With or Without Light

Dogen (1200-1253)

I’ve been reading Dogen lately, and one of the reasons why I appreciate him so much is that he seems to have had a high regard for Nagarjuna, and there are similarities between the two. I agree with David Loy that they both “point to many of the same Buddhist insights because they deconstruct the same type of dualities.” [1. David R Loy, Faculty of International Studies, Bunkyo University, Philosophy East and West  Honolulu  Jul 1999 Vol. 49, Iss. 3] Of course, as Loy points out, their textual styles were quite different.

One duality, or rather non-duality, that Dogen mentions frequently is the non-duality of ignorance and enlightenment. In Bukkyo or “What the Buddha Taught,” he says

You should know that ignorance is inseparable from One Mind, and deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from the One Mind.” [2. Adapted from the Shasta Abby and Suwanna Wongwaisayawan translations]

Mumyo: Ignorance

One Mind (isshin) is another term for Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature. The characters Dogen uses for ignorance is mumyo, the Japanese translation of the Sanskrit word avidya, or “ignorance,” as this sentence is within the context of a discussion about the twelve-fold chain of dependent arising, and ignorance is the first link in the chain. The Chinese characters for mumyo literally mean “without light.”

To be in the state of ignorance is to be stuck in the dark, blind to “the true suchness of all things, shoho jisso, things as they are, which are not outside the ultimate truth.” [2. Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed., Moon in a Dewdrop Writings of Zen Master Dogen, , North Point Press, 1985, 345] In terms of the relative view of things, ignorance is the opposite of enlightenment. From the ultimate view, however, they are two sides of the same coin. Delusion and enlightenment are non-dual.

Hotokeshou: Buddha Nature

Put another way, there is one bulb in the socket. Whether the room is dark or lighted, depends on the switch, not the bulb. The bulb is the same whether the light is off or on. The difference between delusion and enlightenment is primarily a matter of perception. In the dark, we cannot see our inherent Buddha Nature. When we switch on the light, our inner light, we see Buddha Nature clearly.

In the above quote “deliberate acts” is a reference to karma, while “becoming aware of things” indicates consciousness. He goes on to say

Since is ignorance is inseparable from extinction, then deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from extinction. Since ignorance is inseparable from nirvana, deliberate acts, becoming aware of things, and so forth, are also inseparable from nirvana. We can speak in this way because what arises is also what is extinguished.”

Dogen is explaining that actually ignorance is not something to extinguish, nor is nirvana or enlightenment something to attain, because both are present within us at all times. In Genjo Koan, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” he writes:

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are ordinary beings. [3. ibid, 69]

Dogen means that there is no separation or difference between ordinary beings and buddhas. They are one being, and again, it is a case of being with or without light. One needs only to flip the switch to realize isshin or One Mind, and the way we do this is through practice. Dogen’s sentence here leads into the Genjo Koan quote I used in my last post, where he says that realized buddhas “continue to realize buddha.”

True buddhas do not just switch on the light and then sit back to admire their Buddha Natures. They keep on becoming buddhas. They shine more light on Buddha Nature.

With light, there is much to do, such as actualizing the fundamental point in daily life. Without light, in the darkness, you can’t much of anything at all. To fare on the Buddha way is to go beyond all limits, to see the light and move ever forward to the beat of that most excellent mantra, the mantra that relieves all suffering: gate, gate, gone, gone, paragate, gone beyond, parasam gate, gone far beyond, bodhi svaha!



4 thoughts on “With or Without Light

  1. I hate to be the gadfly, but the first character in your last picture is the character for Dharma — so the characters say “Dharma Nature.” The character for Buddha looks like a man standing next to a harp.

    1. You are correct, James. The first character is “ho” or dharma, so literally it does read “Dharma Nature.” But as I am sure you know, Dharma Nature and Buddha Nature are synonymous terms. In Japanese, hotokeshou is an accepted rendering for Buddha Nature, as is busshou, which literally means “Buddha Nature.”

        1. Actually, it’s more a case of my not having any ready-made calligraphy for busshou. Sometimes you gotta work with what you got.

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