Sunday, August 30, 2015

On Reading Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo

 On Reading Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo

Despite all this, systematic study of Dogen in the West today is virtually nonexistent. As a result, Western knowledge of Zen is painfully fragmentary, not only in quantity, but more important, in quality. In recent years, some sporadic attempts have been made to acquaint the West with Dogen, but these cover only a tiny portion of the entire corpus of his religion and philosophy. It is my hope that the study of Dogen’s Zen will remedy the situation and will lead to a more complete understanding of Zen.

On the other hand, I am of the opinion that it is high time for Western students to deal with Zen as a historical religion in its concrete historical, philosophical, moral, and cultural context—not to isolate it from that context. After all, Zen is a cultural and historical product. I feel strongly that such an approach to Zen is imperative to the maturity of Western Zen (or any Zen for that matter), and my work endeavors to apply it seriously to the study of Dogen. It might surprise many readers that such a historical consciousness is actually in accord with Dogen’s belief that maintaining a fidelity to history was the way to transcend it.

Hee-Jin Kim1


The widespread notion that Zen is antithetical to language is, from Shobogenzo’s viewpoint, a serious delusion based on a false assumption; specifically, the dualistic assumption that the reality of verbal expressions (spoken or written) is separate and independent of the reality of what the expressions concern. Of the host of fallacies about Zen spawned by dualism, the delusion that the reality of Zen somehow exists independently of the expressions of Zen is the most pernicious. It is to this distortion that we owe all the vulgar claims that Zen is some kind of mysterious or ineffable reality, condition, or experience that is somehow transcendent to, thus independent of, the normal human capacities of communication.

Here it is worth stating the obvious; since claims asserting that the truth about Zen cannot be communicated through language, are themselves constituted of language, they thereby refute their own validity!

Despite the obvious incoherency of such views, this distorted notion has plagued Zen throughout the greater course of its history.

Concerning Dogen’s Intentions and the Form of Shobogenzo

The uncertainty concerning which particular fascicles actually constitute Dogen’s Shobogenzo merits attention. For example, depending on which proponent’s view is taken, the ‘true’ form of Shobogenzo consists of eighty-four fascicles, or twelve fascicles, or twenty-eight, or seventy-five, etc. Further, besides controversy about how many and which fascicles should be included, there is disagreement as to their order of arrangement, the extent of their posthumous alteration, their relation to Dogen’s koan collection of the same title, and other similar questions.

Here I won’t debate these issues, but briefly note my own view on several points:

·                     At least four of the advocated versions of Shobogenzo demonstrate sufficient credibility to merit serious consideration.

·                     There is good evidence that Dogen ultimately intended Shobogenzo to consist of one-hundred fascicles.

·                     There is good evidence that Dogen engaged in revising and reediting fascicles of Shobogenzo throughout his career.

·                     There is good evidence that one of Dogen’s last contributions to Shobogenzo was a revision of the key Genjokoan fascicle (one of its two earliest fascicles, chronologically as well as structurally).

The interested reader is referred to the excellent detailed account of the particular issues involved, the historical evidence, and the present state of scholarship on these issues by Steven Heine in his remarkably comprehensive study of Dogen’s writings, Did Dogen Go To China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It.2

Now, I want to emphasize that, in my view, the precise details and historical evidence concerning what Dogen intended concerning the final form of Shobogenzo is of little ultimate import. For the Zen practitioner the only significance of Shobogenzo is what it actually expresses. For one thing it would be impossible to verify Dogen’s true intentions even if there were universal agreement. More importantly, Dogen’s personal intentions are finally irrelevant to the truth of Shobogenzo. The truth of Shobogenzo, like the truth of any dharma, exists nowhere but in and as its actual form. From the nondual perspective, the reality of a dharma and its form are not-two – the truth of Shobogenzo can only abide in and as its form here-now – and nowhere else.

The Unity of Shobogenzo

An issue related to the variety of fascicles constituting Shobogenzo merits attention; the tendency to misunderstand individual fascicles as independent writings rather than parts of a unified work. Despite the universal recognition of Shobogenzo as a unified work (e.g. a masterpiece, the work, etc.), accounts and studies frequently discuss particular fascicles of Shobogenzo in terms only appropriate to distinct texts. There is really no justification for ignoring the unity of Shobogenzo – the very reason for arguing about which fascicles belong presupposes the unity of Shobogenzo – if not for their place in that unity, such controversy would obviously be superfluous.

Question of the Consistency of Shobogenzo and Dogen’s View

Related to the questions as to the unity and precise constituents of Shobogenzo, there is controversy concerning the integral consistency of its vision. The prevalence of the false notion that inconsistency has been confirmed is evinced by the frequent inclusion of generalizations about ‘inconsistencies’ (and contradictions) among the fascicles of Shobogenzo within both academic and traditional works on Dogen.

None of the particular examples of inconsistency singled out by proponents offer anything like confirmation – the ‘inconsistency’ within Shobogenzo is speculative, not demonstrable. The only certain inconsistencies I am personally aware of are between the significance of Dogen’s expressions and the understanding of them expressed by some commentators. Most examples offered in support of the notion are clear misunderstandings resulting from attempts to read Dogen’s works according to rules inapplicable to his writings; specifically, attempts to read mythopoeic expression as literal description. Such attempts are inappropriate for approaching any sacred text or literary masterpiece, and in this case only exacerbate the already widespread fallacies about the labyrinthine or esoteric complications of Dogen’s symbolism.

Unfortunately, the reasoning of this speculative theory is carried over to support another common misnomer; the notion that Dogen’s view as to the nature of the authentic Buddha-Dharma underwent a significant changes during the course of his career. This notion presupposes the accuracy of the claims of inconsistency, and amounts to an explanation for their presence. According to this latter notion, the fascicles of Shobogenzo are inconsistent because Dogen’s views changed during the time between which the fascicles were written. This notion is also the source of the frequent, unqualified allusions to an ‘earlier Dogen’ and a ‘later Dogen’ encountered in contemporary Dogen studies.

