411. The Blue Mountains Walking

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse, number 23:

Deeply see the Blue Mountains constantly walking. By yourself know that the white stone woman gives birth to a child at night

Dogen then descended from his seat.

That is almost a word for word replication of a teaching by Zen master Daokai, who was active in the 11th and very early 12th century in China and who revitalised the Soto lineage. The only alterations which Dogen makes are adding ‘Deeply see’ and ‘By yourself’, and adding ‘white’ to  ‘stone woman’, to remove any ambiguity that the phrase might refer to an infertile woman. 


Dogen’s replication of Daokai goes further than the repetition of his words because he also duplicates his actions.

The original record is that after Daokai said these words he just stepped down from the Dharma seat, and Dogen does the same.  So we have in this quote an enormous thing, the mountains [‘Thusness’],  and a smaller, specific thing, the stone woman [‘Thisness’].

For these Masters, the mountains are representative of the whole of interdependence. We can’t see the mountains walking because we’re within the mountains. Just in the same way as, although we might be sitting still, we can’t see that we’re hurtling through space.

‘The mountains walking’ is a way of talking about the interconnected life of all being through time. 

Yet it seems to me that one unseen thing for them, but not for us, is that in comparison to their world, in our world there has been an incredible speeding up of time.  It now seems that everything, not just the mountains, comes and goes in a blur. Your life comes and goes in a blur, and then it’s over.

So it’s important to emphasise the other aspect of the dynamic impermanence and interdependence represented by the Blue Mountains, and that is stillness. We experience both when we’re sitting Zazen. We experience the thought laden wind of interdependence, taking place within a larger container of Stillness.

When we’re sitting we become intimate with both impermanence but also with something different. We could variously call that the Eternal or the continuous present or Stillness or  Thusness. 

These two aspects mean that there’s  not simply one moment, then another moment, then another moment, then another moment.  Each moment is like a magnificent tree whose roots extend throughout the Earth and connect intimately with all other moments. We could call these two aspects the forward axis and the sideways axis.

So the mountains, our lives, the whole shebang aren’t simply coming and going in a blur, as if we’re in a bullet train speeding past them. 

There’s something else which is particularly relevant to us in this era of the dramatic speeding up of time.  It’s almost as if our feet don’t touch the ground. Not just literally: they don’t touch the ground of being. But when we sit, they do. Even if this speeded up time is pushing and pulling us, it is doing so within this stillness.

What of the stone woman? Obviously it’s absurd that a stone woman could give birth to anything. Yet we can understand that the reference to ‘night’ is a reference to non-duality. So the suggestion is that everything is alive and everything is giving birth. We’re giving birth to our children all the time. The children are known by various names: Beauty, Pain, Confusion, Clarity, Love, Rage. 

Which of them will outlast us?


408. Dogen’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall discourse number 310:  

Our Buddha Shakyamuni said to his disciples there are four foundations of mindfulness on which people should depend.These four foundations of mindfulness refer to contemplating the body as impure; contemplating sensation as  suffering; contemplating mind as impermanent; and contemplating phenomena as non-substantial.

I also have four foundations of mindfulness: contemplating the body as a skin bag; contemplating sensation as eating bowls; contemplating mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles; and contemplating phenomena as old man Zhang drinking wine, old man Li getting drunk.

Great assembly, are my four foundations of mindfulness the same or different from the ancient Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulness? If you say they are the same your eyebrows will fall out [from lying];  if you say they are different you lose your body and life.

Are they the same or are they different?  If different, what are the differences? 

For starters, there’s a difference in tone.

In the Buddha’s formulation, the four foundations appear to be quite doctrinal. In Dogen’s formulation they  appear colloquial,  everyday and realistic. The Buddha’s formulation mentions the body as  impure. It also mentions suffering. Dogen mentions neither.

It seems to me that in the Buddha’s formulation the ghost of the self is still hovering, whereas in Dogen’s the nonduality of all beings is much more apparent. 

