Dragon songs and withered trees

Caoshan was asked: What is a dragon singing in a withered tree?

He said, The blood vein does not get cut off.

The monk said, I wonder what kind of song the dragon sings?

Caoshan replied: No one knows what kind of song the dragon sings.  But all who hear it lose their lives.

Dogen always manages to turn things inside out.  I’d love to say I get the old guy but a lot of times I don’t.  This one though… dragon songs and withered trees really pushes the envelope for me.  Dragons have always been a strong image in the Burmese culture.  They are called Nagas and are protective dieties.  The image of a dragon gaining the water, which Dogen uses to powerfully express our liberation, fills me with joy and dread.  There’s wildness in their movement yet complete control.  The withered tree is the form of sitting, still and complete.  To feel the power of a dragon in such stillness is to realize the teachings.

The immovability of the tree is its witheredness.  The mountain trees, ocean trees, and sky trees right now are all withered trees.  (Beyond Thinking: Guide to Zen Meditation, Zen Master Dogen, Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi)

We think everything in that stillness is only available on the cushion.  Sitting this morning, there was the scent of sandalwood in the aroma of the incense, vibration of the furnace fan through the pine floor, shushing of buckwheat in the zafu, yielding of the cotton in the zabuton, and shadows cast by the nishiki.  So easy to be caught in form.

There are the hands that formed the incense, planed the floor boards, planted the willow.  There are the “field-or-village trees.”

The mountain and valley trees are called pines and cypresses in the common world.  The fields-of-village trees are called humans and devas in the common world.  Those who depend on roots and spread leaves are called buddha ancestors.  They all go back to the essence.

Then we get up from the cushion and enter the marketplace.  Where does the dragon song fade to?  What then is the withered tree?


withered tree

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