Suchness and This Vs. That - Dogen for Beginners

This is a personal presentation of what is to me the essential Eihei Dogen. It is based on half a lifetime of Chan/Zen practice and many years of teaching the practice in a variety of short retreats for both beginners and experienced practitioners. I hope that Dogen beginners may find it of some help in understanding this notoriously challenging thinker and greatest of Zen teachers, who died in 1253.

Duality refers simply to how we make sense of the everyday experience in which we distinguish one thing or quality as different from another to which it is related. Nonduality is the perception of both as a single, undivided holistic experience, termed “suchness” (“thusness”) or tathata. For example, sometimes we may experience the attractive features of another’s personality, but may also refer to some less attractive features. At other times we may simply experience the same personality as a whole, without making such distinctions. Very different is dualism – delusive duality. Here the this versus that distinction is driven by our existential neediness to fortify the fragile self by identifying with whatever strengthens that sense of identity and rejecting and negating whatever appears to deny or threaten it.

“Enlightenment” is a term I have tried to avoid, because of its several possible meanings. For the (more or less) enlightened state I prefer “wisdom”. “Suchness”(or “thusness”) I use as a comparatively self-explanatory term which embrace both two aspects of reality – the relative existence of things and the emptiness of the absolute existence of separate things –“empty” because inconceivable except in terms of their relationship – their duality (their “form”). As Thomas Cleary observes “thusness itself alludes to the simultaneous realisation of emptiness and existence, experiencing directly and openly…seeing everything as being simply ‘thus’ “. (“Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen”; University of Hawaii Press, 1986, p36). The orientation of this paper is that of my own teaching, as set out in this website, and is necessary here to provide a context for the relevant Dogen teachings. Much neglected by scholars and, I believe, the summation of his teaching, is what has been called Dogen’s “participatory Buddhism” (including social engagement). I have treated this in a separate paper entitled “Zen Master Dogen’s Active Compassion.”

Translations of Dogen can vary so greatly as to amount to variant interpretations of his meaning. Books I have found particularly helpful are “Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist” (Wisdom 2004) and the shorter “Dogen on Meditation and Thinking” (State University of New York Press, 2007), both by Hee-Jin Kim. Another is John Cleary’s “Rational Zen: The Mind of Dogen Zenji” (Shambhala, 1992).

However, I usually refer Dogen beginners to one or, better still, both of the following two short selections: In his “Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen” (University of Hawaii Press, 1986) Thomas Cleary provides not only translations of these and others, but helpful introductions to each. See also the similar selection of essays and introductions by Norman Waddell and Abe Masao: “The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo” (State University of New York, 2002). It is essential not to approach Dogen with the fixed intention of gaining some intellectual meaning from him, and having failed to do so to drop him in frustration and perhaps with a sense of failure. This could come very quickly with the short Shobogenzo piece Ikka Myoju, which simply proclaims that “all the universe is one bright pearl”! The cultivation of an “understanding” of the concept of suchness can arguably provide a starting point. But let the self retire and leave emotional space for the text itself to do the work, and in its own good time, as with all poetry. Remember that this small self has protected itself with a relatively limited consciousness (Blake’s “Mind forg’d manacles”). What Dogen is trying to do is to help the reader greatly to enlarge it. A sense of playful spaciousness is both what is required and what will be repaid. Some experience of koan work can be extremely helpful; indeed, reading Dogen can sometimes feel like facing a succession of koans…

The Existential Tragedy

The typical human condition, cast upon an ocean of impermanence and insubstantiality, is one of profound existential anxiety, of a heartfelt sense of “lack” This is commonly veiled by the degree of success in experiencing whatever imparts a sense of emotional security and a sufficiently strong sense of self-identity, both individual and collective. Especially in modernity, individual achievement and acquisitiveness, as well as the more traditional belongingness, are endeavours for achieving “this”. These, however, are precarious never enough and always threatened by ”that” – which is to say everything that threatens to undo the well fortified sense of self that may have been achieved. In Hubert Benoit’s metaphor, this is our long and ultimately unwinnable lawsuit with reality, a lawsuit, incidentally, which is now becoming evident on an historical and global scale. . Krishnamurti dramatically expressed it when, in front of an audience, he displayed a gap between the thumb and index finger of one of his hand, proclaiming that all the miseries of the world were to be found in that gap, the gap between the “this” of our existential needy self and the “that” of all the forces that threaten to deprive us of it.

