Objective Reality and Stubbed Toes

In an essay called “The Mountains and Waters Sutra” (Sansuigyo), Dogen says, “ways of seeing … water differ according to the type of being: There are (heavenly) beings which see what we call water as a string of pearls… Demons see water as raging flames, and see it as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see water as a palace, and see it as a tower… Human beings see it as water, the causes and conditions of death and life. Thus, what is seen does indeed differ according to the kind of being [that sees]. Now let us be wary of this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistakenly assumed the various images to be one object?”

This formula for describing different ways of seeing reality is derived from Yogacara Buddhism. All the stuff about dragons and demons and heavenly beings is just metaphorical. The point the Yogacara philosophers were making with these metaphors is that depending on our point of view — which in turn depends upon our circumstances — we may see things very differently from the way others see them. 

Does this mean Dogen took the view that there is no objective reality? Does this mean that Dogen thought that anybody’s ideas about what was real and true were just as good as anybody else’s? Would Dogen be OK with the idea that there are many truths out there and that all of them deserve to be respected?

Not quite.

Because right after the quotation above Dogen goes on to say, “although there are many kinds of water, it seems that there is no original water, and no water of many kinds.” Notice that he denies both the idea that there is one original water and the idea that there are many kinds of water. 

Here we can understand “water” as a stand-in for truth or reality. Most of us accept that there is some truth or some reality that is independent of our own ideas about it.

Dogen goes on, saying, “At the same time, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings [that see water] do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others; they have the liberated state of reliance on water itself. This being so, water is beyond earth, water, fire, wind, space, consciousness, and so on.”

That last line is neat. If we read “water” as “truth,” then we can say that the actual truth is not constrained by any ideas we might have about truth.

Nor does the actual truth arise from karma. Our individual or group experiences do not make us encounter different truths, even though those factors may influence how we perceive truth and how we express our understanding of it.

If we want to accord with the true truth, the real reality, it may be useful to try to understand a variety of different points of view about truth and reality. Yet we do not want to get stuck in any of those points of view — including our own point of view and including points of view that we wish were true.

The scientific point of view derives from the idea that one can objectively know certain things about the world and the universe. It relies of rationality and logic. 

Dogen was a big fan of rationality and logic. In the same essay we’ve been looking at, he also says, “If ultimately there is no rational understanding, the reasoning which those [who say the truth is beyond rationality] have set forth also cannot hit the target.”

Science has shown us that some ways of understanding the world we live are demonstrably more correct than others. If the rational, scientific way of understanding of the world were not correct, the device you’re using to read this essay would not work. Every time you use your Smart Phone or even ride a bicycle you are testing the scientific method and seeing that it works.

Dogen was not so foolish as to deny the fact that objective truth exists — or at least something we can provisionally call “objective truth” even if none of our explanations ever explain everything. Later in this same essay Dogen points out that, “The Buddha says, ‘All dharmas are ultimately liberated; they are without an abode.’ Remember, although they are in the state of liberation, without any bonds, all dharmas are abiding in place.” 

Dogen is not trying to replace our view that objective truth and objective reality exist with the view that they do not exist. “Dharmas” here means everything material or immaterial. Saying they are “without any bounds” is like saying they have no permanently fixed reality. Saying they are “abiding in place” reminds us that, nonetheless, they are what they are and we may continue to treat them as if they are real even while knowing that ultimately everything is always in a state of flux and change.

On the one hand, Dogen is trying to free us from the belief that anything — including ourselves — has any permanent essence. But he is not trying to cast us into a confused stupor where we can’t even admit that if we accidentally kick a rock really hard it’s gonna hurt. There’s a koan in which a monk named Gensa accidentally kicks a rock and thinks, “I have heard the physical body is an illusion. So where did this pain come from?”

All at once, he gets it.

His teacher, Seppo Gisan, asks him to explain his understanding. Gensa says, “I just can’t be deceived.”

I am getting worried lately that it’s become trendy to believe that there is no basis for any of the ideas and concepts that have held our society together for thousands of years. Some folks are even saying that logic, rationality, and civil discourse are nothing but tools used by the oppressor class to subjugate the masses and build up the dominance of their own tribe.

This is, of course, as nonsensical as Gensa’s belief that the physical body is unreal and therefore he shouldn’t feel any pain. And yet I’m seeing a lot of people out there who appear to me to be advocating something very like the idea Gensa held before he kicked that rock.

The idea that there’s no basis for rationality also seems to me to be creeping into American Zen institutions. This may be because so few of our American Zen teachers really comprehend what it is they’re teaching. Otherwise they’d have kicked this idea to the curb before it ever had a chance to get in at all.

I think some of them might need to read the koan about Gensa a few more times.

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