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Associate Professor in History of Rei igions, Faculty of Theology, University of Athens


«Absolute» is a term we encounter often in the history of philosophy as well as in the history or religion. Very broadly speaking it is a term used in order to designate a reality conceived as the opposite to another reality, which is conceived as relative. For instance, we may conceive as absolute reality what we call (he «self». ln that case we conceive the self as absolute reality in oppositiou (0 what we consider as not the self, for instance, in the case of man, III opposition \0 his body, or, in the case of the whole world, everything lila! has form and changes, which we conceive as relative reality.

Needless to say, as we know from the same history, this is only one of the many concepts through which the absolute reality has been understood. The absolute as whole, the absolute as one, the absolute as life, the absolute as power, the absolute as a Salt of energy, the absolute as the spring of everything, the absolute as the basis of everything, the absolute as something central in contradistinction to what is peripheral, the absolute as the unchanging, are some of these concepts. In all these cases we have a pair consisting of two things: an absolute reality, which is the whole, the one, the limitless, the center c.t.c. on the one hand, and of the opposite to it relative reality, which is everything partial or limited, everything changing, peripheral, superficial e.t.c., on the other.

History again leaches us that the ways of approaching absolute reality have also been many, dictated mainly by the ways it has been understood. If absolute reality is something limitless, the approach will in all probability be a method of detachment from all limited realities, like from things, from concepts, from names. If'rhat limitless is thought of as being a basic reality, which is in the depth of phenomena or behind them, also the method will be one that makes the mind turn inward. Suppose that the absolute is put in the sky, then the method of approaching it will be one that will direct the mind upwards,



What is the absolute reality is the question which dominates the thought of Pre-Socratic philosophers as well as the thought of the 13th century Japanese Soto Zen master, Dogen. A comparison between the two, i.e. detecting the similarities and the dissimilarities between the two may help to bring out the main points of their doctrine about the absolute reality and thus contribute to its better understanding.

In the confines of this paper it is of course impossible to attempt a comparison between all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers and Dogen. 1 therefore limit my purpose to a comparison between Dogen and the a) socalled physical philosophers of Miletos, b) Heraclitus and c) Parmenides. The method I shall follow consists in pointing out the main points about the absolute reality first in the philosophy of these Pre-Socratic philosophers and then of Dogen, concluding in a last step with the description of the similarities and the dissimilarities between them.

I. Meaning of the absolute reality in Pre-Socratic philosophy

a. Meaning ofthe absolute reality ill the Physical philosophers oj Miletos

First among the philosophers of Miletos is of course Thales. Thales is famous for his basic philosophical proposition, known to us mainly through Aristotle, that everything comes from water. This proposition is not alone. since it, at least in Aristotle, is presented implicitly together with its corollary, i.e. that everything is made or consists of water. Which of the two proposirions is the one from which Thales started, depends on which is the question from which be started, namely what everything comes from or what everything consists of. The answer to this is not clear. Yet what concerns us here is a) the ensuing model of the world, b) whether this model includes an absolute reality and, if yes, c) how this absolute reality is <understood.

Base on the process described by Aristotle, through which Thales reached the conclusion that everything comes from water, we can safely assume that the first thing that Thales observed is that water is in various ways and functions eve r y W her e. It is a common and, according to his conclusion, the common or Commonest element. Whether now again Thales started his quest by asking which is the commonest element and, afterwards, observation led him to answer that it is water Dr, conversely, started from the observation of the commonality of water, is again obscure. Yet it is obvious that it is exactly this commonality that led him to the conclusion that everything comes from water.

Water lS not only common: according to Aristotle it is the element «of



which all other things are made of». If all things are what we can call results of a sort of formation of water, then there is no other thing but water. What exists is just 0 n e thing. This is exac!ty what is called monism (=only one thing exists) and since that one thing is a material thing, this monism is often called materialistic monism. We may see here a process of thought, starting from the commonality and ending 111 uruty Unity or oneness of water is what led Thales to the conclusion that everything comes from and everything consists of water.

When we speak of monism, what often escapes our attention is that monism comes 111 not only one but in many forms. It is even my opinion that this term (i.e. monism) does not capture its essence. What we see in the model of the world ensuing from the observations of Thales concerning water, is that though it certainly consists of one thing, this one thing consists in what we may call two levels or strata: One primary and one ensuing secondary, one unitary and one multiple. We could also say that it consists in two forms, if these two forms did not occupy in this world model position, which are described and visualized (and may be also observed) in spatial terms. Indeed, according to Aristotle. the one of the two levels, i.e. the one of water, which he calls by the word «essence» (oucr!.a.), «lies under» (u-;;;ofJ-svs,) Its multiple f0l111S or variations. IJ it underlies them, then it is clear that they, in their turn, «overlie) it. Hence what we get is a model of one reality divided into t \II 0 levels, the one of which is primary, unitary but also fundamental, basic or deep, whereas the other is secondary, mu.tiple, but also superficial.

