Emptiness Sees Emptiness
(Article from the October, 2011 newsletter "Flatbed Sutra Zen News")
The Buddhist teaching of emptiness is most comprehensively treated in the scriptures known as the prajna paramita sutras, revered as primary sources of authority by all Mahayana traditions. "Prajna" is a rich term with many potential meanings and connotations depending on the context; in general, it refers to Buddhist wisdom. In the context of "prajna paramita" it refers specifically to "perfect" or "transcendent" wisdom, that is, the wisdom of "emptiness." From at least as early as the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in China, Huineng (638 - 713 C. E.), Zen has been more closely associated with the prajna paramita sutras than any other scriptures. According to Zen lore, the Sixth Ancestor realized enlightenment simply upon hearing a prajna paramita sutra, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, recited by a stranger on the street. Huineng's record, the "Platform Sutra," is the only text revered as a "sutra" (i.e. scripture) other than those attributed to the Buddha. The Platform Sutra expounds on the importance and significance of a number of sutras, but is particularly insistent on the supreme vision of the Diamond Sutra, not only promising enlightenment to those that practice it, but even to those that simply memorize it.
While the Diamond Sutra continues to be highly revered in Zen, which remains deeply steeped in its methodology, the marvelously concise Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hrdya-sutra) came to occupy a position as the definitive statement on "emptiness" in Zen, as in many Mahayana traditions. As its title suggests, this succinct scripture presents a remarkably clear image of the profound wisdom at the heart of the vast corpus of prajna paramita literature. In Dogen's day, as in our own, this short scripture was known well enough that Buddhists hearing a single line would recognize it instantly. Dogen's own commentary on the Heart Sutra - the earliest writing included in Shobogenzo - opens by quoting the first line of the sutra. Dogen uses this quote (the only direct reference to the sutra in his commentary) to illumine a profound implication of emptiness by creatively altering the reading (thus significance) of the opening line of the Heart Sutra. The first line of the Heart Sutra actually reads:
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress.
(Note: "Avalokitesvara," is an enlightened being (bodhisattva) of Buddhist mythology; the hero of the Heart Sutra. "Transcending anguish and distress" is realizing the Buddhist goal, liberation from suffering; nirvana, enlightenment).
Dogen's creative alteration of the line is not achieved by eliminating or substituting words, nor by transposing or changing their order, but through the addition of a single word.
This move by Dogen should not be glossed over, dismissed as accidental, or understood as a simple attempt to clarify the original meaning by providing an interpretive element. The Heart Sutra was well known to his audience, and his alteration, while slight, would have been stark in their ears. Upon first sight, the additional word jumps out as if erroneous, but as the implications of it dawn, its intentional placement becomes clear. The added word is, "konshin," which roughly translates as "whole-body," or "complete body-mind." Thus:
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita whole body-mind clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress.
Although only one word, an English rendering conveying the significance of the alteration asks for some interpretive suggestions, perhaps, "Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita with his whole-body clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress," or, "The whole-body-Avalokitesvara-Bodhisattva practicing deep prajna paramita clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty transcending anguish and distress."
To appreciate the implications of this we should understanding that the "five skandhas" are a traditional classification for the elements constituting the (whole) body-mind of a human being. In light of this we see that "five skandhas" is another way of saying "whole-body." Thus, the implication is clear; to say "The whole-body (of Avalokitesvara) sees that all five skandhas are empty," is equivalent to saying, "The whole-body sees that the whole-body is empty."
(Note: The five skandhas are form, feeling, sensation, mental formulation, and consciousness. In Buddhist literature the term "form" by itself serves as an abbreviation for all five skandhas).
Being a crucial element to every aspect of Buddhism, the teachings on emptiness (shunyata) are complex and multi-faceted. However, in order to grasp the main points of the present discussion it is enough to know that emptiness is regarded (at least by Mahayana Buddhists) as the reality, or true nature of all things, beings, and events (i.e. dharmas). This is the key point indicated by the pivotal statement of the Heart Sutra, "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form."
With this in mind we can see that Dogen's statement unequivocally identifies the subject (i.e. Avalokitesvara; whole-body) that clearly sees with the object (i.e. Avalokitesvara; all five skandhas) that is clearly seen. The overall effective result of Dogen's alteration, then, is to forceful manner of drawing attention to the actively dynamic, energetically animated nature of "emptiness." Here are two things we know about Avalokitesvara according to Dogen's statement:
The whole of Avalokitesvara clearly sees the whole of Avalokitesvara.
The whole of Avalokitesvara clearly seen is empty.
Two crucial points; emptiness can see, and emptiness can be seen. Thus we know that, whatever else it might be, "practicing prajna paramita" is emptiness clearly seeing (experiencing) its own true nature - in short, practicing prajna paramita is emptiness seeing emptiness.
