In The Light: Dogen’s Divine Light

Here’s my new podcast:

And below is the text I am reading from, including some of the notes I used in the podcast. 

In The Light

This old Chinese Zen Master named Chosa Shoken, whose nickname was “the Big Cat,” once told his group,

The whole universe is a monk’s eye.

The whole universe is a monk’s everyday talk.

The whole universe is a monk’s whole body.

The whole universe is the light of the self.

The whole universe exists within the light of the self.

In the whole universe there is no one who is not the self.

You gotta be sincere when studying the Buddha Way. You can’t be half-assed about it. But masters who put in the effort necessary to realize the light Chosa was talking about are rare.

Buddhism arrived in China a long time ago as an object of scholarly study and popular practice. But it wasn’t until Bodhidharma arrived that the light was really transmitted to China. No one can get it on their own just by studying about it. They need to experience it for themselves.

People think the light is something separate from themselves. They avoid the light, like maybe they’re afraid of it. Yet even this feeling of alienation from the light is actually an aspect of the light. This is real alienation, when we are not truly ourselves.

Stinkers who practice the Buddhist Way half-assedly are prone to think, “The Buddha’s light and the light of the self must be red, white, blue, or gold, like shimmering fires or glistening water. Or maybe like sparkling pearls or jewels, or flashy dragons or gods. Or maybe like sunlight or moonlight.” Even when they read sutras or listen to teachers they imagine the light to be like the light of lightning bugs or something. That’s not what learning in practice is about at all.

These kinds of crazy ideas have been around a long, long time, even way back in ancient China. Don’t trust so-called “Zen Masters” who peddle those kinds of teachings.

This “light of the Buddhist ancestors” is the entire universe. It’s the entirety of Buddhas and the entirety of ancestors. It’s like that line in the Lotus Sutra about “Buddhas alone together with Buddhas.” It’s the Buddhas as light and light as Buddhas. Practicing and experiencing this light is how Buddhas become Buddhas. When we sit zazen we experience as Buddhas. This is why the intro to the Lotus Sutra says, “This light illuminates the 18,000 Buddha Lands of the East.” This is the light put into the form of words.

Let’s talk about what this phrase means. The “light” we’re referring to here is the Buddha’s light. Illumination of the East is the East’s illumination. In other words, it means oneness between illumination and the place being illuminated. East doesn’t mean this place or that place.* It means the center of the universe — in other words, you, yourself.**

The word East describes a specific place rather than an abstraction, just as the light we’re talking about here is real and not an abstraction or metaphor. This light is also not just some kind of spiritual brightness. There is East in this world, and there is East in other worlds.

As for the thing about 18,000 Buddha Lands, when the sutra says 18,000 it’s like saying “a bazillion.” And yet this too isn’t a mere abstraction. Still, it’s something beyond numbers that you could count.

“Buddha Lands” means the inside of our own eyeballs. When the sutra says “illuminating the East” don’t picture it as some kind of science fiction type ray beam shooting out eastward. The whole universe is “the East” and the East is called “the whole universe.” This is the basis upon which the universe exists. And we hear the words it uses to proclaim itself as the whole universe as, “the 18,000 Buddha Lands.”

A long time ago there was a Chinese emperor called Kenso who reigned from 806 until 821 C.E. Once this emperor requested some relics of the Buddha to be brought to his palace. The story goes that at night these relics glowed in the dark.

The emperor was pretty excited about this. The next morning all but one of his retainers wrote him letters saying stuff like, “Congratulations Emperor! It’s because you’re so virtuous that the sacred relics glowed in the dark!”

The one retainer who didn’t congratulate the emperor was a guy named Bunko who had studied some Buddhism. The emperor asked him why he didn’t write a letter of congratulations. Bunko said, “I’ve read in Buddhist texts that the Buddha’s light isn’t blue, yellow, red, or white. This glow was just the light of the dragon god that protects you.”

The emperor asked Bunko, “What’s the Buddha’s light?”

Bunko didn’t answer.

Even though Bunko was a lay-person, he had the mind of a real practitioner. We should all hope to have an attitude like his. Nevertheless, if I could say something to Bunko I’d ask him how he understood the words “The Buddha’s light isn’t blue, yellow, red, or white.” If you know that when you see colored lights they aren’t the Buddha’s light, then you should also never see the Buddha’s light as colored light. If the emperor had been a Buddhist he might have questioned Bunko like that.

Here’s the deal. The light is everything. Like, absolutely every, everything. Nothing is added and nothing is taken away. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about there being five worlds or six worlds. These are the worlds of hell, hungry ghosts, regular demons, fighting demons, animals, and gods. The light we’re talking about is all of those places and everyone and everything in them. It’s even the beings, things, and places you can’t express in words. One way to express this light is to ask the question, “How is it that mountains, rivers, and the Earth appear at this very moment?”

We should take the time to really dig into Chosa’s words, “The whole universe is the light of the self.” We must learn the self which is light as the entire universe. Life and death, coming and going, are the coming and going of the light. To go beyond ordinariness and sacredness are the purple and the crimson of the light. Becoming a Buddha and becoming one of the Buddhist saints are the black and the gold of the light. It’s not that there’s no practice and no enlightenment. It’s just that you can’t separate them into a means and an end.

Ordinary everyday things like grass, trees, fences, and walls, and the various states of understanding, these are the colors of the light. Smoke, mist, water, and stone, the paths of birds through the sky and the mysterious Way to Awakening, these are changing cycles of the light. To see and hear about this light is proof of having directly encountered and met Buddha.

