Do Not Waste Your Time Admiring a Painted Rice Cake: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment

Pamela D.  Winfield has undertaken a wonderfully detailed and intelligent study, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment, suitable for hopeless Dogen geeks (or Kukai geeks if there be such people) like myself and Buddhist scholars, of course, but maybe not the masses.

This morning, Amazon has the book at #680,626 – so, okay, for sure not the masses.

However, there is much here that informs the practice of Zen. And some that doesn’t. In this post, I’ll try to give you a little of each.

Winfield aims at answering three big questions: “Do images help or hinder the realization of Buddhahood? Does the experience of awakening involve the imagination or not? Can art ever represent the experience of enlightenment itself?”

One thing is immediately clear – Winfield is coming at this study as a Buddhist. Her questions presuppose the possibility of enlightenment as does her methodology, digging deeply into the works of two of Japan’s enlightened masters.

First a little bit about Kukai (774-835). He was a master of esoteric Buddhism and an advocate of realizing Buddhahood with this very body by just glancing at mandalas “Buddha enters me, I enter Buddha.” Winfield has a lot to say about Kukai and his elaborate practices, depictions of enlightenment, and the power of such.

Notably, someone said of Kukai, “He studied abroad [in China] to seek the Way; he went empty-handed and returned fully-equipped.”

That might sound familiar, especially to Dogenophiles.

“Not having visited many monasteries but having only studied under Master Rujing and plainly realizing that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical, without being deceived by anyone, I came home empty-handed,” said Dogen (1200-1253) about his own visit to China.

Turns out that Dogen’s empty-handed statement and quite a lot that he had to say was in response to Kukai, Mr. Fully Equipped.

Now it is well known that Mr. Empty Handed did indeed have a few items with him when he returned from China, including his shisho transmission certificate from Rujing (see my previous post for Katagiri Roshi on shisho). Winfield uses Dogen’s shisho as a demonstration of what she sees as Dogen’s holochronic view, time simultaneously ranging from past to present, present to past, future to present, etc.

The shisho is a blood line of succession, a dharma genealogy, that goes back to the seven primordial Buddhas. On this document, instead of lining up from past to present like most genealogies, the names are presented in a circle. That the generations are standing “…side by side and shoulder to shoulder with one another helps one to understand how their minds can transhistorically ‘see’ one another across the circle of time. It helps to explain how their minds can ‘meet’ in a momentary nikon (individual just-now being time) that is simultaneously nondual with the ranging circle of kyoryaku (dynamic range or extension of being time) holochrony” (p. 51-52).

We’re fortunate to have scholars like Winfield, Heine, Kim, Foulk, Bielefeldt, Wright, Bodiford, etc., who are helping enormously with the translation of dharma to the global culture by not only providing detailed historical analysis, contextualizing the tradition, but also developing a language for concisely presenting it. I think of Kim’s notion of “foci” and now Winfield’s “holochronic” as just a couple examples of how the fields of study and practice entangle.

Winfield also does practitioners a great service by destroying the simplistic understanding of dharma that words (and/or images) are apart from it. Kukai saw the things of world as letters constantly spelling out and preaching the dharma. Dogen said that “all buddhas are picture-buddhas and all picture-buddhas are buddhas.”

If words and images were NOT the buddhadharma, then we would have a dualistic path where silence and samadhi are privileged over expression and insight.

Despite this and other contributions, when the fields of study and practice collide, it’s usually about practicing dharma. Let me cite just one example briefly, hopefully giving you a feel for what I’m talking about.

Winfield, in pursuit of her question about art depicting enlightenment, takes up the section of Dogen’s Buddha Nature where he tells of being at a monastery in China and seeing a portrait of Nagarjuna, portrayed with a full-moon halo.

“…The body manifesting the shape of the round moon has never yet been painted,” Dogen says, demonstrating for Winfield that Dogen opposed this artistic presentation.

Winfield further quotes Dogen,

…Not to paint the body manifesting, not to paint the round moon, not to paint the full moon shape, not to trace the body of Buddhas, not to be thereby expressing, not to trace the preaching Dharma, and to trace in vain the picture of rice cake – what can possibly come of that?

For Winfield, when Dogen says “thereby expressing” he is only referring to the form of zazen as a liturgical reenactment of awakening (for more, see this series of posts). In my view, this is not correct practice enlightenment. Winfield forgets that the zazen Dogen is talking about simultaneously is not “…limited to sitting or lying down,” as Dogen expresses in the Universal Recommendations for Zazen, but is holochronically manifesting buddha.

And in not to paint the body manifesting, she also misses an application of Dogen’s “logic of ‘not.’” “Not” is not necessarily “not” as usually understood.

So what? It makes an enormous difference for practice if zazen is the only expression of enlightenment, that’s what.

Another view would be to see Dogen urging us all as Winfield quotes, “Old Buddhas! New Buddhas! Encounter the real manifesting body! Do not waste your time admiring a painted rice cake!”

How can we encounter the real manifesting body and express it in a way that is not limited to sitting or lying down?

One way is to enter the painting of Nagarjuna manifesting the round moon in the spirit of Kukai, “Buddha enters me, I enter Buddha.”

Then the don’t-tell-me-show-me koans become, “What did Nagarjuna realize such that he manifested his body of freedom like the disk of the full moon?”

And “Paint a full moon with your body.”

And “Do not waste your time admiring a painted rice cake!”