The Buddha’s formulation  in emotional tone is renunciatory. Dogen’s  tone is quite different. It evokes Wonder,  Joy, Acceptance and  Surprise. It’s very human.

Rather than saying  that everything is impermanent and impermanence is the cause of suffering. Dogen’s  formulation really starts from  thenassumption of nonduality, the aliveness and wholeness of everything. So impermanence isn’t the indicator of suffering,  it is a characteristic of  interdependent  wholeness.

Contemplating the body as a skin bag  is different from contemplating the body as impure. It’s much more realistic. We are this skin bag of blood and shit and bone and pain and beauty and memory and longing and love.  A bag that can tear at any moment, and in that moment we are gone. 


399. The Withered Winter Grasses

Dogen’s poem “Prostrations” can be translated in various ways. One is as follows: 

The withered grasses
beneath a field of snow
A white heron conceals itself 
using its own form.


For Dogen, prostrations are the same as zazen. 

There are two versions of the poem. The difference is that one reads ‘ the withered/bowed grasses’, and the other reads ‘the winter grasses’. I prefer the first, because, given the snow, it is plainly winter, so the word ‘winter’ is superfluous.

The first two lines of the poem suggest to us that, just like the grass in winter, as it were, bows over, when we bow, something happens. The ‘snow’ happens.

The winter snow falls on the grass without the grass intending it, without the grass making it come about. Nonetheless, the snow falls and covers all the little grasses.  As it were, the snow makes the grasses a field of being, intimate with each other, intimate with the snow. 

Likewise, as practitioners, when we engage in this practice of prostrations, we’re not doing so alone. We are not an isolated blade of grass, but rather we are going forward with all beings. It is not a weight but a solidarity that causes us to drop to the ground.

The snow functions as an emblem of non-duality, wholeness, and intimacy.

The second part of the poem ( which tends to get more attention) centres on the white Heron, which is often used in Chinese poetry to indicate something noble, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful.

The two images of the snow and the Heron combine two separate images from The Jewel Mirror Samadhi, which was attributed to Dongshan although almost certainly not written by him. 

So in the second part of the poem we’ve got this image of what appears to be a still white field of snow ( non differentiation, peaceful equanimity, zazen) but within an apparent stillness, this very active Heron is concealing  itself. 

What that conveys for us is within our zazen, within our practice of non-duality, there is something vital and wondrous which is not our personal property, although we are intimate with it. It’s nothing to do with our ego. Yet is about to burst out of our heart, actualising space


395. The Moon In Water

Chapter 43 of the Shobogenzo is The Moon. Dogen wrote this in 1243,  in an outstanding period of creative  brilliance.

At the start of the chapter, there’s a quote which, (in the Tanahashi version) reads, “Buddha’s true Dharma body, as it is, is Open Sky. In response to things, forms appear—thus is the moon in water”. 

The passage comes from the Nirvana Sutra.

The version I’m more familiar with is “the Buddha’s True Dharma body is just like space. Manifesting form according to circumstances, it is like the moon in water.”

The Tanahashi version has rendered ‘space’ as ‘Open Sky’. That’s helpful because it enables us to unpick the first line to make it clearer that the Buddha’s True Dharma Body is reality—the whole of creation, not vacuity.

What does it mean to say that it’s like ‘space’?

‘Space’ is probably the most common metaphor in Buddhism. And it’s not just a metaphor, but a description of our real experience, and a bridge between the theoretical and the realisational.

What does it mean?

Because it’s the absence of discrete, concrete things, it suggests the absence of obstruction, of being hemmed in. It thus implies freedom, movement, expression and so forth.

It’s also very tied in, sometimes even synonymous, with ideas of emptiness. i.e. interdependence, transience, the relational nature of things and so on. Both ‘space’ and ‘emptiness’are linguistically closely related to ‘sky’, hence the Tanahashi translation.