Even after this short foray into his commentary we see that, from Dogen's view, emptiness should never be understood or described apophatically or in purely negative terms like non-existent, absent, undifferentiated, motionless, insentient, unknowable, or incommunicable. This point merits emphasis; the propensity to misunderstand and misrepresent emptiness negatively is pervasive. Judging by the Zen records, this propensity has plagued every era of Zen history. The meticulously detailed refutations of negativistic views of emptiness permeating Dogen's writings testify to the pervasiveness of such distortions in his own era. Dogen view that this issue merited the energy he put into it seems clear; the distorting power of negativistic views of emptiness can obstruct practitioners from accurately understanding every aspect of Buddhism, not to mention putting it into practice and actualizing it.
From Dogen's perspective, it is better to have no understanding of emptiness than to adopt a negative understanding. At this point, then, we want to stress that, whatever else might be included in Dogen's view of emptiness, it is inclusive of at least these positive qualities:
Emptiness is present in/as existence-time
Emptiness is differentiated
Emptiness is active
Emptiness is sentient
Emptiness is intelligible
Emptiness is communicable
After opening Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, with the (altered) quote from the Heart Sutra, Dogen presents a series of affirmative expressions on the nature of the self, the world, and the myriad dharmas that reads like a crystallization of the reality illumined by the grand vision of Shobogenzo:
The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, mental formulation, and consciousness; they are five instances of prajna. Clear seeing is prajna itself. To present this truth for realization it is expounded that "form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness is exactly form." Thus form is form, and emptiness is emptiness. They are the hundred particular things, the myriad dharmas.
Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Ted Biringer
By enumerating each of the five skandhas and then affirming them as "five instances of prajna," Dogen immediately emphasizes the differentiated quality of emptiness. This serves to counter the reductionist propensity to misunderstand and misrepresent emptiness apophatically as just discussed. Notice also, that by citing each of the skandhas, Dogen compels us to dwell longer on what is being conveyed than we might if he simply used "form," the common abbreviation for the five skandhas. This reduces the likelihood of missing the point by too hastily moving on. The greatest effect of Dogen's enumeration, however, is its setup for the next phrase, the key point of the whole commentary; "Clear seeing is prajna itself." Each of the five skandhas constituting Avalokitesvara (thus of all human beings) plays a specific role in the "clear seeing" that "transcends anguish and distress." Form "distinguishes" it, sensation "conducts" it, perception "receives" it, mental formulation "fashions" it (produces an intelligible image), and consciousness "realizes" it (understands, or interprets it in its particularity, thus facilitating its manifestation) in context and contrast to what is not-it.
Thus, Dogen utilizes the opening line of the Heart Sutra to illumine the heart of Zen; "Clear seeing is prajna itself." In perfect harmony with his conception of knowledge, existence, and soteriology the activity of clearly seeing the form of prajna (perfect wisdom), the form of prajna that is clearly seen, and the liberation actualized by prajna are not three different things. This dynamic process and its implications are repeatedly brought into relief throughout the whole Shobogenzo. To clearly see (i.e. sense, know, perceive, experience, etc.) is to be (i.e. actually manifest, exist), thus to clearly see liberation is to actualize (make actual, cause to exist) liberation.
Not, "I think, therefore I am," but, "Wherefore I think, I am." Or, to put it in the terms of our present discussion, "I am what I clearly see (sights, sounds, flavors, odors, tactile sensations, and thoughts) therefore what I clearly see I am."
It should go without saying, but since it usually does not, I should clarify that "clear seeing" is not "mere seeing." "Clear seeing" should not be construed as "passively" perceiving via the sense organs (i.e. eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) as advocated by some so-called Zen teachers. Clear seeing is a skill that must be intentionally developed through sustained effort in accurately directed study and cultivation. It is the "clear" of clear seeing that qualifies it as "prajna itself." Such clear seeing is, of course, inclusive of sense perception, but only if that sense perception is actualized by the healthy mind referred to in Zen as the "normal mind" or "Buddha mind." This distinction is succinctly elucidated by Dogen in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan by the line:
Those who are enlightened about delusion are Buddhas. Those who are deluded about enlightenment are ordinary beings.
Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, Ted Biringer
(Note: "Ordinary beings" here refers to common or typical (unawakened) beings; thus "ordinary" should not be confused with the "normal" of the "normal mind" of Zen usage which is sometimes rendered into English as "ordinary mind." The "normal" in the Zen sense means "healthy," this normal mind is the awakened mind, also called the Buddha mind.)
Dogen affirms the authenticity of his comment by asserting its harmony with the heart of the Heart Sutra, "Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form" - which he summarizes as, "form is form, emptiness is emptiness." What is going on here? At first glance, this seems to contradict the Heart Sutra's statement, not summarize it.
