Cutting Off the Finger Pointing to the Moon: A Commentary on Dōgen’s, “…when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.”

In Dōgen’s “Genjō-Kōan” fascicle of the Shōbōgenzō, he writes:

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharmas intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.

I would venture to say that part of the value of Dōgen’s writing, like that of many good poems and prose, is that it is open to multiple readings (though that is, of course, not to say that anything goes—it’s possible to misinterpret his writings). What follows is an attempt to say something about what the above lines might mean.

In my own experience meditating and trying to be present both on and off the cushion, I have come to appreciate more and more the importance of cutting off the way the present moment is usually taken to point beyond itself. (To be clear, the cutting off is a letting go, not a furrowing of the brow, chopping sort of thing.) Here is what I mean by cutting things off, not letting them reflect anything else. This morning it was raining hard while I was meditating. There are, at least, two ways that I might experience the rain. I might experience the sound of the rain hitting the roof as that sound or I might experience it as the sound of the rain hitting the roof of the house that I’m renting and have been renting since spring of 2012 and which I originally moved into with my now ex-girlfriend, etc. Similarly, when I notice the pain in my hands, I might experience it as pain in my hands or the pain in my hands that I have been experiencing off and on since January and which seems to be related to my arthritis and which I will likely have to keep experiencing into the future with the possibility of its getting worse. In both examples, the sound of the rain and the pain are reflecting something else, pointing beyond themselves to something else.

We might say that this pointing beyond is the embedding of the present moment in a particular narrative. Part of the narrative, the past, we think we know. Part of the narrative, the future, we think will come. Moreover, each moment is a part of my narrative, the narrative of a substantial, independently existing and persisting self who hears the rain….and whose persisting pain it is.

The present moment illuminated and the other side darkened means removing (at least in a substantial way), the present moment from the narrative. It means taking the objects of experience at face value. It is the narrative that allows us—compels us—to perceive the things of the present moment as good or bad, meaningful or not. And it is this latter that opens the door to suffering, specifically the suffering of a substantial, independently existing and persisting self.

An interesting complication is that we might, of course, not just experience the sound of rain or a particular pain, but a deep suffering. That suffering is illuminated, it is what is present. Since I have claimed that suffering arises from the embedding of the present in a narrative that points beyond the present, concentrating on the suffering means, in some sense, concentrating on the narrative. With practice, one can come thereby to see the role of the narrative in the suffering and gain insight into the nature of the narrative. This would presumably put one in a better position to work on the narrative while also decontextualizing the present moment from the narrative. Both of which would help to lesson suffering.

Another (potential) complication can be seen when we consider that decontextualizing the present moment, letting the non-present darken, not only puts an end to suffering but also might remove certain opportunities for joy. For example, when meeting someone at the airport whom you haven’t seen in a year, and whom you’re excited to see, you would experience that person as not having been seen in a year and that would add to the joy of seeing them now. Take that context away and you are seeing the person now and that is it. Less joy? Maybe.

Perhaps the answer is that when practicing meditation, it is important for the non-present to darken, to as far as possible let go of the narrative—decontextualize the present as far as possible. But when living off the cushion, we can distinguish between a) living in a way that is attached to the narrative, attached in such a way that one experiences oneself as a substantial, independently existing and persisting self whose experiences these are, and b) living in a way that is aware of the narrative but not attached to it, where one does not experience each moment as the experience of a substantial, independently existing and persisting self. The darkening of the other side is needed in meditation practice because it is intensive practice that is supposed to enable you to detach from the narrative in one’s daily, lived experience off the cushion. The second way minimizes suffering while still allowing the joy that comes from seeing an old friend or a loved one who has been abroad.

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