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[From the Genjokoan:] When one first seeks the Dharma, one strays far from the boundary of the Dharma. When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person. If one riding in a boat watches the coast, one mistakenly perceives the coast as moving. If one watches the boat [in relation to the surface of the water], then one notices that the boat is moving. Similarly, when we perceive the body and mind in a confused way and grasp all things with a discriminating mind, we mistakenly think that the self-nature of the mind is permanent. When we intimately practice and return right here, it is clear that all things have no [fixed] self.

When one first seeks the Dharma, one strays far from the boundary of the Dharma.

Amazingly, this line of Dogen is pretty straightforward. As I discussed in Class #4, we start to seek for a deeper truth, or an alternative way to live. This is good, and necessary. But naturally we think what we’re looking for is something other than what we’ve always had; this ironically causes us to overlook the Dharma, which is right in front of us. All we have to do is utterly let go of seeking anything .

But we have to seek in order to realize that. This statement of Dogen’s is just reminding us of where the Dharma is, and advising us to avoid chasing it all over the planet if we can.

When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person.

Shohaku Okumura helpfully points out the “original person” is a translation of honbun nin. In Realizing Genjokoan he explains, “Hon can be literally translated as original, true, root, or source, bun means part or portion, and nin is person. So this word, which has the same meaning as ‘original face,’ refers to a person who is one with the original source that exists before karmic conditioning.”

Remember that the Dharma being correctly transmitted is not in the future. It’s not something that will happen to you, at which point you’ll be reconnected to the source. The correct transmission happens only in this moment. Then what happens? You’re instantly an intimate part of the universe.

If one riding in a boat watches the coast, one mistakenly perceives the coast as moving. If one watches the boat [in relation to the surface of the water], then one notices that the boat is moving. Similarly, when we perceive the body and mind in a confused way and grasp all things with a discriminating mind, we mistakenly think that the self-nature of the mind is permanent. When we intimately practice and return right here, it is clear that all things have no [fixed] self.

It’s easy to make all of this into philosophy, or some kind of abstract theory of phenomenology (experience of consciousness from the first-person point of view). What is Dogen talking about here? Obviously, this passage refers to giving up the delusion of having an inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. But what’s emphasized here is the process of perception – the mistaken ways of perceiving that we employ every day.

What are these mistaken ways of perceiving? It’s not just about thinking that some part of us persists in an unchanging way as it moves through space, because it’s also not correct to assume you move while the shore doesn’t! Okumura explains in his chapter on this passage how, in the fascicle “The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment,” Dogen explains, “The moving together of the boat and the shore, in the same step, at the same time, in the same way, is beyond beginning and ending and is beyond before and after.”

The problem is trying locate anything that doesn’t move or change, anything that’s inherently and independently real, anything against which we can measure everything else.

In our daily lives, much of the time we locate the sense of permanence within ourselves. We move around with respect to our homes, cars, spouses, places of work, Zen Center, and meditation cushions.  We’re the subject, navigating the landscape of our life, hurrying, or working, or relaxing. Sometimes the landscape changes and surprises us – delighting or upsetting us. Everything is relative to us. The world revolves around us.

This is our instinctive mode of operation. There’s no blame involved here. Of course, Buddhism explains why this mode of operation is ultimately unsatisfactory (see Class #2).

At other times we locate the sense of permanence outside of ourselves. Other things – our homes, cars, spouses, places of work, Zen Center, and meditation cushions – seem more real than we are. We grasp these apparently real, permanent, reliable things and try to orient ourselves. Who are we? This kind of question often arises when our sense of self has radically shifted for some reason.

This is obviously a troubling, dissatisfying way to operate, because those things outside us aren’t real either. (Again, see Class #2.)

What is it like when we stop trying to identify anything as permanent, fixed, or inherently real?

We wake up to life. We don’t have to figure out what’s moving relative to what; everything is relative to everything else. We don’t pin our hopes on finding something permanent, which is a great relief. We let go of the inner struggle to make sense of things, and instead live adventurously, on the edge of change, with full appreciation of impermanence. “We intimately practice and return right here.” Right here – the only place life actually is. We ride along in the boat, experiencing the unfolding of life, without having to create a narrative about what’s happening.

What does this look and feel like in everyday life? When you find yourself stuck in your personal narrative (as Barry Magid says in his book Ordinary Mind, when you’re caught in the delusion of the “isolated mind”), you look up and notice what’s around you. When you find yourself pulled toward this and that, hoping it will make you happy or give you the relief you seek, you also look up and notice what’s around you.

Whatever kind of effort you find yourself making to find something fixed, you simply notice that’s what you’re doing. Then, hopefully, you will have spent long enough in spiritual practice to have the faith to let go of your effort – to stop trying to make sense of things, or get ahead of life. Then you wake up to life as it is, which isn’t fixed, but it is real. You breathe a sigh of relief, no matter what’s going on, because real you can actually deal with.

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

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