generous view of practice, one where all things—trees, walls, tiles, pebbles—not just human beings, are practicing together and where practice and awakening are not two separate activities or states. When we sit down for the very first time, we are actualizing enlightenment; it’s never separate from us, never somewhere else, never belonging to one person and not to another. In a world of apparent and dangerous chasms between the human and natural world, between cultures, religions and within our own minds, these are essential and healing teachings.
Thus mountains, rivers and the great earth are all the ocean of buddha nature. . . . It is not concerned with inside, outside or in between.
Dogen’s understanding was hidden for centuries, even in Japan, and it is a gift to be able to read and hold it now. Because Dogen uses language to take the reader into realms that are barely within the reach of language, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye is not easy reading for anyone. But for adventuresome Dharma students of any tradition, willing to be foolish and lost now and again, Dogen’s writings offer the possibility of a profound exploration into the nature of practice, words, intimacy and just about everything else. This complete and splendid translation, the work of translators deeply immersed in Dharma and three languages—medieval Japanese, modern Japanese and English—is a new atlas for such adventurers.
It’s been more than twenty years since I first encountered Dogen, and still I can’t pretend to fully—or even partially!—comprehend his vast, wild, nondual view of reality. But as I’ve walked through the mountains and deserts, the dense forests and river crossings and high rocky ridges of this human life, he has walked with me, illuminating the way.