The Whole Picture

I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of disclosure and concealment, a concept elaborated in Huayan Buddhism and expressed in Zen as, “When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.”

That is to say, I’ve been feeling like I consistently miss the point.  I miss the point with every point I make.  And I just missed it again.

Here is the Huayan scholar-monk Chengguan:

One the eighth date of a [lunar] month, half of the moon is bright and the other half dark; the very appearance of the bright part [the disclosed] affirms but does not negate the existence of the hidden part.  Likewise, the manifestation of something always implies the existence of the unmanifested or concealed part of the same thing.  At the moment when the bright part of the moon is disclosed, the dark part also “secretly” establishes itself.  This is the reason for the so-called simultaneous establishment of concealment and disclosure in secrecy… [trans., Garma C. C. Chang]

It’s not exactly that I miss the point, then, but that as soon as I see a point or make a point, its other side is established in the dark, secretly.  Revealing one side hides the other.

I’d like to think that “I” or “one” could have a totalistic vision – a “round view” that sees and includes all sides simultaneously.  But it seems that’s a vision reserved for Buddhas (the omniscient kind, not the deluded kind).  I think of Dogen Zenji’s point in genjokoan that we see only what our eye of practice can reach, that from the midst of the ocean we can ever only see a circle of water, though the features of coastline are infinite and various, and even though that unperceived infinity can be at some level known or appreciated.

The Platform Sutra tries to get at or around this principle of disclosure and concealment by recommending that when one makes a statement, one should also bring up the opposite.  I’ve long loved this point – I went so far as to give a Sunday talk on it once (opening to our actual life, 8/28/09), but it missed the point, of course, because it didn’t, and couldn’t, include its opposite.

This principle of simultaneous disclosure and concealment – that something is darkened the moment there is light – is constantly at work, but I notice it most when I tiptoe out onto the limb of saying something about Buddhism.  Whenever I speak about the Dharma, which has seemed like a lot lately, as loudly as my own words I hear their opposite, their insufficiency, the genuine truth that they conceal.  And even when I don’t hear it, others do.  As soon as a talk opens for questions, I know it’s coming:  the opposite.  Whatever was held up, however dimly illuminated, the light was enough to darken the other side.

“But what about…?!”

Maybe I was able to flip the coin once or twice like the Platform Sutra says.  Or maybe, like Dogen, I was even able to flip it multiple times, each time bringing light to a concealed truth.  As soon as there is the new light, though, the last truth goes dark – the previous point is “established in secrecy,” becomes the concealed.

So in a talk when I raise “this,” I obscure “that.”  And it can be frustrating.  I can oscillate, making “that” into “this” for a moment, but then the last “this” becomes “that” – oscillation is not totality.  Or I can try – as the Zen tradition has long practiced – to express in a mode that is in-between or beyond, that doesn’t land on a “this” and thus avoids making “thats”.  But then what’s said?  If nothing was concealed, I’m afraid it was because nothing was revealed.

Why not just commit, knowing it’s partial?  That seems like the only real option.

So I commit, knowing excruciatingly how partial it is, and I say something.  Maybe somehow by some grace I could at the same time say two sides of a thing, but even so there would still be infinite sides left unsaid.  More reliable is just to notice, to know, and to deeply feel that this expression is just my “eye of practice” right now, is just the Dharma that’s revealed right now, and that the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite, and that the concealed truths are completely intertwined with the disclosed ones, that the spoken and the unspoken are completely co-dependent, are all completely in the room.

When I say something – anything – I want to know and embody the fact that it’s only half of the story, at most.  Or, as Dogen might have it, it’s not that it’s half a complete truth, but it’s a complete half-truth.  Confidently, crazily, completely spewing half-truths, completely embodying my momentary, dim eye of practice as just that.  As wholly just part.


6 thoughts on “The Whole Picture

  1. A farmer notices his chickens are getting sick, he calls in a physicist to help him. The physicist takes a good look at the chickens and does some calculations, he suddenly stops and says “Ive got it, but it would only work if the chickens were spherical and in a vacuum.”

  2. The dialectic form is the basis of Tibetan Buddhist debate practice. It’s a useful way to think (takes practice) and can greatly assist when one needs to dig themselves out of mental traps. It also helps resolve the apparent dichotomy of Two Truths doctrine. This style of perception (I don’t know a better way to describe it since it’s not merely a way of thinking) permeates Buddhism. (form/emptiness, ultimate/relative, now/forever (the vertical time paradigm), etc). Expanding on that it becomes a multiple dialectic or something like a kaleidoscope which deals with the apparently complex ideas such as karma. One one level it can be likened to some kind of complex systems theory but that again only takes in part of it.

    Oh I’d better make this into a blog post instead of a comment. Your words have set the gears spinning. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Who Owns the Dharma? | No Zen in the West

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