ChadoNihi pic from Pixabay

[From the Genjokoan:] In seeing color and hearing sound with body and mind, although we perceive them intimately, [the perception] is not like reflections in a mirror or the moon in water. When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.

Personally, I prefer the translation of the first sentence by Sojun Mel Weitsman and Kazuaki Tanahashi in the book Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries (Counterpoint Press, 2012): “When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharmas intimately.”

In another translation I like, Robert Aitken translates “intuit dharmas intimately” as “grasp things directly.”

What is this activity of intuiting dharmas intimately, or grasping things directly? It’s the whole goal of Zen. It’s unmitigated, direct experience through our entire body-and-mind as a whole organism.

This remarkable experience of nothing-other-than-this is most vividly and accurately described with poetic language, such as this passage from Bokusan Nishiari’s commentary in Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries (Nishiari, 1821-1910, was a Japanese Soto Zen priest and Dogen scholar):

“Lingyun [an ancestral Zen master] had realization when looking at peach blossoms; it’s seeing forms with bright mind. Xiangyan [another ancestor] had realization through the sound of a stone striking bamboo; it’s hearing the sound and being enlightened with the Way…

“‘You intuit dharmas intimately.’ This is good. There is no dharma outside of the self, and there is no self outside of the dharma. Facing forms, the entire body becomes forms. Facing voice, the entire body becomes voice. The self and the object become not-two. At the time of ‘seeing peach blossoms,’ the entire world becomes peach blossoms. At the time of ‘hitting bamboo,’ the entire world is ‘crack!’ That’s the moment when the forms are truly seen and the voice is truly heard. At this moment you intimately intuit it.”

This complete, unmitigated experience is profound, but it’s also very simple. When there is no separation between self and the world, there is only this moment’s radiant occurrence. It’s not radiant because it’s great as compared to our ordinary daily experience; it’s radiant because that’s the nature of reality.

But then Dogen warns us that this experience of reality is “not like reflections in a mirror or the moon in water.” In what sense? What does this warning mean, and why does he offer it?

Think of the nature of a reflection. It’s two dimensional. The mirror or the water is passive and separate, reflecting something outside.

If we act like a mirror, we may be very still, clear, empty of self-concern and perceiving things in a very objective way, but there is still a sense that there’s an “I” that’s observing, perceiving, or reflecting the universe “out there.” Although what we reflect may be beautiful and grand, it’s only one side, just as a reflective surface like a mirror or water reflects only one side of something.

Instead, as I described in an earlier class (#4: The Nature of Awakening), “In the moment of prajna, or enlightenment, we all participate in this reality together. This reality includes unity and difference at the same time.” In a moment of total absorption, when we truly “intuit dharmas intimately,” there is no sense of that “I” am reflecting or intuiting. All beings and things awaken with you, through you, and you through them.

Now we get to the line that has always been troublesome to me: “When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.”

I think many people see this sentence as saying that when we “see forms or hear sounds while fully engaging body-and-mind” and “intuit dharmas intimately,” there is no sense of separation in that moment, therefore the “self” and relative reality is in the dark, or not perceptible. Presumably then, the opposite is true: when we experience a sense of self and operate in the relative world, the absolute is in the dark, or not perceptible. After all, unlike the reflection in a mirror, life is three-dimensional, so there is always a side you’re not seeing. You’re either “in” the relative, or you’re “in” the absolute.

This line of the Genjokoan has always bothered me because of this interpretation. It seems very dualistic to me, as if we’re doomed to be separate from a unified experience of reality as long as we have any sense of self, or as long as we want to operate in the relative world.

Even if this is not what various authors and teachers have meant in their commentaries, this is an interpretation carried – consciously or unconsciously – by many Zen students: We figure that our lives will be mostly “spent” in the relative, nourished by vague memories of our past experiences of the absolute. Then, at certain times, we get the opportunity to “switch modes” and try to tap into the absolute – understanding, of course, that “we” won’t even really be there to experience it.

Dogen’s Zen has got to be deeper than that, doesn’t it? Because of my intuition that it is,  I have to depart from the dualistic interpretation described above. I could be wrong, but I am interpreting this based on my own sense of the Dharma, as opposed to claiming some scholarly understanding of what Dogen meant.

I think Nishiari might have agreed with me. He interprets the meaning of “dark” in a non-dualistic way, taking it to refer to “all things merging in darkness.” In Zen, dark often signifies the absolute, or non-differentiated reality; in this case Nishiari seems to be proposing that when you intimately intuit, there is no “other side:”

“When we intuit that the self and outer realm are not two, but one, there is not a second person throughout heaven and earth. When we illuminate one side, the dharmadhatu [the realm of the absolute] becomes one side, the ten directions [all directions, or everything everywhere] become dark and all collapse.”

He continues, suggesting that through our limited, one-sided illumination we can touch the infinite:

“This one side merges with all dharmas in darkness and there is nothing left out. It’s called dark. One dharma comprehends myriad dharmas in darkness.”

All of Dogen’s teaching, all of the Genjokoan, all of our practice is fundamentally about this paradoxical nature of our existence: How we realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute as a limited being.  Not in spite of our limited being. Not once we transcend our limited being. Not only when we give up our limited being. Not when we discover an alternative, unlimited being. We remain a limited being and we awaken to how, simultaneously, all things are Being and there are no real boundaries around or within Being.

So, what does this mean to our practice? It means we can rely on the fact that we are not cut off from the absolute just because we manifest as a person. In a moment of wholehearted participation in reality, the self is there; it still has a limited view, but by its wholehearted participation it realizes the whole of reality through just what it can see and experience and know. This “self,” of course, is not the conventional self that is defined by our relationships and details and is actually fairly easy to forget. It’s the Self that lies underneath that – the Self that wonders about existence and absolute reality.

We don’t have wait until we’ve managed to get rid of to get rid of our sense of Self in order to intuit dharmas intimately with our whole body-and-mind. So we’d better get busy.

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

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