52:12 Wondrously Embraced Within the Real
This week I’d like to talk about the “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” by Dongshan Liangjie, founder of the Chinese Caodong school of Ch’an Buddhism, better known in the west in its Japanese form, the Soto Zen school established by Eihei Dogen in the 13th century CE.
Many of the world’s mystical traditions express themselves in complementary styles, with analytical philosophical traditions and poetic traditions. For example, if we were to set the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas side-by-side with the “Canticle of the Sun” by his near-contemporary Saint Francis, we would the most extreme difference in style, though the ultimate import and reference might be similar.
I began my studies of Buddhism with a deep dive into the speculative philosophy of the Tibetan Buddhists, and only after many years did I turn to the Zen approach, which is staggeringly different in its rhetorical priorities, but ultimately in close accord with respect to meaning. I’ve written about this difference at some length in Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism.
Having been bound to the intellectual rigor of Tibetan Buddhism for so long, my encounter with the exceedingly poetical style of Zen authors was something of an ecstatic release for me. That is not to say it is ultimately a better approach, and it has its own vortices where the unwary can get stuck for a very long time. But the complementary approach of holding those two different streams was, for me, extremely rewarding.
Dongshan Liangjie possessed a miraculous insight and great powers of expression. As a practitioner he was deeply concerned with the aliveness of things, and his testimony leaves no doubt that his realization was encompassed by that focus. It often seems to me that the character of the realization of ultimate truth seems to be structured by the set of concerns the questioning mind brings to bear when asking after the final nature of reality, and in that sense the flavor realization seems to play out in highly personal ways. For example, one could compare one’s sense of the realization of the Dalai Lama with that of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, so similar, but so different.
But I digress. I first encountered the “Mirror Samadhi” at the San Francisco Zen Center, and I was immediately overwhelmed, not just by what it plainly said, but by the greatness of the mystery it evoked.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
A statement like this in the context of the poem is crystal clear in image and effect, even though its literal meaning is exceedingly obscure. We’re not dealing here with a murky obscurantist, but with someone articulating a kind of experience well outside of the frame of ordinary discourse.
I’d like to get on to the poem itself and offer it here to you without my obstructing commentary. As a set up I will only say this – the “precious mirror samadhi” of the title refers to a meditative absorption on the final nature of reality, in which the mind and its object both fall away, disclosing a prior unity. Without further ado, I give you the poem, as it is superbly translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton in his book Cultivating the Empty Field, one of the most prized volumes in my library.
Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi
The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
Taken as similar, they are not the same; not distinguished, their places are known.
The meaning does not reside in the words, but a pivotal moment brings it forth.
Move and you are trapped, miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.
In darkest night it is perfectly clear; in the light of dawn it is hidden.
It is a standard for all things; its use removes all suffering.
Although it is not constructed, it is not beyond words.
Like facing a precious mirror; form and reflection behold each other.
You are not it, but in truth it is you.
Like a newborn child, it is fully endowed with five aspects:
No going, no coming, no arising, no abiding;
“Baba wawa” – is anything said or not?
In the end it says nothing, for the words are not yet right.
In the illumination hexagram, inclined and upright interact.
Piled up they become three; the permutations make five.
Like the taste of the five-flavored herb, like the five-pronged vajra.
Wondrously embraced within the real, drumming and singing begin together.
Penetrate the source and travel the pathways; embrace the territory and treasure the roads.
You would do well to respect this; do not neglect it.
Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.
Within causes and conditions, time and season, it is serene and illuminating.
So minute it enters where there is no gap, so vast it transcends dimension.
A hairsbreadth’s deviation, and you are out tune.
Now there are sudden and gradual, in which teachings and approaches arise.
With teachings and approaches distinguished, each has its standard.
Whether teachings and approaches are mastered or not, reality constantly flows.
Outside still and inside trembling, like tethered colts or cowering rats.
The ancient sages grieved for them, and offered them the dharma.
Led by their inverted views, they take black for white.
When inverted thinking stops, the affirming mind naturally accords.
If you want to follow in the ancient tracks, please observe the sages of the past.
One on the verge of realizing the Buddha Way contemplated a tree for ten aeons.
Like a battle-scarred tiger, like a horse with shanks gone grey.
Because some are vulgar, jeweled tables and ornate robes.
Because others are wide-eyed, cats and white oxen.
With his archer’s skill, Yi hit the mark at a hundred paces.
But when arrows meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill?
The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.
It is not reached by feelings or consciousness, how could it involve deliberation?
Ministers serve their lords, children obey their parents.
Not obeying is not filial, failure to serve is no help.
With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to do this is called the host within the host.
I don’t want to overdo the commentary, as I find the process of engaging with its beguiling imagery to be very rewarding, but I would like to call out a few things that may aid the interested reader.
Putting it philosophically, this poem is concerned with a state of nondual realization of the ultimate nature reality which transcends and mediates the binary conceptual distinctions that typically structure our experience of the world into good and bad, right and wrong, me and you, this and that. Buddhism holds that this type of conceptually-mediated thought and perception obscures the true nature of phenomena, which are in truth a dynamic interplay of distributed patterns of information and energy, registered by consciousness.
Words of the kind I’ve just used can be helpful in pointing the way, but the experience is something much more immediate, vivid, and transformative, and the poem warns throughout about the tension between pointing the way with language and ideas, and the ultimate leap beyond language and ideas that characterizes realization itself.
One of my favorite aspects of this poem is the extraordinary imagery its author uses to evoke the sense that this realization makes the world come to life where it was previously inert, and the mundane suddenly sparkles with a miraculous quality. “The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.”
Some of the references in this poem are obscure to modern readers, but would have been clear allusions to Dongshan’s contemporaries. For myself, when I get to the bit about hexagrams, it suffices to know that this is a reference to the I Ching, and I move on. Likewise with the five-flavored herb and the five-pronged varja, which both refer to the five aggregates, or the five constituents of being in Buddhist metaphysics, united in a single expression.
The “host within the host” at the end refers to another one of Dongshan’s writings, the “Five Ranks,” in which he poetically describes the stages of realization. Thomas Cleary renders the final verse of that poem thus:
If you are not trapped
in being or nonbeing,
who can dare to join you?
Everyone wants to leave
the ordinary current,
but in the final analysis
you come back
and sit in the ashes.