The first fascicle Dogen wrote to be included in Shobogenzo was, Maka Hanya Haramitsu (Mahaprajnaparamita; Great Transcendent Wisdom), was a commentary on the Heart Sutra, the most well known, and perhaps the shortest, Buddhist scripture of all time. This scripture is so well known that Dogen’s commentary recites only the first line knowing his audience would recall the whole as naturally as an American second grader would recall the whole Pledge of Allegiance upon hearing its first line. Dogen cites the opening line just as it appears in scripture – except that he adds a word. The unmodified sentence is:
“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty.”
“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” is an enlightened being of Buddhist mythology, “practicing deep prajna paramita” is a Buddhist practice, the “five skandhas” are the elements that comprise the human body according to Buddhist tradition (form, sensation, perception, mental formulation, consciousness), that they are “empty” means they are not independent entities (i.e. none of the skandhas is “self-existent”). According to the Heart Sutra, it is the true significance of “emptiness” that is revealed through the “practice of prajna paramita” that liberates beings from suffering.
Now Dogen’s version of the first line runs:
“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that the-whole-body, all five skandhas are empty.”
By adding, “the-whole-body” (konshin), Dogen emphasizes that the “various elements” of the human body (five skandhas) are “a unity” (the-whole-body). Throughout Shobogenzo, the co-relative (nondual) nature of variety and oneness (or wholeness) is constantly underscored from a wide range of perspectives. The significance of this will become clearer as we proceed, for now suffice it to say that here, the five elements do not “make up” the whole-body, they are the whole-body; the whole-body is not five (separate) elements, it is the unified five-elements. This is vitally important in Dogen’s thought, but the point that needs to be highlighted first is something else that is stressed in this commentary: Dogen’s view of the potential and role of Buddhist teachings.
After a number of comments on the nature of “prajna” (enlightened, or transcendent wisdom), Dogen inserts a fairly long (for him) quote from a different sutra that reports the “secret thoughts” of a monk in Shakyamuni’s (the historical Buddha) community. These “secret thoughts” (which are subsequently “divined” and affirmed by Shakyamuni) concern the monk’s insight into the true significance of “emptiness.”
As we listen in on the monk’s thoughts we find that he has decided to “bow” in appreciation of what practicing prajna paramita has revealed to him. First he acknowledges that “emptiness” means “independent elements” (dharmas; skandhas, beings, things, events, etc.) do not arise and vanish. That is, the monk sees the truth that there are no “things” that actually exist in and of themselves; no “thing” can exist all alone in an absence of all other things. In short, all things are empty of “selfhood.” For to be “a thing” means to be a particular thing (e.g. a cup, a tree, a human), but since all particular things depend on the existence of things other than their “self” (e.g. a cup-maker, soil and water, parents and food, etc.), “a thing” cannot exist – to say it another way, no “thing” exists.
After acknowledging that “things” are empty of selfhood (i.e. real things do not arise and vanish) the monk’s thought’s go on to reveal his realization that “nevertheless” or “in spite of the fact” (that no “things” exist), there are “understandable explanations” – that is, even though there are no things, there are still teachings that can be understood. The monk’s thought’s go on to specify a number of particular Buddhist teachings (e.g. understandable explanations about wisdom, meditation, enlightenment, etc.), and the quote concludes with Shakyamuni’s praise and affirmation of the monk’s thoughts.
Dogen follows up this quote by reiterating the accuracy of this view and emphasizing the real existence of “understandable explanations” and saying that the very “the state” (condition) demonstrated by this monk is “explanations that can be understood.” Then Dogen tells us that this is “the state” that is described as “Mu.” Moreover, Dogen explains that the state that “Mu” refers to can be realized by practicing the teachings (understandable explanations) that the monk was thinking about; and that explanations of “the state” of “Mu” can therefore be understood.
While this teaching must have been received with a certain amount of astonishment even in Dogen’s day, it confronts and challenges a number of views common to many in contemporary Zen communities. Many readers will be familiar with the term, “Mu,” from its appearance in the famous Zen koan featuring Zen master Joshu, a monk, and a dog. While there are several variations of the koan, its primary form is as follows:
A monk asked Joshu, “Does the dog have Buddha nature?”
Joshu said, “Mu.”
Literally, “Mu” means, “no,” “without,” “does not have,” etc. While Joshu’s Mu, and Dogen’s Mu are finally about the same thing, due to their perspective treatments, as well as our purpose here we need to stay focused on Dogen’s use here; this is not the place to go into the full significance of “Mu.”
The point we want to get at now concerns Dogen’s assertion that explanations of the “state of Mu” can be understood. So for now let us suggest that the state of Mu, whatever it might actually be, is synonymous with the state of enlightenment or Buddhahood, that is, for Dogen here, “Mu” means the actual state or condition that Zen is all about. Once we acknowledge this we can see that Dogen is clearly asserting that “explanations” of the authentic experience of Zen practice and enlightenment can be “understood.” This conclusion may seem to contradict much of the contemporary literature on Zen. Nevertheless, the “understandable” nature of “explanations,” even explanations of the most profound experiences of Zen practice and enlightenment, is central to all of Dogen’s writings.