“This” versus “that” is, I believe, the starting point for an understanding of Dogen. The theme that runs through the essays in his great collection the Shobogenzo is the unmasking of this delusive dualism, and demonstrating the Great Way of opening to a sense of duality which is freed of the self-neediness which drives dualism. The distinction between duality and dualism was nicely encapsulated by R H Blyth in his observation that things may be hopeless, but not dispiriting, unjust, but not hateful; beautiful, but not desirable, loathsome but not rejected.

An opening to duality opens the way to suchness, which sees the duaiity of this and that in their oneness, their wholeness. Thus, in the Xin-xin-ming (a seventh century foundational scripture of the Chan tradition) : “When we stop movement, there is no movement; when we stop rest, there is no rest; these are two names of one thinglessness.” For example, as an erstwhile prison chaplain, the convicted inmates were undoubtedly bad fellows, but when I got to know them better it became clear that each also possessed good attributes. And on deeper acquaintance I was able to perceive the whole man in his suchness, and better able to appreciate how he had come to where he was now.

The Great Way

The practice of the Great Way, the opening of delusion to wisdom, involves a transcendent shift from one kind of consciousness to another. Inevitably elements of our delusive consciousness become unknowingly embodied in the very practice whereby we hope to achieve this existential revolution. This perception is experienced in dualistic terms which Dogen was determined, again and again, to uproot. The practice is typically understood in terms of endeavours like learning to use a computer or play tennis. By strenuous application of the will we advance step by step over time to greater levels of competence, with corresponding awards and recognition both by self and others, and hope finally to become acknowledged experts. Thus, in our “law suit with reality” we hope to achieve the stronger self identity for which we yearn. This can be an insidious and deeply embedded urge. It is the more so when institutionalised, leading sometimes to what Jung called “spiritual inflation” of the ego, with the corruption of spiritual insights, and a “spiritual bypassing” whereby the practice becomes a thing-in-itself beyond the rest of the practitioner’s life. He or she is urged on with metaphors like climbing a glass mountain, the whole process attended by some stress and anxiety, and perhaps competition with peers. There is an assumption that eventual failure may result in an awareness of the futility of this scenario and that deeply felt acceptance which is essential in the shift towards wisdom.

Deluded beginners understandably see the mastery of the specialised technique of meditation as the key to achievement – in this case of “enlightenment”, the achievement of a n entirely new self. In the Zen tradition this means zazen, which, with Dogen, apparently refers not only to sitting meditation but to mindfulness and reflective practice in other situations. Again and again Dogen emphasises the need to free one’s meditation from any trace of gaining or achieving: what is important is sustained practice. “If you wish to practice the way of the Buddhas … you should expect nothing, seek nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood” (Zuimonki). In zazen, he taught, enlightenment and practice are one and the same., Thus our Buddha nature is already enlightened before we mature sufficiently to open fully to enlightenment (wisdom). In the same vein, Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

Which is more important: to attain enlightenment, or to attain enlightenment before we attain enlightenment ? To make a million dollars or to enjoy your life in your effort, little by little, even though it is impossible to make that million; to be successful or to find meaning in your effort to be successful ? If you do not know the answer you will not even be able to practice zazen; if you do know you will have found the true treasure of life” (“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” 122-3).

He clarifies: “Whether you practice zazen or not you have the Buddha nature. Because you have it there is enlightenment in your practice. The points we emphasize is not the stage we attain, but the strong confidence in our original nature and the sincerity of our practice… practice based on any gaining idea is just a repetition of your karma. Forgetting this idea, many late Zen masters have emphasized some stage to be obtained… We do not slight the idea of attaining, but the important thing is this moment, not some day in the future” (op.cit., 99-101).

