*300 Koan Shobogenzo is a collection of koans gathered by Master Dogen during his study in China. The koans from this collection, often called the Chinese Shobogenzo, appear extensively in the essays of Dogen’s Japanese Shobogenzo. These koans have not been available in English translation but are currently being translated and prepared for publication by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Abbot John Daido Loori. Abbot Loori has added a commentary, capping verse, and footnotes to each koan.
What does it mean to really see the mystic Earth? We have a tendency to see just what’s on the surface, and not really perceive the whole other existence that’s beyond the superficial appearances. In this koan, Master Zhaozhou wants to help us open our eyes and wake up to the mystic Earth. He says, “The eye that grasps the universe is so perceptive that it does not miss even a single thread.” How do we understand this?
The commentary begins by saying that We should carefully examine Zhaozhou’s “eye that grasps the universe” and appreciate that it is untainted, free of attachment, beyond being and non-being, and not dependent upon intellectual comprehension. The untainted condition is possible only when there is just one single thing. When there is nothing outside or foreign, no contamination or staining can possibly happen. How is it to be free of attachment? To have attachment, you’ve got to have two things. When there is only one thing, there is nothing to attach to nor anyone to attach. Beyond being or non-being means beyond self or no-self. There is a dimension of Buddhist practice that is based on no-self, the absolute basis of reality. From the Mahayana perspective, that absolute ground is just an aspect of reality. The other part of it is the phenomenal universe — the self, being, existence. The eye that grasps the universe is beyond both being and non-being, beyond self and no-self. And it is not dependent upon intellectual comprehension. It is here that most of us run into trouble. Whenever we encounter anything, our intellect, the linear rational faculty, shifts into high gear. And it immediately dulls the possibilities of discovery because we’re busy naming, categorizing, analyzing, judging, and processing. The mystic eye sees beyond all that. This is the true eye of all beings. It’s sometimes called the Buddha Eye. It’s not a special eye; it’s not a third eye. It’s just a way of using your eye. It creates a clarity that allows us to see that nothing in this universe is hidden. No one lacks this potential.
When the true eye functions, it goes beyond looking and enters the realm of seeing. Looking is a superficial perception. It’s about identifying, and accepting or rejecting. It speaks to what things are. During our wilderness trips, I am always acutely aware of how people are hooked on labeling: “What’s this? What’s that? What’s this called? What’s that called? What does it do?” We repeatedly and subtly believe that when we’ve got a name for something, we know it.
In biology, we classify plants and animals according to kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus and species. We take the multitude and complexity of life’s web, the myriad forms, and we break them down into groups, subgroups, sub-subgroups, and on and on. We give trees a name. Northern white pine is Pinus strobus. This pine all grows over Tremper Mountain. It’s different than Pinus resinosa, which is Norway pine. Or Pinus virginiana, which is Virginia pine. But Pinus strobus is millions of white pines. What about this white pine? The one that I meet each day coming out of my front door? My friend of over twenty years that witnesses my comings and goings, and that dances in the wind for me. I sit in the window and watch as she shelters the birds in the snowstorm, provides restful branches for a red squirrel, feeds the ravenous woodpecker. This tree is an individual. It has a personality. It is easily recognizable from other Pinus strobus growing right next to it. Or from the one across from it. To know things through cataloging of their traits is to miss reality. It is to fall asleep amidst the wonder. And it is to become stupid to reality. The mentality of cataloging can easily lead to the mentality of the senator in the Reagan administration, who, during the debate about saving the giant redwoods in California, said, “What’s the big deal about these trees? You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.”
Although you and I are the same thing, you are not me and I am not you. Unless I can see this clearly I cannot see you. Or a tree. Or this great Earth, with its mountains and rivers. When science goes deeper than the superficial qualities — and these days science does go much deeper — it remains constrained to study of the aggregates. From tree morphology — trunk, bark, branches, leaves, fruit, seeds — we dip into tree chemistry, then tree physics; from molecules of cellulose to atoms, electrons, protons. But my tree has a mystical and spiritual reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intellect. It has a life and an existence that can be only seen with the eye that grasps the universe.
