Friday, January 09, 2015

Dogen's Shobogenzo, Zazen-Shin (A Needle for Zazen) Part 1

Zazen-Shin (A Needle for Zazen)

Part 1 of 3 – Link to Part 2Link to Part 3

A Commentary on Dogen's Shobogenzo, Zazenshin

Translation (In Bold) by Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross - Commentary by Ted Biringer.

(Adapted from the Sept. 2014 issue of the Zen newsletter, Flatbed Sutra Zen News)


According to the translator’s Note: Shin means a bamboo needle that was used for acupuncture in ancient China. So shin means a method of healing body and mind, and the word came to be used as a maxim that has the power to cure a human being of physical and mental discomfort. Subsequently, the word shin was used to describe short verses useful in teaching the important points of a method of training.

The content of zazen-only, as we have observed thus far in its diverse aspects, is what distinguished Dogen's meditation from other forms of meditation. Dogen simplified, purified, enriched, and radicalized the content of zazen-methodologically, metaphysically, and religiously-though his view was greatly influenced by Chinese and Japanese Buddhist traditions, especially those of Zen and Tendai. Indeed, to Dogen zazen-only was at once metaphor and reality.

Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.67

While Great Master Yakusan Kodo is sitting, a monk asks him, "What are you thinking in the still-still state?" The master says, "Thinking the concrete state of not thinking." The monk says, "How can the state of not thinking be thought?" The master says, "It is non-thinking."

Experiencing the state in which the words of the great master are like this, we should learn in practice "mountain-still sitting," and we should receive the authentic transmission of "mountain-still sitting": this is the investigation of "mountain-still sitting" that has been transmitted in Buddhism. "Thinking in the still-still state" is not of only one kind, but Yakusan's words are one example of it. Those words are "Thinking the concrete state of not thinking." They include "thinking" as skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, and "not thinking" as skin, flesh, bones, and marrow. The monk says, "How can the state of not thinking be thought?" Truly, although "the state of not thinking" is ancient, still it is "How can it be thought about!" "In the still-still state" how could it be impossible for "thinking" to exist? And why do [people] not understand the ascendancy of "the still-still state"? If they were not the stupid people of vulgar recent times, they might possess the power, and might possess the thinking, to ask about "the still-still state." The great master says, "It is non-thinking." This use of "non-thinking" is brilliant; at the same time, whenever we "think the state of not thinking," we are inevitably using "non-thinking." In "non-thinking" there is someone, and [that] someone is maintaining and relying upon me. "The still-still state," although it is I, is not only "thinking": it is holding up the head of "the still-still state." Even though "the still-still state" is "the still-still state," how can "the still-still state" think "the still-still state"? So "the still-still state" is beyond the intellectual capacity of Buddha, beyond the intellectual capacity of the Dharma, beyond the intellectual capacity of the state of realization, and beyond the intellectual capacity of understanding itself. The one-to-one transmission to Yakusan in the state like this is the thirty-sixth, already, in a line of direct descent from Sakyamuni Buddha; and when we trace upward from Yakusan, there is, after thirty-six generations, the Buddha Sakyamuni. Having been authentically transmitted like this, "thinking the concrete state of not thinking" is present already. In recent years, however, stupid unreliable people have said, "In the effort of zazen, to attain peace of mind is everything. Just this is the state of tranquility." This opinion is beneath even scholars of the Small Vehicle. It is inferior even to the vehicles of humans and gods. How can we call such people students of the Buddha-Dharma? In the great kingdom of Song today, people of such effort are many. It is lamentable that the Patriarch's truth has gone to ruin. There is another group of people [who say]: "Sitting in zazen to pursue the truth is an essential mechanism for beginners and late-learners, but it is not necessarily the action of Buddhist patriarchs. For them, 'walking also is Zen, and sitting also is Zen. In talking and silence, movement and rest, the body is at ease.' Do not associate [Buddhist patriarchs] exclusively with this effort [of zazen]." Many who call themselves followers of Rinzai are of this opinion. They speak like this because they have been remiss in receiving the transmission of the true life of the Buddha-Dharma. What is "a beginner"? Which [sort] is not a beginner? At what place do they locate a beginner? Remember, as the established [method of] investigation in learning the truth, we pursue the state of truth in zazen. The point, in manifest form, is that there is acting buddha which does not expect to become buddha. Because acting buddha is utterly beyond becoming buddha, the universe is realized. The body-buddha is utterly beyond becoming buddha, [but] when nets and cages are broken, sitting buddha does not hinder becoming buddha at all. Just at this moment, the power is originally present, through a thousand ages and ten thousand ages, to enter [the state of] Buddha or to enter [the state of] demons. And forward steps and backward steps possess the capacity intimately to fill ditches and to fill valleys.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross


Dogen's assertion about the use of non-thinking being "brilliant" is meant to underscore that it is "obvious" or "clearly evident," not that it is "particularly insightful," or "remarkably intelligent." Carl Bielefeldt translates it as "crystal clear," Hee-Jin Kim as "unmistakable." The insightful commentary accompanying Kim's translation of the line provides an excellent perspective from which to begin my own commentary. Kim writes:

"The use of nonthinking is unmistakable, and yet to think through not-thinking , we always exert nonthinking." He expressly asserts that nonthinking is for use and exertion (shiyosuru, mochiiru) in the salvific endeavor. This is why he also calls nonthinking "the essential method" (yojutsu) or "the dharmic method" (hojutsu)-therefore by implication, as the practice-of seated meditation. Nonthinking is the essential method of zazen to be employed by the meditator. It is praxis, not theoria, gnosis, or logos, as many philosophically minded commentators of Dogen's thought would have us believe.

Nonthinking is also identified by Dogen as "right thinking" (shoshiyui; shoshiryo; shoshi), one of the categories of the eightfold right path (hasshodo) that leads to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of nirvana. This... implies that right thought is not only to be practiced simultaneously in conjunction with the seven other categories of the path (i.e., right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration), but also is the kernel of them all, that is, of the Buddhist path to liberation... (...thinking in this context involves not only cognitive qualities, such as conceptualization, reflection, deliberation, and criticism, but also affective and conative ones, such as feeling, emotion, volition, and desire.) Further, in context of the three divisions of the eightfold path--morality, meditation, and wisdom (kai-jo-e)-Dogen singles out right thought from the division of wisdom. He takes it to be the essence of meditation...

Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, pp.91-92

'Thinking,' insofar as it is real, not just an abstract concept or a generalization, is always a particular thing or activity experienced by a particular being at a particular place-and-time. Apart from particular instances of thinking, thinking is neither real nor meaningful. The same is true of not-thinking and non-thinking.

Further, every manifestation of any one of these three, according to the Buddhist vision of reality, is empty and interdependent. That is, 'an actual instance of thinking' (or not-thinking or non-thinking) is real form (i.e. a dharma; an actual thing, being, or event in/of existence-time).

As Dogen points out, Yakusan's words, "Thinking the concrete state of not-thinking," are one actual 'example,' one particular form of 'thinking in the still-still state.' As an actual, particular form, Yakusan's words are a 'real instance' in/of existence-time. As one actual form of reality, this expression, like all actual forms of reality, is empty and interdependent. This means, for one thing, that this 'instance of thinking' (i.e. Yakusan's, "Thinking the concrete state of not-thinking") contains and is contained by all instances of reality. Zen recognizes the true nature of all forms as Buddha-nature, or emptiness - each form is an 'instance of total existence-time.' Yakusan's words are one particular form of the one mind, the myriad dharmas, the 'whole body-mind' (konshin), the "skin, flesh, bones, and marrow." Thus, 'thinking' is not included in the one mind, but as the one mind ('as skin, flesh, bones, and marrow'), and 'not-thinking' is not simply an activity or thing included in the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, it is included as skin, flesh, bones, and marrow. When 'thinking' appears, the whole universe is thinking, when 'not-thinking' appears, the whole universe is not-thinking.

