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


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