Monthly Archives: May 2015

“A waterfall hangs in space”

Number 18 in Stonehouse’s Mountain Poems (translation by Red Pine):

My Zen hut rests upon rocks at the summit
clouds fly past and more clouds arrive
a waterfall hangs in space beyond the door
a mountain ridge rises like a wave in back
I draw three buddhas on a wall
I put a plum branch in a jar for incense
the fields down below might be level
but can’t match a mountain’s freedom from dust

Some notes on this poem:

  • Plum branch. In the introduction to his translation of Dogen’s “On the Plum Blossom”, Hubert Nearman says:

    The plum tree holds a particular place in Chinese culture, one that was transplanted into the culture of Japan. As the earliest blooming of all trees, it comes into flower in the latter part of winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of spring. In Buddhist contexts, it is used as a metaphor for Shakyamuni Buddha, who was considered the first to bring forth the blossoming of the Dharma, and whose blossoming has inspired others to seek and find the Way.

    By extension, the plum tree is also seen as a reference to one’s Master and, in his writings, Dogen frequently refers to his Master as an ‘Old Buddha’. Further, the plum blossom is used as a metaphor for the udumbara flower which Shakyamuni held aloft, His eyes atwinkle. Upon seeing this, His disciple Makakasho broke out into a smile in response to his spiritual recognition of True Nature.

  • I draw three buddhas. Red Pine says that these are most likely Amita, Shakyamuni and Maitreya, the “buddhas of the past present and future dispensations of the Dharma.”
  • A waterfall hangs in space beyond the door / a mountain ridge rises like a wave in back. Classical East Asian geomancy (about which I really should learn more) prefers that a temple be backed by a mountain and have a body of water in front. (I guess that’s why Furnace Mountain installed the lotus pond down hill from our temple.) Stonehouse’s first hermitage site near the summit of Hsiamushan had a stream in front, and for the second site (on the northern side, called Hsiawushan) he had to dig his own lotus pond in front of the hermitage. So perhaps this poem refers to the first site, although I don’t know if the stream actually came with a waterfall. Maybe this is just poetic exaggeration. Whatever their role in geomancy—something having to do with managing the flow of qi I believe—for a Zen hermit I imagine that the mountain in back could bring to mind a stable seat in consciousness and flowing water in front would recall encounter with the ever-changing Ten thousand Things. Or one might think (in Huayen terms) of mountain as Absolute, waterfall as Relative. Either way, the poet’s inversion of images—the waterfall perceived as fixed, the mountain as flowing—is quite interesting.