Zen Flowers: Myriad Forms of Emptiness

The realization of this prajnaparamita is the realization of buddha-bhagavats. We should inquire into it, and we should experience it.  ~Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

In this same fascicle Dogen says “clear seeing is prajna itself,” meaning not only that all forms, things, beings, etc. are “real dharmas,” but also that all real dharmas are ourselves. Thus, when he says that to realize the wisdom of Buddha’s “We should inquire into it, and we should experience it,” the “it” he means we should inquire into and experience is ourselves.

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, Genjo-koan, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Far from the undifferentiated oneness, open awareness, or pure consciousness advocated by new age authors and pseudo-Zen cults, Dogen clearly and unequivocally depicts enlightenment as being experienced by the “myriad” dharmas. In other words, for Dogen, enlightenment, which he describes as our own body-mind and the body-mind of the external world falling away, is not “to be experienced” by the “one mind” or “pure awareness,” it is “to be experienced by the myriad dharmas.” The significance of his intention here can perhaps be clarified by considering an example in which Dogen refutes a fallacy. In this particular case, Dogen uses Daie Soko, his archetypal symbol for unreliable Zen masters, to voice the following fallacious view:

A certain monk called Meditation Master Daie Soko, once said:

Folks today are fond of talking about mind and talking about nature, and because they are fond of talking about profundities and talking about wonders, they are slow to realize the Way. Since mind and nature form a duality, once these folks have discarded this duality, and have forgotten all about the profound and the wondrous as well, then dualities will no longer arise, and they will experience the Truth that the Buddha promised them.  ~Shobogenzo, Sesshin Sessh?, Hubert Nearman

Variations of this view may be familiar to those that have read the books or heard the teachings of certain new age authors or pseudo-Zen cults mentioned a moment ago. It is extremely doubtful that such a superficial view was ever really expressed by Daie Soko, at least in this form and context. Nevertheless, it is the view, not Daie, that Dogen is concerned with; and the way it is voiced here captures the essential nature of the fallacy at the heart of even the most sophisticated formulations of this distorted view in question. For Dogen, who goes to lengths throughout Shobogenzo to emphasize the importance of the specification and particularization of Dharma expressions, the above expression represents an almost perfect subversion of Dogen’s own viewpoint. But Dogen’s own words criticizing this view are better than any paraphrase:

These remarks of his show that he was still unaware of the silken thread that binds the Buddhas and Ancestors together, nor had he comprehended what the lifeline of the Buddhas and Ancestors is. Accordingly, he only understood ‘mind’ to refer to discriminative thinking and consciousness, so he spoke this way because he had not learned that the various functions, such as discriminative thinking and consciousness, are what the intellective mind is. He wrongly viewed ‘nature’ to mean something that is abundantly clear and peacefully inactive, and did not understand whether Buddha Nature and the nature of all thoughts and things existed or did not exist. And because he had not seen his True Nature as It is, not even in his dreams, he had a false view of what Buddha Dharma is. The ‘mind’ that the Buddhas and Ancestors spoke of is the very Skin and Flesh, Bones and Marrow. And the ‘nature’ that the Buddhas and Ancestors have preserved is a monk’s traveling staff and the shaft of a bamboo arrow. The Buddhas and Ancestors have profoundly realized the Buddhahood promised Them by the Buddha, and this is what is meant by being a pillar of the temple or a stone lantern. How wondrous it is that the Buddhas and Ancestors hold up and offer to us Their wise discernment and understanding! ~Shobogenzo, Sesshin Sessh?, Hubert Nearman

When we feel the sting of Dogen’s scorn in the comment that Daie “wrongly viewed ‘nature’ to mean something that is abundantly clear and peacefully inactive” we can only imagine the lightning that would shoot from his eyes if he heard the assertions of contemporary Zen “teachers” that advocate “letting go of thoughts” and “just sitting with no goals.” Dogen’s comments are clear enough, but it is worth noting that when he points out that “the various functions” of mind are just what the “mind is,” we are meeting the same principle asserted as “clear seeing is prajna itself.”

The point that Dogen is getting at is that the very substance of the myriad dharmas is our experience of them. The directly perceived image or form of a thing (dharma) is the thing itself. Ideas about a thing or an abstract concept derived from a thing are only and always less than the thing as it is. When we directly perceive a flower, we perceive a whole array of particular aspects that are related in a manner that we experience as that flower, the more focused and attentive we are in perceiving these aspects, the clearer we see the flower. As soon as we begin conceptualizing about the flower we turn away from perceiving it as it is and start perceiving our ideas about it instead. First, the actual experienced form of the flower is transferred to the mere notion or idea “flower.” As we continue to speculate on this idea, we create more ideas, ideas of its whiteness or blueness, its beauty or plainness, tallness or shortness, the various qualities are classified and categorized accordingly and gradually they gain status as dharmas themselves, independent of the actual flower (the real dharma) as it is.