The word which means sky in Japanese,‘Ku’,  also means emptiness. All these words have close associations with ‘light’, and hence illumination, brightness, the eradication of ignorance, and so on.

But to understand this is difficult for us because we have an inherited Newtonian idea of space and time—both being a kind of fixed grid, within which things happen.

That’s not the sense in which space is used in this passage. Space isn’t like an empty container, rather it’s a supremely active container; like an ocean, or a body. Both active and undifferentiated: it extends everywhere, and is everywhere the same.

And, in a subtle way, space then  becomes a way both  of talking about emptiness, and making it something within our actual experience, rather than theoretical. 

Because space extends everywhere,  there’s nowhere that space is not. 

Because space extends everywhere, it doesn’t disappear when an object appears in its ‘space’, as otherwise space would be continually disappearing and reappearing, which is nonsensical, and it can’t be displaced somewhere else, because there’s nowhere that space doesn’t reach. It’s not like me sitting in a full bath and displacing water onto the floor. Water can do this as it’s limited in space. But space isn’t. So the object is both itself, with its particular qualities, and also ‘space’: universal, connected, relational, interdependent. Form and emptiness, the particular and the universal, are thus mutually non obstructive, and we don’t make the error of falling into nihilism.

These closely linked words are a way of taking ‘emptiness’, which can often be thought of in quite conceptual terms and making it visceral and literal—particularly within the meditation space.

Although this might appear to be an abstract philosophical statement, it isn’t. It’s an expedient means to change our feeling and experiential state, particularly in zazen.

If you pay careful attention, you’ll realise that you are almost always carrying a proto image of yourself. That is, alongside your somatic e perience ( and often obscuring it), you’ll have a sense of what you look like, as if from an external perspective. It’s a very subtle form of dualism. We carry this sense around with us like a ghost of the self. If you allow yourself to experience your body as “exactly like space”, this ghost disappears, or is at least distanced. This is transformative, because the body of that ghost is self centred thinking. When the ghost leaves, that leaves too, along with its self referential babble.

The next line “manifesting form according to circumstance” seems to suggest interdependence and impermanence.

What we regard as ‘things’ arise subject to causes and conditions, and in due course they go, subject to causes and conditions. There’s no essence (or to use traditional language, ‘soul’ or ‘self’) within a thing which continues within the carapace of changing form.

Turning to the last line, Tanahashi’s translation may not be actually merited from the original text but it ties in very well with what Dogen goes on to see in the text, where he renders ‘like’ (nyoze) as ‘thusness’:

“Thusness is the moon in water”. The inconceivable actuality of reality is like the moon in water.

Yet when we hear the term ‘moon in water’ we might think of something which is an illusion. We might think of an ignorant person seeing a reflection of the moon in the water and thinking “oh that’s the moon” and diving in to try to grab the moon.

Sensible people know that the Moon is up in the sky. But they’re wrong. The ignorant person can’t grab the moon because we can’t grab anything, because everything is like space. The moon and the water and everything else are only there in a relational way.

I see the moon up in the sky because it’s reflected in the water of my eye; it’s reflected in the water of my mind. Without that relationalness, existence has no meaning. In a world emptied of everything else, the moon is neither in the sky or not.

The final line is thus reiterating the interconnectedness and the non-obstruction of everything. The image of the moon (the universal) in water does not obstruct or obscure the waves (the particular), and the waves do not shatter the moon.

We should understand that Buddhism isn’t a philosophy. It is the collective description, by multitudes of sincere practitioners, of their experience as they can best describe it, or for which they use skilful means to make possible that you might have the same.


393. “when practising with the entire body”

We chant the Heart Sutra after Zazen because the Heart Sutra is an expression and description of Zazen.

In the version we chant, the first sentence is usually translated “the Bodhisattva of compassion, practising the Perfection of Wisdom, clearly sees that the five skandhas are empty and thereby relieves all suffering”.