This mystic Earth can only be seen with the eye that grasps the universe. When the true eye functions it goes beyond looking and enters the realm of seeing. Looking speaks to what things are. Seeing reveals what else things are, the hidden aspect of reality, the reality of a rock, a tree, a mountain, a dog or a person.
Walt Whitman said, “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water… a certain free margin, and even vagueness — perhaps ignorance, credulity — helps you in your enjoyment of these things…” Seeing reveals what else things are. It is a direct encounter that involves the whole body and mind. The barrier of subject and object dissolves and one appreciates things immediately and intimately. Like Master Dogen said, “Seeing form with the whole body and mind, hearing sounds with the whole body and mind, one understands it intimately.”
One of the texts that we’re using for this ango is Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. An extraordinary book. I’ve been talking about it for the last twenty years, and we’ve been selling it in the bookstore, but I wonder how many people have really read it. It was written in 1910, and Underhill says things in this book that sound just like Dogen. Maybe she read Dogen — I have no idea — but probably not in 1910.
In this classic text, Underhill writes extensively about mystics’ “education” in seeing and hearing. Her focus is primarily on Christian mystics. She says: “The education which tradition has ever prescribed for the mystic, consists in the gradual development of an extraordinary faculty of concentration, a power of spiritual attention. It is not enough that she should naturally be ‘aware of the Absolute’ unless she be able to contemplate it: Just as the mere possession of eyesight or hearing, however acute, needs to be supplemented by trained powers of perception and reception, if we are really to appreciate — see or hear to any purpose — the masterpieces of Music or of Art, more, nature herself reveals little of her secret to those who only look or listen with an outward ear or eye. The condition of all valid seeing and hearing, upon every plane of consciousness, lies not in the sharpening of the senses, but in a particular attitude of the whole personality: in a self-forgetting attentiveness, a profound concentration, a self-merging, which operates a real communion between the seer and the seen — in a word, in Contemplation.”
She elaborates that this applies not only to what she calls Divine Reality, but to anything. It’s a mental attitude under which all things give up to us the secret of their life. And, just in case there is any tendency that we take what she is presenting as some sort of cheap psychology or limpid metaphysics, to clear the mind of prejudice, she offers a simple and elegant experiment. “All that is asked is that we shall look for a little time, in a special and undivided manner, at some simple, concrete, and external thing.” It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be almost anything — a picture, a statue, a tree, a distant hillside, a growing plant, running water, little living things. Look at this thing that you have chosen, “Willfully yet tranquilly refuse the messages which countless other aspects of the world are sending; and so concentrate your whole attention on this one act of loving sight that all other objects are excluded from the conscious field. Do not think but as it were, pour out your personality toward it: let your soul be in your eyes. Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world. First, you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness; a slowing down of our feverish mental time. Next, you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the thing at which you look. As you, with all your consciousness, lean out towards it, an answering current will meet yours.” This is what I call resonance, a recognition of a link between the subject and the object, that manifests as energy that streams back and forth. “It seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object has melted away. You are merged with it in an act of true communion: and you know the secret of its being deeply and unforgettably, yet in a way which you can never hope to express.” The barrier of subject and object dissolves and one understands it intimately.
Underhill continues: “The ‘eye which look upon Eternity’ has been given its opportunity. We have been immersed for a moment in the ‘life of all: a deep and peaceful love unites us with the substance of all things, ‘Mystic Marriage’ has taken place between the mind and some aspect of the external world. Cor ad cor loquitur [Heart has spoken to heart]: Life has spoken to life, but not to the surface-intelligence. That surface intelligence knows only that a message was true and beautiful: no more.” This is a description of samadhi, seeing with the whole body and mind. And a suggestion of how the teachings of the insentient, the 84,000 hymns of the river valley, are communicated.
“I do not suggest that this simple experiment is in any sense to be equated with the transcendental contemplation of the mystic. Yet it exercises on a small scale, and in regard to visible Nature the same natural faculties which are taken up and used…” Underhill isn’t kidding herself or you into thinking that one simply sits down and the universe reveals itself. But she does point in the right direction. She concludes, “This will call in our scattered thoughts by a deliberate exercise of the will, emptying the mind of its swarm of images, of its riot of thought.” In mystical language “you must sink into nothingness, into that blank, abiding place where busy, clever Reason cannot come.” It’s unspeakable. But this great mystic Earth can be experienced directly. The barrier of subject and object dissolves and one understands intimately. From the inside; as the thing itself.
Dogen in his Mountains and Rivers Sutra presents his teachings on seeing this way: “The way of seeing mountains and rivers differs according to the type of being that sees them. There are beings that see what we call water as a jeweled necklace. It does not mean however that they see a jeweled necklace as water… What different types of beings see is different. And we should reflect on this fact. Is it that there are various ways of seeing an object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object? We should concentrate every effort on understanding this question and then concentrate still more. Given this multitude of perspectives it follows that training on the way of practice and verification” — to practice and verify for yourself the eye that grasps the universe — “must also not be merely of one or two kinds. The ultimate realm must have a thousand types, ten thousand kinds.” If you wish to understand the wondrous functioning of such spiritual powers, you must avoid describing and discussing at all costs, else you will see “ghosts in front of your skull.”
Those ghosts in front of your skull — hallucinations, visions, dreamy images — can get you sidetracked and be just as blinding as intellectual labels and descriptions. Mystic seeing has nothing to do with hallucinations. It has to do with a clear and awake mind, a clear eye that grasps the whole universe, being so detailed, so perceptive, that it does not miss even a single thread. If you seek it in thought you’re sitting beneath the black mountain. The black mountain is the world of delusions. Seeking for clarity in thought is deluded.
At one time or another, every one of us has been touched by the vision that Underhill speaks of. Sometimes it comes upon us unexpectedly. Suddenly the music moves into our being and our body responds. There is no thought, no judgement, no conscious effort to do anything. The music just moves. Or we pick up a brush and the painting flows out from the tip as if the brush was painting by itself. Or the camera photographs by itself. The instant we apply thought to the process, the minute we try to analyze it, understand it, or even simply believe in it, we kill it! It’s dead. Instead of a living reality, we are holding a stale intellectual regurgitation.
The commentary provides an antidote. It says, Look! The bright shining sun lights up the sky. Listen! The pure whispering wind circles this great Earth. Enter here. This is the place of entry.
The capping verse: In the depths of stillness all words melt away, clouds disperse and it vividly appears before you. Whitman, in his “Song of the Rolling Earth,” speaks to that appearance: “I swear I see what is better than to tell the best. It is always to leave the best untold. When I undertake to tell the best, I find I cannot. My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots, my breath will not be obedient to its organs, I become a dumb man. The best of the Earth cannot be told anyhow, all or any is best. It is not what you anticipated, it is cheaper, easier, nearer. Things are not dismissed from the places they held before, the Earth is just as positive and direct as it was before. Facts, religions, improvements, politics, trades are as real as before. But the soul is also real. It too is positive and direct, no reasoning, no proof, has established it. Undeniable growth has established it.”
Clouds disperse and it vividly appears before you. It appears. It cannot be summoned. It cannot be demanded. It cannot be conjured. It will appear when you are ready to see it. How you make yourself ready must be apparent to those of you who have encountered zazen and Zen training. When seen, it is filled with wonder, vast and without edges, nothing is concealed. Hongzhi presents it this way: “Silently and serenely one forgets all words. Clearly and vividly, that appears before you. When one realizes it, it is vast and without edges. In its essence one is clearly aware. Singularly reflecting is this bright awareness, full of wonder is this pure reflection. Dew and the moon, stars and streams, snow on pine trees, and clouds hovering on the mountain peaks. From darkness, they all become glowingly bright. From obscurity they all turn to resplendent light.” We need to see this great Earth filled with wonder.
Dogen’s appreciation of that mystical dimension of the world
around him is beautifully expressed in this passage: “Trees and rocks flourish
and abound, and the birds and the beasts take on a supernatural excellence.” It
is important to see that supernatural excellence for ourselves. That’s what
Zhaozhou is imploring us to do. I want you to see into this! How do you
understand? You should ask yourself this question every day. How do you see it?
How do you understand it?
1. The ten directions cannot contain it.
2. Deaf, dumb, and blind you know it intimately.
3. This type of kindness is difficult to requite.
4. To think about it is totally beside the point.
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.
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