Outwardly still while inwardly moving,
Like a tethered colt, a trapped rat;
The ancient sages pitied them
and bestowed upon them the teaching.
According to their delusions,
they called black as white;
When erroneous imaginations cease,
the acquiescent mind realizes itself. (Tozan Ryokai – The Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi)
A recent comment asked me to clarify what Red Pine meant when he wrote, ‘none of the things that fill our lives is by itself false. It is only our conceptualization and attachment that make them false.’ Did that mean that we can claim the ‘power to make (2 + 2 = 4) false?’ It took me a while to think about how to respond to this, and Tozan’s words were one of the things that came to mind.
The penultimate couplet here is rather ambiguous – a function of what I understand to be the lack of descriptive pronouns in Chinese: I have heard it interpreted both as the student (those outwardly still while inwardly moving) or the sage calling black as white. If it is the student, then the erroneous imagination is the way we take impermanent things – such as the self – to be permanent. I like the version (perhaps because it fits all the stories of zen masters of old) that it is the sages calling black as white, to shift the student from their habitual ways of thinking to seeing a more complete truth (and then I got to thinking of the parable of the physician who fakes his own death ‘yet cannot be charged with falsehood’, from Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, my favourite section).
Okay, so is there a more complete truth than 2 + 2 = 4? Well, again, supporting stories come to mind, this time a typically earthy one from Uchiyama Roshi realising that when he pissed in the ocean it made no difference to the ocean, so he could see how 1 + 1 = 1. There is a way, in the absolute realm, where there is no distinguishing 1, 2, or 4, or +, or =.
And, the essence of our practice is not to take that absolute view as a way of negating the conventional view. As Dogen says in the Genjo Koan, “When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.” Which means that we usually only see things either from the conventional way or the absolute way, but as I understand it (i.e., incompletely), we continue to trust that both sides are always present, and live accordingly. Both the relative and the absolute are not just true, as I have heard Shohaku saying many times, and not just intimately connected, but continually intertwining. And Dogen, in the Genjo Koan again, talks of “The Buddha Way… leaping clear of the many and the one.”
It’s this leaping clear from getting stuck that Red Pine is also talking about; the reason – for me – that the sages wanted to disrupt the students cognitive coherence was because we are all so used to depending on it. Should a student get stuck in emptiness, the sage is (or certainly was) ready to dispense a slap to remind the student that the conventional physical being can not be ignored either – but that is usually the lesser of the problems we face.
Somewhere in the sutras, and a better scholar than me could no doubt find it, I think there is reference to the Buddha telling his students that if a better explanation of reality comes along, then they should be ready to let go of their previous understanding and accept the new version. So I am not really worried about 2 + 2 continuing to make 4, and right now I am happy that it does. Perhaps in the quantum realm we will eventually discover something different. If there is anything that I have learnt in two decades of reading Dogen and sitting zazen, it is that I don’t really understand much, and what I might come to understand, is not really the work of the mind.