Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Dogen, Shakyamuni, & Dualistic Views of Language, Thinking, & Reason

Our Highest Ancestor in India, Shakyamuni Buddha, once said, “The snowcapped Himalayas are a metaphor for the great nirvana.” You need to know that He is speaking metaphorically about something that can be metaphoric. ‘Something that can be metaphoric’ implies that the mountains and nirvana are somehow intimately connected and that they are connected in a straightforward manner. When He uses the term ‘snow-capped Himalayas’, He is using the actual snowcapped Himalayas as a metaphor, just as when He uses the term ‘great nirvana’, He is using the actual great nirvana as a metaphor.
Shobogenzo, Hotsu Mujo Shin
, Hubert Nearman

Without seeing through the dualism of instrumentalist views of language, an accurate understanding of Zen remains impossibly out of reach. Any presuppositions (conscious or not) about words being mere signifiers, pointers, surrogates, or substitutes for “real things” (non-words) apart from themselves is inherently dualistic, thus prohibitive of the nondual experience of Zen practice-enlightenment.

The “blue sky” does not exist apart from the human mind. Even if we admit, for argument sake, that “waves” of certain lengths and frequencies exist independently of human beings, the actual experience (thus existence) of a “blue sky” could only arise if such waves interact with a human mind through a human eye. Thus, the reality of the blue sky and the words blue sky, are both produced by the exact same process with the exact same material: human experience. All “dharmas” (things, beings, events, etc.) are real particular things insofar as they are distinguished as particular things through human perception; the more distinctly they are perceived, the more real they are. We only perceive a blue sky insofar as we distinguish “blue sky” from “not-blue sky” (or “other than” blue sky). The words “blue sky” (and all their verbal and symbolic equivalents) are actualized simultaneously with the human perception of the “blue sky.”

Dogen says that Shakyamuni is speaking “about something that can be metaphoric” to emphasize that words are only significant insofar as they both contain, and are contained by (intimately connected) the real dharmas they describe (depict, portray, present). When Shakyamuni “uses the term” he is using “the actual snowcapped Himalayas” and “the actual great nirvana.” In the same way, we can only say “blue sky” meaningfully if we use the actual blue sky – the actual blue sky only becomes “actual” by being distinguished (thus, marked, or “named”) with the words “blue sky” (and their equivalents). Thus, the words (“blue sky,” “Himalayas,” and “nirvana”) are the actual dharmas (“blue sky,” “Himalayas,” and “nirvana”). For Dogen, any word that signifies or points to “something else” or “other than” is not an actual word (a real dharma); it is only a conceptual construct, an abstract notion. “A finger pointing to the moon” is not the same as “a finger pointing to something else,” nor is “the moon being pointed to by a finger” the same as “the moon not being pointed to by a finger.” The “actual moon” of “a finger pointing to the moon” is real insofar as it is “the moon” that is “pointed to by a finger.”

The term, or name of a dharma is its nature, its life; a dharma becomes a dharma (is actualized) by its being distinctly perceived, distinguished (described, discerned, marked, named, etc.). This is one of the reasons that Shakyamuni is the expression of Buddha nature in Dogen’s works; Dharma (truth) is expression (e.g. understandable explanations). That Dharma is “expression” means that Dharma is, only and always, “intelligible” (knowable, or comprehendible to the mind); the Buddha or ancestor is the being that “enlightens delusion,” “forms, emptiness,” or “fashions intelligibility” from the chaotic stream of ceaseless experience. The Buddha ancestor utilizes enlightened vision to transform general randomness, to actualize this particular thing from “thusness,” that particular meaning from “suchness.”

The view that the significance or meaning of a word exists somewhere outside of the word itself is based on the same kind of dualism that divides emptiness from form, mind from body, existence form time, and appearance from reality. Like all the myriad dharmas, the true “form” and the true “essence” of a word are never construed as two different things in Dogen’s Zen. True words, like all expressions of truth, are only and always fashioned by the creative force of the true human being (Buddha nature). The significance of a word, then, does not, and cannot exist in some “external world” apart from itself. For Dogen, a word (form) and its meaning (essence) constitute one and the same dharma (thing, being, event, etc.) as nondualistically as body-mind, existence-time, and practice-enlightenment.

