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.


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.


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.


394. Zazen as ‘Enactment Ritual’

The contemporary Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton described Zazen as “enactment ritual”.

It’s a very  evocative phrase with many strands.

One is that when we sit Zazen with other people, even if there’s not many of us, a few of us, or five, or ten, even though we’re just sitting in a small, nondescript room, 

through our sincere practice together, we are enacting a different world and a world re-envisioned.

Through compassion, a world where everything matters, everything has meaning and everything is part of a living whole. Where this ceaseless egoic activity which dims everyday life is put to one side.

Although ( in Master Sekito’s words) this room is small, it includes the entire world.  The walls are fluid because we’re not restricted to what is physically here. 

Everything is included.

In time, within our lived experience, the whole world is intimate with us, because when we re-emerge from our practice, the room comes with us.

Another strand:

When we’re practising together, the place of practice is the place of our actual experience. The room itself, the other practitioners themselves, and everything in the room occur within our practice. Not within our self, within our practice.

I’m sitting in this particular part of the room with all my ego, my karma, my psychological noise and so on,  but the space of awareness is the whole room, and in that space of awareness and compassion everything else is also there—other beings, space, connection, relationship.

This room is both the metaphor and actuality of a practice which, although the self is there, it’s just something else going on. The self occurs within the practice and within the ‘room’ of awareness, not the other way around.


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.


396. A Stick of Incense

The Dojo is full of symbols;  explicit ones like the Buddha or the flowers on the altar and implicit ones: sitting facing the wall in a replication of Bodhidharma, the path we take around the room, and so on.

If we understand symbols as simply being a concrete code for an explicit meaning, the symbol is a dead symbol and is useless. If we take the flowers on the altar as a symbol of impermanence, or we take the Buddha statue as a symbol of wisdom and compassion, that can’t do anything.

The purpose of a symbol is not to convey meaning in a concrete form, but to create a shift in feeling.

And that shift can only happen if the symbol is open.

It’s as if it is an incomplete house which you can enter and change, extend and reconfigure. The symbol is something which is both already, intensely there and which you can actively engage with.

If the house is complete and the symbol is simply a closed meaning then the house is inaccessible. Not to your mind obviously, which is delighted with the free house, but to your heart. If you’re inside the house, the house is a prison.

Our responsibility as practitioners is to engage with both the symbols in the dojo and the symbols in our everyday life in an open way, where each changes the other. 

For example, the stick of incense that we light at the start of the sitting period;  it lasts for approximately the length of a sitting. You might think that it represents passing time, and so is similar to the altar flowers, which represent impermanence.

I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. 

When the incense is burning in the bowl of ash, both in its fragrance and in its smoke, it is penetrating the whole room. What it’s expressing is vital and essential and is connected with everything—the whole universe is flooding through. And what appears to remain afterwards is the stump of that incense which is embedded in the ash. But that isn’t so: that ash comes from all the incense burned before. What holds the present moment is the complete expression of all past moments.

When we’re sitting, the obvious temptation is for us to focus on those little stumps that are left in the mind bowl. But there is an opposite, heroic trap:  because the incense has expressed itself to exhaustion, we might think this wholehearted activity is an admonition to us to do likewise. But the ego can’t burn itself, because you can’t burn a ghost.

Those stumps of ego: thoughts, frozen emotions, recurrent imagery or memory and so on that we often experience as restrictions to our sitting: it’s that sense of restriction which is the delusion: those stumps are buried within the ground of all being. We should not wish them into nothingness.


397. The flesh of the world

Of all the ideas in East Asian Buddhism, the hardest for us to take seriously is that the whole of reality is the Buddha’s true Dharma body. Or, in Dogen’s reading, all of reality is the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

But to take an idea seriously is not to take it literally.

What we’re dealing with here isn’t a concept, it’s a way of reconfiguring ourselves with the rest of creation, seen and felt as an alive whole. It’s hard for us, as it’s a right brain perspective in a left brain world.

This idea of all of reality being like a living body, whilst located within Chinese and Japanese culture, keeps recurring unexpectedly. For example, the modern French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty talked about “the flesh of the world”, by which he meant the entanglement we have with all creation.

Which is a very helpful way of looking at things, because it helps us locate the place of suffering.

When we look at Buddhist ideas from the perspective of our individualistic culture, we want to locate suffering as something internal to the person, some unresolved psychological issues, an imbalance which can be rebalanced.

