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No Water, No Moon

September 1, 2012

by Stephen Damon

When the nun, Chiyono, studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail

Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break

Until at last the bottom fell out.

Nor more water in the pail!

No more moon in the water!

Zen teachers have often used the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water to illustrate the intersection of the absolute and the phenomenal.  The moon represents Buddha Nature and water, even a drop of water, represents the myriad things.. In the Genjo Koan, Dogen says that Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water.  So in our story, the nun, Chiyono, carefully carries her enlightenment experience, her kensho, in an “old bamboo pail,” which describes the impermanence of our frail and vulnerable bodies.  

One can imagine the great care she takes in trying to preserve what may have been a brief moment of realization.  I am sure that many of us have had the same kind of experience.  Even though we are taught over and over again to let go of whatever appears, we often hold onto to our moments of insight.  We tend to make theories and philosophies around such experiences rather than seeing that they are as impermanent as everything else around us. We forget that our experience is just a momentary result of the causes and conditions of our lives. The truth is beginningless and endless and is not dependent on momentary causes and conditions.  To illustrate how impermanent a moment of insight is, Dogen wrote a wonderful waka poem:


To what might it be compared?

Dwelling in the dewdrop

Fallen from a waterfowl’s beak,

The image of the moon.

We are as tiny and transient as a drop of dew and yet we also reflect the boundless and limitless moonlight.  Each moonlit drop of water embodies the intersection of impermanence and eternity, individuality and universality.  This is the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.  To see this, to see the absolute expressed in each “drop” of our lives, is to be enlightened. 

But enlightenment lasts only as long as the moment or two it takes for a dewdrop to fall from a waterfowl’s beak and splatter onto the grass.  Nothing lasts forever, not even enlightenment!  Every moment, whether it is filled with insight or just a memory of what happened to you the other day lasts only for a moment. But we don’t see this or if we do, we don’t accept it.  Instead, like the nun in our story, we fashion a bamboo pail so we can hold onto our experience. If we practice diligently we will learn how to let go of the pail and watch the image of Buddha disappear into the wild grass of our lives. With nothing to depend on, nothing to hold onto, we must follow the path, even when the moon is hidden by clouds.

True freedom is to let go of everything, even Buddha: A monk asked Namsen, “Is there any truth that has not yet been taught to the people?” Namsen replied, “It is not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not things.” (Mumonkan, Case 27)



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. This is a wonderful and insightful view of Enlightenment, what it is, what it isn’t…
    The seeking of Enlightenment is critical to understanding its path, yet the seeking in and of itself is a hindrance.
    Sometimes one must bring the moon to Earth and leave all its reflections behind.
    Thank you.

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