Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Dogen's 'Universal Emptiness'

Koku is one of the shorter fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Notwithstanding its brevity, it is still as dense and difficult to comprehend as many of his other works. One can glimpse the nature of this difficulty by contemplating for a moment the various English translations of the one word title alone: Space (Nishijima, 2009), On the Unbounded (Nearman, 2007), and, of course, Universal Emptiness (Nishiyama, 1975). Each of these reveals a slightly different way of thinking about the Buddhist concept of shunyata (Sanskrit) or ku (Japanese).

According to Okumura (2012) koku actually has three different possible meanings. In our very ordinary way of looking at things it can refer to the empty space that is between objects or which is bounded in some way. It can also refer to space which does not lose its nature on account of being occupied. Yet another meaning, however, points to the most profound of Buddhist teachings, i.e. the emptiness of all phenomena. As Okumura says:
The third meaning of the word koku is empty space as a metaphor for prajna or wisdom, the emptiness of all beings. … Since everything is connected with everything else, the reality of all beings, which is emptiness, pervades and penetrates the whole universe. (p. 122)
It is this third meaning that Dogen expounds upon in Koku.

Before I continue, please allow me to express gratitude towards those who’ve helped make such resources available as those that I’ve already quoted here and will continue to quote. I recall quite well stumbling upon Buddhist texts in my youth in which the word shunyata was translated as “the void” or “voidness.” I know firsthand that a mind that is not yet primed for true understanding can come to think of shunyata in coldly nihilistic terms. I’m pleased then that contemporary English speaking Buddhist practitioners seem to have largely settled on emptiness as the standard translation for shunyata. Emptiness, once one becomes acclimated to it just a little bit, is much more open to being viewed in terms of infinite potential than voidness is. Voidness brings to mind sterile vacuity as opposed to fertile possibility.

It should be readily apparent by now that there is much room for misunderstanding when it comes to this thing called emptiness. Thus, it should come as no surprise that there exists a koan that is intended to deepen one’s understanding of it. Dogen makes reference to it in Koku. It is an exchange between two Zen masters on the nature of emptiness. “Do you understand how to grasp space?” the junior asks of his senior in Nishijima (2009, p. 71). “[D]o you know how to grab hold of Space?” the question is posed in Nearman (2007, p. 846). “Do you know how to comprehend universal emptiness” is the way the question is phrased in Nishiyama (1975, p. 130). The senior master replies that he does and, with further prodding from his junior, proceeds to motion in the air as if he’s grabbing empty space with his hand. Not surprisingly, given our discussion so far, the junior master is critical of this response. He grabs the nose of his senior and proceeds to yank it until he cries out in pain. “Now I’ve got it!” the senior monk cries upon freeing himself (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 130).

Could it be that that Zen master, senior though he was, had fallen into the same trap that I had as a youth when I thought of the so-called voidness of shunyata as vacuity? Thinking of emptiness in this very ordinary way can lead one to believe that this world is nothing but illusion, that nothing really exists, that it is all but a dream. But that is not the truth of shunyata at all. Just because our conventional ideas related to selfhood and the independence of things proves not to be true does not mean that we should run headlong down the road toward the nihilistic view of the non-existence of all phenomenon. However, whereas I found it profoundly unsettling to contemplate a reality that was not reality at all, perhaps that senior Zen master took comfort in feeling as though he “knew” what reality was – even though, in fact, his realization was far from complete.

And so I imagine that, as soon as that junior monk saw one who was his senior blithely stating that he understood the true nature of reality to be nothing but a handful of air, he couldn’t help but spring into action and grab the man’s nose in order to give it a hard squeeze. And as the senior monk experienced that painful squeeze it was an unquestioned reality that the two of them were as one – squeezer and squeezed. Any ideas related to the nature of reality being nothing but a handful of air were swept aside to make room for the actual reality that the entire world, at least for that senior monk at that moment, consisted of nothing but screaming in pain and wriggling to get free. Yes, all phenomena are interrelated, impermanent, empty of independent self-hood, and perhaps quite different from how you presently see them, but that does not make them an illusion!

Likewise, when we think we have these great truths figured out, when we think that the answer to some profound question will always consist of saying a certain number of particular words or recreating some gesture with our body like grabbing a handful of air, then we have succumbed to delusion. Says Dogen:
To say you understand universal emptiness is to defile the truth.… When [the senior monk] grabbed a handful of air it revealed that he understood only the head, but not the tail, of universal emptiness.… Prior to having his nose yanked [he] thought that universal emptiness existed outside of himself, but now he has cast off body and mind. (Nishiyama, 1975, pp. 130-131)

Indeed, we do not simply exist amidst emptiness. We are inextricably interwoven within the fabric of emptiness. In Koku, Dogen also tells the story of an abbot who once visited Baso only to be immediately questioned as to what sutra he was lecturing on at the time. “The Heart Sutra,” was the abbot’s reply. Recall that the Heart Sutra teaches of the emptiness of all phenomena, including the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, and the resultant sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and objects of the mind. The Heart Sutra is the great teaching on shunyata, or emptiness. Form is shunyata, shunyata is form… From here I’ll let Nearman (2007) pick up the story:
Baso then asked him, “And what do you use to lecture on [the Heart Sutra] with?” [The abbot] replied, “I use my mind with which to lecture on It.” Baso then said, “The mind is like the starring actor, our will is like its supporting player, with the six senses playing the accompanying cast. How can these possibly comprehend how to lecture on a Scripture?” [The abbot] responded, “Were the mind unable to give a lecture, surely empty space could hardly do it!” Baso said, “On the contrary, it is Space [Universal Emptiness] that is able to give a lecture.” With a dismissive swish of his sleeve, [the abbot] departed. Baso called after him, “Learned monk! … From birth to old age, It is ever thus.” (p. 849)

There is a bit of pattern emerging here. Someone might be a senior monk, and yet their understanding of emptiness might be incomplete compared to that of even a junior monk. Someone might be the abbot of a monastery, and yet they’ve not yet fully grasped the true nature of emptiness.

In order to show how difficult it can be to communicate these ideas using words, let me now compare two different translations of a single passage of Koku. Let me begin with Nishijima (2009):
[E]very Buddhist patriarch is a sutra lecturer. And sutra lecturing is inevitably in space. Without space, it is impossible to lecture on even a single sutra. Whether lectures are delivered on the mind as a sutra or delivered on the body as a sutra, they are always delivered through the medium of space. (Nishijima, 2009, p. 74)
Perhaps the reader, given the benefit of context, will be able to understand what Dogen is attempting to communicate with this passage. However, this particular representation strikes me as one too easily taken at face value. It seems that someone with even a very conventional appreciation of space could read this and nod along in agreement, and I doubt that that was Dogen’s intention. So let’s look at how Nishiyama (1975) translates this passage:
[A]ll the Buddhas and Patriarchs lecture on the sutra of universal emptiness. To lecture on the sutras is to lecture on universal emptiness. If you fail to lecture with the body and mind of universal emptiness you will not be able to explain even one sutra. You must lecture using universal emptiness. (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 132)
Not being able to read the original Japanese myself, I cannot answer the question as to which of these is more faithful to Dogen’s original manuscript. However, what I read in the second passage is much more in accord with my experience of Buddhism and Buddhist teachings. The first sentence of the second passage conveys unequivocally that if you do not lecture on universal emptiness, then you are not a Buddha or Patriarch. The second sentence of the second passage conveys the centrality of the Buddhist teaching on emptiness. It is there in every sutra. The third sentence of the second passage conveys the reality that if a sutra lecturer has not brought the totality of his or her being into accord with universal emptiness, then their explication will be ineffectual at best. And finally: “You must lecture using universal emptiness.” Ah, now THAT is the very quandary that each of us must resolve. Once we come to understand the ultimate reality of universal emptiness, how then shall we actualize it?

Let me close with a teaching that Dogen attributes to one of his teachers:
My late Master, the Old Buddha of Tendō, once said the following, “My whole being is like the mouth of a bell suspended in empty space.” Clearly, you need to recognize that the whole body of space hangs in Space. (Nearman, 2007, p. 849)   
We are universal emptiness actualizing within universal emptiness.



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 work from 1245.)
Nishijima, G. W., Cross C. (2008). Shobogenzo: the true Dharma-eye treasury, Vol. IV. (G. W. Nishijima & C. Cross, Trans.) Published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. (Dogen’s original work from 1245.)
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 work from 1245.)
Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

Image Credits

Bell image by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (1923-2014) via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Thing Called Evil

This may be a challenging post for many folks. So, let me just say right up front the words that I really want to leave you with – before anyone has the chance to get angry or offended:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me begin again.

One of the more interesting questions to be posed of any of the candidates this campaign season is whether or not they would kill the baby Adolf Hitler if they were somehow given the opportunity to go back in time and locate the infant evil incarnate. Certainly it’s an interesting question to pose for the array of answers it might elicit. Most interesting, though, is how the question itself reveals how many of us think about the nature of evil. Evil is “out there.” It’s a dark force that the hapless might stumble upon. It takes up residence in someone such that they then become evil. It’s a conscious entity of some sort – like Satan, for instance – that actively plots ways to get us to do its nefarious bidding.

