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.” This
is the third and final installment. —ed
Click to go to Part
1. Click to go to Part 2.
The Prajnaparamita texts, the Wisdom Sutras, of which the Heart Sutra is
the best known, are the mother lode of radical non-dual teachings. I
will summarize from them here. One of the titles of the Buddha is Tathagata,
which means “thus gone”or “one who has crossed over to
the other shore,” meaning one who has attained the goal of nirvana.
In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says that it is precisely because the Tathagata
has come from nowhere and goes nowhere that he is called the Tathagata. Later
on, when Subhuti is recounting his understanding of this he says to the Buddha: “An
arhat am I and free from greed, but if I were to have a notion that ‘an arhat
am I and free from greed,’ then the Tathagata would not have stated
that `an arhat am I and free from greed.’” There are two things
going on here. One is that being aware of something and thinking about it
is not the same as doing it. For example, a mother is most completely a mother
when she’s just doing it without analyzing what a mother should do.
This is true of just about everything. When we are the least bit self-aware,
we are not completely engaged in the doing.
The second aspect of this is the way the Prajnaparamita texts equate something
precisely with what it is not. This comes from taking the teaching of emptiness
to its logical conclusion. Remember that in the Mahayana, particularly the
Prajnaparamita tradition, the teachings of anicca and anatta, transience
and lack of self-nature in all dharmas, are reduced to the “one
mark” of emptiness, and all dharmas are found to be equally empty.
I sometimes have people do an exercise, a thought experiment, to gain an
insight into this. Imagine a cubic block of wood. Round four edges until
you have a cylinder. Then round off one surface so that you have a hemisphere.
Then carve out the inside, hollowing out the block, until you have a bowl.
The “bowl” is created by what has been removed. What is not there
is essential to it being a bowl. In this way you can think of emptiness as
the “empty” space. The emptiness in the case of a bowl actually
creates its function. Taking it further, if you extend that empty space in
all directions infinitely, then everything that is not the bowl, the rest
of the universe, creates the bowl itself. It is only a bowl because of everything
that it is not.
I’ve read that a few microseconds after the Big Bang the universe had
expanded to about the size of an orange. This is as far back as scientists,
at present, can postulate. At that point it was made up of undifferentiated
plasma. At that moment all of the matter that makes up this planet, including
living beings, oceans, mountains, solid earth, and atmosphere, was present
in that undifferentiated Thusness. Not just this planet, but this solar system,
our galaxy, and all the billions of other galaxies occupied that same undifferentiated
space the size of an orange; the original “non-dual” state.
Where, in that state, are the physical opposites like near and far, up and
down, soft and hard, hot and cold? Ever since that point in time the universe
has been expanding and differentiating, giving birth to stars, black holes,
supernovas, galaxies, planets, and human beings. In this process of differentiation,
when one thing, or dharma, comes into being it creates something else, like
the wood being carved out of the bowl. When hydrogen is extracted from water,
becoming hydrogen gas, you also get oxygen. Each moment of differentiation
creates the rest of the universe, and it is clear that each dharma’s
existence depends upon the rest of the universe, and each thing becomes what
it is precisely because of what it is not.
Expressions of this turn up in the Zen tradition in China through the use
of poetic imagery. The expression “the hundred grasses,” sometimes
translated as “weeds and thorns,” usually refers to the state
of being trapped or caught in the myriad things. Zen takes the same phrase,
but uses it to describe the myriad expressions of Thusness. Here the phrase
is not made to refer to the opposite meaning, exactly, but shows how one
implies the other, how nirvana and samsara are really the same. When seen
as Thusness, the myriad grasses are just wonderful expressions of the diversity
of the world. When we are tangled up in them, they are experienced as weeds
and brambles. Going even further, even the experience of “weeds and
brambles” is also Thusness.
The Japanese master Eihei Dogen develops this mode of expression to amazing
degrees. One thing to understand about him is that just as the Buddha was
driven into practice by his question about the origin and meaning of suffering,
Dogen had a deep and probing question that drove him to seek answers in China.
