Dogen, self, interdependence

The Japanese Soto Zen teacher, Dogen (1200-1253), writes:

An ancient Buddha said:

The entire universe is the true human body.

The entire universe is the gate of liberation.

[…] The entire universe is the dharma body of the self.

Dogen argues that to know the self is to lose the self and thus to find the self. The found self both is, and is not, the self that is lost. When the self is examined through bare attention or mindfulness […] we realise that there is no essence or substantiality to the self. What we encounter are currents of sensation, feelings, thoughts and intentions, interwoven and in flux. There is no fixed core or unitary hub to this river of mental activity. Recognising that this is the case is to realise that “the entire universe is the true human body”, for there are no fixed limits or impermeable boundaries to the self.

To experience the flux of sensations, moods and thoughts as events within the relational field of all that is, is to experience a transformed sense of self – to be liberated from a false understanding of what it is to be a person. It is as if a gate has opened to a new awareness of the self as an open fluid process rather than as a nucleic ego somehow separate from the world – a world outside or other. For Dogen, human beings are embodied minds participating in the relational field of the universe – thus the “entire universe is the gate of liberation”. However, it is just as true to say that there can be no gate and no liberation because the universe is the self and the self is the universe.

When Dogen writes, “free yourself from all attachments, and bring to rest the ten thousand things”, he points to the way in which becoming attached to particular things, ideas or feelings separates those things from the ever-changing relational field which is reality – a reality that is indeterminate and indivisible. Focusing on, and attempting to grasp, particular phenomena is to lose sight of the interrelatedness of all phenomena. To perceive phenomena as if they were isolated units rather than episodes in a continuum is for Dogen, and other Buddhists, to have a false understanding of how the world is. When we divide up the matrix of energies and potentialities (the phenomenal field) into bits, objects and things, we give rise “to the ten thousand things”. In other words, we lose sight of the wood for the trees – we lose sight of the undifferentiated field and believe that the universe consists of divisions, categories, separateness and bits – the “ten thousand things”. Throughout his writings Dogen argues against false dichotomies and draws attention to the dangers of dualistic thinking in all its forms.

Not only does Dogen consider the body-mind, shin-jin, to be an integrated whole, but he also recognises no essential separation between body-mind, and the world. Hence, Dogen’s statement that, “the entire universe is the true human body. The entire universe is the gate of liberation”. For Dogen, the world and body-mind are co-dependent and permeable. There is no fixed boundary between them. The body-mind is interwoven with the entire universe. The body-mind is a porous field of interpenetrating forces, a mingling of currents of being and awakening, a boundless site or clearing in which realisation can occur.

NB. These notes are taken from my book: Agents of uncertainty: mysticism, scepticism, Buddhism, art & poetry, Rodopi, 2012 – pp. 113-119.