Yearbook 2008


Mauricio Yushin (Italy, 57yo, Zen Missionary)

Dōgen’s glasses

In 13th century Japan, even more than today in the West, the transmission of Buddhism had become stratified in a series of processes plagued by scholasticism and partiality. Because nobody had yet manifested in all evidence what Buddhism was through the concrete example of his own life, the essential nature of Buddhism could not be recognized, even approximately, for what it is. To perceive it, one had to sweep away the incrustations, syncretisms, additions, inculturations and pious fairytales that had been piled up on it in India, China and Japan in the course of 18 centuries of history – a very difficult, if not impossible task.

The most exciting thing about looking not only at Japanese Buddhism but at Buddhism in general through Eihei Dōgen’s eyes consists in the following: that Dōgen was able to strive for (1) true Buddhism in spite of the fact that many of his textual sources had become thoroughly corrupt or adulterated. India was far away, her culture and language very different. Dōgen was not familiar with Sanskrit or Pāli and there is no evidence that he ever met an Indian Buddhist monk. He studied Buddhism only on Chinese texts and his contacts with the reality of Indian Buddhism were second, if not third-hand removed. In addition, by then the Buddhist tradition in India had almost completely lost its way.

Have you ever played the game called broken telephone? If you have, you know what I am talking about. In this game, children first line up. Then the first child in the line whispers a sentence into the ear of the child next to him, who does the same with the child next to him and so on and so forth. When the end of the line is reached, the players compare the sentence that was whispered first with the last heard and are astounded at how different they are. This is like what happened to Buddhism after five centuries of evolution in India, and thirteen centuries of Chinese inculturation (2). It would be very surprising if the Buddhism that was handed down to Dōgen were the same that was spoken by Śākyamuni 1800 years before in the distant Ganges valley.

Over many of his works, the chapter of the Shōbōgenzō (3) entitled Shōji –literally Birth/life and death – has the advantage of being written in Japanese rather than in Chinese. As a result of this – and also of the fact that he often used phonetic characters -- it is simple and easy to understand. Here the problems that one encounters translating his text are not due to Dōgen’s language, which is notoriously complex, but to the traps hidden in the process of comprehension and reconstruction of his words into a different semantic instrument – traps that must be avoided if one wants to reproduce accurately enough into the logos/sound of a Western language what was originally expressed in a completely different system of thought. What makes these processes treacherous is the fact that the original language consists above all of an intellectual and emotional linkage between myself and “that” of which it is spoken. Instead, the word/sound is a thought. This is why logos means both word and thought. In Eastern languages, a character, in particular the sign usually – and improperly -- called ideogram (4), implies the relation between myself and a certain “topic”, and this relation is not the word/logos/thought, but a changing and articulate complexity, which can be expressed only through many different words. They are different communication systems and do not converse easily, just like colour and sound.

Words are not colours

The first sentence of Shōji reads: “Shōji no naka ni hotoke areba shōji nashi. Mata iwaku, shōji no nakani hotoke nakereba shōji ni madowazu”(5). A little down the page we find: “Tada shōji sunawachi nehan to kokoroete”(6). We translate the first phrase as follows: “When there is Buddha in life-and-death, there is no life and no death”. And, later, “When Buddha is not in (our) life-and-death, we cannot be fooled about life and death”. Let’s translate also the second sentence: “Understand life-and-death with the utmost clarity: it is our nirvāņa”.

Almost all the key sentences in this work of Dōgen’s remind one of some crucial statements in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.

The sentences I have chosen to translate, however, in addition to being found in the work of the Indian patriarch, and therefore, clearly in the line of the true Buddhism, as I called it above, display another very unusual feature.

Shōji is the Japanese reading for the ideograms of one of the three Chinese translations of the Sanskrit term samsāra(7). It is a very interesting translation because it does not render the word samsāra literally, but instead it transmits its inner dynamic meaning; a meaning that is rooted in the experience of our own life. It describes the cycle of life - birth, life and death – when it is devoid of any clarity, when it is utterly bewildering even in regard to what is happening to us at the very moment it is happening, let alone in regard to their meaning. When we are at the mercy of events, tangled up and made impenetrable by our pursuit of our desires, birth-life-death is samsāra.

As he says himself, Dōgen pulls out the first sentence of a story contained in the Jingde chuangden lu (8). But in that work, the two propositions that make up this sentence taken literally have a meaning diametrically opposed to Dōgen’s. In fact, they say: “If Buddha is absent from life-and-death, there is no life and no death” and “Buddha in life-and-death implies not fooling oneself about life and death”.

We will show how these two statements seem opposite and are instead equivalent. But first, I want to stress here that what unites them is the pratītyasamutpāda (9) I am thinking in particular of the following sentences, written by Nāgārjuna in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 22.16: “The intimate nature of the Tathāgata [one of Buddha’s names] is the intimate nature (essence) of this world. But the Tathāgata has no intimate nature (essence): devoid of intimate nature (empty of essence) is this world”.

The solution of the strange problem in which words are “true” (or, anyway, have the same meaning) both when they affirm and when they deny the same “thing” is similar to the solution to the mathematical question implicit in the demonstration that one is equal to two (10). Anybody who has a smattering of mathematics can debunk this demonstration: it is enough to recall the rule that forbids dividing by zero. But we are not talking mathematics, and therefore we need not apply this rule.

The invention of “zero”

When Nāgārjuna says: “the self nature of Buddha is the self nature of this world (A= B). But Buddha’s self nature is empty (A=0); therefore empty is the self nature of this world (B=0)” is as if he “divided by zero” the first proposition with the second. “Emptiness of self-being” is the English translation of svabhāvaśūnyatā, where svabhāva stands for “nature/essence/intrinsic and inherent existence” and śūnyatā stands for “emptiness/vacuity”. Sūnyatā is the substantive form of śūnya which, besides empty, also means “zero”, and in fact, is the etymological root of the word “zero”. So, in this case Buddha is the self-consciously empty existence. It is something and it is zero at the same time.

Buddhism, specially Nāgārjuna’s Buddhism, does not produce theories but speaks to me and speaks about my life. We must squeeze all of ourselves into this process. And if we do, we find that “When I am in life-and-death (samsāra) and I intimately perceive (manasikāra) the miracoulous void of every thing that comes into existence (pratītyasamutpāda), living, being born, suffering and dying disappear (because the subject of these verbs lives on as an empty form, a “zero”). If I, living, being born, suffering and dying (in samsāra) identify myself with emptiness/śūnyatā (or: if I perceive that there is no Buddha because I/he am/is an empty form), I do not delude myself (where there is nothing besides zero and emptiness, there is no space for delusion and deception) about living, being born, suffering and dying”.

The two original sentences can be reconstructed in the same way. “If there is no Buddha in life-and-death, there is no life and there is no death” and “Buddha in life-and-death means not being deluded about life and death”. Keep in mind that the essence of Buddha is the essence of this world. If Buddha does not exist, it is because we perceive the emptiness of the essence of life and, and if that is so, so it is for all things and for each of them. If Buddha lives or exists even in the peculiar manner in which all reality exists, then every thing exists.

To round up the argument, it follows from: “The essence of Buddha is the essence of this world” that also these sentences are true: “If there is Buddha in life-and-death, there is life and there is death” and “Buddha in life-and-death means deluding oneself about life and death”. In this case, Buddha exists, and that happens when I attribute to myself an independent and sovereign life and existence, when I do not regard myself as an empty form, but a form full of myself, in fact a form bursting at the seams. When this occurs, I drift into the infinite, cramped time-space called samsāra. Buddha here has the same meaning it has in the expression “if you encounter Buddha, kill him!”.

The relevance of these ideas for the lives of those who, like ourselves, attempt to follow in the footsteps of these ancient sages is sealed by this other sentence by Dōgen: “Understand with the utmost clarity: life and death, our nirvāņa”. This sentence recalls the 19th and 20th verses of the 25th chapter of Madhyamakakārikā : “19. between empirical existence (samsāra/shōji) and nirvāņa there is no difference whatsoever. Between nirvāņa and empirical existence there is no difference whatsoever. 20. What is the boundary of nirvāņa that is the boundary of empirical existence. There is no difference whatsoever between them.”

I have discussed elsewhere (11) how and why hell and heaven, nirvāņa and this life are equal and, at the same time, radically different. Now instead, the point I want to make is about Dōgen’s glasses. The glasses Dōgen wore to read Buddhism – which are the glasses we must wear ourselves to understand him – are the same teachings as Śākyamuni’s and Nāgārjuna’s. I am convinced that this is so because they held the same view of pratītyasamutpāda. One of the oldest sūtra, the Śālistambasūtra the Discourse on the rice plant says: “Once Maitreya, the Blessed One, seeing a rice plant sprouting gave this speech to the monks: «O monks, he who sees the pratītyasamutpāda sees the dhārma, he who sees the dhārma sees the Buddha».

Dōgen lived far from India, where Buddhism developed, and was not in contact with any of its contemporary proponents. He could not draw directly from the source. He knew it only indirectly through the words of the patriarchs and the Chinese translators. But – and this is fundamental –he had practiced with utmost commitment the zazen he had been taught in China by Tiantong Rujing, one of the transmitters of the Chan/Dhyāna tradition, the art of disappearing while living life in its most intimate essence.

The relentless practice of the right way of doing zazen, which was the same yoga/dhyāna/Chan/Zen practiced by Buddha under the tree of the awakening, allowed him to see beyond words, and to recognize, among the many doctrines that claimed to be the true foundation of Buddhism, just the teaching called pratītyasamutpāda, which is the only teaching that is in true harmony with the deepest knowledge of self. This teaching remains the warp of every Buddhism – warp that must be woven with the weft of the daily living according to ahimsā/maitrī/in-nocence/brotherly-love, on the base of the daily practice of zazen.

1) The several, much modified, versions of the Shōbōgenzō bear striking witness to Dōgen’s “striving for true Buddhism”.
2) Buddhism “entered” China no later than the I sec. a.d.
3) I am following the guidelines of an unpublished manuscript by Jisō G. Forzani both insofar as translation and background information on Shōji are concerned.
4) Their correct name is “morphemes” which means “smallest units containing meaning” .
5) 生死 の 中に 佛あれば 生死なし。又云く、生死の 中に 佛なければ 生死に まどわず.
6) ただ 生死すなわち 涅槃とこころえて
7) Literally “samśāra” means “circle” (sam) and “turn around” (sar). The literal translation in Chinese is lunhui (輪廻), which is pronounced rinne in Japanese.
8) Jingde [era] record of the transmission of the lamp/light, better known under its Japanese title, Keitoku Dentōroku. Written in 1004 by a monk of the Fayan (Japanese Hōgen) school, one of the Chan lineages, it contains aphorisms and short stories about the lives of 1700 Chan monks.
9) Usually translated as “interdependent generation” or “conditional coproduction”. Literally, pratītya means “going towards” “as a function of” and samutpāda “mutual origination”, “sprouting together”.
10) 1=A=B. Thus: A2=AB. It follows that: A2B2= ABB2. Decomposing: (AB)( A+B)=B(AB). Simplifying: A+B=B which means that 2=1. But the simplification is wrong because AB= 0.
11) Cfr. M.Y.Marassi, Il buddismo mahāyāna attraverso i luoghi, i tempi e le culture, Marietti, Italy 2006, 39, 62 s., 130, 179 s., 183, 221.

(By Mauricio Yūshin Marassi, La Stella del Mattino Zen Buddhist Community,
Translated into English by Carlo Geneletti)

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