Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Dogen's commentary on the Heart Sutra

Based on Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu (Mahaprajnaparamita), translated by Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

This "commentary" on the Heart Sutra (if it can be considered as such) is Dogen’s earliest writing in the Shobogenzo. The fact that he wrote it first seems to be a good indication that he regarded an accurate understanding of its topic to be of great importance to Zen practitioners. In this relatively short essay, Dogen outlines some of the profoundly evocative implications of emptiness that continued to permeate his works throughout his prolific teaching career. The essay begins:

"When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practices the profound prajnaparamita, the whole body reflects that the five aggregates are totally empty." 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. Twelve instances of prajna paramita are the twelve entrances [of sense perception]. There are also eighteen instances of prajna. They are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and properties; plus the consciousnesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. There are a further four instances of prajna. They are suffering, accumulation, cessation, and the Way. There are a further six instances of prajna. They are giving, pure [observance of] precepts, patience, diligence, meditation, and prajna [itself]. One further instance of prajnaparamita is realized as the present moment. It is the state of anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi. There are three further instances of prajnaparamita. They are past, present, and future. There are six further instances of prajna. They are earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. And there are a further four instances of prajna that are constantly practiced in everyday life: they are walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
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"When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara1 practices the profound prajnaparamita, the whole body reflects that the five aggregates are totally empty." The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. They are five instances of prajna. Reflection is prajna itself.

The first thing to notice is how Dogen adds the single word "konshin" (translated here as "the whole body") to the first line of the Heart Sutra (which actually reads, "Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, when practicing the profound prajnaparamita, reflects that the five aggregates are totally empty").

The addition of this word serves to highlight a profound implication of the nature of emptiness; the fact that all things are empty means all things are real existence—including the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness), which Dogen asserts, "are five instances of prajna."

Hee-Jin Kim comments on this section of Dogen’s essay, saying, "Once again, Dogen’s interpretation here construes all dharmas as but the perfection of wisdom" (Flowers of Emptiness, p.63). While it is fairly easy to penetrate the meaning behind the teachings that "all dharmas are empty", many get stuck here and fail to follow this truth through to its deeper implication; the fact that this affirms the real existence of form (rather than one-sidedly negating it). As Kim goes on to say:

"’Emptiness’ is the emptiness of self-nature, hence it simultaneously negates and affirms ‘form’ (or existence); All dharmas are at once empty and phenomenal."
(Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.64).

With this in mind, we can grasp the implications of Dogen’s statement about the five aggregates; the very fact that "form (as well as feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness) is emptiness" means that each particular form (feeling, perception, etc.) is real existence itself—each particular thing is in fact "an instance of prajna" (transcendent wisdom). Thus, the flower the Buddha twirled before his assembly, because it is empty, is existent. Mahakyashapa’s smile, is existent—is prajna itself.

Driving this point home, Dogen says, "Reflection is prajna itself." This line in the Heart Sutra, "…reflects that the five aggregates are totally empty", is often translated as, "…clearly saw (or sees) that the five skandhas are empty…" Thus, Thomas Cleary’s translation of Dogen’s text reads, "Clear vision is wisdom (prajna)."

Hee-Jin Kim clarifies the point here, noting, "Avalokitesvara and wisdom (prajna) are not the observer and the observed, but one reality. The luminous vision (reflection, or clear vision) then is the working of Avalokitesvara/wisdom. Avalokitesvara sees Avalokitesvara; wisdom enacts wisdom."
(Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.63).
 
The next line was the one that Shunryu Suzuki showed his appreciation for in his "Zen Mind Beginners Mind." Dogen says:

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.

As Suzuki Roshi pointed our, many of us are familiar with, "matter is just the immaterial, the immaterial is just matter" (form is emptiness, emptiness is form), but Dogen reminds us that "matter is matter, the immaterial is the immaterial" (form is form, emptiness is emptiness). Therefore, "They are hundreds of things, and myriad phenomena."

This teaching is also expounded marvelously in the Diamond Sutra’s formula of, "X is not-X, therefore X is called X" (X is empty of X, thus X is all existence). There are thousand of clear demonstrations of this in the prajnaparamita sutras, yet Dogen’s expression, with the Zen characteristic of immediacy makes a direct impression that is sometimes lost in the drawn-out dialogues of the sutras.

