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Reflections on Dogen's steelyard

I came across a striking analogy by the great Zen master Dogen, speaking of balance and equilibrium, and the importance of difference, and introduced it at a recent meditation weekend. A steelyard (stilyard) is an unequal-arm balance, which works differently from the familiar equal-arm scales, weighing an object by moving the equipoise along the longer arm to calibrate weight precisely. He makes the point that equilibrium is not the same as 'fairness'.

(Passage quoted at the end of this.)

The image of an unequal-arm balance emphasizes the importance of difference; of the inner actions of weighing, discriminating and discerning differences in every aspect of life, whether it be people or situations or events or teachings. Recognising and respecting true difference is a counter to eliding innate differences in an ignorant attempt to make all ‘one’, all the same, perhaps by attachment to some image / idol of ‘harmony’, nor is it the delusion of manufacturing difference as an assertion of self-importance. I think it’s an insight very relevant and timely today. It means engaging in a work of discerning and weighing up, judging the merits of, in order to achieve personal equilibrium, but with an understanding that equilibrium is always changing and shifting, so the work never stops. To be in balance involves constant equilibrating, not a state of permanence.

The unequal-arm balance is a different dynamic of operation from the more familiar scales of justice. It can handle weights of any kind or size and allow very minute calibrations / discernment, so as to fine-tune one's discernment in order to realize equilibrium—whatever the context in daily life. Equilibrium is precisely a process of continual adjustments leading to integration both into, and of, one's being. It’s the ongoing work of Three: basically the analogy of object, steelyard and weigher-‘I’, and further into refinements including counterpoise, gravity and the physics of the whole process (three into six etc).

All within Emptiness, because equilibration is not the same as "Fairness". Fairness is only realizable within a much bigger context. At the point at which equilibration is established, it is then possible to ‘weigh’ against, or to bring into the frame of something of a different order: Emptiness or the Unconditioned. Unconditioned is recognition of another order, different again from the act of balancing and equilibrating in contexts of everyday life and Work. Fairness may appear as Beauty or Rightness or Necessity. It is Known, but not produced.

In Dogen’s terms, the dream (of form) is now within the Dream (the mystery of All). Accepting difference means embracing the "vertiginous confusion" of our personal days and of our earth and society, accepting them as essentially in equilibrium, and as a manifestation not of disaster, but of an equilibrated whole, constantly shifting. This may come as a bit of a shocker— that we need confusion and doubt. It can be seen as the substance, the prima materia, out of which equilibrium is constantly forged; the moment-by-moment creation of Great Earth in equilibrium; the dream of creation.

The task, then, according to Dogen, is to welcome confusions "in faith" . Faith is the missing ingredient in the current zeitgeist, as certainties and institutions capsize. Only Faith holds the dream in being for us personally, and is able to recognize true Fairness—the lived intuition that ‘there is more’. To be able to live confusions ‘in reverence’ is pretty much the opposite of modern counsel!


From Dogen’s Muchu Setsumu, quoted in Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, Hee-Jin Kim

“Study a steelyard in equilibrium. When we study it, our power to discern minute differences in weight manifests itself without fail, and thus puts forth the expounding of a dream within a dream. Unless we consider weight differences, and thereby attain the equilibrium [of the steelyard], no fairness [in the ascertainment of weight] is accomplished. Only when equilibrium is obtained, do we see fairness. Once we have obtained equilibrium, it does not hinge upon the object [to be weighed], the steelyard, or its workings. You must investigate the following thoroughly: Although [the object, the steelyard, and its workings] hang in empty space, if you do not bring about equilibrium, fairness is not materialized. Just as [the steelyard] itself hangs in emptiness, so does it accept things [to be weighed, regardless of their weight] and lets them play freely in emptiness. Such is the expounding of a dream within a dream. In emptiness [the steelyard] embodies equilibrium; fairness is the great principle of the steelyard. [By virtue of this principle of fairness] we weigh emptiness and things; whether it be emptiness or form, [we weigh it to] meet fairness. This is the expounding of a dream within a dream as well. In no case is there liberation that does not expound a dream within a dream. A dream is the entire great earth; the entire great earth is in equilibrium. For this reason, the vertiginous confusions of life are limitless; this is the attestation of a dream within a dream. We welcome them in faith and live them in reverence.”

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These musings are responses to a context, a time, a place, a query. Another time, another context. An angle slightly different, a different response, perhaps seemingly in contradiction.

But Truth is present if it resonates truthfully, and in the process should generate more questions...

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