The monk says, 'How can the state of not thinking be thought?' And even senior veterans of Zen are liable to conclude the question mark is appropriate. Dogen, however, is not easily misled - even if a question mark appears, it does not divert him from the fundamental point - 84,000 people might say the monk is asking a question, but Dogen still recognizes the monk's words as an expression of truth. What truth? Any 'state of not thinking' that is real must be the whole body-mind, how could it not be thought about? Why would a 'state of not thinking' be different from every other reality of existence-time? The fact that it looks like a question, or sounds like a question is no reason to conclude it is a question - by simply looking closely at the point even the dullest monk would be able to see that 'not thinking' is not different than 'thinking' when it comes to 'How.' If you know how 'thinking' can 'be thought' you cannot fail to see how 'not thinking' can be thought. It is like those who ask, 'Where do we go when we die?' I usually respond, 'Where are we now?' Resolve the latter and the former will be self evident - even more fundamental, 'Who lives and dies?' The resolution of this provides a golden thread that leads to the master of all the 'How's', 'What's', and 'Why's' we can come up with. As Hee-Jin Kim notes concerning Dogen's take on this passage:


Fu-shiryo-tei ikanga shiryo sen ("How can one think of not-thinking") is read by Dogen as: Fu-shiryo-tei ikan (no) shiryo ("Not-thinking is the How's thinking"). "How," like "What" and other interrogatives, signifies ultimate reality/ultimate truth. Thus not-thinking is equated with the How's thinking, which is subsequently construed as nonthinking.

Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.162, note 8

Since 'the state of not thinking' is a reality it must be interdependent with (thus inherently one with) each and all other actual forms, thus Dogen points out that regardless of the fact that 'the state of not thinking' is venerable and worthy of respect (i.e. 'ancient'), it is still 'How can it be thought about!' (i.e. thus, a real particular form characterized by emptiness like every other particular form). Therefore, it is not only not 'impossible', it is inevitable for 'thinking' to exist in/as 'not thinking' (i.e. the still-still state).

It is this inevitability (of 'thinking' and 'not thinking' to be mutually inclusive and non-obstructive) that is described by Yakusan as "non-thinking." Dogen illumines the significance of this by pointing out the basic fact of interdependence; among the myriad real forms in/of/as non-thinking "there is someone" who I depend on (to exist) and who is dependent (for existence) on me (i.e. mutual interdependence and nonobstruction). Simultaneously, this interdependence maintains harmony with the basic fact of emptiness; 'the still-still state' is not 'the still-still state' (i.e. form is emptiness, emptiness is form), therefore 'the still-still state' is 'the still-still state' (i.e. form is form, emptiness is emptiness).

[Note: Dogen clarifies in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Shobogenzo, Maka-Hannya-Haramitsu, the ultimate point of the Buddhist axiom 'form is emptiness, emptiness is form' is the truth 'form is form, emptiness is emptiness.' In terms of our present discussion, 'not-thinking is thinking,' 'thinking is not-thinking,' thus, 'not-thinking is not-thinking,' 'thinking' is 'thinking.']

In short, each and every actual instance of 'thinking' is inclusive of/as every actual instance of thinking and every instance of not-thinking. Now, according to Zen, this is simply the true nature of reality, regardless of whether or not an individual 'thinker' recognizes it. To those that do not yet recognize this, a Zen master might explain it as 'thinking not-thinking' - those that do recognize it might speak of it as 'non-thinking.'

Thus the truth of the Buddha-Dharma has been transmitted and is "present already." In saying this, Dogen encourages us to study and understand his expression concerning true practice-enlightenment (i.e. 'non-thinking'), to test it in practice, and thereby verify its authenticity through our personal experience of its accuracy. Following this, he discourages us from wasting time pursuing methods that diverge from the path he has outlined. He does this by raising a number of fallacies that were popular in his own day. It so happens that these fallacies are similar to a number of views and approaches popular in our day. Thus, while a detailed treatment would take me to far off course for my purpose here, some brief comments are warranted.

