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Skillful Means - Is ''The Raft'' Truly Disposable?

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(Excerpted and revised from the 2010 December issue of The Flatbed Sutra Zen Newsletter)
A Buddha’s discourse is beyond the sentient and the non-sentient; it is beyond the relative and the absolute. Even so, when He became aware of bodhisattvas, of ordinary humans, of the Real Form of things, and of this discourse, He opened the Gate of Skillful Means. The Gate of Skillful Means is the unsurpassed meritorious functioning of the fruits of Buddhahood. It is the Dharma that resides in the place of Dharma and It is the form of the world as it constantly manifests. The Gate of Skillful Means does not refer to some momentary skill.
Shobogenzo, Shoho Jisso, Hubert Nearman

The Zen perspective of the Buddhist teaching of “skillful means” has been discussed in numerous Zen books. Not without some justification, both traditional and scholarly accounts tend to stress the expedient or provisional aspect of skillful means, that is, are portrayed as temporary doctrines or momentary skills used to direct students to something else, something other than themselves. In short, skillful means are truly depicted as means, not ends. This view is often illustrated with the analogy of a raft; having reached the other shore (the ends), the raft (the means) should be discarded.

Dogen’s view is not so simple (nor is the view of the classic literature, but our focus is Dogen). In fact, the popular view is nearly diametrically opposed to Dogen’s own. When Dogen says a Buddha’s discourse is “beyond the relative and the absolute” his meaning is inclusive of all dualistic views, including “means and ends.”


To separate “the raft” from “reaching the other shore,” can only be done by violating the Buddhist principles of nonduality. According to these principles, any two constituents in a nondual relationship are interdependent – that is, they are coessential. The inference is clear; if “the means” are provisional or momentary, “the ends” must also be provisional or momentary. For a raft to be an effective "means" for crossing a river, it must be a real raft. All real forms (dharmas), according to Dogen’s teachings on existence and time (existence-time; uji), are in and of real time; thus they cannot change into unreal things, disappear, or be eliminated from time (and existence). A raft that is truly “a means for crossing a river” is, and will always be an intrinsic aspect of “arriving at the other shore.” Likewise, if a verbal or written teaching is an effective means it must be a real dharma, not a provisional one.

When Dogen speaks of “this discourse” as being a “real form” he is highlighting the fact that “a Buddha’s discourse” is a real dharma; thus, he says, “The gate of skillful means does not refer to some momentary skill.”

Therefore, by his own definition, Dogen’s Shobogenzo (a Buddha’s discourse) is not a provisional or momentary device, but a real form (dharma) in and of space and time (existence-time; uji); it is an expression of Buddha nature.

Attempting to find the “reality” of a Mozart symphony independent of the actual music would not only be delusional, it would be ridiculous. This applies equally to the “reality” of a Buddha’s discourse. Some of the most colorful expressions in Shobogenzo are those directed at views that the “words and letters” of sutras and Zen records are mere means pointing to ends apart from themselves.


Therefore, when he describes a Buddha’s discourse as “the gate of skillful means” saying that it is “the Dharma that resides in the place of Dharma” and “the form of the world as it constantly manifests,” Dogen is not only emphasizing the physical-temporal (existence-time) reality of the words and letters (of a Buddha’s discourse), but also its accessibility. The significance of this is often underscored in Shobogenzo with an allusion to one of Dogen’s favorite koans, “nothing in the whole universe is concealed.” The main point of the koan concerns the principle of nonduality; more specifically, the teaching that the “form” of something and its “nature” are not separate.

Buddhism teaches that the emptiness of things (dharmas), that is to say, their essence, is the true nature, or reality of all things – without exception. The most common formulation of this teaching states, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” To simplify, “form is emptiness” means the true nature of “forms” is their emptiness of self nature; in other words, the reality of forms is their lack of independence. “Emptiness is form” means that the true nature of emptiness is its appearance as forms. The practical sense is that the “outward form” of a thing (dharma) and the “essential nature” of that thing are a unity. Thus, a “form” and its “emptiness” are coessential, neither exists independently – no form, no emptiness; no emptiness, no form. Like all simplifications, this is an over-simplification, but it suffices for our purpose here.


The importance of being aware of the nature of this unity for understanding Shobogenzo cannot be overstated; it is a principle that is explicitly and implicitly central throughout the whole of Shobogenzo. Other than Dogen’s teaching of “nothing concealed,” just mentioned, this unity is key to his doctrines of “existence-time,” “practice-realization,” “appearance-reality,” “enlightenment-delusion,” “experience-existence,” and others.

While this is a fundamental doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, its practical application has often been neglected, resulting in biased views privileging “form is emptiness” over “emptiness is form.” The consequences have been diverse and numerous, but our interest here is its effect on the notion of language in Zen; specifically, on how this bias contributed to the widespread acceptance of distorted views on the role of verbal and written expressions in Zen Buddhism.

As we just observed, according to the doctrine of emptiness, a form and its essence are a unity; but according to the biased view in question, a form is inferior to its essence. The level of this inferiority varies according to the particular advocates and other specifics. For example, some may suggest that all forms are unreal or illusory and emptiness is the only reality; others might say forms are provisionally or temporarily real, or that some are real and others are not, etc.

Regardless of the particulars, all such views share a common presupposition that is inherent to the bias in question: a dualistic view that the reality of the Buddha Dharma exists independently of the expression of the Buddha Dharma. As should be clear by now, this would violate the principle of nonduality (not to mention common sense) as it inherently presupposes that forms (dharmas), in this case; words, scriptures, and utterances, can exist independently of emptiness (reality, true nature).

Obviously, to privilege “form is emptiness” over “emptiness is form” is to see the former as superior and the latter as inferior. Now, in the absence of two or more things, “superiority” and “inferiority” are meaningless, they simply cannot be applied to one thing (or none). Therefore, to view the “meaning” of a Buddha’s words as superior to their “form” necessarily presupposes a division between the “form” and the “essence” of the Buddha Dharma. Obviously, any such view is inherently dualistic (i.e. non-Buddhist).

If the essence of an expression and the form of that expression are a unity, as Dogen contends, truly understanding an expression cannot even begin until one recognizes that the essence (i.e. reality, meaning, etc.) of an expression exists in the form of the expression before one – and nowhere else. This is why Dogen so adamantly insists, “A thing and its nature are not two different things.” It is also why we can rejoice, as Dogen does, as he underscores the implication, “Nothing in the whole universe is concealed.”