No End to the Sky


”When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.”

—Eihei Dogen, Genjokoan (Okumura trans.)

The metaphor of an arhat’s or bodhisattva’s path being like that of a flying bird is a familiar Buddhist trope, recurring in the Dhammapada, the Ten Stages Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and Dongshan Liangjie’s Recorded Sayings.  When Eihei Dogen put his own specific spin on this avian metaphor, he was doing so to illustrate that there’s no end to practice/realization.  In Theravada Buddhism there’s a path with a final destination: complete and perfect Enlightenment. In Dogen Zen there’s no path, no end to delusion, no end to realization, no end to practice.  In Dogen’s non-dual universe realization is already present in our practice, and delusion is inseparable from it — separating delusion from enlightenment is itself a subtle form of dualism. When we sit zazen, we express an enlightenment that’s already present and always ”ours” given our Buddha-nature, but there’s no end to practice and our expression of realization. 

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes another kind of endless process when she says of human aims, ”the goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing.” This idea of existence as a continuous act of self-surpassing is relatively new in Western thought—something rooted in the nineteenth-century philosophies of Nietzsche and Hegel.  A similar idea is carried forward in the twentieth-century philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead who describes a process of ”concresence” in which, in each and every moment, we create ourselves anew.

A complete description of any process—and process is all there is—includes an implied next step, a place where the process is heading, which in turn creates a new state of affairs and, along with it, a new next step. My lifting my leg and shifting my weight implies the step to follow.  Feeling hungry implies the next step of searching for food. Oxygen combined with iron in an acidic environment implies the next step of an exchange of electrons. Seeds, soil, water, and sunlight have plants as their next step; Plants have seeds as their next step: the arrow of time points one way.

This endless self-surpassing, this forever taking of a next step, is a metaphor for how we live. Each moment reveals new possibilities, allowing Being to disclose itself in new ways. Each accomplishment opens up new horizons, and along with them, new questions, new disequilibria, and new abilities.

Buddhist practice changes us.  Each time we sit, each time we exercise compassion, we’re subtly changed, and the odds of how we’ll act in the next moment have subtly shifted. Just as our ability to appreciate music and art changes with our increased experience of them, so our appreciation of zazen changes with experience.  Our understanding of the limits of our compassion changes with experience, as does our understanding of what to do with our lives. Other things change too: our enchantment with material things; our understanding of sickness, old age, and death; our ratio of self-centered to altruistic thoughts; our emotional reactivity to adverse events.  The opening words of the Heart Sutra dharani—gate, gate, paragate — “gone, gone, gone beyond” — express this self-surpassing movement: we’re always going ”beyond.”  Only there’s no final, complete end to this beyond — only an endless movement towards the horizon. 

There’s no end to the sky.

11 Replies to “No End to the Sky”

  1. Early Buddhist thought/teachings, even Mahayana, have the notion of “ending” (the cycle).

    This state does not end/death, or start/birth. So technically it’s a final/ultimate state….no more further becoming.

    Ignorance totally uprooted. One knows/sees “the all”…isn’t that an end if there is nothing else to learn/see.

    1. Vitarka, you’re right about early Mahayana, but not about Dogen Zen. Dogen never believed we see “the all.’ He also wrote in Genjokoan, “when one side is illuminated, the other is dark.” Our views are always limited or partial views. There’s always more to see.

      1. “There’s always more to see”

        If the nature/reality has a certain way , and you see this clearly in everything/everywhere, unchanging/same ever, how can there be more to see. It’s the same , no surprises.

        Even if tomorrow they found life on other planet…the mind has a nature/property, which will continue to behave the way it is. It has a coherence/nature to it.

        That said, I agree impermanence as a property…part of nature. The ultimate state sees that too.

        One can go beyond all mind made realities/illusions.

        1. But Dogen would say there’s no end to delusion–no enlightened state independent of delusion. And I would add that since Kant, it’s unreasonable to assert the mind can go beyond itself and its inherent limitations to grasp “reality as it is.” The mind can’t rid itself of its Kantian categories, our senses can’t detect most of the energy bandwith and much of the chemical world, and the quantum world is both invisible and ultimately (except in a mathematical sense) un-understandable. Epistemological humility is a good idea.

          1. Buddha is famously said to have kept quiet, when asked certain questions 🙂 … People took it as wisdom, but he just might be displaying humility. Humility is indeed the most underrated virtue.

            Anyways, my previous 2 comments were highlighting noble truths 3/4 , which has a notion of “end”. While noble truths 1/2 highlight the no-end reality of suffering/causes.

            All 4 truths can be true and real at the same time. In other words, your point of no-end nature is correct, but that’s not it all. I doubt dogen rejected noble truths 3/4. Buddhism doesn’t make sense without those.

