Sunday, December 25, 2011

Definite Mysteries and Particular Unknowns

Definite Mysteries and Particular Unknowns

In contrast to the assertions of some claiming to represent Zen, Dogen vehemently denied all notions of Buddha-nature (i.e. reality) as being something mysterious, ineffable, or inexpressible. When these terms do apply to Dogen’s Zen, they apply to definite mysteries, particular unknowns, and specific inexpressible experiences. For Dogen, definite, particular, and specific, applied to all dharmas, thus his constant refrain, “Nothing in the whole universe is concealed.”

Throughout Shobogenzo, Dogen constantly emphasizes that reality is only and always actual manifest particulars, real specific things or events, that is - “all dharmas are real form” - for example:

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form. Real form is all dharmas. All dharmas are forms as they are, natures as they are, body as it is, the mind as it is, the world as it is, clouds and rain as they are, walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, as they are; sorrow and joy, movement and stillness, as they are; a staff and a whisk, as they are; a twirling flower and a smiling face, as they are; succession of the Dharma and affirmation, as they are; learning in practice and pursuing the truth, as they are; the constancy of pines and the integrity of bamboos, as they are.

Shobogenzo, Shoho-Jisso, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dogen frequently speaks of “walls, fences, tiles, and pebbles” in acknowledging the fact that Buddha (mind) exists nowhere but in the very miscellany of the things (dharmas) populating the here and now of every moment of our existence. In his best known meditation treatise, Fukanzazengi, Dogen cites some of the various forms (dharmas) of Buddha frequently mentioned in the classic Zen records as having awakened practitioners:

Moreover, the changing of the moment, through the means of a finger, a pole, a needle, or a wooden clapper; and the experience of the state, through the manifestation of a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout, can never be understood by thinking and discrimination.

~Dogen, Fukanzazengi

Many Zen students will recognize the “means of a finger” from the koan of Zen master Gutei, “a needle” from the story of Kanadeva meeting Nagarjuna, the “staff” of Teshan, and the “shout” of Rinzai. The specific particularity in which the Buddha is manifest (a finger, a pole, a whisk, etc.) is characteristic of Zen’s universal inclusivity and nondiscrimination – all dharmas are equal in status, value, significance, for each is an essential person of Buddha-nature, an integral form of Shakyamuni Buddha, an image of truth.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Emptiness Sees Emptiness

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


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Shobogenzo, Genjokoan: Study and the Commentary

Shobogenzo, Genjokoan: Study and the Commentary from The Flatbed Sutra of LouieWing by Ted Biringer


We concluded the last part of our study with the line from Genjokoan:
There are people in the midst of delusion adding to delusion.
Thus, we open our continuing study with some comments on this line:
Dogen is not simply repeating his previous point but indicating something else. In Shobogenzo, Keisei-Sanshiki, Dogen uses the same phrase in a manner that suggests its deeper implication:

When [a person] tells people who do not know the will to the truth about the will to the truth, the good advice offends their ears, and so they do not reflect upon themselves, but [only] bear resentment towards the other person. As a general rule concerning actions and vows, which are the bodhi-mind, we should not intend to let worldly people know whether or not we have established the bodhi-mind or whether or not we are practicing the truth; we should endeavor to be unknown. How much less could we boast about ourselves? Because people today rarely seek what is real, when the praises of others are available, they seem to want someone to say that their practice and understanding have become harmonized, even though there is no practice in their body, and no realization in their mind. “In delusion adding to delusion” describes exactly this.xxix

In this passage, Dogen defines the condition of “increasing delusion in the midst of delusion” as the denial of delusion. That is to say, when people in delusion deny they are deluded (or assert they are enlightened) they are “in delusion adding to delusion.”

Looking at case one of the Blue Cliff Record can shed some light on this particular condition. The koan reads:

Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truths?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The Emperor asked, “Who is facing me?”

Bodhidharma responded, “I don’t know.”

The Emperor did not understand. After this Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River and traveled to the
kingdom of Wei. Later the Emperor asked Master Chih about it. Master Chih asked, “Do you know who this man is?”

The Emperor said, “I don’t know.”

