Umi No Nami Dan Rotnem

Fourfold Wisdom

One of the greatest joys of being stewards of Zen in this new chapter of human history is the process of understanding the authentic tradition we embody, and learning what it means for us here and now in this 21st century western consciousness. In the course of Buddhist study, one comes to learn common terms for practice, which may not be familiar to others. In our beginning literature, we try to minimize our use of these, and the ones we do use frequently are captured in the glossary.

To continue the spirit of our teachings, we retain certain rituals (like the liturgy and robes) and connection to texts, like the Song of Zazen. On the one hand, we update Zen training to reflect the current store of human knowledge (Mondo Zen), on the other hand, we use time tested techniques (zazen). In either case, there is an invitation to come to a deeper understanding and to explore the wisdom that gives rise to what we’re practicing today. In so doing, we can authentically include it in an evolutionary process.

We consider discernment and inquiry key practice points, and invite new and long-time students of zen to examine the lines of our texts with a spirit of curiosity. In this series of articles, I use the Song of Zazen as a starting point for exploring our Sutra Book:

“How transparent the perfect moonlight of the fourfold wisdom!”

The fourfold wisdom is a way of describing various aspects of awakened sentience (bodhi) as both experience and progressive embodiment of insight. The fourfold wisdom is the:

  • Perfect Mirror Wisdom

  • Wisdom of Sameness

  • Wisdom of Differentiation

  • Wisdom of Benefitting Others

In simpler terms we can say it this way.

When, through the stillness of concentration meditation, we experience things exactly as they are with total awareness, this is Perfect Mirror Wisdom.

When we become stable in this quality of “things-as-they-are”, we begin to realize that all we perceive is fundamentally the same – anything that can be perceived arises, is present, disintegrates, and disappears in a field of awareness, microsecond by microsecond. This is the Wisdom of Sameness.

Simultaneously, these perceptions have qualities we can distinguish from each other. Clearly observing these distinctions without getting taken-in by them and losing a sense of “things-as-they-are-in-their-sameness” is the Wisdom of Differentiation.

Fully grounded in this perspective, we explore the many ways to be in compassionate service to life unfolding. This is the Wisdom of Benefitting Others.

These four aspects are not anything that we acquire, but are so-called “transformations” of sentience; these are are awakenings of sentience which was previously “asleep”. Since most of us are more likely to be familiar with the “asleep” versions of these aspects, we will take a moment to explore the teachings from this perspective.

It can be helful to reverse the order of the fourfold wisdom:

  • Wisdom of Benefitting Others

  • Wisdom of Differentiation

  • Wisdom of Sameness

  • Perfect Mirror Wisdom

Why reverse them? Because the teaching of the fourfold wisdom orients non-dualistically from what is typically considered the least obvious mind state (causal) to the most obvious (gross). Conversely, most humans are predominately aware of the “me” interacting with the “world” through this body (gross), and are least familiar with momentary, selfless awareness (causal).

Consider these aspects of experience the way we more commonly hear of them:

  • Sensory Experience

  • Thoughts/Emotions

  • Self-making

  • Conditioned Reactivity

Sensory experience is the gateway to the “exterior” world and the means by which we receive and then act upon information. When we’re “asleep”, we are driven by our senses to create thoughts and emotions that avoid pain and seek pleasure. When we’re “asleep”, our senses serve (and direct) this organism’s self-interest above all else. When we’re “asleep”, the senses are a product of, and contribute to, our conditioned reactivity.

Thoughts and emotions are the conceptualizations that arise from our sensory experience. They are abstract shortcuts we take to make meaning as hyper-complex beings in an even more complex world. These thoughts and emotions both emerge from a sense of self and contribute to that sense of self.

“Self-making” is the process of knitting together discrete moments of sensory-cognitive-emotional experience into a cohesive picture and taking it as a discrete object. It is a profoundly evolved capacity to become self-aware, introspective and reflexive; however, when we’re “asleep”, we take this useful and real process to point to something permanent and ultimately true. Self-making is both “influencer of” and “influenced by” sensory experience, thoughts/emotions and conditioned reactivity.

Conditioned reactivity is simply the truth of being in a body. Our systems, from the ground up, receive stimulus and then do something with it. The conceptualizing process happens as a result of reflecting on whether or not the reaction served its purpose; namely, did it align with the intentions, particularly survival intentions, of this organism. When we’re “asleep”, conditioning happens without us actively and intentionally engaging with it. As a result, we create and/or continue many conditioned reactions that may have served a purpose according to automatic intentions but are now self-defeating. We aren’t in fact responding to events as they are, but are reacting to events according to the short cuts we are conditioned to take.

Up to now, we have examined the fourfold wisdom as a descriptor of aspects of awakened mind and compared that to the functions which are transformed in awakening practices. Now, let’s put the two together to complete the picture.