So the contrasting idea derivable from Merleau-Ponty of the “Flesh of the world” being cut by the mirror of the self and that being the location of suffering, is very helpful as an antidote to that unconscious individualism.

And it’s particularly helpful as you can take from it that all the peculiar language of Mahayana Buddhism is an attempt to stitch together and to heal that fundamental wound.

Hence we get odd language; stillness which isn’t still; silence, which isn’t the absence of noise, and space, which isn’t the absence of things.  Again not conceptual language, not something to construct a world, but rather something to revitalize and reimagine ourselves within a world—within a world which is alive and whole and active and differentiated. As a body is.

The language that we use is an expedient means to stitch this wound together.

Whether the wound is stitched together or not, there always remains a scar.

The voices which  speak from the position of the scar are our Ancestors.

397. The flesh of the world

398. The two meanings of ‘Body’

The relationship between mind and body in our society is like the relationship between nobles and peasants just prior to a revolution.

Nobles are oblivious or ignorant or filled with fear even if the peasants do what they’re supposed to do, which they rarely do, and with surly resentment. There’s something about them. The nobles can feel something is in the air, but they dismiss it. They might, Antoinette like, play at being peasants with their dear friends the psychotherapists.

The body exists in two senses: one is as an object of the Mind. That’s our usual sense and when psychotherapists and similarly minded people say they’re interested in the body that’s really what they mean. 

The other, largely hidden sense is that the body is the heart of the world.

In practice we are required to endure the noise of the Mind: sinking through this first sense like a bird slowly diving through an oil slick, finally dropping into the clear water of the second sense.

When we drop into that second sense, we understand there is nothing that is missing.


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


400. The Dharmadhatsu

Nagajuna famously said trying to understand emptiness was like trying to pick up a poisonous snake. Without skill, you would be caught by the venom. And the most usual venom is nihilism. Poisonous Nothing.

It’s something which Buddhists have been accused of almost from the start: if everything is empty then nothing has any meaning. So we can do whatever we like. More broadly, emptiness, and hence buddhism, is attacked as a joyless pessimism—it’s vacuity, nothingness.

Buddhists have grappled mightily against this charge. One of the most profound refutations was by the Chinese Huayan School, those practitioners who focused on The Flower Garland Sutra and who primarily flourished in 7th Century T’ang dynasty China.

Their starting point is looking at the statement “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” in a different way. To just focus on the first part is unbalanced, we need to focus on both. If we do,  then everything: me, the wall, you, the trees, the birds; everything is, as it were, both form and emptiness.

Because emptiness is indivisible, like space or like the ocean, there isn’t a million billion bits of emptiness to correspond with the million billion forms, there’s just one emptiness. So every ‘thing’ – including you and me – is both particular and universal.

From that basic realisation they manifest a new world of interrelatedness and interdependence. Because emptiness reaches everywhere and is a fundamental aspect of form, of me and you, then, as it were, we penetrate everywhere, and so does everything else. And thus, everything, everywhere, interpenetrates me. This is the vision expressed in Indra’s Net.

In elucidating all of these ideas [and moving further away from erroneous conceptions of emptiness] they make use of the Chinese terms Li and Shi.

Li wasn’t originally a Buddhist term. It originally meant something like ‘underlying principle’. For example, that which causes the heavenly bodies to move predictably in the sky.

Shi is phenomena. Li and Shi completely interpenetrate, like form and emptiness, but without the nihilistic baggage that emptiness often seems to carry. 

The Huayan Masters adapt Li and Shi to fit within a re-envisioned buddhism, Li coming to mean something like emptiness and Shi something like form. The terms are usually translated into English as principle and phenomena, and they crop up all the time in the Chinese buddhist texts, for example, the Sandokai.

Their vision occurs in apparently nonsensical statements. Dogen, for example, talks about Mount Sumeru being contained within a mustard seed, which is a direct quote from The Flower Garland Sutra.  This interpenetration of everything is a radical restatement of dependent origination.

The particular innovation of the Hauyen school is to say not only that  form and emptiness don’t obstruct each other but  form and form don’t obstruct each other either.

The actualisation of this interpenetration and mutual non-obstruction they call the Dharmadhatu, The Buddha Realm. Zazen is often described as objectless meditation, but I don’t think that’s true. The Dharmadhatu, is the ‘object’ of meditation, while at the same time we, and everything else, are within it. That’s the real koan. And just as the Dharmadhatsu is like a body, so our body mind within Zazen is like the Dharmadhatu 

Excluding Nothing