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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Existential Fulfillment in a Phenomenologically Painted Universe

A paper on Zen Buddhism I wrote some time ago- one I'm particularly proud of.  It's a little long, but I hope worth a read. I'd love comments!

In his poetic teaching, "Painting of a Rice cake," zen master Dogen illuminates the nature of the relationship between emptiness and phenomena by breaking down the seemingly inherent dualism between the two conceptualizations. Dogen describes the fundamental interdependence between 'truth', and the image of truth; the two concepts are intrinsically embedded in each other's existence, they cannot be thought of as separately. Dogen believes that the image of truth, or the "painting of a rice cake", and the rice cake itself, do not oppose one another. Neither dharma is more valid, neither is more capable of actualizing realization; the picture becomes reality, and reality becomes the picture. The thickly interpenetrating non-duality of reality is the philosophical teaching Dogen is striving to express; he achieves this end through a myriad of imagistic language, complex extended metaphors, and enigmatic, yet undoubtedly meaningful and artistic analogies.
      Dogen begins by providing a brief description of arising, the popping into existence a manifestation, and along with it a plethora of other, non-obstructed and not obstructing existences both tangent and absolutely different to each other. No manifestations, no dharmas, come forth with opposition to each other, rather, they cause one another, and thus, in a sense, they bestow upon one another attributes and actualities vis-a-vis their interpenetrating existences. This interpenetration is not reserved to humans, or sentient beings, but rather it permeates and envelops our environments. Thus, mountains, roads, rives, buildings, and paintings are exchanging existential characteristics. Dogen references the act of penetrating one of these concepts; to realize that mountains are doomed to crumble and that buildings are complete fabrications, this penetration doesn't take away the validity of their inherent characteristics. People summit mountains, and live in buildings, and give meanings to paintings, music, and drama as part of our everyday activity, thus  these dharma-characteristics, realized through their actualization, are penetrated but still exist; and are both empty and full the same time.
       Dogen quotes an ancient Buddha as saying that "A painting of a rice cake doesn't satisfy hunger." On one hand this statement is making an important point; that it is not enough to read and to study the sutras; one must actively participate in one's own enlightenment.  However, if "satisfying hunger" is seen as an aspect of validity, or confirming reality, this statement  is like saying  that since Jude Law didn't 'really' die at the end of Hamlet, the audience's thirst for meaning is  left unquenched. The invalidation of the performance or the painting based on its illusory nature doesn't take into account the fact that  the audience still reacts to the experience with psychic weight;  they despair, rejoice, chuckle, and sob. The reality of these neuropsychological responses to an artistic event can be compared to the real potential for meaning creation and realization in the painting a rice cake. To invalidate the painting because it cannot satisfy hunger is demonstrating first-level emptiness of this particular dharma; to make this claim is slipping into means-end thinking. Dogen's reponse to this claim of the painting's emptiness breaks down dualism by going into second-level emptiness, the emptiness of emptiness, and thus understands that, although the painting is empty, emptiness permeates reality; the painting is real, and since it is real, it is equally valid and capable of leading to realization- the terminus of all suffering. 
         The second-level emptiness Dogen invokes is based on the insistence and reliance of emptiness on phenomena. Without any phenomena to perceive, there is nothing to be empty, without any perception from which to perceive, there is nothing that is empty. Emptiness is not an absolute. Dogen is vehemently against establishing absolutes because of their tendency to lead to strict dualism. Rather, emptiness's existence is relative to the phenomena that are there; the phenomena thus guide and shape the emptiness around it; they are postive and negative spaces working together to produce a cohesive reality: yin and yang. For Dogen, everything is empty and everything is full; this is true both of the picture of the rice cake and the rice cake itself; they are both witnessed via a limited perspective, in a confined context, yet they both are the all inclusive total cause of existence, they both have dharma power. Because of this inherent parallel between the rice cake and the painting, when talking in terms of actualization, all rice cakes are paintings of rice cakes. All are limited, all are subjective, all are total, all are actualized constructions in the moment.
           Having established the nonobstructive, nondualsitic existences of the rice cake and the painting, Dogen questions perspective and representation by inspecting the metaphor of a painting, examine a painting as a microcosm for the universe. Dogen observes that in a painting, very much like the human perspective, there exists a certain, fixed frame of reference. The only way to determine the characteristics of one item in the painting is to compare it to another. A giant monolith can look like a toothpick depending on its contextual environment. We assign values to things by comparing them to one another, relational thinking is our conventional way, it is not empty, its trajectory is guided by schematic perceptions. The entire universe is a painting, with phenomena and empty space colliding on the canvas. They cannot be picked out, the syntheses of the two creates a unique painting with a distinct, dynamic frame. Our experience arises from this painting, our experience is thus a painting, and contains the intricate wholeness of perspective, along with inherent subjectivity.
            If we take the notion Dogen referenced of satisfying hunger as a metaphor for meaning-creation resulting in a content wholeness, the only means to fulfill the hunger will be through a "painted" rice cake of some form, a representative fabrication of our own that contains the meaning we decide to allot it. It has to be, because the entirety of our relational,rational, experience is painted, everything we interact with and all the schema we can be fulfilled by are put there by us, they are painted. Dogen understands that anticipations wound around constructs guide us, and with this knowledge, through his breaking down of dualistic conceptualizations, Dogen advises his monks to progressively create a system of fabrication that leads to fulfillment and the elimination of dukkah. The Existential satisfaction is fashioned from the self, it doesn't emanate from some external absolute. Ultimately, we can create what fulfills us, but that doesn’t make the process of finding fulfillment empty or invalid; the ability to be fulfilled is latent inside a person from the moment one is thrust into the universe. Finding fulfillment and attaining realization is not to be found by striving for absolutes or resigning to nihilistic relativity; fulfillment will not be found solely in the rice cake nor the painting of the rice cake. Rather, by cultivating a true wisdom of the interdependence of the painting and the cake itself; and by flowing and cooperating with the inherent emptiness in the phenomenological world we can come up with a truly creative, non-dualistic meaning system that follows the Buddhist ideal of the middle way.
Works Referenced 
Dogen, Ed Kazuaki Tanahashi Moon in a Dewdrop. 1985 North Point Press, New York, NY

Do not redistribute without permission from myself.


  1. It's surprising just how much Existentialism and Buddhism have in common, and it begs the question why it's not a more common blend.

  2. nice essay, jack! some light reading for my sunday night... ;)