To think that Zen practice-enlightenment has anything to do with attaining a state of tranquility, calmness, or peace of mind is to be seriously mistaken. Zen practice-enlightenment has nothing to do with 'attaining' anything. When tranquility, calmness, or peace of mind occurs then practice-enlightenment is tranquility, calmness, or peace of mind. Likewise, when turbulence, agitation, or panic occurs practice-enlightenment is turbulence, agitation, or panic. For one actualizing practice-enlightenment, when it is cold the whole universe is cold, when it is hot there is nothing but hot, when one is an emergency room worker encountering a busload of mutilated school children the whole universe is blood and guts, desperation, confusion. To engage practice-enlightenment is to engage our capacity to actualize the world and to be actualized by the world. The world ('other') exhaustively consists of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and thoughts - beyond these no world has ever been encountered. We (our 'self') exhaustively consist of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking - beyond these no self has ever been encountered. Without sights, sounds, etc. there would be no world, without seeing, hearing, etc. there would be no self - self is other, other is self, therefore, self is self, other is other. When sights are sights and seeing is seeing practice-enlightenment is practice-enlightenment. Thus the notion that practice-enlightenment is a device needed by beginners but not essential to veterans is also obviously off the mark, as is the notion that 'everything's Zen.'

Next, Dogen takes up the classic Zen koan about 'Polishing a Tile' and again avoids being sucked in by hasty, or conventional, conclusions.

Zen Master Daijaku of Kozei, after receiving the immediate transmission of the mind-seal while learning in practice under Zen Master Daie of Nangaku, constantly sits in zazen. Nangaku on one occasion goes to Daijaku's place and asks him, "Virtuous monk! What are you aiming at, sitting in zazen?" We should quietly consider and investigate this question. That is, we should consider in detail whether [Nangaku] is asking: Is there an aim that might be superior to sitting in zazen? Beyond the framework of sitting in zazen, has there never yet been a state of truth to aim at? Should we not aim at anything at all? Just in the moment of sitting in zazen, what kind of aim is being realized? More than we love a carved dragon, we should love the real dragon. We should learn that the carved dragon and the real dragon both possess the potency of clouds and rain. Do not hold the remote in high regard, and do not hold the remote in low regard: be accustomed to it as the remote. Do not hold the close in high regard, and do not hold the close in low regard: be accustomed to it as the close. Do not think light of the eyes, and do not attach importance to the eyes. Do not attach importance to the ears, and do not think light of the ears. Make the ears and eyes sharp and clear.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

First of all, Dogen recognizes the truth that this encounter between Nangaku and Kozei, was an encounter between two enlightened Zen masters, not an encounter between a master and an ordinary (unenlightened) monk. By stating this encounter occurred after Kozei received 'transmission,' Dogen dispels the fallacy that Kozei was not enlightened at the time of this meeting. This is no small feat; the fallacious view in question is accurate according to all the usually accepted evidence. Thus we see Dogen is not one to allow historical facts to obscure the truth. Dogen says this encounter took place after Kozei's enlightenment, therefore it did.

[Note: For those unfamiliar with Dogen's treatment of this case (thus unable to see I am being facetious), it is well known that Dogen changed the 'facts' of this case for his own purposes, as he does with many traditional sources, including even Buddhist scriptures (thus effectively 'correcting' the Buddha himself). Traditionally this encounter between Nangaku and Kozei is understood as taking place prior to Kozei's enlightenment, even as being a 'cause' (or at least a factor) in bringing on Kozei's awakening.]

In characteristic fashion, Dogen begins by urging us to "consider and investigate this question" and provides a number of specific points that should prove fruitful. We should "consider in detail" just what Nangaku's words - "What are you aiming at, sitting in zazen?" - are getting at. Is the question mark appropriate? If, while actualizing practice-enlightenment, there could be an aim greater than practice-enlightenment, what could it possibly be? Outside the present manifestation ('framework') of the actualization of truth (sitting in zazen) can there be another actualization of truth that can be aimed at? When practice-enlightenment is being actualized what kind of aim is being realized?

Following his guidance on specific points, Dogen offers some general guidance. As much as we cherish the praises, descriptions, elucidations, and other products achieved through practice-enlightenment (i.e. 'the carved dragon'; the 'form' of the Buddha-Dharma, e.g. doctrines, methods, texts, rituals, etc.), we should cherish the ever-present, ceaselessly-advancing novel universe of here-now practice-enlightenment (i.e. 'the real dragon'; the 'essence' of the Buddha-Dharma; the ongoing actualization of existence-time ever arising and dropping away) even more. It is not that the real dragon is superior to the carved dragon - as dharmas, both 'form' and 'essence' are equal in actuality, significance, and value, "both possess the potency of clouds and rain" - rather, the point is that each is a unique instance of total existence-time, thus each calls for a unique response. In this case 'the essence' being 'loved more' than 'the form' is appropriate. The significance of this is underscored by Dogen's expressions on not holding (i.e. treating, understanding) the 'remote' or the 'close' (real dragon or carved dragon) as 'high' or 'low' - rather, hold them as they are; remote as remote, close as close. Do not regard seeing (experience) as 'higher' or 'lower' than hearing (learning) - each is an essential element of practice-enlightenment; both study and perceptual awareness need to be fully engaged and continuously deepened and refined.