          2. Vitarka, Dogen is very subtle here. There’s no path leading to awakening because we’re already awakened here and now, our awakening only occluded by the presence of adventitious defilements–defilements which are also inseparable from our awakened nature. Also, there is not the hair’s breadth of separation between Nirvana and Samsara, so how could there be a path leading from Samsara to Nirvana? This is very different from the Buddhism of the Pali Canon. Dogen’s thinking is the end result of a peculiarly Chinese line of historical development that transformed the Yogacara tathagatagarbha into the Chinese “Buddha-nature,” and that transformed Indian Madhyamaka into Chinese Huayan, together with significant Taoist influences on Chinese treatises like “The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.” Dogen inherited these ideas and filtered them through his lifelong work on his own koan: “why do we have to practice if we’re already enlightened?” I’m adding my own 21st Century Western perspective to Dogen’s. I believe when we sit and practice we get “enlightened glimpses” that help transform us, but I don’t believe in a final, permanent destination. I know that the words attributed to the Buddha in the Pali Cannon say otherwise. In this particular instance, I’m with Dogen.

  2. Early budhhists like nagrjuna, or his guru, do agree with the notion of samsara=nirvana…I doubt Buddha said otherwise. There can’t be definite anything…as that would suggest non.dependent.origination, and the logic for karma & its end falls apart.

    So dogen is right that there is no.end, but that alone points to an “existence”… a non.changing concept or ultimateness. This where nagarjuna’s famous tetralemma comes in…yes, no, both, neither.

    We can’t pin it down…as no-end, or end. I believe that is exactly what noble truths point to…encompass everything and nothing.

    All that said, huma ignorance & suffering are…and that’s all it boils down. Buddha and suffering go, no wonder.

    1. Let me rephrase that. Your OP suggests dogen only accepts noble truth 1…nothing else. He says Suffering there is, and no end to it. Not even acknowledgement of noble truth 2 (the causes).

      I wonder if dogen accepts dependent origination, which is basically the combination of noble truths 1 and noble truths 2. If he does, then he cannot claim “no end” ! Because, as everything has a cause they can “end” (extinguish like fire) too.

      In this model, there is no first cause either…as that would imply it “existed on its own”. So it has been said causes *on their own* have “no start”, “no end”. Causes can be created by humans too. Karma = ignorant actions (causations)/fruits.

      “There’s no path leading to awakening because we’re already awakened here and now”

      If dogen doesn’t accept NT 2,3,4 (he clearly rejects NT #4 it seems from above quote), does he believe there is a way for ignorance -> wisdom ? or , they both one and the same.

      Dukkha/suffering is real (could be never ending)…but so too are their causes, and a path to end them too. There is no contradiction here. If its dependencies come into formation, suffering forms. Doesn’t mean suffering is eternal, or exists perpetually *on its own*.

      1. Vitarka,
        Every cause has a result, and every result in the cause of new result. Ergo, nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends, or everything ends in every instant as it is always in the process of becoming something new. This is what the Heart Sutra means by “no birth, no death.” I want to stop arguing on behalf of what Dogen might or might not have believed about every one of your points– I am not so much a Dogen expert as to be able to speak on his behalf about everything–and instead give you my own take about what I think of the four noble truths. I would say that the 4NTs are useful pointers to enhanced eudaemonia, but they aren’t logical statements that can be the basis for extended arguments. We agree that dukkha exists, and I would say that clinging and aversion magnify suffering (the Buddha’s second arrow) although I would disagree that they are the sole cause of suffering. If someone were to boil me alive in oil, I would suspect I would suffer regardless of how much I had cut the root of desire. As far as the third noble truth is concerned, I am not in favor of cutting off all desire, nor do I think such a thing is biologically possible. I do think, however, that learning to be with things without clinging or pushing away does make suffering less than need be. As far as the fourth truth is concerned, I think it provides an excellent path to a happier, wiser, more ethical life. I take it very seriously. I do not expect it to take me to a place where I never desire anything, am never irritated by anything, and have no further progress to make. I see it as a never ending road, and I am content with it being just that. I know the Buddha says otherwise. But I have never experienced anything like “cessation” in my life, and I have never met anyone that I would describe as an exemplar of having reached final fruition. Without such examples, what does a belief in such a final end amount to?

        1. thanks for the reply, that helps.

          “If someone were to boil me alive in oil, I would suspect I would suffer regardless of how much I had cut the root of desire.”

          Buddha never said if he pinches himself (or somebody else pinches him) he wouldn’t feel pain.

          NT 1 is accepted as true, always real…but as does NT 2,3,4. I understand you dont take NT’s as good logical instruments, bear with me.

          It doesn’t matter if others were the cause of suffering, or our own self, If the causes comes into formation, the resultant suffering becomes. And it ends – that was my point of focus, everything dies/ends as there is nothing that’s truly existing on its own (“no self”).

          The way i see it, even nirvana is a formation (when dependencies come into place) … in this state , by definition, one goes beyond self, and as such start/end do not apply. In reality, “no self” is practically impossible while conscious/aware – which i believe you are pointing to, and i agree (NT 1/2). But neither is a “self” without an end !!! (NT 3/4).

  3. Thank you Seth and Vitarka for an engaging discussion. I enjoyed it and learned from it. You are both very articulate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *