Zen, Emptiness, and Understandable Explanations

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.


6 thoughts on “Zen, Emptiness, and Understandable Explanations”

  1. Greetings Tim,

    Thank you for stopping in, for your kind words, and for your thoughtful invitation. (Though I feel I should warn you, be careful – I just might take you up on it… Ha!)

    Yes, this amazing fascicle of Shobogenzo is, in my view, too often overlooked. While Dogen’s comments run shorter (and quotations longer) than in more popular fascicles (e.g. Genjokoan, Bussho, Uji, Gabyo, etc.), there is no clearer (or more profound) expression of the true significance of emptiness in Shobogenzo than that presented in/as the Maka-hannya-haramitsu fascicle.

    In case you are interested, here are some more comments on this fascicle excerpted from a recent article (October, 2011) in the “Flatbed Sutra Zen News” newsletter (also posted on the “Zen Buddhism Dogen and the Shobogenzo” blog – http://dogenandtheshobogenzo.blogspot.com/2011/12/emptiness-sees-emptiness-article-from.html )

    [Begin Excerpt]

    … first sight, the additional word jumps out as if erroneous, but as the implications of it dawn, its intentional placement becomes clear. The added word is, “konshin,” which roughly translates as “whole-body,” or “complete body-mind”…

    Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita whole body-mind clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress.

    Although only one word, an English rendering conveying the significance of the alteration asks for some interpretive suggestions, perhaps, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita with his whole-body clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress,” or, “The whole-body-Avalokitesvara-Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress.”

    To appreciate the implications of this we should understand that the “five skandhas” are a traditional classification… another way of saying “whole-body.” Thus, the implication is clear; to say “The whole-body (of Avalokitesvara) sees that all five skandhas are empty,” is equivalent to saying, “The whole-body sees that the whole-body is empty”…

    Being a crucial element to every aspect of Buddhism, the teachings on emptiness (shunyata) are complex and multi-faceted. However, in order to grasp the main points of the present discussion it is enough to know that emptiness is regarded as the reality, or true nature of all things, beings, and events (i.e. dharmas). This is the key… of the pivotal statement of the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”…

    … Dogen’s statement unequivocally identifies the subject (i.e. Avalokitesvara; whole-body) that clearly sees with the object (i.e. Avalokitesvara; all five skandhas) that is clearly seen. The overall effective result… of drawing attention to the actively dynamic, energetically animated nature of “emptiness.” …two things we know about Avalokitesvara according to Dogen’s statement:

    The whole of Avalokitesvara clearly sees the whole of Avalokitesvara.

    The whole of Avalokitesvara clearly seen is empty.

    Two crucial points; emptiness can see, and emptiness can be seen. Thus we know that, whatever else it might be, “practicing prajna paramita” is emptiness clearly seeing (experiencing) its own true nature – in short, practicing prajna paramita is emptiness seeing emptiness.

    Even after this short foray into his commentary we see that, from Dogen’s view, emptiness should never be understood or described apophatically or in purely negative terms like non-existent, absent, undifferentiated, motionless, insentient, unknowable, or incommunicable. This point merits emphasis; the propensity to misunderstand and misrepresent emptiness negatively is pervasive… this propensity has plagued every era of Zen history. The meticulously detailed refutations of negativistic views of emptiness permeating Dogen’s writings testify to the pervasiveness of such distortions in his own era.

    …the distorting power of negativistic views of emptiness can obstruct practitioners from accurately understanding every aspect of Buddhism, not to mention putting it into practice and actualizing it.

