Posted by: Soh

Hello Gregory,

Thank you for your comment.

You articulate your position very clearly, and I follow what you are saying here.

Thus, I suspect there is no misunderstanding on your part of my position. The notion of “emptiness” outlined by you is almost certainly the most common among informed Buddhists – not only practitioners but many scholars as well.

Having acknowledged that, I will say that some practitioners (myself for instance) and scholars (Hee-Jin Kim, and Gadjin Nagao for instance) disagree – strongly.

To try and indicate the central point where this disagreement rests, I will attempt to sum it up here by stating it in contrast to something you stated.

You wrote: Emptiness in one sense is the final stage of practice that is the interval between the diving board and the ocean. One can not get to realization of the ocean until jumping off into emptiness.

In contrast then, I would say – emptiness is the intermediary stage of practice-enlightenment realized upon entering the ocean “dying the great death” and “coming back to life” upon swimming all the way through.

Here, then, follows a more comprehensive and precise treatment of my understanding.

The central tenet of this doctrine; the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness” (shunyata) is seen in the Buddhist axiom, “All things are essentially empty,” or “Emptiness is the true nature of all things.” From the perspective of emptiness all the various types of experience can be regarded as essentially the same. In other words, the various forms (i.e. dharmas) experienced as well as the various modes or types (objects of consciousness) of experience can be said to be constituted of/by the same true nature: emptiness. Indeed, “emptiness” is the primary metaphor for the “true” or “essential” nature of all things, beings, and events (i.e. dharmas).

Now, it is clear that this doctrine is commonly misunderstood as meaning dharmas are nonexistent, unreal, or as meaning that all dharmas are constituted of one and the same “substance” or “stuff” – that dharmas are “made up of” emptiness. Despite sectarian based Zen “assumptions” and “assertions” however such notions simply don’t wash with the teachings in the classic literature. In fact, it would be hard to see how Buddhism could be taken seriously outside of Buddhist sects if it did posit such an unsupportable view.

When the classic literature, including the Zen records, is considered from a nonsectarian unbiased viewpoint, it is clear that the doctrine of emptiness was developed to adequately account for the actual existence of the myriad dharmas, not to deny their existence – it is the reality of dharmas that allows emptiness to function as emptiness. Buddhism says “all things are empty,” not “all things are unreal” or “non-existent.” What are all things empty of? All things are empty of selfhood, empty of a separate self.

For example, let us apply the teaching of the Diamond Sutra to a particular “form” or “dharma” – a “goldfinch.” Now, a goldfinch is “empty” in that it lacks a “separate self.” The existence of a goldfinch can only be realized with the existence of water, food, air, and light – in the absence of these, the is no goldfinch; hence, a real existent goldfinch is water, food, air, and light, as well as feathers, beak, body, and wings. In short, a goldfinch is not the separate independent “self” that is identified as “goldfinch” – a goldfinch is empty of an (independent) self. What appears as “a goldfinch” is (totally inclusive of) “not-a goldfinch” (water, food, light, etc.), therefore it is a (real) goldfinch – in seeing the emptiness of a goldfinch, thus including “not-a goldfinch”; a goldfinch is seen as it is.

1 + 0 = 1 only if “1” is really a 1 and “0” is really a 0. Now, as the actual existence of 1 presupposes the actual existence of 0; and the actual existence of 0 presupposes the actual existence 1, the actual existence of “this particular dharma” (object of consciousness) presupposes the actual existence of “not-this particular dharma,” therefore “this particular dharma” is “this particular dharma” and “not-this particular dharma” is “not-this particular dharma.” Thus: 1 goldfinch + 0 (not) goldfinch = 1 goldfinch. And 1 goldfinch = (the reality of) 1 goldfinch + (the reality of) 0 (not) goldfinch. This example, which by extension applies to all dharmas, could be expanded by listing more of the dharmas constituting a goldfinch including its parents, environment, time, space, and so on up to and including all dharmas of existence-time.