Kozei says, "Aiming to become buddha." We should clarify and master these words. When he says "becoming buddha" just what does he mean? Does "becoming buddha" describe becoming buddha being done by a buddha? Does "becoming buddha" describe becoming buddha being done to a buddha? Does "becoming buddha" describe the manifestation of one instance and the manifestation of two instances of "buddha"? Is "aiming to become buddha," being the dropping off [of body and mind], "aiming to become buddha" as dropping off? Does "aiming to become buddha" describe that even though "becoming buddha" is of myriad kinds, it continues to be entangled with this "aiming"? Remember, the words of Daijaku are that to sit in zazen is, in every case, "aiming to become buddha." To sit in zazen is, in every case, "becoming buddha" as "aiming." The "aiming" may be before the "becoming buddha," may be after the "becoming buddha," and may be just the very moment of "becoming buddha." Let us ask for a while: How many instances of "becoming buddha" does one such instance of "aiming" entangle? This entanglement is further entwining with entanglement. At this time, all cases of entanglement-as totally "becoming buddha" in separate instances, and as totally "becoming buddha" always being exactly itself-are individual instances of "aiming." We cannot flee from a single instance of "aiming." At a time when we flee from a single instance of "aiming," we lose body and life. [But even] the time when we lose body and life is an instance of entanglement as "aiming."

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dogen begins his discussion of Kozei's response by underscoring the crucial importance of diligently applying ourselves to the particular words uttered and their actual meaning. If we fail to "clarify and master these words" there is no point in proceeding further - it is impossible to 'verify the truth' of an expression we do not understand. In this section Dogen's guidance remains focused on specifics; what exactly does Kozei mean by 'becoming buddha'? Do Buddhas 'become buddha'? If so, do they 'become buddha' through the thoughts, words, or deeds of some reality independent of themselves? Is a real instance of 'becoming buddha' different from any other real instance in regard to having/being a specific place-time in the Dharma (i.e. abiding in a 'dharma-position')?

For those with experience in koan training the style and perspective of these considerations will be familiar; they exemplify a kind of 'stream of consciousness' that frequently occurs during koan introspection. Such 'inquiring' attention is less an 'aiming' for an unseen goal, and more a focused, concentrated activity to clearly and comprehensively discern the actual phenomenon already here-now (in this case the expression "aiming to become buddha"). To consider whether 'the dropping off of the body-and-mind of self-and-not-self' (zazen) is the same as 'aiming to become buddha' is not to aim for some insight that is not already present here-now.

Dogen often says, "Nothing in the whole universe is concealed." The 'form' (dharma; manifestation, appearance) we are aiming to discern is already present; it is the expression 'aiming to become buddha'; therefore, its 'essence' (significance, content) must be present as well (in Zen the 'form' and 'essence' of something is nondual; not two). Thus, if 'to sit in zazen' is 'aiming to become buddha', then 'to sit in zazen' is 'becoming buddha' as 'aiming.' Whatever other forms of 'becoming buddha' might exist, the form (hence, form/essence) 'becoming buddha' displays in/as 'aiming' is 'sitting in zazen.' Thus, when and where an actual instance of 'becoming buddha' exists, 'aiming' (zazen) too inevitably exists, and where/when an actual instance of 'aiming' exists, 'becoming buddha' is inevitably present. For example, an occurrence of 'aiming' that manifests at a place-time before 'becoming buddha' is (i.e. exists as) 'becoming buddha.' More specifically, such an occurrence of 'aiming' is an essential element of the reality of the place-time of 'becoming buddha' - in the absence of the 'aiming (to become buddha) before the very moment of becoming buddha' it would not be possible for the 'aiming at the very moment of becoming buddha' to be realized (i.e. the moment of [place-time] becoming buddha is only the moment of because it is not-the moment before [or after], without before and after the moment of would be meaningless).