    From Dogen’s perspective, it is better to have no understanding of emptiness than to adopt a negative understanding. …whatever else might be included in Dogen’s view of emptiness, it is inclusive of at least these positive qualities:

    Emptiness is present in/as existence-time

    Emptiness is differentiated

    Emptiness is active

    Emptiness is sentient

    Emptiness is intelligible

    Emptiness is communicable

    After opening Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, with the (altered) quote from the Heart Sutra, Dogen presents a series of affirmative expressions on the nature of the self, the world, and the myriad dharmas that reads like a crystallization of the reality illumined by the grand vision of Shobogenzo:

    The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, mental formulation, and consciousness; they are five instances of prajna. Clear seeing is prajna itself. To present this truth for realization it is expounded that “form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness is exactly form.” Thus form is form, and emptiness is emptiness. They are the hundred particular things, the myriad dharmas.
    Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Ted Biringer

    [Note: This is my own (somewhat interpretive) translation – here is how Nishijima & Cross translate (not included in the original post): The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. They are five instances of prajna. Reflection is prajna itself. When this principle is preached and realized, it is said that “matter is just the immaterial” and the immaterial is just matter. Matter is matter, the immaterial is the immaterial. They are hundreds of things, and myriad phenomena.]

    By enumerating each of the five skandhas and then affirming them as “five instances of prajna,” Dogen immediately emphasizes the differentiated quality of emptiness. This serves to counter the reductionist propensity to misunderstand and misrepresent emptiness apophatically…

    … the key point of the whole commentary; “Clear seeing is prajna itself.” Each of the five skandhas constituting Avalokitesvara (thus of all human beings) plays a specific role in the “clear seeing” that “transcends anguish and distress.” Form “distinguishes” it, sensation “conducts” it, perception “receives” it, mental formulation “fashions” it (produces an intelligible image), and consciousness “realizes” it (understands, or interprets it in its particularity, thus facilitating its manifestation) in context and contrast to what is not-it.

    Thus, Dogen utilizes the opening line of the Heart Sutra to illumine the heart of Zen; “Clear seeing is prajna itself.” In perfect harmony with his conception of knowledge, existence, and soteriology the activity of clearly seeing the form of prajna (perfect wisdom), the form of prajna that is clearly seen, and the liberation actualized by prajna are not three different things. This dynamic process and its implications are repeatedly brought into relief throughout the whole Shobogenzo. To clearly see (i.e. sense, know, perceive, experience, etc.) is to be (i.e. actually manifest, exist)…

    … should clarify that “clear seeing” is not “mere seeing.” “Clear seeing” should not be construed as “passively” perceiving via the sense organs (i.e. eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) as advocated by some… Clear seeing is a skill that must be intentionally developed through sustained effort in accurately directed study and cultivation. It is the “clear” of clear seeing that qualifies it as “prajna itself.” Such clear seeing is, of course, inclusive of sense perception, but only if that sense perception is actualized by the healthy mind referred to in Zen as the “normal mind” or “Buddha mind”… succinctly elucidated by Dogen in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan by the line:

    Those who are enlightened about delusion are Buddhas. Those who are deluded about enlightenment are ordinary beings.
    Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, Ted Biringer

    Dogen affirms the authenticity of his comment by asserting its harmony with the heart of the Heart Sutra, “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form” – which he summarizes as, “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” What is going on here? At first glance, this seems to contradict the Heart Sutra’s statement…

    To clarify …we can appeal to a method provided by the Diamond Sutra… “form” only exists because of emptiness, and emptiness only exists because of form. This basic method can be depicted like this (with “A” standing for (any particular) form, and “not” standing for emptiness): A = not-A, therefore A = A.

    … the existence of “a dharma” is dependent on the existence of something “other than” that dharma; and the existence of “other than” that dharma is dependent on the existence of “that dharma.” … In short, the real existence of “A” depends on the real existence of “A” and “not-A,” the real existence of “not-A” also depends on the real existence of “A” and “not-A.”

