401. The other side is dark

In the Genjokoan [the Tanahashi translation], Master Dogen says,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging the body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately unlike things and their reflections in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection In the water. When one side is illuminated the other is dark.

The Nishijima version of that same passage reads

When we use the whole body and mind to look at forms and when we use the whole body and mind to listen to sounds, even though we are sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image and not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side we are blind to the other side.

What you realise looking at these passages is what a nightmare job a translator has, particularly with a Japanese text like this which is fundamentally more dynamic than English and which, at the time, also didn’t have any punctuation.  

There’s three parts to this passage, the first part [again from Tanahashi],

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately. 

What Dogen is talking about here is Enlightenment experiences which people have had, not in zazen but after zazen.

The reference to seeing forms is the famous story about Master Lingyun becoming enlightened upon seeing Peach blossoms. The reference to hearing sounds is an equally famous story where a monk was enlightened on hearing a pebble strike bamboo. 

The way that Tanahashi renders this next part, you intuit Dharma intimately, is a prime example of the translator’s dilemma: necessarily dualistic language is being used to try and convey a non-dualistic experience. The experience of hearing form with the whole body and mind is just very difficult to convey in words. It’s as if a monk sees these Peach blossoms not as an object in the world, not as him seeing these Peach blossoms, but rather that he sees them in their complete aliveness which is also the aliveness of the whole universe of which he’s an alive part.

It’s very dynamic. It’s not subject and object, it’s not dualistic, but it’s not undifferentiated either. It’s not that the particularities of that experience disappear, but rather that they’re experienced differently.

This is a very common theme in the enlightenment stories. People don’t have their Enlightenment experience when they’re doing zazen.They have their Enlightenment experiences when they’re fully immersed in zazen, when they’re soaked through with zazen, and when they come out of the Dojo and back into the world, the world floods them—that’s the enlightenment experience. Implicitly Dogen is saying that that’s the attitude that we should also have when we’re practising zazen. 

The second part of this passage is the contrast. He says in contrast that to fully engage body and mind is unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection in the water.  These are two very well-known images in Buddhism;  the idea that meditation is about calming the mind. If there’s a reflection in a clear bright mirror [ie clear of the dust of thought and emotion], that reflection shows itself exactly. And likewise, if the water of the mind is still, the Moon is reflected undistortedly. 

That’s a very standard idea of what meditation is, but Dogen’s saying that’s not zazen.  It’s not zazen for the reason stated in the last part which says when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.

With the lack of punctuation the translators just chop this up into sentences in a way that makes sense to them but which isn’t unchallengeable.

It’s not clear if this reference to one part being illuminated and the other part being dark is referring to the first part, the fully engaged Body Mind, or the second. 

A lot of people think that it’s to the first, but the [ perhaps too] obvious interpretation is to say that it’s the second. The reason is that it just makes immediate sense. I’m facing the mirror of this computer screen. My face is illuminated and the back of my head is dark. The Moon is reflected in the water. The side of the moon that we see is illuminated and the other side is dark.

But the critical question is this: what does it mean to say that it’s dark?

If it refers to the second part, what I think that means is that the duality which is implicit in the second part isn’t immediately obvious. It’s ‘dark’. If meditation is about calming my mind that’s dualistic. If there is a  second [as it were] person who appears,  like a silent, imperturbable witness, that’s dualistic too. And Dogen is saying that’s not what our practice is about.

So I think it does refer to the second part. But it could also refer to the first.

But if you apply it to the first part, what you tend to get is an idea that when you fully experience something with  the whole body and mind, what is illuminated is the dharmadhatu and what is dark is particularity. It vanishes.

And that’s a very unfortunate interpretation, because it assumes that seeing things with the whole body and mind is a mystical experience. But it’s not a mystical experience, it’s a real experience. It’s the way that we actually are when we’re sitting. So people trying to find that mystical experience miss their lives and miss the miracle of zazen.

Yet there’s another way to understand ‘dark’. Just as in darkness particular things cannot be seen and so, in a sense, everything is whole, when we fully experience with our whole body and mind, it is not that particularity vanishes, that it’s literally ‘dark’, but it’s no longer experienced as separate.