Friday, June 18, 2010

Sweetcake Enso: Exchanging the Bones

A monk asked Yunmen, ”What is talk that goes beyond Buddhas and Patriarchs?” Yunmen said, “Cake.” Case 77 of the Blue Cliff Record.

To penetrate one thing does not take away its inherent characteristics. Just as penetration does not limit one thing, it does not make one thing unlimited. To try to make it unlimited is a hindrance. - Dogen, “Gabyo”, or “The Painted Rice Cake,” 1242

In American culture Zen is often represented by the Enso, to the extent that the Enso can be regarded as a logo for a brand identity. However, the Enso is truly known for the singularity of each mark as the expression of presentness. And as a symbol of emptiness the Enso is where the relative meets the absolute. Also true is that as an abstract circle the Enso is frequently given names, one of which is the Sweetcake Enso. According to one definition, found here, "Zen circles are profound but they are not abstract, and when enlightenment and the acts of daily life - "sipping tea and eating rice cakes" - are one, there is true Buddhism."

The koan above is one of the one hundred cases that Dogen copied overnight before his ship departed from China to Japan. This legend of an impossible night’s writing is often held beside that of Dahui’s burning of koan collections in the previous century, as though this tale of continuous tradition is not permissible without corresponding rupture. Rupture and continuity appears in the very words Dogen has copied - here is Yuanwu’s concluding commentary on the koan’s interpretations:

Followers of Ch’an these days just go to “cake,” or else they go to “beyond Buddhas and Patriarchs” to make up theories. Since it is not in these two places, in the end where is it? Thirty years from now, when I’ve exchanged my bones, I’ll tell you.

Fifteen years after copying this koan collection in a single night, Dogen wrote his essay Gabyo, or "The Painting of a Rice Cake.” Truly an exchanging of bones, Dogen begins where Yuanwu left off. He responds to the statement that “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger,” a derogatory phrase often directed towards language and scholarship. Dogen’s response is that “If you say a painting is not real, then the myriad things are not real,” and that “without painted hunger you never become a true person.”

Dogen has effectively thrown Yun Men’s “cake” into an entirely different register, but a register that was available to him in conventional speech. “Painting” renders the world’s visibility for us in the space and history of a medium and its traditions. Within its own conventions painting models the relations of what is large and what is small.

This sense of convention and relationship is extended beyond the literal surface of painting's illusionism.  In our own time there has long been the understanding that Zen Art is defined by an unmediated spontaneity. But this is a convention – even those who experience awakening upon the sound of bamboo are “all paintings,” according to Dogen.

Shubun, 15th Century, found here.

The circle as a Zen form also appears frequently in the Oxherding Pictures – it may appear as the ultimate achievement of enlightenment and conclude the series, or be followed by the return to the marketplace. Whether or not this return to the marketplace is after enlightenment or as enlightenment is a question that is often posed, but “as Buddha-dharma is real, a painted rice cake is real,” there is no separation between enlightenment and the marketplace for Dogen.

There is the story of a tea lady selling rice cakes by the side of the road. A priest walks by her stand boasting of his scholarship of the Diamond Sutra. She asks him, “I have heard it said that according to the Diamond Sutra past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes?” As the story goes, the priest cannot answer the question, and she refuses to sell him a rice cake. In his essay "Ungraspable Mind" Dogen takes issue with the tea lady's response, suggesting that the more adequate response would have been to offer the priest three rice cakes, one each for the past, present and future. For the truth is that “the mind refreshes the rice cake, or that the mind refreshes the mind.” And in Gabyo, he concludes that ”As a rule, to realize the ungraspable mind is to imbibe and to savor a painted rice cake.”

To call attention to the Sweetcake Enso is to extend an invitation to express the emptiness of all forms in their singularity. More specifically we are thinking here of the circle as a conveyor of meaning. It is above all the circle that is associated with Zen. With regard to the Sweetcake Enso exhibits, whether it is a sleeping cat or a compost bin there is not a limitless collapse of the boundaries between art and life, but a specific inquiry into form as emptiness, an inquiry for which the Sweetcake Enso is our emblem. Abstract, representational, or both this can be expressed in any medium.

Shubun, 15th century, found here.

Case Seventy-seven of the Blue Cliff Record, Thomas C. Cleary and J.C. Cleary, trans., Shambala, Boston and London, c. 2005, pp. 424-427.

Eihei Dogen, "Painting of a Rice Cake," in Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed., North point Press, c. 1985, pp. 134-139.

Eihei Dogen, "Ungraspable Mind: A Translation of the KS "Shinfukatoku" Fascicle," in Steven Heine, Dogen and the Koan tradition: A Tale of Two Shobogenzo Texts, Suny press, c. 1994, pp. 253-256.