It arose from the Buddhist teaching that we are really inherently enlightened
from the start. Dogen asked himself, if this is so, then why do we have to
practice? There were some very good answers available to him in the Tendai
tradition he studied as a young man, but nothing satisfied him until he had
a realization of his own through practice. What he realized is that practice
is simply the expression of enlightenment. So in truth we don’t have
to do it, yet if we don’t practice, we won’t realize it. We won’t
manifest it, “make it real.”
This is like the body’s relationship to gravity. There is no way it
cannot be one with gravity, so we express our relationship to it perfectly
and at all times, whether we are falling down, walking or dancing. We can
and do know the difference between the pain of falling down, the ease of
walking, and the joyful grace of dancing. Practice in the Dharma is like
this. It is awakening to and working with our own dynamic relationship to
the truth as it is. Once again, this goes back to the Buddha’s teaching
that all beings want to avoid suffering and experience happiness. Knowing
this difference is an inherent quality in all living things, and it is because
we know this difference that such a thing as practice and enlightenment is
possible. In a way it’s a mystery. Why things are this way we cannot
know, yet we know they are. Sometimes I say that enlightenment, at the heart
of it, is refining our understanding of suffering. When we study it closely,
we gain a deeper understanding of its causes, and how each action can lead
either to liberation or to further entanglement. It is not a matter of the
things of this world being good or bad, but a matter of how we function that
determines, moment by moment, whether one is deluded or enlightened.
Dogen finds some truly amazing ways to express this. He will take a term
or an expression and not only make it mean its opposite, but show how it
is so. He is a master of Chinese and Japanese language, both written and
spoken. An example is his treatment of the teaching on buddha nature. In
the Parinirvana Sutra there is a phrase that says “All beings have
buddha nature.” The idea behind this is that beings must have a natural
inclination toward enlightenment in order to awaken to enlightenment, and
that all living things have this inclination. In other words, all beings
want to avoid suffering and experience happiness. When Dogen translates this
phrase from the Chinese into Japanese, he does an amazing thing. A simple
and straightforward translation into Japanese would have words that sound
like (imagine this is Japanese) “all beings have buddha nature.” Dogen
worked with the written characters, the kanji, and managed an expression
that is pronounced in exactly the same way in Japanese. Spoken, it would
sound the same as the previous translation (again, imagine this is Japanese) “all
beings have buddha nature,” but when you look at the written phrase,
it would say (in Japanese) “All being is buddha nature.” That
is a profound difference. If a “being has” buddha nature, these
are two different things. But if all “being is” buddha nature,
the meaning changes profoundly. It points to undifferentiated Thusness.
Another metaphor that turns up in the sutras refers to “a fault of
vision.” It can be found at the end of the Diamond Sutra: “Thus
shall you think of all this fleeting world, a fault of vision, a bubble in
a stream, a phantasm, a dream.” “Fault of vision” translated
literally from the Sanskrit is “flowers in the sky.” This refers
to the effect that someone with cataracts sees when looking toward a light
source. The cataracts create refractions rather like circular rainbows of
color. Looking into the sky there can be a number of these, like “flowers
in the sky.” As a metaphor in the sutras it is a way of talking about
illusion, or a false perception of things. Stepping on a rope and thinking
it’s a snake would be “a fault of vision” or “flowers
in the sky.”
When the Chinese translate the phrase “flowers in the sky,” an
interesting thing happens. The Chinese words for “sky” and “emptiness” are
the same. The Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese version of the phrase “flowers
in the sky” is kuge. Ku is “sky” and ge is “flower”,
and ku also means “emptiness”. Dogen loves this parallel and
really works with it.
In the fascicle called Kuge (Flowers of Emptiness) in the Shobogenzo,
he says that the optical illusion of flowers in the sky can be understood
a number of ways. It is a “fault of vision” that clears up when
we understand it as such, but it is also a phenomenon that arises because
of conditions, a dharma like anything else. The Diamond Sutra points this
out in reverse by saying all things are like a fault of vision. But Dogen
takes it further. Just as suffering causes us to seek the Dharma, illusion,
a form of suffering, causes us to seek enlightenment. It should be appreciated
for what it is, the cause of enlightenment itself. Of those who wish to cut
off this illusion, he says:
They think kuge should be abandoned; they fail to realize its deep meaning.
