Friday, June 23, 2006

What did Master Dogen mean by "a gap"?

“If there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, heaven and earth are far apart.”

This suggests that heaven and earth are originally not separate, but there is something about we tottering bipeds that causes a gap to open, in which case, even if the gap is very slight, we experience heaven and earth as being far apart.

Nishijima Roshi’s new, independent translation says:
“If there were even though a bit of the smallest gap, then the gap would become bigger and bigger as if it were like distance between the heaven and the earth.”

The emphasis is different, and I have asked the Master on his blog to clarify. But in either case, it is not in doubt that Master Dogen is cautioning against the arising of a gap.

I have my own ideas about what Master Dogen meant by a gap. I think the gap is related to Master Dogen's discussion of polishing a tile vs making a mirror, which corresponds to Alexander's principle of means-whereby vs end-gaining. But if there are any different or opposing views out there, they would be welcome.

Reflecting on how this blog has, and hasn't, been useful over the past months, one good thing that did come out of it was when I asked for people's interpretations of MU-I. I found that exercise valuable, not least because of Bubba's hint to check out Frank Lambert's site at

So what did Master Dogen mean by "a gap"? Comments are cordially invited.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

“If there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, heaven and earth are far apart.”

hard to comment on this verse. to comment is to gap. mind the gap! besides you already pointed right to it with the tile/mirror metaphor. metaphors are easier. i like to imagine two mirrors perfectly parallel to each other. can you imagine what they are reflecting! what the heck, i'll poke at it a little:

to gap is to crave
to crave is to identify with
this instant's phenomena

to identity with
this instant's phenomena
is to want or not want it

one instant of craving
one hundred instants of craving
one thousand instants of craving
are all the same distance from
one instant of knowing


Saturday, June 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

I imagine that those two mirrors might be reflecting three kinds of effort, or two kinds of effort and a kind of effortlessness -- i.e. (1) with body, (2) with mind, and (3) body and mind dropping off.

“Two mirrors and three kinds of reflection”... mmmm. Now, where have I come across that expression before?

Saturday, June 24, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

It is a quote that is orginally from Taoism.

It is basically talking poetically about Mind and Body in unity.

Mind and Body are either one unit or they are not. The size of the gap is irrelevant. If Mind and Body are a single unit then it is possible for action to be non-action and for our non-actions to be a true outflowing from who we really are at that present moment. Their cannot be non-action where there is a gap.

The thing that makes the gap is the Ego our sense of "I". When that is present Heaven and Earth are far apart. When it is absent then Heaven and Earth are united.

Saturday, June 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

The idea of body-mind unity or mind-body unity is common currency nowadays. I laughed a few months ago when I received a flyer from a local trendy hairdressers advertizing "holistic hairdressing."

More worthy of consideration is Master Dogen's statement in Shobogenzo chap. 72, Zanmai-o-zanmai, that there is mental sitting which is not the same as physical sitting, and physical sitting which is not the same as mental sitting.

My understanding is that body and mind are not a unity. Body and mind are totally opposite conceptions of something that is a unity.

Saturday, June 24, 2006  
Blogger docretro said...

Could it be about non-dualistic thinking. As long as there is no gap there is no difference between heaven and earth, you can't tell where the first one ends and the other one begins.
But if you start to draw a border, even the smalles kind of distinction, the unity falls apart. You end up with a heaven-part and an earth-part. Unity can't be restored as long as you've got your distinction gap.

Sunday, June 25, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Nice try, docreto, but I think it is necessary for you to meet in person somebody who is very diligent in dualistic thinking and yet, in his or her physical being, doesn't seem to suffer from any kind of separation between heaven and earth.

Unfortunately, we can never meet such a person on the internet.

Monday, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

Hello again Mike,

Please discard this if you'd rather not enter into further conversation, weeds and sods being what they are.

