Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jason Wirth at the Mike Ryan Lecture Series

Jason Wirth, long-time friend to the Philosophy Student Association, leading Schelling scholar, and authority on the philosophy of zen, gave a talk for the Mike Ryan Lecture Series, "Mountains & Waters: Zen Master Dōgen and the Sutra of Nature" on the 12th at Kennesaw State University.

***Please be aware that, as is the case with my notes from the European Graduate School, what follows are my notes to the presentation and as such may not do justice to the presenter (although I am a big fan of Jason)***

"Friends of wisdom love their friends like other people love gold..."

I'm going to attempt to allow Nature to reveal itself through Dōgen's thinking. When discussing Dōgen you have a real dilemma: either you say what is true and risk not making sense to the 90% of the audience that has never been exposed to Dōgen, or you barely communicate Dōgen's thinking at all. It's a rock and a hard place scenario.

I want to see if Dōgen can help us express Nature in language. Dōgen begins by asking us if we can even hear. If our minds were mirrors which reflect everything we saw and these mirrors were dirty, what would we see? We'd see filth everywhere: the world would appear dirty to us. We would assume that everything we saw was dirty; not that we were the dirty-minded.

It's difficult to communicate this. If the mind was dirty, then all it heard would be dirty, and so we couldn't hear the truth of how dirty our mind is.

We look to the Pāli canon: there is this dialogue between the Buddha and Bhâradhvâja. Bhâradhvâja asks the Buddha with whom he should study. This is a good question. How do you know who is a good teacher without first receiving their teaching? Buddha says, look at what kind of person they are: are they greedy, full of hate, or fully-deluded? What kind of mind do they have? What they teach, think, and value reflects directly on the kind of person they are.

Dōgen takes this to a whole new level.


If we are to follow the Buddha Dharma, we get a good teacher (like Dōgen) and then look at ourselves. Sit with ourselves until everything we do is meditative. We ultimately see there is nothing to study and then that Nature agrees, and thus Nature begins to appear. We are one of Nature's manifestations, not a particularly special one (see the Genjō koan, 1233 and here are some notes from Mark Unno of the University of Oregon)

Of Samadhi (see Bendōwa, 1231)

Negotiating dao 道 ("way-making"): trees, grasses, land - they are all preaching. They are ready to teach. Trees expound the dharma, a fence, etc. Dōgen states that even a mote of dust is enough to turn the dharma wheel.


Sansui kyō 山水經 from the Shōbōgenzō 正法限蔵 - the sutra is nature is itself, not another sutra form the canon. Sansui kyō 山水經: mountain water sutra. Dōgen studied in China and takes sansui 山水 from the Chinese landscape painting tradition, sansui is the Japanese pronunciation of shan shui. In the West we tend to think of this practice as one of representing "that reality, out there" but this isn't the case in the Chinese tradition. In shan shui what we see is self-portrait (see Lofty Mt. Lu, Shen Zhou 沈周, 1467, at right).

山 (mountain): hard, aspiring, form. It feels like what it is: it's so firm that when we climb it it resists us. Mountains are associated with Fudō Myō-ō, the Immovable King of Wisdom.

水 (water): fluidity, compassion. It has no form, takes the form of whatever contains it. It can be all things but is loyal to none; it never holds onto itself.

Thus in Shen Zhou's painting we begin at the top in the mountains, as form and end at the bottom as formless water, a great opening-out.

We can look to that most pithy of the sutras, the Heart Sutra. To paraphrase, "mountain is water, water is mountain." Same thing? Don't be silly. Completely different? Not really.

Dōgen said that mountains walk. Why do we think that human walking is the measure of all walking? We wouldn't say that the measure of a mountain is in the number of steps we take around it. Crossing the mountains in the Seattle area helps to illustrate my point. To walk on a mountain we must know about how we walk and also understand how the mountains move, say the movement of snow in the mountains. We must understand our being and the being of the mountain.

Look at D.T. Suzuki, 鈴木 大拙 "the Great Simplicity." He wrote a great essay in his 80s, well into his great-flowing-forth where he said that Nature will never appear if we take ourselves as the point of reference. Nature does not surround you, you are Nature. Break that mirror, don't clean it, and let Nature appear: kyōgai 境涯.

Look at Gary Snyder (from The Practice of the Wild). Only someone with no sense of the wilderness would think that the wilderness is wild (as in erratic, "wildin' out"). The problem with cities is they think the wild is the opposite of them, so cities are hyperwild and without Nature.

We can't take credit for the first 5 Great Extinction Events, but since the 18th century wildlife has been dying-out at the same rate as that experienced by the dinosaurs.

Dōgen Zenji 道元禅師 "the Source of the Dao" his dharma name given to him by his teacher. You don't teach yourself. His early life is little-known and he wasn't much interested in autobiography. We do know that he lost both his parents early in life and this seems to have inspired him to think about impermanence, mujō 無常. The world is passing. He writes, "to what shall I liken the world? Moonlight, reflected in dew drops, shaken from a crane's bill."

Crane's are symbols of good fortune, they are featured in wishing for the accumulation of wealth. No matter how much money Bill Gates amasses, he can't hire someone to do his dying for him. That's not the way.

"What does it mean, really, to speak?" Dōgen asked. Nature is not data, it may include data; you might talk story, but if it's only talking story, communication isn't happening. The only manner in which to speak is Buddha to Buddha.

Canonically, the Buddha had a ginormous tongue. Why? It didn't speak only one tongue, thus we understand Su Dongpo's 蘇東坡 poem about the river valley.  
The sound of the stream is his long, broad tongue;
The mountain, his immaculate body.
This evening's eighty-four thousand verses -
How will I tell them tomorrow?

How can we find new ways to speak the wide and long tongue?

2 comments:

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