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.