Excerpt from, Zen Cosmology: Dogen’s Contribution to the Search for a New Worldview pp.120-121
Sunday, October 02, 2016
Fortunately, the true potential of mythopoeism as well as the limitations of literalism continues to be disclosed and communicated at an exponential rate, thanks to ongoing efforts in the fields of psychology and comparative mythology, as well as related developments within the spheres to the biological and cognitive sciences, which continue to enjoy a great increase of interest.
Even in the absence of these advances, however, most of us can recognize a clarifying, enlightening capacity is intrinsic to metaphoric language if we simply devote a little time considering the plain facts. For
instance, when a friend informs us that sunrise was at 0615 we naturally grasp the truth of the expression, even though it is literally nonsense; we know the sun does not literally rise, yet we understand the truth of ‘sunrise.’ We constantly use similar literal fallacies, contradictions, and paradoxical expressions to accurately communicate in nearly every area of our everyday lives.
It is usually only when we try to verify or refute the products of abstract speculation – hence subtracted from their actual context – that we get entangled in arguments confined by the limitations of dictionary
definitions. The expressions of poetry, koans, and myth are informed by wisdom concerning the true nature of reality, thus by wisdom of the true potential of language.
The Zen master Shibi once said, ‘The whole universe is one bright pearl.’ According to dualistic or literal standards, Shibi’s assertion is unequivocally false, irrational, meaningless nonsense. In accordance with
Zen or nondual standards however, Shibi’s statement is not only true, rational, and infused with ultimate meaning, it is charged with liberating potential. The power of such a metaphor is often precisely due to its paradoxical quality – the fact that it is ‘literally false.’ For instance, upon hearing Shibi’s assertion the Zen practitioner immediately grasps the truth that the whole universe is and is not ‘one bright pearl.’ Nobody is foolish enough to think Shibi means the whole universe is literally one bright pearl, thus the actual truth (real knowledge) communicated by the expression must abide at a deeper level.
If we fail to grasp the truth communicated by the word ‘sunrise’ the failure does not rest with the word or the person that expresses it, but with our ability to discern its true meaning. The truth that ‘the whole universe is one bright pearl’ is not rendered false by our failure to grasp it – nor is it rendered true by subjecting it to a literal definition; its actual truth endures as it is, and only as it is – even if only one being understands it.
Some scholars, by attempting to subject the language of Zen to (dualistic) literal standards, have cited isolated passages from Shobogenzo in support of their claims that the work is ‘inconsistent.’ To charge Shobogenzo with inconsistency based on such standards is about as reasonable as charging our friend with lying for saying that sunrise occurred at 0615. We do not need linguistic expertise or a degree in postmodern philosophy to recognize that ‘sunrise’ is not its reality and still recognize the truth actually communicated. As Dogen says:
This ‘One Pearl’ is still not Its name, but It can be expressed so, and this has come to be regarded as Its name.
Shobogenzo, Ikka Myoju (Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross)