Daido Roshi

Symbol and Symbolized

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
Koans of the Way of Reality

Featured in Mountain Record 25.2, Winter 2006


 The Main Case

A monastic asked Master Zhaozhou, “Of the three aspects of Buddha—the physical, the moral, and the metaphysical, which is the original one?”

Zhaozhou said, “Do not leave out any of them.”

Master Dogen said, “The supreme truth of bodhi is just the painting of a picture. Neither the dharma world nor empty space is anything other than the painting of a picture.”

The Commentary

The questioner is asking which of the three aspects of the Buddha is the real one. Is it his material existence—that which can be perceived through the senses? Is it his moral teachings, which are a symbol of his existence? Or is it his transcendent reality—that which we point to in the sutras, the liturgy, the buddha images—all the pictures we have painted of the Buddha? What is his reality and what is the picture of his reality? Indeed we could ask, is there a difference between the picture of reality and reality itself? We generally regard a picture or a work of art as a representation of something else, a symbol of that which is symbolized. But we should understand that the symbol and the symbolized are nondual. The symbol is the symbolized.

Haven’t you heard Master Dogen’s teaching? In the dharma, even metaphors are ultimate realities, thus picture is reality, reality is picture. The transcendent reality that we point to in sutras, liturgy, and images is in fact the sutras, liturgy, and images themselves. The mythical and the real are one reality. For this reason, dreams, illusions, and images are boundless sources for satisfying spiritual hunger.

A monastic asked Zhaozhou, “What is Buddha?” Zhaozhou answered, “The one in the shrine.” I ask you, what is real? What is reality? Where do you find yourself?

The Capping Verse

The moon and the pointing finger
     are a single reality.
Aside from painted cakes,
     there is no other way to satisfy hunger.

There is in Buddhism a well-known saying: “Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger.” Painted cakes, in this case, refer to the words and ideas that describe the dharma. The sutras are painted cakes. All of the Buddhist literature, in fact, is made up of painted cakes. All of the philosophy, the explanations, and intellectualizations of the dharma are all painted cakes. They’re not reality itself.

Given that Zen is known as a “special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters,” it is not surprising that early on in the history of our tradition, this saying became the battle cry. For years this belief was rigorously adhered to—so much so that to this day many Rinzai monasteries keep their libraries under lock and key. Monastics were not only discouraged from studying, they were banned from it. Then, in the thirteenth century, Master Dogen turned the whole thing upside down with a revolutionary statement. He said that painted cakes do in fact satisfy hunger, and going even further, that aside from painted cakes, there is no other way to satisfy hunger. What did he mean? How is that possible?

In liturgy we use many symbols, words, gestures, chanting, incense, prostrations, bows. During the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, the abbot usually does invitational bows. Who is he inviting? Where are they? Every week during ango we do a Hakuryusan service. Hakuryusan is a white dragon. But who is it? Where is it? We have healing services. What is going on there? Who heals whom? And how? Are we dealing with spells, charms, supernatural powers? In liturgy, in art, in creative expression, what is the reality of the subject? Is it in its morphology, its expression, its metaphysics, its existence, its ineffability?