Because 'becoming buddha' is real, each instance of zazen (aiming to become buddha) is a real manifest form of 'becoming buddha' (i.e. each instance of zazen is 'becoming buddha,' all real zazen must be 'before-becoming buddha,' 'after-becoming buddha,' or 'the moment-of becoming buddha'). In view of the universal nature of emptiness, each such instance of zazen contains all instances of zazen and is contained by all instances of zazen. "At this time" (any actual place-time, every real here-now) each instance of 'becoming buddha' is (exists as) a definite, place-time (i.e. a place-time 'cut off from' all other place-times) of 'becoming buddha' - and (also "at this time") the totality of all these particular place-times is the totality of 'becoming buddha' (i.e. the many instances do not 'make up' the one reality, the many instances are the one reality).

Finally, because becoming buddha, sitting in zazen, and aiming are real, it is impossible for any real place-time to exist independently of them. A place-time that is not-aiming, not-sitting in zazen, or not-becoming buddha is only meaningful and real if aiming, sitting in zazen, and becoming buddha are meaningful and real - in the absence of 'becoming buddha' it is meaningless to speak of 'not becoming buddha.' Accordingly, while zazen is certainly not 'just sitting aimlessly' - even the place-time of impotent 'aimless just sitting' is entwined with 'becoming buddha' - it abides in its dharma-position of/as not aiming to become buddha, not sitting in zazen, and not becoming buddha. If you 'aim for nothing' (or for 'nothing special'), you are bound to achieve it.

Nangaku then picks up a tile and starts to polish it on a stone. Daijaku eventually asks, "What is the master doing?" Truly, who could fail to see that he is polishing a tile? But who can see it as polishing a tile? Rather, the polishing of a tile has [always] been questioned like this: "What are you doing!" The "doing" of "what" is always the polishing of a tile. In this land and other worlds, different though they are, polishing a tile may possess an import that has never ceased. It is not simply a matter of not fixing to our own views as our own views: we perfectly ascertain that in the myriad kinds of work there is import to be learned in practice. Remember, we witness buddha without knowing or understanding buddha, just as we see waters without knowing them and see mountains without knowing them. [Nevertheless,] if we hastily conclude that there can be no path of penetration to the Dharma before our eyes, that is not Buddhist study.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dogen points out that Kozei would have to be blind or an idiot if he could not see what Nangaku is doing, "who could fail to see that he is polishing a tile?" Then he points out that while it may be easy to see, accurately discerning what 'polishing a tile' truly is may not be, "who can see it as polishing a tile?" Dogen already clarified that Kozei is an enlightened master; his expression, then, needs to be read as such. The first thing we notice is the interrogative structure of the utterance - Dogen's own paraphrase reads, "What are you doing!" Again, Hee-Jin Kim's note nicely brings the point into relief:

Again, though it is rendered conventionally, Dogen's own reading is so-shimo ("The What's doing"), instead of nanioka nasu ("What are you doing?").

Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.164, note 21


The 'seeing and hearing' of 'who' is always 'forms and sounds,' the 'thinking' of 'how' is always 'thinking not-thinking' (i.e. nonthinking; the non's thinking), and the 'doing' of 'what' is always 'polishing a tile.' To experience a thought, word, or deed is to experience a particular instance of total existence-time - when one dharma is illumined, each and all ('other') dharmas are darkened (i.e. present as 'eclipsed' or 'shadowed'). When (at that place-time) Nangaku polishes a tile, the myriad dharmas of existence-time (including every manifestation of zazen, instance of becoming buddha, etc.) are present as 'eclipsed' (i.e. that particular act is the 'explicit' here-now, all other acts are the 'implicit' here-now). To see 'Nangaku polishing a tile' is to see 'What' (thusness, Buddha, existence-time) as 'polishing a tile.' To see 'What' as 'polishing a tile' is to see 'polishing a tile' (a particular act here-now) as 'What.'