For clarity, I want to articulate the implications inherent to the adoption of this notion. To accept this notion is to grant that the apparent inconsistencies are not mistakes in reading or understanding, or mistakes of transcription; one must grant that the apparent inconsistencies are actual inconsistencies. To grant this is to affirm that Dogen expounded one view as the authentic Buddha-Dharma at one place and time, and expounded another, incompatible view at a different place and time. In short, to accept this notion is to accept that the ‘later Dogen’ would have considered some views of the ‘earlier Dogen’ as wrong views (false Dharma) and vice versa.

I want to emphasize that none of the actual evidence suggests, much less demonstrates that Dogen’s views of the Buddha-Dharma changed during his career. I find Dogen’s written views as to the constitution of authentic Buddhism to demonstrate a remarkable consistency throughout. Granted, there are uncertain points concerning some of Dogen’s expressions, there are no certain points that can or should be regarded as demonstrating inconsistency.

For the Zen practitioner, fortunately, it is ultimately irrelevant whether or not there is any validity to the various theories of inconsistency in Dogen’s works. However, in light of the influence this notion has on contemporary works on Zen and Dogen, I would like to offer the reader a few salient points to keep in mind.

First, Dogen’s writings are composed in the same medium as all sacred texts; mythopoeic expression. Any attempt to read them from a literal, historical, biographical, philosophical, metaphysical, or other non-mythopoeic perspective can only result in confusion. Next, completing a revision of the Genjokoan fascicle was evidently one of Dogen’s last contributions to Shobogenzo. Genjokoan is one of the earliest fascicles Dogen composed for Shobogenzo. His revision demonstrates his continuing involvement with the earliest fascicles of Shobogenzo. This in itself undermines any attempt to discern changes in Dogen’s views based on the evidence of ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ writings.

Rather than being indicative of changes in Dogen’s understanding, I would suggest that such revisions demonstrate sincere endeavors to improve the communication of his knowledge. It is far more reasonable to see Dogen’s reworking of earlier writings as demonstrating an ongoing effort to refine and elaborate his vision, than to speculatively assume they indicate attempts to correct or expunge earlier viewpoints.

Further, ordinary common sense suggests that if our understanding of an expression by a Zen master fails to harmonize with our understanding of another expression by that master we would do well to inquire into the accuracy of our understanding before concluding it is the Zen master that is inconsistent. This is especially true if that master is, like Dogen, widely recognized as a master of language with an unusual gift for creative expression.

In conclusion I want to notice that regardless of Dogen’s views, the true nature of reality is the true nature of reality. Regardless of Dogen’s ‘true’ view, it is only our view of reality that has any practical effect on us or the world. Thus, the only relevant measure with which Dogen’s writings can be effectively gauged is the actual impact they have on bringing our own vision into greater harmony with the true nature of reality.

Issue of Misplaced Authority

Among other unfavorable outcomes, the narrow focus of specialization characteristic of scholarship and the generalization characteristic of traditional accounts has tended to provide support to the authority of an effectively biased version of Shobogenzo. That is, they have contributed credibility to views that identify Shobogenzo with what actually amounts to an ‘abridgement’ of Shobogenzo.

To clarify, a handful of apparently ‘easier’ fascicles along with a handful of fascicles commonly regarded as ‘philosophically profound’ have appeared in numerous anthological versions of Dogen’s work, exclusive of the majority of Shobogenzo fascicles. Many readers naturally assume such selections provide an accurate and balanced, if general account of Dogen’s vision of Zen.

Obviously, any understanding of a literary work arrived at exclusive of the bulk of its content would be unreliable at best. If the excluded bulk happens to be the more complex content, as has commonly been the case with ‘selected’ translations of Shobogenzo, misunderstanding can be the only result.

Dogen’s True Mission

In my view, Dogen’s Shobogenzo was intended as – and successfully achieved – a complete exposition of the essential doctrine and methodology of authentic Buddhism inclusive of everything necessary for sincere students to directly and personally realize full and perfect enlightenment. By that, I mean that Dogen fulfilled the ‘mission’ he set down in Bendowa, one of the first writings he undertook upon his return from China. After describing how his journey to China led him to, ‘accomplishing the task of a lifetime,’ Dogen described his experience upon returning to his native land and how he came to decide ‘to spread the Dharma and save living beings’:

‘…I came home determined to spread the Dharma and to save living beings it was as if a heavy burden had been placed on my shoulders. Nevertheless, in order to wait for an upsurge during which I might discharge my sense of mission, I thought I would spend some time wandering like a cloud, calling here and there like a water weed, in the style of the ancient sages. Yet if there were any true practitioners who put the will to the truth first, being naturally unconcerned with fame and profit, they might be fruitlessly misled by false teachers and might needlessly throw a veil over right understanding. They might idly become drunk with self-deception, and sink forever into the state of delusion. How would they be able to promote the right seeds of prajna, or have the opportunity to attain the truth? If I were now absorbed in drifting like a cloud or a water weed, which mountains and rivers ought they to visit? Feeling that this would be a pitiful situation, I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of profound instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and maintained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage. This may be a true mission.’

Shobogenzo, Bendowa (Italics mine)3

Before proceeding I would point out that the method Dogen chose for providing ‘true practitioners’ with a vehicle to ‘know the right Dharma’ (i.e. written records) is a method disparaged by many contemporary Zen representatives as unreliable, ineffective, or even misleading. Many within the Soto Zen sect (which claims Dogen as its founder) claim the only way practitioners can ‘know the right Dharma’ is through transmission from a living representative (i.e. a formally certified ‘Dharma-heir’). Such claims commonly suggest that such a ‘transmission’ is not only required, but solely sufficient, that is, no ‘records,’ whether of ‘customs and standards’ or ‘profound instruction,’ are necessary. For those claiming to be ‘heirs’ of Dogen, this is convenient; the record Dogen left so people could ‘know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage was all but lost to the world for about 700 years. It should be noted that such ostentatious claims are usually not intentionally malicious or insincere, but simply the results of the usual competition and power struggles common to sectarian institutions. 