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  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    This is really a very funny post, but I wonder how many will get it. Loved the satire and irony, or was it sarcasm, “Mr. Empty Handed” and “Mr. Fully Equiped”? Made me laugh out loud. There is really very little that is attributed to Dogen that is fully original. Dogen’s genius was in providing the twist, not in creating form whole cloth. Dogen’s famous Fukanzazengi for example is up to 60% directly from the Chinese original Zazengi by Tsung-tse. Dogen’s teaching in the Fukanzazengi about “not-thinking” comes from Huineng. So Dogen was not an innovator as much as a reinventor or revisioner and that was his genius.

    I think you nailed it on the meaning of “not”. Take that line from the Fukanzazengi, “thinking of not-thinking,” which does not mean have a blank mind. It seems, based on what you are saying, that Winfield completely mistakes the “not” in “not to paint” to mean to literally not paint anything as if not-thinking were to mean literally to not think anything.

    I love the koan “Paint a full moon with your body.” It harkens back to the early Zen school of Gui-Yang that used the symbols of the function of enlightenment as teaching tools. This practice is portrayed in Case 77 of the koan collection “The Record of the Temple of Equanimity” (A.K.A. The Book of Serenity):

    A monk asked Yangshan, “Does the Venerable still know the characters or not?”

    Shan said, “In accord with the allotment.”

    Thereupon the monk turned to the right in a full circle and said, “What is the character?”

    Shan wrote the particular character for “ten” (十) on top of the ground.

    The monk turned to the left in a full circle and said, “What is the character?”

    Shan altered the “ten” (十) character to make the swastika (卍) character.

    The monk drew an appearance of one circle and using both hands held it like a titan in the posture of grasping the sun and moon and said, “What is the character?”

    Shan thereupon drew the appearance of the circle to surround the swastika (卍) character.

    The monk thereupon made the posture of Rucika (a fierce appearing bodhisattva who protects the Dharma).

    Shan said, “So it is; so it is. You are skilled in protecting and sustaining it.”

    • doshoport

      Thanks, Greg. Regarding satire, irony, or sarcasm, I prefer “waggish.”

      Regarding Mr. Empty Handed, he was also Mr. Genius Cut-and-Paste.

      Nice koan reference, right to the point.


  • Robert Schenck


    This business is well ended.

    My liege, and madam, to expostulate

    What majesty should be, what duty is,

    Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

    Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

    I will be brief: your noble son is mad:

    Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,

    What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?

    But let that go.


    More matter, with less art.


    Madam, I swear I use no art at all.

    That he is mad, ’tis true: ’tis true ’tis pity;

    And pity ’tis ’tis true: a foolish figure;

    But farewell it, for I will use no art.

    Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains

    That we find out the cause of this effect,

    Or rather say, the cause of this defect,

    For this effect defective comes by cause:

    Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.

  • Kogen 古 元

    What is not admiring the painted rice cake? Is that just eating it with the perfect rice cake nonseprable from it?

  • Koun Franz


    I’m glad you like the book–I thought you would. :-)


    • doshoport


      Thanks for recommending it. It’s one of those books that can be read repeatedly. I know little about Kukai so it was eye-opening in that regard too.
      Hope the move is going well,


  • Hanrei B

    Hi Dosho,
    Interesting post.
    One of the achievements of Dogen that I really appreciate is his recognition of the complicatedness of things (as expounded in Shobogenzo Katto etc) in an area (i.e. religion) where people are often inclined to befuddle themselves with simple ‘truths’ and ideas, and not-ideas, (which, invariably, are just their own notions… I’m speaking from experience here!) such as the severe and/or otherwise imbalanced view of Zen as ‘beyond words’.
    It seems to me that the iconoclastic Zen thing can be taken up as a sort of slightly violent emotional rejection of language, communication, others, the world… the same way that so-called ‘liberalism’ can quickly become libertinism, and similar to how socialism can become totalitarianism etc etc via a sort of mental/emotional constriction. We’re complicated beings, even when we are doing very simple things which clarify us… and the world seems to remain complicated beyond our comprehension even when we keep our mouths shut tight and our thoughts clear, regardless of how we may crave for ‘simplicity’ (again, I say ‘we’, but I really mean ‘I’).
    I get the impression that, Dogen was reacting against shallow linguistic (or anti-linguistic) iconoclasm in Shobogenzo in a similar way to how he seemed to concern himself with addressing limited/limiting, or just thoroughly confused, notions of shunyata/’emptiness’ by taking traditional koans and philosophical points that step further.
    Also, I think there is more to Dogen’s contribution/presentation than just rehashing previous doctrine (although that view is quite valid from a particular perspective). My own feeling is that (although I cannot read the original language) he was doing something quite unique with language (well, he obviously was as he compiled a new original work, but I mean something both unique and very innovative). I would be very interested to hear the opinion of a poet who could read the original language and consider it in/from its literary context. Some of the (translated) Dogen language still gives me the shivers on points of Buddhist thought that I am very familiar with, and I suspect that there is a lot being said in a way that makes it rather special besides: To restate something (even an existing ‘truth’) in a new way is to really make a new thing, a new ‘truth’, and the words are never anything other than the real, current result… That sort of expression should, I think, be revered. And Dogen recognized and was all about that too I think.
    In saying all that, I doubt Dogen had the same anxiety that is a feature of modernism (and postmodernism) i.e., that caused by a perceived tension between ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’. Now, maybe he did have some such tension or perception, but I’m inclined to think that he resolved those inferred tensions in his practice, and in his creative/expressive process, as can be seen in his understanding of expression in the ‘time-being’ as being both an instantaneous expression and a thing that harmonizes ‘buddhas together with buddhas’.
    Anyway, that went on a bit. Maybe there’s something to be said for glum silence after all…
    Regards to all,

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Harry, very thoughtful comment.