In this way the prajna pararmita literature is clearly not advocating the “illusory” “temporary” or “unreality” of things, rather it demonstrates that it is actually the emptiness of selfhood that allows things to exist as they are (and allows emptiness to exist as it is). Thus Buddhism says, “Form (matter) is emptiness (the immaterial) and emptiness is form.” And the Zen masters elaborate on this pointing out that this verifies, “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness.”

When this principle is preached and realized, it is said that “matter is just the immaterial” and the immaterial is just matter. Matter is matter, the immaterial is the immaterial.
Shobogenzo, Mahaprajnaparamita, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

To state the main points of this discussion in terms of the human experience of emptiness; all of the various “objects” of experience (i.e. sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile sensations, and thoughts) are empty; meaning the sameness of all objects of experience is their emptiness. Thus, the true nature of all the myriad dharmas is emptiness (the absence of independent selfhood). What, then, is the true nature of emptiness? The true nature of emptiness is all the myriad dharmas. To put the whole thing into Zen terms (as in Dogen’s example above) dharmas are emptiness and emptiness is dharmas, thus dharmas are (really) dharmas, emptiness is (really) emptiness.

Before moving on it is worth noticing that if all dharmas are empty, and all dharmas are objects of consciousness, then all dharmas are conscious subjects (upon which objects of consciousness are obviously inherently dependent). All subjects are subjects of objects, all objects are objects of subjects; objects are subjects, subjects are objects, therefore, objects are objects, subjects are subjects.

Besides the Diamond Sutra, Dogen’s Genjokoan offers another clear demonstration of the nonduality of emptiness and form. Here, Dogen presents the ability to “realize the koan” (genjokoan) as being enabled by “normal vision” or the “Dharma-Eye” (the vision of Buddhas), the activation of which is portrayed as a threefold process.

First is the ordinary view; the self sees dharmas as “other” (than the self). Second is the view from within the experience of emptiness; the self sees dharmas as “self” (i.e. dharmas as “other” vanish; self and other merge into oneness); herein “self” and “other” are experienced as lacking distinctness, hence there is “no self” and “no other” – only a uniform oneness. Third is the Buddha view; the self sees self as “other”; this occurs when, from the perspective of emptiness (i.e. the oneness of self and other) the self sees that despite their “oneness” the “other” (dharmas) appears and acts independently of the will/expectation of the “self.”

Notice that only with this third phase of realization (the Buddha view) can the nature of emptiness (experienced in the second phase) be truly appreciated as the nondual reality of “self and others.” The Buddha view manifests when/as the experience of emptiness discloses the true existential (ontological) nature of the reality of the self and the other is not a void, absence, or illusion, but the reality of “self and other” as it is. Self and other are distinct yet not-two, sovereign yet interdependent. With this, the true significance of nonduality is experientially verified: the reality of nonduality is the interdependence of nonduality and duality; the reality of duality is also the interdependence of nonduality and duality – in the absence of nonduality there could be no duality, in the absence of duality there could be no nonduality.

As duality and nonduality are coessential and coextensive, so too self and other are coessential and coextensive. To state the significant point in Dogen’s terms; emptiness is emptiness and form is form; the self is the self (not-self, therefore, self), the other is the other (not-other, therefore, other). In short, the distinct uniqueness of things, beings, and events (i.e. dharmas), far from being neutralized or negated by emptiness, is brought into relief and affirmed by it. Because emptiness is really emptiness as it is, dharmas (the particularities of the world/self) are really dharmas as they are. It is with clear insight into this aspect of reality, and a certain radical insistence on applying its implications in every facet of practice-enlightenment, that Dogen articulated his expressions on genjokoan.

Thanks again.

PS - Relevant passages from Hee-Jin Kim follow:

It is axiomatic in Zen Buddhism that delusion and enlightenment constitute a nondual unity (meigo ichinyo). For the sake of argument, let me formulate this dictum: Enlightenment is construed as seeing things as they really are rather than as they appear; it is a direct insight into, and discernment of, the nature of reality that is apprehended only by wisdom, which transcends and is prior to the activity of discriminative thought. In this view, delusion is defined as all that is opposed to enlightenment.