According to Aristotle the basic level also «lasts forever», i.e, is eternal, in the sense that It does not change, hence it does never perish. Conversely, the upper level is characterized abo by an incessant mutation and alteration,

These are not, again, all the basic features of the model of the world ensuing from the observations of Thales. Aristotle calls, as we saw, the underlying, basic level, hence water, by the word «essence» (oucr[o:.). «Essence» means what a thing «is». It coincides with its identity, What a thing IS. according to this way of think.ng. is not its form, not its individual reality, but that which it is madeof Its identity, i.e. what it is, coincides with its basic, underlying, eternal level, of the two into which rt also, like the whole world, is divided. «It» is not it, but that, since that IS what it is consisted of. «It» is but a changing and finally perishing form of that, i.e. in this case, of water. Water is hence not only the only existing reality: it is also the only t rue reality. «Essence» is both. Therefore we may call this model «essentia lisrn».

Hence in the question «but why, what something - or the whole world of phenomena - is, i.e, its «essence», should coincide with what it is consisted



of?» we cannot answer only by saying «because that only exists». This. because of the fact that however changing forms do not exist «absolutely», they still do exist in a relative to the basic reality way, hence as a relative reality. Hence «essence» is not only the only existing reality, but that part of reality which, by virtue of its characteristic features, is conceived to be more «real» Or more «true» than another part, which is lacking exactly in the same characteristic features.

What are the characteristic features of water? We may answer by saying that, without forgetting its life-giving quality, the characteristic feature which makes water here «real» and «true», hence the absolute reality, is its oneness. Tracing back the process through which it finally came ·to be considered as the source and «essence» of everything, we get to the first step of it, i.e, the observation of its commonness. Commonness is a preliminary step to the concept of oneness. Hence we may conclude that the water is considered as the true reality, mainly because of its oneness.

The idea of oneness characterizes all realities that are proposed as the absolute one by the Miletian philosophers. In the case of Anaximander, that reality is «apeiron», i.e. the limitless and hence indefinite reality out of which, through a process of particularization, came.the world of the limited realities. If oneness, as the opposite to division and partiality, includes already the meaning of the opposite to limitation, «apeiror» extends this meaning to Its extremity. If apeiron is really such an extension, in this extension we may sec an awareness ofthe fact that oneness is but a limited version of limitlessness. True oneness is limitlessness and limitlessness is absolute reality. We may call limitlessness the oneness par excellence.

In the case of Anaximander and his «apeiron» we can again see the same model of the world, as the one which we described in the case of Thales, Again the same division in two strata, again the unifying reality is the essential one. Only it seems that here, unlike with what happened in the case tof the water, the difference between the two strata, i.e. of the original and basic reality from the secondary, produced one, is accentuated more thanthe

i nclusivity of it. The measure of this differentiation, which is thus equal to 0. sort of a transcendence, may also b seen in the fact that between this source and the things is inserted some mediating means, which here is the hot and the cold essence. Such a mediating means we encounter in all systems characterized by the idea of the transcendence or at least of a sharp differentiation between the source of things and the things themselves.

Finally, in the philosophy of Anaximenes we see again the same model of the fundamental element, which is aga111 perceived as the «essence» of all, and which in this case is the air. All things are but forms of the air, which obtain through a process of condensation or dilution of it.


We may conclude by saying that the common points between the Miletian philosophers is that they identify the absolute reality with an element or an aspect of reality, the one that is or seems to them to be the all producing one, which is characterized by changelesseness, but mainly by limitlessness, either III its limited version of oneness, or by limitlessness itself. That aspect is considered to be the absolute one, whereas the opposite of it, which is, accordingly, not characterized by changelessness or

limitlessness, is the relative reality. .

The main result of this sort of understanding absolute reality is the division of the whole of being into two strata, the one more real than the other.

b. Heraclitus

The absolute reality of Heraclitus is called by him Logos. The main function that the Logos does is unifying the whole of reality through itself. Everything is one because everything is unified on the level of Logos. But if the main proposition of the philosophy of Heraclitus is «ail things are one», then we have a reality with two levels, i.e. the «one» and the «many» or the «contradictory» as they are called by him. It goes of course without saying that the level which is identical with the «one», ie. Logos itself, is the essential level. In short, we may see in this philosophy again the same world-model that we described before as essentialism.

