To Dogen, mind was at once knowledge and reality, at once the knowing subject and the known object, yet it transcended them both at the same time. In this nondual conception of mind, what one knew was what one was—and ontology, epistemology, and soteriology were inseparably united. This was also his interpretation of the Hua-yen tenet “The triple world is mind-only.” From this vantage point, Dogen guarded himself against the inherent weaknesses of the two strands of Buddhist idealism: the advocacy of the functions of mind (shinso) by the school of consciousness-only and the advocacy of the essence of mind (shinsho) by the school of tathagata-garbha—both of which were vulnerable to a dualism between phenomena and essence. Thus, philosophically speaking, Dogen maneuvered between monistic pantheism and reductionistic phenomenalism.
Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.117
The obvious (surface) meaning of this is clear enough; for Dogen, to exist is to know (to sense, feel, perceive, experience, etc.), to know is to exist, and to know Buddha (enlightenment, liberation, nirvana, etc.) is to exist as Buddha. While this is profound in its own right, I would like to suggest there may be some subtler clues we might come away with.
Consider closely the implications of Kim’s assertion about Dogen making no division between existence, knowledge, or the Buddha Way (ontology, epistemology, and soteriology). If Dogen does not regard ontology, epistemology, and soteriology, as being three different things, as Kim contends, then clearly, Dogen’s expressions on any one of these must also apply to the other two.
It is this, that I would like to suggest can serve as a kind of key in approaching Shobogenzo. That is, it serves as a key insofar as it neutralizes Dogen’s obligation to confine his expressions to the specific terms and doctrines appropriate to any one of these three, as would be necessary if the three were treated as different things. This means, for example, that if Dogen could not accurately transmit some Buddhist truth on knowledge within the terms and teachings of Buddhist epistemology he could appeal to the terms and teachings available within Buddhist ontology or soteriology – he could even combine terms and teachings from these “three” realms of Buddhist thought, thus vastly increase the degree of subtlety with which his expressions could be refined.
In other words, Dogen’s view of the inseparability of ontology, epistemology, and soteriology vastly increases Dogen’s capacity to transmit wisdom by increasing the terms and teaching available for so doing. The possibilities available to a painter limited to a single color are not simply doubled with the addition of one more color, but pushed to the brink of infinity – a third color and the brink is transcended; this same reasoning applies to musicians, poets, and Zen masters.
If you have followed the significance of this, you will also be able to appreciate that, just as Hee-Jin Kim provides these clues to Dogen’s teachings on “ontology, epistemology, and soteriology,” Kim points similarly to “language, thinking, and reason,” as well as “activity, expression, and understanding.”
By assimilating the significance of these clues, we rid ourselves of obstacles by dispensing with limitations imposed by arbitrary divisions, thus expanding our capacity for receiving Dogen’s transmission.
Please, dig into Dogen’s treasury and enjoy its profound richness…