Reality As It Is: Non-Obstruction Between Phenomena

In Dogen’s Vast Perfect Knowing it is said that once Indra, the king of the shining ones, asked Venerable Subhuti: “O Worthy One, if those who are grounded in Openness and Vastness wish to learn this profound perfect knowing, how should it be done?” To which Subhuti replies, “If those who are grounded in Openness and Vastness wish to learn perfect knowledge, they should learn it to be as space”. So the study of perfect knowing is space and space is perfect knowing.

One of the key aspects of Zen Buddhism is the use of koans, or paradoxical stories and questions, designed to test and provoke the student’s mind, leading to a direct realisation of reality beyond words and concepts. Koans are not puzzles to be solved by logic or reason, but rather pointers to the true nature of reality, which can only be grasped through intuition and insight, and for some, an understanding of an esoteric structure or model. One of the most famous koans in Zen is that of a monk who asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature? Zhaozhou replied, “Mu”. (Not have, no). What did he mean by that? This koan seems to contradict the basic teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, which is that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, or the potential to attain enlightenment… So how can Zhaozhou say that a dog does not have Buddha nature?

To approach this koan, we need to understand the concept of non-obstruction between phenomena, or shishi wu’ai in Chinese. This term means that all phenomena in the universe are interpenetrating and interdependent, without hindering or obstructing each other. This concept is derived from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Garland Sutra), which describes the realm of reality as a web of jewels, known also as Indra’s Net. The Flower Garland is apparently meant to suggest the crowning glory of a Buddha’s profound understanding of ultimate reality.

The net of jewels is a metaphor with which we can visualise a vast web spanning the entire cosmos, with each vertex of the net holding a jewel. Each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the web. Each reflection also contains the reflections of all the other jewels, and so on ad infinitum. Thus each jewel contains the whole of the web, yet each jewel is distinct and does not obstruct the others. In place of a Jewel, which again is only metaphor, you can substitute it with a Thelemic one, with each individual being a star in the body of Nuit, as Crowley wrote: “if every man and every woman did his and her will—the true will—there would be no clashing. “Every man and every woman is a star,” and each star moves in an appointed path without interference.”

Crowley’s magical child Frater Achad in his work Crystal Vision Through Crystal Gazing touched upon this idea: “At the CENTRE of our Being is the Star of Unconquered Will, that is the True or Divine Will, the Will of the Universe. Each must discover this Star in his own being, and putting his personal will in line with Its Guidance, become an active and conscious cooperator in the Universal Plan. This Star is of Intense brilliance. It is the Diamond Soul, the only Veil about the Innermost Essential Self. It is thus the ULTIMATE CRYSTAL, of which it is written by Our Lady Nuit—Goddess of the Starry Heavens—Who represents INFINITE SPACE or the Universal Crystalline Sphere : “Worship then the Khabs (Star) and behold my light shed over you!” When we have discovered this Central Light of our Being, and learned to Concentrate the Mind thereon, we shall begin the Ultimate Practice of Crystal Gazing. We shall find the Star Rays from the Universal Sphere centered in us, and when the focus becomes perfect, shall discover, that this CENTRE is EVERYWHERE and THE CIRCUMFERENCE NOWHERE. Then all our conceptions of Crystalline Spheres will melt into That which is Without Limit, — PERFECT CRYSTALLINE VISION.”

With or without seeing these metaphors with perfect crystalline vision, they can help us to understand that all phenomena are non-obstructive. Phenomena are anything that can be experienced or observed, such as physical objects, mental events, sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. According to Buddhism, all phenomena are empty of inherent existence, meaning that they do not have a fixed or independent nature. Rather, they arise and cease depending on causes and conditions, and they are interrelated with all other phenomena, which is called dependent origination, or Pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit. Therefore, phenomena are also like the jewels in the net, reflecting and being reflected by all other phenomena without any obstruction or separation. Each phenomena contains the whole universe, and yet each phenomena is unique and distinct. This is called the realm of reality, or Dharmadhatu in Sanskrit. (The non-conceptualising awareness of Sunyata).

The Buddhavatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra was responsible for the birth of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism. There is a recorded conversation between a monk called Zhang Shangying and Zen Master Yuanwu Keqin (1063 – 1135), the Zen master who developed the collection of koans known as the Biyan lu (Blue Cliff Record) into what we know today. In discussing the Four Dharmadhatus, Zhang Shangying argued that “the Huayan philosophy is great. It clarifies the final stage of Chan”. But Yuanwu suggested, “Except for the first three realms. Only the realm of unobstructed phenomena has something in common with Chan (Zen). But none of them can approach the realm of truth as long as those conceptual categories exist. On the other hand, the realm of Chan is beyond all conceptualisation.” Yuanwu’s suggestion is that only after the four categories or realms have disappeared would the stage of Chan emerge, which is rooted in the realm of non-obstruction among phenomena..

Let us now return to the koan I gave at the beginning of this article. When Zhaozhou says that a dog does not have Buddha-nature, he is not denying the dog’s potential for enlightenment, nor is he contradicting the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. Rather, he is pointing out the non-obstruction between phenomena and challenging the monk’s dualistic thinking. The monk asks a yes-or-no question, implying that there are only two possible answers: either a dog has Buddha-nature or it does not, and expects the master to put his mind at rest with an answer. This is a dualistic way of thinking, based on the assumption that phenomena have an inherent existence and can be divided into fixed and separate categories which creates conflict and suffering. It is written, in Liber Legis, The Book of the Law, “Now, therefore, I am known to ye by my name Nuit, and to him by a secret name which I will give him when at last he knoweth me. Since I am Infinite Space, and the Infinite Stars thereof, do ye also thus. Bind nothing! Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt.”

So Zhaozhou’s answer of ‘not having’ is a way of attacking the monk’s dualistic way of thinking. Zhaozhou is saying that a dog does not have Buddha nature as a separate or inherent quality, but rather as a reflection and interpenetration of all other phenomena. Zhaozhou also says that Buddha-nature is not something that any phenomena can possess or lack, but rather something that is expressed and realised by all phenomena. In other words, Zhaozhou says that a dog is not a dog, and Buddha-nature is not Buddha-nature. I am reminded of Aleister Crowley’s observation that the letters C, A, T do not make a cat (which I heard recently on the Darkly Splendid Abodes podcast, check them out!).

This is the wisdom and meaning of the koan, and of the concept of non-obstruction between phenomena. It is a way of seeing reality as it is, beyond words and concepts, beyond dualism and discrimination, beyond attachment and aversion. It is a way of experiencing reality as a dynamic and harmonious whole, in which everything is connected, everything is empty, and everything is possible. This is the aim and method of Zen practice. By meditating on the koan, or any phenomena, the goal is to train the mind to see through our habitual patterns and projections and to perceive the non-obstruction between phenomena. In this way we can awaken to our true nature, which is not separate from the nature of reality. We can realise that we are not a self but a jewel in the net. We can realise that we have always been enlightened, and that enlightenment is nothing more than seeing reality as it is. (See this previous post on divine self-emptying, which compared Mu/Wu of Zen with Agape of Thelema, and which shows that in Buddhism the esoterics make Vairocana the Mind or Will).

Now that I’ve mentioned Yuanwu, let’s look at another koan from his Blue Cliff Record. This koan is about Yunmen, another Zen master, who was asked by a monk about the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching. The monk asked Yunmen, “What is the teaching of a whole lifetime?” Yunmen said, “An appropriate statement.”

How could Yunmen say that the teachings of a whole lifetime are just an “appropriate statement”? What did he mean by this answer? In order to understand this koan, we must again approach the concept of non-obstruction between phenomena (even though it is to err in approaching the unapproachable, and conceptualising the unconceptable, forgive me that words fail in this art). When Yunmen says that the teachings of a whole lifetime are just an appropriate statement, he is not belittling or simplifying the Buddha’s teaching. Rather, he is pointing to the non-obstruction between phenomena and expressing the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. (See, for example, the Flower Sermon in Zen, where the World Honoured One raised a flower to demonstrate his teaching). The monk speaking to Yunmen is asking a general and abstract question, implying that there is a fixed or definitive answer that can summarise the teachings of a lifetime, like the monk who asked Joshu if a dog has a Buddha-nature. This again is dualistic thinking and Yunmen’s answer of “an appropriate statement” is a way of negating this, because the teachings of a lifetime are not something that can be captured or defined by any statement, but rather something that can be expressed or realised by any statement as long as it is appropriate to the situation and context. Yunmen’s answer says that each statement is not something that has a separate or inherent meaning, but rather something that has a relative and dependent meaning depending on its relationship to other phenomena.

Follow me if you will a bit into the esoteric weeds… Dharmadhatu is the ‘dimension’, ‘realm’ or ‘sphere’ (dhātu) of the Dharma or Absolute Reality. When Buddha-nature is realised, dharmadhātu is also called the Dharmakāya, the body of Dharma Truth, which is also associated with Vairocana (whose name means ‘he who is like the sun’).

Vairocana in the center of the Four Wisdom Buddhas residing atop the Four Elements, where Vairocana represents the Space element.

In The Transmission of the Lamp by Chang Chung-yuan: A monk asked, “What is the perfect symbol of Vairocana?” The Master replied, “Since I left my home in the early days to become a Buddhist, I have not been troubled by blurred vision. The monk persisted: “Then why don’t you help people to see?” The Master replied: “I want you to see the Vairocana yourself.”

Take Case 74 of the Blue Cliff Record for instance, where Engo provides the following introduction to the koan: “The Bakuya sword in hand, he cuts through all complications. The clear mirror hung high, he himself utters the words of Vairocana. In self-mastery he quetly puts on his clothes and takes his meal. In occult and playful samadhi, what will he do?”… So a Zen Master is taking the place of Vairocana…. Vairocana and the figure of the Five Dhyani Buddhas maps the qualities of Buddha — which is the samadhi shared by all enlightened beings, see the Brahmajhala Sutra where Vairocana was first introduced: “Now, I, Vairocana Buddha am sitting atop a lotus pedestal; On a thousand flowers surrounding me are a thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas. Each flower supports a hundred million worlds; in each world a Sakyamuni Buddha appears. All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree, all simultaneously attain Buddhahood. All these numberless Buddhas have Vairocana as their original body”.

Master Yunju said to an assembly, “People engaged in study need to attain the basis of enlightenment, discovering the ground of mind. If you realize the master of the reality body, then the whole earth, plants and trees, take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. If you realize the teacher of Vairocana, the realm of space takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. But tell me, what do you call the master of the reality body? What do you call the teacher of Vairocana? Do you want to understand directly? Radiate light in your eyes, manifesting auspicious signs; turn the great wheel of Dharma in your ears.”

Or as found in The Treatise on Perfect Illumination (Yuan-ming lun): “The essence of the Great World is originally Vairocana Buddha, the ingenious expedient means of the Bodhisattvas, the strength of their vows of great compassion, and samâdhi [itself]. Samâdhi takes space as its essence. Because space is without obstruction, it can generate the wisdom of unobstructed dharmadhâtus. Because the wisdom of the dharmadhâtus is unobstructed, it can generate the wisdom of unobstructed samâdhi. Because samâdhi is unobstructed, it can generate Vairocana Buddha, whose unobstructed and limitless body is offered to all sentient beings as the basis of their existence, so that their worlds are fundamentally unobstructed. Therefore, [it is said that the worlds] are unobstructed.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the Dharmakaya is one of the three bodies (where we have the Dharmakaya and the Sambhogakaya, which is the pleasure or bliss body, and the Nirmanakaya, which is the physical manifestation of a Buddha in time and space). We know that the three bodies unite with the four wisdoms (or prajnas) to produce the triple gem of true speech, true thought and true action. According to Wikipedia, “A core teaching of Chan/Zen Buddhism describes the transformation of the eight consciousnesses into the four wisdoms. In this teaching, the Buddhist practice is to turn the light of awareness from misconceptions about the nature of reality as external to kenshō, “seeing one’s own nature directly”. Thus the eighth consciousness is transformed into the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom, the seventh consciousness into the Equality (Universal Nature) Wisdom, the sixth consciousness into the Profound Observing Wisdom, and the first to fifth consciousnesses into the All Performing (Perfection of Action) Wisdom.” (Compare Kenshō with Crowley, who says that initiation etymologically means to journey inward, where the highest degree of his system is the Ipsissimus, whose name means something like “innermost source or self”, and whose Understanding is Not).

Since I’ve invoked the four wisdoms and three bodies in the paragraph above, let’s allow Zen Master Huineng to guide us a little in our way. Huineng instructed: “If you deal with the four prajnas apart from the three bodies, there will be prajnas without bodies, in which case they would not be prajnas.” (Prajna translates as understanding or wisdom). He offered also then this stanza, “The mirrorlike wisdom is pure by nature. The equality wisdom frees the mind from impediments. The all-discerning wisdom sees things intuitively without going through the process of reasoning. The all-performing wisdom has the same characteristics as the mirror-like wisdom.”

Yongming Yanshou’s Records of the Source Mirror provides further illumination: “The vast sea of all-encompassing existence manifested by the Universal Mind is correctly explained in the Perfect Teaching. Throughout the eight consciousnesses, the light of wisdom illuminates the darkness to reveal wrong views. The mind-mirror actually refers to the spiritual abode of living beings and the implicit truth of the myriad dharmas. It is constantly changing in unpredictable ways, expanding and contracting with unimpeded spontaneity. It manifests traces as conditions warrant; names are formed according to what is manifested. When Buddhas realise the essence of mind, it is called full enlightenment…”

The Five Dhyani Buddhas map the wisdoms as summarized on Wikipedia: “Tathatā-jñāna, the wisdom of Suchness or Dharmadhatu, “the bare non-conceptualizing awareness” of Śūnyatā, the universal substrate of the other four jñāna; Ādarśa-jñāna, the wisdom of “Mirror-like Awareness”, “devoid of all dualistic thought and ever united with its ‘content’ as a mirror is with its reflections”; Samatā-jñāna, the wisdom of the “Awareness of Sameness”, which perceives the sameness, the commonality of dharmas or phenomena; Pratyavekṣaṇa-jñāna, the wisdom of “Investigative Awareness”, that perceives the specificity, the uniqueness of dharmas; Kṛty-anuṣṭhāna-jñāna, the wisdom of “Accomplishing Activities”, the awareness that “spontaneously carries out all that has to be done for the welfare of beings, manifesting itself in all directions”. These Five Wisdoms emerge through a transformation of the eight consciousnesses at the moment of enlightenment… Therefore the previously mentioned ‘mirrorlike wisdom’ is the wisdom Buddha Akshobhya, whose name means “mirrorlike wisdom”, and is the wisdom of reflection. The ‘equality wisdom’ is Ratnasambhava whose name means “jewel-born”. ‘All-discerning wisdom’ is Amida or Amitabha, whose name means infinite light/life, and often is “he who possesses light without bound, he whose splendor is infinite”, and lastly the ‘all-performing wisdom’ is Amoghasiddhi, whose name means “he whose accomplishment is not in vain”.

These four Wisdom Buddhas are associated with the four directions and the four elements of form, water, air, fire and earth, which then unlock the ‘three bodies’ encapsulated in the fifth Wisdom Buddha in the centre, Vairocana, who represents sunyata/cosmic space emptiness. (One could meditate here on Vairocana in the centre of the four elements and relate the symbol to the PENTAGRAMMATON of Hermetic philosophy).

Let our eyes open to take in more light. Illustrated in Zen Master Dahui’s Shobogenzo, Tong said, “May I hear about the meaning of the fourfold knowledge?” The patriarch said, “Once you understand the three bodies, you understand the fourfold knowledge—why ask further? If you speak of the fourfold knowledge apart from the three bodies, this is called having knowledge with no embodiment, so this having knowledge turns into having no knowledge. I will again utter a verse:

The great round mirror knowledge is purity of essence;
The knowledge of equality is mind without illness.
Observing knowledge sees, not as a result of effort;
Knowledge for accomplishing tasks is the same as the round mirror.
Five and eight, six and seven, effect and cause revolve;
It’s just use of terminology, with no substantive nature.
If you do not keep feelings on the revolving,
Flourishing, you’ll always be in dragon concentration.”

Tong bowed in thanks and expressed praise in a verse:

“The three bodies are originally my being,
The fourfold knowledge is clarity of the basic mind.
Body and knowledge merge without hindrance,
Responding to people, freely adapting.
Initiating cultivation is all arbitrary action;
Maintaining stasis is not true refinement.
The subtle message understood through the teacher,
Finally I’ve lost defiling terms.”

At one point in this phenomena of wordy, concept-laden info-dumping, there was a reference to the Flower Sermon, where the Buddha gave a sermon without words and held up a flower before the assembly. Only Mahākāśyapa smiled at the sight of this having Understanding. The Buddha said: “I possess the true Dharma-eye, the wonderful mind of Nirvana, the true form of the Formless, the subtle Dharma-gate, which is not based on words or letters, but is a special transmission outside the scriptures. I entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.”

I will end this article here with a most appropriate quote from Zen Master Yunmen… The Master once said, “Do you see?” To which he replied to himself, “I see.” He continued, “What do you see?” On behalf of everyone present, he replied, “A flower.”