Yet, in the case of Heraclitus, Logos is not only the unity-level at the basis of everything: Logos is described by Heraclitus to also b e all the contradictory things. Logos is the immanent, unifying principle, but It also seems at the sam e t i 111 e to be the things that are produced by it. What I.S more, Logos is also the governor ofthe world, the universal Order or Law, through which all function. Finally Logos is an en rgetic principle, which is called by Heraclitus «fire».

What we see is that in the case of Heraclitus the absolute and essential reality is not identified only with the baSIC level, i.e. not oniy with one aspect of reality, but with all of them. Heraclitus seems to think of reality as composed not only of two strata, but also of many aspects. All of them are Logos. It is only natural to see here a holistic understanding of the absolute reality: it is not only one, but also all and, l1l that capacity, it must be all inclusive.

c. Parmenides

In the philosophy of Parmenides we have the case of an absolute



monism. The absolute reality is the only that exists, but it is also a complete «whole» As a whole it is continuous and immutable and excludes from it division, difference and change.

II. Dogcn

It is not an exaggeration to say that the meaning of absolute reality in Dogen is the one of the most difficult questions one may come across with not only in the history of buddhist literature, but in the history of thought in general. Expressed as it is in a very idiosyncratic, enigmatic way of writing and accompanied with a host of various, mostly interpretative problems, it indeed presents an extremely thorny case of understanding. In order to get a glimpse into what absolute existence is according to Dagen, one should try to follow the development of the pertinent ideas in all of his works. Since this is impossible to do here, I shall try to do the same thing in an abridged way, by passing through only a few of the important related points in some of his works. By doing so, my purpose is not only to discuss the ideas, but also to draw attention to the way Degen expresses these ideas, believing, as I do, that this way has a lot to do with understanding the meaning that absolute reality has for him.

a. Fukan zazengi

Fukan zazengi, i.e. the first work Dogen wrote after his return from the Sung China, starts exactly with a preposition about absolute reality, when it says that «the Way is by its nature something round, which reaches everywhere». The Way (Tao) is here the word for absolute reality. The vagueness of the terms used here for the description of absolute reality renders it difficult to decide whether it has a holistic meaning. i.e. it is identified with the whole of reality, or an immanentistic meaning, i.e, it is something immanent in the whole of reality. «Round» may mean «perfect» or «ful]». «Perfect: or «full» may mean both, something that lacks nothing, hence something that does not leave anything outside itself and therefore is coextensive with the totality of existence and simply something perfect, in the common sense of the word. «Reaches everywhere» or «permeates everything» according to another possible translation, does not seem to express the idea that the Way i s the whole of existence. It may be taken more plausibly to mean that the Way is i n everything, in the whole of

. existence, reaching to its furthest confines, but somehow leaving outside itself these confines. That it so «reaches everywhere» may be taken as an explanation of the «roundness», i.e. that it is understood as «found» in this



specific way, that is as «reaching everywhere». Holism collides with immanence and it IS not easy to make out which of the two is the case here. Probability, though, seems to incline more toward the side ofimmanentism. As we shall see, other points in the same book speak rather in favour of the second case.

Such a point is what comes in the text almost immediately after the first proposition. lt is a point about the complete transcendence of all separate things by the Way. According to it the Way is not identical with phenomena, it is something that utterly transcends them. This transcendence reinforces the case of immanence as the most probable of the previously mentioned contestant views.

Besides, by speaking about the method of zazen, Degen describes it as a «stepping backward» to the «opposite side» of the outward one, as of the «tailing off of body and mind and the appearance of the original face». Man is divided into what is called the «original face» and what it is not, i.e. body and mind. This vocabulary (honrai no menmokui is very reminiscent of the one used in what is called in Buddhism the «doctrine of the original or inherent enlighterunent». This doctrine advocates the presence of a reality different from (he phenomenal one in man and in everything and is very much similar to the «atman» doctnne of tile Upanishads. The fact that the

. presence of this doctrine results in the two leveled world model shows clearly that il is a position akin or even identical to essentialism. Adopting, as it seems, this doctrine here, Dogen does nothing but follow in the steps of Hui-Neng and other representatives of south ems Zen, whose doctrine is exactly the one of «original enlightenment».

Other points tha: permit to see in this work a division of reality into two, is the fact that absolute reality is differentiated from the «sounds and the colours», i.e. From all Iorms, but also from «our body, which [quickly disappears] like dew on grass» and from our life, which is like the «sparks produced from a lire stone». Absolute reality is a reality different from them, in the same way that a «treasure» is different from the «store house» where it i, kept. Its existence ind pendent of them is reinforced by the notion of what may be called its "self revelation».

b Bendowa

Passing onto the second, in time order, book of Dog en, i.e, Bendowa, we encounter a very different and rather more hard to pin down meaning of absolute reality. According to the ideas that are presented to the second part of this book, which is consisted of «mondo», i.e. questions and answers, Dharma or mind (as the absolute reality is called here) is, first of all,



identical with the totality of existence, of what exists. As he makes it abundantly clear in Bendowa, absolute reality is no! a reality separate from the rest of existence. It seems that the motive behind this assertion is the fear of the fact that such separation makes absolute reality a partial reality. This, in tum, betrays a holistic understanding of absolute reality. It must b e all what exists .

. Compared to the previous, immanentistic understanding, this is a different, new position on absolute reality. In order to establish it, Dogen attacks rather vehemently a doctrine representative of essentialism, which is no other than the «heretical» doctrine of the Hindu Senika, The «heresy of Senika» is essentialism because it, by accepting as absolute a reality different, through its diametrically opposed properties, from the phenomenal one, divides sharply reality into two levels, of which only the one, hence only a part, is the absolute one. Yet apart from sharing the same world-model, attention must be paid to the fact that this absolute reality IS not the «essence» of everything in the same way as water is. It is rather completely discontinuous from the world of phenomena. It is true reality but not «their» true reality. Thus it seems that what may be called two types of «essentialism» may be able to be distinguished.

Against this differentiation, which divides reality into two, Dogen proposes that reality is not two, but one.

But what does he mean, when he says that it is one? The answer to this question is not easy at all. This happens because this «one» may be understood in two different ways: In Buddhism, he says, we say that «o5lloso [uni». This phrase was used in buddhist schools like Kegon or Tendai, which thought of reality as composed of two aspects, that were nevertheless not separate, but two aspects of one reality. Let it be noted that it was only in the case of Teudai that these two aspects were-equal, making thus the whole a dialectical absolute reality. Usually it was only the one aspect, for instance" in Kegon the aspect of Li, that was considered to be the one, of which the phenomena were but expressions. In this case the world of phenomena is just a form of the basic aspect, like the waves are but a form of the ocean, that is of water. Reality is one because in fact only one of the two aspects really exists. In Tendai, conversely, waves are thought of as having their own and hence in a way separate existence, which from the beginning simply coexists with the aspect of the ocean.

Now Dogen uses this phrase and also the similar phrase «shinjin ichinyo» but it is not clear whether he uses it in the sense of Kegon or in the sense of Tendai.

What makes understanding of the meaning of the «one reality» even harder, is the fact that some sentences afterwards «mind» and «body»


become just two items of a reality consisting of «all dharmas», i.e. of many entities, in other words of a pluralistic reality. What is more, «mind» is declared by Dogen to be changing like the body, hence both belong to a reality which is not only pluralistic, but also a changing one. This means that what Degen means by the «one reality» of Buddhism, may be this changing and plural one, If this is the case, then only the world of the phenomena exists and this world ofthe phenomena is the absolute reality.

These phrases are the ouly ones that give so strongly the impression that Dogen means by them that the only existing and absolute reality is this multiple and changing one. Yet the impression that this is the meaning of this and similar phrases scattered in all his works (with the ones found in the fascicle of Shobogenzo «Sansuigyo» being perhaps the most well known example of it) is so strong, that a whole group among the interpreters of Dagen, the «phenomenalists» as they may therefore be called, has opted for this as his fundamental position.

In fact phrases that can be understood as meaning rather a double reality, which IS nevertheless one, hke the (5h050 funi» or the «shinjin icninyo» occur more often than the ones that give the impression that only phenomenal reality exists. F.g. the phrase «Life and Death is Nirvana itself» may be understood in two ways, i.e. either a) that «life and death», i.e. change itself is the only existing reality and this only existing reality is the absolute reality, or b) that this changing reality is on a second, deep level of it, absolute reality, in a Kegon or Tendai fashion.

