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.

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Photo and its manipulation are the work of the author.

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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