Chapter 2 of Shobogenzo is Dogen’s commentary on the Heart Sutra. The first sentence is his adaptation of that sentence, as follows: “Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, while experiencing deeply the manifestation of prajna, clearly saw with the entire body that all five skandhas are empty” (Tanahashi translation).

In this adaptation Dogen is adding something and taking something away. What he’s adding is a reference to ‘the entire body’. What he’s taking away is the passage about relieving suffering.

The reference to ‘the entire body’ is to get us out of the idea that Zazen is a personal practice. The bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, is identical to the entire/ whole body’, that is, with everything, with all beings.

His removal of ‘and thereby relieves all suffering’ is intended to get us out of a process view, of Buddhism generally and Zazen in particular. Namely, the idea that we do something (Zazen) and in that doing of something we realise something (emptiness) and that realisation causes something—the relieving of suffering.

The sentence now isn’t a sequence, it’s  a description. 

We can tell that because we can move the parts around and still maintain the same meaning. For example, we could say “the Bodhisattva of emptiness, experiencing deeply the manifestation of compassion, clearly saw with the entire body that all five skandhas are prajna”.

And Dogen does go on to do exactly this, identifying the five skandhas as being five pieces of Prajna.

Although the point might appear to be obscure, that assertion of Zazen as being a universal practice is very important.  It’s not us practising, it is all of creation practising with this body within the entire body of all beings. 

That’s not a sequential process.

It’s not “I was a deluded human being, then I  made an effort and now I’m enlightened”. It’s immediate —it’s not developmental. It’s not progressive.

We see the whole of creation as compassion or as emptiness or as wisdom.

And that seeing pivots us. These apparently distinct terms —-compassion, Prajna, Emptiness, the entire body,  are all synonyms for that which we can live but not name, expressed differently and seen and felt differently.


392. Firewood becomes Ash

The first writing of Dogen that most of us are likely to come across is the Genjokoan chapter of the Shobogenzo.

I came across it over 30 years ago. I found it very rich, evocative and poetic.

There’s a reason for that. Dogen wrote it for a lay follower, so it’s different in style from his other writings, where his monks were his audience.

In the chapter, there’s a particular passage which has always affected me very much. It goes as follows: (this is the Tanahashi translation)

 “Firewood becomes ash, and does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. Understand that firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after, while it is independent of before and after.  Ash abides in its condition as ash, which fully includes before and after.  Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death”

The Nishijima translation is fairly similar: 

”Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless,  we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past. Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. 

Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off. Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma; it has a past and has a future. The firewood, after becoming ash does not again become firewood. Similarly,human beings after death do not live again”

In trying to understand this passage, which I don’t think I have been very successful in doing, what seems most problematic is the third sentence. 

The first sentence and the second sentence seem to be reasonably comprehensible. Dogen appears to be saying that although, in our karmic consciousness, firewood becomes ash, that’s  not actually true, because there’s no underlying essence. At one point in time there is firewood and then at another point in time there is ash.

So those first two sentences, I think, are understandable. 

The third sentence is harder. In the Tanahashi translation, that sentence reads; 

“Understand that firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after”. 

That word ‘abides’ also occurs in the Nishijima translation.

For an English speaker, I think that that word ‘abides’ is unfortunate because, for me at least, it seems to suggest ‘endurance, continuity over time. 

Somehow the firewood has become ash. Yet in some mystical sense it still exists; it’s still abiding somewhere.  One of the reasons why we can make this (poetic yet false) interpretation, apart from the preceding sentences, is that it’s implicit in the word ‘abides’.

In some other transitions the same word is rendered as ‘remains’ which has an even stronger assumption of continuity.

The word in Japanese which is being translated as ‘abides’ means something like ‘dwell’ or ‘lives within’.

We can see how the translators produce the English word ‘abide’. But a better translation might be to talk about the ‘true home’.  The ‘true home’ of firewood—what firewood actually is, is the expression of firewood.