Similarly the phrase «[Buddhism] has never taught that Nirvana as something separate from life and death» may be understood in two ways: a) There is no reality called Nirvana, but only this changing reality, wich is itselfNirvana, and b) Nirvana exists, but it is not something separate from life and death, i.e. from change. In this case, the problem arises as to how, something that is neither non existent (hence has a reality of its own, hence a separate reality), is not separate from something else, in this case from change. Since Dogen does not give more information as to how this sort of separateness must be understood, we cannot say anything more but only that in this case Nirvana acquires as to the half of its double existence a degree of separateness and hence again a kind of double layered model of reality comes about. And since this nevertheless must be one, it can only be so by a) either Nirvana's being the only existing reality with change as one of its forms, i.e. the first form of essentialism, that we have in the case of water and the waves, or a reality with two equal sides, as in the case of Kegcn.

If this is what Dagen means, then the stress on the phenomena as being the absolute reality must be owing to a tendency in Dogen to identify asp e c t s of the whole reality s epa rat ely from the other such aspects with the


absolute reality itself. In this way Dagen's works give the impression that they consist of a series of identifications of the absolute reality with various aspects of reality and hence the impression of contradiction.

Yet, since this is a prevailing feature of his works it must not be owing to contradiction. Instead of selecting one of these identifications as the central position of Dogen concerning absolute reality, like most interpreters have done so far, we must think that there must be some reason for which he does it and that reason we must try to find out.

c. Bussho

If we next take up the fascicle of Shobogenzo which bears the title of «Bussho» (Buddha nature) there we can also see a series of identifications of absolute reality with various aspects of reality.

In «Bussho» Dogcn rejects Buddha nature as something that all beings have and replaces it with the notion that buddha nature is something that the whole of the being is, or that the whole of the beings arc.

Immediately afterwards, replacing the term «Buddha nature» ibussha) with the tenn «being), he goes 011 with the description of «being», i.e. of absolute reality, as the whole being (or, beings): «The whole world» he says «does not have any foreign dust at alb), which means that the whole reality is the Buddha nature and that there is nothing which is other than that.

It is obvious that the absolute reality is conceived as an allcomprehensive reality. As such, it is set against all partial uncersrandings of it, i.e. against any understanding of it that would make it a part of the whole. Such ar.understanding is again Senika's essentialism, which becomes once more the target of Dagen's attack. Not only that: Buddha nature (hence the whole being) IS declared (0 be incomprehensible, impossible to be reduced

to any understanding and to any identification at all. Buddha nature is ,. declared not to be even Buddha nature. It is what it is itself. It must be noted that this new stress, which creates a new circle .n the text, sets the part of the fascicle which it occupies in very sharp opposition to the previous circle, where the main idea was the one of the absolute reality as the whole being.

Hence absolute reality is everything, the whole being, but at the same lime it is something that utterly transcends all identifications. In what follows in this fascicle, but also in the whole work of Dagen, the extreme identification of Buddha nature with phenomena, then with the whole being, then the Equally extreme distinction ofit from everything at all, the absolute otherness of Buddha nature, follow each other.

As though to corroborate the observation that Dagen's thought moves by making identifications of absolute reality with various aspects of reality, he

Ill. Dogen and the Presocratics


next identifies it with impermanence: «The sixth patriarch [Hui-Neng] said to his disciple, Gyoso: "Impermanence is the Buddha nature"»,

To crown it ail, the fascicle of «Buddha nature» concludes by a description of it as something which is hidden from us, hence with an imrnanentistic position, It goes without saying how partial and hence opposite to the identification of Buddha nature with the whole being this position sounds and hence how hard it IS to explain its appearance,

All. these views of absolute reality coexist in Dagen. How can this coexistence be explained? One possible explanation is the one that we proposed about what is a very similar situation, i.e, the one whose existence we noted in the case of Heraclitus. That is, it may be said that on the basis of the phenomenon is the holistic understanding of absolute reality. This particular understanding must be distinguished from the unifying holistic stance. [t must be one that allows Dogen as well as Heraclitus speak of all various aspects of' which it is composed, even separately from each other, as the absolute reality itself. Of course the two philosophers do not make the same identifications. Yet, the fact that they both do many different makes them look quite alike,

As distinguished from the unifYing holistic stance, Dagen's ho.ism must be di lferent (1'0111 Panucnides' monism. We may be able to gel a glimpse into its logical cOl'e by contrasting it with the latter. In Parmenides' case the aile which is reality absorbs everything in itself. The different aspect of reality (end to disappear in front of the all inclusive One, of this radical monism. In Dogeu's case the One is rather conceived as whole and the whole, in its turn, as the SUIll total of all aspects that compose reality. To put it concisely, we may say that reality for Dogen is not just a whole, but a whole of aspects. And this applies to his notion of absolute reality as well.

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