The ancestral way come from the west I transmit east.
Polishing the moon, cultivating clouds,
I long for the ancient wind.
How could red dusts from the mundane world fly up to here?
Snowy night in the deep mountains in my grass hut.1
This is verse 3 in Kuchugen and verse 100 of vol. 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). There is an important difference in the first word of line 2 of Manzan’s version.
Fishing for the moon, cultivating the clouds,
This is the same in verse 12 of Dogen Zenjji Goroku, selected sayings from Eihei Koroku.
Since Manzan’s version of Eihei Kouroku was published as a woodblock printing, and Kuchugen spread Manzan’s version of Dogen’s Chinese poems, this phrase, “Fishing for the moon, cultivating the clouds” (釣月耕雲, chogetsu koun) has been widely known as Dogen Zenji’s expression. This phrase has been often quoted and also many people made calligraphies of this phrase. Dainin Katagiri Roshi used these phrases in the names of his two temples in Minnesota; Koun-zan Ganshoji and Chogetsu-zan Hokyoji.
However, this is not Dogen’s original expression. The important Chinese Soto Zen master Hongzhi Zhengjue (Wanshi Shogaku, 1091–1157) used this expression in his verse included in vol. 8 of Wanshi Zenji Koroku (宏智禅師広録, Hongzhi’s Extensive Record).
Hongzhi also used the similar expression耕雲種月(koun shugetsu), cultivating underneath the clouds, planting seeds in the moon light. This expression is also well known in the Japanese Soto Zen community because it was used by the famous monk poet Daichi Sokei (1290-1366) in his poem.
In the Monkaku version of Eihei Koroku, the first kanji in the phrase is different. 瑩月耕雲 (keigetsu koun) instead of 釣月耕雲. A question is which was Dogen’s intention? Did Dogen use Hongzhi’s phrase without any changes or with a slight twist? Another question is: what do these phases mean?
The meaning of 耕雲種月(koun shugetsu) is clear. 種(shu) means “seeds” or “to sow seeds.” This phrase describes a farmer’s diligent hard work. The farmer cultivates the field during the daytime underneath the clouds, and sows seeds in the moonlight. He works all day until evening. This phrase describes monks’ diligent, continuous practice.
釣月耕雲 (chogetsu koun) can be interpreted in two ways. The first is the same as the above. A fisherman is fishing in the moonlight and a farmer is cultivating the field underneath the clouds. This means the monks are practicing diligently day and night, the same as the fisherman and the farmer working in their respective places.
The second possible meaning is “Fishing for the moon and cultivating the clouds.” Both the moon and clouds are objects of the verbs, fishing and cultivating. In this case, monks are doing different kinds of work from that of the fisherman and the farmer. The monks are fishing for the moon, the true reality of all things or the universal truth; and cultivating clouds, the field of emptiness.
In the case of 瑩月耕雲(keigetsu koun), obviously the moon and clouds are the objects of the verbs. 瑩means “clear,’” “bright,” “shine,” or as a verb, “to polish.” The monks’ practice is polishing the full moon that is already perfectly clear and bright, and cultivating the field of emptiness. I think this expression is suitable to Dogen’s insight about the identity of practice and verification.
This is one of Dogen's 15 poems about mountain dwelling (山居, sankyo), written after moving to Echizen. Dogen describes his practice with his sangha in the deep mountains during a cold, snowy winter night. He and his monks quietly practice the ancestral way transmitted from the west by Bodhidharma and further transmitted to Japan by Dogen himself. Their practice is like polishing the full moon that is already perfectly bright and clear, not like polishing a mirror to take off the dust. Their practice is also like cultivating the field of emptiness that is like clouds. This is the practice following the ancient ancestor Bodhidharma’s style of practice, no-gaining. “Ancient wind” here means ancient style of practice. Within this practice, there is no way the dust of the mundane world can sneak in. In the deep mountains, it is snowing quietly. Since the poem includes the phrase “in my grass hut,” this poem might have been composed within their first winter in Echizen in 1243 before the new monastery building was constructed.
When I practiced with two dharma brothers at Valley Zendo in the woods in Western Massachusetts, I often remembered this poem. Especially in the quiet evening in the winter, when the ground was covered by deep snow and illuminated by the bright full moon, I felt I did not belong to any man-made system or organization, but practiced together only with the moon, snow, mountains and trees.
1 Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-100, p.638 © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted