Dogen and Nagarjuna’s Tetralemma #6

Dogen can be very difficult to read or understand. That’s why we often need a commentary or teacher to introduce his way of writing and the underlying teaching. I often say he’s a thirteenth century cubist. Just like Picasso or in the writing world, Gertrude Stein, he tries to show all sides of the story in one paragraph or even one sentence. That is why he repeats himself and contradicts himself all in the same paragraph. If you are looking for the “right” understanding, you become confused and lost in his prism of various interpretations or views. Dogen’s “right” understanding is that there is none.   No one point of view is “right”. According to conditions, any view can be the right view in the right circumstance. Dogen really wants to take away our solid idea of a fixed ground of reality. It is not form or emptiness. It is not both or neither. There is no one right, fixed view. That is our “clinging”.

The place of the here and now IS the true reality and that can’t be described by any of the words above or by language. Dogen is constantly and repeatedly trying to knock us off our intellectual center and interrupt our thinking.  He does not confirm any one solid view of so-called reality. He doesn’t want us to get stuck to one side or the other in the dynamic pivoting of life’s opposite. Do not cling to the absolute or the relative truth. They dynamically and mutually work with each other. Dogen would describe this interaction as “The Whole Works.”

I like to think of it as the “diamond sliver” which is a concept I learned from the Trungpa Rinpoche lineage. Here is the first chart:

First we have to understand that the opposites need each other, revolve around each other, actually make one complete dynamic. Form is on the left and emptiness is on the right of the chart.  Form needs emptiness and emptiness needs form. They are actually not separated but intellectually we conceive them as separate and opposite.

After bringing the opposites to our consciousness, we then want to decide; do they happen as “both” (at the top of the chart) or neither (which is at the bottom of the chart).  Is it the truth that everything is annihilated by the word “neither”?

These are the four positions on the diamond shape; the opposites, both and neither.  We swing around and around the diamond shape if we stay in language and our thinking. This is the swirling world of thinking and samsara. To enter the truth, we have to get off the diamond shape and enter into the center of the chart. The center of the chart is, as Katagiri Roshi always said, the intersection of time and space. It is the truth-happening place, the only true reality – the present moment. When we find our heads spinning around all the prism of viewpoints, we can simply enter into the intersection of time and space and let “understanding” go.

I have written previously about the issue of “both”. In one sense, interdependence and total dynamic working implies that everything is both form and emptiness simultaneously. But the problem is that you can’t PERCEIVE both form and emptiness at the same time. They are both there supporting each other but our discriminative thought can only see one or the other; like the front and back foot in walking, like the old lady and young lady optical illusion, or the front and back of a hand. Both sides are always there. We have a whole hand but you can only see either the front of the hand or the back of the hand in a single moment.

“Neither” is in the very rarified land of non-perception, no-form and emptiness.

Dogen will take all the 4 positions of Nagarjuna’s tetralemma (either, or, both, neither) and present them in one sentence or one paragraph. He might even debate the righteousness of one point of view and then combat it with the other point of view. He breaks up our attachment to our point of views and points his finger at total dynamic functioning.

In this fascicle Dogen discusses several opposites. Talking and hearing. Revealed or hidden. Buddha and non-buddha.  Hearing and not-hearing. He talks about simultaneous hearing (both) and not hearing anything at all (neither).

This teaching has helped me understand Dogen’s cubism and also how we enter into the present moment. Uchiyama Roshi calls it “opening the hand of thought”. We do not enter the present moment through thinking. If we debate the philosophy, we circle around the truth like a hawk circling around its prey. We circle around the diamond but never enter the center – the intersection of time and space.

The first section of the fascicle “Going Beyond Buddha” is about talking and listening, or talking and hearing, or hearing and non-hearing.  These first few pages are Dogen at his wackiest – his almost impossible-to-follow writing.  But I find if I keep in mind the Diamond sliver and these charts, I can find my way through the dense contradictory sentences.  He is showing us the prism of understanding intellectually and the presence of being in the center of the chart.

Dogen is continually pointing at this truth with his, sometimes, incomprehensible writing. He circles and circles and then pounces!