375. As If Light

Shinji Shobogenzo  Book 2   Case 91:

One day Master Tenno Dogo asked Master Sekito  Kisen, ” What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”

Master Sekito said, “It isn’t graspable. It isn’t knowable.”

Master  Dogo said, “Can you say anything else?”

Master Sekito said,  “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

In one way we can take Sekito’s answer as being a statement of the non-obstruction of form and emptiness and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness—their interpenetration.

In another way we can focus on the innovative use of clouds in the answer that Sekito gives. This is helpful because it clarifies the difference between a living language and a dead one,  or in  traditional parlance — living words and dead words.  Clouds are used famously, and in a contrary way, in a metaphor for Buddha Nature.  

Buddha Nature is like the sun.  It’s always there but we can’t always see it  because sometimes it’s obscured by clouds. That’s why we require faith. So clouds,  in this metaphor, are symbolic of mental obstruction— confusion, doubt and so on.

Here’s the danger: because we have such a poor, superficial understanding of symbolic language, we think that the different elements within these various Buddhist metaphors have a fixed meaning.  So there’s clouds, that means mental afflictions; there’s the sun, that means Buddha Nature and so on.

All these pictures then can yield up a particular meaning based on a fixed symbolic vocabulary.

Thinking this way is plainly fatal to any kind of living Buddhism and it’s absolutely not what Buddhism historically has engaged in. Rather than having a fixed meaning, these various pictorial elements:  the wind, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the water, the pearl, and so on, are more like people. They can gather together and separate and express themselves in unusual and new ways. Those people can have within them the Buddha—concealed and then revealing himself in an unusual way. 

In this sense, Buddhism, once we can see it as a history and play of metaphor, is very alive.

It’s as if Light is all the time forming and reforming itself.