[From the Genjokoan:] When the ten thousand dharmas are without [fixed] self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no living beings, no birth and no death. Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.

“When the ten thousand dharmas are without [fixed] self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no living beings, no birth and no death” refers to the Mahayana teachings which arose some time later in the development of Buddhism. The Mahayana approach developed long before it was a separate sect – it tried to point practitioners back to the experiential and phenomenological reality of Buddhism. Why?

It’s easy to imagine, isn’t it, that we as a community could enshrine the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, no-self, and disatisfactoriness, and imbue them with self-nature, permanence, or as Okumura says, make them into “irrefutable truths.”

Imagine us correcting and editing one another: “Oh, don’t do that, that’s just being attached!” Or “Of course, I shouldn’t really care because everything is impermanent.” We could start to vilify “desire” of any kind, or withdraw from life because it’s just a source of samsara, or get self-righteous with the people we know who don’t practice.

We could/can, essentially, end up using the Buddhadharma as tool of self – making the self more comfortable, more sure, more immune from emotional difficulty, more superior to all those ordinary attached beings suffering in samsara.

Phenomenology is “an approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience.”
“Emptiness” points more toward how all things are impermanent and ultimately ungraspable, even ideas, experiences, etc. In the absolute present, there is no buddhadharma, no four noble truths, etc. – these are concepts we create and use and pass down through the generations because they are useful, but they aren’t it. This is why Dogen states the Mahayana view in the second sentence of the Genjokoan.

However, we can mess up the Mahayana view too! We can take refuge in the formless aspect of the present moment and fail to commit to anything, to express the truth, to act compassionately. So Dogen adds the third sentence, “Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.” Essentially, “Yeah, yeah, but there’s still life, isn’t there?”

Notice that although Dogen states three approaches to the teaching at the beginning of Genjokoan, no level refutes the previous, it just clarifies it and reminds us not to get stuck.

Beware of thinking you will have prajna (insight/wisdom/enlightenment) about life, or that insight into emptiness is a thing you reach for, attain, or possess. Instead, it’s a unfolding relationship with all things, which happen to be empty.

My potential attachment to Bright Way, continued: I talked earlier about how I can be liberated from samsara if I don’t think my life depends on my relationship with Bright Way. So, let’s say I sit and practice and study and try not to be attached. I conceive of a liberated way I want to be, an enlightened way I want to interact with the world.

I hold myself apart, taking care with my thoughts, actions, and emotions so I don’t get sucked into samsara. (Although some of us are actually better at doing this than others – many of us simply get sucked in anyway start to feel discouraged, or like we’re a failure, etc.). In either case, life becomes a struggle, and a self-interested struggle.

(It also doesn’t help to just stop practicing, because impermanence, no-self, and dukkha are true.)

So what do we do? How do we enact Dogen’s teaching, and avoid getting caught in either trap? To continue my example, I realize my liberation is constantly enacted in this daily dance of life; I only know emptiness because there are things and people and experiences that are empty, I only know non-attachment because I have loved, gotten attached and let go. Even in a moment of perfect liberation it’s experienced through my body, the floor, the light, the context.

First I give up resistance to impermanence and no-self, and this is liberating. Then I give up resistance to the ungraspable nature of liberation, letting go of setting myself up in opposition to samsara. Then I turn toward all of existence – including struggle, suffering, delusion – as inseparable from the Great Reality I want to know intimately.

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

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