Dharma Rain - Stillpoint
Buddhist Radical NonDual Teaching and the
Zen of Eihei Dogen
by Kyogen Carlson
This article was previously published in “Nectar of Nondual Truth.” It
appeared in serial form in Still Point over three issues. ed
This is the first of three installments. Click to go to Part
2. Click to go to Part 3.
Every religion and culture I am aware of makes reference to duality in
some way to help make sense of the tensions inherent in existence. The one
which we in the West are most familiar is the duality of good and evil, or
right and wrong. For many cultures in the East, however, there is an emphasis
on pure and impure, or higher and lower. In some religious t5raditions the
tension is between spirit and matter, or refined “higher” consciousness,
and base “lower” consciousness. A modern Indian guru, for example,
advised his disciples not to keep pets, to avoid contact with lower animal
consciousness. While this is less concerned with “right” and “wrong,” there
is a definite duality here. In the West, people sometimes think of a spiritual
teaching as “nondual” when it shifts away from our dominantly
held duality, even though it moves toward another, perhaps more subtle one.
Sometimes a tradition is thought of as nondual because it honors any other
tradition, despite nomenclature or method that can be recognized as pointing
to the same highest value. This is very openminded and laudable, but it
is not necessarily the same as Dogen Zenji's radical concept of the nondual
nature of truth.
In traditional Chinese culture we can identify two major ways of seeing
duality. One is through Taoist eyes, which look toward nature, and see things
in harmony with nature, or “Tao,” or out of harmony with nature.
The Confucian view is similar, but takes human society as the point of reference.
Confucian duality is between correct and incorrect behavior as determined by
one's position and obligations in society. An Emperor could lose the “Mandate
of Heaven” by not attending to those obligations correctly.
In the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition, expressions of nondual Dharma,
or teaching, are a response to these views of duality. This is particularly
true in Chinese Zen and, later, even more so in Dogen. The Chinese Hwa Yen
school of Buddhism is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, which comes from India.
This school had a significant influence on Soto Zen, the tradition Dogen brought
to Japan in the early 13th century. Hwa Yen Buddhism developed a teaching around
the conceptsof li and shih (pronounced “sher”). Li is best translated
as “principle” while shih is “phenomena.” These make
up the “opposites” in both Hwa Yen and in Soto Zen; they comprise
our “duality.” In many ways they are analogous to “emptiness” and “form” in
Indian Mahayana, although they are not equivalent terms. Use of these terms
in China is rather like how we in the West are partial to the terms “absolute” and “relative.” We
use them in a manner similar to “emptiness” and “form,” but
they are quite different in meaning, and the same is true of the Chinese terms
li and shi.
The first shastra we chant in the morning at Dharma Rain Zen Center, and
one used in most Soto temples, is the Chinese “Harmony of Difference and
Sameness.” Our practice is about harmonizing the opposites of difference
and sameness, relative and absolute, form and emptiness, shih and li. We recognize
that they exist, but the teaching about this is to harmonize them, to be in
nonopposition to either one. The practice is to attach to neither, and
to push neither away. Some of the statements that come out of our tradition
can be quite striking, like equating knowing and not knowing; beginning, middle
and end; delusion and enlightenment. Many people find this mindboggling
at first and sometimes take them for a clever mind game, but they really are
not that at all. These statements come from a place of very deep practice and
experience and find expression in a tradition of profound and careful thought.
“Universal” religions, of which Buddhism, Christianity and Islam
are good examples, are called that because they are not connected to tribe or
caste in the way some other traditions are, such as Hinduism and Judaism. The “universal” religions
have most often arisen out of a reform movement of some sort. Buddhism developed
from the Brahminical (preHindu) tradition. The common view of the day
was that faithfully fulfilling the obligations into which one was born (caste,
etc.) was how one evolved into higher and higher births: from laborer to merchant
to warrior to priest. Eventually, the atman, or soul, could merge with Brahma.