To clarify Dogen's point we can appeal to a method provided by the Diamond Sutra to illustrate that "form" only exists because of emptiness, and emptiness is only exists because of form. This basic method can be depicted like this (with "A" standing for (any particular) form, and "not" standing for emptiness): A = not-A, therefore A = A.
To explain, a dharma (i.e. any real, particular form) is only a dharma insofar as it is differentiated from everything "other than" that dharma. In other words, to experience a dharma is to distinguish something from everything else, everything that is not it. If there was nothing that was not it - it could not be distinguished as it (a particular dharma). From this we see that the existence of "a dharma" is dependent on the existence of something "other than" that dharma; and the existence of "other than" that dharma is dependent on the existence of "that dharma." Therefore, the existence of a dharma necessarily presupposes the existence of "other than" that dharma (and vice versa). In short, the real existence of "A" depends on the real existence of "A" and "not-A," the real existence of "not-A" also depends on the real existence of "A" and "not-A."
The Heart Sutra concisely portrays the nature of reality; A is exactly (equals, is coessential with, depends on) not-A, and not-A is exactly A. The Diamond Sutra illumines the dynamic process of reality; the existence of A is essential to, therefore inclusive of, the existence of "other than" A (and vice versa). The significance of this is; if A exists, not-A must also exist (and vice versa), and if A does not exist, not-A cannot exist (and vice versa). Thus, A is not-A, therefore A is A; not-A is A, therefore not-A is not-A. In Dogen's terms, form is form, emptiness is emptiness.
As already suggested, Dogen's "clear seeing" (as prajna itself) is inclusive of right-understanding and right-views as well as accurate sense perception. In harmony with all Zen masters, Dogen frequently reminds us that it is not enough to hear, or even to understand the teachings in order to realize Buddhist liberation. The "clear seeing" that is Zen practice-enlightenment is a process not a product, an activity not a resolution. The teachings must, of course, be learned, studied, and accurately understood, however, liberation or realization cannot be actualized unless these teachings are put into actual practice and personally verified (clearly seen). Avalokitesvara was able to accurately "practice prajna paramita" because s/he had come to accurately understand the Buddhist teaching on prajna - but only with the actual experience of clear seeing was liberation actualized.
Accurate understanding is not authentic realization. At the same time, authentic realization can hardly be expected to occur without accurate understanding. And while an absence of "right understanding" almost excludes the possibility of authentic realization, the presence of "wrong understanding" excludes even the slimmest hope of success. If we aspire to realize what Zen practice-enlightenment truly is, then, as Dogen says, "We should inquire into it, and we should experience it." To follow his guidance here we will need to understand his view of what "it" is that needs to be inquired into, and who the "we" is that is to do the inquiring.
(Note: The realization of this prajnāpāramitā is the realization of buddha-bhagavats. We should inquire into it, and we should experience it. Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross).
We inquire into it through study and training; we experience it through sustained, wholehearted effort in practice (usually after much trial and error). The "it" we need to inquire into and experience is the true nature of ourselves. The process of inquiring into and experiencing the true nature of ourselves is succinctly expressed in a passage from Genjokoan, Shobogenzo.
To learn the Buddha's truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away.
Shobogenzo, Genjo-koan, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
The actual experience of this learning begins with coming to an accurate understanding of it. To that end, we need to understand that here "the Buddha's truth" means enlightenment (liberation, nirvana, etc.), and "learning" means study, training, practice, and verification. Understanding this, we can begin to consider the significance of this from the Buddhist perspective of emptiness; hence, if "to learn the Buddha's truth is to learn ourselves" then "to learn ourselves is to learn the Buddha's truth." Similarly, the implications of emptiness apply to "forgetting," "experience," "our body and mind," "the myriad dharmas," etc.
In Dogen's Zen, "forms" (dharmas) are the fundamental units constituting reality; they are viewed as "empty" and "mental" in nature - when Avalokitesvara clearly saw all five skandhas were empty, emptiness clearly saw emptiness. With this we were able to see that emptiness is not ineffable, absent, or undifferentiated, but rather, emptiness is intelligible, present, and particularly distinct. Emptiness, being the true nature of all the myriad dharmas, is the very form of all the myriad dharmas.
This, then, brings us to the point of our present discussion; "To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas" describes exactly "emptiness clearly seeing emptiness." Emptiness seeing emptiness is emptiness seeing the myriad dharmas, the myriad dharmas seeing emptiness, the myriad dharmas seeing the myriad dharmas, the myriad dharmas seeing seeing, and seeing seeing seeing.
"Seeing your nature is Zen. If you don't see your nature it's not Zen."
~Bodhidharma, Red Pine