The true essence of ash is the expression of ash. There’s not an underlying something which just happens to have a whole lot of qualities on top of it which change over time, so at one point it’s firewood, and later on it’s ash, yet the ‘something’ endures.

The manifestation, the expression of firewood, is firewood: there’s no continuity.

The reason why there’s not is because this miracle of creation is not in the form that we imagine it to be. In other words, it’s not a vast assembly of discrete yet related objects which arise, persist, change and disappear through time. Rather, it’s the total dynamic functioning and expression of this unseeable unsayable oneness from moment to moment. It’s like a body, not a warehouse.

In that sense it doesn’t make sense to talk about past and future because talking about past and future assumes an underlying continuity which in reality isn’t actually there, and a separation which isn’t there either. 

But it’s very deeply ingrained in us, and necessary for us to function in society. I say “60 years ago I was a small child. In 10 years time I’ll be an old person”. Our language enables us to think that there’s an underlying Essence, even though there isn’t.

If we make that analysis, the other part of the sentence starts to make sense.  

What about (in Tanahashi’s version) “firewood.. fully includes before and after; while it is independent of before and after”?

What I take from that is that from the perspective of the self there is a ‘me’;  there is an ongoing me that is continuing and changing through time in a world of things which likewise are enduring and changing and perishing through time.

But if we don’t take the universe from this perspective of the Self, we can see that at every point the firewood, as it is, the ash as it is, is connected to everything. When the firewood is firewood, it is in a whole, alive, relational world. In a sense, each thing is the whole world.

We can see the world as uncountable beings, or as uncountable moments. If beings, it is as if we are seeing a billion threads, running parallel to each other. Where is the connection? In Uji, Dogen said Being is Time. And so, you can see yourself as this being, or as this moment. If this moment, then there is nowhere and no being which is not included in this moment. The countless moments and the countless beings are, as it were, threads running at right angles to each other. The loom of full dynamic functioning creates this miraculous fabric.

If that’s too obscure, consider your own life. After all Dogen isn’t really talking about firewood. He’s talking about you.  

The carbon dioxide which left my lungs a moment ago hasn’t disappeared. It’s just disappeared from my perspective. The fleeting glance I gave someone, which I can’t remember, set off a ripple in that person, became part of that person’s changing dynamic expression, which also ripples out to others. Everything is like this. It is this miraculous fabric, infinitely dimensioned, shaken from all directions. Each moment of our life has an expression and significance which is invisible to us. And all these moments of our life are, as it were, having their own life, their own story, within the greater reality of all beings.


391. Dogen’s view of delusion and enlightenment

In the Genjokoan, Dogen defines delusion and enlightenment.  

His definition of delusion is surprisingly straightforward. He says that to carry the self forward and to encounter the myriad beings is delusion. That’s it!

He doesn’t say delusion is thinking that Lourdes is the capital of France or that that mirage over there is really palm trees and water. It’s not some kind of misapprehension of the world. It’s a configuring and restricting of experience around the self. That’s it! 

In delusion, we go from being within experience to, as it were, our experience being our experience, being mine, taking place within me. In other words, we’re not within the world, the world is within us.  You can phrase it in various ways but I think that’s fairly easy to understand. Living it is another matter, obviously.

The position of Enlightenment is the reverse of that. He says that for the myriad things to come forward and illuminate the self is Enlightenment. At least, that’s the Tanahashi translation.

It seems those two definitions contradict each other but they don’t. The word which is translated as ‘self’, jiko, has two meanings. The first meaning, which applies when he is talking about delusion, means ‘self’ in the way we normally mean it: the ego. But, confusingly, when he turns to enlightenment, the second meaning applies. In this, ‘jiko’ means ‘universal self’. He doesn’t mean that there’s a big spiritual bicycle pump in me that puffs out the small self to fill the universe. He means the whole universe: the whole of manifestation, creation, expression.

