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: this is the
second installment. ed
Click to go to Part
1. Click to go to Part 3.
The teaching in early Buddhism can be summed up in a verse from a Chinese
Zen text called “Discourses on Vegetable Roots.”
Actors paint their faces with powder and rouge in order to imitate Beauty
or Ugliness. Where is their beauty or ugliness, after their songs are finished
and the audience gone away? Chess-players contend avidly with each other
in their moves in order to determine who will be the victor and who the vanquished.
Where is their victory or defeat, after the game is over and the pieces are
wrapped up? (1)
The “no-self” in this is profoundly revealed. Where is “stupidity” when
the moment of “doing stupid” is gone? We might, perversely, try to
hold on to it, but it does not really exist.
The Mahayana position is expressed in another passage from “Discourses
on Vegetable Roots,” and moves closer to the radical non-dual view.
Straying from Enlightenment, a man finds a happy land to be a sea of
suffering, as water is frozen into ice; but awaking to Enlightenment, he
discovers a sea
of suffering to be a happy land, as ice is melted into water. Hence, we know
that suffering and happiness are not two different moods and that straying from
and awakening to Enlightenment are not two different frames of mind. (2)
In the Buddhist Wisdom tradition there is the remarkable teaching that samsara
and nirvana are not separate. In the Buddhist mandala of the Six Worlds, Yama
is the Lord of Consciousness and is depicted holding the Wheel of Life or the
Wheel of Different Births surrounded by the Twelve Steps of Dependent Origination.
The self is reborn moment by moment and can take birth in any of these realms
of heavens, asuras, animals, hells, pretas, and human beings. These states arise
because of the various causalities one experiences.
The Mahayana view says that the Wheel of Life is actually an empty mirror.
It is only the projection of one's mind state that appears, so the realms
have no concrete and self existing reality. Experienced one way it is the world
of suffering and samsara, but when we see it as empty, it is nirvana, a clear,
empty mind mirror.
The sage Nagarjuna was a prominent teacher in Wisdom schools of Mahayana Buddhism,
and wrote the Madhyamika shastra, or Discourse on the Middle Way. At the time
Nagarjuna was writing there was a debate between the Abhidharmists, who were
trying to categorize the various really existing dharmas, and the Wisdom tradition,
which was arguing that all dharmas were empty.
The objection that Buddhism onesidedly adheres to emptiness and thereby
exposes itself to great errors, entirely misses the mark; for there are no
emptiness. Why? Because it is on account of emptiness that all things are at
all possible, and without emptiness all things will come to naught. Those who
deny emptiness and find fault with it, are like a horseman who forgets that he
is on horseback. (3)
This quote affirms the earlier teaching that, because of universal causality,
there is no permanent self-nature, but emphasizes that it also makes everything
possible. It affirms all things while pointing past the particular.
If they think that things exist because of their self-essence (svabhâva),
[and not because of their emptiness,] they thereby make things come out of causelessness
(ahetupratyaya), they destroy those relations that exist between the acting and
the act and the acted; and they also destroy the conditions that make up the
law of birth and death. (4)
Because the mirror is empty, it is possible to move from one state to another.
All is declared empty because there is nothing that is not a product
causation (pratyayasamutpâda) ... as thus there is not an object (dharma)
is not conditioned (pratîtya), so there is nothing that is not empty.
If all is not empty, then there is no death or birth, and withal disappears
Fourfold Noble Truth. (5)
The Fourfold Noble Truth can only exist because it too is empty.
Therefore, it is taught by the Buddha that those who recognize the law
of universal causation, recognize the Buddha as well as Suffering, Accumulation,
and the Path. (6)
This means that in the experience of touching life while completely
of the self, we know that this, our worldly life, is an activity of Nirvana
itself, not the slightest distinction
exists between them. (7)
Again, this is a profound and radical view. It negates the difference between
the defiled and the pure, between the exalted and the ordinary, and between the
experience of suffering and the experience of enlightenment. At the same time,
it does not say that each of these pairs of experiences does not exist. Although
they exist, they have the same basic nature.
The Mahayana tradition developed terms like Thusness, sometimes formulated
as Suchness, terms people puzzle over. Thusness is the quality we see in
when we understand universal emptiness. They become luminous in profound beauty
when we are aware of Thusness. All dharmas have one true mark. All things are
In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says that all
things are out of balance. They are tumbling and out of balance, and when
we are caught up in
them, we see them only this way. But when we see them against a background
of perfect balance, they become beautiful. That background of perfect balance
Their beauty is Thusness.
When our attention is fixed on things, dharmas, we experience them as transient
and unsatisfactory. When we open our field of view, we understand that everything
is equally of one essence in emptiness; it all becomes beautiful, and each thing
becomes precious in its transience.
In the Samyuktagama Sutra the Buddha compares living beings to four types
of horses. The best horse will run fast or slow, turn right or left, with
will, without the use of a whip; the second best runs as well as the first at
the sight of the whip; the third responds when it feels pain on its body; the
fourth responds only when the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. The
pain of the whip is suffering, dukkha. Responding to the rider's will is following
our own way-seeking mind into real practice. Suzuki Roshi comments on this parable
in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:
When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it
is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is,
the usual understanding of this story and of Zen... (But) This is not the right
understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether
you are the best horse or the worst one... When you are determined to practice
zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most
He then elaborates on how one who struggles to sit zazen has an advantage
over one who can sit easily. The one who struggles learns the most and
the real spirit of practice though the experience of the struggle. He goes on
When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always
of ourselves... Dogen-zenji said, “Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally
means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to
succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen,
one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master's life could be said to
be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded
Why does Suzuki Roshi say this? We now come back, as promised, to a very
early teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha said that all beings want to avoid
and to experience happiness.
Nagarjuna elaborates on this when he says that the mind that sees into the
transient nature of things is the mind that seeks the Way. Experiencing
transience is dukkha,
suffering. Seeing this clearly awakens the way-seeking mind. Recognition of the
truth of dukkha is what motivates us. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't start,
which is why dukkha is the first noble truth, and why the worst horse is, in
some ways, the best. To start out on the path of practice we must truly understand
the unsatisfactory nature of our own being. Our personalities, our minds, all
our wonderful capabilities fall far short of what we would like ourselves to
be. Yet this is not a problem. It is the gateway to way-seeking mind. It also
offers a clue as to why beginning, middle and end in Zen are not fundamentally
different, and why success and failure are of one essence.
1. Discourses on Vegetable Roots, published as A Chinese Garden
pg. 15. Trans. by Chao Tze-chiange, Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, NY, 1959.
2. Ibid, pg. 12
3. As translated in World of the Buddha, ed. Lucien Stryk, Doubleday & Co.,
Garden City, New York, 1968. Pg. 286.
4. Ibid, pg 286. 5. Ibid, pg 286.
6. Ibid, pg 289. 7. Ibid, pg 283.
8. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki, Weatherhill, New York and Tokyo,
1970. Pgs 34-35.
This is the second of three installments. Click to go to Part 1.
Click to go to Part 3.