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Resolving paired opposites. Duck rabbit shifts in the East and West. Barry Magid May 8th 2021

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Today we’re going to begin our discussion of Joan Stambaugh’s book, “Impermanence is Buddha-nature.” So I’ll begin with some background for a framework for that discussion because I realize it can be a daunting text for many of you, and it may not be immediately clear why in this discussion of Dogen we begin with this discussion of pantheism and the nature of God and how all that’s going to connect to Buddha-nature and impermanence.

The way I think about the rhetorical strategy of the book, why it begins the way it does, is that we’re trying to understand things that Buddhism presents as seeming opposites but which in reality are from a certain perspective inseparable. The most famous, in the Heart Sutra, is form and emptiness. We start with these two categories which seem like they are diametrically opposed to one another, form and substance as things, and emptiness we think of as precisely the absence of things. But the Heart Sutra says form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form. How is that possible?

It’s possible when we look deeply into the nature of things we see that they’re always changing, that they have no inner core or essence of something that is unchanging, but it changes through time, things are empty of any permanent, essential aspect. That’s true whether we’re talking about a table, a chair, or something like the self. It is simultaneously an object in the room, and yet, as an object, it is subject to continual change and there’s no unchanging inner core or aspect to it, so there is simultaneously both a thing and empty.

Now I refer to that kind of dichotomy as the duck-rabbit problem, where you have one thing that you can see from two different aspects, depending on which perspective you’re looking from. It seems like you’ve got two very different animals, but it’s actually a single squiggle, a single outline. One of the ways we can think about Stambaugh’s project is to try to get a handle on the very unique duck-rabbits found in Buddhism and particularly in Dogen, and to compare them to some of the more familiar duck-rabbits that we have in the West and see that there’s a family resemblance between them, that the problem has a kind of familiar aspect to us in Western religion and philosophy, and so she’s going to use that kind of comparison as a way in.

In the West, the kind of paired opposites that we have to deal with historically, start with things like God and the world. What is their relation? Is God separate from the world or part of it? If he’s separate, how does he interact? If he’s part of it, what does it mean for him to be God? Versions of this show up in the question: If God is all good and all powerful, how is it that the world seems so imperfect and full of evil and suffering? We take two things that we believe are almost by definition the case, the nature of God, the nature of the world, and we’re stuck trying to resolve an apparent contradiction.

If we take it out of the realm of religion, a very familiar one these days is the problem of determinism versus free will. On one hand we seem to have a description of the world that follows rigid, causal, deterministic rules. It’s a billiard ball universe, right? One thing exerts force on another and you have this whole sequence of causal events. That description of things seems unchallengeable, and yet from another perspective, we have the experience of choice and free will, and we have ethical decisions, judgments. It does not seem possible to think about who we are or how we’ve lived or about our life without using the language of choice, responsibility. And yet we don’t know how to have that intersect with the description of the deterministic universe.

In philosophical terms, particularly in German philosophy from the eighteenth century, it got described in terms of the world in itself versus the world for itself: In itself being things just as they are in this physical, deterministic world, and for itself being in the realm of subjectivity and freedom and choice. How are they going to interact? We get another one of these duck-rabbits in the distinction of appearance versus reality. We begin to recognize that we see things from our own particular perspective, a perspective that can be historical or cultural or even just biological, that we perceive certain wavelengths of light and not others.

So at some level our interaction with the world is always mediated through some kind of perceptual apparatus or another. It comes to us through some perspective, but what is it a perspective on? What is the world separate from our perspective on it? Yet that’s like asking what is the thing in itself? Can we ever know it? If all we ever see are our own perceptions, how do we know that the world is actually out there? How do we know that it’s not all a dream or a hallucination? Instead of there being rocks and trees, maybe I’m just lying on a beach and dreaming it all? Hallucinating it all? How can I ever tell or test it?

In any case, the point is that in Western religion and philosophy we also are always confronting these kinds of apparent dichotomies that we are challenged to reconcile, and we see how one thing can show itself in these two different aspects. And if form and emptiness are basically like this in Buddhism, we’re also confronted with the traditional versions of samsara and nirvana, the world of clinging, attachment, the self-centered dream world, and this world of awakening. Again, the question is: Is this one world or two?

Part of what Stambaugh outlines is the shift in Buddhism, roughly from a Theravada to a Mahayana perspective going from a view of there being really two kinds of worlds: the world we actually live in and another transcendent world, or a nirvana that is somehow an exit from this world to a whole other transcendent state. What can that mean? What would that look like? In some ways it’s a correspondence between the Western picture of this life and then an after-life, two different realms.

