13. The Second Noble Truth

All Buddhist teachings, no matter how apparently esoteric, refer to our actual experience, particularly during zazen. If we cannot find them in our actual experience, then we cannot accept them.

The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering is our attachment to desire, which is defined as greed, ignorance and hatred.

If we examine our actual experience during zazen, where is greed to adhere? Or ignorance? Or hatred? And if they have nowhere to adhere, surely this is the liberation of all things, all beings. Not at some imaginary future time, but this time.


12. Emptiness

The foundation sutra for Zen is the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, the teachings on Emptiness. The Heart Sutra, which we chant after sitting, is a very abbreviated version. In it we say that “form is nothing other than emptiness, emptiness is nothing other than form”.

Emptiness is thus not another world, or something to aspire to. It is a way of describing this world, this experience. It is infinitely faceted. One can say that it is dependent origination; nothing exists separately and independently of anything else. Equally, one can say that because emptiness cannot be grasped – one cannot seize space – it is a way of describing the ineffability of all being.

The world eludes the web of words. And one can say that it is a way of describing our experience when self consciousness drops away. The world is empty of you, and so, is luminous.

The teachings on Emptiness are themselves empty.


11. The Metaphor of Space

Kusen collaboration artwork by Margaret Kerr

Buddhism is full of metaphors of space.

And space is not conceived in an abstract way, but rather as the absence of obstruction. Hence Buddhism being described as a path, or a way.

We are free, but not lost.

Likewise Emptiness.


10. All Living Beings

The Bodhisattva vow, “All living beings, I vow to save them,” at first blush seems impossible. Surely it is much more practical to vow to save ourself?

But we cannot save ourself. The ego is the fulcrum of dualism. A fist cannot unclench itself.

We can however liberate all beings from us. And this liberation is “All living beings.”


9. Sitting is Buddha

In Zazen, do we rely on ourself? Or do we rely on Buddha?

In some schools of Zen, there is a plain reliance on the self. Sitting is the means by which we accumulate the capacity to experience enlightenment. Equally, in other Japanese traditions, particularly Pure Land, reliance is on the other, on Buddha; faith, devotion, surrender feature prominently.

Dogen’s view is that we rely neither on Self or other. We do not sit to become a Buddha and we do not sit in devotion to something other than ourself which we call Buddha. Sitting is Buddha.

We are lifted up by the same ground.


8. Shoji: Life-Death

If all things have real form, then everything–particularly what we commonly regard as negations –has real form. Thus, ‘No Self’ exists just as much as ‘Self’ in the total Full Dynamic Functioning.

So, ‘Negation’ is not a kind of absence, but a full presence. And if this is so, ‘Not Self’ can be obstructed by ‘Self’, just as easily as the other way around.

Things do not fall in and out of existence in a logically coherent world. Existence and Non Existence are two aspects of Full Dynamic Functioning, and are always present. Whether they are present to us doesn’t matter.

So Death isn’t the absence of Life. Winter isn’t the absence of Spring.




The whole grass world cannot be seen
In the snowy field
A white heron is hiding himself
Using his own form

Dogen reverses the usual metaphor for non differentiation, darkness, by using whiteness, snow, instead [very richly, I think], and shows how zazen is an activity [hiding] from moment to moment, not a state. And also, what is hidden and what is apparent is reversed. Activity and Differentiation are hidden, but not erased, and Wholeness [which is usually hidden, but always there] is visible, and by illuminating what is usually hidden, we can see that these are both part of the same ‘thing’, even though we can only ever express half [as the Genjokoan says ‘one half is illuminated, the other is dark’].

The poem is my free translation which differs from the poem in Steven Heine’s book of Dogen’s poetry, ‘The Zen Poetry of Dogen’, in which he titles it ‘worship’, but the word literally means ‘prostrations’ which I think is more acute. Master Shohaku Okumura (Sanshin Zen Community, Indiana) gave a translation of this poem at Sanshinji Temple, and for him, the most important part of the poem is ‘using his own form’, and so he reversed the order of the poem, putting the winter grasses at the start of the poem, rather than the end. I have re -rendered “winter grasses” as “the whole grass world”, because I wanted to emphasise the wholeness within which differentiation [grasses] occurs, and thus, the non duality of differentiation and One-ness. I also wanted to re-work the first line to infer that the Wholeness of which we are part cannot be ‘seen’, because we are part of it [although it can be experienced], and also [making the same point] to allow the first line to be read by itself, as well as in conjunction with the second line..


7. The Buddhist State

Whosoever says that the Tathāgata goes or comes, stands, sits or lies down, he does not understand the meaning of my teaching. And why? ‘Tathāgata’ is called one who has not gone anywhere, nor came from anywhere.

Diamond Sutra, verse 29

The Buddhist state is instantaneous, immediate and cuts off past and future.

Tathāgata means ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone.’

The name itself is a description of reality: not ‘existence’ (because that would entail dualism), not ‘no existence’ (because that would entail nihilism), but something luminous hovering in the background, behind our conceptualisations.


6. Flowers of Emptiness

In Kuge, Dogen comments on a passage from the Surangama Sutra, where the Buddha says:

It is like a person who has clouded eyes

Seeing flowers in space

If the sickness of clouded eyes is cured,

Flowers vanish in space

In the chapter Dogen sometimes renders “Flowers in space” as “Flowers of Emptiness” and comments:

“When we have seen flowers in space (then) we can also see flowers vanish in space.”

He takes a straightforward passage as delusion and turns it into a profound reflection on Emptiness.

It seems to me…

When we see the Flowers of Emptiness appear

Then we can see them disappear

When we see the Flowers of Emptiness disappear

Then we can see them appear.

‘Then’ is not one thing following another. ‘Then’ is this time. In this time we can see the Emptiness of all things; neither existent, nor non-existent. And this is instantaneous appearing/disappearing.

Disappearing/appearing is one expression of the full dynamic functioning of Emptiness.


5. Breaking the Mirror of the Self

My earlier teacher, Jean Baby, who died during our Winter Retreat, said to me once:

You can’t break the mirror of the self with the head.

What I took this to mean is that sitting isn’t a heroic activity. It is simply understanding where delusion and liberation are located.

We can see our delusive and endless tendency to conceptualise, to continually make a map of the world, thinking we need this to navigate our lives. But if we take Emptiness seriously, the world is whole, immediate, inconceivable, alive. And it is always prepared to burst through the map we make of it, if we don’t lead with the head; if we just let ourselves fall backwards into reality.

So Liberation, Enlightenment, isn’t hidden within ourselves. It is abundantly available if we care to see.

We are saved by all beings.