Advocates of “correspondence” theories conceive of words as mere artificial (or provisional) “representatives” or “surrogates” of “real dharmas” that exist in the outside world (e.g. things, beings, events, etc.) or in the mind (e.g. ideas, concepts, thoughts, etc.). For such theorists, a word can have only one definite meaning, the one meaning that “corresponds” to a reality that exists “objectively” apart from the word. Dogen (and Buddhism) denies the nondual basis of such theories; for him the meaning or significance of a word is totally unique to its dharma-position. That is to say, the meaning of a word is unique to each actual instance of its appearance, depending on its particular context as well as the particular hearer or reader.

The speculative theorist that fails to see that the “dictionary meaning” of a word is an abstraction, and therefore general, and approximate, will fail to perceive the significance of Dogen’s (hence, Zen’s) expressions. For Dogen, a real word is a real dharma, and like all dharmas, its reality (in existence-time), and thus its meaning, is unique to each and every actual instance of its occurrence. Also like all dharmas, each word is a particular manifestation of the totality of existence-time – when one word is illumined, the rest of existence-time is darkened (thus present, potent). Herein lies the reason for the centrality of language in Dogen’s Zen; to Buddha ancestors a word, as a dharma-position, is a focal point of existence-time to which all sounds, forms, voices, expressions, and meanings radiate out from and return to – in short, a true word encompasses and is encompassed by the infinite potential of Buddha nature, and is therefore charged with an infinite potential of meanings.

Words, then, like all real forms (dharmas), display the attributes of real existents (a temporal form, or body) insofar as they are actually perceived (experienced) by human beings. True “perception” being synonymous, in Dogen’s Zen, with true activity, expression, and understanding, to perceive a word is to actualize the koan (genjokoan) here and now – “I” make the word what it is, the word makes me what “I” am. Thus, we can sense the wonder and urgency of Hee-Jin Kim’s words in, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, as he forcefully reiterates one of the central principles resonating throughout his works; listen again to Kim’s refrain that so often goes unheeded:

Language, thinking, and reason constitute the key to both zazen and koan study within Dogen’s praxis-oriented Zen. The koan’s and zazen’s function is not excoriate and abandon the intellect and its words and letters, but rather to liberate and restore them in the Zen enterprise. In short, enlightenment is not brought about by direct intuition (or transcendent wisdom) supplanting the intellect and its tools, but in and through their collaboration and corroboration in search of the expressible in deeds, words, and thoughts for a given situation (religious and secular). Zazen and koan in this respect strive for the same salvific aspiration of Zen. The language of the old-paradigm koan (kosoku koan) becomes a living force in the workings of the koan realized in life (genjo koan). With their reclaimed legitimacy in Zen, language, thinking, and reason now enable practitioners to probe duality and nonduality, weigh emptiness, and negotiate the Way. Method and realization, rationality and spirituality, thinking and praxis, go hand-in-hand in Dogen’s Zen. Such is “the reason of words and letters” (monji no dori).
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.78

Please note that Kim does not deny the significance of satori or kensho (direct intuition) or suggest it be replaced by the “intellect and its tools” (i.e. language, thinking, and reason), but that the two need to collaborate and corroborate. Indeed, one obvious inconsistency of views asserting the nonessential or provisional role of “words and letters” is that the very “reason” of such assertions, which implicitly posit the irrationality of Zen (hence Buddhism), deny the possibility of their own validity.

Now, it is the infinite potential of meaning inherent to words that necessitates, and makes possible, the “search” and “striving”, in Kim’s terms, for the expressible and salvific expressions (deeds, words, and thoughts) of Dogen’s “praxis-oriented Zen.” As long as words are confined to the general meanings of dictionaries, they remain abstract potentials, possibilities so broad (infinite) that any significance they may have could only be considered vague at best. This is exactly similar to the state of sense experience in the absence of any organization or arrangement. And, just as the Buddha ancestor “fashions a universe” and “fashions a self” with the selection and arrangement of “bits and pieces” of existence-time, so she fashions expressions of truth with the selection and arrangement of words. Just as “bits and pieces” of existence-time only become real, particular things (dharmas) when they are actually fashioned, formed, or pictured, so the infinite potential of words only achieve real, specific meaning when they are actually fashioned, formed, or expressed.

Dogen’s profound insight into the infinite potential of words and letters would also helps to account for his apparent disfavor of systematic or formulaic classifications and devices. As mentioned previously, Dogen’s lack of any explicit use of Zen devices (e.g. Five Ranks, Positions of Host and Guest, etc.) in his own works probably has less to do with his rejection of their validity as expressions of truth and more to do with his view of the infinite potential language, and the absolute uniqueness of every true expression of Buddha nature.


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