The entire universe is the true and real self. And the true and real self is the entire universe. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide from this true and real self. Even if there was a place to escape to, it would be through the vital path of bodily emancipation (shusshin no katsuro – “vigorous road of getting the body out”), that is the practice of zazen.

This present body with its bones and its skull is the form and image of the entire universe. The entire universe that we practice in Buddhism is the skull, the physical body, the skin, the flesh, the bones, and the marrow.

A long time ago there was a great Zen Master named Unmon. One day he said to his monks, “Every person totally possess the light. When you look for it, you can’t see it. It’s totally obscured by darkness. Just what is this light that’s present in everyone?”

The monks didn’t respond.

Unmon spoke for them saying, “The meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates.”

Unmon wasn’t saying that the light will appear in the future, like someday you’ll realize it. He wasn’t saying it was there in the past, like you had it once but now you lost it. He wasn’t saying someone else can show it to you or give it to you. He was saying that everyone naturally has it right now — including you. This is really important to understand.

It’s like Unmon was bringing together a hundred thousand Unmons and having them speak all at once with one voice from one mouth saying, “Every person totally possess the light.” Unmon didn’t drag these words up out of himself. The light of every human being gathered itself together and spoke these words. “Every person totally possess the light” means all of humanity is naturally the light. The light means each and every human being. The light gathers up the light and makes it into subject and object.

Maybe it’s better to say that the light totally possess each human being! The light naturally is each human being. Each human being naturally possess each human being. Each moment of light possess each moment of light. Each moment of existence totally possesses each moment of existence. And the existence of each moment of totality possesses the existence of each moment of totality.

So remember, folks, the light that each person totally possesses is the realized person. And the light is the individual person that each moment of light totally possesses.

Now let’s ask Unmon something. What do you mean by “each person?” And what do you mean by “light?” Because Unmon himself asked, “Just what is this light?” This is the big question. When the mysterious way is put into words like this (inmo-dou chakusureba – lit. “when the ineffable way arrives”), each person is the light itself.

The monks didn’t respond, says the story. Although they had a lot of ways to express the truth, they replied by remaining silent. This is the Right Dharma Eye Treasury and the Fine Mind of Nirvana that is authentically transmitted by the Buddhist ancestors.

Unmon, the story goes, spoke for them saying, “The meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates.” This means that Unmon spoke for Unmon, Unmon spoke for the monks, Unmon spoke for the light, and Unmon spoke for the meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates.

But what the heck did Unmon mean by the meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates?

We shouldn’t confuse subject and object and call the assembly and each person it “the meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates.” How many meditation halls, Buddha halls, kitchens, and the three temple gates are there? Subjectively they may be different for each person who sees them. Objectively they are the same.

I mean, should we see them as Unmon? Should we see them as the legendary Seven Buddhas who supposedly preceded Shakyamuni? Should we see them as the twenty-eight Buddhist ancestors in India from Shakyamuni to Bodhidharma? Should we see them as the first six Chinese Buddhist ancestors from Bodhidharma to Huineng? Or as a fist or a nose? Although the meditation hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen, and the three temple gates are Buddhist ancestors, they also include each individual person. Therefore, they are beyond each individual person. Because they are real, they are beyond the artificial categories of subject and object.

There are examples of meditation halls where no real Buddhist practice takes place and there are examples of people who have realized the true state of awakening without ever setting foot in a Buddhist temple.

There are Buddhas who have light (u-ko-butsu). There are Buddhas without light (mu-ko-butsu). There is light without Buddhas (mu-butsu-ko). There is light that has Buddhas (u-butsu-ko). 

(Nishijima/Cross = There are buddhas who have light; there are luminant buddhas who are without; there is the light of Buddha in being without; and there is the light of Buddha which is existence.) 

(Tanahashi et al = buddha of being light, buddha of no light, no buddha light, and being buddha light.) 

(Nearman = There are Buddhas who have luminosity and there are Buddhas who do not have luminosity. There is a luminosity without Buddha and there is a luminosity with Buddha. )

Zen Master Seppo Gisan once said, “I met you all in front of the monks’ hall.” This was the time when Seppo’s whole body was in the eye. In other words it was a moment when he really got it. It was a moment when Seppo understood Seppo and the monks’ hall understood the monks’ hall.

Later on, Seppo’s student Hofuku was talking to his other student Gako about this. Hofuku said, “Let’s forget about the monks’ hall for a minute. How can we get to the best place there is?” Just then Gako ran back to the abbot’s quarters and Hofuku went straight to the monks’ hall. This is an example of the real action in the state of the truth.

Great Master Shin-o of Jizo-in temple said, “The cook is going into the kitchen.” This is a matter that transcends even the time before the creation of the universe.


This talk was given to the monks on the evening of June 2, 1242. It was the rainy season and heavy rain was dripping from the eaves of the temple. What is the light? The monks who were listening were pierced by Unmon’s words.


* Nishijima Roshi’s footnote here says “’Doctrines of this place’ means materialistic philosophies (which affirm indulgence in this world) and ‘doctrines of that place’ means idealistic philosophies (which affirm life in the next world).” He refers to the phrase arekore no zokuron  – ideas about this and that.

** I’m interpreting Dogen’s phrase “middle of a fist” kentou no chuuou literally “center of a fist-head”] following Nishiyama/Stevens.