Zen Art as Practice:

"Painting Spring"

from a chapter in The Eight Gates of Zen


Master Dogen, addressing the assembly, said:

My late master, old Buddha (T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching), said, "The original face has no birth and no death, Spring is in the plum blossoms and enters into a painting." When you paint Spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots, but just paint Spring. To paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is to paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots - it is not yet painting Spring. It is not that Spring cannot be painted, but aside from my late master, old Buddha, there is no one in India or China who has painted Spring. He alone was the sharp, pointed brush who painted Spring. This Spring is Spring in the painting because it enters into a painting. He does not use any other power, but lets plum blossoms activate Spring. He lets Spring enter into a painting and into a tree - this is his skillful means. Because my late master, old Buddha, clarified the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, he correctly transmitted it to the Buddhas and ancestors who assembled in the ten directions of past, future, and present. In this way, he thoroughly mastered the eyeball and opened up the plum blossoms.

This was written on the sixth day, eleventh month, first year of Kongen, 1243, at Yoshimi Monastery, Yoshita County, Echizen Province. Deep snow, three feet, all over the earth.

Master Dogen is one of the spiritual giants of history and one of the greatest religious teachers of Japan. He was an incredible poet, mystic, and philosopher, compiling many of his major works while in his thirties. This translation of "Plum Blossoms" is another of the sections of his master work, Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.

"When you paint Spring do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots, but just paint Spring." What is Dogen talking about when he says, "just paint Spring?" What is Spring? He says that "Spring is in the plum branch covered with snow." In that withered-looking single branch sticking out from under the snow at thirty-below-zero, there is Spring. Why can't we see it? Why can't it be seen? "Even though the attainment of realization is immediately manifest, its intimate nature is not necessarily realized. Some may realize it and some may not." Just paint Spring.

Master Dogen writes in another fascicle, "The Way of Everyday Life," that "Seeing forms with the whole body and mind, hearing sounds with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately." By definition, "intimately" means that there is no separation. To "be intimate" means to be the thing itself. Ti-ts'ang once asked Fa-yen, "Joza, where have you come from?" "I pilgrimage aimlessly," replied Fa-yen. "What is the matter of your pilgrimage?" asked Ti-ts'ang. "I don't know," replied Fa-yen. "Not knowing is most intimate," remarked Ti-ts'ang. At that, Fa-yen experienced great enlightenment.

In intimacy there is no internal dialogue letting you know that you are sitting well or not sitting well, constantly evaluating, comparing, analyzing, judging. The witness disappears - there is no body, no mind, no self, no other. No subject or even object of your attention exists. When you are the thing itself, it pervades the whole universe. When the thing itself pervades the whole universe, the reference system that we use to evaluate, analyze, judge, understand, and know is gone. How can you possibly know? A student says, "I was in deep samadhi." I ask, "What was it like?" She says, "Well, it was all black and then I felt this and then I felt that." In deep samadhi there is no way to evaluate; there is no sense of time or space. There is "no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, taste, touch, or phenomenon; no world of sight, or consciousness" What are you going to evaluate with? That is the intimacy that Master Dogen is speaking of. That is the intimacy of "when you walk, just walk; when you cry, just cry; when you laugh, just laugh."

One of the Kamakura-period koans is similar, on the surface, to what is going on here. Artists and samurai warriors flocked by the thousands to the monasteries to learn Zen during the Kamakura period, the samurai because they were very concerned about being free from the question of life and death and had heard that Zen monks had it resolved, and the artists because they found that there was a particular kind of aesthetic in Zen that affected the way of perceiving painting, architecture, sculpture, and other arts. What we do here at Zen Mountain Monastery is very much a part of that Kamakura spirit, with the important distinction that we don't engage in what became in Japan a kind of "watered down" version of Zen in order to make it palatable to artists. We don't dilute it at all. It is the whole thing - you get it or you don't get it.

At that time, Zen literature and koans were written in classical Chinese, which very few Japanese could speak or read. Also, the study of these koans required a profound understanding of Chinese poetry. So, Kamakura masters redid the koans to make them more Japanese, more understandable.

One of these koans is called "Painting the Nature." It deals with Ichu, a famous painter and Zen teacher, the seventh master of Jifuku-ji. One day Nambutzu, a great warrior, came to see him and asked whether he could paint the fragrance described in a famous line of poetry: "After walking through the flowers, the horse's hoof is fragrant." Ichu drew a horse's hoof with a butterfly fluttering around it. Then Nambutzu quoted the line, "Spring breeze over the river bank," and asked for a picture of the breeze. Ichu drew a branch of waving willow. Nambutzu cited the famous Zen phrase, "A finger directly pointing to the human mind; see the nature to be Buddha," and asked for a picture of the mind. Ichu picked up the brush and flicked a spot of ink onto Nambutzu's face. The warrior was surprised and annoyed; Ichu rapidly sketched the angry face. Nambutzu then asked for a picture of "the nature." Ichu broke the brush. Nambutzu didn't understand, and Ichu remarked, "If you haven't got the seeing eye, you can't see it." Nambutzu asked him to take another brush and paint a picture of the nature. Ichu replied, "Show me your nature and I'll paint it." Nambutzu had no words. There are test questions for this koan, including: How do you show the Nature? Come, see your nature and bring proof of it! Say something on behalf of Nambutzu!

In this koan, needless to say, the questions and the way the master responded to them are at a very different level of understanding than what Dogen refers to when he speaks of his teacher, T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching. "It is not that Spring cannot be painted, but aside from our late master, Old Buddha, there is no one in India or China who has painted Spring. He alone was the sharp, pointed brush who painted Spring." Painter, brush, canvas, image, subject - they are not many. The painter is the brush, the image is the painter, the subject is the object, the canvas is the paint. Those things only separate themselves when we separate them by the way we use our mind. Whether you are speaking of a painting, Mu, a tree, a Buddha, or a plum branch - how you see it, how you relate to it has to do with how you live your life, with the question of life and death itself. "To paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is to paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots; it is not yet painting Spring." How do you paint Spring? "This Spring is the Spring in the painting because it enters into a painting. He does not use any other power, but lets plum blossoms activate Spring. He lets Spring enter into a painting and into a tree, this is the skillful means." How do you manifest the sharp, pointed brush that paints Spring?

"To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas. To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to cast off body and mind of self and other." The ten thousand dharmas are the whole phenomenal world. To be enlightened by the whole phenomenal world is to cast off body and mind of self and other. To be enlightened by the painting of Spring is to enter into Spring itself. Spring enlightens the painter, the painter enlightens Spring. Self is forgotten, Spring is forgotten. He "lets the plum blossoms activate Spring" - no other power is used.

"Because my late master, Old Buddha, clarified the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, he correctly transmitted it to Buddhas and ancestors who assembled in the ten directions of past, future, and present. In this way, he thoroughly mastered the eyeball and opened up the plum blossom." The "eyeball" referred to here is the Dharma eye, the Buddha's eye. But how is it that his old master T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching thoroughly and correctly transmitted this "True Dharma Eye" to Buddhas and ancestors - including the ones who preceded him, the ones who were in his presence, and the ones who followed him? He transmitted into the past, present, and future. Kasho Buddha, one of the legendary past seven Buddhas, died long before the Buddha was born. How is it that he transmitted to him? How is it that the act of realization penetrates both forward and backward?

Every act of karma does that. We think of karma as affecting only the future, but it also affects the past and the present. If you want to understand the past, look at the present. If you want to know the future, look at the present. This very moment is past, present, and future. Mount Gridhrakuta is here on this mountain. The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye of this very moment walks forward and backward in time.

"He correctly transmitted it to the Buddhas and ancestors who assembled in the ten directions of past, future, and present. In this way he thoroughly mastered the eyeball and opened the plum blossom." What is the opening of the plum blossom? It is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas, by the whole phenomenal universe. To be enlightened by the whole phenomenal universe is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to "cast off body and mind of self and other." Then, "no trace of enlightenment remains and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly."

"This was written on the sixth day, eleventh month, first year of Kongen at Yoshimi Monastery, Yoshita County, Echizen Province. Deep snow, three feet, all over the earth." "All over the earth" is right here now! The snowflake falls no place but here. No place but here is all over the earth - all over the universe. "Fields and mountains all taken by the snow... Nothing remains."

"If doubt arises and you think that plum blossoms are not Gautama's eyeballs, you should consider whether anything other than plum blossoms should be seen as eyeballs. If you seek the eyeballs elsewhere, you will not recognize them even though you are facing them because the meaning is not consummated. This day is not this day of an individual, but it is this day of the great house. Right now you should realize the plum blossoms as eyeballs. Stop seeking any further." What does he mean, to realize the plum blossoms as eyeballs? Another translation of this passage reads: "If we're deluded and think that the plum blossom is not the enlightened eye..." Notice that what one translation expresses as "eyeball" another calls "the enlightened eye." The translation continues, "It is not the enlightened eye of Shakyamuni. We should ask ourselves if there is any other vision besides this. You should know that if you seek enlightenment outside of plum blossoms you will not get it even if it is right in your hands. Even if it is in front of your face, you will not see it. Today is not our day, but the day of the Buddha Way. Right now we must open up the enlightened eye of the plum blossoms and stop chasing after other things." The plum blossom - what is it? What is the opening of the plum blossom? What is Gautama's eyeball, the eye of the Buddha? How will you "just" paint Spring?

People often say that the Soto School of Zen doesn't do koans, that it is the Rinzai School that uses koans. This is the master work of Dogen, founder of the Soto school in Japan, and just one of ninety-two chapters of the Shobogenzo: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. We're dealing with only three paragraphs of that chapter. In those three paragraphs are the following koans: What does it mean to just paint Spring? What is the sharp, pointed brush that paints Spring? How does Spring enter a painting? How does it enter the tree? How does he transmit to Buddhas of past, present, and future? What is it to master the eyeball and open the plum blossom? What is "deep snow, three feet, all over the earth"? What is the original face that has no birth or death? How does Spring in a plum blossom enter into a painting? These are all koans, and, needless to say, explanations won't reach them. In face-to-face teaching, the thing itself needs to be presented. Live words, not dead words - turning words that reveal "body and mind have fallen away."

"Fallen away body and mind" is not a zombie or corpse walking around, eyes rolled back, tongue pressed up against the upper palate, spaced out. It is alive, working, functioning, living, laughing, crying, dancing Zen, this-very-life-Zen, the only kind of Zen there is. Zen is not an activity that takes place in the world; Zen is the activity of the world itself. To paint Spring, to paint the eyeball of the Buddha, is to manifest The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. To transmit to the Buddhas of past, present, and future is the life of each one us that is to be realized. T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching, the old Buddha said:

Bright and bright, clear and clear Do not seek only within the shadow of plum blossoms. Rain is created and clouds are formed throughout past and present Past and present, solitary and silent Where does it end?

Clouds and rain are liberated from plum blossoms; past, present, and future are plum blossoms. Spring is activated from the power of plum blossoms. Where do you find yourself?




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