Zen Form Zen Reality

Just at this moment of bowing in veneration, prajna is realized as explanations that can be understood: [explanations] from “precepts, balance, and wisdom,” to “saving sentient beings,” and so on. This state is described as being without. Explanations of the state of “being without” can thus be understood. Such is the profound, subtle, unfathomable prajna paramita.

Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dualistically dividing “form” (image, body, appearance, etc.) from “nature” (reality, mind, meaning, etc.) the abstract reasoner attempts to find the nature, or reality, of the Buddha Dharma (actual truth, essential meaning, etc.) apart from the expressed form, or body of the Buddha Dharma (the scriptural teachings, Zen records, etc.). Thus, the classic Zen masters dedicated much time and energy addressing those that had fallen into the dualistic notion that the reality of Buddhist wisdom (prajna) somehow existed apart from its appearance in and as “understandable explanations” (scriptural teachings, Zen records, etc.).

Dogen for one committed a vast amount of ink to emphasizing the crucial importance of avoiding the distorted notion that the “reality” of Buddhism or Zen could ever discerned apart from its “form.” This fallacy was evidently widespread in Sung China when he visited. According to Dogen, things had become so distorted that many mistakenly believed that the reality or truth of Buddhism actually existed independently of the appearances or forms of Buddhism. Further, many even held that the form or “words and letters” of Buddhism were not really Buddhism but merely a temporary means to Buddhism; some had even come to theorize that the words and expression of Buddha ancestors (particularly, koans) were actually “irrational” and beyond normal understanding. They are beyond rational understanding, Dogen snapped, but “only to them.”

What the shavelings call “stories beyond rational understanding” are beyond rational understanding only to them; the Buddhist patriarchs are not like that. Even though [rational ways] are not rationally understood by those [shavelings], we should not fail to learn in practice the Buddhist patriarchs’ ways of rational understanding. If ultimately there is no rational understanding, the reasoning which those [shavelings] have now set forth also cannot hit the target. There are many of this sort in all directions of Song China, and I have seen and heard them before my own eyes. They are pitiful. They do not know that images and thoughts are words and phrases, and they do not know that words and phrases transcend images and thoughts. When I was in China I laughed at them, but they had nothing to say for themselves and were just wordless. Their present negation of rational understanding is nothing but a false notion. Who has taught it to them? Though they lack a natural teacher, they have the non-Buddhist view of naturalism.

Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Attached to the false view that the “words and letters” of the Dharma (scriptures, and Zen records) are not the reality of the Dharma, “shavelings” (a derogatory term for Buddhist monks, who of course have shaved heads) immediately turn away from the very form of Buddhism before their eyes and try to find its reality somewhere else. This search is usually conducted through inductive or deductive speculation, which demonstrates that they trust the powers of their own speculative capacity over the actual teachings of Buddhism.

Inductive reasoning attempts to “extend” the meaning or significance “common” to a number of known facts to explain or “introduce” (induce) a new truth or fact. Deduction attempts to “discover” (deduce) particular truths by finding particular qualities “common” to a number of “known facts” by viewing them in light of some “general truth” (generalization). All such attempts immediately introduce a barrier between the Buddha Dharma and the abstract speculator.

Trying to find the reality, emptiness, prajna, mu (being without), etc. of Buddhism by abandoning the form, body, teachings, words, explanations, etc. of Buddhism is just as futile as attempting to find the north star by facing south. To dismiss the words and teaching of Buddhism as being merely a “means,” “theory,” or “representation” is itself, to adopt a dualistic conceptual theory. Moreover, regardless of how airtight a closed systematic theory is, as an abstraction it is a flimsy shelter from the truth of the Buddha Dharma. As the conceptual construct shudders and shakes, threatening the tiny patch of security, the isolated ego is compelled to continuously repair and reinforce the cracks and leaks.

The dualistic viewpoint that attempts to separate “form” from “non-form” (emptiness), is the dualistic notion that informs the fallacy that the “words” of Dharma are separate from the “reality” of the meaning of Dharma. And, just as those that dismiss differentiation as “dualism” are themselves asserting a dualistic view; those that dismiss scriptural study as “attachment” to concepts are themselves demonstrating their own attachment to concepts. As Dogen says:


When people without eyes of learning in practice take up the Tathagata’s words “If we see the many forms [and] non-form. . .” they think, “To see the many forms as non-form is just to see the Tathagata.” In other words, they think the words describe seeing the many forms not as forms but as the Tathagata. Truly, a faction of small thinkers will [inevitably] study the words like that, but the reality of the words which the Buddha intended is not like that. Remember, to see the many forms, and to see [their] non-form, is to meet the Tathagata at once. There is the Tathagata and there is the non-Tathagata.


 Zen Master Dai Hogen of Seiryo-in Temple says, “If we see the many forms [as] non-form, we are not then meeting the Tathagata.”


This expression of Dai Hogen now is an expression in the state of meeting buddha.

Shobogenzo Kenbutsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

The good news is that it is never too late to listen to the true Buddha Dharma directly from the Buddha’s own mouth:

People who, spurring the body-mind, “receive and retain, read and recite, rightly remember, practice, and copy this Sutra of the Flower of Dharma” may [already] “be meeting Sakyamuni Buddha.” They are “hearing this sutra as if from the Buddha’s mouth”: who could not vie to listen to it?

Shobogenzo Kenbutsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross