Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Nature Of Things

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

What are we to make of such a statement? On one hand we might be inclined to interpret it from a post-modern, image-saturated perspective such as: “if you’ve seen one rose you’ve seen them all.” Ah, but would a poet really endeavor to convey such a jaded sentiment? Quite to the contrary, I think that Gertrude Stein is striving with this line in Sacred Emily to deepen our understanding of the nature of the rose, its essence of being, its roseness. The rose is what it is, fully and completely. It is not like anything. It is not like something red; it is red. It is not like something beautifully scented; it is beautifully scented. It is not like something that is pleasing in form, or delicate, or fleeting; it simply is all of those things. But to say that a rose is all of those things might tend to imply that it is simply a collection of attributes, the totality of which somehow add up to roseness. No, roseness precedes and transcends any definition of its attributes. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Furthermore, to say that one rose is like another is to miss seeing the rose altogether. To even say that one is looking at a rose is to miss seeing it altogether. To call a rose a rose, after all, is to compare what one is seeing with a memory of something previously seen; and once comparison has begun true seeing has ceased. Thus, the very act of calling a rose a rose removes us from the experience of roseness. What I am calling roseness, then, is something that the rose can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss. What I am calling roseness can only be experienced by one who has either never seen a flower before or one who has trained the mind to see only what is – without associations and conceptualizations.

This ‘seeing without associations and conceptualizations’ is of utmost importance to Zen practitioners (and all Buddhists for that matter), and can perhaps be most easily conveyed by discussing the Japanese word, nen, meaning “thought impulse” (Sekida, 1985, p. 257). Cognition is comprised of either first, second, or third nen activity, or combinations thereof. Sekida (1985) expounds upon these three nen by discussing what happens as one’s hand comes into contact with a cup sitting on the table:

In pure cognition [first nen] there is no subjectivity and no objectivity. Think of the moment your hand touches the cup: there is only touch. The next moment you recognize that you felt the touch [second nen]…. Then there arise subjectivity and objectivity [third nen], and one says, “There is a cup on the table.” (p. 176)

Sojun Mel Weitzman (2000) similarly states:

There are different kinds or degrees of nen.  There is the nen of this moment and there is the nen, which takes a step back and contemplates. The first nen is one with activity, without reflection, just direct perception. The second nen is when we reflect on something and try to identify it by thought or think about it. And the third nen is taking another step back and developing what the second nen has thought about the first nen. All these nen thoughts are important, but when we sit zazen, we are concentrated in the first nen, just direct perception moment by moment.

And so it is that the experience of roseness is in the realm of first-nen cognition – the realm in which so many of the characters of Zen stories and legends dwell. However, to imply that the experience of roseness merely requires training “your” mind so that “you” can relinquish third and second-nen cognition at will for the sake of utilizing “your” capacity for and powers of pure cognition is to imply that we can experience roseness as we might experience some parlor trick optical illusion. No, the roseness spoken of here is not amenable to such deconstruction. The roseness spoken of here is of infinite depth, encompassing all things, a manifestation of what is commonly referred to as suchness.

According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), suchness is the “central notion of Mahayana [Buddhism] referring to the absolute, the true nature of all things” (p. 364). Suchness is experienced, according to Conze (1959), “when things are seen such as they are, in their bare being, without any distortion” (p. 249). Worthy of noting here is the fact that the Sanskrit word, tathata – which is usually translated as suchness, but which might also be translated as thusness – is related to the term, tathagata, meaning “he who has thus come,” the name by which the Buddha referred to himself (Conze, 1959, p. 249). And so it is that Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) go on to say that “[t]athata as the thus-being of things and their nonduality is perceived through the realization of the identity of subject and object in the awakening of supreme enlightenment” (p. 364).