I suspect that in sanghas where attainment is emphasised this must diminish the prominence given to our Buddha nature (“Big Mind”), for which I prefer the term “authentic nature”), even though there is a danger of seeing two selves – top dog and bottom dog.. The deluded self and the authentic self are, of course, simply manifestations of the same self. The latter is recognizable by its spontaneity as when we are naturally moved by compassion to intervene when, say, we see an animal mistreated. But, of course, our motives tend to be mixed, and not least when we are moved to help, as David Brandon showed so eloquently in his “Zen and the Art of Helping”. The needy self loves to feel “good” and “kind” or maybe somehow superior to the one who requires his or her help. And can one say how far one’s love for one’s nearest and dearest springs from a selfless spontaneity of affection and how far from more calculative motives? At all events the cultivation of a belief that one is, at bottom, wise and compassionate is surely better than a dominant sense of inadequacy and battling one’s law suit against reality.

Opening to Wisdom and Compassion

For Dogen faith lay in our original sense of being enlightened, in our authentic nature, “Faith is one with the fruit of enlightenment; the fruit of enlightenment is one with faith.” (Gakudo YojinshuI, 9). Hee-Jin Kim claims that ”Dogen’s view of faith in terms of trust, obedience, dependence, surrender, and commitment is clear”. (“Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist”, 271n.). Kim comments further:

Faith and enlightenment are often regarded as two antithetical ideas, so much so that Zen Buddhism can be mistakenly thought to be exclusively the religion of enlightenment, while faith is an inferior or foreign element, or at best a preliminary step to enlightenment. But in Dogen’s thought faith and enlightenment interpenetrated one another, so that without one the other could not be fully meaningful. The inferior status of faith was repudiated once and for all by Dogen; it now became for him the very core of enlightenment” (op.cit. 66).

I recall a distinction which Ken Wilbur once made between belief and faith. The former is rational and intellectual. We hear or read the Dharma and conclude that it makes sufficient sense in terms of our own life experience for us to take up the practice. In due course, if all goes well, we “wear out the sandal of samsara”. That is to say, we begin to open in profound acceptance to our life as we experience it – things are as they are, in their suchness, and that evasive lawsuit with reality is a futile delusion. We enter the realm of faith, that life is somehow basically okay, and begin share the wisdom of the mystics, as expressed by T S Eliot in “The Four Quartets”:

All shall be well;

All manner of things shall be well.

Here we begin to enter the realm of wisdom and compassion (“enlightenment) which will ripen henceforth, without any illusion of perfection or arrival. “When you are not attached to anything, all things are as they are”, as the Xin-xin-ming reiterates. Here is the watershed in spiritual experience where the real practice begins. The self is increasingly at ease with self and others, and increasingly at one with all that is other (“unity consciousness”). Playfulness and a senseof spaciousness – characteristics of Zen – begins to blossom , as an attribute of the Bodhisattvas, of whom it is said that they go down into hell to rescue lost souls as if it were a fairground..

A reading of Dogen implies, in my view, that these shifts are not necessarily characterised by powerful insights, including the celebrated kensho of “mind and body dropped off”. Except that the shift into faith, whether gradual or sudden, is itself arguably an insight, coming as it does with the force of fact. Shunryu Suzuki was explicit about this: “If you have great faith and great acceptance there is no need to worry about enlightenment. This may come along some time as an optional extra; it doesn’t matter.” Note that here “enlightenment” is referred to as an insight, and not as a state of mind, which I refer to as “wisdom”.

Essays in Dogen’s “Shobogenzo” collection helpfully explore the nature of suchness through examples, of which the most readily accessible, in my view, are “Being Time” (Uji) , “Birth and Death” (Shoji), “Flowers in the Sky” (Kuge) , and “The Scripture of Mountains and Rivers” (Sansuikyo), to which might be added “Painting of a Rice Cake”. One’s penetration of the concepts of suchness, duality and emptiness becomes more problematic when explored at their conceptual limit, for example in Dogen’s Ikka Myoju (“One Bright Pearl”) – “All the universe is one bright pearl”…. The difficulty had already been spelt out several centuries earlier in the Xin-Xin-Ming (Hsin-Hsin-Ming) (“On Faith in the Heart”), attributed to Seng-ts’an, the Third Chan Patriarch here in the Arthur Waley translation, and surely as near as one might get to conceptualising suchness:

The infinitely small is as large as the infinitely great, when boundaries and distinctions are forgotten.