The Mahayana revolution, you can say, was to collapse that dichotomy. Stambaugh quotes Nagarjuna, who’s talking about the identity of samsara and nirvana. What does that mean? It’s very much like the duck-rabbit dichotomy regarding the self and the true self, the self being supposedly this delusional construct, somehow operating inside our heads, in which we imagine ourselves as permanent egos looking out onto a world. One version of things, we realize, is that self is not existent, is empty, is no-self, and we discover instead a true self. What is that? Is that another sef? Is it a different self? When we spray this old self off will we uncover the real one underneath? See, that’s another kind of duck-rabbit dichotomy, a false self and a true self.
One of the ways to resolve the apparent contradiction is to say that what we do in practice is to discover the truth about the self, not discover a true self. When we see what the self actually is, that the self is empty, the self is changing and interdependent, we see that that’s the true nature of the self. But what we’re seeing is something that the self has been all along, not that it suddenly becomes empty and interdependent. It's that we realize that what we took to be solid and autonomous and unchanging, actually has had this whole other aspect to it: empty and interdependent. We haven’t discovered anything new in the sense of a new entity or object or essence deep inside. What we’ve done is suddenly see that the duck is a rabbit and it could also be seen as a rabbit. It’s been there all along, but it’s an aspect that we’ve overlooked

For Dogen, his particular duck-rabbit obsession had to do with the dichotomy between original enlightenment and the experience of realization. Original enlightenment says that the self has always been empty and interdependent, that our Buddha-nature has always been there from the very beginning. It’s not something we suddenly discover or manufacture or uncover. It’s the way everything already is. How is it that we don’t recognize that? What is it that we have to do in order to realize that? If it’s already been there all this time, why is it that we all have to practice so hard for so many years?

So he starts out with this dilemma of the relationship between practice and realization and he begins with our ordinary sense that we practice in order to realize something that we’ve been missing. He inherits this picture of practice as a means to an end, practice as something we do in order to have a realization. And yet, when he actually has a realization, his whole picture of what practice is and was, shifts. And he sees practice as inseparable from realization, not as a separate means to an end, but as the manifestation of realization. He sees the duck and the rabbit were one thing all along.

Now part of what we’re going to see in Dogen is this kind of interplay between seeming opposites, and impermanence and Buddha-nature are just in a way the ones that are being foregrounded among a whole set of different possibilities, where Buddha-nature seems to be something otherworldly or transcendent or permanent or perfect and impermanence is characteristic of this imperfect, changing world of suffering that we are attempting to escape from in our practice. How are we going to bring those two into relation with one another? Part of what she talks about here is that the whole notion of relation is wrong because it presumes two different things. What’s the relation between the duck and the rabbit? Well, they’re really the same thing and yet they are clearly also different. How do you talk about their relationship? Where does that exist? Part of what we’re dealing with here is with Buddha-nature and impermanence, that kind of duck-rabbit interpenetration.

Now it may seem that this complex comparative study of the family resemblance of duck-rabbits East and West is a fairly idiosyncratic way to proceed to understand Dogen but I think that we should also understand that this is not Stambaugh’s idea to be doing it this way. In fact, this comparative style comes from the Japanese. It’s not something we’re bringing to them. There’s a whole philosophical tradition beginning around the First World War in Japan, when a group of philosophers who became known as the Kyoto School were trying, as part of the modernization of Japan, to integrate the philosophical insights of Zen with Western philosophy.

They were trying to build that bridge so in a sense the Japanese philosophy would be taken seriously in the West and not simply be kept in the category of religion. For them, Zen occupied this kind of pivot point between religion and philosophy, somewhat like Kierkegaard occupies or straddles religion and philosophy in the West, or you can say how Aquinas was trying to integrate philosophy and Aristotle together with theology and Christianity into one coherent system.

So this Kyoto group of philosophers was trying to build a bridge to Western philosophy and they picked on this idea of emptiness, or nothingness, as a kind of bridge term that they thought could connect particularly to a philosopher like Heidegger. One of the prominent Japanese philosophers, Nishitani, actually came to Germany and studied with Heidegger in the late ‘30s for a couple of years before going back to Japan, so the bridge between Dogen and Heidegger is not one that Stambaugh is making up as a way to try to understand Dogen. It’s a bridge that the Japanese themselves tried to create in order to introduce to the West some notion of what was going on in Zen Buddhism.

It may be that at some point we will follow up on a representative of that school, maybe Masao Abe is the most contemporary and readable of that group, from the little I’ve delved into it. We’ll see as we go along. But it helps to know that this connection is one that starts from the Japanese side, it’s not just a strange analogy with these Western philosophers they are trying to draw.

All right, I think I have to leave it there for now. We will see where we can take this in the discussion group.

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