Is there a universal consciousness?

Is there a universal consciousness from which we are separated by delusion? Or when we let go of delusion, do we simply manifest something? Is there a thing separated from us only by delusion which we can join, or are we each unique examples of perfection?

In Dogen’s writings, this is not really clear; I think he takes both sides. My understanding from my own practice, and from studying Dogen, and from my teacher’s teaching, is that there’s not a certain fixed, universal reality, from which we are separate only because of our thinking. If we are living within the realm of thinking, how can we know such a reality? How do we know that it exists even though we don’t see it? It’s not really clear to me. I don’t believe there is that kind of a foundation, which is sometimes called buddha-nature, or the true reality of all beings.

The Lotus Sutra says:

“Only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the Reality of All Existence, that is to say, all existence [has] such a form, such a nature, such an embodiment, such a potency, such a function, such a primary cause, such as secondary cause, such an effect, such a recompense, and such a complete fundamental whole.”[1]

That reality is the reality we are living in— and yet we cannot see it. That’s what I’m referring to when I talk about the network of interdependent origination. Whether this reality is the same or not is a really important, really subtle point. There is a solid foundation as a reality, and we are a part of it, and yet we are separate from it because we are full of deluded thinking. To return to that reality by letting go of thought is one way to understand our practice. But I don’t think this is the case. When we let go, we are not sure whether there is such a foundation or not. This is a kind of belief. In the Lotus Sutra, it says that only a buddha together with a buddha can see this. I cannot speak on behalf of Dogen or Uchiyama Roshi, but within my practice, my own personal practice, I am not sure if there’s such a solid foundation from which we deviate. Whether such a thing exists or not, our practice is we just let go.

When I discuss the network of interdependent origination as a circle with crisscrossed lines as a net within that circle, I often say that the circle is extra. That means, I’m sure we’re connected with all beings, and yet there’s no such boundary as that circle. When we let go, we are released from self-clinging, released from our artificial man-made picture of the world. That’s all. We are not sure whether we return to this foundation or not. There’s no way to figure it out. “Now I have returned” or “Now I’m there”— there’s no way to make sure or verify that I’m there. But what we can do is just to let go and be released from our clinging. To open our hand is it. But if we say that when we open our hand, we return to this, then it is the same as the teaching of original enlightenment— that we are separate from original enlightenment because of our delusion, and our practice is to return to that reality. That is one of the ideas of Buddhist philosophy based on the theory of tathagata-garbha, or buddha-nature.

This question also has something to do with Dogen’s style of teaching or writing. I have been reading his writings for many years, but from studying his writings I don’t find such a solid “foundation” within his teaching, or something built up from that foundation. I see the same thing when I read Nagarjuna. What they are doing is almost deconstructing or destroying that foundation. That means that even this foundation is our idea. Letting go means we also have to let go of that type of idea. In the answer to question four in Bendowa, Dōgen said,

 “…when we truly do zazen thoroughly, relying on the Buddha mudra and letting go of all affairs, we transcend the limits of sentimental judgments about delusion and enlightenment…”[2]

“Sentimental judgment” is what we think. What we do is just let go of our clinging, and grasping, and deconstruct the building we have been building using the bricks of concepts, and knowledge, and thinking, like a system of thinking or thought. When we finish building this system of thought, it becomes a prison. We can’t get out. Our practice is to make a hole into these walls by letting go of whatever we have been thinking, whatever we have been achieving, whatever we have been grasping. In my understanding, Dogen did not build a building on the basis of a solid foundation— he tried to deconstruct this idea. Still, he is trying to show us a way of life, what we should do, how we should live. He describes what we should do, how we should practice in the zendo or for the rest of the day within the monastery. He teaches us how to live. But I think his teaching is how to live based not upon a certain kind of truth or reality, but by the way we become free from our clinging to any theory, even this kind of theory. That is my personal understanding. On this point I sometimes feel different from my teacher’s teaching. I think Uchiyama Roshi’s teaching is based on the idea or theory of buddha-nature, and to return to that reality, although he also negated that there is any such fixed thing. I think it’s really difficult to judge, in Dogen’s teaching, or Uchiyama Roshi’s teaching, or even in what I’m saying, whether that teacher is thinking of that kind of solid, fixed reality or truth to which we return. We are always in the process of letting go. There’s no end.

— • —

[1] Bunnō Katō and William Edward Soothill, The Threefold Lotus Sutra (Tokyo; New York: Kosei Pub. Co.; Weatherhill, 1987). p. 52

[2] Kōshō Uchiyama et al., The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa with Commentary (Boston, Mass: Tuttle Publishing, 1997). p. 28

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses


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