Book Bits, The Masters

Dogen’s Seal of the Ocean: How Meditation and Life Can Flow Like Water

“Though we do not take up residence in the east, west, south, or north, we do return, our boat empty yet fully illumined by the Moon’s Light.”

– Eihei Dogen


Contained within Eihei Dogen‘s monumental teaching work, The Shobogenzo, is a chapter titled Kai-in Zanmai that translates as The Meditative State That Bears the Seal of the Ocean. In this extract of the chapter, the Japanese Master invokes an oceanic state of non-identification as something that expresses the true Dharma, or our true nature, according to the teachings of Buddha. Here when he talks about a seal, he talks about it in the context of a seal that would be put on a document in order to authenticate it as true; so the seal of the ocean – the ocean being all being and containing the expression of all – would imply a mark of true authenticity.


All of the Buddhas and Ancestors invariably enter the meditative state that bears the seal of the Ocean. As They swim about in this meditative state, there are times when They give expression to the Truth, and times when They experience the Truth directly, and times when They put It into Their daily practice. The merit of Their doing Their practice upon the surface of the Ocean includes Their having penetrated to the very bottom of the Ocean. They make Their practice upon the surface of the Ocean Their practice that plumbs the depths of the Ocean. They are not concerned with wistfully seeking out ways to make Their wandering about through birth and death return Them to the Source. Instead, They have broken through former obstructions, as if They were passing through barrier gates or piercing through the joints in a cane of bamboo. This liberation is characteristic of each and every Buddha and Ancestor, for They are the various streams that have flowed into the meditative state that bears the seal of the Ocean.

The Buddha once said in verse:

Merely of various elements is this body of Mine composed.
The time of its arising is merely an arising of elements;
The time of its vanishing is merely a vanishing of elements.
As these elements arise, I do not speak of the arising of an ‘I’,
And as these elements vanish, I do not speak of the vanishing of an ‘I’.
Previous instants and succeeding instants are not a series of instants that depend on each other;
Previous elements and succeeding elements are not a series of elements that stand against each other.
To give all of this a name, I call it ‘the meditative state that bears the seal of the Ocean’.

Arriving at the Way and entering into the realization of the Truth do not necessarily depend on listening to someone else or on speaking with someone else.


We need to make a diligent effort to fully explore these words of the Buddha. Arriving at the Way and entering into the realization of the Truth do not necessarily depend on listening to someone else or on speaking with someone else. And we have heard of those whose knowledge is broad who have realized the Way upon hearing four lines of Scripture, and those who have knowledge as extensive as the sands of the Ganges have been known to realize the Truth through hearing a single line of a Scriptural verse. And what is more, the Buddha’s present words are not about seeking one’s inherent enlightenment in what lies ahead, nor are they about grasping after one’s first awareness of enlightenment within some experience. In general, even though making one’s inherent enlightenment manifest is the meritorious behavior of a Buddha or an Ancestor, the various kinds of enlightenment—such as the first inkling of enlightenment or the full experience of one’s inherent enlightenment—are not the only things that make a Buddha or an Ancestor what They are.


Meditative states are what manifest right before our eyes. They are our realization of the Way. They are the middle of the night when we grope behind us for our pillow. They are our groping behind us for our pillow on such a night. And our groping about for our pillow is not something we do just for billions and billions of myriad eons: it is our being within the Ocean, constantly doing nothing other than giving expression to the Teaching on the Flowering of the Wondrous Dharma. Because we do not speak of the arising of an ‘I’, we are within the Ocean. Its former surface, which is myriad ripples that follow from the slightest movement of a single wave, refers to our constantly giving expression to the Dharma. And Its later surface, which is a single wave that follows from the slightest movement of those myriad ripples, is the Teaching we give on the Flowering of the Wondrous Dharma.

Meditative states are what manifest right before our eyes. They are our realization of the Way. They are the middle of the night when we grope behind us for our pillow.

Even were we to reel up and cast out a thousand foot or ten thousand foot fishing line, such a line would, alas, just hang straight down. ‘The former surface’ and ‘the later surface’ refer to that surface of the Ocean which we are on. It is as if we were to speak of the front of our head and the back of our head. What we call the front part of our head and the back part of our head is adding a head upon a head. It is not that there is a person inside, for the Ocean of one’s being is not some abode of a worldly person nor is it some place beloved by a saintly person; it is one’s Self alone within the Ocean of one’s being. It is simply our constantly and openly giving expression to the Dharma. This ‘within the Ocean’ does not pertain to Its center, nor does it pertain to Its inside or outside; it is our constantly and endlessly dwelling within It as we give expression to the Teachings that are the Flowering of the Dharma. Though we do not take up residence in the east, west, south, or north, we do return, our boat empty yet fully illumined by the Moon’s Light. This genuine refuge is our returning to our Original Nature. Who could say that this is our day-by-day conduct of ‘staying in the water’? It is simply the Way of the Buddha manifesting in the Ultimate. We treat this as the seal that seals water. Put another way, it is the seal that seals limitless space. And put another way still, it is the seal that seals the mud. The seal that seals the water is not necessarily the seal that seals the Ocean, for above and beyond this there can be a seal that seals the Ocean. We call these the seal of the Ocean, and the seal of the water, and the seal of the mud, and the seal of the Mind. Having been directly Transmitted the seal of the Mind, we seal the water, and seal the mud, and seal the boundless space.

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
Translated by Rev. Hubert Nearman, O.B.C.

From: Shobogenzo


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