Friday, October 25, 2013

Do Zombies Have Buddha-Nature?

Okay, I’ve written a Buddhist Christmas post and a Buddhist Easter post…, why not a Buddhist Halloween post? If you think about it, Buddhism and Halloween do seem to go together well. After all, Buddhism – especially Tibetan Buddhism – has its fair share of stories about demons and hell realms and whatnot. And what is the bardo realm if not a veritable haunted house of the mind! Indeed, no matter what we might say to the contrary, any Buddhist who believes in reincarnation is without a doubt motivated, at least in part, by a desire to keep from being reborn in one of the hell realms, or as a hungry ghost perhaps. And those who don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation still seek to refrain from creating hell realms here in the present moment, or being reborn in one in the next. So why not bring our fears of these demons and hell realms out into the open by celebrating them at least one night each year!
From Tony Moore's 'Walking Dead'
I was inspired to write this post after catching parts of a couple of episodes of the Walking Dead television series with my partner and her kids. Being prone to over-thinking things, as I am, I started pondering the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze. More on that later… First, though, we’ve got some very Buddhist questions to ponder: 1) Do zombies have buddha-nature? In other words, is it possible for them to one day become buddhas? 2) How should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? 3) How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Let’s consider these questions in turn.

Do zombies have buddha-nature? Depending on what school of Buddhism you feel most comfortable with, the answer to this question will range from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ to ‘yes’ to ‘mu’. Theravada Buddhism, for instance, does not recognize the existence of buddha-nature at all. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, posits that all beings are inherently endowed with buddha-nature (Schuhmacher and Woerner, 1994, p. 49). The question might then become: Are zombies actually beings? As you know, zombies are often thought of as being “undead” – something not “really” alive, but not quite dead, either. Would this make them non-beings? Frankly, this strikes me as little more than wordplay. For just as humans arise due to certain causes and conditions that give rise to human existence, so zombies arise as a result of related causes and conditions that give rise to zombie existence.

From a Buddhist perspective, when we call something “undead” we are merely revealing our continuing fixation on whatever “it” was that was once alive. Such fixation or conceptual attachment is, of course, something that Buddhists strive to move beyond. Sure, we might grieve for our friend “Pablo” who was recently zombied in an unprovoked attack by a wandering zombie. But the reality of the situation is that the erstwhile existence of “Pablo” combined with the bite of a shambling zombie has provided the causes and conditions for something altogether different. That something happens to be a rotting, ambulatory, and human flesh-eating entity, yes, but it is not “undead” at all. Life has merely transitioned from one form to another. 

Why are we so quick to think of zombies as being lifeless, anyway? It’s fairly clear to see that they do, in fact, display at least rudimentary sentience. They sense the proximity of food, (human flesh) and they ambulate toward it (us) in order to survive. This would seem to be at least as much sentience as a heliotropic flower, for instance. Now, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but do zombies have the potential to obtain buddhahood through appropriate spiritual practice – a capacity that is often associated with buddha-nature?

True enough, zombies are usually depicted as lacking the capacity of free will with which they might choose to engage in wholesome spiritual practice. It might seem then that buddhahood would be out of the question. But the same could be said of any non-human being – that they have no capacity to aspire to buddhahood. And is it not the case that the beings in the various hell-realms eventually exhaust their bad karma, thereby opening up the possibility of their being reborn in some way that is advantageous to their spiritual progress? Might the same hold true for zombies? Perhaps this plane of existence is merely the hell realm in which certain beings, as a result of their past bad karma, must abide in their zombie state until their bad karma is exhausted. Thus, it would seem potentially dangerous for our own spiritual well-being to treat zombies as if they are bereft of buddha-nature.

How then should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Indeed, this is a very important question. We wouldn’t want to behave in a way that increases suffering and causes the accumulation of bad karma, would we? After all, that might land us in one of the hell realms.

It would seem then – given the aforementioned discussion as to the specious nature of claims that zombies are somehow not really a life form at all – that the best course of action would be to treat zombies with the same compassion that Buddhists show all life forms. That is, we should consider very seriously that the taking of a zombie’s life – no matter how “undead” it might appear to be – might actually result in the accumulation of bad karma such that it would not bode well for our future existence. So, is there some way to behave toward zombies that doesn’t require the annihilation of either party? And that brings us to the third question.