Through meditation we interrupt the process of self-making. This allows for a freshness of experience that is not reactive. This is breaking the cycle (escaping samsara). Now, we can “see” or, reflect as a perfect mirror, all that arises.

Within this Perfect Mirror Wisdom, we notice that all we perceive is involved in this process and nothing is separate from it. There is a unity within the experience of being and, by extension, recognition that nothing is apart from “us,” and it all influences this self-making. No matter what and how many items are reflected, it’s all one reflection. This is the Wisdom of Sameness.

Simultaneously, being human is a complex experience — it involves this body, in this time and in this space, as well as its interactions with “other things.” This discriminatory thinking/feeling process provides valuable information. When experienced through the Wisdom of Differentiation we can acknowledge and respect these different characteristics, as they arise and fall away. Despite the fact that it’s all one reflection, each thing reflected is clearly known. Perhaps most essentially, the Wisdom of Differentiation allows us to know what is “out there” and what “I” adds to the experience. This precision in identifying the distinct aspects of seamless experience is the Wisdom of Differentiation.

From this perspective, sensory experience provides the content to be reflected on, which can be directed and used, instead of sensory experience directing and using “us”. Through remembering the truth of meditative awareness and abiding in it, we have the choice to bring conscious intention to the reconditioning process. Over time, we clean up our negative habitual reactivity, often first transforming it into positive habitual reactivity before finally coming to fully trust and relax into spontaneous compassionate wisdom. This is the Wisdom of Benefitting Others.

In the Song of Zazen this fourfold wisdom is described in terms of transparency and perfect moonlight. Transparency indicates how when we’re “asleep”, this process is opaque. Yet, when we awaken, it’s as transparent as light – and it has always been that way! Nothing at all changes in the process itself, except for now we are living in the perfect moonlight.

The sun represents intelligence, the moon represents wisdom. Intellect alone is blinding! When we stare straight at it, we can see nothing else and the bright light washes out details. This is one extreme. The other is the night sky, which represents the void of deep concentration-meditation, sunyata. The moon, then, is the marriage of the two. It shines from within the void by reflecting the bright light of intellect.

Through this practice, we discover that we are this light. A light which pours through the darkness to gently illuminate the whole world.

Thank you, Hakuin. How transparent the perfect moonlight of the fourfold wisdom. Yes!

Song of Zazen by Hakuin Ekaku

Sentient beings are from the very beginning Buddhas.

It is like ice and water, apart from water,

No ice can exist. Outside sentient beings,

Where do we find the Buddhas?

Not knowing how near the truth is,

We seek it far away. What a pity!

We are like a person who, in the midst of water,

Cries in thirst so imploringly.

We are like the child of a rich house

Who has wandered away among the poor.

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

Is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance;

Going astray further and further in the darkness. ,

When are we able to be free from birth and death?

As for Zazen practice of the Mahayana,

It is beyond all our praise.

The virtues of perfection such as charity, morality

And the invocation of the Buddha’s name,

Confession and ascetic discipline,

And many other good deeds of merit,

All these return to this!

Even those who have practiced meditation

For just one sitting,

Will see all their twisted karma erased.

Nowhere will they find twisted paths,

But the pure land will be near at hand.

With a reverent heart, if we listen to this Truth

Even once, and praise it and gladly embrace it,

We will surely be blessed most infinitely.

If we concentrate within

And testify to the truth that self-nature is


We have really gone beyond vain words.

The gate of the oneness of cause and effect is open.

The path of non-duality and true clarity runs

Straight ahead.

To regard the form of no-form as form,

Whether going or returning,

We cannot be any place else.

To regard the thought of no-thought as thought,

Whether singing or dancing,

We are the voice of the Dharma.

How boundless the clear sky of Samadhi!

How transparent the perfect moonlight of the

Fourfold Wisdom!

At this moment, what more need we seek?

As the truth eternally reveals Itself,

This very place is the Lotus Paradise!

This very Body is the Buddha!


Hakuin – A highly influential revivalist Zen master living from approximately 1686 to 1769 CE.

Ignorance – translates the Sanskrit “avidya”, meaning an absence of higher knowledge. More specifically, referring to the absence of the direct realization that the subject-object dualism continually reinforced by the machinations of mind is, essentially, a figment of imagination.

Mondo Zen – Mondo Zen is an adaptation of koan study suited for 21st century western culture. It uses enigmatic questions to concentrate and point the mind to a deeper truth of human experience, awakening practitioners to spontaneous wisdom and unconditional compassion.

Sentience – the ability to perceive and feel, thereby reacting to environmental stimulus. As a simple rule, wherever there are nerves, there is sentience.

State training – gaining fluency in meditative states that reveal the breadth, depth and complexity of being.

Sutra Book – A concise collection of teachings which orient our practice.

Zazen – “Za” means seated. “Zen” means meditation. Zazen is formal state training through seated meditation.

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