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Dogen's Reflecting Pond


Kate Jennings


Explaining the path to enlightenment is the mission of every Buddhist teacher since the time of the historical Buddha. From the San-lun school, to the teaching of Dogen, great thinkers attempt to relate their understanding of the Two-fold Truth and illuminate the most efficient path to enlightenment. Dogen, the eminent Soto Zen philosopher, takes the general understanding of the twofold truth-- the existence of a discursive, dual world of form and a world of non-dual emptiness-- and sheds new light on the relationship between form and emptiness. He proposes that emptiness is manifested through the acceptance of distinctions and the discursive world. For Dogen, distinctions illuminate the fundamental emptiness. When one understands that one lives in a discursive world, then one can feel the basic emptiness. Awakening to the realization that the ultimate underlies and encompasses everything--being and non-being, delusion and enlightenment--allows one to truly see the distinctions and to accept reality as it is. Once this understanding is reached, one experiences the compassion that flows from the pervasive emptiness. The following passage from Dogen's "Genjokoan" fascicle of his major work, the Shobogenzo, expresses this understanding in a succinct manner:

When all dharmas are the Buddha Dharma, there is illusion and enlightenment, practice, birth, death, buddhas, and sentient beings. When myriad dharmas are without self, there is no illusion or enlightenment, no buddhas or sentient beings, no generation or extinction. The Buddha Way is originally beyond fullness and lack and for this reason there is generation and extinction, illusion and enlightenment, sentient beings and buddhas. In spite of this, flowers fall always amid our grudging, and weeds flourish in our chagrin.1

The traditional Mahayana belief of the twofold truth, one that Dogen does not refute but uses as a stepping stone into his theory, states that there exists a world of form and a world of emptiness.2 The world of form is based on discursive, dualistic thinking that explains conventional truth and understanding. The world of emptiness contains the highest truth, the belief in interdependence and no fixed reality, based in non-dual awareness and thinking. Ultimately, the world of form is empty. Residing in non-dual awareness, one realizes that all form is constantly changing. Since all things have this impermanent characteristic, then everything possesses the same essence and is one.3 This understanding places a follower in the world of emptiness and highest reality. In this realization, "all dharmas are without self, there is no illusion or enlightenment, no buddhas or sentient being, no generation or extinction." 4 All form is the same and empty, with no fixed reality.

Often one becomes attached to form and cannot realize the ultimate reality of emptiness. One loathes to see a flower wilt because one is attached to the idea that the flower should be beautiful and eternal. One separates the flower from the ultimate reality of impermanence and interconnectedness. This separation and attachment to "what ought to be," causes suffering and blindness to the true reality. The reality is that the flower, like all else, grows and dies.

Dogen does not deny this fact, but he takes it one step further and attempts to frame distinctions not as hindrances, but as paths and indications of an underlying emptiness to everything. The realization of emptiness occurs when one who has felt this sense of oneness separates from that feeling and enters a world of dichotomies and attachments.5 Only by looking through these "attachment-colored" eyeglasses, one understands the emptiness that encompasses and extends beyond all distinctions. Distinctions must exist to make emptiness apparent. Emptiness and duality are contingent upon one another. They are the same things. A tree and a leaf are one; that is, they depend on and define one another. A leaf exists because a tree exists and vice versa. To the non-dual mind and to themselves, the tree and the leaf transcend distinction. As autumn approaches, the leaf begins to quiver, darken and eventually falls to the ground, separating from the tree. This detachment resembles entering the dual world where the tree and leaf exist as two separate entities, no longer defining one another. According to Dogen, precisely at this moment when the distinctions are realized, the tree and leaf understand the pervasive emptiness that encompasses them both. Only by falling into the realm of duality can they feel the sense of oneness they once manifested. The leaf does not fear the world of distinctions because it falls into the net of oneness that catches and sustains all things. The dichotomies of the tree, leaf and all entities, illuminate the underlying and consuming emptiness that engulfs all form.