How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Aye, there’s the rub! And yet the only way that we can truly aspire to buddhahood is to let go of our dualistic ideas regarding “us” and “them”. Might we then attempt to find a cure for zombie-ism perhaps, or find a way to quarantine “them” so that “we” are no longer in danger, or find some other way to arrive at homeostasis – much like the foxes and the rabbits, or the bears and the spawning salmon?

Well, as much as I might hope for this possibility, a reasoned consideration of the matter reveals a bleak situation indeed. A study by Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith (2009) entitled When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling Of An Outbreak Of Zombie Infection considered various responses to what is commonly hypothesized to occur in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. According to this analysis, quarantining is likely to merely forestall the total eradication of human life in all but the most difficult to obtain circumstances. Thus, being humane and compassionate may, in fact, be detrimental to the continuing existence of human life.

What about a cure, then? The authors considered this possibility and concluded that, under the modeled conditions, homeostasis might possibly be reached with humans existing only in low numbers – vastly outnumbered by zombies. Many humans would find this to be an untenable situation, but it might serve us well to reflect upon why we think this to be so.

Perhaps a combined quarantine/cure model would yield a far more acceptable outcome from an anthropocentric perspective. However, this potential complication was not separately modelled. Instead, the authors recommended a course of action referred to as “impulsive eradication”. The “impulsive eradication” model involved the martialing of whatever human resources might be available in order to kill as many zombies as possible whenever such opportunity presented itself. The goal in this scenario is, of course, the total eradication of the zombies.

So, it would seem that the potential exists for us humans to reclaim “our” way of life – to the detriment of all zombies everywhere, of course. But at what spiritual cost to each and every one of us? What will we humans have become if ‘the martialing of whatever human resources might be available’ involves each and every one of us turning into ruthless and unrepentant killers bent on wiping out an entire group of beings – however “undead” that group might seem to be?

We know not if or when a zombie apocalypse might occur. However, of one thing we can be certain. Should a zombie apocalypse occur we will have little time to ponder an appropriate course of action. Scientific studies and zombie lore might tell us how to survive, but only deeper spiritual enquiry can tell us how to live.

Oh, yeah! And what about the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze, anyway. I suppose I’ll have to leave that question for an upcoming post…



Munz, P., Hudea, I., Imad, J., Smith, R.J. (2009). When zombies attack!: Mathematical modelling of an outbreak of zombie infection. Tchuenche, J.M. and Chiyaka, C. Editors. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

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


Image Credits

Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dogen's 'Flower of Emptiness' - Part 2

Dogen’s Shobogenzo contains a fascicle known as Kuge, or Flower of Emptiness. As discussed in Part 1, kuge is a term that is sometimes used to describe apparitions caused by cataracts or some other eye disease – ‘flowers in the sky’, so to speak. Within the context of a Buddhist discussion, kuge is sometimes used in reference to our obscured vision of ‘things as it is’ – vision which presumably becomes clarified over the course of our meditative practice. In Kuge, Dogen uses our more commonsensical understanding of ‘flowers in the sky’ as a means to discuss the true nature of emptiness, shunyata, as he understands it. Thus, the translation of Kuge as The Flower of Emptiness (Nishiyama, 1975).

For those who have not yet had the opportunity to read Part 1, I will reiterate the caution regarding interpreting in a nihilistic way Buddhist teachings related to emptiness. Without correct understanding of emptiness we might misinterpret the teaching that no thing exists (in our ordinary way of thinking about independently existing things) for a teaching that nothing exists – that all is illusion. We might also orient our practice toward a renunciation of the realm of conventional truth that is so complete, or so we might hope, that we never again fall back into the cycle of birth and death (samsara). Notice how the following passage from Kuge addresses both the interpretation that emptiness is voidness as well as the idea that one can or should orient his or her practice toward individual liberation as opposed to the liberation of all beings – as a bodhisattva vows to do:

After we observe the true meaning of kuge the flower in the sky disappears. Hinayanists [those whom Dogen considers to be seeking individual liberation] think that once the flower disappears nothing exists in the sky. What exists if kuge cannot be seen? They think kuge should be abandoned; they fail to realize its deep meaning. Just as Buddhas sow the seed of the Buddhist Way among the people and enlightenment together with practice brings it to fruition i.e., liberation, so does kuge sow the seed of universal emptiness. However, most students think that where there is space there is only sky. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 49)

The preceding passage indicates that there is kuge that is merely illusion. These are the flowers in the sky that disappear as a result of right practice. However, there is also the realization that all is kuge, that all is a flowering of emptiness and that the truest human endeavor is to bring forth the realization of kuge – as Bodhidharma did when he brought the Dharma from the west to blossom forth across an entire continent. Says Dogen:

If you do not attain the level of the Patriarchs you will not realize when a flower blooms spring comes – it covers the entire world. When the flower blooms not just one petal blooms but the entire flower; and when one flower blooms countless flowers bloom simultaneously. If you comprehend this principle you can understand how autumn comes. However, we must not only clarify the meaning of spring and autumn and their flowers and fruit but we must also study our own flowers and fruit [the self that is not other].

Flowers and fruit possess their own unique world of time and, conversely, the world of time possesses its own fruit and flowers [being-time]. Every kind of grass has its own flower, every tree has its own special flowers and fruit. And if we think of human beings as trees, each tree has its own special flower.

These are kuge (the flower of emptiness). (Nishiyama, 1975, pp. 47-48)

Some faith tradition teachers place above all else the understanding of truth according to their respective holy texts. Buddhism is perhaps unique in pointing to truth beyond even that which its holiest of texts can convey. The Heart Sutra (The Heart of Understanding, as translated by Nhat Hanh, 1988), for instance, speaks of an understanding beyond understanding itself in which there is neither delusion nor its extinction, neither decay and death nor their extinction, neither suffering nor its cessation, and, most salient for our discussion here, there is not even any Path! To use the oft-repeated metaphor, we don’t need the raft (of the teachings) once we’ve made it to the other shore. On the other hand:

In true Buddhism “one who has eye disease” is an awakened person, one with perfect enlightenment, a Buddha, one who has gone beyond enlightenment. Some people think that there are other forms of truth beside this. This is not correct. Nevertheless, there are occasions when someone sees a flower because of eye disease. This is caused by actually seeking enlightenment without realizing that the disease itself is the root of enlightenment.

If we understand the condition of “eye disease” we can comprehend kuge and be detached from both. We can see them as functions of reality, as absolute conditions. Moreover, every condition throughout the entire universe expresses its own truth – it has nothing useless or superfluous and is harmonious and complete. Eye disease and kuge are like this. They are not concerned with past, present, and future or with beginning, middle, or end. They are independent of generation and destruction, even though birth and death appear everywhere in the universe. ((Nishiyama, 1975, p. 49)

When Dogen speaks of “true Buddhism” I think he is speaking of Buddhism as seen “through the eyes of” a buddha. Those of us who are not fully realized might think that our practice is a process of ridding ourselves of the “eye disease” of our deluded thinking, that when we have fully clarified our vision we will finally apprehend some absolute reality. However, once we have rid ourselves of eye disease and have clarified our vision, what we ultimately see with absolute clarity is kuge – the flowering of emptiness. We see the ever-blossoming nature of emptiness with “eyes” that we understand are ever-blossoming in nature.

Perhaps Hakuin’s experience of practice is a good example of the nested nature of our understanding of kuge as spoken of above. Hakuin, while reflecting on his life of practice, is said to have reported having many enlightenment experiences – each one incomplete. This is the blossoming of kuge. Our “vision” becomes progressively clarified and our understanding of kuge progressively blossoms forth. Kuge progressively blossoms forth. We make use of the Path to enter terrain where the Path does not go, where it cannot go. We are pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. All is emptiness, and yet we make use of our delusions in order to clarify this reality. This is kuge. Says Dogen:

“Even if the passions are cut off we still suffer from disease.” This disease differs from the usual kind of disease; it is the disease of the Buddhas and Patriarchs. When all passions are cut off this disease increases. Like this, detachment and delusions exist together; and the delusions possess the means of ultimately cutting off their own activity. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 51)

We might consider this continuing disease of the Buddhas and Patriarchs to be their continued resolve to work within the form of Buddhism even after realizing the ultimate emptiness of all things – including the very Path that they walk. We might consider this continuing disease to be that of the bodhisattvas who hear the cries of individual beings even though they have come to realize the very emptiness of that apparent individuality, or as Dogen says:

The “flower” is the manifold forms of existence while emptiness is the essence pervading each form. Every individual form of emptiness can be seen in a single stemmed flower. Universal emptiness blooms as a flower. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 49)