The infinitely large is as small as the infinitely minute, when its outlines are not seen by any eye.

A little playfulness goes a long way here…

Here are two examples which my retreat students appear to find helpful to work with.

First – excluding romantic (and delusive) affairs -- recall someone with whom you are, or have been, in love (this invariably encompasses the majority). Then recall what you felt to be their good points, and secondly, what you didn’t like about them. Then conjure up feelings of love which subsume both your likes and dislikes. I suggest to them that this suchness offers a ready definition of “love”. They then discuss in small groups, each one including those who feel they have been in love. Discussion stimulates and amplifies. It also acknowledge Dogen’s emphasis on language, and on thinking and “non-thinking” (see later).

A more accessible exercise in suchness is the example of Dogen’s duality of fleeting time and time being . The students are first invited to note the usually wide span of ages in the room, and then to conceive each person as existing “just as they are”, regardless of age. This other pole of the duality is itself illustrative also of suchness, in that it subsumes the more ingrained and familiar pole of age. We may be both conscious of another’s age but no less and at the same time of other impressions they make unconnected with their age. This subsuming of both is the explicit perception of suchness. A similar exercise may be approached through the koan “There is no time; what is memory ?”

These examples suggest further explorations and workshops in the application of Dogen’s dialectical duality to personal and social relations, at work and elsewhere. Scholars have now for some time been exploring the relevance of Dogen’s thought to contemporary philosophy and, latterly, language and literature. I suggest that there is much to be done…

Beyond Quietism: Dogen’s Participatory Buddhism

It is possible to stop there and dwell in the contemplative bliss of the wisdom of suchness. However, where self is at one with all that is other (or even just wholeheartedly at ease with self and others), what else is there to do but compassionately and actively to heed the cries of others and the plight of our planet? This bodhisattva “return to the market place” is the summation of the well known Zen series of bull taming pictures. Dogen, however, would have undoubtedly had his seeker taming the bull also in the market place from the start, as proclaimed in the following quotation which opens my separate paper on participatory Buddhism entitled “Zen Master Dogen’s Active Compassion”:

Those who regard worldly affairs as an obstacle to their training do not realise that there is nothing such as worldly affairs to be distinguished from the Way (Bendowa – Wholehearted Practice).

Thus the opening to wisdom is no less the opening to compassion, into a participatory Buddhism, whether of family carer or a self-sacrificing social activist. Dogen’s participatory Buddhism is fully discussed in my paper “Zen Master Dogen’s Active Compassion.”

Thinking, Language and Literature

Customarily Zen practitioners are warned to eschew thinking and language, which are understood only in terms of the discriminative dualism which the practice is designed to dissolve. In his pioneering work “Reading Emptiness: Buddhism and Literature” (SUNY, 1999) Jeff Humphries claims that Buddhism, and particularly Zen, “have been deeply corrupted by this misapprehension that texts -- language and literature – could not contribute to enlightenment, to the direct apprehension of reality..” He denies that neither the Buddha or Nagarjuna implied this – and certainly not Dogen.

Most notably in his Shobogenzo essay “Picture of a Rice Cake” Dogen refutes the dualist belief that the act of reading, or viewing a picture (or, presumably, listening to music) involves an animated sentient being , with an inherent existence, confronting an inanimate thing. (The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-glass” would have something to say about that). A text, a picture, a piece of music, has its own life once its creator has sent it forth, with whatever meaning he or she has sought to endow it. And readers, viewers and listeners will, in turn, attribute their own meanings, and maybe argue about which is “correct”.

How often may we read a novel and people our life with its vivid imaginings which, like a dream, may appear more real than the perhaps drear and mundane realities of our own daily life ? Noteworthy here is a story, entitled “Sailing Home” (Free Press, 2008),in which Zen Master Norman Fischer uses Homer’s “Odyssey” as analogy to help his readers to navigate the pitfalls and perils of their own lives. He writes:

Somewhere we've developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and that meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, it is the way to be free, finally, of self-expression, to go much deeper than that. And meditation is not a form of thought or reflection, it is a looking at or an awareness of what is there, equally inside and outside, and then it doesn't make sense anymore to mention inside or outside.

The foregoing applies especially to haiku and its related form of haibun (haiku-like prose pieces), which are one of the Zen “ways” (do) of practice, together with martial arts, calligraphy and the like. Haiku confine themselves to concrete images as open metaphors to express meanings, leaving more space than is usual in poetry for readers’ imaginations. I have examined this further elsewhere on this website, where I note that the urge of the ego to express its self is the main enemy of the haijin.

Further, Zen poetry and prose (and especially Dogen’s) may be presented in a nondualistic style which exemplifies Dogen’s term ”non-thinking”, (as opposed dualistic “thinking”), where sunrise occurs at midnight. This opens for us a suchness beyond our accustomed this-and-that which are, no less, mere words. Consider these two examples from “Crow with No Mouth”, being the “versions” by Stephen Berg of the poetry of the fifteenth century Zen Master Ikkyu (Copper Canyon Press, 1989:

This ink painting of wind blowing through the pines

who hears it ?

not two not one either

and the unpainted breeze in the ink painting feels cool

Dogen’s trinary complex of Thinking, Not-thinking and Non-thinking

At the heart of Dogen’s emphasis on dualism, duality and suchness is his clarification of the place of thinking in Zen practice, hence the use of the words “mystical realism” and “rational Zen” in the books by Hee-Jin Kim and Thomas Cleary. Yet Dogen’s insistence on the centrality of thinking in zazen by no means implies a dismissal of those profound insights variously described as kensho, peak experience, and the ineffable. It is just that he was more concerned with how practitioners might communicate and implement such experiences in terms of language and life in the world.

Arguably Dogen’s not-thinking also extends to more modest experiences, as when the mind simply falls still and momentarily goes blank. Thus he wrtes of zazen that “whenever a thought occurs be aware of it, and it will vanish. If you remain for a long period forgetful of objects, you will naturally become unified. This is the essential art of zazen” (Carl Bielfeldt “Dogen’s ‘Manuals,”, p.181).That is, non-thinking. This is the “backward step” of turning the light within to observe one’s own awareness, the “silent illumination” already described by Chan Master Hongzhi a century earlier. Dogen paraphrased the above quotation by quoting a story about Yaoshan (745-828), who was asked what he thought about when meditating.. He replied that he thought of that which doesn’t think (that is to say, by “non-thinking”). Asked further about how he did that he replied “beyond thinking” (that is, by “not-thinking”).

Non-thinking is thus, as I understand it, the cognitive articulation of suchness, as in, for example, the insight that everything is basically okay – “all things shall be well”-- is non-thinking. “Thinking” is the duality where there are both things which are and are not well. Non-thinking can only come forth when thinking is suspended by not-thinking. As explained earlier in this paper, (with a quotation from R H Blyth), the thinking of duality is nonetheless essential simply to distinguish one thing from another. The tragedy of the human condition is typically how this duality is corrupted into the fear-driven dualism of a lifestyle of wanting this and rejecting that – an evasion the futility of which is dukkha – suffering.


For Dogen koan practice is the natural accompaniment of “just sitting”, and not an opposed practice, as is often supposed. In terms of language, an acceptable response to a koan is the expression in non-thinking to a statement presented as an illogical paradox, that is to say, as “thinking”, for example “Nothing matters; everything matters”.