The fact of the matter is, however, that World War II was not the doing of just one evil man. It was the result of a multitude of causes and conditions as diverse as the humiliation of a people and the economic devastation of a nation in the wake of World War I, the rise of fascism and militarism in various other places around the world, the willing complicity of much of the German populace, and apparently even the success of the concept of manifest destiny that helped create the coast to coast United States that we know of today.

Buddhists who understand the concept of dependent origination look at everything in such terms. Everything is dependent upon everything else. Nothing exists entirely on its own. Nothing arises fully formed and unchangeable. Evil is not just “out there.” If evil exists it is because of the causes and conditions that each of us helps to create and perpetuate. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Buddhists believe that each of us is capable of both good and evil depending upon the circumstances. A person might do something in one moment that is wholesome and good while acting with a mind that is calm and compassionate, and then do something “evil” in the next moment should they allow their mind to succumb to one of the “three poisons” of attachment, aversion, and delusion (or greed, hatred, and ignorance.) Consider the story of a bloodthirsty killer by the name of Angulimala, for instance, so named because he wore a necklace made from the fingers of his victims. The Buddha is reported to have won over the mind of this evil individual to the point that he ended up repenting and becoming a Buddhist monk.

Why does it matter how we think about evil? Well, if we think of evil as something that is “out there” and impossible for “good” people to perpetrate, then we fail to clearly see the nature of our actions and ourselves. We fail to clearly see the nature of other people as well. In order to remind ourselves of the dynamic and ever-present potential for both good and evil depending upon the states of mind that we cultivate, Zen Buddhists commonly recite the Verse of Repentance, which goes something like this:
All the evil actions that I have perpetrated in the past,
arising from beginningless attachment, aversion, and delusion,
and manifested through body, speech, and mind,
I now repent all of them completely.

It is especially important for us to apply a clear-headed view of the nature of evil as we make decisions as to how to respond to such evil acts as the recent terrorist killings of over 130 people in Paris this past weekend. After all, it’s not like we in the West were just minding our own business prior to being put upon by such terrorist activity. And no, no, no, I am not blaming the victims here. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

But even as I seek to refrain from blaming the victims here I nonetheless seek to clearly understand the causes and conditions that made such terror possible. It is not merely my opinion that the formation of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is rooted in the destruction of Iraq at the hands of the U.S. military. It is not merely my opinion that the people of the United States were sold on that war with the false narrative that Iraq’s then leader had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is not merely my opinion that the torture of the guilty and innocent alike at Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay, and various other black operations sites as part of our covert operation of extraordinary rendition helped create perhaps the most bloodthirsty of terrorist groups to ever exist on the face of the earth.

The French, to their credit, were not supportive of that war. However, they do have the dark history of colonizing the predominately Islamic country of Algeria and engaging in acts of brutality in order to keep the Algerian people from becoming independent. Students of history might want to read Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), an autobiographical account of torture at the hands of French forces. Apparently our own military is aware of what is described in this book. The torture technique now known as waterboarding could have been lifted from its pages. Remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

In the wake of this carnage in Paris, just as there was in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, there will be calls for the eradication of the evil that is ISIS. That would seem to make sense if the evil that we seek to destroy were merely something that is “out there.” But it is not. We all helped to create it. We all help to perpetuate it.

Consider the following: Let’s say that I have terrible housekeeping habits. I never clean. I leave food scraps all around. I’ve let my home become a den of filth and squalor. Not surprisingly, after many months of the accumulation of my very own detritus, my home becomes infested with roaches. So, I’m posed with a couple of options: 1. Spend a whole lot of time and effort cleaning up all of my mess as I should have been doing all along, and then being patient as the roaches die out or leave for other filthy quarters. 2. Hire an exterminator to come in and spray something that will kill all of the crawling critters. The problem with the second option, though, is that the pesticide has the potential to cause cancer and it’s not just me in the house. I’ve got young children who are living here with me. It’s also just a short term solution. The roaches will come back and I’ll have to spray all over again. Unfortunately, I’m lazy. And on top of that I don’t really believe that I created the problem with the roaches in the first place. And another part of me just doesn’t care. You know, I’ve come to hate those damned roaches and I just want to see them all dead right now. I choose the second option. Now my family and I must deal with roaches from time to time for as long as we may live, along with the additional possibility that one of us will contract cancer and suffer much more than just a roach infestation.