Just as Buddhas sow the seed of the Buddhist Way among the people and enlightenment
together with practice brings it to fruition i.e., liberation, so does
kuge sow the seed of universal emptiness... Unfortunately, most students
look behind the phenomenal world. In their view, kuge exists because of
eye disease and do not realize it is the other way around.(1)
Here Dogen equates delusion, eye disease, with enlightenment, or more correctly,
points to one “thusness” of both. Partly this refers to the Buddhist
idea that all things exist because of emptiness, and while a flower in the
sky is just an apparition, the same can be said of everything we experience.
They are all moments in time, experienced as creations of the mind. As so
much sense data, everything we experience can be thought of as a subjective
creation of the brain.
In true Buddhism, “one who has eye disease” is an awakened person,
one with perfect enlightenment, a Buddha, one who has gone beyond enlightenment.(2)
This is because all events and moments are marked by emptiness. So if you
have a delusive thought, it just arises and falls. It you have an enlightened
moment, it just rises and falls. If you entangle with either one you’re
in trouble. An awakened person understands this. By telling us that the mind
that sees into the transient nature of things is the mind that seeks the
Way, Nagarjuna points out that suffering, the First Noble Truth, leads us
to practice and awaken. Dogen takes it further so that illusion, “eye
disease,” is equated with true understanding, enlightenment itself,
because all experiences, including profound insight, are flowers in the sky,
arising because of conditions, and disappear in time.
If we understand the condition of “eye disease” we can comprehend
kuge and be detached from both.(3)
There is another section in Dogen which clears this up, at least to my feeble
mind. I’ll paraphrase here. He says:
Sometimes we are deluded within delusion; sometimes we are enlightened within
delusion; sometimes we are deluded within enlightenment; and sometimes we
are enlightened within enlightenment.(4)
In this passage there are two different ways of using the word delusion.
One is confusion and misunderstanding things, and the other is attachment
and entanglement. When we are attached and entangled in our delusion, holding
onto it and insisting on it, then we are “deluded within delusion.” When
we see into it, and understand it is just confusion, we are “enlightened
within delusion.” We can let go of the entanglement, and have the function
of enlightenment within the condition of being confused, of not understanding.
On the other hand, when insight comes and we see deeply into things, we may
think “I’ve got it. Now I see clearly.” The degree to which
we attach to this insight and think there is an “I” that “knows,” then
we are “deluded within enlightenment.” When we can let the deepest
insight go completely, it is just a moment in time and there is no attachment
to knowing and no aversion to not knowing. At such times we are “enlightened
With this perspective we understand that kuge is flowers of emptiness, and
that illusion is not separate from enlightenment.
Eye disease and kuge are like this. They are not concerned with past,
present, and future or with beginning, middle, or end.(5)
The “enlightened within enlightenment” view is timeless. There
is no difference between beginning, middle and end even though we experience
beginning, middle and end.
They are independent of generation and destruction, even though birth and
death appear everywhere in the universe.(6)
Dogen is rather fond of taking phrases well known in the Zen Buddhist
world and turning them inside out in this manner. Another fascicle in Shobogenzo does this for a term used for spiritual entanglement, katto, or “twining
vines.” While katto usually refers to the state of delusive entanglement,
Dogen explains that it is also the way mindtomind transmission
of the Dharma happens in Zen, that in fact this transmission is only possible
through an intimate twining.(7)
In the fascicle on birth and death, the two words are used in a manner
that fuses them into one, so that in one translation they are hyphenated, “birthanddeath,” emphasizing
that every moment is both a beginning and an ending.(8)
His nondual view extended to all aspects of Dharma.
Dogen’s treatment of “Great Enlightenment” in Daigo, speaks
directly to the matter at hand.
In our present study we are not concerned with the difference between
enlightenment or illusion, or Buddhas and ordinary people. Here, Great Enlightenment
even different from the Great Awakening of a Bodhisattva. Great Enlightenment
is without beginning or end, and so is illusion.(9)
Now we’re back to eye disease. This chapter addresses the question
of what happens when a person of great enlightenment falls into illusion.
Dogen answers the question by equating great enlightenment and illusion.