    The Heart Sutra concisely portrays the nature of reality; A is exactly (equals, is coessential with, depends on) not-A, and not-A is exactly A. The Diamond Sutra illumines the dynamic process of reality; the existence of A is essential to, therefore inclusive of, the existence of “other than” A (and vice versa)… if A exists, not-A must also exist (and vice versa), and if A does not exist, not-A cannot exist (and vice versa). Thus, A is not-A, therefore A is A; not-A is A, therefore not-A is not-A. In Dogen’s terms, form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

    …Dogen’s “clear seeing” (as prajna itself) is inclusive of right-understanding and right-views as well as accurate sense perception… Dogen frequently reminds us that it is not enough to hear, or even to understand the teachings in order to realize Buddhist liberation. The “clear seeing” that is Zen practice-enlightenment is a process not a product, an activity not a resolution. The teachings must, of course, be learned, studied, and accurately understood, however, liberation or realization cannot be actualized unless these teachings are put into actual practice and personally verified (clearly seen). Avalokitesvara was able to accurately “practice prajna paramita” because s/he had come to accurately understand the Buddhist teaching on prajna – but only with the actual experience of clear seeing was liberation actualized.

    Accurate understanding is not authentic realization. At the same time, authentic realization can hardly be expected to occur without accurate understanding. And while an absence of “right understanding” almost excludes the possibility of authentic realization, the presence of “wrong understanding” excludes even the slimmest hope of success. If we aspire to realize what Zen practice-enlightenment truly is, then, as Dogen says, “We should inquire into it, and we should experience it.” To follow his guidance here we will need to understand his view of what “it” is that needs to be inquired into, and who the “we” is that is to do the inquiring…

    We inquire into it through study and training; we experience it through sustained, wholehearted effort in practice… The “it” we need to inquire into and experience is the true nature of ourselves. The process of inquiring into and experiencing the true nature of ourselves is succinctly expressed in a passage from Genjokoan, Shobogenzo.

    To learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away.
    Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    The actual experience of this learning begins with coming to an accurate understanding of it… we need to understand that here “the Buddha’s truth” means enlightenment (liberation, nirvana, etc.), and “learning” means study, training, practice, and verification. Understanding this, we can begin to consider the significance of this from the Buddhist perspective of emptiness… if “to learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves” then “to learn ourselves is to learn the Buddha’s truth”… the implications of emptiness apply to “forgetting,” “experience,” “our body and mind,” “the myriad dharmas,” etc.

    In Dogen’s Zen, “forms” (dharmas) are the fundamental units constituting reality; they are viewed as “empty” and “mental” in nature – when Avalokitesvara clearly saw all five skandhas were empty, emptiness clearly saw emptiness… emptiness is not ineffable, absent, or undifferentiated, but rather, emptiness is intelligible, present, and particularly distinct… the true nature of all the myriad dharmas… the very form of all the myriad dharmas…

    “To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas” describes exactly “emptiness clearly seeing emptiness.” Emptiness seeing emptiness is emptiness seeing the myriad dharmas, the myriad dharmas seeing emptiness, the myriad dharmas seeing the myriad dharmas, the myriad dharmas seeing seeing, and seeing seeing seeing.

    [End Excerpt]

    Saturday in Bellingham, huh? I will try to make it. Thanks again, Tim, great to hear you.


  2. I appreciate your emphasizing the gloss on the first line of the Heart Sutra he does here.

    Whole-body – the body is whole, the whole body of the teachings, prajna is our body, feeling this truth of boundless emptiness in the body itself. Beautiful.

    Speaking on this essay this Saturday at sesshin in Bellingham. Come on down!


  3. Hi Ted

    The views of “contemprary Zen communities” of which you speak are perfect exemplars of the law of Interdependent Arising, which underlies this whole discussion.

    Those mis-apprehending views are perfect, being the product of causes and conditions, perfectly illustrating the truth of the Law.

    We are so fortunate that Buddha laid down all the correctives to this. However, you can lead a horse to water…..

    Those folks crave attainment, not non-attainment, as mentioned in the very Heart Sutra in question.



  4. Excellent post. We are dealing here with the relationship between relative and absolute. The absolute: the experience of the state of Mu, and the relative: understandable explanations. As is stated in the Sandokai, the relative and the absolute fit together like a box and it’s cover.

    It is very, very tempting in contemporary practice to want to hold the experience of “Form is Emptiness” as the ultimate experience. It is less common to continue through to “Emptiness is Form.”

    Many thanks for sharing your studies.

    Gregg _/|\_

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