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.) http://www.shastaabbey.org/pdf/shoboAll.pdf
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.) http://www.bdk.or.jp/pdf/bdk/digitaldl/dBET_T2582_Shobogenzo4_2008.pdf
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


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