Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

What Is Real?

December 10, 2014

“… Zen is quite clear: “picking up one atom of thought brings the whole universe into being,” … 


Sometimes it seems to really hit us that this planet hanging in space with sibling planets and its niece the moon is real. There’s really a ball of fire hanging out in the medium we call space, powering all of this.

A few weeks ago I was sitting outside at night when I looked up at the slip of the new moon, and it hit me again: it’s real. It’s really there, hanging up in space – the same space we are in.

The question that arose is this: how come it is our sense of the real-ness, the actual-ness, of all this incredible array of beautiful matter that can lead us into a deeper revelation about the very nature of that matter, which then in a sense undercuts this real-ness? Of course I don’t have an answer to this. But I marvel at how seeing the other face of reality normally hidden to us can free us up to appreciate all this phenomenal cosmos with greater vividness and intensity than before. Yes it’s real! What a gift: this staggering abundance of beauty.

And yet – what is “real”? What is matter, what is seeing, what is this whole incredible apparition we call the universe? And of course, what are we who are living in it?

The answer from Zen is quite clear: “picking up one atom of thought brings the whole universe into being,” said Nansen. “Not one thing in the three worlds,” said Banzan. “Mountains, rivers, trees and the great earth are nothing but mind,” said Dogen.

Mind. Thought. Nothing. Not solid like they seem. Solid like they seem yet that’s not all.

These two sides – form and emptiness – are engaged in a dance, a quicksilver river of delight, but delight played out at a level of vast forces, forces far beyond anything we can imagine. Every breath we take, every glance we cast, contains trillions and trillions of volts of power, a countless force no less than the power of the big bang itself. And yet it is also quite empty. What a marvel, a wish-fulfilling jewel.

How on earth are we to repay this abundant, generous power?

Well… what if we never can and never will?

What if our part is to go through our daily lives in a state of attention and kindness as far as we are able to, appreciating each thing we encounter or handle to whatever extent we can – practising, yes, but also falling back, messing up,  just being the fault-filled and also wonderful beings that we are? What if that were truly enough?

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.
Image: Sparkle Water Drop by, by Sam Mugraby,, CC-BY-2.0, from Wikimedia Commons

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