The Buddha was not satisfied with this approach, so he went to practice with
the most accomplished yogis of his day. They advocated various meditative and
ascetic practices to effect liberation directly. While he got close while doing
these practices, he didn't quite get where he needed to go.
The Buddha's personal question, his koan, was “what is the meaning of
suffering.” Perhaps the universal nature of this question was not answerable
through the pursuit of individual liberation. In any case, he clarified his
question when he realized that selfmortification was of no use and determined
to practice a “middle way” between selfindulgence and selfmortification.
With newfound stability he took his seat, and before long, he broke
The Buddha's teachings, based on this realization, are profound,
very simple. The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks are direct, basic
observations of the way things are, but he carries them out to their logical
The Four Noble Truths, paraphrased, are:
- The truth of dukkha, or “unsatisfactoriness.” By looking
closely at experience, he realized that the human mind itself is dissatisfied
things. People tend towards dissatisfaction because we always want something
different, something more, or something “other.”
- This tendency
becomes suffering because of grasping and aversion. We try to hold on
to what we want and avoid what we do not want, even though
these things are inherently ephemeral.
- Nonetheless, there is an experience
that is free of this suffering. Put another way, Nirvana exists.
- The way
to realizing this experience of Nirvana is through cultivating the Noble
The Buddha also said that there is an observable universal principle in
this. We can clearly see that all beings, human and otherwise, want to avoid
and want to experience happiness. That seems very simple, even obvious, but
it has a profound ramification, one which we will consider later.
Besides the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha postulated the “Three Marks.” He
said that when we look closely at all things that exist, three characteristics
can be seen. The word “exist” here refers to anything that has
a beginning, duration, and an end. A rock and a thought both arise from various
causes. A rock is quite durable, it but comes into existence as a rock, from
lava perhaps, and passes out of that existence into sand. A thought is very
transient, but does exist, even if fleetingly. “Compassion,” on
the other hand, is a quality and does not exist on its own.
Anything that exists, then, will have these three characteristics. The
first of these three is transience, anicca. No existing thing has any permanent
existence, so a lectern is only a lectern when it has the configuration of
The wood comprising it was something else before, will not last forever,
and will become something else in the future. Thoughts and feelings, relationships,
anything that arises from causation, is transient. The second mark, anatta,
means no permanent self. This is an extension of the first mark. Things that
are transient have no permanent self nature. The third mark is dukkha, which
is also the first Noble Truth. Here it means that all things are marked by
unsatisfactoriness when we try to hold on to them, because they are transient.
This really means that there is no deep or lasting refuge in transient things.
The Buddha's teaching is laid out this way to challenge and deconstruct
the Brahminical view that there is a self, an atman, that can experience
The Buddha is saying that the very idea of a permanent self is the problem.
It leads, quite inevitably, to the concept of an “I” becoming entangled
with phenomena. An example would be that when we do something stupid, we feel
stupid, and then we tend to say, “Oh, good grief, I am so stupid!” This
thought pattern is almost automatic. While relatively true at the time, the “I
am” in the statement creates a problem. There really is no “I” that
is stupid in some durable way, but we tell stories like this to ourselves
all the time. The Buddha is saying that rather than a self that is stupid
is a moment of doing stupid, and a moment of feeling stupid, and both are
simply transient moments in time.
When we look at it this way, anicca, transience, is a teaching of momentbymoment
immaculacy. It means that all these experiences arise and fall within this
immaculacy, but we miss it by attaching to the transient phenomena. There are
so many ways that we do this. We say “I am a winner” or “I'm
such a loser” or “Wow, I'm so great” or “I'm worthless,
a nobody.” The self gets entangled and defined by fleeting moments of
experience, and then we create habit patterns that recreate these “selves” over
Early Buddhist teaching specializes in deconstructing the idea of the self
in relationship to events and moments. One expression of this is to say that
whenever we grasp events and moments and entangle in them, we are in samsara.
