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Drop of water [From the Genjokoan:] When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky. The depth is the same as the height. [To investigate the significance of] the length and brevity of time, we should consider whether the water is great or small, and understand the size of the moon in the sky.

It may help, here, to imagine what questions Dogen might be answering with this passage:

  • “I am so limited in my abilities, character, and understanding. Is it possible for someone like me to ‘attain realization?’ ”
  • “How is it possible to perceive, actualize, or be part of Absolute reality while I remain an embodied, conditioned being deeply dependent on concepts like self, time, and space?”
  • “Why are people who have ‘attained realization’ still idiosyncratic, flawed human beings?”
  • “What good is ‘attaining realization’ if it doesn’t get rid of one’s problematic individuality?”

In this passage of the Genjokoan, the moon symbolizes the Absolute, or Unity, as described in Class #4: Everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality; this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious just as it is. Attaining realization means personally experiencing the Absolute nature of reality, and thereby experiencing liberation from the delusion of the separateness of self (as well as liberation from other problematic delusions).

How is such a realization possible? Despite what we hope, we will never escape or transcend our Relative, individual existence, which is symbolized in this passage of the Genjokoan as a drop of water.  If we don’t really care about “realization,” or if we don’t think we’re up to it, we imagine people who experience it manage to work themselves into some transcendent state where – at least momentarily – they become able to stick their heads out of their drop of water in order to experience something greater. If we still hope to experience “realization” for ourselves, we may strive to bust out of this drop of water – to renounce our individuality in favor of reunion with the Absolute.

But this is not how realization works. We never get to peek outside of our drop of water, let alone bust out of it or manage to make it dissipate. So-called “realized” spiritual practitioners don’t achieve perfected or disembodied states. They don’t transcend ordinary, mundane reality, or – as it’s said in some Zen literature – the need to piss and shit.

In this lovely metaphor of the moon reflected in a drop of water, Dogen offers us a way to understand how realization is possible even though we are stuck in our drop of water, or in our karmically conditioned, mundane, embodied, short lives. Full realization is possible because, within your limited, Relative experience, the Absolute is reflected in its entirety. In this very place is reflected the entire universe – all of infinite space. In this very moment, this ungraspable instant, is reflected all of infinite time. So it’s all here, within your actual experience. Within your life.

And yet – when you don’t perceive the Absolute – that complete, luminous, precious reality – you may interpret the paragraph above as saying, “Your life, as you perceive it, is it. There’s nothing more.” I don’t know about you, but at certain times in my life I would have found such a statement profoundly discouraging.  Fortunately, the moon is a “vast and great light.” The entire moon can been seen in your little drop of water, but it’s not constrained to it. The same moon is reflected in every last dew drop and in every ocean, lake, and puddle. There is something greater.

It may sound pretty far out to propose that this instant reflects all of time, this place reflects all of space, and your little drop of water reflects the entire moon. Anyone skeptical of spiritual practice is likely to think such ideas are delusional. However, this interpenetration of the Absolute and Relative is really not so remarkable. All it means is that at any given moment, at any given place, whatever is – including your bag of skin – is part of one, seamless, reality. You’re part of the universe, and without you it would not be the same universe. You’re who you are because of everything that surrounds you. You’re defined by your relationships to everything else, and everything else is defined, in part, by relationships to you – no matter how small or isolated you might feel. This moment is what it is because of everything that has come before. Everything you do will have some effect on the future. In your bag of skin is reflected the sun and moon, the earth, the force of gravity, and the wonder of evolution. Everything that every was or will be is reflected, in some way, right here.

Of course, this is an intellectual explanation of a wordless experience. You only perceive the Absolute when you drop differentiation and allow yourself to be part of the one, seamless reality. At such a time you aren’t thinking about relationships, trying to track the passage of time, or cataloging all the things you can see reflected in your experience! There is a truth to these descriptions, but they make realization seem quite full of content when in actuality it’s just pure, direct experience of life.

Of course, every metaphor breaks down after a while, and this is the case even with our lovely moon reflected in a drop of water. Such an image invites you to think the Absolute lives outside you, and that you can experience It because it’s reflected within you. This thinking is still dualistic, dividing things up into Absolute and Relative, inside and outside. Actually there is no moon and no drop of water – there is only that one, seamless, undifferentiated reality.

And yet. There is also the reality of differentiation and manifestation, and there is no life, no Being except through differentiation and manifestation – so of course there’s no “realization” without the Relative! So, when we’re talking about “realization” we go ahead and talk about the moon’s reflection in a drop of water. This limited metaphor describes one aspect of our experience as human beings.

Given what Dogen has shared with us, we can try to answer those initial questions in modern-day English:

  • I am so limited in my abilities, character, and understanding. Is it possible for someone like me to ‘attain realization?’ ” Yes. Stop using your limitations as an excuse not to seek a direct experience of awakening.
  • How is it possible to perceive, actualize, or be part of Absolute reality while I remain an embodied, conditioned being deeply dependent on concepts like self, time, and space?” You’re already part of Absolute reality, and it’s reflected fully within your own, embodied experience. Your conditioning, attachments, and concepts obstruct only your vision, not Absolute reality. Part those obscuring clouds for just a moment and the moon will shine through.
  • Why are people who have ‘attained realization’ still idiosyncratic, flawed human beings? As long as we are alive, we remain “drops of water.” “Realization does not destroy the person.” Why do we want it to? Because imperfect people create suffering and ugliness in the world? That’s certainly the case, but those imperfect people also manifest kindness, generosity, brilliance, and wisdom. There are no perfect people.
  • What good is ‘attaining realization’ if it doesn’t get rid of one’s problematic individuality?” Before realization it’s your problematic individuality. After realization it’s your opportunity to manifest in the world. Your karmically conditioned, mundane, embodied, short life is your vehicle for action, and your field for cultivation. What are you going to do with it?

Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.

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