Sunday, October 02, 2016

One Bright Pearl

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)


Haikuist said...

In addition to practicing Zen Buddhism, I've long been a natural-born lover of poetry and literature, so this post certainly resonates with me. It seems in general our current day reading comprehension skills have been narrowed down to a very thin part of the "literary spectrum" so to speak -- not just with Dogen, but with all literature in the broadest sense. Positivism is a recent innovation, emerging out of 18th century thought at the expense of mythopoetic expression (Frazier's misreading of religion being a particularly egregious example).

Unfortunately it seems to me that positivist assumptions have too often been smuggled (deliberately and/or unknowingly) into too many western "pop Zen" by simply rejecting language wholesale. Because language is mistakenly thought of as being wedded to positivism only, irrationality mistakenly appears to be the alternative offered by "Zen." This misunderstanding can often lead to mere license for intellectual laziness at best, and a uncompassionate dismissal of others concerns at best (the rather unhelpful "Zenner-than-thou" one-upmanship game). A lot of this stems more from "pop Zen" but it nevertheless can create a lot of needless misunderstanding.

My (very rudimentary!) understanding of Dogen on this point is that the "words and letters" of sutras, etc. are only problematic if they are used as a means to an end (just as zazen mistakenly being used as a means to awakening). There is a place for words and letters, and there is a place for just sitting -- not one at the expense of the other. In this way, sutras provide the necessary context for zazen, and zazen provides the necessary context for sutras. This mutual contextualization goes both ways -- and not just with reading sutras but with all acts -- because there is nothing that shikantaza doesn't include.

That doesn't mean all Zen Buddhists should become scholars, but by the same token, there is a value to "words and letters" that shouldn't be casually dismissed. It would do much good to unlearn our cultural fixation of positivism -- not to eliminate it -- but in order to make room for the mythopoetic quality of Dogen's writings, and of Buddhist literature in general. To borrow from the Bible, "Man cannot live by positivism alone."

Thank you for your post!


Ted Biringer said...

Dear Josh,

Yes. Thank you!

It is not that there are no authentic Zen practitioners, only that they are few... If we take these words of Dogen to heart, we may come to realize that no place-time is any less worthy of our gratitude than any other:

"Do not misunderstand Buddhism by believing the erroneous principle ‘a special tradition outside the scriptures.’"
~Zen Master Dogen

Thank you for your deliverance of all beings.

Haikuist said...


I just ordered your most recent book Zen Cosmology. I had seen you mentioned it in earlier posts as a work-in-progress, but I must have missed the news that you had it published in August! I ordered a copy today and I look forward to reading it. I'll make a point to read the Flatbed Sutra in the near future as well. I'm looking forward to reading both.

At the moment I've been (re-)reading Kim's first study on Dogen (Mystical Realist) -- with much more comprehension than when I first read it in 2010.

Having read so much in philosophy, religion, and literature (including much Buddhism), I have found increased clarity in articulation -- but Dogen actually challenges me by expressing perspectives entirely new to me -- and I need these challenges in my life now. Returning to Dogen feels like a homecoming of sorts. I've been recalling this poem by Rilke lately:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.

Gratitude indeed!


Ted Biringer said...

Dear Josh,

Thank you for your comments, and your interest in my book - I hope you find it enjoyable.

Yes, Dogen's works are certainly challenging, but well worth the effort. For me, Shobogenzo compares with Gutie's Zen, which he described by saying, "I have used it all my life but never used it up."

Also, I have found Hee-Jin Kim's Mystical Realist, along with his two other major works, essential companions to the study and practice of Master Dogen's wisdom - each year I seem to find whole new levels of insight between their covers.

Thank you for sharing the Rilke poem - Yes, Yes! Ha!

Please treasure yourself.

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