Hakuin was manifesting that special flower that only the human form can bring forth – the realization and actualization of emptiness. He was blossoming forth in emptiness as only Hakuin could blossom forth. Bodhidharma was blossoming forth in emptiness as only Bodhidharma could blossom forth.  And so it is that we practice and blossom forth in emptiness as only we can blossom. This is the clarification of kuge. Says Dogen:

After you observe the different colors of kuge you realize that emptiness bears unlimited kinds of fruit. Study the spring and autumn of kuge after you see the flowers bloom and fade. Just as kuge has myriad forms, so spring has countless aspects, and both spring and autumn have a past and present. If you think, however, that kuge is not a real flower then your understanding of Buddhism is limited. If you hear Shakyamuni’s [the historical Buddha] words and think that there is kuge now that did not exist originally then you lack knowledge and must go further into its meaning. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 50)

Kuge – A “Fairy Tale”

Please allow me to totally shift gears here. While the following “fairy tale” may not convey the truth of kuge with all the subtlety, depth and nuance that Dogen’s fascicle does, perhaps it will help a reader here or there gain some measure of understanding. Here goes:

Mary thought she might be seeing things. Every now and then it seemed as though she could see flowers floating in the sky – kuge, her friends would call them. She went to a doctor to have her eyes examined and, yes, it turned out that she needed to have a cataract removed. After the surgery she saw perfectly. That’s what the tests all showed, anyway. And yet something still seemed a little off-kilter. Was the world really as it appeared to be, she wondered. And so she went to see a wise teacher whom she’d heard about from others.

“You could have done without the surgery,” this teacher said. “It’s not what we see that’s the problem. Rather, it’s our ideas about what we see that creates problems. You would have been just fine seeing flowers in the sky as long as you were aware that it was only kuge.”

And so it was that Mary ended up studying with this teacher for a time in order to perfect, not her eyes, but her way of viewing that which her eyes apprehended. She felt as though this were helping her grow wise, and yet there still seemed to be something that was missing. Then, by happenstance, she encountered another teacher altogether, one whose teaching spoke of shunyata, emptiness, in a far more sweeping way than did the first one.

“You are looking at the flowering of emptiness,” this teacher told her. “You are looking at the flowering of emptiness with eyes that are, themselves, flowers of emptiness. You are thinking about this flowering of emptiness – viewed with eyes that are themselves a flowering of emptiness – with a mind that is, itself, a flowering of emptiness. Once you fully realize that you are emptiness perceiving emptiness you will have perfect freedom.”

Mary meditated on these words until such time as she was certain that she understood. But even though she could see the potential for the perfection of freedom of which the teacher had spoken, something still troubled her. She returned to the second teacher who seemed to understand so much more deeply the true nature of emptiness.

“I now see that I have this perfect freedom,” Mary said, “if I choose to accept it, anyway. But how can I enjoy it with all of these flowers of emptiness all around me blossoming forth and then withering without ever radiating their truest essence for the fact that they were once like me – unaware of their true nature? What good is my freedom if I cannot enjoy it with all else that is. What good is it to bloom so radiantly without being able to do so with everything else blooming forth with such radiance?”

The teacher smiled. “Your eyes are cloudy once again! – cloudy with the wondrous vision of the bodhisattvas! Join me in this practice of guiding others toward true understanding of kuge.”

The Beginning


One More Passage from Dogens’s Kuge

Let’s return to Dogen’s Kuge in order to bring this post to a close. Thank you for reading. I hope this post proves beneficial as you continue reflecting on the depths of kuge as only Dogen can convey:

The expression “flower in the sky” must be clarified. Great Master Kosho of Mt. Roya said: “It is deep and mysterious yet all the Buddhas of the world observe the flower in the sky. In order to see this flower you must have the same understanding as the Buddhas… [But] be careful not to think that the Buddhas are real – actually they are “flowers in the sky.” All the Buddhas live here; there is no other place to live. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 52)


Cleary, T. (2001). Shobogenzo: Zen essays by Dogen. In Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The collected translations of Thomas Cleary, Vol. Two. (T. Cleary, Trans.) Shambhala Publications by special arrangement with University of Hawaii Press. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Heine, S. (1994). Dogen and the koan tradition: A tale of two Shobogenzo texts. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Nishijima, G. W., Cross C. (2008). Shobogenzo: the true Dharma-eye treasury, Vol. I. (G. W. Nishijima & C. Cross, Trans.) Published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. I. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Okumura, S. (1999) Dogen Zenji’s standards for community practice (as it appears in Dogen Zen and its relevance for our time). Sotoshu Shumucho

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

Image Credits

Photos are the work of the author.

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dogen's 'Flower of Emptiness' - Part 1

An Introduction

The fascicle of Dogen’s Shobogenzo known as Kuge predominantly relates to the nature of what many modern English-speaking Buddhists refer to as emptinessshunyata, in Sanskrit. Realization of the true nature of emptiness is enjoyed by all buddhas. Those of us still working on the clarification of understanding, however, are susceptible to thinking about it in different and perhaps even erroneous ways. For instance, some English versions of Buddhist scriptures translate shunyata as voidness, thereby creating the potential for the unsuspecting reader or practitioner to think of emptiness in very nihilistic and world-negating terms, i.e., that this world and everything in it is nothing but illusion. Regardless of what translation might be used, however, it is also the case that not all schools of Buddhism think about emptiness in the same way. Generally speaking, those with a less sweeping view of shunyata encourage individual renunciation of this samsaric realm, this realm of cyclic death and rebirth, so that the liberation of nirvana might be attained and the individual need never again be reborn into this world of suffering. For example, Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) state that “in the Hinayana emptiness is only applied to the ‘person’” (p. 330). Schools with a more sweeping view of shunyata, such as those of the Mahayana tradition, consider everything to be empty, including nirvana and samsara themselves, no matter how lofty or ominous or diametrically opposed to each other these may seem to our unrealized eyes. Once again, Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994): “The essential unity of samsara and nirvana is based on the view that everything is a mental representation, and thus samsara and nirvana are nothing other than labels without real substance, i.e., they are empty (shunyata)” (p. 298).

Wow, that was a dense introductory paragraph! Let me state things in a slightly different way: in Mahayana Buddhism there are two levels of truth. There is the conventional truth that the “moon” orbits the “earth” and the “earth” orbits the “sun”, for instance, and that you are “you” and I am “me”; but there is also the ultimate truth of emptiness – that all phenomena are the result of causes and conditions, that they are dependently originated and are, therefore, devoid of separate and independent existence. The former is the samsaric realm of suffering caused by our attachment to things – the most suffering-inducing of which is our attachment to our own selfhood. The latter, the realization of emptiness, is associated with liberation from suffering. In other words, when we cease swimming against the currents of that which is (emptiness), when we stop trying to keep that which is always changing from, in fact, changing, then life becomes a dance of causes and conditions rather than a battle to maintain that which we’ve convinced “ourselves” must be maintained. It’s not that the sun doesn’t exist; it’s just that what we now call the “sun” was once a cloud of gas that grew dense and caught fire and which will one day become a red giant that incinerates the earth before going on to become a white dwarf. It’s not that we don’t exist; it’s just that what we think of as individual existence is but a part of a web of life/existence that includes every other “thing” that exists. It is against this backdrop that we can begin to understand Dogen’s Kuge. Kuge is, above all else, a discussion of emptiness; and the different ways that Dogen speaks of kuge correspond at least in part to the aforementioned two levels of truth. Alright, let this be the conclusion of my introductory comments. Let’s now plunge deep into the emptiness of which Dogen speaks!



Nishijima (2008) notes that “ku means ‘the sky’ or ‘space,’ and ge means ‘flowers.’” Thus, a more literal translation of kuge might be “flowers in the sky” or “flowers in space” (Cleary, 2001; Nishijima, 2008; Nishiyama, 1975). ‘Seeing kuge’ is actually something of a colloquial expression for the defective vision resulting from a disease of the eye – cataracts or glaucoma, for instance (Cleary, 2001; Nishiyama, 1975). With such maladies the light becomes distorted and our eyes ‘play tricks on us,’ thereby causing us to see things that are not really there. Notice that this use of the word kuge corresponds to the conventional level of truth. In other words, there is come clearly identifiable objective reality “out there” (identifiable by others with clear vision, that is) which is not seen for what it is because of some identifiable condition “in here” – in the eye. Furthermore, if this disease of the eye can be cured, then clear vision will be restored and kuge will no longer be seen. Certainly it is not such a leap for us to think of our Buddhist practice in terms of alleviating the “eye disease” (delusion) that keeps us from seeing “things as it is,” to borrow a phrase from Suzuki Roshi.

