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The Mind of Dôgen

            In response to Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience Chapter Six: “The Mind,” it would be mere conjecture to react through Dôgen from a standpoint of direct and focused criticism of Wilson’s evaluation involving axons and synaptic gaps.  However, many of the theories present in Dôgen’s works may shed light on options or possibilities that Wilson may have overlooked.  In some aspects the stance of the two seems to be diametrically opposed, as in the relation of the mind to the rest of the universe.  More significantly though, a pattern appears in certain places of a possible correlation.  In short, both views of the mind can be presented and considered without one totally doing away the other.

            Buddhism is notorious for its claims to non-duality.  Perhaps this aspect, and its opposition to the ideas of Wilson, can be addressed first.  For Dôgen, once practice is actualized the individual practitioner’s mind merges into this non-dual perspective, as he states in his essay entitled “Tsuki”: “Buddha ancestors and Buddha heirs always have this mind moon, because they make moon their mind.  There is no mind which is not moon, and there is no moon which is not mind” (Tanahashi 130).  This non-dual mental state goes directly against Wilson’s claim that “every mental process has a physical grounding” (Wilson 105).  In fact, Dôgen’s statement “All phenomena originate in the mind” (Kim 104) is the former statement’s polar opposite.  Exactly what Dôgen meant by the term “mind” itself, however, bears further investigation and definition.  It remains much more elusive than Wilson’s empty machinery.

            Using the term “mind” as a point of reference, when mentioned in Dôgen’s works it involves a reflection of what lay outside the mind (Maraldo 115).  Yet, the thought produced is not similar to the Western or Platonic notion of thought as an immortal aspect of the soul that continues after the eventual perishing of the body.  This view of a duality between soul and body was actually quite prevalent in Dôgen’s time among many Buddhists; a fact which he not only acknowledged but condemned, declaring it the “Senika heresy” (Abe 44).

            For Dôgen, there is no original sin destined to be overcome as part of the human condition (a curiously religious theory for Wilson to be spouting). There also is no real separation between the fusion of the body and the mind that he entitled “shinjin- ichinyo” (Maraldo 122).  Mind does not exist independently, nor does the self contain some sort of identity that is granted eternal or separate existence.  Eyes do not contain sight, the nose does not contain scents, and in this way the human brain cannot be said to contain its own thoughts. 

            It is in the context of this vehicle with no apparent driver that Wilson and Dôgen seem most similar in their writings.  Wilson claims that “consciousness is the massive coupled aggregates of…participating circuits” (Wilson 120).  Dôgen backs up the Buddhist insistence that bears a similarity to Wilson’s cynicism, but with a twist.  Like the Chinese masters before him, he singles out discursive thought as a series of empty reflexes, “flowers in the sky,” comprised of reflection (gigi) and deliberation (shoryo) (Bielefeldt 125).  These flowers are to be discarded, not just because they are the knee-jerk mechanisms that Wilson claims they are, but because they serve as an obstacle to the moonlike vision mentioned before, the “original face,” or “honrai menmoku” (Bielefeldt 147).

            Whether we cling to these thoughts or not is a choice that predates Wilson’s “true” and highly exclusive field of knowledge.  The following story told by Dôgen reflects the possibilities inherent in human existence, and sheds light on his theories of mental states:

The seventeenth-generation ancestral teacher of Buddhism was the honorable Sanghanandi; his religious successor was Gayashata.  Once, hearing the chimes hung in a chamber ring when blown by the wind, he asked Gayashata, “Would you say the wind is ringing or are the chimes ringing?”  Gayashata said, “It is not the wind ringing or the chimes ringing; it is my mind ringing.”  Sanghanandi said, “And what is the mind?”  Gayashata said, “Both are silent.”  (Dôgen118)

          Thus in the above passage, neither the notion of a sound existing outside of mind or a mind existing outside of sound are permitted, as nothing beyond the sensory impression is assumed to comprise mental perception, and the sensory perceptions themselves are not granted any independence from the mind that perceives them.  This is a very important point for Dôgen, judging by the way he constantly reiterates it in his works: “This mind does not exist independently or rise suddenly now in a vacuum.  It is neither one nor many” (Kim 117).

            At this point, the similarities between Wilson and Dôgen grind to an abrupt halt.  As Wilson sees the cause of consciousness in the hardwiring of human gray matter, he imposes a value to the scientific progress made in this field that leaps beyond the empirical facts he seems to espouse.  He fails to mention recent research in neuroscience that reflects this gray matter not solely as a cause but actually as an effect of the mystery of consciousness.  Buddhist enlightenment or awakening has shown through scientific research to actually and literally change the physical structure of the human mind, as is shown in the work of James H. Austin M.D., Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado (Austin 55).  In this way, Dôgen still speaks to us over the gulf of over 800 years.

Works Cited

Abe, Masao.  A Study of Dôgen: His Philosophy and Religion.  Ed. Steven Heine.  Albany:         State U of New York P, 1992.

Austin, James H., M.D.  Zen and the Brain: Towards an Understanding of Meditation and         Consciousness.  Boston: MIT P, 1999.

Bielefeldt, Carl. Dôgen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Dôgen, Eihei.  Shôbôgenzô.  Trans. Thomas Cleary.  Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1986.

Kim, Hee-Jin. Dôgen Kigen: Mystical Realist.  Rev. ed. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987.

Maraldo, John C.  “The Practice of Body-Mind: Dôgen’s Shinjingakudô and Comparative

Philosophy.” Dôgen Studies.  LaFleur, William R., ed. Studies in East Asian Buddhism, no. 2.          Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1985.  112-130.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dôgen.  New York:         North Point P, 1985.

Wilson, Edward O.  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  New York: Random House,         1999.



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