Excerpts from Between Heaven and Earth


The Structure of the Book.
While working on the detailed translation of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, I often found it impossible to see the wood for the trees. Only when I was able to step back from the words could I feel some larger-scale picture emerging. And yet, this big picture itself rests firmly on the details of the translation. In this I felt some similarity to the weaving of a carpet; when we are concentrating on weaving the individual threads of the carpet, this by its nature precludes us from seeing the overall pattern on the carpet. The entire pattern cannot be seen until the completed carpet is laid on the floor and we see it as a whole. When we do this, the individual knots in the carpet become less important - and yet they are the carpet itself. In the same way, although there are many individual verses that are difficult to capture easily in English, and some that do not submit to a satisfactory rendering at all, the overall work does have a clear pattern. For me, Nagarjuna's work is less like a linear philosophical description and more like a painting - an artwork. And, as with a painting, we need to find a balance between peering at the brush strokes, and standing back for an overall view. I have attempted to structure this book in order to make this easier for the reader. My commentaries at the start of each chapter provide the picture, usually without a detailed analysis. The interpretive verses give a fairly liberal interpretation of the meaning of the verses that I hope can be read without too much of a struggle. The translation itself is strictly literal, and gives full details of how I obtained each phrase from the Sanskrit source text. It is my hope that, by moving backwards and forwards between the micro and macro views, you will also be able to share my picture of Nagarjuna's work, and that it will stimulate you to take a closer look at the similarities in the works of the two great Buddhist masters, Nagarjuna and Dogen.


The Abstraction of Reality
Reality, the truth, is not something abstract. For this reason it cannot be grasped with words. Why, then, should we spend our time pursuing explanation? Or more to the point, why can we not cease our efforts to explain reality? Human beings sometimes seem preoccupied with the questions of what reality should be like, and what we should or should not do. Yet we can sometimes simply glimpse how things are, just as we see clear sky emerging from beyond the clouds. What both Dogen and Nagarjuna do in their writings is to point us towards a gap in the clouds; to the clear sky beyond. In the words of an ancient Buddhist metaphor, ideas, theories, and explanations are fingers pointing at the distant moon. They are not, and can never be, the moon itself. Our pointing fingers do not touch the moon, just as our ideas do not touch reality. But they can act as a guide.
Where then, is the moon at which these fingers point, and why can we not easily see it for ourselves? Buddhism says that it is in front of us here and now. The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it succinctly when he said, "The place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now." And yet Wittgenstein would be the first to agree that the phrase, "a place I must already be at now" merely creates another image in our brain. No matter how hard we try to describe it in words, we only create more images.
In the Genjo-koan (The Realized Universe) chapter of the Shobogenzo, Dogen describes "this place" with the following words: "When we find this place, this action is inevitably realized as the Universe. When we find this way, this action is inevitably the realized Universe itself." For him, the phrase "the realized Universe" describes reality here and now, something beyond intellectual recognition. Nagarjuna uses the phrase pratitya samutpada to describe this reality that is just beyond the reach of our understanding. The words pratitya samutpada literally mean "the recognized co-arisen" - the world as it appears in front of us.But can we ever capture what is in front of us here and now at this very moment? Not with the intellect, which constantly abstracts, creating ideas and mental images out of what is present and ungraspable. Is there then a state where we can get rid of the intellect's desire to create images of reality? Dogen says that there is, and adds that it is a state in which even his own words become irrelevant. "The effort in pursuing the truth that I am now teaching makes the myriad dharmas real in experience; it enacts the oneness of reality on the path of liberation. At that moment of clearing barriers and getting free, how could this paragraph be relevant?" He describes it with the phrase "the samadhi of receiving and using the self," and identifies it as the state in the practice of Zazen. Nagarjuna describes this state that is without discriminating intellectual activity using the word sunyata, which literally means "empty, bare, without anything." This is a state without anything added; the state of zero between the dualities of mind and body; the bare, unadorned state; a state that is not static, but dynamic. Although the state described in the previous sentence with the word sunyata points us in the right direction, the state described is not contained in the description itself. It can only be experienced - that is why Buddhists sit in Zazen every day. In Zazen, we are sitting somewhere between the mind and the body; we are neither concentrating on thoughts, nor on physical perceptions, but hovering between the two; we are sitting between the abstract and the concrete - between heaven and earth.