- Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness by Taigen Dan Leighton
In Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness, Taigen Dan Leighton has written a rich introduction to the teachings of Dongshan Liangjie (807–869) (Jpn. Tōzan Ryōkai), one of the Chinese founders of the Caodong (Jpn. Sōtō) branch of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Drawing on his expertise as both a scholar and a Zen teacher, Leighton analyzes Dongshan's Recorded Sayings, especially its encounter dialogues, the teaching poem "Jewel Mirror Samādhi," and the doctrine of the five degrees, while also taking up anecdotes about Dongshan that appear in koan collections. Given the historical fog surrounding classical Chan figures and their texts, Leighton's focus is "not the literal historical personage of Dongshan, but rather his position as an exemplary, iconic figure in Chan lore" (p. 4).
Leighton's analysis of Dongshan's stance revolves around the doctrine of suchness and approaches to its teaching, to "revealing and imparting awareness of suchness" (p. 42), to helping people "glimpse the underlying reality of all things mutually arising together" (p. 40). In particular, as flagged in the subtitle of the book, Leighton focuses on "the practice of suchness," on how one can "receive and express intimations of suchness" (p. 41). After offering an introduction to Dongshan in his historical context, Leighton organizes his exposition in three sections: "the search for [End Page 591] suchness," "teachings of suchness," and "the fivefold suchness." In the first two, Leighton examines key stories in Dongshan's Recorded Sayings, such as "No Grass for Ten Thousand Miles," "The White Rabbit," and "Caring for the One Not Ill."
Early in the book Leighton provides his readers with a helpful introduction to the concept of suchness (Skt. tathatā). He writes that "suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts, suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself" (p. 9). With regard to the former, epistemological connotation, Leighton describes suchness not as an object of experience but as "a mode of practice of meditative awareness and activity" (p. 10), a "way of seeing reality" (p. 138). And with regard to the latter, metaphysical connotation, Leighton discusses suchness in terms of "just this": "the simplicity and immediacy of reality here now, beyond human conceptualizations" (p. 34). As such, tathatā is not a noun (hence the limitations of the nominal rendering "suchness") but instead something adverbial or adjectival, as flagged by certain Chinese translations of this Sanskrit term (p. 139).
Leighton also sketches the contours of the related concept of emptiness (śūnyatā), construing it as "the emptiness or insubstantiality of all persons and entities, understood as empty of inherent substantive existence" (p. 9), empty of "inherent, unchanging identity" (p. 130). Like suchness, it "is not a thing to seek, but rather the way a thing is" (p. 10).
Leighton's astute treatment of core doctrines does not end with suchness and emptiness. One feature of the book that readers will appreciate is his treatment of an array of other Buddhist doctrines in the background (and in some cases the foreground) of Dongshan's standpoint. Leighton discusses buddha nature (pp. 21, 151), anātman (p. 36), sudden awakening (pp. 116, 195), bodhicitta (pp. 128, 137), the theory of two truths (p. 67), the tathāgatha garbha (p. 24), the three bodies of Buddha (pp. 130, 145–146), the five elements (p. 182), non-sentient beings expounding the Dharma (pp. 20–25), the Huayan Buddhist fourfold dharmadhātu (pp. 35–36, 213), and the Yogācāra Buddhist eight levels of consciousness (p. 37). Serious readers will appreciate this doctrinal focus, for it illuminates how Chan/Zen thinkers, though ostensibly operating within a "separate transmission apart from doctrinal teachings" (Jpn...