Dogen believes that all illuminating distinctions depend on two facets, such as light and dark, being and non-being, and trees and leaves. The underlying emptiness that absorbs all dichotomies makes possible the realization of these distinctions. As Dogen writes, "The Buddha Way is originally beyond fullness and lack, and for this reason there is generation and extinction, illusion and enlightenment, sentient beings and buddhas."6 These distinctions must be understood and accepted in the light of the idea that they are all one. Only through truly seeing and embracing the dual nature of all, can one feel and experience the sense of a fundamental ultimate. As Shunryu Suzuki explains, "each existence depends on something else. Strictly speaking, there are no separate individual existences. There are just many names for one existence."7 The leaf "recognizes" its oneness with the tree through its attachment to the past non-duality and belief that this sense encompasses all. One may believe that diversity obstructs the recognition of emptiness, but Dogen teaches that ignoring the dual differences leads to one-sided understanding based on the attachment to a firm existence.8 Suzuki, clarifying this teaching, says, "oneness and variety are the same thing, so oneness should be appreciated in each existence. We should find the reality in each moment, and in each phenomenon."9 The acceptance of distinctions and of the underlying emptiness found in each moment and all things, constitutes the actualization of the ultimate reality. One can only realize non-attachment though attachment to worldly distinctions.10

Recognizing the pervasive emptiness through the attachments constitutes Dogen's idea of awakening. This underlying emptiness liberates the practitioner and allows one to see things as they are--to see the dual facets of all things in the discursive world. Awakening culminates in wanting "to know things as they are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to grasp."11 Knowing things as they are entails observing the different sides of an entity and realizing the facets are fundamentally rooted in emptiness. One awakens to different sides of the same reality. Like the moon reflecting in a pool of water, one must see the whole reflection and realize that another side exists, a side not reflecting. This recognition of a dark side of the moon, completely illuminates the object and one knows it fully. In the Buddha way, understanding the dual sides of all things awakens one to the complete reality of the entity and the deeper, ultimate reality of emptiness.

The awakening to the true reality of an object through realizing the underlying emptiness, liberates one from denying human reality. As Dogen says, even though one understands that the Buddha Way encompasses all distinctions, "flowers fall always amid our grudging, and weeds flourish in our chagrin."12 One still prefers flowers instead of weeds, which is human reality. Suppressing this urge will create further suffering and perpetuate the distinction between flowers and weeds. Suzuki writes, "that we are attached to some beauty is itself Buddha's activity. That we do not care for weeds is also Buddha's activity. If you know that, it is all right to attach to something. If it is Buddha's attachment, that is non-attachment."13 Buddha's attachment realizes that emptiness underlies all desires and all distinctions are ultimately the same. Love is hate and hate is love. One exists if and only if the other exists. One can dislike the weeds because the feelings are ultimately the same as love for the flower. Attempting to transcend distinctions between dislike and like, or create a superficial unity, promotes further suffering because one is caught in the idea of what one believes is unity and ignores the fundamental emptiness encompassing both passion and disgust.14 This awakening to the perpetuation of suffering liberates one from fighting against human reality and, through the recognition of distinctions, one understands the ultimate.

From acceptance of things as they are and basic emptiness, compassion arises.15 Compassion comes as a feeling with reality, flowing from the underlying emptiness. Accepting things as they are, with the form of distinctions, is a feeling that comes through the ultimate emptiness. One embraces hate and love because they are ultimately the same. One generates a sense of compassion for all weeds and flowers because these distinctions manifest emptiness. All beings command compassion because their dual natures illuminate the ultimate. One cannot emphasize a "oneness" because the Buddha Way is infinite and beyond even a sense of one. Compassion, like the Buddha doctrine of emptiness, encompasses every entity and transcends even a point of "oneness." Compassion and distinctions derive their definition and form from the pervasive, fundamental emptiness.

Dogen teaches that compassion, enlightenment and deeper understanding of the twofold truth stem from realizing the pervasive emptiness that encompasses all distinctions and dichotomies. The acceptance and awareness of the true, interdependent world of dualities illuminates the ultimate. One can realize the true nature of the discursive world because of the infinite emptiness that sustains and embraces all duality. Dogen's idea of emptiness acts as reflecting pond that envelopes and creates the reflection. Without the pond, there would be no reflection. Without duality, the ultimate remains hidden.



1. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, tr. "Shobogenzo Genjokoan," by Dogen Kigen. The Eastern Buddhist Society 5:2 (10/1972), 133.

2. Mark Unno, Lecture, Religion 255 East Asian Buddhist Thought and Practice, Carleton College, 1/6/97.

3. Mark Unno, Lecture, 1/6/97.

4. "Shobogenzo Genjokoan," 133.

5. Mark Unno, Personal Consultation, Carleton College, 2/4/97.

6. Ibid., 133.

7. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 119.

8. Ibid., 119.

9. Ibid., 119.

10. Mark Unno, Lecture, Religion 255 East Asian Buddhist Thought and Practice, CarletonCollege, 1/27/97.

11. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, 120.

12. "Shobogenzo Genjokoan," 133.

13. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, 119.

14. Ibid., 119.

15. Mark Unno, Personal Consultation, 2/4/97.