Shobogenzo: Intelligible and Accessible

In the nation of Great Sung China today, there is a certain type of unreliable person that has now grown to be quite a crowd. They have gotten to the point where they cannot be bested by the few true people. This bunch says such things as the following:

Just like the comments about Eno’s walking on water or the one about Nansen’s buying a scythe, what is being said is beyond anything that reason can grasp. In other words, any remark that involves the use of intellect is not the Zen talk of an Ancestor of the Buddha, whereas a remark that goes beyond anything that reason can handle is what comprises a ‘remark’ by an Ancestor of the Buddha. As a consequence, we would say that Meditation Master Obaku’s applying a stick to his disciples or Meditation Master Rinzai’s giving forth with a loud yell go far beyond rational understanding and do not involve the use of intellect. We consider this to be what is meant by the great awakening to That which precedes the arising of any discrimination. The reason why the ancient virtuous Masters so often made skillful use of verbal phrases to cut through the spiritual entanglements of their disciples was precisely because these phrases were beyond rational understanding.

Fellows who talk like this have never met a genuine teacher, nor do they have an eye for learning through training. They are foolish puppies who are not even worth discussing. For the past two or three centuries in the land of Sung China, such devilish imps and ‘little shavers’ like the Gang of Six have been many. Alas, the Great Way of the Buddha’s Ancestors has become diseased! This explanation of those people cannot compare even with that of the shravakas who follow the Lesser Course; it is even more confused than that of non-Buddhists. These fellows are not laity nor are they monks; they are not gods or humans. And when it comes to exploring the Buddha’s Way, they are more befuddled than beasts. The stories which the ‘little shavers’ refer to as going beyond anything that reason can grasp only go beyond anything their reason can grasp: it was not that way for any Ancestor of the Buddha. Just because they said that such stories are not subject to rational understanding, you should not fail to learn through your training what the intellectually comprehendible pathways of the Ancestors of the Buddha are. Even if these stories were ultimately beyond rational understanding, the understanding that this bunch has cannot hit the mark. Such people are in great number everywhere in Sung China, as I have personally witnessed. Sad to say, they did not recognize that the phrase ‘the use of intellect’ is itself a use of words, nor realize that a use of words may liberate us from the use of our intellect. When I was in Sung China, even though I laughed at them for their foolish views, they had nothing to say for themselves; they were simply speechless. Their present negation of rational understanding is nothing but an erroneous view. Who taught them this? Even though you may say that they have not had someone to teach them of the true nature of things, nevertheless, the fact remains that, for all intents and purposes, they still end up being offspring of the non-Buddhist notion that things arise spontaneously, independent of any form of causality.

Shobogenzo, Sansuikyo4

Shobogenzo is profound, complex, and multifaceted, but it is not cryptic or obscure, much less ‘beyond rational understanding.’ The only real obstacle to an accurate perception of the vision of Shobogenzo is the failure to study it.

Despite the images evoked by common characterizations of Dogen’s language as ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘archaic,’ etc., the vision of Shobogenzo is no less accessible than that of many (if not most) literary masterpieces, the Iliad, the Upanishads, or the Inferno for instance. Indeed, Shobogenzo is almost certainly more accessible than some texts that are widely considered to be standard reading for all educated persons, Virgil, Aristotle, or Kant for example. In short, it is true that Shobogenzo is a complex work that requires active reading, intensive and extensive study, and sustained, focused effort, but it is not written in esoteric terms, or secret code.

Shobogenzo in Light of Shobogenzo

An approach to Shobogenzo that begins from a perspective provided by established presuppositions concerning its form, content, or significance begins from a biased (partial) perspective – thus can only end in a biased conclusion. To initially approach a literary work after having already accepted the conclusions of traditional, scholarly, sectarian, or institutional authorities is to demonstrate a distrust of, if not contempt for the work itself, one’s own critical capacities, or both.

According to the Buddhist principles of nonduality, the essence (reality, truth, significance) of a literary work, like that of any dharma, exists only in and as its actual form and is, therefore, the only place it can be accurately discerned. Treatises, commentaries, interpretations, references, and other sources or aids to study can, at best, clear away particular technical obstructions to our vision by providing us with details or contextual information. Thus, the only reliable authority as to the true nature, significance, and value (i.e. essence) of Shobogenzo is the very form of Shobogenzo itself.

Approaching the Expression of Shobogenzo from Shobogenzo’s Vision of Expression

Whether we agree with Shobogenzo’s vision concerning the true nature of language or not, that vision itself is very clear; language is Buddha-nature, expressions of truth – expressions of Buddha. Expressions and Buddhas are nondual – Buddha is expressions, expressions are Buddha. This only appears extravagant when viewed apart from the totality of Dogen’s vision; from that grand perspective, all Buddhas and ancestors constitute a sole ancestor: Shakyamuni Buddha. I mention this here to emphasize why Shobogenzo needs to be approached with the same attitude used to approach scripture, or to meet Buddha (kenbutsu).

According to its own perspective, Shobogenzo is not a treatise on Buddhism, or instructions about the Dharma – it is an expression of Buddhism, an exemplification of the Dharma itself. We may reject Shobogenzo as such, but that would not change the fact that this view is advocated by Shobogenzo, thus is the view it is expressed from. Clearly, any understanding achieved by approaching Shobogenzo as if it were expressed from a view other than the one it is expressed from can only lead to an understanding other than the one expressed by Shobogenzo.

The Vitality of Zen Practice-Enlightenment in Shobogenzo

In Shobogenzo’s vision of Zen, reality itself consists of the expression of Dharma, an unceasing advance into novelty, an ongoing creative activity – not a fixed system, dogmatic formula, or absolute truth. Zen practice-enlightenment (shusho) is genjokoan, ‘actualizing the fundamental point’ – not the actualized, actual, or actualize of past, present, or future, but the ceaseless actualization of here-now which fully includes and transcends past, present, and future. Zen practice-enlightenment is only and always an ever-ongoing creative discernment-and-realization of Buddha here-now – the presentation (making present) of one’s true self ‘as it is.’ In short, practice-enlightenment consists of clearly seeing (accurately discerning, understanding, etc.) the true nature of reality, dharmas as they are here-now, thereby conducting one’s thoughts, words, and deeds in harmony with that truth in and as the self/world here-now.

1 Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, pp. xxix -xxx
2 Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go To China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It
3 Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
4 Hubert Nearman


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Zen, Dogen, and Existence-Time (Uji)

Observations on Zen’s vision of existence-time (uji).

(Excerpts from my [unpublished] book [tentatively titled, Zen Cosmology: Dogen’s Contribution to the Search for a New Worldview]. Post inspired by Tommy Bonn).


Begin Excerpts


In short, total existence is the Buddha-nature, and the perfect totality of total existence is called ‘living beings.’

Shobogenzo, Bussho[i]


In Zen cosmology time and existence are not two different things; time is always existence-and-time, existence is always existence-and-time. This view is most clearly and comprehensively demonstrated in Shobogenzo’s development and use of the term ‘uji.’ Dogen fashioned this term by combining two terms; ‘u’ (existence) and ‘ji’ (time) into the single term ‘uji’ (existence-time, or time-being).[ii] The significance of the unity of existence and time will become clearer as this study progresses. The point I want to stress here is that existence and time are never separate from each other; each is an essential element of the other – no dharmas exist independent of time, and there is no time independent of dharmas. This notion of existence-time is central to Zen’s vision of reality, thus is presupposed in all Zen expressions.


Hee-Jin Kim brings the crucial significance of this notion to light in a comment from his discussion of the aptly titled ‘Uji’ fascicle of Shobogenzo:


Dogen’s whole thesis in this regard was crystallized in the following: “As we realize with the utmost effort that all times (jinji) are all existence (jin’u), absolutely no additional dharma remains.” In other words, existence-time subsumed space and time totally and exhaustively.

Hee-Jin Kim[iii]


The most significant implication of this point (i.e. the unified nature of existence and time) is that each and every particular thing, being, and event (i.e. dharma) is an intrinsic and essential element of total time, and each and every moment or duration of time is an intrinsic and essential element of total existence – hence each and every particular dharma is a manifestation of the whole universe, and the whole universe is manifest in and as each and every particular dharma. In Dogen’s words:


Let us pause to reflect whether or not any of the whole of existence or any of the whole universe has leaked away from the present moment of time.

Shobogenzo, Uji[iv]


Briefly, Shobogenzo reveals a universe wherein each and all things, beings, and events are clearly recognized as autochthonous spatial-temporal forms. The essence of all such forms, which constitute the totality of reality, is seen as interdependent – coessential and coextensive – with the forms themselves. These forms, or form/essence units, primarily referred to in this study as ‘dharmas,’ actualize existence-time (uji) in and as a ceaseless, dynamic ‘advance into novelty’, to borrow A. N. Whitehead’s phrase.[v] This ‘advance’ is presented by Shobogenzo as an ever-ongoing self-generation wherein each unique particularity and the whole universe are simultaneously ever-realized and ever-transcended – at once totally exerted and totally cast-off – in and as particular location-moments or space-times manifest in and as here-now.


Shobogenzo’s vision of dharmas as the fundamental elements of reality, the primary and primordial constituents of existence-time (uji), which Hee-Jin Kim has characterized as ‘radical phenomenalism,’[vi] follows from Dogen’s radical application of the Buddhist principles of nonduality, thus the insistence on the phenomenal nature of (all) dharmas.


The reasoning for Zen’s rejection of dualism is most comprehensively presented by the corollary Buddhist teachings of emptiness (sunyata) and interdependence (dependent origination; pratitiya-samutpada). Briefly, the primary insight of these teachings is the nondual nature of reality – that is the interdependence of all things, beings, and events in and of space-and-time (existence-time; uji). Of the many implications revealed by these teachings, I want to notice three points of particular relevance here:


·         There is no independently existent objective reality.

·         There is no independently existent subjective reality.

·         The world (objective reality) and the self (subjective reality) are coessential elements of a single unified reality.


1.       Dharmas are the fundamental constituents of reality, the ultimate/primordial fabric (ontology) of existence-time (uji), the essence and form of self and not-self.[vii]

2.       The experiential verification of reality (enlightenment) is the experiential verification of dharmas.

3.       Apart from dharmas nothing exists and nothing is experienced.

4.       The myriad dharmas (i.e. all dharmas) constitute the totality of reality.

5.       A dharma is a particular instance of reality.

6.       A dharma is a phenomenon in and of existence-time (uji); all dharmas possess/display spatial-temporal (phenomenal) form.

7.       The appearance of a dharma (i.e. the form in which it is experienced) and the reality of a dharma (its existential essence, or true nature) are nondual.[viii]

8.       Dharmas are the content (ontology) and the means of experience (epistemology); dharmas are ‘what’ are experienced, and dharmas are ‘how’ experience occurs.[ix]

9.       Dharmas are autochthonous; dharmas originate/inhabit (appear/exist) at/as the location-time (uji) they are experienced; dharmas are identical to the location-time (dharma-position) of their appearance (in/as experience).

10.   Dharmas are empty (sunya); void of independent existence; dharmas are empty (sunya), emptiness (sunyata) is dharmas, therefore, dharmas are dharmas, emptiness is emptiness.

11.   Dharmas are interdependent;[x] each dharma and all dharmas exist at/as each location-time and all location-times.


To recognize the truth of the autochthonous (i.e. originating in/at the location they are encountered) nature of dharmas is to recognize the fallacy of nominalism;[xi]no dharma can be a mere representative, symbol, or signifier of a reality independent of itself. All dharmas, including words, names, ideas, perceptions, signs, mental images, and anything else that can be experienced, described, pointed to, or particularly singled out in any way is – as it is – an essential element of the universe, an integral instance of (total) existence-time (in Zen ‘an expression of Buddha’). Being autochthonous by nature means dharmas are their own cause and effect, their own meaning and reason. Further, as the essential, and only, constituents of the universe, each and all dharmas are of intrinsically universal significance and value. The universal significance and value of dharmas is discerned by seeing them through the normal (i.e. enlightened) eye (in Zen, seeing them through ‘the eye to read scriptures’ or ‘the True Dharma-Eye’).


In light of Shobogenzo’s (hence Zen’s) vision of existence-time (uji), existence (ontology; being) and time are not-two (nondual); dharmas are not simply existents in time, they are existents of time, and (all) time is in and of existents (i.e. dharmas). In short, dharmas do not exist independent of time, and time does not exist independent of dharmas.


On a corollary note, since (all) existence demonstrates the quality of ‘impermanence,’ time too is impermanent. In Zen the nonduality of impermanence and time is treated in terms of ‘ceaseless advance’ or ‘ever passing’ – ‘ceaseless’ and ‘ever’ connoting ‘permanence’ or ‘eternity,’ ‘advance’ and ‘passing’ indicating ‘impermanence’ or ‘temporal’ (temporary). Accordingly, ‘impermanence’ is ‘permanent’ and ‘change’ is ‘changeless’ – existence-time ever-always (eternally) advances (changes).[xii] Dogen’s vision of reality exploits the significance of this to the utmost, unfolding its most profound implications with his notion of ‘the self-obstruction of a single dharma’ or ‘the total exertion of a single dharma’ (ippo gujin). This notion reveals a number of important implications concerning the nature of existence-time; here I want to mention two:


·         Each and all dharmas reveal, disclose, or present the whole universe (the totality of existence-time).

·         Each and all dharmas are inherently infinite and eternal.


The wisdom (true knowledge) disclosed by the recognition of ‘great delusion’ is that eternal omnipresence and infinite complexity is inherent to each and all dharmas. If, as we just saw, the existence (existence/experience) of a dharma depends on the existence of not that dharma, then experiencing a dharma is (also) experiencing the ‘presence’ of ‘a lack’ (everything that is not that dharma). As experience is existence, and the reality of a dharma is inclusive of what is and what is not that dharma, the existence of any dharma is the existence of every dharma. To say the same thing from the other perspective, the whole of existence-time is each particular instance of existence-time.


Moreover, due to the quality of passage inherent to the nature of dharmas, their ‘arrival’ and ‘departure’ are unceasing – as Shobogenzo says, ‘Before donkey business is finished, horse business begins.’ With this we get a sense of what it means to say dharmas are infinitely complex as well as eternally omnipresent. The recognition of dharmas as infinitely complex is the reason informing the refrain in Zen records urging us to strive on; to continuously apply ourselves, to diligently refine our skill, and to sustain our effort. Eternal omnipresence and infinite complexity means delusion is ever-present and unlimited (i.e. ‘great’) – just as enlightenment is ever-present and unlimited.


I want to notice also the reason Zen expressions are not concerned with the existence or non-existence or the superiority or inferiority of dharmas; all such issues are clearly verified as irrelevant by the genuine Zen practitioner. Zen practice-enlightenment involves – thus can only begin with – discerning the true nature (thus, actual significance) of reality. One thing this entails is the experiential verification of the ceaseless becoming of reality, that is, seeing that each and all the particular dharmas ever-advancing here-now in a continuous stream of ever-novel experience constitutes the very fabric of existence-time. This is, in Shobogenzo’s terms, ‘actualizing the universe’ (genjokoan). The process, pattern, or arrangement whereby this actualization is performed is recognized in Zen cosmology as the normal activity of the self (individual being/universal Buddha), and therefore as exemplifying the normal configurations, dynamics, and reason (dori) of existence.


Experiencing the world through the perspective presented by the Diamond Sutra, the practitioner is made intimately aware of the fact that reality only and always consists of particular (part-icular) instances of total existence-time – apart from specific manifest phenomena (i.e. dharmas) there is no existence or time.


Because [real existence] is only this exact moment, all moments of existence-time are the whole of time, and all existent things and all existent phenomena are time. The whole of existence, the whole universe, exists in individual moments of time. Let us pause to reflect whether or not any of the whole of existence or any of the whole universe has leaked away from the present moment of time.

Shobogenzo, Uji[xiii]


The universe spoken of by Shobogenzo as ‘this mind,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘one mind,’ or ‘all dharmas’ is not merely the sum of all things or the totality of everything throughout space and time; it is the very things and events you are experiencing right here-now (soku), it is the very you right here-now experiencing things and events. The very things, events, and you that right here-now is ‘this mind’ are not arbitrary miscellany or various generalities; but the actual mountains, rivers, and earth you see here-now, the sun, the moon, the stars here-now.


…whether we know or do not know ourselves, our ‘self’ is total existence-time, not one dharma of the myriad dharmas is other than ourself.


To seek to know ourself is the inevitable will of the living. But those with Eyes that see themselves are few: buddhas alone know this state. Others, non-Buddhists and the like, vainly consider only what does not exist to be their self. What buddhas call themselves is just the whole earth. In sum, in all instances, whether we know or do not know ourselves, there is no whole earth that is other than ourself.

Shōbōgenzō, Yui-butsu-yo-butsu[xiv]


From the nondual perspective it is obvious that the true nature of an object experienced and the true nature of the subject experiencing it are not two different things. Thus where the prevailing epistemology sees the sense organs as keyboards, conveyors, interpreters or translators of objective reality to subjective reality, Zen sees the sense organs as bridges, channels, or joints connecting/separating objective reality to/from subjective reality. The sense organs do not convey signals from an alien (independent) realm to the mind of an isolated self; the sense organs are integral aspects of the ‘actualization of the universe’ (genjokoan) itself which is experienced/exists as the world/self unity a human being calls ‘myself.’ ‘What we experience’ – dharmas – is ‘what we are.’ And since experience is ever active, never static, ‘what we are’ is an ‘activity,’ a ‘doing.’ And this ‘doing’ that ‘we are’ is a continuous ‘ordering,’ ‘fashioning,’ or ‘arranging’ of dharmas – the particularities or ‘bits and pieces’ we experience as ‘myself.’


In a similar manner, we are continually arranging bits and pieces of what we experience in order to fashion them into what we call ‘a self ’, which we treat as ‘myself ’: this is the same as the principle of ‘we ourselves are just for a time’.

Shobogenzo, Uji[xv]


The point here is that in Zen’s view, the actual existence of ‘objects’ is the actual experience of ‘subjects.’ In other words, besides what appears in/as consciousness, there is nothing that can or could have any influence on us whatsoever.


As a tradition, activity, or institution of human civilization, ‘Zen’ denotes a path, manner, or way of life, rather than a particular structure or form. To revere a ‘Zen’ that consists of an authorized version, exclusive sect, prescribed method, formal practice, dogmatic code, or any other fixed form is to exalt a lifeless idol. In Zen’s vision, reality itself consists of the expression of Dharma, an unceasing advance into novelty, an ongoing creative activity. Zen practice-enlightenment (shusho) is genjokoan, ‘actualizing the fundamental point’ – not the actualized, actual, or actualize of past, present, or future, but a ceaseless actualization of existence-time here-now which fully includes and transcends past, present, and future. More particularly, practice-enlightenment consists of clearly seeing the true nature of reality and, thereby, actualizing one’s thoughts, words, and deeds harmoniously with that truth in and as the self/world here-now.


To clarify, ‘essence’ means ‘reality as it is,’ ‘the true nature of reality,’ or ‘thusness’ (i.e. ontology; what is the actual material or fabric of existence-time). ‘Form’ means ‘reality as it appears,’phenomena,’ or ‘dharmas’ (i.e. epistemology; what is known or encountered by sentient beings, i.e. sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts). ‘Essence and form are nondual’ means all reality is dharmas and all dharmas are real. Therefore, the ‘essence of existence’ is ‘knowing-dharmas’ (i.e. seeing, experiencing, or understanding appearances, for example, appearances of ‘understandable explanations’). Likewise, ‘knowing-dharmas’ is the ‘essence of existence’ (i.e. the true nature, reality, or ‘fabric’ of appearances, for example, appearances of ‘understandable explanations’).


In sum, because essence and form are nondual, the ‘enlightened perspective’ (i.e. the ‘essence’ of normal seeing; kensho, kenbutsu) can be activated by dharmas, for example, ‘understandable explanations’ of techniques to focus consciousness on dharmas here-now (i.e. Zen’s ‘skillful means’). For the place-time (reality, essence) dharmas are known is the place-time dharmas exist, and the place-time dharmas exist is the place-time dharmas are known. This place-time being only and always here-now, nothing (i.e. no dhama) in the universe is concealed.


In the great truth of the Buddha-Dharma, the sutras of the great-thousandfold [world] are present in an atom, and countless buddhas are present in an atom. Each weed and each tree are a body-mind. Because the myriad dharmas are beyond appearance, even the undivided mind is beyond appearance. And because all dharmas are real form, every atom is real form. Thus, one undivided mind is all dharmas, and all dharmas are one undivided mind, which is the whole body. If building stupas were artificial, buddhahood, bodhi, reality as it is, and the buddha-nature, would also be artificial. Because reality as it is and the buddha-nature are not artificial, building images and erecting stupas are not artificial. They are the natural establishment of the bodhi-mind: they are merit achieved without artificiality, without anything superfluous.

Shobogenzo, Hotsu-mujōshin[xvi]


To clarify, utilizing the Dharma-eye the self sees its true nature – thus sees its all-inclusiveness and its fathomless infinity. In light of its all-inclusiveness, total existence-time (the myriad dharmas) is seen as a particular formthis dharma here-now and no other. In light of its fathomless infinity, a particular formthis dharma here-now – is seen as total existence-time. This capacity of the Dharma-eye to see ‘beyond the many and the one’ is graphically presented in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan as, ‘When one side is illumined, the other side is darkened.’ Seeing total existence-time as a particular form is seeing what ‘is illumined’; seeing a particular form as total existence-time is seeing what ‘is darkened.’


Every flowering and fruiting has endured while they have waited for their opportunity, and every opportunity has endured while it has waited for a flowering and a fruiting. Thus, all the hundreds of things that sprout up have their time of flowering and their fruiting, just as all manner of trees have their time of flowering and their fruiting. All manner of trees—such as those of gold, silver, copper, iron, coral, or crystal—have their flowering and their fruiting. Trees of earth, water, fire, wind, and boundless space have their flowering and fruiting. Human trees have their blossoming, human flowers have their blossoming, and withered trees have their blossoming.

Shobogenzo, Kuge[xvii]


The measure of the normality of an individual’s sentience or consciousness is the measure of that individual’s Buddhahood or Buddha-nature. All sentient beings, by nature, possess some consciousness of self and other (i.e. dharmas). An individual’s experience of reality (i.e. consciousness) is only and always actualized at a particular place-time, and only and always in one of two ways; as it is, or as it is not. Insofar as existence-time is discerned as it is – seen through the Dharma-Eye – Buddha is actualized. Insofar as reality is discerned as it is notnot seen through the Dharma-Eye – Buddha is not actualized. The former describes the actualization of the universe (genjokoan); the latter describes the lack, absence, or failure of the actualization of the universe (genjokoan).


Each here-now of an individual’s experience in/of the activity/expression of existence-time is inherently endowed with the potential to realize (make real) Buddha (or enlightenment), or to not realize Buddha. There are no other possibilities. If one realizes enlightenment here-now, enlightenment is totally realized in/as this place-time (i.e. dharma position). If one does not realize Buddha here-now, Buddha is not realized in/as this place-time at all. Each moment of the ceaseless advance of existence-time is an opportunity for enlightenment or not-enlightenment, the true Dharma or not-the-true Dharma, Buddhahood or ordinary being – one or the other; never both or neither.


At the same time, at each concrete place these three properties include innumerable kinds of dharmas. In ‘wrongs,’ there are similarities and differences between wrong in this world and wrong in other worlds. There are similarities and differences between former times and latter times. There are similarities and differences between wrong in the heavens above and wrong in the human world. How much greater is the difference between moral wrong, moral right, and moral indifference in Buddhism and in the secular world. Right and wrong are time; time is not right or wrong. Right and wrong are the Dharma; the Dharma is not right or wrong. [When] the Dharma is in balance, wrong is in balance. [When] the Dharma is in balance, right is in balance. This being so, when we learn [the supreme state of] anuttara samyaksambodhi, when we hear the teachings, do training, and experience the fruit, it is profound, it is distant, and it is fine.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku-makusa[xviii]


Right and wrong are time (hence, existence-time), are the Dharma (i.e. Buddha Way), time is not right or wrong, Dharma is not good or evil.


To understand that we move from birth to death is a mistake. Birth is a state at one moment; it already has a past and will have a future. For this reason, it is said in the Buddha-Dharma that appearance is just nonappearance. Extinction also is a state at one moment; it too has a past and a future. This is why it is said that disappearance is just non-disappearance. In the time called “life,” there is nothing besides life. In the time called “death,” there is nothing besides death. Thus, when life comes it is just life, and when death comes it is just death; do not say, confronting them, that you will serve them, and do not wish for them.


This life and death is just the sacred life of buddha. If we hate it and want to get rid of it, that is just wanting to lose the sacred life of buddha. If we stick in it, if we attach to life and death, this also is to lose the sacred life of buddha.



The activity of Buddha is expressing truth, the preaching of Dharma. When the here-now of saving all beings calls for meditation, Buddha manifests the body of meditation; when the here now calls for digging a ditch, Buddha manifests the body of digging a ditch. Whatever existence-time calls for here-now, the authentic practitioner (i.e. Buddha) ably responds (responsibility) with an expression of truth, a manifest body, a preaching of Dharma.


Now, let us inquire, at the time when ‘bad has not yet occurred,’ where is it? To say that it will exist in the future is to be forever a non-Buddhist of nihilism. To say that the future becomes the present is not an insistence of the Buddha-Dharma: the three times would have to be confused. If the three times were confused, all dharmas would be confused. If all dharmas were confused, real form would be confused. If real form were confused, buddhas alone, together with buddhas, would be confused. For this reason, we do not say that the future will, in future, become the present. Let us inquire further: what thing does ‘bad that has not yet occurred’ describe? Who has known it or seen it? For it to be known and seen, there must be a time of its nonoccurrence and a time of something other than its nonoccurrence. In that case, it could not be called something that had not yet occurred. It would have to be called something that has already vanished. Without studying under non-Buddhists or śrāvakas and others of the Small Vehicle, we should learn in practice ‘the prevention of bad that has not yet occurred.’ All the bad in the universe is called ‘bad that has not yet occurred,’ and it is bad that does not appear. Nonappearance means ‘yesterday preaching an established rule, today preaching an exception to the rule.’


…because all dharmas are particular instances of existence-time that occur here-now, the actual form/essence of ‘extinguishing bad that has already occurred’ is, as it is, ‘extinguishing bad that has already occurred’ – and since all actual instances of ‘bad’ are ‘bad that has not yet occurred’ and ‘bad that does not appear’, extinguishing ‘bad that has already occurred’ is ‘extinction’, which means ‘springing free from extinction and getting clear of it’ (i.e. the truth of ‘extinction’ is liberation or ‘springing free’ from the restraint or hindrance of [the false view of] extinction [the notion of extinction as a ‘real nonentity’] and clearly seeing through it [getting clear of it]). 


This is why the experiential encounter is the standard in Zen; it is the only standard that completely reliable. Theoretical knowledge, systems of thought, concepts, generalizations, and so on can and should be effectively employed and utilized – which means, in accordance with what they are; theories, systems, concepts, generalizations, and so on. Seen as they are, they are seen as (thus fashioned as) intrinsic qualities of existence-time itself, reliable characteristics of existence that, when treated in harmony with their normality, contribute to the normal human capacity for the realization of universal liberation and fulfillment that Zen calls ‘genjokoan’ (i.e. the actualization of the universe).


Clearly, if reality can be considered as constituted of any kind of ‘substance’ or ‘material,’ that material must first and foremost be identified as sentient experience. For the ‘material’ of the self and the world is only and always encountered as particular instances of subjective experience; specific objects of consciousness actualized in and as definite place-times here-now. Just as any and all actual instances of consciousness are only and always encountered as particular forms at specific place-times of total existence-time.


As each instance of experience is a unique instance of existence-time, every expression is a novel expression – including the expression being recited from memory for the ten-thousandth time or read from an ancient scripture for the ten-millionth time. The words presently being formed in your mind, are neither entities that have endured from the past nor representations; they are novel realities coming into being – becoming – particular instances of existence illuminating your particular mind at this particular here-now; instances of Buddha being born in and as your experience/existence here-now.


To experience sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts is to fashion sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts exhaust the modes in which reality manifests. A Zen practitioner is one that continuously strives to increase their capacities to fashion these six ever-advancing streams of novel existence-time into a Buddha within a Buddha realm.


In light of this reason, it is worth noticing why those that describe the ‘great Bodhisattva vows’ or ‘annuttara-samyak-sambodhi as ‘ideals’ of Buddhism misrepresent the Buddha-Dharma. Expressions are phenomena, instances of existence-time, not ideals, actualizations, not potentials. To accurately express the Buddha-Dharma, one must accurately see (understand, think) the Buddha-Dharma, to accurately see the Buddha-Dharma is to accurately fashion the Buddha-Dharma.


This reasoning also harmonizes with the fact that authentic aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta) only manifests as particular instances of genuine desire to deliver all beings from suffering, realize liberation from all greed, hatred, and ignorance, awaken to all truths, and fully embody the Buddha Way. In short, a person who genuinely aspires for enlightenment must ‘already be a person who is it.’


In failing to clearly see that our mythopoeic capacity embodies our thinking mind or intellect, rather than being embodied (or produced) by our mind or intellect, we thereby obstruct our genuine desire (bodhicitta) by subjecting it to the realm of abstract speculation thus confining it to the limitations of literalism and generalization.