The Soto Zen tradition prefers to use koans in terms of our personal experience of the discomfitures and problems of our daily lives, rather than as abstract and decontextualised problems which have a poor transference and application to our everyday lives, and which can therefore lead to spiritual bypassing. Dogen’s dictum that, in zazen, practice and enlightenment are one could be used as a koan in that it presents a paradox, since, in terms of ”thinking”, of duality, they are separate, sequential and opposed activities. Since practice leads to enlightenment; how can they be identical?

Traditionally and conventionally koans, as formulated to Westerners by D T Suzuki, are used to by-pass “words and phrases”, which are seen only as dualistic thinking from which the practice is intended to free us. Their paradoxical presentation is designed to exasperate and frustrate the practitioner who tackles them head-on, to bankrupt the intellect, and confront him or her with an impasse. The resulting despair and bafflement is designed to break down conventional consciousness and induce the dawning of a transcendent awakening. The paradox of the koan is dissolved into a world of wordless experience – an approach which ignores language through which we transact our lives. Nonetheless, experience of working with koans can be a valuable in weaning us from the either- this-or-that mentality.

The Emotional Climate of Nondualistic Practice

I believe that the emotional climate generated by nondualistic practice, individually and also collectively (in a sangha or on a retreat), differs from that of a practice which tends to emphasize the attainment of higher spiritual states. If we feel we are already intrinsically wise and compassionate, even though we have yet fully to manifest it, then our practice is surely less anxious and stressed, and more playful. Certainly that has been my experience with retreat participants. Again, the great Chan poem “Faith in the Heart (Xin-Xin-Ming) offers the reassurance of living in suchness, as in the following passage (Waley translation):

The Great Way is calm and large hearted;

for it nothing is easy, nothing hard.

small and partial views are uncertain and insecure;

sometimes assertive, sometimes vacillating.

When you are not attached to anything,

all things are as they are.

There follows the following encouraging passage (this time Alan Watts’s version):

Follow your nature and accord with the Way;

saunter along and stop worrying;

when your thoughts are tied you spoil what is genuine.

Do not be antagonistic to the world of the senses,

for when you are not, it turns out to be the same as complete awakening.

The wise person does not strive; the ignorant tie themselves up;

If you work on your mind with your mind,

How can you avoid complete confusion ?

Likewise, we practice scales on the piano confident that, with persistence, we shall in due course play music. Similarly, we can relax splashing around in the shallow end if confident that one day we shall find ourselves floating. In meditation such attitudes will be more readily engendered if we realise that a striving acquisitiveness is precisely what we wish to let go in the first place.

Instead of a blinkered purposiveness to ”batter down the Dharma gates”, the relaxed, nondualistic state of mind frees us to open to the deeper mysteries of experience. For while it is true that our everyday mental constructs enable us to impart order and definition to the cosmic chaos of sense experience, we forget that the world as we have defined it at the same time defines us. The puppet master becomes a puppet of the toys he has created. A relaxed experience of our authentic, Buddha nature the better enables us to detach from what are only our mental creations.

At home in our Buddha nature, but doubtless no less aware of our still persistent delusiveness, we open in ready compassion to the misfortunes and stupidities of others. We are the more aware that however deeply we may open to wisdom we never transcend our everyday humanity for something “higher”. Thus, Dogen in his opening passage about enlightenment and delusion in the Genjokoan, adds the moving remark “Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.” In his writing the compassionate suchness that embraces all contrasts, all dualities shines forth again and again. In the same essay there is this wonderful declaration of Zen humanism (which also provides an excellent definition of suchness), rendered as follows by some inspired translator:

Every creature covers the ground it stands on, no more nor no less, it never fall short of its completeness.

Finally, here are two of Dogen’s poems, as translated by Steven Heine in his “Zen Poetry of Dogen” (Tuttle, 1997):

The true person is

Not anyone in particular;

But, like the deep blue colour

Of the limitless sky,

Is everyone, everywhere in the world.

The unspoilt colours of a late summer night,

The wind howling through the lofty pines –

The feel of autumn approaching:

The swaying bamboos keep resonating,

And shedding tears of dew at dawn;

Only those who exert themselves fully

Will attain the Way.

But even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation

You can never forget the meaning of sadness.