To gap is to process existence, to transform it from what is real into what is unreal. In fact, our real existence cannot be changed but only our experience of it, the gulf between 'our real existence' and our transformed experience is I believe what Master Dogen refers to as the gap between heaven and earth.

This elusive processing is often almost imperceptible so that we may say, 'I am experiencing my life fully without any gap' however this conception is just gapping itself. It may be only one hundredth or one thousandth of a gap but it is a gap as wide as there can be.

Transforming experience, the unreal world viewed through a glass darkly can also be called the world of samsara. We suffer wildly from jealousies and bitterness, from perceived slight and joyful triumph. But something endures behind that frenetic disporting.

Without the practise of zazen, without coming back to our genuine and unadorned life the gap inevitably opens between real existence and what our experience of that is. We deck our plain and simple life with garlands of flowers or shroud it in a winding cloth. This happens despite our intention that it not happen.

Our 'manifest' intention that it not happen however is to sit in zazen. Sitting in zazen allows the swirling mists of disinformation to subside, the stiff neck; the entrenched opinion of the bodymind. What emerges shining from the murk was there all along, our original life, unadorned, ungapped, unmisted, unwound, just itself, beyond our intention that it be so.

Monday, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hello Michael,

Your comments are always welcome -- so beautiful and persuasive.

If you are enlightened already, your words might be a very nice expression of the truth.

If you are not a truly enlightened master yet, then there might be gap between your actual state and what you are pretending to be.

Without meeting you in person, it has been difficult for me to suppose which is the case.

I think Master Dogen knew the latter case very well from his own experience -- that’s why he described it so accurately at the beginning of Fukan-zazengi.

Monday, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

Dear Mike

You imagine I may be pretending enlightenment. I am responding to your question with my understanding as accurately as I can, that's all. I have no agenda here other than the very real and human pleasure of trying to express experience and to enhance my understanding through interaction with you. It really doesn't matter at all who considers whom 'enlightened.' That and all consideration therewith is the activity that creates the gap. As you write, in reality it is immediately apparent and doesn't require virtual discussion.

Doing just this, thinking about a means of describing what is real and beyond definition then choosing the best words to do that is the activity that creates a gap between real existence and the often transformed experience of existence. But this is our human condition. This is only the most obvious end though of the equation. Gaps come in all shapes and sizes and appear everywhere at once. I am very familiar with these gaps and, writing this, am currently experiencing the very gappiest form of gaps.

Sometimes we notice, after the fact, that there was a point in zazen when we experienced an awareness that was not self-conscious, that floated free of its psychophysical bindings, an 'is-ness' without intrinsic character but which shares the characteristics of everything within that awareness. We can just call this our real lives and realise everything else we experience in its context, thus transforming this world of sighs and tremors, of fears and evils, of addiction and deliverance to one witnessed clearly, without those inflections, from the perspective of stillness.

This is just the thinking of something posting on the internet and thus in the grip of the deepest, widest gap imaginable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

There is thinking as a means of initiating a spontaneous happening in the real world -- as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics.

And there is thinking ABOUT initiating a spontaneous happening in the real world, as predicted by the the second law of thermodynamics.

As we sit at our computers, tapping away, we are inevitably in the second consciousness -- thinking ABOUT. My question to you is: when you sit on your zafu, do you practice the first kind of thinking, i.e. thinking the state of not thinking?

Of course you don’t. You express yourself as if you might know what I am talking about, but I know you don’t. Because I know your Master, and the Master of your Master, and I am afraid that neither of those two blokes, sincere though they are in their respective ways, have understood one iota of what I have been going on about these past 12 years about the first kind of thinking.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

You seem to have firmed-up your opinion since your initial reply.

On the contrary however I would argue that your 'first kind of thinking' was always implicit. It is however very important that you assert the fact. When I began to practise the rubric that we should 'stop thinking' on our zafus seemed like some esoteric skill only available to those of many years practise. It struck me that this could not be the case, that it was inhuman and obfuscating.

Like running or jumping. It's very difficult to run or jump unless you set out to do it. The brain must send the message to the organs to run, to jump. However, there is a moment when we are already running or jumping when 'running' and 'jumping' no longer exists, only an activity that no longer wears those characteristics. Something happening beyond decription in its is-ness.

To me, zazen is like this. I set out to sit down on my cushion, I set out to think the state of not thinking, a psychophysical process which is quite hard to describe, a process of permitting the passing of holding.

Sometimes I am aware that something has happened in this processing which is beyond all of these conceptions, and beyond the process I was engaged in, something I'll call an experience of real life. This expansion of consciousness fills the gap you speak of building a land bridge to the main of existence.

It doesn't concern me whether you call me a Buddha, a pretender, a dog or a fool, this remains my experience of zazen which I bear witness to here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

If what you are expressing is your own real understanding (in which case there is no gap), and not just a parrotting of my ideas (in which case there is a gap), then it is very important that YOU assert the fact, to your Master, and to your Master's Master -- because they haven't understood it clearly yet.

You may well be called a pretender, a dog and a fool for your trouble. I doubt very much that anyone will reward you for your trouble by calling you buddha. But if you are a true bodhisattva, you won't mind that.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

My first post many months ago now as Foolish Thing on Dogen Sangha Blog's page asserted exactly the same experience of zazen as I continue to describe here. I am not 'parrotting your ideas' but recognising something in my own experience in what you write.

It would appear to me that the gulf betweeen you, Gudo et al might be largely one of semantics, of our very frail and inadequate form of communication. Gudo writes 'think the state of non-thinking' then writes 'anyone who says that we should think something in zazen can never be a Buddhist monk.' Actually these statements are not mutually exclusive. Is 'the state of not-thinking' a kind of thinking, we can say yes and we can say no. Neither point to the truth. How can we think the state of not thinking. It is a very subtle skill, like explaining to someone who has never entered water what swimming is like. There is explanation, there are tentative first steps into the water but no-one ever learned to swim by staying on the shore. Even in the act of swimming, how can we understand how we learned it? How can we adequately describe it? This water-penetrated directed floating of the whole being.....? This being-penetrated floating direction....?

So how can we think the state of not thinking? Cease from stirring your experience. Cease from unsettling yourself. Sit and permit yourself to just do that. The mud will settle and the pool will become clear, have faith in that. Don't grasp at straws like a drowning man, you are not drowning - let yourself float to the bottom, only the bottom waits for you. The bottom of the pool is the place to sit, it is where all further swimming may come from, with the confidence that the bottom will always be there.

The treasure of zazen is all the reward I will ever require in my life. It is my profound wish and my vow that as many as possible share in those boundless riches.

Thursday, June 29, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

One cannot do an undoing. Body and mind dropping off is either realized as a spontaneous undoing of muscular holding, involving the dissipation of energy, or it is not. A process cannot be a little bit spontaneous. It either is or it isn’t.

To put it another way, in the matter of undoing, if there is even the tiniest bit of doing, the process is not one of undoing but some variation, whether subtle or gross, on the theme of doing.

Now I have told you this, you will no doubt regurgitate it, beautifully, as if it were your own understanding.

But this understanding cannot be got only from words on a page or words on a screen. Gudo Nishijima hasn’t got it clearly yet, Michael Luetchford hasn’t got it yet at all, and I have no doubt that you also haven’t got it yet at all. If you had visited me like you were going to do, I could have begun to show you. But you didn’t come. You bothered me with an appointment but could'nt keep it.

It was a very good lesson for me to be completely deceived by such a clever wordsmith. Thank you, Michael.

You give yourself airs of having understood something. But you haven't understood anything. Don't give yourself airs, you pretentious fool.

Thursday, June 29, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

Yes,it is true to say that I am a pretentious fool.

You are wrong however about regurgitation.

But it doesn't matter.

Friday, June 30, 2006  

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