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Dogen on Dream-Making Within Dreams

by Robert L. Seltman

Originally printed in The Kinki Times April 1994

While considering the ethical and aesthetic limitations of my friend the computer, I came across an insightful translation of Dogen Zenji (1200 – 1253 AD) . This is from Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen Kigen - Mystical Realist , which covers the work of Dogen, famous founder of the Japanese Soto-Zen sect. In it Hee-Jin Kim translates from Dogen’s important life work Shobogenzo.

Usually, the traditional 8th century Zen statement "The pictured cakes do not satisfy hunger" signifies something fantasized and unreal that cannot fill the stomach. But Dogen sees it differently, in a way that touches on the work of a computer. A process similar to what Dogen called ‘Dream-making within dreams' (musa-muchu).

Dogen: "The people think that such a view [‘The pictured cakes do not satisfy hunger’] tries to say that an unreal thing is really useless, but this is a grave mistake… What we now understand as the pictured cakes are all the paste cakes, vegetable cakes, cheese cakes, toasted cakes, nutritious cakes, and so on – and all are realized out of the pictured cakes. You should note that picture is nondual, cake is nondual, Dharma is nondual. For this reason, all the cakes that are now realized are the pictured cakes as a whole…

As you try to paint a landscape, you use paints, strange cliffs and grotesque boulders, the seven rare gems, and the four treasures [a brush, ink, paper, and an ink-stone]. The manner employed to draw cakes is also like this… Examine carefully the pictured Buddha and the pictured cakes. You should understand thoroughly which is a guardian lion, which is an iron staff, which is form, which is mind. [All are nothing but pictures.] Thus viewed, birth-and-death and coming-and-going are pictures without exception. Supreme enlightenment is nothing but a picture. As a rule, the phenomenal world and the empty sky – there is nothing that is not a picture… If you say that a picture is not real, all things are not real. If all things are not real, Dharma is not real either. If Dharma is real, the pictured cakes should be real."

Though computers are often once, twice, three times removed from the original raw material, a modem transfer of a scanned photo of a silk-screened snap-shot for example, they maintain the basic nature of illusion with in the creative process. The communicative value found in the original is retained, despite the restructuring of the initial image. The integrity of image is consistent in that it is all illusion and no different from the illusion in which we perceive everything in our lives, from the sky above to the abstract concepts of love and freedom.

Dogen: "…Thus, while encountering this discourse on dreams in dreams, those who try to eschew the Buddha-way think that some nonexistent phantasms are unreasonably believed to exist and that illusions are piled up on top of illusions. This is not true. Even though delusions are multiplied in the midst of delusions, you should certainly ponder the path of absolute freedom in which absolute freedom is apprehended as the very consummation of delusions."

The computer is no more unreal than a piece of cake.

Copyright©1994 R.L.Seltman. All rights reserved.

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