This leads to the same misunderstanding that caused Dogen to say that Daie “did not understand whether Buddha Nature and the nature of all thoughts and things existed or did not exist.” This is straightforward and there is no reason Zen should to be unable to verify it. If there is whiteness or blueness, beauty or plainness, tallness or shortness, it is only because of the real flower, outside of which no such qualities exist. Apart from “the nature of all thoughts and things” what is “Buddha nature”? Apart from “discriminative thinking and consciousness” what is “mind”?

Whiteness, shortness, or discriminative thinking are absolutely meaningless apart from the real dharmas that posses them. Thus, for Dogen, the particularity, specificity, and uniqueness of things (dharmas) are far more important than their uniformity, equality, or mutual identity. The difference of the whiteness between this flower and the whiteness of that flower is the difference between the true nature of a real dharma and an abstract conceptual construct. The difference between the direct perception of a flower and a conceptual understanding of “one mind” is the difference between prajna (enlightened vision) and intellectual knowledge. The koan that is cited as Case 40 of the classic Zen text, The Blue Cliff Record, makes the point nicely:

Officer Lu said to Zen Master Nansen, “Master Chao wrote, ‘Heaven, earth, and I all have the same root, the myriad dharmas and I are one and the same body-mind.’ Isn’t that marvelous!”

Nansen pointed to a flower and said, “People around here see this flower as if in a dream.”

Case 21 of the Zen koan collection, The Gateless Barrier, is even more succinct:

A monk asked Ummon, “What is Buddha?”

Ummon said, “A dry piece of shit.”

For Dogen (and Zen) things are real things (real dharmas) insofar as they are directly perceived as they are. To “clearly see” a dry piece of shit, distinctly and particularly as it is, is prajna itself. To accurately understand all the teachings of Buddha in the absence of “clear seeing” is to see the Buddha Dharma “as if in a dream.”

 To clarify this let’s look closely; if seeing the idea that “heaven, earth, and I have the same root” is like “seeing this flower in a dream,” then seeing “whiteness” or “shortness” as a reality in itself is like a vague memory of a childhood dream about a flower. And when abstract conceptual ideas are so generalized that one sees vague notions like “mind” or “nature” as independent entities one is so far removed from reality that even saying it is like “seeing this flower as if in a dream of blindness” would not suffice. Thus, based on the utterance “Daie” expressed, Dogen says, “And because he had not seen his True Nature as It is, not even in his dreams, he had a false view of what Buddha Dharma is.”

This last comment brings us to an example that aptly illustrates several points of our discussion. The Buddhist goal of enlightenment is often referred to in Zen as “seeing (your own) true nature.” One common technical term in Japanese for the initial experience of this is kensho (ken; seeing, sho; true nature). Dogen did use “ken” (seeing) and “butsu” (Buddha) as “kenbutsu” with almost the same meaning, but rarely used the term “kensho” and was critical of it on occasion.

As this is one of Dogen’s three essential aspects of authentic Zen, his criticism was clearly directed at the term rather than what it signified (personal verification). Nevertheless, this criticism was seized upon by the sectarian propagandists that also attempted to use his criticism of Daie as proof of Dogen’s own sectarianism. Insisting that his criticism targeted the actual experience, not just the term, such sectarians claimed that Dogen viewed “kensho” as something of minor significance, or even as nonessential. In short, the propagandists attempted to portray Dogen as holding the view that the Soto lineage was in fact, a separate Zen sect. And to back up their claims they pointed to Dogen’s criticism of Daie (a master in the Rinzai lineage) and to his criticism of the term kensho (a term Daie used often, and a doctrine that is emphasized in the Rinzai lineage).

To fill in the gaps, one of the rare occasions that Dogen does use the term “kensho” in its clear and traditional sense, is precisely in connection with his criticism of Daie. Thus, although sectarian propagandists asserted that the Soto lineage was a distinct (and supreme) “Zen sect” and refuted the authenticity of the Rinzai lineage because it taught the necessity of kensho, Dogen himself refuted the authenticity of Daie’s enlightenment because Daie had not experienced kensho.

This would be amusing if it were not so sad. This example illustrates how a distorted concept like “Zen sect” can be abstracted from a real dharma like the “Buddhism” and gradually be transformed into a whole nest of entangling ideas like “authentic sects,” “superior practices,” “inferior doctrines,” and on and on. In the passion and excitement of proving the superiority of these ideas and the inferiority of those ideas it is easy to lose track of the fact that they are all simply false idols, mere traces or echoes of real dharmas. While these groups compete to prove which fossilized formulas are greater, they vainly miss the rare opportunity of actualizing the ever present reality of “clear seeing” that is prajna, Buddha nature, the myriad dharmas of existence-time – they fail to take Dogen up on his suggestion to actualize the fundamental point (genjokoan).



2 thoughts on “Zen Flowers: Myriad Forms of Emptiness

  1. Hello Ted

    “Dogen uses Daie Soko, his archetypal symbol for unreliable Zen masters”

    I love the juicy conundrum raised by the words “unreliable Zen masters”, which is:

    Only one who relies on nothing is reliable.



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