Sentient Beings

(The phrase) ‘all sentient beings’ discussed now in the Buddha-way, means all beings possessing mind, for mind itself is sentient beings. Those beings not possessing mind should equally be sentient beings, because sentient beings  are, as such, mind. Therefore mind is invariably sentient beings; sentient beings are necessarily the Buddha Nature of existence. Grasses and trees, and countries and lands are mind. They are sentient beings by virtue of being mind, and are the Buddha Nature of existence on account of being sentient beings. The sun, the moon, and the stars — all are mind. They are sentient beings by reason of being mind, and are the Buddha Nature of existence because of being sentient beings.”

– Dogen Zenji (from Buddha Nature [Bussho] — translated by Hee-Jin Kim)

We got a dog a couple weeks ago.

My girlfriend had been wanting to get a dog for a long time. She figured that being stuck at home all day anyway, if she was ever gonna get a dog, now was the time. That way she could do all the training and suchlike before she had to go back to a regular working schedule.

Back in the Middle Ages, they used to say dogs were insentient. Even Lt. Commander Data refers to his cat, Spot, as not being sentient in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I think most of us these days think of dogs as sentient beings.

The phrase “sentient beings” comes up a lot in Zen. We vow to save all sentient beings, for example. 

Using the modifier “sentient” naturally makes it sound like we are making a distinction between sentient beings and insentient beings or things. But then if you read Dogen’s writings he takes issue with the idea that we can make any such distinctions, as in the quotation above.

Furthermore,  he insists that all things are mind. In Bendowa, probably his second most popular essay after Genjo Koan, Dogen says, “All dharmas, myriad phenomena and accumulated things, are totally just the one mind, without exclusion or disunion. All these various lineages of the Dharma assert that [myriad things and phenomena] are the even and balanced undivided mind, other than which there is nothing; and this is just how Buddhists have understood the essence of mind. That being so, how could we divide this one reality into body and mind, or into life-and-death and nirvana?”

Even so, Dogen doesn’t make a distinction between mind and matter. In an essay called Mind Here and Now is Buddha, Dogen says, “Mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles is nothing other than fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.” He’s not saying that the universe is composed of mind and of matter, and that mind is real while matter is not. That’s what idealists say, and Dogen was not an idealist. Rather, he says that mind is matter, and matter is mind. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

I’ve been wondering a lot about Dogen’s ideas about mind, matter, sentient beings, and the nature of reality lately — what with all the COVID-19 stuff going on.

What does it mean to believe that all things are just the one mind at a time when thousands of people are dying in a viral pandemic, the reaction to which seems to threaten the very foundations of the way the human world functions?

I had a dream last night in which I was lost and I couldn’t find my cell phone in my pocket to call someone or check Google Maps. I rummaged around in my pocket and found a roughly square shaped metallic object. But when I pulled it out, it turned out to be an 8-track player from an old car.

At that moment, I thought to myself, “This must be a dream because there’s no way I’d be carrying an old 8-track player from a car around in my pocket. How did it even fit in there?”

And yet I still had my same dilemma. I was still lost. And I still couldn’t call anyone on an 8-track player or use it to check Google Maps. I don’t think I could have even gotten MapQuest to work on an 8-track player.

Thus, even though I knew this was a dream, I still had my dream problem to solve.

This is sort of like my own dream version of Gensa stubbing his toe. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll recall that I uploaded part of a chapter from my book Don’t Be a Jerk, which included the story of Gensa and his poor toe. The short version of that story is that Gensa stubbed his toe and then thought, “Some say the physical body doesn’t exist, so where then is this pain coming from?” He returned to the temple and then, when his teacher asked why, Gensa said, “My trouble is I can’t be fooled.” Gensa was also famous for saying, “The entire universe is one bright pearl.”

If you keep at it with this zazen stuff long enough, you start to understand that the nature of the physical universe is not at all what you thought it was. 

In my paraphrase of the essay in which the story of Gensa appears, I have Dogen say, “Even when the universe shows us different faces — sometimes things are going great and sometimes things really suck — it’s still one bright pearl. The moment when we recognize the bright pearl exists is also the bright pearl itself. Even if we think we can’t possibly be the bright pearl, that’s just the bright pearl doing the thinking. Basing our action on fleeting thoughts is just due to our limited understanding.” That’s not a straight translation, but it’s close enough to what Dogen actually wrote for the purpose of this blog post.

Even all this crap is one bright pearl.

This is a very weird time for everyone. For some, it’s been terribly difficult. For all the talk of people who want things to open up again just selfishly wanting to be able to go see a basketball game or get a haircut, lots of the folks I know are having a terrible time. My friend Jeff, the guitarist of Zero Defex, went for something like two months without being able to earn a cent. His bank account just about bottomed out completely. Luckily, his long-delayed support check finally arrived a couple days ago. It would be good if people who decry those who want to get back out into the world as being merely selfish would remember folks like Jeff.

But Jeff also told me that it’s been kind of nice in some ways. He’s just hanging out at home all day every day with his cat, Princess Buttercup. Having some alone time — or at least away-from-people time — was good for him, he said.

Is there are real world out there in which there’s a virus raging its way through humanity? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But there is also our moment-by-moment existence here and now. 

We named our dog Ziggy. He’s a lot of fun. 


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