Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Painted Rice Cakes and the Absolute

Gretchen Targee, Enso, 2011

By Myozan Dennis Keegan


I recently came across an Internet exchange between Zen teachers and students regarding ethics in which the terms of “the Absolute” and “the Relative” figured prominently, with an emphasis placed on the difference between those two apparent realms. I found the exchange interesting in several respects, not least of all for the appearance of these terms themselves. The terms certainly appeared frequently in conjunction with Zen's introduction into American culture in the 50s and 60s. I think their use owed much to the decision by D.T. Suzuki and other popularizers of the period to present a great deal of their understanding about Zen within a framework of ideas and terms borrowed from German Idealism, Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. In any case, over the last thirty years, this language has been used less and less frequently. I think part of the reason for the twilighting of these terms is simply the increased grounding of Zen understanding in concrete Zen practice. The growth in academic circles of a critical stance toward the early popularizers’ ahistorical presentation of Zen has also been a major factor. And certainly the recent increased focus by westerners on the work of Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, has played a role in furthering this shift in language and understanding. (The influence of this last item is somewhat muddied by the continued influence of German idealism in the interpretation of Dogen’s thought by philosophers of the Kyoto School.)

Perhaps there is no better example of Dogen's thought countering the notion of two distinct realms of reality – Absolute and Relative -- than his talk entitled “Gabyo,” or “Picture of a Rice Cake.” This talk which Dogen gave to his students in 1242 is preserved as a fascicle in his masterwork “Shobogenzo.”  In the fascicle, Dogen takes a phrase from a Zen story and -- in a manner typical of his approach -- turns the usual interpretation of the phrase on its head.  The phrase, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger,” is one that Zen students frequently come across and is usually presented as a caution that the teachings should not be taken for the reality to which they point. It is the same spirit as the counsel not to take the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. Dogen himself notes this common understanding in his comments before stating that “this is not the correct transmission of the ancestors teaching." Indeed he says, "There are few who have seen this painting of a rice cake and none of them has thoroughly understood it."

Gretchen Targee, 2011

In Dogen's understanding any apparent gap between a painted rice cake and our idea of a “real” rice cake needs to be closed. As Hee-Jin Kim points out, Dogen's presentation in this fascicle, "is traditionally interpreted primarily from the standpoint of non-duality and equality. It has thus been understood that all beings and things as painted pictures are equal in spiritual status."*

Know that a painted rice-cake is your face after your parents were born, your face before your parents were born... All rice-cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake. If you look for some other kind of painted rice- cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it.

This understanding speaks directly to such conversations as the Internet exchange among Zen teachers and students mentioned above. Given the Western philosophical resources that were used by the early popularizers of Zen, it's not surprising that a thread (the tathagatagarbha teaching) within the Zen tradition became highlighted in such a way that in many current presentations of Zen the world of things and social relations appear as less real or valuable than some imputed underlying essence or nature, e.g., the so-called absolute is privileged over the so-called relative and the Teaching of the Two Truths (ultimate truth and conventional truth) becomes a “Teaching of the One Truth and the One Falsehood”.  This is precisely the kind of thinking that Dogen attempts to correct by helping us see how we “paint” both elements in each of those pairs of dualities.

This traditional interpretation of Dogen’s intent deserves a place in any discussion of ethics in Zen. But I think that an even more radical interpretation of his understanding is possible. What makes Dogen's thinking so much more radical is his focus on the specific, the particular. Each painted rice cake is different, and it is in the very differences among them that they find their similarity and in the fact that they are all painted; they are all the results of this painting activity. I think it is hard to find in the Zen tradition as poetic and as clear a presentation of Nagarjuna's isomorphic rendering of samsara and nirvana. To my mind, Dogen here seems to be moving the relationship of emptiness and form -- and the Two Truths (ultimate and conventional) -- from the realm of metaphysics to the realm of semantics, i.e., from a discussion about the “real” to one about the “true.” Here things are real in their specificity, their particularity, and emptiness is no more real than the form of those things. The “ultimate” does not hide behind or below the “conventional.” It is not some real rice cake devoid of any painting.

Gretchen Targee, 2011


There is not a single activity, just as it is, that is not a picture. Our present endeavor is made possible solely by virtue of a picture.

The ultimate is no less painted than the conventional forms that are immediately available to our experience. Dogen here poetically presents Nagarjuna’s “emptiness of emptiness.”

Life and death, their comings and goings, are all painted pictures painting pictures; supreme enlightenment is indeed a painted picture painting a picture. All the Dharma world and the empty sky there is nothing whatsoever that is not painting a picture a painted picture.
This emptiness does not render things unimportant or without merit or nonexistent, nor is this emptiness some ineffable reality about which we can point but never describe. I believe one can read Dogen here as entertaining the possibility that the ultimate truth is that there is no “ultimate” truth, as rejecting the idea that the truth of a statement must hang on some ultimate nature of reality, on some unpainted rice cake. This is a deeply radical teaching that I believe can be read in Dogen's treatment of painting a rice cake.

Perhaps what I'm suggesting is an overly naturalistic reading of Dogen. But I believe that the intense attention to the particular that Dogen in this fascicle encourages us to undertake constitutes a much-needed corrective to what has appeared too often in Zen as a primary focus on an experience or insight of oneness or a privileging of some absolute. It sometimes seems that every scandal in the Zen world comes with the accessory of some such privileging, some retreat into the “one body” of non-differentiation.

As Dogen says repeatedly, “Nothing is hidden.” The “sweetcake” enso is painted; the “empty” enso is painted. We would all benefit from our attending to our painting and not be distracted by a craving for the unpainted. As he says, "There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.”

* Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.116.

Gretchen Targee, 2011

2 comments:

Katinka - spiritual said...

Just letting you know I featured this post and your blog on my list of best buddhism blogs: http://www.allconsidering.com/2011/best-buddhist-blogs/

Sweetcake Enso said...

Thank you, Katinka! It's a very nice review:

"Sweetcake Enso is a Zen Buddhist blog that is a breath of fresh air if, like me, you crave authors with a bit of historical perspective.
The latest post is interesting for instance, not merely because it’s a thoughtful look into the Zen discussion of ‘emptiness‘, but also because it goes into the Western terminology usually used to discuss it. We find mention of Dogen, Nagarjuna and ethics."

From other posts on your blog, I appreciated this coment:

"I’d rather study in a tradition that sticks as close to the tradition as possible than in one that tries to adapt to the Western spirit too quickly. I can do my own adapting well enough."

Thanks for visiting us, and writing a review! Barbara O'Brien, of About.com and who you mention forst, is also a memebr here at the Empty Hand Zen Center - Catherine