There is no distinction between them. Great Enlightenment is not just
the function of ourselves or others. It fills everywhere, it is the center
existence in both the form of enlightenment and illusion. Illusion can only
seek Great Enlightenment and we can never find Great Enlightenment outside
This is the important point. We don’t have to worry about the fact
that we are sometimes confused. It is our very confusion that leads us to
the truth. He goes to say that thousands of years exist in the present, and
that our own lives, right now, are the focal point of Zen study and investigation.
Indeed, how could we find the truth anywhere else?
Enlightenment experiences and times of great confusion both arise and fall
within daigo, great enlightenment, the universe itself, which is vast, spacious,
true mind. This kind of great enlighten ment does not fit into a particular
moment or a particular being or a particular realization. Rather all of those
things fit into great enlightenment.
Let us consider again the Chinese Hwa Yen school, and the teachings of li (principle) and shih (phenomena). The Hwa Yen sages proposed four “Dharmadhatus,” or “Dharma
Realms.” The first is simply the realm of li. We could call this the
realm of “the one” or “perfection” or the “absolute.” The
second Dharmadhatu is simply shih. This is the realm of phenomena, or “the
many,” the “relative.” The third Dharmadhatu is “the
nonopposition of li and shih.” This means that the “relative” and “absolute” do
not obstruct each other, but also that each thing, each moment, is in non opposition
to “principle,” the absolute. In the Hwa Yen this is taken as
axiomatic, a given. It is simply the way things must be. If this makes sense
to you, then the fourth Dharmadhatu will follow from that. This is the nonopposition
of shih with shih.That might take a moment to sink in. It means that because
each thing (shih, or phenomena) is in harmony with the absolute (li, or principle),
on the deepest level each thing is in harmony with every other thing. As
an example I use a fox hunting a rabbit. Their interests are completely at
odds, and each works with total dedication toward their own end. If the fox
catches the rabbit, the rabbit does not blame the fox, even as it dies. If
the rabbit escapes the fox, the fox does not blame the rabbit, even as it
goes hungry. Because each is in harmony with li, principle, on the deepest
level they are in nonopposition to each other.
This is the basis of the Zen view of nonduality: each thing, creature, or
person is completely what it is, yet remains in harmony with deeper truth.
As with gravity, we cannot avoid the truth of this. But to practice gracefully with this as human beings means being true to ourselves and our circumstances
on the deepest and most authentic level. It means not pretending that our
interests and preferences are anything other than what they are, yet accepting
things exactly as they are, which is much easier said than done, and why
practice is a life long effort: shoshaku jushaku.
There are many “pairs of opposites:” good and evil; right and
wrong; pure and impure; higher and lower. From the point of view of Dogen
and the Mahayana radical nondual, they are all manifestations of the
myriad things. The real duality in this view is the one set up when we are
aware of the myriad things on the one hand and complete oneness on the other.
Harmonizing this duality is to understand “function” and “rest.” We
take our place within the myriad things and function freely knowing the nonopposition
of shih and shih, the authenticity of each thing being itself completely.
This is possible when we also know “rest,” the background of
balance, the nonopposition of shih and li, and the beauty of one thusness
inherent in all things.
1. Shobogenzo, Volume I, translated by Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens,
Daihokkaikaku Publishing, Sendai, Japan, 1975, page 49.
2. Ibid, page 49.
3. Ibid, page 49.
4. This teaching in is the second section of the “Genjokoan” fascicle
of Shobogenzo. Comparing translations you can get an idea for Dogen’s
point here. See for example, Moon in a Dewdrop, translated and edited by
Kazuaki Tanahashi, with Robert Aitken on this fascicle, North Point Press,
Berkeley, California, 1985, page 69. Also, Selling Water by the River, Jiyu
Kennett, Pantheon Books, New York, 1972, page 142.
5. Nishiyama and Steven, Op Cit, page 49.
6. Ibid,page 49.
7. See Tanahashi, Op Cit, pages 168-174, this fascicle translated with Sojun
8. Ibid, pages 74-75.
9. Ibid, page 37.
10. Ibid, page 37.
This is the third of three installments. ed Click to go to Part
1. Click to go to Part 2.