When we let go of them we open to nirvana. We have experiences of desire,
anger, opinion, or moments of insight. When there is an “I” that
grasps it, however, then desire becomes greed. When there is a self enmeshed
anger becomes hatred, and opinion, even when it arises from insight, becomes
delusion. It doesn't matter what the opinion is, or how valid and insightful
it might be. To the degree there is grasping and attachment to it, to the
degree the self identifies with it, that insight becomes delusion.
This is a profound way of looking at things. I have found that sometimes
people have problems relating to Buddhism because it seems to take everything
from us, without promising anything at all. There is liberation in this,
so it is actually a very good deal, but it doesn't always seem like it. Buddhism
takes away the “I,” and everything it wishes to hold on to, and
offers only liberation. It completely deconstructs the notion that there
is a permanent self that is going to get something tangible it can call its
While all this is true, early Buddhism takes dharmas, “things,” as
real. This developed later on into the teaching system called Abhidharma. This
is a complex set of teachings that categorizes dharmas, moments in time, by
various qualities. There is a list, a table, of existing dharmas. In this view
the self is not permanent, but is, rather, a series of dharmas, experiences
and moments in time, each of which is real. These experiences are created by
our choices. The self is transient and exists only for a “thought moment,” the
length of any given experience. If you grasp after an experience, you create
the dharma of grasping, or of aversion, greed, hatred. Samsara is real, created
moment by moment by what we do. Nirvana, on the other hand, is unproduced.
We experience it through the cessation of all this karmic foolishness. So in
the early Buddhist view, grasping or aversion produces states of suffering,and
in “stopping,” letting go, we realize the nonproduced, which
The duality in early Buddhism then, is about defiled and pure mind states,
and in this view, delusion and enlightenment exist as dharmas. When we get
to the Mahayana tradition, in particular the Wisdom Schools, even the dharmas
are deconstructed. This takes the Buddha's teaching further (as he intended,
according to the Mahayanists), to the point that the Wisdom Schools even
deconstruct Buddhism. This is where we come to the Buddhist teaching of radical
In our morning service we also recite the Heart Sutra. “Shariputra, all
dharmas are marked by emptiness; Therefore, given emptiness there is no form,
no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness, no eye, no ear,
no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind” This list of negated things shows
up in the Abhidharma table as “produced dharmas,” which are transient,
but definitely exist, arising out of causality. The Heart Sutra, however, says
they do not exist. Then it goes on to a list that includes the “unproduced
dharmas.” “There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance,
down to neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no
suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment.” This
list includes the very things that practice in Buddhism promises, namely, the
path, cessation of suffering, knowledge, and attainment of Nirvana. The Heart
Sutra deconstructs Buddhism's own “sacred cows” of the Four Noble
Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other teachings implied in other lists, including
the twelve steps of Dependent Origination. The Wisdom Schools of Mahayana
Buddhism, then, teach that nothing really exists. It even deconstructs Buddhism
The key term in this radical nondual thought is “emptiness,” shunyata.
In this teaching, emptiness is called the “true mark,” and the
three marks of anicca, anatta and dukkha are reduced into this one true mark.
Hence the statement to Shariputra, “All dharmas are marked by emptiness.”
Getting a good feel for the word “emptiness” is difficult to do.
That was true even for the Indian Buddhists of the time. The word was artificially
pressed into service to accomplish a difficult task. It manages to expresses
that there is no “selfessence” in a person, in a moment, in
a feeling, or in a thing, even while pointing directly to it. Each of these
can arise momentarily, but with no permanent selfessence. Saying all
things are empty (of self essence) affirms the thing while pointing past
This way of looking reveals that everything exists against a backdrop of
emptiness. Aware of everything arising and falling in emptiness, transient
admitted, yet no permanent thing is affirmed, and a vast spaciousness is
revealed. This brings us to beauty. Transient things are seen as luminous,
because they arise and fall in emptiness, and this awakens in us a sense
of their preciousness.
This is Part 1 of 3. Click to go to Part
2. Click to go to Part 3.