Friday, August 13, 2010

Emptiness & Form, Attributes and Essence

Buddhist literature frequently details and praises the innumerable, marvelous attributes of Buddha. The majority of these attributes are described as greater, more powerful, or otherwise superior to those usually ascribed to human beings (e.g. abilities to communicate telepathically, be in many places at once, enjoy perfect knowledge and bliss, etc.). Those with a superficial understanding of such descriptions are often known to display astonishment at “irreverent” expressions that identify Buddha nature as identical to the nature of mere humans. Such astonishment often increases to incredulity or even disgust when Buddha nature is equated with animals, vegetables, or minerals — not to mention puddles of piss, the smell of farts, or dry pieces of shit as the classic Zen masters sometimes do. The Zen masters are not being irreverent, however, nor iconoclastic; such shocking expressions are aimed directly at the very forces that evoke such astonishment, shallow understanding and dualistic views.

Hearing of the marvelous attributes of Buddha, uncritical or speculative thinkers show a certain tendency to confuse or infuse “attributes” with the meaning of “essence.” The attributes of Buddha are the characteristics that distinguish Buddha as Buddha; the essence of Buddha is Buddha itself (or him/herself). When attributes are equated with essence it becomes (conceptually) possible to abstract attributes from real, particular dharmas (actual existent things) and thus conceive Buddha as “pure” awareness, goodness, wisdom, tranquility, etc. To conceive of any such “pure” attributes apart from real things that posses them is to dualistically grant them independent selfhood. Such abstract dualism inevitably leads to the effective annihilation of Buddha so far as human beings are concerned; Buddha becomes indescribable, mysterious, ineffable, incommunicable, and indefinable. According to Dogen’s perspective such a Buddha, if it existed, would be just as meaningless to human life as if it did not exist.

Existence, according to Dogen, is dependent on sentient experience; a thing (dharma) exists insofar, and to the extent that it is experienced. If we do not experience it, it does not exist; at the same time, if it exists it can be experienced, for nothing in the universe is concealed. Thus, according to Dogen’s Zen, a Buddha that is indescribable, mysterious, ineffable, incommunicable, and indefinable is not a Buddha. As human beings our ability to know or experience Buddha (or anything else) is, of course, necessarily limited to the human capacity; we cannot know, conceive, or experience anything beyond our capacity as humans (if we could, it would immediately be within the human capacity). Anything that we try to imagine that is greater than ourselves must be small enough to fit inside our own imagination, thus it would inevitably have to be smaller than ourselves. Therefore, any Buddha we could imagine would have to be smaller than ourselves also. Therefore, in Dogen’s Zen, no dharma (thing, being, instance) can be essentially superior or inferior to any other. All dharmas can be distinguished by their own particular attributes, characteristics, or features, but none differ essentially or substantively from us.

Dogen’s writings are much more concerned with elucidating the nature and significance of “form” (unique, particular dharmas), than they are with “emptiness” (universal oneness). The usual reason given for this is that Dogen was countering his era’s excessive preoccupation with emptiness which had led to the widespread acceptance of extremely biased (one-sided) views. Another reason for Dogen’s emphasis on form, which I think may be more significant, is the fact that after the initial phases of Zen practice and enlightenment there is little value in discussing emptiness. The primary significance of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, which can only be truly grasped through experiential realization, is what it reveals about the true nature of the universe and our self. This truth is actualized (made actual) by journeying through emptiness, not by or as emptiness in itself; and definitely not by taking up a permanent abode in emptiness. To clarify, let’s consider the first three lines of Shobogenzo, Genjokoan:

When all things are seen as the buddha-dharma, then there is delusion and enlightenment, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings.

When all things are seen as empty of self, there is no delusion and no enlightenment, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.

Buddha’s truth includes and transcends the many and the one, and so there is life and death, delusion and enlightenment, ordinary beings and buddhas.

Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, (Ted Biringer)

A true appreciation of emptiness can only be achieved with the actual experience of “When all things are seen as empty of self.” When this is being actualized, as Dogen says, “there is no delusion and no enlightenment, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.” All those that have journeyed through this experience can testify to the fact that Dogen is making an understatement; not only are there none of the things (dharmas) he mentions – there are no things at all; no sounds, no tastes, no touches, no sights, no smells, and no cognitions of any kind whatsoever.
Those that can testify to this also share something else with Dogen; they, like he, have journeyed through emptiness. If they had continued to dwell in emptiness, rather than journeying through, they would not be doing anything, certainly not testifying to the emptiness of emptiness.

“Buddha’s truth includes and transcends the many and the one,” means that the Buddha Dharma is constitutive of, and goes beyond, both form and emptiness. It is through the process of transiting from only form (all things) to only emptiness (no things) to and beyond both form and emptiness (all things/no things) that a human being truly begins to actualize authentic practice-enlightenment. As we will take up later, even the realization “Buddha’s truth” alluded to in the third line is not a place to dwell but an experience to journey through; how much more so the one-sided experience of emptiness (no-self).


Ta Wan said...

Many good points in this post.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Ta Wan,

Thank you for your comment.