The problem with this reading is manifold: (1) There is an inherent tendency to bifurcate between "things as they really are" and "things as they appear to be"; (2) its corollary is that there is an unbridgeable chasm between insight/discernment and discrimination; (3) "seeing" is conceived predominantly in epistemological, intuitive, and mystical terms; (4) the pre- or extradiscriminative state of mind is privileged in such a way that creative tensions between delusion and enlightenment are all but lost; (5) nonduality in the unity is virtually the neutralization of all discriminations and thus has little or nothing to encourage and nurture duality as such that is, discriminative thinking, intellect, language, and reason in the scheme of Zen's soteriological realization; and (6) the implications for Zen discourse and practice, especially ethics, are seriously damaging. What we see here is a formulaic understanding and misunderstanding at that of the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment.

On the other hand, the ultimate paradox of Zen liberation is said to lie in the fact that one attains enlightenment only in and through delusion itself, never apart from it. Strange as that may sound, enlightenment has no exit from delusion any more than delusion has an exit from enlightenment. The two notions need, are bound by, and interact with one another. That said, the interface of delusion and enlightenment in their dynamic, nondual unity is extremely complex, elusive, and ambiguous. Since they are the two foci' of realization, we might ask how they interplay with one another...
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, pp.1-2

Dualisms between dream and waking, reality and illusion… are now thoroughly dismantled and reconstituted in Zen discourse as (revaluated) dualities that intertwine and interpenetrate one another… Dream expands the scope, depth, and precision of awakening.

…Dogen’s religious method firmly grounds itself in the conditions of existence—temporality.

A dream in his view is not merely a necessary illusion or a necessary fiction that brings about a soteriological reality/truth; this would smack of dualism by implying a nonfictional or nonillusory reality that remains yet to be realized…Dogen’s commentary is closely interwoven with the notion of emptiness… the reconstructive aspect of the notion—in contrast to the deconstructive one.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, pp.41-42

The emphasis in Dogen’s Zen thus deepens the meaning of “seeing things as they are” by construing it as “changing/making things as they are.” This is precisely the point highlighted by “expounding a dream (or dream making) within a dream,” in terms of the dynamic dialectics of equilibration and equilibrium in the steelyard analogy. (3) The deconstructive use of emptiness, however potent it may be, is alone not enough. The reconstructive use must be incorporated into it so as to make emptiness soteriologically full-fledged. How can emptiness be serene while constantly challenged by the turmoil of worldly truth… From Dogen’s standpoint, even the “emptiness of emptiness” should be examined in the deconstructive and reconstructive contexts through perpetually ongoing critical scrutiny.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, pp.52-53

In these six short chapters, I have presented some salient facets of Dogen's thought on authentic practice, which was his paramount concern in his praxis-oriented Zen. In this regard, his emphasis was on the reconstructive use of such notions as duality in relation to nonduality and dependent origination in relation to emptiness. His thrust was as much on engagement in duality as it was on nonattachment to duality...

Through such a highly unorthodox formulation of Zen method and hermeneutics, Dogen (1) offers a new direction in Zen praxis with a number of important implications, and (2) opens up new possibilities for creative dialogue between Zen and contemporary thought. By way of concluding this present work, I would like to make a few final observations on these two points.

Dogen's instructions on seated meditation were brief and minimalist. He did not elaborate on meditation techniques or meditative experiences in any detail, nor did he attempt to guide his disciples through graduated stages of meditative and spiritual progression, as we often see in some religious traditions within and without Buddhism... Rather, his approach emerged from his foremost desire to provide them with fundamental principles spelled out in terms of language, thinking, and reason with which each could grapple with his/her individual soteric project, thereby realizing his/her own Zen. Dogen demonstrated this himself by writing the fascicles of the Shobogenzo.

To illustrate, consider "enlightenment-by-oneself without a teacher" (mushi dokugo), the ultimate Zen principle that every practitioner had to actualize, even while studying under competent teachers and reading the sutras for a number of years.1 Dogen provided this well-known dictum with a specific methodological/hermeneutic key that allowed one to unlock the mystery of existence that is, to open the self and the universe. That key amounted, in essence, to critical, reflective thinking as an integral part of meditation. Without this key, it was impossible to attain one's own salvific independence…
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, pp.121-122
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