To emphasize that authentic practice-enlightenment is ever advancing into novelty (i.e. clear seeing does not end with seeing Nangaku's particular act of 'What' but ever-advances as each fresh act), "It is not simply a matter of not fixing to our own views..." Dogen's refrain, "nothing in the whole universe is concealed" does not mean "everything in the whole universe can be discerned at a glance." There "is import to be learned in practice." The more attentively and skillfully we observe and consider the myriad dharmas that are our self and the world, the clearer we realize them, and the clearer they realize us. Each thing, being, and event is empty, thus infinite - not concealed, certainly, yet never exhausted either. Practice-enlightenment is 'not yet, not enough, not yet enough...'

Nangaku says, "Polishing to make a mirror." We should clarify the meaning of these words. In "polishing to make a mirror" Buddhist truths are always present and the realized universe is present: it is never an empty pretense. Though tiles are tiles and mirrors are mirrors, we should know that when we are striving to master the truth of polishing, [polishing] possesses a limitless abundance of distinguishing features. It may be that even the eternal mirror and the clear mirror are made into mirrors by polishing a tile. If we do not know that mirrors derive from polishing a tile, we are without a Buddhist patriarch's expression of the truth, we have not experienced a Buddhist patriarch's mouth opening, and we are not seeing and hearing a Buddhist patriarch's exhalations.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Don't become desensitized to its import because of Dogen's frequent usage; he does not say "We should clarify the meaning of these words" because he likes to hear himself talk - "it is never an empty pretense." In harmony with the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, "tiles are tiles and mirrors are mirrors" - form is form, emptiness is emptiness - yet it will not do to neglect the fact that tiles are not-tiles and mirrors are not-mirrors - form is emptiness, emptiness is form. When tiles are tiles mirrors are tiles, grasses are tiles; when tiles are not-tiles, tiles are mirrors, tiles are grasses. If we do not yet see that 'polishing a tile' makes mirrors and realizes grasses we do not yet see the truth of the Buddha-Dharma.

Daijaku says, "How can polishing a tile realize a mirror?" Truly, polishing a tile, as [the work of] an iron man, does not rely upon the resources of others. Even so, "polishing a tile" is not "to realize a mirror." The realization of a mirror-though it is nothing other than itself-may be [described as] instantaneous.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Form is emptiness (not-form), a tile is a mirror (not-a tile), therefore, form is form (not-emptiness), a tile is a tile (not-a mirror). When form is form, emptiness is form, when form is emptiness, emptiness is emptiness; when polishing a tile is polishing a tile, mirrors are polishing a tile, when mirrors are mirrors, polishing a tile is mirrors (not-polishing a tile). How thinks not-thinking and How polishes not-polishing. Sitting in zazen is as it is an instantaneous manifestation of total existence-time, becoming buddha is as it is an instantaneous manifestation of total existence-time.


Nangaku says, "How can sitting in zazen make you into a buddha?" Clearly, there is a truth that zazen does not expect to become buddha. The principle is evident that to become buddha is irrelevant to zazen.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross


Sitting in zazen is sitting in zazen; it is not-becoming buddha, is not-polishing tiles, is not-eating rice, etc.


Daijaku says, "Just what is right, here and now?" These words look like a question only about this concrete place, but they are also asking about rightness here and now at any other place. Remember, for example, the moment when a close friend meets a close friend: [his] being my close friend is [my] being his close friend. "Just what is right, here and now," is direct manifestation [of both sides] at once.

Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dogen's succinct comment is to the point, and the lovely example he provides not only 'fleshes it out' it brings it to life in all place-times of here-now. I meet you, and at that place-time, you meet me. What is the scientific fact of such a meeting, what is that place-time's objective reality? If one historian recorded the fact that I met you, and another insisted that you met me, which would be presenting the 'true story?' Is it right to say 'bullhorns have bulls' or 'bulls have bullhorns', 'barbarians are red-bearded, or red-beards are barbarians?' Following Dogen's great enlightenment experience he went to his teacher's (Ju-ching) room and offered incense, in response to his teacher's inquiry about this Dogen said:

"My body and mind are cast off!" "The body and mind are cast off" (shinjin datsuraku), joined the teacher, "cast off are the body and mind" (datsuraku shinjin).

As recorded in Hee-Jin Kim's, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p.37



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