313. The Snake of Emptiness

The first Zen book I ever bought was D T Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No Mind. (I bought it for the title.) It’s an unfortunate title because there isn’t actually a Zen doctrine of no mind. The position which Zen, and buddhism in general takes, is that the mind or the self, as all things, is neither existent or non-existent, but empty. 

Nagarjuna described trying to understand emptiness as, ‘like trying to pick up a poisonous snake’ and it’s interesting to speculate why he chose that particular analogy rather than something else; for instance, trying to pick up a partially burning piece of wood.

He possibly chose the snake analogy because his name, or the first part of it, ‘Naga’ refers to the mythical snake beings who were the custodians of the prajnaparamita sutras that the King of the Nagas allegedly gave to Nagarjuna. The prajnaparamita sutras focus on emptiness, compassion and expedient means. Nagarjuna picked up the sutras, not the King.

So how do you pick up a snake? Well obviously you don’t pick it up from the head. But neither do you pick it up from the tail, as it can still bite you. You’re supposed to pick it up from its centre,  without hesitation. 

You grasp the snake without reaching for it through the blur of the self and you grasp it in its centre.

And why would you pick up a poisonous snake? You don’t pick it up and then carry it about with you for the rest of your life. You pick it up in order to place it where it belongs, so you can forget about it and just live your life. 

Likewise, with practice, we cannot grasp it with the head. We cannot grasp practice with the imagined opposite of the head – the objective world. We can only grasp practice through our center; our heart. Grasp and then ungrasp. 


297. Beginningless and Endless

Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment. 

One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.

It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?” 

Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.

Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.

In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?

Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two. 

If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.

Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.

If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?

Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body  is lying there -passive and dough like –  as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.

But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.


196. Everything matters

When we chant form is emptiness, we don’t mean that things are illusory. We mean that everything is both particular and universal, like the waves and the ocean. So everything matters.

When we touch one person, we are touching that person, not someone else. But, at the same time, we are touching all beings. Likewise, when we are touched by one person, we are touched by all beings. EveryThing matters.

So, when the birds of our thinking arise, whether their plumage is radiant or dowdy or as black as pitch, we should not cage them in our love or hate but

give them the sky


149.When one side is illuminated

When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.

There is a common idea that delusion is multifaceted, and nonduality is one. What if we are precisely mistaken?

Dogen said that being and time are one. He didn’t say that when you see being, you see time too. That is the habitual perspective, imagining that our life takes place in time: the smear between here and elsewhere, here and nowhere.

He meant that when you see being, you just see being. Time disappears. One side is illuminated, the other is dark. When you see time, ‘being’ is just the noise in the huge mirror of this moment.

And likewise with, for example, self and world, expression and exertion, all tangled together to fit within a person.

When one side is illuminated, the others are dark.


72. Switching

A striking paradox in Mahāyāna is that whilst it is avowedly non-dualistic, it seems full of dualisms.

Saying that Saṃsāra is Nirvana appears to oblige one to explain why they seem different. So for Nāgārjuna there is the absolute and the relative, for Baso there is the phenomenal world and the truth underlying it, and for almost everyone there is the contrast of delusion and enlightenment.

Dogen is different. For him, reality can be approached by switching between perspectives, specifically between the perspective of one dharma dynamically functioning and the whole network of dependent origination functioning.

So Genjo ( manifestation) is the first, Todatsu ( liberation) is the second.

But they can switch.

Being is the first, Time is the second.

But they can switch.

The perspectives swap places.

The particular and the universal swop places.

Jumping in and out of each other.


69. I Shin Den Shin

The transmission of the teaching is like a widening cascade of light. The brightness is indivisible.

The transmission from one real person to another is called ‘I shin den shin‘. ‘Shin’ means heart/ mind, so it can translate as ‘from my heart to your heart’

We might assume there are two hearts, but my heart is this heart; your heart is this heart. This heart is the heart of this-ness–Indivisible.

Because this is so, transmission is intimate, non-dual, feeling. Each thing is the heart of all things. Each time is this time.



65. The Jewel of Experience

1. Master Dogen said that we should not regard our body and mind as our personal possession. There isn’t an ‘I’ to possess. Self, mind and consciousness arise itching experience, not the other way round.

If this is so, we do not need to fret about purifying the mind. This erroneous aim inadvertently strengthens the mind/ world dualism, and all the suffering which flows from it

2. If everything occurs within the jewelled net of Indra ( dependent origination), how can it make any sense to talk of relative and absolute truth? Isn’t it better to describe delusion not as falseness – because nothing is false – but as clinging to or rejecting faces of the jewel? Hence, compassionate activity is liberating the myriad dharmas from my anger, greed and ignorance, and the dream of personal liberation is simply a pernicious and disguised example of delusion.

3. Each morning we wake to the dream of the self. But even so, we are born this day. We are born this day

4. Master Dogen said that we must arouse bodhi mind.

Our primary error as practitioners is to confuse this with our personal mind.

We then imagine that we must make our minds quieter, cleanse from it what we don’t want to be there.

Dogen said that bodhi mind is the mind that sees the impermanence of all things. All things. Not just rocks and trees, but all things, including your personal mind. And for him, as for Nagarjuna, impermanence is a synonym for dependent origination. The pulse of your mind and the pulse of the world is the same pulse.

If we can understand this, then we can understand how bodhi mind, the mind of practice, is the mind which is at one with all things.

If we can understand this, there is nowhere for dualism to cling


53. The Non-Dual Dharma

Zen teachers frequently talk about ‘the non dual dharma’, and we are all familiar with the standard dualities: mind/body, self/world, and so on.

Less attention is given to a very pervasive dualism: the container and the contained. So, our life occurs in time, the leaves fall from the tree in autumn, experience occurs in consciousness, and so forth.

For master Dogen, our lives do not exist in time, but in our lives, time exists. The container/contained duality is replaced by a sense of each thing being the full dynamic functioning of everything, The Whole Universe pivoting on each thing.


49. The Cause of Suffering

Common sense tells us that the cause of suffering is impermanence. We die, nothing lasts. We know this, ergo we suffer.

However, Dogen ascribed the opposite view–ascribed to Senika–that the body and mind/soul are separate, and the latter is permanent, as the root of suffering. The root of suffering.

To make sense of this claim, I think we have to assume that for Dogen, separation–dualism–was the cause of suffering, not impermanence. A belief that we have an eternal essence solidifies dualism. It follows that impermanence has the primary function of waking us up to dependent origination, the dynamic wholeness of everything, waking us up from the dream of suffering.


37. Total Exertion

Non-Buddhists conceive of the Universe as things within space. And in the space between things there is room for judgement, room for manipulation.

For Dogen, the realm of nonduality is the realm of intimacy. It is not that there is no differentiation, but there is no gap, no void.

And within that intimacy, each dharma totally occupies its own space. One dharma does not obstruct another, just as one moment does not obstruct another. The total exertion of one dharma–the exemplar of exertion being zazen–is the total exertion of all dharmas, because there is no separation.

The total exertion of one dharma makes real the whole Universe.