Thomas Cleary (1993), in his commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, speaks of thusness and suchness as follows:

The implication of the terms “thus” or “such” [is] that no specific notion can truly define being as it really is; the term “thusness” hence can refer specifically to the inconceivable real nature of things, which is also called “emptiness” to allude to the lack of intrinsic meaning of signs and names by which particular things are discriminated and defined. (p. 1527)

But thusness is not a term that is used only for things “out there”; it can be applied to “in here” as well. Cleary continues:

[T]husness can refer to the pure nature of mind; when the mind is clear and this inherently pure nature is unobscured, reality as it is becomes apparent. (p. 1527)

The Avatamsaka Sutra is one of the most influential of all Mahayana texts, and Fa Tsang (643-712) was one of the foremost teachers during the period in which the insights contained therein were being promulgated. Fa Tsang recommends six kinds of contemplation to anyone seeking to understand the Avatamsaka. As translated by Conze (1980) these are:

1. To look into the serenity of Mind to which all things return;

2. To realize that the world of particulars exists because of the One Mind;

3. To observe the perfect and mysterious interpenetration of all things;

4. To observe that there is nothing but Suchness;

5. To observe that the mirror of Sameness reflects the images of all things, which thereby do not obstruct each other;

6. To observe that, when one particular object is picked up, all the others are picked up with it. (p. 76)

We might be well-served by considering an alternative translation for a couple of these points. D. T. Suzuki (1953) offers us the following:

(4) [T]o observe that there is nothing but Suchness where all the shadowy existences cast their reflections,

(5) [T]o observe that the mirror of identity holds in it images of all things without obstructing others…. (pp. 72-73)

My reading of Fa Tsang’s advice is that he is advocating: 1. Zazen; 2. An understanding of dependent origination; 3. An experience of emptiness, sunyata; and, 4. An experience of that which is being referred to as suchness, one that seems also to be predicated upon the experience of and profound insight into the first three of these points. Fa Tsang’s 5th and 6th points are actually expository points related to the previous ones. Both points can be understood within the context of the Avatamsaka’s metaphor of Indra's Net, an infinite net covering all of space with a perfect crystal or jewel at each knot. Each crystal reflects all other crystals and the movement of any one of them is reflected by all others. 

Now that we have a little bit stronger foundation, let me return to Cleary’s commentary. I have added the underlining for the sake of clarity and the bracketed notes for the sake of integrating it with the previous material:

Thusness is sometimes spoken of as “pure” and “defiled,” or “unchanging” and “going along with conditions;” the first term of each pair refers to the unique real nature which is equal in everything, or emptiness, inconceivability [note the use of the words “sameness” and “identity” in the two translations of Fa Tsang’s aforementioned 5th point, as well as the fact that each crystal of Indra’s Net is of the same “stuff”], while the second refers to apparent reality, the realm of myriad differentiations [recall the two levels of truth]. Thusness is also equated with “Buddha-nature” and the “realm of reality,” which includes both absolute and ordinary reality. (p. 1527)

Let me close this post of many flower references by recalling a “talk” that the Buddha is purported to have given which has come to be known as the Flower Sermon. It is said that a group of followers of the Buddha had gathered to hear him speak. Rather than actually speak, though, the Buddha simply held up a lotus flower. As the story goes, there was only one other individual present, Kasyapa, who, by smiling, conveyed his understanding of this most profound of teachings – presumably related in some way to the experience of this thing we’ve been calling suchness. (See Albert Welter (1996) The Disputed Place of "A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures" in Ch’an if you’d like to place this story within a scholarly context.)

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

It is difficult to know precisely what Gertrude Stein meant when she uttered these words. I hope that she would approve of this interpretation, but even if she were to disapprove I am deeply indebted to her regardless for having provided such a perfect vehicle for the introduction of that which I have called roseness and that which is referred to as suchness. Roseness, then, is suchness manifested within the realm of ordinary reality, a single crystal of Indra’s Net reflecting everything in the universe even as it transcends “thingness” altogether (and we along with it) and allows “us” to see directly into the seamlessness of ultimate reality.


Cleary, T. (1993). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Conze, E. (1980). Buddhism: a short history. A Oneworld Publication, Oxford.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Sekida, K. (1985). Zen training: methods and philosophy. Published by Weatherhill, Inc.

Suzuki, D. T. (1971). Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third series. Rider and Company, London  (Reprinted in: Sangharakshita (1980). A survey of Buddhism. Shambhala, Boulder, in association with Windhorse, London.)

Weitzman, M. (2000). Commentary on the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo. Berkeley Zen Center.

Welter, A. (1996). The disputed place of "a special transmission outside the scriptures" in Ch’an.

Image Credits

Small Red Rose via:

Mahakasyapa image manipulted by Maku using Photoshop. Source image by Joshua Jonathan via:

Roserose by Erixson via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

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