Master Dogen’s poem ‘Zazen Practice’:

The moon mirrored
By a mind free
Of all distractions;
Even the waves, breaking,
Are reflecting its light

We have a primitive idea what a symbol is. Usually, we think it’s like a code. So, in this case, ‘Moon’ will mean ‘Enlightenment’, or ‘Buddha Mind’, something like that. But a symbol is like a real person: it has infinite expression.

In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Dogen said that “the bodhisattva of compassion, practicing zazen with the whole body, sees the five skandas are empty, and relieves all suffering”

So, we can see that one face of the symbol of the moon is Avalokitesvara, whose ‘whole body’ is the whole Universe, whose hands are the moonlight, whose eyes are the space above and the ground below, both holding the mind waves, enabling each wave to break, not through stillness but

through light



Zazen Practice:

at peace
within the heart
the clear moon
even the smashing waves
reflecting light

(trans. Shogen)





This life is described as being like a dewdrop in The Diamond Sutra, and Dogen elaborates on this image in his poem:

To what should I compare this life?
Dewdrops, thrown from a crane’s bill.

We imagine dewdrops, thrown into empty space, reflecting the moon, still, in the same vast space.

But what we need to understand is that if there were no dewdrops, there would be no moon. The sky really would be empty. There is no Buddha waiting in Tusita heaven, or anywhere else. There is no preexisting moon, no preexisting world. Both are born together with this dewdrop person. Both exist in this dewdrop eye. When the dewdrop falls, the world falls.

The image of each dewdrop reflecting the moon, reflecting everything, is reminiscent of Indra’s Net, but with two differences. Indra’s net is still, but the dewdrop is thrown; it’s dynamic and temporal. And Indra’s net is in a galaxy unknown to us, but Dogen’s dewdrop is this person in this world, re-created.



[continuing previous kusen]

Dream, illusion and shadow all occupy a curious position. You can't say they exist, but you can't say they don't exist either, as they can be experienced. And because everything can be experienced, we don't slice up that experience into true and false, right and wrong.

At its inception, Buddhism occupied a middle position in Indian thought. It wasn't eternalist. It wasn't nihilist. But it's not called The Middle Position, it's called The Middle Way, because it isn't fixed, like a position, it's dynamic, like a person.

And this dynamic quality led from the prajnaparamita sutras, of which the Diamond and Heart Sutras form part, into the full flowering of Chinese buddhism: The Lotus Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra, where the world of experience, rather than being taken as a given which requires to be navigated, is completely liberated into its own creative potential, through devotional, expressive, feeling language. As it were, the endlessly reconfiguring world bursts out of the heart.







At the end of The Diamond Sutra, 6 metaphors are used to describe this life:

a dream, an illusion, a shadow, a bubble (in a stream), a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.

What are we to make of these? Are they six aspects of something which can’t be named, or are they each different, or all the same?

They don’t seem the same. The last three seem to be real, but instantaneous, and the first three seem to occupy a strange position: experienced, certainly, but not clearly real, neither existing or non existing.

Could we say they are six instances of ungraspability?





We chant form is emptiness, emptiness is form, but what is Emptiness?

In English emptiness is quite abstract. In Japanese the ideogram for emptiness is ku, which also means sky. That’s the thing about a pictorial language: the ‘concrete’ and the ‘abstract’ are fused, or, better, one is wearing the face and the other is wearing the mask, and they switch, but they always come together. That’s hard for us to understand. But if we can’t get out of the hidden bias of English and richocet between the concrete and the abstract, it’s impossible for us to understand Buddhism.

Without space, how can the heart open?


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