The absolute in the relative and the relative in the absolute

How do we understand non-duality or oneness without destroying the uniqueness of particular things? How do we understand non-duality or oneness without holding on and solidifying particular things? In the Yin-yang symbol, there is a dot of black in the white side, and a dot of white in the black side.

From Harmony of Difference and Sameness (Sandokai):

In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;
In the dark, there is light,
but don’t see it as light.
Light and Dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

This is the paradoxical practice of Zen. How can we take care of the ordinary things and people in our daily life with care and attentiveness and still understand and know their impermanence? In practicing these two views simultaneously, we can come to understand freedom and to completely inhabit our one precious and unique human life. They mutually support each other and yet retain their distinctive qualities. We don’t call something that is white, black and yet we understand that white and black share the same essence. This understanding defines a good Zen practice. We take care of cause and effect from the basis of operation of boundless, timeless, open awareness.

From the Diamond sutra: Buddha takes care of his everyday actions of wearing his robe, eating, washing his feet, and sitting down from the vantage point of never stopping to manifest the marvelous workings of his true mind.

From the Book of Serenity #40:

Although the mirror is clean
It has a back and a front;
Only the jade works spinning it
Weaves them together,
Both light, both dark
With the technique of simultaneous realization.

I have always liked the weaving loom as a metaphor for weaving the absolute and relative together into one cloth. The absolute can be the warp, the relative can be the woof, and the shuttle or the jade works , can spin them all together into one cloth. It’s not that we have to make them into one cloth, they are always manifesting together in simultaneous realization . The jade works is the activity of life itself, the total dynamic functioning of the activity of the universe. Sometimes translated as: The Whole Works. Always right here. All-at-oneness.

When we see the world from the vantage point of all-at-oneness, always right here, we can be said to be like a pearl in a bowl. Flowing with every turn without any obstructions or stoppages coming from our emotional reactions to different situations. This is a very commonly used image in Zen — moving like a pearl in a bowl.

As usual, our ancestors comment on this phrase, wanting to break open our solidifying minds even more.

Working from Dogen’s fascicle Shunju, Spring and Autumn, we have an example of opening up even the Zen appropriate phrase — a pearl in a bowl.

Editor of the Blue Cliff Record Engo ( Yuan Wu) wrote:

A bowl rolls around a pearl, and the pearl rolls around the bowl.
The absolute in the relative and the relative in the absolute.


The present expression “a bowl rolls around a pearl” is unprecedented and inimitable, it has rarely been heard in eternity. Hitherto, people have spoken only as if the pearl rolling in the bowl were ceaseless.