The myriad dharmas are not arbitrary occurrences, but instances of existence-time – expressions of Buddha – to be ordered and arranged actively by the enlightened mind or passively by the deluded mind. The enlightened mind is the normal human capacity to intentionally discern and distinguish, hence concentrate and unify, the ceaseless-stream of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts ever-advancing into the novelty that has never been hidden:


Total Existence is the Buddha's words, the Buddha's tongue, the Buddhist patriarchs' eyes, and the nostrils of a patch-robed monk. The words "Total Existence" are utterly beyond beginning existence, beyond original existence, beyond fine existence, and so on. How much less could they describe conditioned existence or illusory existence? They are not connected with "mind and circumstances" or with "essence and form" and the like. This being so, object-and-subject as living beings-and-Total Existence is completely beyond ability based on karmic accumulation, beyond the random occurrence of circumstances, beyond accordance with the Dharma, and beyond mystical powers and practice and experience. If the Total Existence of living beings were [ability] based on karmic accumulation, were the random occurrence of circumstances, were accordance with the Dharma, and so on, then the saints' experience of the truth, the buddhas' state of bodhi, and the Buddhist patriarchs' eyes, would also be ability based on karmic accumulation, the occurrence of circumstances, and accordance with the Dharma. That is not so. The whole Universe is utterly without objective molecules: here and now there is no second person at all. [At the same time] "No person has ever recognized the direct cutting of the root"; for "When does the busy movement of karmic consciousness ever cease? [Total Existence] is beyond existence that arises through random circumstances; for "The entire Universe has never been hidden."

Shobogenzo, Bussho[xx]


This yellow flower, that melodious bird-song, this particular doubt, that specific memory – this very life-and-death – as it is here-now is the sacred life of Buddha; thus Shobogenzo presents and elucidates the nondual nature of aspiration and realization, desire and fulfillment. The conceptual division of aspiration and rationality is as dualistic – hence, as untenable – as the independent existence of form and essence, appearance and reality, self and not-self, and every other dualistic notion exhibited by the hesitant, fearful, and repressed forms of passivity, often in the guise of scientific rationalism or radical skepticism.


True nature continuously rises and continuously sets here-and-now as here-and-now. Here-and-now is the ceaseless advance of the universe into novelty, the ever-becoming of self-and-other, enlightenment-and-delusion, form-and-emptiness, existence-and-time. This is the infinite and eternal actualization of the whole universe, the sentient-being that is the ever-becoming Buddha. Total Existence, Buddha-nature, True Self, and sentient-being are synonymous with the experience of existence here-and-now solely becoming, the existence of experience here-and-now solely becoming.


End excerpts……


Please treasure yourself.



[i] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[ii] Hee-Jin Kim explains Dogen’s coining of the term thus:
He quoted the statement of Yueh-shan Wei-yen (745-828), but modified it in such a way that “a particular time” (arutoki), from Yueh-shan’s original, was interpreted as “existence-time” (uji).
Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.149
[iii] Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.150
[iv] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[v] Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead, p.28 (Simon & Schuster 1979)
[vi]From this standpoint, Dogen deeply imbibed hongaku discourse as radical phenomenalism, which became the crux of his soteriological vision. In fact, his entire religion may be safely described as the exploration and explication of this radical phenomenalism in terms of its linguistic, rational, and temporal dimensions, as well as the endeavor to overcome its ever-threatening religio-ethical perils.
Hee-Jin, Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.xx
Contrary to the conventional view that language is no more than a means of communication, it is profoundly internal to an individual’s life as well as to the collective life. Language flows individually and collectively through the existential bloodstream, so much so that it is the breath, blood and soul of human existence. Herein lies the essence of Dogen’s radical phenomenalism.
Hee-Jin, Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, p.64
[vii] While accounts of Zen commonly portray emptiness (sunyata) as the fundamental essence of reality, the notion of emptiness presupposes a prior recognition of dharmas (i.e. thus dharmas, not emptiness, are primary and primordial). Indeed, the very reason and value of the notion of emptiness exists in/as its capacity to adequately account for the experience/existence of dharmas. It is worth noticing that the same reasoning applies to the Zen/Buddhist notion of ‘no-self’ or ‘anatman’; the notion of no-self presupposes a prior recognition of self; the reason and value of no-self exists in/as its capacity to adequately account for the experience/existence of self.
[viii] ‘Appearance’ and ‘form’ denote the ‘total appearance’ of dharmas experienced by sentient beings (i.e. the total influence of dharmas on human experience), thus is not confined to visual experience, but applies to every mode in which dharmas are present, consciously and unconsciously, in/as/to human experience; sight, sound, taste, smell, tactile sensation, thought – the reality [ontological existence] of a dharma and the experience of a dharma are nondual.
[ix]As phenomenal forms, dharmas can generally be understood as appearing/manifesting as one or more of the six ‘objects of consciousness’ – sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, and thoughts – recognized in traditional Buddhist notions of sensation, perception, mental formulation, and consciousness.
[x] The existence of each dharma is dependent on the existence of ‘all dharmas’ [the totality of all dharmas] and the existence of ‘each other dharma’ [each particular dharma ‘other than’ it]; all dharmas are dependent on each dharma).
[xi] ‘Nominalism’ is commonly used in one of two distinct ways, one in which the existence of abstract objects is denied, and one in which the existence of universals is denied. My usage conforms more with the latter than the former – though not exactly (due to the difference between the dualistic world view in which the term originates and the nondual world view being presented here). More particularly, my usage closely coincides with its meaning in archetypal psychology, for example, with James Hillman’s explanation here:
This is nominalism which too has been instrumental in de-personifying our existence. Nominalism empties out big words; nominalists consider universal laws and general types to be only names (nomina). Words have no inherent substance of their own.
Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman, p.5
[xii] In this, Zen’s vision of existence-time is remarkably similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the ‘ceaseless advance into novelty’ (of the universe). See Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead
[xiii] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[xiv] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[xv] Hubert Nearman
[xvi] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[xvii] Hubert Nearman
[xviii] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[xix] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[xx] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross