John Daido Loori, Roshi, a pioneering teacher who helped lay the foundation for deep and authentic American Zen practice, died on October 9 at age 78. In his honor, we offer a dharma discourse he gave on the profound meaning of art and creativity, which he practiced through his lifelong love of photography.
The Main Case
A monastic asked Master Zhaozhou, “Of the three aspects of Buddha―the physical, the moral, and the metaphysical, which is the original one?”
Zhaozhou said, “Do not leave out any of them.”
Master Dogen said, “The supreme truth of bodhi is just the painting of a picture. Neither the dharma world nor empty space is anything other than the painting of a picture.”
The questioner is asking which of the three aspects of the Buddha is the real one. Is it his material existence―that which can be perceived through the senses? Is it his moral teachings, which are a symbol of his existence? Or is it his transcendent reality―that which we point to in the sutras, the liturgy, the buddha images―all the pictures we have painted of the Buddha? What is his reality and what is the picture of his reality? Indeed we could ask, is there a difference between the picture of reality and reality itself? We generally regard a picture or a work of art as a representation of something else, a symbol of that which is symbolized. But we should understand that the symbol and the symbolized are nondual. The symbol is the symbolized.
Haven’t you heard Master Dogen’s teaching? In the dharma, even metaphors are ultimate realities, thus picture is reality, reality is picture. The transcendent reality that we point to in sutras, liturgy, and images is in fact the sutras, liturgy, and images themselves. The mythical and the real are one reality. For this reason, dreams, illusions, and images are boundless sources for satisfying spiritual hunger.
A monastic asked Zhaozhou, “What is Buddha?” Zhaozhou answered, “The one in the shrine.” I ask you, what is real? What is reality? Where do you find yourself?
The Capping Verse
The moon and the pointing finger
are a single reality.
Aside from painted cakes,
there is no other way to satisfy hunger.
In Buddhism there is a well-known saying: “Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger.” Painted cakes, in this case, are the words and ideas that describe the dharma. The sutras are painted cakes. All of the Buddhist literature, in fact, is made up of painted cakes. All of the philosophy, the explanations, and intellectualizations of the dharma are painted cakes. They’re not reality itself.
Given that Zen is known as a “special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters,” it is not surprising that early on in the history of our tradition, this saying became the battle cry. For years this belief was rigorously adhered to―so much so that to this day many Rinzai monasteries keep their libraries under lock and key. Monastics were not only discouraged from studying, they were banned from it. Then, in the thirteenth century, Master Dogen turned the whole thing upside down with a revolutionary statement. He said that painted cakes do in fact satisfy hunger, and going even further, that aside from painted cakes, there is no other way to satisfy hunger. What did he mean? How is that possible?
In liturgy we use many symbols, words, gestures, chants, incense, prostrations, bows. During the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, the abbot usually does invitational bows. Who is he inviting? Where are they? Every week during ango we do a Hakuryusan service. Hakuryusan is a white dragon. But who is it? Where is it? We have healing services. What is going on there? Who heals whom? And how? Are we dealing with spells, charms, supernatural powers? In liturgy, in art, in creative expression, what is the reality of the subject? Is it in its morphology, its expression, its metaphysics, its existence, its ineffability?
In this koan, a monastic asks Zhaozhou which of the three aspects of Buddha is the real one. He’s saying, which one is the real Buddha―the physical, the moral, or the metaphysical? The same question can be asked in any religion. When the founder dies, what are the followers left with? Where does the archive of the founder’s teachings rest? Is it their person, their legacy, or something beyond? Where are the true archives for Jesus, Luther, Mary Baker Eddy, Abraham?
The monastic wanted to know, where is the real Buddha? Is the real Buddha his material existence―that which can be perceived through the senses? Obviously that won’t work because he is no longer present. Or, is it in the symbols of his existence, such as his moral teachings, his wisdom, compassion, the sutras? This aspect of the teachings was present during the Buddha’s lifetime, and it remains after his death, so is that the real Buddha? Or is it his transcendent reality―that which we point to in the sutras, liturgy, and images, in esoteric invocations? Zhaozhou said, “Don’t leave out any of it.”
Is the Buddha the pictures that we have painted of him? Think of all of the thousands of images we are constantly creating―and when I speak of images, I am also referring to poetry, pottery, theater, creative expression in general. The commentary asks, “What is his reality and what is the picture of his reality? Indeed we could ask, is there a difference between the picture of reality and reality itself?” This brings us to the question, what is real and what is reality? According to the dictionary, for something to be real it must exist in fact, rather than as a product of dreams or imagination. Reality is something that must have actual physical existence. But what is physical existence? In Buddhism we say that the three worlds are nothing but mind. Form, formlessness, desire, the three worlds, the totality of human experience is nothing other than mind. Given this truth, then all of physical existence is mind. When I perceive an object, the organ of perception, the object of perception, and consciousness create what I―and everyone else―call physical reality.
Some years ago, Karl Pribram, a neurosurgeon teaching at George Washington University, presented what came to be known as the holographic brain theory. He did this in collaboration with quantum physicist David Bohm, who also had a theory on the holographic nature of the universe. Michael Talbot, author of The Elegant Universe, comments on this collaboration, saying that when you put the two theories together―a holographic brain and a holographic universe―what you end up with is a holographic blur. In other words, the concreteness of the world, its physical reality, is but a secondary reality, and the primary reality is actually a holographic blur of frequencies that the brain selectively picks up and mathematically transforms into sensory perception. But this then begs the question, what becomes of objective reality? Talbot says, “Put quite simply, it ceases to exist, just as the religions of the East have long upheld. The material world is maya, an illusion. And although we may think we are physical beings moving through a physical world, this too is an illusion. We are really receivers floating through a kaleidoscopic sea of frequency and what we extract from this sea and transform into physical reality is but one channel from many that can be extracted out of the hologram.”
In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Dogen says:
Thus, what different types of beings see is different, and we should reflect on this fact. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object? We should concentrate every effort on understanding this question, and then concentrate still more. Given this multitude of perspectives, it follows that the training on the way of practice and verification must also not be merely of one or two kinds, and the ultimate realm must have a thousand types and ten thousand kinds.
We should reflect on our one-sided way of seeing and investigate ways of expanding our vision and experience of the world around us. The commentary says, “We generally regard a picture or work of art as a representation of something else”―as an abstraction of some other reality other than the picture. Art has always been a medium through which human beings have sought to express this invisible reality, often through the expression of religious belief. A good portion of Western art produced over the last thousand years is overtly religious in content. It expresses the artist’s sense of the divine. It is, in fact, possible to say that all serious art is, in some sense, an attempt to articulate the ineffable. Taking this further, we can say that everything we do is part of that artistic expression. Liturgy is artistic expression. Oryoki, the formal taking of a meal, is artistic expression.
We must keep in mind that we are always trying to express that which transcends everyday reality. This very fact, we could argue, makes that expression religious. Man Ray once said, “To reproduce is human, but to create is divine.” But is our creation the original or real thing? Is this the real Buddha? The commentary says, “We generally regard a picture or a work of art as a representation of something else, a symbol of that which is symbolized. But we should understand that the symbol and the symbolized are non-dual. The symbol is the symbolized.” Non-dual means not two. They are exactly the same. Exactly. Not similar, not like, not equivalent, not related to; exactly, precisely. Not two.
Haven’t you heard Master Dogen’s teaching? In the dharma, even metaphors are ultimate realities.” Statements like, “Mind is buddha; no mind, no buddha; the three worlds are nothing but mind; mountains and rivers are the word of ancient buddhas,” are all ultimate reality, the real thing. They’re not just metaphors. They are the voice of the Buddha, as if the Buddha was actually standing there proclaiming the dharma. They are ultimate reality. The real thing. “Thus,” the commentary goes on, “a picture is reality. Reality is a picture.”