We can actually see the interplay of the two levels of truth that Dogen is referencing simply by reflecting upon the various titles that different translators have decided upon.  Cleary (2001) and Nishijima (2008), for instance, have chosen more literal titles that lean toward conventional truth – “Flowers in the Sky” and “Flowers in Space,” respectively. Nishiyama (1975), on the other hand, has chosen a less literal translation that leans toward ultimate truth – “The Flower of Emptiness.” Nearman (2007) goes further still by choosing to title the piece “On the Flowering of the Unbounded.” Consider how the former translations nudge us toward thinking of the illusory nature of what we call “reality”, whereas the latter two translations nudge us toward thinking of what we call “reality” as nothing other than emptiness manifesting “itself” or flowering into “existence”. Please note that my comments regarding these various titles do not constitute judgment as to the depth of the respective translations. As stated, Dogen himself is looking at kuge in different ways within the body of his text, a reality that each translator duly brings forth over the course of the fascicle. At this point, let me remind the reader of the relationship between form and emptiness spoken of in the Heart Sutra: “Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form” (Nhat Hanh, 1988). So, we’re not just talking about a teaching that is unique to Dogen.

Dogen begins Kuge by quoting from a quatrain composed by Bodhidharma, the patriarch who brought to China that which we now call Zen. I’ll quote it here in complete form:

From the first, I came to this land to Transmit the Dharma

That I might rescue deluded beings.

And when the Single Blossom opened Its five petals,

The fruit thereof naturally came about of itself. (compiled from Nearman, 2007, p. 552)

There are a number of things worthy of note regarding this verse: 1) Bodhidharma’s journey began with intention. 2) This intention was essentially the vow of the bodhisattva. 3) Something became manifest. 4) That which became manifest proceeded of its own accord. 5) This ‘proceeding of its own accord’ seems very much like the “action without action” related to the Taoist principle of wu-wei.

At this point the reader may wish to go back and review Dogen's 'Being-Time" - Part 1 and Part 2 in which the oft-pondered question as to why Bodhidharma came from the west is considered in terms of his actualization of being-time. Using the metaphor of kuge, however, we might consider Bodhidharma’s life to have been a flowering of emptiness. But Bodhidharma’s life was not just any flowering of emptiness, he was mui no shinjin – a “true person of no rank” (Heine, 1994, p. 45). In Kuge Dogen says of mui no shinjin:

[W]hen our “self” is the true Self then our self is not ours and not others’… It is ‘mui no shinjin’, “the true Self that transcends name and form and goes beyond all duality.” (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 47)

We might also contemplate Okumura’s description of the self that is not other:

If there is no self, the self is zero. If the self is universal and one with everything, the self is infinite…. Through studying Buddhist teachings we study “no self”; when we practice zazen, we study the “universal self” that is beyond separation of self and others. And within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this individual person that is not others can manifest the reality of “no self” and “universal self.” (1999, p. 151)

So, how might our lives be a flowering of emptiness? How might we become mui no shinjin? How might we fully manifest the self that is not other? According to Dogen, the key is a proper understanding of kuge.

Perhaps I should pause the discussion here. We haven’t waded too deeply into the text itself, but there are certainly enough links contained herein that the reader might want to explore in order to gain a solid background. And after doing that there are two online versions of the Shobogenzo that you may want to read in order to get a feel for the entirety of the text (see the references below). As you read you might want to reflect upon the various ways that Dogen might be speaking of kuge: 1) As materially explainable eye disease. 2) As delusion to be clarified. 3) As the manifestation of intention rooted in an incorrect understanding of emptiness. 4) As the manifestation of intention rooted in a correct understanding of emptiness. 5) As the blossoming forth of ultimate reality – emptiness.

Okay, let’s meet again in another week and continue this discussion. Thank you!



Cleary, T. (2001). Shobogenzo: Zen essays by Dogen. In Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The collected translations of Thomas Cleary, Vol. Two. (T. Cleary, Trans.) Shambhala Publications by special arrangement with University of Hawaii Press. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Heine, S. (1994). Dogen and the koan tradition: A tale of two Shobogenzo texts. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Nishijima, G. W., Cross C. (2008). Shobogenzo: the true Dharma-eye treasury, Vol. I. (G. W. Nishijima & C. Cross, Trans.) Published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. I. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Dogen’s original Kuge from 1243.)

Okumura, S. (1999) Dogen Zenji’s standards for community practice (as it appears in Dogen Zen and its relevance for our time). Sotoshu Shumucho

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

Image Credits

Photo and its manipulation are the work of the author.

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank