The Third Step

Wind, flag, mind moves. The same understanding. (source)

Whoever understands the first truth, Should understand the ultimate truth. The last and first, Are they not the same? (source)

Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth? (source)

Paradoxes such as these involve a duality and the answer is the resolution of that duality. It is not mere polemic but seeks to go beyond that. Not in a merging but in synthesis. These examples of koans are only a few of a type that directly address the duality. Note that koans tend to, either directly or implicitly, involve a speaker and a respondent (mondo or Zen dialogue). The resolution comes when both have the same understanding.

And within them are often other dualities to be resolved. When you deconstruct them from this point of view they portray a delightful range of interconnected or even entangled dualities. Reminds me of the DNA helix. The various pairs such as question/answer, teacher/student, koan/commentary, past/present, word/thing (nama/rupa), object/subject, confusion/clarity, here/there, time/timeless, movement/stillness, noise/silence, empty/full or full/empty, first/last, coming/going, relative/ultimate, illusion/truth, meeting/parting, alone/together and many others are all often encompassed into these explosive little epithets.

The resolution of duality through synthesis is a dialectical approach.

Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct.   from Wikipedia

Dialectic analysis most simply stated involves:

Thesis –> Anti-thesis –> Synthesis

This is quite relevant when we are talking about understanding and conveying the Dharma. A well known teacher has stated, rather strongly, the following”

People language is used by the ordinary people who don’t understand Dhamma very well and by those worldly people who are so dense that they are blind to everything but material things. Then, there is the language which is spoken by those who understand reality (Dhamma), especially those who know and understand reality in the ultimate sense. This is another kind of language. Sometimes, when only a few words or even just a few syllables are uttered, the ordinary listener finds Dhamma language paradoxical, completely opposite to the language he speaks. We can call it “Dhamma language.” You always must take care to recognize which language is being spoken.

People who are blind to the true reality (Dhamma) can speak only people language, the conventional language of ordinary people. On the other hand, people who have genuinely realized the ultimate truth (Dhamma) can speak either language. They can handle people language quite well and are also comfortable using Dhamma language, especially when speaking among those who know reality, who have already realized the truth (Dhamma). Amongst those with profound understanding, Dhamma language is used almost exclusively, unfortunately, ordinary people can’t understand a word. Dhamma language is understood only by those who are in the know. What is more, in Dhamma language it isn’t even necessary to make a sound. For example, a finger is pointed or an eyebrow raised and the ultimate meaning of reality is understood. So, please take interest in these two kinds of language–people language and Dhamma language. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu via Danny Fisher

Continuing on this topic from Dharmaweb Two Kinds Of Language: Everyday Language and Dhamma language  the author gives us many examples of this dichotomy. He introduces the topic and then defines quite a number of words. One of the words he describes in this way is Dhamma (Dharma).


The second word to consider is “Dhamma” (Dharma in Sanskrit). At the childish level of everyday language, the word is understood as referring to the actual books that contain the scriptures, the “Dhamma” in the bookcase. Or it may be understood as referring to the spoken word used in expounding the Teaching. This is the meaning of the word “Dhamma” in everyday language., the language of deluded people who has not yet seen the true Dhamma.

In term of Dhamma language, the Dhamma is one and the same as the Enlightened One. “One who see the Dhamma sees the Tathágata. One who sees the Tathágata see the Dhamma.” This is the real Dhamma. In the original Pali language, the word “Dhamma” was used to refer to all of the intricate and involved things that go to make up what we call Nature. Time will not permit us to discuss this point in detail here, so we shall mention just the main points. The word “Dhamma” embraces:

1. Nature itself;

2. The law of Nature;

3. The duty of each human being to act in accordance with the Law of Nature;

4. The benefits to be derived from this acting in accordance with the Law of Nature.

This is the wide range of meaning covered by the word “Dhamma.” It does not refer simply to books, palm-leaf manuscripts, or the voices of preachers. The word “Dhamma,” as used in Dhamma language, refers to non-material things. Dhamma is all embracing; it is profound; it includes all things, some difficult to understand and some not so difficult.

This is paradoxical to most of us-the same situations, sets of teachings etc having the possibility of being understood in multiple ways.  To help clear up this paradox we can return to a Zen perspective on stages of understanding language.  Note the dialectical approach with the resolution being one of synthesis.

    Stage 1: The pre-Enlightenment stage where reason and language must be thoroughly commanded and understood with regard to their intended meanings and referents.

    Stage 2: The Enlightenment stage where reason and language as means have achieved their goal and must be abolished or discarded so that they will not obstruct or dominate one’s experience of Enlightenment.

    Stage 3: The post-Enlightenment stage where one is able to freely use language for various purposes of instruction and verification of certain relevant experiences toward Enlightenment and where such use of language becomes an integral part of the goal achievement.

from On Zen (Ch’an) Language and Zen Paradoxes by Chung-ying Cheng

To add to the above consider what Ted Biringer wrote in the article Beyond the Gateless Barrier of Zen – Koan Introspection – revised

As writing is only discernible to those who have activated their (inherent) ability to read, so koans are only discernible to those that have activated their (inherent) observing cognition (the third of the Four Prajnas*4). In the Mahayana sutras and shastras this cognition is sometimes referred to as, “the eye to read scriptures” or the “Buddha-eye.” Just as writing appears “irrational” to an illiterate (and in fact is irrational to them) so it is with koans to those that have not activated the ability to “read” them. Thus, any appropriation or interpretation of koans by those that have not crossed the initial threshold of awakening (thereby activating their observing-prajna) is bound to miss the mark.

This is perhaps the most clear analogy regarding Dharma language, thought and understanding that I’ve come across.

Using an Example

From the amazing archive of the First Zen Institute which was begun by Sasaki Roshi we can consider texts such as those about the marks of Buddha as koans.  Here he is discussion the Holy Marks of the Buddha.

What are the thirty-two holy marks that appeared on Buddha’s body? If I give you this koan, how do you answer? You must observe every Buddhist term from all angles. You must not just accept the statement that there are holy signs of the Buddha’s physiognomy as physiognomical marks. In the morning the sun appears in the East, and after sundown the moon appears. Day and night come one after the other. The mountains soar high;the ocean is almost endless to the eye. In a week four days are clear and three days rainy. In spring the flowers bloom;in autumn the leaves fall. Farmers plow the ground in the spring and birds sing. These are the holy marks of the Buddha. Of course it was traditional to describe the Buddha’s body as the place to reveal the thirty-two holy signs. But you must penetrate to the inner meanings the Buddha very carefully set in his teachings.

Sasaki Roshi from p.4

From this perspective pretty much all of Buddhist canonical and non-canonical literature such as commentaries can be taken up in this fashion.

Many people would like to toss out most of the Buddhist texts in favor of more experiential practices. In my opinion that is somewhat jumping the gun. If one has not understood fully what they are rejecting then how can it’s value be ascertained? 

Some refer to this as the “baby out with the bathwater” approach. I would choose a slightly different metaphor. Suppose someone gives you a rock. If you don’t have the knowledge to determine it’s value likely it will be left on the road. But if you do have some knowledge of geology and you happen to know what kimberlite is you might want to ask, “Where did this come from? Can we go there? Can we get more?”

Experience alone does not always provide the necessary clues to determine what is worth keeping and what is worth throwing away. And knowledge alone does not provide the same depth that experience coupled with knowledge can give.

A Few Other Considerations

On Wild Fox Zen, Dosho Port recently wrote:

Dogen says, “Taking the backward step of transforming the self is the way to bring ease to the community” (Leighton and Okumura translation).

This comment has a number of angles. One is foreshadow for several stories that Dogen then tells about his encounters with tenzos who took radical responsibility for their service.

While I’m not going to take up the complete content of that, the point that is made regarding foreshadowing is important. In any text, such as Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye) one can take bits and pieces and discover quite a bit. But taken as a whole there is an inner resonance and greater significance to a great deal of it.  A literary technique like foreshadowing is often employed in longer works with larger thematic implications.

This is true of the entire body of Buddhist writing including the various Canons, commentaries, discussions and later works. It is true of koans, mantras, mandalas, rituals, meditation practices and every other artifact, if you will, that has acquired significance to people on the Buddhist path. This is why picking and choosing on a whim can be a fruitless endeavor. The sum is greater than the parts. Always has been, always will be.

Context is always important in trying to resolve difficulties on the path. To fully comprehend something requires more than just focus upon that one thing. There is always something else that accompanies it. Sometimes a lot of something elses.

The True Dharma-Eye is one of examination within context and with regard to connections. There is discrimination there but of a particular type. This has been mentioned in several of the quotes above.

The ordinary way of looking at things sees a thing on it’s surface but does not penetrate too deeply. A few characteristics may be noted, it is judged good/bad/indifferent and one then moves on to look at the next object. The Dharma-Eye encounters something until it is experienced in it’s most deep and broadest, connections intact and not artificially severed by the mind. Judgement is irrelevant since one is experiencing from a standpoint of equanimity.

The duality of subject/object is synthesized into dissolution.


What comes to mind upon thinking about this is the Tibetan style of debate. A debater with a particular point of view must state his opponent’s point of view with complete understanding before continuing on with attempting to demonstrate his own viewpoint.

This dialectical methodology, which results in both participants sharing understanding of a particular point-the synthesis and the point of the exercise-can serve to really enrich practice for anyone.

Moving out of the small imaginary worlds (Umwelt) we live in inside our heads a lot of the time and on to greater understanding takes a great deal of work and willingness. 

Dharma eyes, dharma ears, dharma senses, consciousness and eventually understanding all bring resonance and meaning to life.  We can state one thing, state it’s opposite but from there where do we go?

To reach the dialectical synthesis we must examine duality, not deny it as many wish to do. The complexity of duality is not a simple either/or. There are far too many connections to reduce it to that point. Nor can we say “All is one” with any confidence while we are cognizant of duality. That is simple denial. The situation is much bigger than all of that.

This is apparent in all Buddhist practices if we examine them from such a perspective.

We must be open to taking that third step.

One comment on “The Third Step

  1. Pingback: Just the links: more stuff I’ve been reading 6 « Urocyon's Meanderings

Comments are closed.