What does this mean to you? What does it mean to your practice, your understanding of yourself and the universe? How do you understand your own creative expression? “The transcendental reality that we point to in sutras, liturgy, and images, is in fact the sutras, liturgy, and images themselves.” Transcendent reality is this reality. Transcendent means existing outside the material universe. I’m saying that it is just this. It is alive, it is hopping, it is informing our lives, transforming, healing, creating hell or creating peace, depending upon how we understand and practice it, how we combust our lives in accord with it.
The mythical and the real are one reality.” This is where mythology gets its power. Joseph Campbell once said:
Religion and myth are stepsisters of truth; one probes with questions, the other spins out tales on gossamer threads, but both serve a common mystery…. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.
This is the body and mind of each and every one of us. But as Campbell says, “Our culture wants to deny this participatory mystique. It suggests that myth functions only as a dimension of primitive consciousness; that it is no longer operative in any significant way. Indeed we can say that the whole history of Western culture can be seen as a history of ‘de-mythologizing.’”
For this reason, dreams, illusions, and images are boundless sources for satisfying spiritual hunger.” We tend to think of spiritual hunger being satisfied only by that which comes to us through the core texts of religion. When the founders of the various religions died, all their followers were left with was their words. They carefully collected these words and turned them into the traditions’ core texts. But once you have these texts, you have to preach them and you need people to preach them, so priests appear. When you have priests, you need institutions. And so before long, the original teachings become dogma. Is that the reality of these various religions?
Dreams, illusions, images are boundless sources for satisfying hunger.” Our culture would like to turn all metaphors into facts, all poetry into prose, all experience into some kind of a mathematical equation. We want to abandon wonder and awe for the sake of certainty. All too often, art and religion get caught up in explaining the meaning of life instead of seeking the experience of being alive and expressing it. Walt Whitman advises us, “You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water. A certain free margin, and even vagueness, perhaps ignorance, credulity, helps you in your enjoyment of these things.”
A monastic asked Zhaozhou, ‘What is Buddha?’ Zhaozhou answered, ‘The one in the shrine.’” Is he saying that the wooden buddha sitting on the altar is the real Buddha? If not, then what is he saying? I ask you, what is real? What is reality? Who are you? Where do you find yourself?
The Capping Verse:
The moon and the pointing finger
are a single reality.
Aside from painted cakes,
there is no other way to satisfy hunger.
The moon and the pointing finger are a single reality. In Zen we say the truth is in the moon and not the finger pointing to the moon. The capping verse, however, is saying that the moon and the pointing finger are the same reality; they are non-dual. The finger, the photograph, a song, a story, a dance, a smile, eyes meeting eyes, a touch, a stick of incense, a dedication, a mudra, a dharani, a mantra. All painted cakes. All pictured cakes. What’s real, what’s reality? Who are you?
Aside from painted cakes there is no other way to satisfy hunger. Dogen said, “Thus, supreme enlightenment is nothing but a picture. The phenomenal world, the empty sky―there is nothing that is not a picture. If you say that a picture is not real, all things are not real. If all things are not real, dharma is not real either. If dharma is a real picture, then pictured cakes are real. Picture is reality, reality is picture.” Zhaozhou said, “Do not leave out any of them.” Walt Whitman says in “Song of Myself”:
Swift wind! Space! My Soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at;
What I guessed when I loafed on the grass,
What I guessed while I lay alone in my bed
And again as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
My ties and ballasts leave me…. I travel… I sail…. my elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras… my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.
I ask you once again, what is real? What is reality? Who are you? Where do you find yourself? If you don’t know, when will you find out?
John Daido Loori, Roshi was the founder and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. The case in this teaching is from Koans of the Way of Reality, a collection of cases compiled at Zen Mountain Monastery over the last twenty-eight years. It includes koans that appear in the traditional collections as well as pieces taken from other sources and treated as koans because of their relevance for modern Western practitioners.