Dogen’s use of the first line of the Heart Sutra instantly reminds us of the relative nature of things, that is, it calls to our mind the Buddhist teaching of "no-self." This teaching reveals the truth that there are no separate, independent entities—that is, all "particular things" are inter-dependent, or relative. However, this teaching can, and often does lead to nihilistic misunderstandings. Much of Dogen’s work concerns clarifying the inter-dependent nature of "things" (dharmas) in the light of the form of form and emptiness of emptiness. As Thomas Cleary points out in his translation of this fascicle:

"However, if it is because of relativity, or conditionality, that all things are ‘empty,’ it is equally true that by the very same conditionality they do exist dependently… A thorough reading of Dogen’s Shobogenzo will reveal that correcting or preventing the tendency toward nihilistic interpretation of emptiness is a major concern of Dogen’s teaching. In this essay, Dogen identifies phenomena themselves with transcendent wisdom (prajnaparamita), emphasizing that within so-called nothing or emptiness all things are found including the facilities, or means, of the Buddhist teachings."
(Thomas Cleary, Introduction to Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen)

While this teaching is logically straightforward and, with a little effort, fairly easy to grasp intellectually, the history of Zen, if the classic records are accurate, indicate that misunderstanding this aspect of emptiness has proven to be a recurring problem. In the words of Yin-shun:

Yin-shun says, "Most people don’t understand this. They think that ‘emptiness’ means ‘nothing’ and that it can’t produce everything that exists. They don’t realize that if dharmas weren’t empty, no dharmas would ever appear, that what exists would always exist and what doesn’t exist would never exist. But dharmas aren’t like that… The birth and destruction, the existence and non-existence of dharmas is dependent on their lack of self-existence and their fundamental emptiness. Thus, Nagarjuna said, ‘Because of emptiness, all things are possible.’"
Translated by Red Pine.
 
Once we do come to understand this aspect of the nature of emptiness, we can truly appreciate the real existent nature of Buddhist doctrines and methods. Or, as already quoted by Cleary, "within… emptiness all things are found including the facilities, or means, of the Buddhist teachings." Thus Dogen hits us full in the face with a multitude of real existent Buddhist teachings:

Twelve instances of prajna paramita are the twelve entrances [of sense perception]. There are also eighteen instances of prajna. They are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and properties; plus the consciousnesses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. There are a further four instances of prajna. They are suffering, accumulation, cessation, and the Way. There are a further six instances of prajna. They are giving, pure [observance of] precepts, patience, diligence, meditation, and prajna [itself]. One further instance of prajnaparamita is realized as the present moment. It is the state of anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi. There are three further instances of prajnaparamita. They are past, present, and future. There are six further instances of prajna. They are earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. And there are a further four instances of prajna that are constantly practiced in everyday life: they are walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
 
After laying the groundwork and clarifying the essential points, Dogen goes on to quote a passage that reveals the true significance of the Buddhist doctrines and methods. That is, truly grasping the experience "this state" of emptiness where there is "no appearance and disappearance of real dharmas" means that there really "are understandable explanations" (Buddhist teachings). Dogen cites this passage:

In the order of Sakyamuni Tathagata there is a bhikṣu who secretly thinks, "I shall bow in veneration of the profound prajnaparamita. Although in this state there is no appearance and disappearance of real dharmas, there are still understandable explanations of all precepts, all balanced states, all kinds of wisdom, all kinds of liberation, and all views. There are also understandable explanations of the fruit of one who has entered the stream, the fruit of [being subject to] one return, the fruit of [not being subject to] returning, and the fruit of the arhat. There are also understandable explanations of [people of] independent awakening, and [people of] bodhi. There are also understandable explanations of the supreme right and balanced state of bodhi. There are also understandable explanations of the treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. There are also understandable explanations of turning the wonderful Dharma wheel to save sentient beings." The Buddha, knowing the bhikṣu’s mind, tells him, "This is how it is. This is how it is. The profound prajnaparamita is too subtle and fine to fathom." The bhikṣu’s "secretly working concrete mind" at this moment is, in the state of bowing in veneration of real dharmas, prajna itself—whether or not [real dharmas] are without appearance and disappearance—and this is a "venerative bow" itself. 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.
 
To be continued (hopefully)
Peace,
Ted

5 comments:

BellBookCandleSupply said...

Practicing buddhism sustain a wholesome life that brings good karma in our daily living. All positive enlightenment is attained if one focuses on right words, thoughts and deeds. Establishing the right mindset, anyone can live a happy and blessed life.
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Ted Biringer said...

Thank you.

Peace,
Ted

Jordan said...

Hey Ted, It may be just me, but if you broke this up into smaller bites it might be easier to chew.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Jordan,

Thank you for your comments.

I will endeavor to improve. I like this "bite" from Hee-Jin Kim:

"’Emptiness’ is the emptiness of self-nature, hence it simultaneously negates and affirms ‘form’ (or existence); All dharmas are at once empty and phenomenal."
(Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.64).

What do you think? Not bad, eh?

Peace my friend...

Ted

Jordan said...

I don't know Ted, I was always partial to "Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form."