Master Chih said, “He is the great bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, transmitting the confirmation of the buddha-mind.”

The Emperor was regretful and wanted to send an envoy to bring Bodhidharma back. Master Chih said, “Don’t say you will send someone to bring him back. Even if everyone in China went after him, he would not return.”

Commenting on the line “The Emperor did not understand,” Engo says, “Too bad! Still, he’s gotten somewhere.” The meaning of Engo’s comment, “Still, he’s gotten somewhere,” illumines what Dogen means by “in delusion adding to delusion.” In following the reasoning here, Emperor Wu was “adding to delusion” when he thought he knew something (asserted his enlightenment). However, (although he is still in delusion) after his meeting with Bodhidharma, he admits that he does “not understand,” that is, he does not deny his own delusion. The Emperor is in delusion (not enlightened), but he is no longer adding to delusion (by asserting his enlightenment).

Recognizing and acknowledging the reality of your own delusion is a prerequisite to enlightenment. For arousing the necessary will for enlightenment is only possible when you recognize and acknowledge your own delusion. For Dogen, recognition and acknowledgement of your delusion is simultaneous with enlightenment. Throughout the Shobogenzo, Dogen remains ever-aware of the nondual nature of delusion and enlightenment. For as we read above, buddhas are those “who are enlightened about delusion.” Dogen does not say that buddhas are free from delusion, as is sometimes proclaimed by people without a clear understanding of Zen.

The Genjokoan goes on to say:

When buddhas are buddhas, they do not know they are buddhas.

This line points out that when buddhas are experiencing the condition of Buddhahood, there is nothing but Buddha in the whole universe. This is the condition that is sometimes described in Buddhist literature as the state where the known and the knower (or actor and action) are one. Obviously, for a buddha to have the thought, “I am a buddha,” they would have to perceive themselves as something (buddha) in opposition to something else (not buddha), hence; they would not be in the condition of Buddhahood. That does not mean there are no buddhas, as the Genjokoan points out next:

Nevertheless, buddhas are buddhas and continuously actualize Buddhahood.

The condition of Buddhahood is not something that is gained, but something that is discovered and activated; that is, the nature of delusion is illumined and your original Buddhahood is realized. Of course, this experience is only called Buddhahood to differentiate it from delusion. When you speak of a state beyond delusion you call it “Buddhahood.” However, in the absolute sense, as in Dogen’s opening lines to Genjokoan, there is nothing to be grasped (no buddhas, no ordinary beings, etc.) and in the transcendent sense, buddhas and ordinary beings always contain and include each other.

In the actual experience of Buddhahood all names and labels are meaningless; for from the perspective of oneness or emptiness, differentiation does not exist. Even “oneness” is a relative term–that is, oneness is relative and only valid in contrast to multiplicity. Therefore, when differentiation is truly dissolved so, too, is oneness or Buddhahood.

One wonderful Zen expression of this principle is a verse attributed to Ananda, one of Buddha’s disciples and the traditional Second Ancestor of Zen in India:

When we are awake to the truth, even the nondharma does not

The simple fact that the Genjokoan goes to such lengths to describe the nature and actual experience of Buddhahood is enough to put Dogen in a very exclusive minority. When the experience of Buddhahood is described, it is usually simply described as “indescribable.” In Genjokoan, Dogen not only describes characteristics like “buddhas do not know they are buddhas” and that buddhas “continuously actualize Buddhahood,” he also describes why and how that is. The Genjokoan explains:

Mustering the whole body-and-mind to look at forms, and mustering the whole body-and-mind to listen to sounds, they perceive them directly; not like an image reflected in a mirror, and not like the reflection of the moon on water.

This is a description of the condition called Buddhahood. “Buddha” describes a person in the activity or condition of authentic practice and enlightenment, the deeper meaning of zazen. The keystone of Zen practice is not “sitting meditation” (though that is where it is often first discovered), it is “mustering the whole body-and-mind” and perceiving the world directly…

xxix Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Keisei-Sanshiki, Book 1, 91
xxx Ogata, Sohaku, The Transmission of the Lamp, 10

…To Be Continued…