That’s why the translation of the second part varies with different writers. It’s not that somehow all the things of the world come within the Treasure House of the Self, like some transcendent version of the Scottish Exhibition Centre. It’s that each thing in its own nature, ungrasped by the self, illuminates everything.

The appropriation of experience to a self stills the voices of all beings. Letting go of this lets all beings sing.


354. Polishing a tile

In the Eihei Koroku there is a dharma hall discourse ‘Polishing a Mirror’ 

The discourse goes as follows: 

  • Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue;
  • Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom;
  • Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh.

How are my hands and a Buddha’s hands similar?

Practicing Zazen to make a Buddha is taking our weeds and sitting at the side of awakening.

Why is it like this?”

(After a pause) Dogen said, “When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.”

There’s a number of things going on in this discourse. 

The reference is to the famous koan story between Nangaku and Baso. In that story, Baso is sitting in Zazen and Nangaku goes to him and says,”What are you aiming for sitting in Zazen?”

Basu says something like, “I’m aiming to make a Buddha.”

Nangaku then picks up a tile and starts rubbing it against a stone.

Baso says, “What are you doing?”

Then Nangaku says, “I’m polishing a tile to make a mirror.”

Baso says, ”How can you make a mirror out of a tile by polishing” or words to that effect.

Nangaku says, “ Likewise how can sitting make you a Buddha?”

In Dogen’s interpretation of that story (which isn’t the mainstream interpretation) it’s the act of polishing which makes a Buddha a Buddha. So, the act of polishing—Zazen—makes the mirror. It doesn’t make the tile into a mirror, but it makes a mirror. It doesn’t make you into Buddha, but somehow, within your Zazen, both you and the Buddha are sitting.

The reference to the mirror is one that would be very familiar to Chinese and Japanese people of the time. It’s referring to alaya (storehouse) consciousness in Yogacara theory. According to Yogacara, there’s a point where the storehouse consciousness abruptly changes from simply bringing into our life our karmic seeds to being mirror consciousness; where we see everything dispassionately and clearly, all of one piece, as a mirror is all of one piece; even though the images in it appear to be separate.

Dogen is playing between this idea of ourselves as like the tile of the individual karmic practitioner, and this more universal quality of mirror consciousness, which, from the Lankavatara Sutra onwards, was identified quite closely with Buddha nature within Chinese Buddhism.

There’s various ways of putting this, and Dogen does. Another analogy might be, if the given one is not clear, that the activity of Zazen—polishing—is the creation of the mirror. You might imagine yourself, the individual practitioner, as being a thousand miles away from the Buddha. But Zazen is like the ground under your feet; the same ground as under Buddha’s feet; the same ground lifting up all beings. So even though this grimy, partial, karmic self isn’t transformed into something else, everything is manifested in Zazen.

To invent another analogy: as if we’re looking at a stage and there’s a narrow spotlight. That spotlight is on you, but you in your karmic ways, your incomplete thoughts, your repetitive thoughts, all the partiality and pain which makes up you as a karmic person. And what you want is for that partial person, that passion and pain, to be transformed into something else. 

That’s the mistake. 

Because what we require to attend to is not the karmic person but the quality of light. If the light, rather than simply being focused obsessively on you, is gradually broadened—then the light illuminates all beings.

Then everything changes. 


345. Everything is your Ally

People who know nothing about Buddhism imagine that practice precedes awakening. The person puts in, as it were, the hard yards of practice, then gets the reward. They heroically scale the mountain of enlightenment, acquire a higher consciousness, and similar narcissistic drivel.

In Buddhism one of the fundamental ideas is Bodhicitta; awakening the aspiration for enlightenment.

A related idea, certainly in the Chinese tradition, is that of original enlightenment. The belief all beings, originally and fundamentally, have Buddha Nature but that somehow, this has been covered over, obscured. And to uncover it is not the accumulative work of lifetimes, but momentary. You just don’t know which moment.

We come across the word ‘faith’ in the Classical Chinese texts a lot, such as the Third Patriarch’s Verses of Faith Mind or the Awaking of Faith In The Mahayana. The ‘faith’ that’s talked about is faith in that underlying quality of Buddha Nature.

More prosaically, people don’t just start practice on a whimsical basis; saying, “oh well, maybe this is true, maybe not. I’ll just try it and see how it goes”.

No! People have an insight, however partial, incomplete, transient or outside their conscious awareness, that they’re not in control of their own lives in the way that they’ve thought they were. That their lives are like a dream, like an accident in fog, like a cascade. 

That awakening to the interdependence of life, the impermanence of life, takes them into practice. That awakening is true, because that’s actually how things are. And once they’re in that stream of practice, they – we – stay there. They can’t unlearn their realisation.

In a sense, that first glimpse of awakening is identical to complete and perfect awakening, even if temporally and conceptually they may be very far apart. The Flower Garland Sutra says so, unequivocally. 

It’s for that reason that in chapter 37 of the Shobogenzo, Body and Mind Study of the Way (at least in the Nishijima translation), Dōgen starts with a very surprising sentence. He says the Buddha’s truth is such that if we intend not to practice the truth we cannot attain it. If we intend not to open our heart to the truth, it becomes more and more distant.

It’s a complete reversal of what we imagine. We might well think, “I have to fervently and constantly intend to seek the Buddha’s truth”. But Dōgen is saying No! No! Because the Buddha’s truth is reality, we have to set ourselves against it.

To fail to grasp it you have to intend not to. You must, to put it poetically, make yourself into a demon, or a hungry ghost, or an animal. You have to set yourself against that reality of interdependence and impermanence. And keep doing so. It’s an outrageously joyful and life affirming position, quite different from brave little me escaping the dark world.

In your practice, although you imagine you experience endless noise, you also experience great spaciousness. Whether you’re aware of that doesn’t matter. In your life you will experience many, many, many states. Each is a door. You should understand that without you forming and maintaining a clear intention not to pursue the Buddha’s truth then 

everything is your ally


331. Becoming singing

Master Dogen wrote chapter 40 of the Shobogenzo Dotoku (expression) towards the end of 1242; right in the middle of his most productive and expressive period of writing. The chapter begins:

All Buddhas and Ancestors are expressions. Thus, when Buddha ancestors intend to select Buddha ancestors, they always ask, “Do you have your expression?” This question is asked with the mind and with the body. It is asked with a walking stick or a whisk. It is asked with a pillar or a lantern. Those who are not Buddha ancestors do not ask this and do not answer this, since they are not in the position to do so. Such an expression is not obtained by following others or by the power of oneself. Where there is a thorough inquiry of a good ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.

Master Dogen – Shobogenzo Dotoku

The word ‘dotoku’ has two parts to it. The first part ‘do’ means ‘way’, or ‘to say’, and the second part ‘toku’ means ‘to attain’ or ‘to be able to’. 

Dogen makes ample use of the richness of these two kanji to recast buddhist practice. He does this by changing our idea of what practice is. So, rather than an idea that we are, as it were, struggling through this storm, in order to get to the other shore of imagined tranquility, rather we are to see ourselves and all being as ‘expression’.

When we hear the word ‘expression’ we normally think of either making a statement whereby something is asserted or, through a special talent for writing, painting, music or whatever, this person is able to produce something unique to this person. So we think of expression as being an attribute of the self. 

Dogen’s meaning is entirely different. From his perspective, whether we can see through the fog of the self or not, everything is illuminated. From his perspective, whether we can hear through the static of the self or not, everything is singing.

If we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this fog;  if we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this static, then even what we understand to be obstruction, even what we understand to be delusion, is in itself expression. Released from the grip of the self: the calculus of gain and loss;  the static, the fog becomes singing