My heart goes out to all of the victims of terror and their families. My heart goes out to all of the innocent victims of our war on terror. My heart goes out to all those who engage in acts of terror out of some deluded sense of the rightness of their ways. Yes, even the deaths of the terrorists is a tragic waste of human potential. How about we begin to look at this thing called evil just a little bit more closely and clearly?  And remember:
Let’s forgive ourselves.
Let’s forgive each other.
Let’s strive to do better.

Likeness of Angulimala cropped and filtered from original image via:


Alleg, H. (1958) The question. Midnight Press

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Thursday, November 12, 2015

To Touch the Mind Once More

November seems to have become “gratitude month” for many North American Buddhists, no doubt due to it being the month of our Thanksgiving holiday. Don’t be surprised, then, if you should happen to see one of your friends posting a lot on social media lately about all that they have to be grateful for. Just be grateful for the subtle reminder to pay attention to all that you have to be grateful for. It will likely have you feeling all the more settled, content, and happy as a result.

I just committed to sitting Rohatsu sesshin once again – a weeklong practice period commemorating the seven days that the historical Buddha spent in meditation before realizing enlightenment. So, once November draws to a close I’ll begin sitting like a buddha, settling my mind like a buddha, facing my karma like a buddha, and waking up like a buddha. Well…, we’ll see about that last one!

Of course I’m grateful for the opportunity to sit Rohatsu once again. A lot has to fall into place in order to be able to practice with such intensity. One needs health – it’s a pretty physically and mentally arduous endeavor. One needs a little money, and time off from work and other responsibilities. One needs to have glimpsed at least a little bit of one’s bodhi mind in order to have chosen to spend a week in meditation instead of strolling on a beach somewhere, hiking in the mountains, or sightseeing in some exotic locale. One needs a place to practice, and people to practice with as well. Most often this means that one needs to have found a teacher associated with a temple where such practice is valued. For all of these things, I am grateful.

The Soto Zen Center were I first learned Zen forms was not all that big on long meditation retreats. The longest began and ended over the course of a weekend, and much of the time was filled with chanting, bowing and bell-ringing, Dharma talks and work practice, ritualized meals and ritualized interviews with the teacher. Sure, I’m grateful to have experienced all of that, but I’m especially grateful to have become familiar with something known as “sesshin without toys” – a form of meditation retreat that gives the practitioner nowhere to hide within an unrelenting schedule of meditation after meditation after meditation.

Just as I was becoming ripe for a longer meditation retreat it happened that a flyer arrived in the mail at our Zen center informing us of a Rohatsu sesshin to be held on the grounds of an Episcopal retreat center in the Uplands of Indiana. I don’t recall the flyer saying much of anything else about the retreat other than how long it would last and that it would be led by a teacher whom I’d not yet heard of, Shohaku Okumura. I knew nothing of “sesshin without toys” as I walked up to the door of that little cabin in the woods and looked at the schedule taped on the door: 3:40 a.m. wakeup, two periods of meditation before breakfast, five before lunch, five more before dinner, and two periods of meditation to close out the day at 9:00 p.m. There were no “toys” for the mind to play with. There was nothing for the mind to be distracted by save for what it could conjure up on its own. There was no respite and no relief from the experience of mind experiencing itself. Needless to say, it was a transformative experience.

I’ve since come to know that Shohaku Okumura is one of the most respected experts on the Shobogenzo, a compilation of writings by the Zen monk, Eihei Dogen. I’ve also come to know that he learned this Antaiji-style of sesshin from his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and he has practiced it ever since. By the way, Uchiyama Roshi wrote a refreshingly accessible little book called Opening the Hand of Thought in which he expounds upon the subject of “sesshin without toys.”

Anyway, fifteen years have gone by. Shohaku Okumura is now abbot of Sanshinji in Bloomington, Indiana. And over the years I’ve lost track of the number of seven and five and three day sesshins that I’ve done either at that little cabin in the woods or at the established Sanshin Zen Temple. What I’ve not lost track of, however, is the fact that those periods of time dedicated to the experience of mind experiencing itself have been central to my finding my way back home.

I no longer belong to a Zen Center anymore. Suffice to say that practicing forms for the sake of practicing forms holds little meaning for me at this point in my life. I’m grateful to have learned them, for they opened me up to that which is truly transformative. But it seems as though I’ve opened up even further and let it all go. I’m not interested in wrapping my Zen meditation in a tight and tidy religious package anymore. I’m merely interested in that which is my birthright – the direct experience of mind experiencing itself. And I’m grateful to be able to go someplace where, at least for a week, everyone else will feel the same.

Foggy landscape by Carschten via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank