Everyone wants answers. We figure answers tell us how to live more happily. Answers let us fix things, while questions are simply problems to be solved with answers. Preferably answers come sooner than later because questions point to limitations in our understanding or ability, and they’re often associated with discomfort.
I think this view of questions is unfortunate, because the process of arousing and engaging questions is where all growth and aliveness occurs. We directly encounter life when we recognize something we don’t know, when we become curious, when we move forward into life even while knowing we don’t have things figured out. It’s well worth the discomfort, but there are many reasons we choose, instead, to stay within the limits of what we’re sure of – or overestimate how far our understanding extends.
Here’s a lovely story illustrating how someone can refuse to overestimate the power and relevance of their answers:
In the documentary “No Ordinary Genius,” Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of how he was taught to question things as child. He observed that when he pulled his wagon with a ball in it, the ball would roll to the back of the wagon. When he would stop the wagon, the ball would roll to the front. He asked his father why. His father responded, impressively, with an explanation of the law of physics that states an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts on it.
Now, most parents would be more than satisfied to have provided such an erudite answer to their child and they’d stop there. Feynman’s father, however, continued. “This tendency is called inertia,” he said, “And no one knows why it’s true.”
Admitting to ourselves that we don’t know something can trigger a sense of inadequacy or panic. To know is to be able to predict and control, to rationalize and explain, to make sense of things. To not know something after the age of 18 is usually seen as a slightly embarrassing situation that we can only hope is temporary. If we admit to others that we don’t know something, they are usually very concerned for us and try either to provide us with an answer or advise us where to find one.
Sometimes we find some good, inspiring answers. That’s great – but considering the universe is infinite, there will always be more questions waiting if we are open to them.
I once had the opportunity to ask my Zen teacher a question in the midst of ceremony that took place in front of a couple hundred people. I asked a question that had been troubling me for some time: “When he was enlightened, the Buddha said he awakened simultaneously with all beings, but how does the Buddha’s awakening benefit beings who do not see what he saw? What about those beings with heavy karma, or in whom the way-seeking mind has not arisen – those who do not experience the relief and joy of his realization?”
I was trembling a little because of how much I cared about this question. To explain it a little further, while I was fully convinced that spiritual practice can result in liberation and peace, I wondered whether such liberation was just a matter of adopting a particular alignment of mind and heart. Is awakening simply being able to see the universe as complete and precious (a view), or is the universe actually complete and precious?
If salvation lies solely in achieving a particular understanding or embracing a particular faith, it will be of limited usefulness in saving the world. We will never manage to convert everybody to the path that has resulted in salvation for us. On the other hand, if beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what – as our saints and sages tell us they do – then there’s hope.
Gyokuko, my kind teacher, answered me with a smile, “How could Buddha-nature not benefit all beings?” (Or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.)
My response: “But…”
Gyokuko asked if I could see our luminous, complete Buddha-nature.
“Yes!” I answered. “But…”
Before I could launch into another explication of my doubt, Gyokuko said, “You do not see It.”
I paused for a split second, ready to keep arguing, but then bowed abruptly in response and with deep sincerity spoke the ceremonial words that end this kind of exchange, “Thank you, great teacher, for your great compassion.” This elicited some laughter from the audience because of the timing.
For a time, Gyokuko’s answer inflamed my ego with a sense of humiliation. “Great,” I thought, “Now everyone knows I don’t know something so fundamental. Many people will assume they know the answer when they actually don’t, just as they might think describing the physical law of inertia actually explains what’s going on when a ball appears to roll when the wagon beneath it moves. They’ll pity me and think they’re more realized than I am.” But at some point I just set aside any concern about what others might think or about how my understanding rates in the world of Zen. Screw it, I thought, the only thing that matters is the truth, and wrestling wholeheartedly with questions is the only way I know to get closer to it.
After the ego-centered moment passed, Gyokuko’s answer brought great hope. If I kept engaging the question, I would see it someday. I would have the direct experience of how beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what, and how the deepest truth is not dependent on one’s understanding or faith. I would be able to tap into that in order to help save the world. And if I had never asked the question, my realization might have remained shallow.
Do you realize how many questions there are you don’t really know the answer to? What keeps us from opening our hearts to one another every time we meet? What is the nature of our experience of time? What is it inside us that always knows what is generous and kind? How do we fully face and appreciate the fact that we will die? Is there a time to fight? What is it that allows us to keep participating in destructive and unjust systems? Wholeheartedly engaging any one of these questions could open up a lifetime of discovery and growth.
Don’t be satisfied with half-assed answers. And ultimately all answers are half-assed.
Photo by tracy apps, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/4Exzp5, Some rights reserved
Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable
Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religious tradition. Many people find such a thing difficult to fathom: How can you have a religion without a God? Isn’t God what religion is about?
Fortunately for those of us who don’t believe in God, it’s possible to have a rich religious tradition without one. Even without a deity, Zen Buddhists get everything else a major religion offers: Traditional spiritual teachings and practices, scriptures and literature collected over the course of millennia, ritual and ceremony, religious community, mythology and iconographic imagery, initiation rites and clergy, and moral guidelines. While some Zen Buddhists do believe in God – and that’s perfectly acceptable in our tradition – Zen isn’t premised on the existence of a deity.
Still, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no God in Zen. While we don’t conceive of, or worship, an omnipotent personification of the Divine, at the heart of our tradition is the teaching that reality itself is luminous, precious, and infused with compassion. We don’t ascribe an agenda, personality, or gender to That-Which-Is-Greater, but we long to live in harmony with It, and personally experience intimacy with It. These longings infuse our spiritual practice with meaning.
In this essay, I’ll cover three related topics:
- First, I’ll explain why Zen doesn’t usually talk about That-Which-Is-Greater, even though it’s an integral part of Zen teaching. Because Zen is non-theistic, I’ll usually refer to That-Which-Is-Greater by using the terms “the Ineffable” or “It” (emphasized in speech, and written with a capital “I”). Of course, I could also use terms like the sacred, spiritual, or transcendent.
- Second, I’ll talk about why it’s valuable for people, including Zen Buddhists, to have a worldview that includes a sense of the Ineffable.
- Finally, I’ll share a Zen teaching on the Ineffable and give you a sense of how Zen practitioners develop a deeper relationship with It.
Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God
In one of my favorite books, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes, “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke’s suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.”
As someone who spent part of my childhood as a Christian, there’s still part of me that resonates with the word “God” more than with vague terms like “the Ineffable.” In many ways, theistic religions do a better job than Buddhism does of reminding people about the greater, inspiring truth that underlies everything.
However, Zen is very deliberate in its choice not to conceive of a God, or even to describe That-Which-Is-Greater in any terms that will tempt us to form fixed concepts or ideas about It. The basic idea behind this approach is that the function of our mind is to discriminate – to discern that from this, this from that: Food from non-food, safety from danger, self from other, good from bad. The nature of the Ineffable is unity, or oneness; any discrimination takes you further from an experience of It.
Zen takes what theology calls an “apophatic approach” – describing the Divine by stripping away any limiting concepts you may have about It – as opposed to a cataphatic approach, which seeks to point you toward the Divine using positive terminology, such as, “God is love.” Some of us are attracted to an apophatic approach because even beautiful words like Huston Smith’s “the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature,” inspire us to think that the Ineffable is superior to – and outside of – us. Zen practice starts with shedding our limiting views and avoiding attaching to new ones – whether the view is “It does not exist,” “It exists out there,” or “It exists within me.”
Deciding what approach to take with respect to the Ineffable isn’t just an abstract philosophical issue. It’s really about what works for you. For many human beings, the cataphatic approach speaks more directly to their spiritual experience, or at least it gives them solace and hope. To be honest, even those of us who have chosen the apophatic tradition of Zen sometimes long for some of the inspiration and warmth often found in theistic religions, where That-Which-Is-Greater is described and celebrated on a regular basis.
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”
For a moment, I’m going to set aside discussion of Zen, and return to my hero, Huston Smith. In Why Religion Matters, Smith makes a convincing case that all human beings operate within a worldview of some kind. Even if you don’t think you “believe” in anything, you still have a worldview, and it profoundly affects everything you do.
Smith describes three dominant worldviews:
- Traditional (typically held by human beings throughout the millennia, from the earliest societies up until increasing reliance on the scientific method),
- Modern (science through the middle of the 20th century), and
- Post-modern (since the middle of the 20th century).
In his descriptions of these worldviews, Smith points out that while modernism gave us science, and post-modernism gave us social justice, in many ways the latter two worldviews are very bleak compared to the traditional one.
Here are five comparisons Smith makes between the traditional worldview and the two later, scientific ones:
In the traditional worldview, spirit is fundamental and matter is derivative: Matter, including embodied life, coalesces from a greater ocean of spirit, or is animated by that spirit. In the scientific worldview, the closest thing to spirit – the phenomenon of consciousness – is limited to human brains, which are like tiny islands surrounded by an infinitely large universe devoid of consciousness.
In the traditional worldview, humans are the “less” who have derived from the “more:” Human beings, with all of their talents and flaws, are part of something much larger, and this larger reality is more beautiful and amazing than anything humans can come up with. In the scientific worldview, we are the highest products of evolution. As Smith says, “Nothing in science’s universe is more intelligent than we are.”
In the traditional worldview, there is a happy ending: The happy ending may come at the end of a human life or at the end of an age. In the scientific worldview, Smith says, “Death is the grim reaper of individual lives, and whether things as a whole will end in a freeze or a fry, with a bang or a whimper… is anybody’s guess.”
In the traditional worldview, everything is pervaded with meaning: Life was created by or flows from Perfection and is meaningful throughout. In the scientific worldview, any meaning we find seems subjectively projected (e.g. some people are lucky enough to “find meaning in their lives”).
In the traditional worldview, humans feel at home: Humans belong to their world and play an important role, and, Smith says, “They are made of the same spiritually sentient stuff that the world is made of.” Nothing like this can be derived from the scientific worldview. In fact, given our actions and destructiveness, many of us wonder if humans are scourge on an otherwise beautiful planet.
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health
I included Smith’s comparisons of pre- and post-scientific worldviews not because I am going to formulate a Zen worldview for you (that’s a huge topic and I want to stay focused on the Ineffable). Instead, I brought them up because I wanted to point out how bleak human life can appear once we’ve been converted to the scientific worldview. This conversion, for many of us, means we lose our belief in God, or our sense of the Ineffable. We then become vulnerable to something Victor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”
Frankl was Jewish and spent years imprisoned in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. He came out of his experience convinced that people were much more likely to survive the kinds of horrors he experienced if they were sustained by a deep sense of meaning in their lives. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl argues that having a sense of meaning is essential to our mental health, but finding meaning in our lives can be difficult. Unlike animals, our lives are no longer ruled by instinct and we constantly have to make choices. With “the traditions which buttressed [our] behavior… rapidly diminishing,” Frankl says, no instinct tells us what we have to do, no tradition tells us what we ought to do, and sometimes we don’t even know what we want to do. We end up in an existential vacuum, and often end up succumbing to things like anxiety, depression, aggression, or addiction.
In his book, Frankl quotes Friedrich Nietzche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” I think most of us have a strong sense that this is true. Those of us who no longer hold a traditional worldview may look back at it somewhat wistfully, imaging what it would be like to believe we were part of something larger, our lives were meaningful, and we belonged in this universe. How comforting and strengthening it would be to believe that God or the Great Spirit thoughtfully designed this world and has an overall, benevolent plan! How inspiring to believe He loves us and that our little individual lives actually matter!
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I
However, if we don’t actually believe the traditional worldview, we don’t get to just “go back” to it in order to make ourselves feel better. What can we do? Fortunately, Zen offers us some beautiful teachings about That-Which-Is-Greater, how It pervades our lives with meaning, and how we can directly experience It. To adequately explore these teachings – or even just give you an overview of them – would take much more time than I have right now, but I may devote future essays to the topic. Here I will simply introduce one prime example of a Zen teaching on what I feel is the Zen version of God. (Others may argue this point with me – and I invite you to send me comments because that will be a fascinating conversation. However, I suspect true atheists will see more commonality than differences between theism and the Zen teachings I’m about to describe.)
Many people don’t know it, but the great 12th-century Zen master Dogen frequently taught and wrote on the Ineffable, although he uses many different words and images to point to It. Dogen is certainly not the only person in the Zen tradition to have done this, of course, but I’m focusing on Dogen because he dedicated a whole essay to discussion of the Ineffable in his masterwork, the Shobogenzo. The essay, or chapter, is called Inmo.
According to Dogen translators Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, “Inmo” is a colloquial Chinese word that is used to indicate something when there is no need to explain what it is – like the pronouns “it,” “that,” or “what.” Nishijima and Cross explain that Chinese philosophers would sometimes use the term “inmo” to indicate the ineffable, or that which is beyond words. Subsequently, they say, Buddhist writers used it to indicate reality itself, which can never be fully conveyed by words. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider the best translation of inmo to be “It-with-a-Capital-I,” combining the pronoun-like character of inmo with the tradition of capitalizing English words when they refer to God, or the Divine.
In the essay “Inmo,” Dogen writes [the italicized it is a translation of Inmo]:
“How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the Universe, yet neither is ourself. The body, already, is not ‘I.’ Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant… The sincere mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment. Although the state of sincerity does exist, it is not something that lingers in the vicinity of the personal self. Even so, there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind. Once this mind is established, abandoning our former playthings we hope to hear what we have not heard before and we seek to experience what we have not experienced before: this is not solely of our own doing.”
Dogen’s writing is pretty poetic and esoteric, so this takes some unpacking. However, it’s important to realize that Dogen used words to point to what is beyond words, so explaining his writing in straightforward prose often misses the mark. I suggest using explanations of Dogen as doorways into his teachings, but then allowing the teachings evoke things in you the way good poetry does – even if you don’t necessarily understand every line of the poem intellectually.
To explain a little, then: we wonder who we really are, and what our relationship is to the rest of the universe. We discover that we can’t locate who we really are either in our body, or in our mind. Both are constantly changing, and not fully under “our” control. Although we experience undeniable aliveness, it defies lasting identification with the things we consider to be part of our personal self. We realize, after some practice and study, that we are empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, we are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions. “We” are nowhere to be found. (This is the Zen teaching of emptiness, or no-self.)
“Even so,” Dogen says, “there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind.” In Buddhism, the bodhi-mind is the “mind that seeks enlightenment,” or the part of ourselves that seeks something greater. One day we wake up and ask, “Is this it? Is there something I’m missing? Is there a way to live more fully and compassionately?” The bodhi-mind is established and we set out on our spiritual journey, but Dogen reminds us (italics mine), “this is not solely of our own doing.”
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought
Dogen asks us to consider where how this bodhi-mind arises. We are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions, so what inspires us to look beyond what we think we know? “We” can’t be ultimately located, so who (or what) summons the will to awaken? Dogen suggests the bodhi-mind arises because of Inmo itself, which is not actually separate from us (all the uses of “it” in this passage are translations of inmo):
“Remember, it happens like this because we are people who are it. How do we know that we are people who are it? We know that we are people who are it just from the fact that we want to attain the matter which is it.”
Another way of putting this is “we know the Ineffable exists because we seek the Ineffable.” This might seem like circular reasoning, where you state that A is true because B is true, and B is true because A is true, and then walk away as if you actually proved something. However, what we’re trying to do here is describe a real-life relationship rather than formulate an abstract logical statement. Huston Smith addresses this relationship in the following passage (from Why Religion Matters):
“…the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”
Without air, a bird’s wings have no function and would never have evolved. Perhaps we can also say that without the Ineffable, a human’s longing to have a sense of something greater would also have no function, and would never have evolved? However, if you’re anything like me – that is, skeptical – you may be wondering whether it’s just wishful thinking to suggest the Ineffable exists because we long for it. Fortunately, Zen doesn’t stop there.
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking
So far, our discussion has been philosophical. Inevitably, purely philosophical discussions about Inmo get convoluted, and unconvincing. This is why Zen masters throughout the centuries have slapped their students on the head with slippers, or uttered apparently non-sequitur phrases that called the student’s attention to the nearest tree or cup of tea. At some point, we have to leave behind our attempts at intellectual understanding in order to pay attention to our direct experience.
We know the Ineffable when we encounter it. We know It in our so-called “hearts,” which can’t be located physically in our bodies but seem to function as sensors attuned to the Ineffable. Our hearts swell when we witness incredible acts of compassion; when we hear stories of individuals who dedicated their lives to a noble cause; when we witness awesome spectacles of nature, listen to beautiful pieces of music, join in hearty laughter with a child, or read good poetry. Personally, I also think we perceive the Ineffable, or It-with-a-Capital-I, whenever we look into another person’s eyes, and that’s why it’s usually too intense to do that for very long.
In these heart moments, it’s like the clouds briefly part and the sun shines through. Or, for a moment, we remember what’s really important, and all of our petty concerns and fears melt away or are at least put into perspective. For a moment, we are relieved of our skepticism and have a child’s open, hopeful, innocent heart. We know love is real and the beauty of this world is beyond comprehension. We have a sense of who we are, what is means to be human, and why life is worth it.
In the scientific worldview, these “heart” experiences are just emotional phenomena we are tempted to overinterpret in order to give our lives a sense of meaning. They’re just little “pros” on the opposite end of the scale from all the “cons” when you evaluate whether life is good or bad. However, what if, instead, there really is a deeper, inspiring reality underneath everything, and our “heart moments” are when get glimpses of it?
There’s no hard, objective evidence to be had for either view, and maybe there never will be – so which view would you rather hold? For myself, I figure the approach that brings ease and happiness to my life is probably closer to reality than the one that makes me feel forlorn, isolated, and depressed. It’s like I have two wooden blocks, one triangular and one square, and I need to slip one of them through a hole I can’t see. The hole is either triangular or square, but I can’t tell which. I clumsily feel around and try one block, then the other. One of them won’t fit through the hole, but the other does. This is like choosing to operate as if there’s a deeper meaning pervading life; it’s not really a matter of what’s true in some abstract sense, and more a matter what actually works.
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable
Despite my appreciation for Huston Smith’s discussion of worldviews, I hesitate to use the words “view” or “worldview” when talking about Zen. This is because Zen is about shedding all views and experiencing reality directly. It’s not very helpful to adopt and hold on to a view – for example, to read this essay, form a view of the Ineffable, and then try to believe it or live by it. Instead, the emphasis in Zen is on developing your own sense of reality through your direct experience: paying attention to what your own heart senses, not to some nice thoughts you’re having about your experience.
One of the views we need to drop is our sense we are separate from the Ineffable. My descriptions of “heart moments” above were hopefully able to give you a certain sense of Inmo, but they can also leave you with the impression that the Ineffable is “out there,” hidden behind the clouds except at peak moments of experience.
In contrast, Zen teaches that the Ineffable can’t be located, sought, or discovered. Neither is it special, transcendent, better, larger, or bigger. These are all ideas we have, and they get in the way of our realizing the Ineffable quality of this very moment, just as it is. Heart moments aren’t rare glimpses of the Ineffable, they’re moments when we forget our sense of separateness – moments when we get out of our own way and perceive Reality. Once we realize this is the case, once we’re convinced that we’re actually swimming in the Ineffable like a fish swims in water, we can sense It more and more often – even in the mundane situations of everyday life.
Naturally, if the Ineffable is Reality itself, we’d like to hear descriptions of It so we know what to look for and what to expect. What is it like? Are we part of it? Is it boundless, joyous, beautiful, or full of peace? How do we know when we see it? Is it personal, or impersonal? Once you see It, do your problems go away?
Usually, Zen refuses to describe the Ineffable for us so we will stay concentrated on our practice, and not chasing after some idea. Still, one of my favorite Zen masters, the 12th-century Chinese monk Hongzhi, is generous enough to give us a few verses to inspire us:
“The place of silent and serene illumination is the heavenly dome in clear autumn, shining brightly without strain, gleaming through both light and shadow. At this juncture the whole is supreme and genuinely arrives. The clear source is enacted with spirit, the axis is wide and the energy lively, everything apparent in the original brightness. The center is manifest and is celebrated…”
One last thing: it may not make any sense intellectually, but even though Zen does not conceive of the Ineffable as being personified, we still believe there is something incredible intimate and personal about it. Dogen writes, “We ourselves are tools which [Inmo] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.” We are not part of the Ineffable in spite of being our personal self, or in addition to being our personal self. There is no Ineffable apart from the myriad manifestations of the universe, including our personal self. Just as the Ineffable shines through a beautiful piece of music, it shines through us.
Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Leighton, Taigen Dan. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
Nishijima, Gudo, and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Windbell Publications, 1996.
Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matter: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
Sit in a balanced, stable position with your spine erect.
Body and mind are one and posture is dynamic; proper sitting requires your full attention.
Instructions for physical posture may seem uninteresting or elementary because we conceive of our minds and bodies being separate. To meditate, we figure all we need to do is to get our body into some relatively comfortable position, and then leave it there like a lump of clay while we engage some “meditative technique” with our minds.
However, our practice is shikantaza, which means “nothing but precisely sitting.” Wholehearted sitting is our meditative technique. It challenges us to drop artificial, conceptual distinctions between the “I” who is meditating, the “mind” I am disciplining, and the “body” I am paying attention to in order to discipline the mind. I, mind, and body are all experiential aspects of one Being, who is taking a profoundly significant posture: upright, still, dignified, ready, open, and forgoing either grasping or aversion.
When we sit wholeheartedly, it is actually a rich experience. The appropriate posture can only be maintained with gentle, continued awareness of the body. Sights, sounds, smells, inner sensations, thoughts, and feelings are all part of our sitting. However, we try to keep our awareness on our experience as a whole, instead of being caught up in one aspect of it.
Be alert and appreciative, because your life may end tomorrow and everything you love is changing.
Imagine how you would feel if you really knew your life was going to end tomorrow. You’d probably pay alert, appreciative attention to whatever you were experiencing, even if all you were doing is sitting still and breathing! Even when you encountered things you would ordinarily find annoying or unpleasant, you’d probably be happy simply to be alive to experience them.
Contemplating impermanence is a traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment, and it’s not meant to be depressing or anxiety-producing. If this line of the Eight Verses causes these reactions in you, just skip it. However, see if you can contemplate the implications of impermanence in this moment, as opposed to worrying about when and how the inevitable changes will come. You will not always have this opportunity to breathe, to hear the sound of the rain, to see the face of your friend…
Energized by not-knowing, devote yourself to the sacred act of being present for each moment without agenda.
We think we know. We know what’s going to happen next, who we are, who our partner is, what we like, and what the world is like. Our sense of knowing is based on conclusions we have drawn based on past experience. These conclusions allow us to predict things, make sense of things, and maintain a sense of control over our lives. This knowing also cuts us off from engaging our experience in an open, fresh, intimate, curious way.
Imagine you were sitting zazen and knew that at some point during your meditation period, someone might burst into the room and deliver news you were eagerly (or nervously) awaiting. Wouldn’t you be energized by the natural inclination to listen to each sound and ask, “Is that it? Are they coming?”
Challenge your habit of tuning out your present experience because you think you know what’s going to happen, or because what’s happening isn’t entertaining, pleasurable, or directly relevant to your plans. Your life, just as it is, is precious. Each day that passes is one you will never experience again. Motivated by your deep love of life, make an effort to be present for each moment, regardless of how it serves your self-interest. Because life itself is sacred (that is, worthy of reverence and respect), zazen can be an act of devotion.
Do not brace yourself against thoughts or feelings; simply sit wholeheartedly and they will come and go like clouds in a clear sky.
When we are caught up in thoughts and feelings, we are not doing zazen. At the same time, we can’t avoid getting caught up in thoughts and feelings by employing ordinary means. We are only further caught as soon as we latch on to conceptual divisions and tensions: “me” (trying to meditate) versus “my mind” (chasing thoughts), “good me” (aiming for spiritual growth) versus “lazy, stupid me” (who just wants to rehash the plot of a TV show during meditation), or “holy activity” (such as being present this moment) versus “mindless activity” (being caught up in thoughts).
Zazen asks us to adopt a radical stance of nonviolence, nonjudgment, and loving acceptance. The practice is to let go not just of our previous thoughts, but also any reaction we might have to having been caught up in thinking. As we return to “nothing but precisely sitting,” forgetting about everything that came before, there is an extremely precious moment of stillness before we get carried off into thought again. The more completely and wholeheartedly you forget about the previous moment and return to sitting, the longer and deeper the precious moment of presence will become.
Do not struggle against forgetfulness; the instant you awaken, be grateful and throw away past and future.
The forgetfulness referred to in this verse is not the act of forgetting (or letting go) talked about above. Forgetfulness is getting so caught up in thoughts and feelings you completely forget that you’re even doing zazen. You lose the thread of your intention entirely, and follow a train of thought so long that whatever you’re thinking about takes on much more an air of reality than your immediate physical surroundings.
How can you stop this from happening? You can’t, at least not directly. After all, how do you remember when you’ve totally forgotten? How do you wake up when you’re asleep? You just do. Things run their course, change, and you suddenly realize, “Oh yeah, I’m sitting zazen.” It’s important to make this instant of awakening as positive and fruitful as you can: Be grateful that it happened and just return to sitting, as described in the comments on the previous verse. If you respond to your instant of awakening with frustration, disappointment, judgment, or by evaluating your zazen, you will only make moments of waking up less likely to happen!
How can you get better at zazen if you’re not supposed to do anything about mind wandering and forgetfulness except forget about them and return to just sitting? You arouse greater passion for being present, as described in the third and fourth verses, or you explore the next two verses with great curiosity and determination.
Sink below the level of thinking and be aware of your direct experience, realizing it can never be grasped, but flows endlessly.
We can’t fight getting caught up in thinking directly, but we can turn our attention to our faculty of awareness. We are aware of our direct experience in a way that is utterly independent of discriminative thinking. Below your mental efforts to parse things out, describe, differentiate, understand, predict, and judge, you are aware of your body, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts. This awareness is ever-present, silent, and intimate. It is the medium within which we navigate as living beings, even when we’re preoccupied with our mental chatter. When we remember what’s below the level of thinking, we recognize we’re much bigger than we think we are.
It’s important to remember, though, that being “aware of your direct experience” is not a place to stop, or something to be achieved because it will deliver a reward. “Ah, I’m aware of my direct experience, now what?” Our direct experience – our life – is a flow, and “being aware of our direct experience” is the way to be intimately alive, moment after moment. It is its own reward.
Settle into your true nature: boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond with wisdom and compassion.
At the same time, once you really, truly stop looking for anything else – once you stop expecting anything else to happen, once you’re really doing “nothing but precisely sitting” – the whole universe opens up to you. This is not because zazen is a method by which you work yourself into a special state where it’s possible to achieve insight. Rather, this is because when you’re doing zazen, you’re no longer separating yourself from reality and you can see it clearly.
If you know, from personal experience, that your true nature is boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond skillfully to whatever happens, this verse serves as a reminder not to forget. If you don’t yet have a sense of being boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready, this verse is not meant to discourage you by pointing out spiritual goodies you don’t yet have. Instead, it’s meant to inspire you to summon the courage and passion to look beyond what you think you know, and surrender yourself more completely to the practice of zazen.
Click here for a printable copy of the Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses, along with instructions for how to use them in your meditation.
Parts in bold are from the text of the Bodhisattva Precepts; parts in italics explain how we keep a particular precept during the simple act of zazen.
The Gateway of Contrition
All my past and harmful karma,
Born from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.
A contrite heart is open to the dharma, and finds the gateway to the precepts clear and unobstructed. Bearing this in mind, we should sit up straight in the presence of the buddha and make this act of contrition wholeheartedly. – While we are sitting zazen, we are not running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves; we let our karma catch up with us.
I take refuge in the buddha – This is what buddhas have done, so this is what we are doing.
I take refuge in the dharma – When we stop running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves, the truth becomes clearer; we are opening ourselves up to this possibility by sitting still.
I take refuge in the sangha – We sit with others, or because others have done so and continue to do so.
Cease from harm – release all self-attachment. – We may not know what the right thing is to do, but we have stopped for a time.
Do only good – take selfless action. – We are engaging the activity of just sitting for the sake of all beings – we are not advancing any of our self-interested causes.
Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions. – We give up trying to change anything for a time. Instead, we bear witness. We allow the truth to permeate and change us. We allow wisdom to grow within and inform our future actions.
Do not kill – cultivate and encourage life. – We are not trying to get rid of what we don’t want, what we hate, or what we are afraid of.
Do not steal – honor the gift not yet given. – We are not grasping after what we want.
Do not misuse sexuality – remain faithful in relationships. – We are not doing anything to grasp or avoid intimacy, but instead we make it possible to notice a deeper intimacy with everything.
Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully. – We are not speaking, but are perceiving directly. Our truth of the moment is silent.
Do not become intoxicated – polish clarity, dispel delusion. – We are doing without distraction or extra pleasure.
Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance. – Okay, we may be doing this in our minds. However, in this moment we are not making any mistakes. Over time we become more identified with this body, here and now, which is not defined by past mistakes.
Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue. – We are not saying or doing anything to build ourselves up or call attention to the faults of others.
Do not be mean with dharma or wealth – share understanding, give freely of self. – Our time of just sitting is completely useless in worldly terms, but it’s still an offering. It’s an offering of listening and looking. It’s an offering of humility and don’t-know mind.
Do not indulge anger – cultivate equanimity. – Sitting still is incompatible with anger. Don’t think so? Just try it!
Do not defame the three treasures – respect the buddha, unfold the dharma, nourish the sangha. – However skeptical we may feel in our minds, our bodies are enacting the buddha way.
[From the Genjokoan:] [The] Zen Master of Mt. Magu was waving a fan. A monk approached him and asked, “The nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?” The master said, “You know only that the wind’s nature is ever present—you don’t know that it permeates everywhere.” The monk said, “How does wind permeate everywhere?” The master just continued waving the fan. The monk bowed deeply.
The genuine experience of Buddha Dharma and the vital path that has been correctly transmitted are like this. To say we should not wave a fan because the nature of wind is ever present, and that we should feel the wind even when we don’t wave a fan, is to know neither ever-presence nor the wind’s nature. Since the wind’s nature is ever present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great Earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.
The “nature of wind” is buddha-nature, and “waving a fan” is spiritual practice. The essence of the question being discussed here is this: “Zen teaches that everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality, and this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious. Not only that: The universe is complete, luminous, and precious and you’re intimately part of its perfection whether you realize it or not. Realizing it for yourself is nice, but ultimate reality isn’t dependent on your realizing. So we don’t have to do anything, right?”
This is not a philosophical question, at least not as it’s presented by Dogen. This is about what really matters in life. It’s about how you should live, how you should live out your aspirations and embody your natural compassion.
Should you work on developing wisdom, insight, and acceptance so you can obtain some measure of peace and happiness no matter what’s going on around you – or even within you? Should you adopt philosophies, viewpoints, and practices that let you “rise above it all,” and maintain perspective and equanimity when life gets tough? Should you let go of your desire for things to be better in the world and in your own life? After all, desire causes suffering, so if you can just accept things as they are, suffering ceases.
Or, should you devote yourself to the practice of the bodhisattva? A bodhisattva vows to save all beings using whatever means she can. Some of her practice involves developing insight and acceptance, but it also involves trying to end greed, hate, and delusion – especially within herself, but also in the world. A bodhisattva strives tirelessly to perfect himself, even knowing that’s an impossible goal. He practices energetic generosity, and engages fully with the world. The bodhisattva path is also an essential part of Zen.
But what is a bodhisattva doing, trying to save beings and aim for perfection when everything is already part of one, seamless reality which is complete, luminous, and precious? Another Zen teaching is emptiness: everything and every being is ultimately empty of inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, everything is completely interdependent and arises intimately with everything else in the universe. So ultimately there are no separate beings to save, no separate bodhisattva who is fulfilling a vow, and no such thing as perfection.
Oh lord, what’s a person to do? I’ll remind you again: This is not a philosophical quandary. It’s about whether to accept your anger problem or try to fix it. It’s about whether to tap into something eternal so you aren’t overwhelmed by the climate crisis, or whether to devote all of your extra energy to saving the world. It’s about whether you should deeply recognize how someone you love has his own path in life, and how you can’t ultimately prevent him from experiencing suffering, or whether you should do whatever you can to teach, support, and influence this person so they can have a better chance at happiness.
Of course, the Zen answer makes no rational sense. You should do both. You should strive to wake up to the fact that Unified Reality is complete, luminous, and precious, and nothing is lacking. AND you should do everything you can to make the world a better place. In the ancient Buddhist Sutra, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, it’s said:
“Wise Bodhisattvas… reflect on non-production [emptiness],
And yet, while doing so, engender in themselves the great compassion,
Which is, however, free from any notion of a being.
Thereby they practice wisdom, the highest perfection.
But when the notion of suffering and beings leads him to think:
‘Suffering I shall remove, the weal of the world I shall work!’
Beings are then imagined, a self is imagined, –
The practice of wisdom, the highest perfection, is lacking.”
(Translation by Edward Conze)
How does a bodhisattva – how do we – pull this feat off? Helping, but not thinking of helping… working actively in the world but not conceiving of ourselves… this may seem like an ideal that only highly realized beings are capable of.
But this is a wrong understanding of Zen and of our lives. It’s not an amazing feat to devote yourself to benefiting all beings while at the same time embracing the fact that all Reality is ultimately seamless, complete, and luminous. What takes a convoluted maze of words and concepts to describe is simply our lived experience. You can furrow your brows all day trying to comprehend the significance of the master waving the fan, but if he takes you by surprise and you experience his fan waving directly, Reality is immediately revealed, fresh and intimate.
Think about it this way: I can sit here explaining and explaining, and you can sit there pondering and trying to understand. Or I can get up, come over to you, take your hand, and look into your eyes. You’ll probably be uncomfortable, although also strangely drawn toward this unusual expression of intimacy. For others in the room, the whole thing will seem rather dramatic, maybe weird. Very quickly, everyone will start thinking about how to interpret this scene, wondering what message they’re meant to take away from it.
But there’s no message. For an instant, as I hold your hand and look into your eyes, we break out of our mental constructs and into direct experience. Most of us get shy a moment later when we are confronted like this; our minds scuttle back to what we know, trembling a little before the enormous, bright expanse of reality. The most brilliant human concepts, theories, and philosophies are woefully inadequate for describing and predicting our actual lived experience.
In our actual, lived experience, there is no problem with devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to practice and benefitting all beings even when we know that getting caught up in ideas of perfection, self, benefit, and beings just gets in the way. It’s entirely possible to work for change without becoming attached to the results.
And it’s not just possible, it’s necessary. The complete, luminous universe is only complete and luminous because it includes our effort. How does the nature of wind, or buddha nature, permeate everywhere? Through our waving the fan. Not because we wave a fan, as if there is no wind until we do so (or, no buddha nature until we awaken it through practice). The moment of our fan-waving is a perfect example of the nature of wind permeating everywhere.
The moment when we place our shoes straight, or say a kind word to someone, or vow to release our anger and anxiety, we are enacting universal completeness and luminosity. When we see how this is so, we realize how precious this universe is (the gold of the great earth) and transform our lives (the long river) into something nourishing and delightful.
Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.
[From the Genjokoan:] When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When the bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole of space and vigorously acts in every place. However, if a bird departs from the sky, or a fish leaves the water, it immediately dies. We should know that [for a fish] water is life, [for a bird] sky is life. A bird is life; a fish is life. Life is a bird; life is a fish. And we should go beyond this. There is practice-enlightenment—this is the way of living beings.
Therefore, if there are fish that would swim or birds that would fly only after investigating the entire ocean or sky, they would find neither path nor place. When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality. When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualized reality. This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice. [For this] there is a place and a path. The boundary of the known is not clear; this is because the known [which appears limited] is born and practiced simultaneously with the complete penetration of the Buddha Dharma. We should not think that what we have attained is conceived by ourselves and known by our discriminating mind. Although complete enlightenment is immediately actualized, its intimacy is such that it does not necessarily form as a view. [In fact] viewing is not something fixed.
We the birds and the fish – living, practicing, and seeking. The water and the sky are the seamless reality within which we function, and from which we are not separate. This passage is about how we can transcend our limited self by becoming our limited self completely. This is very important, and many earlier parts of the Genjokoan were leading up to this.
For example, when Dogen writes, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization,” he points out that when we awaken to seamless reality (or the “absolute,” or unity), we participate in this seamless reality with everything. (Class #4: Our Relationship with All Things in the Universe.) Awakening is not about realizing something about the universe. It’s joining the universe.
Then, when Dogen says when we are “seeing color and hearing sound” with our whole body-and-mind, we perceive things intimately, or directly. When this happens, “one side is illuminated, [and] the other is dark.” I agree with Bokusan Nishiari’s interpretation of this passage: in perceiving wholeheartedly and intimately, everything we don’t see is “dark,” or part of the great, undifferentiated seamless reality. Whatever we don’t perceive is still very much present, and no real boundary can be drawn between what we perceive and what we don’t. Therefore, there is completeness in the act of perception, however limited it is. This is what prompted me to write:
“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.” (Class #6: Our Experience of Absolute and Relative)
Now, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to write that last paragraph based solely on the Genjokoan passage about one side being illuminated while the other is dark. Fortunately, I knew the Genjokoan also included this lovely section on birds and fish, which is where Dogen further develops the idea that we are fully capable of realizing, actualizing, and living in harmony with the absolute as a limited being, even though that may seem impossible. And then, not only does he tell us it’s possible, he tells us how.
There we are, little birds and fish, striving to live good lives and understand our relationship to the rest of the universe in order to do so. We struggle, search, travel, explore, study, strive, etc. We can’t help but feel restricted by our bodies, circumstances, and karma. Not one of us can step outside of who and where and when we are. We may gain a measure of peace and happiness by accepting our situation – by getting used to being a fish, and learning to be content with our little part of the ocean – but it can seem that by doing so, we give up the possibility of experiencing something greater.
Dogen assures us the we can do both at the same time: we can realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute and wholeheartedly be exactly who, where, and when we are. We can experience the great ocean and great sky right here, in our own little part of the ocean or sky. We can live the life of the universe as we go about our daily affairs. We can feel part of a whole, complete, luminous, seamless reality in the midst of our imperfect world.
How?! “When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality. When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualized reality.” What does it mean to make something our own? This isn’t about identifying something with our small sense of self, or exerting control over it. To me, “making something my own” implies loving, appreciating, caring for, taking responsibility for, and realizing my interdependence with something or someone. When we find our own, true place, we stop searching all over for it. We settle into our home. When we find our own, true path, we stop worrying and wondering about other paths and devote ourselves entirely to what is in front of us. When we fully inhabit our lives without trying to be anyone, anywhere, or anywhen else, our practice and activity naturally become “actualized reality.” It’s important to note that the term translated in this passage as “actualized reality” is “Genjokoan.” When we inhabit our lives completely, we resolve the koan of “actualizing the simultaneous truths of unity and difference in your life.” (Class #1: The Meaning of the Title, “Genjokoan”)
That’s all well and good, but how do we know whether we’re “just living our lives” in a limited, complacent, self-absorbed sense, versus “just living our lives” in a wholehearted way that allows us to realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute? Although Dogen warns us that, “We should not think that what we have attained is conceived by ourselves and known by our discriminating mind,” he also says that when complete enlightenment is immediately actualized, it is intimate. In a moment of wholehearted inhabiting your life in an enlightened way, you show up for your life instead of letting it slip by while you dream of other things. Even if things aren’t exactly how you’d like them to be, life feels real and vibrant. You feel authentic and present, and there is no question in your mind about whether you’re doing your best. At the same time, you are fully aware that you don’t know what comes next, and that life is fragile and fleeting.
Watch for the moments in your life that are like this, they can be easy to miss.
Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.
[From the Genjokoan:] When the Dharma has not yet fully penetrated body and mind, one thinks one is already filled with it. When the Dharma fills body and mind, one thinks something is [still] lacking. For example, when we sail a boat into the ocean beyond sight of land and our eyes scan [the horizon in] the four directions, it simply looks like a circle. No other shape appears. This great ocean, however, is neither round nor square. It has inexhaustible characteristics. [To a fish] it looks like a palace; [to a heavenly being] a jeweled necklace. [To us] as far as our eyes can see, it looks like a circle. All the myriad things are like this. Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see. When we listen to the reality of myriad things, we must know that there are inexhaustible characteristics in both ocean and mountains, and there are many other worlds in the four directions. This is true not only in the external world, but also right under our feet or within a single drop of water.
What is the nature of the Dharma? We should investigate this diligently and carefully, because, as seekers of Truth, we want it to full penetrate our body and mind.
Why do we want the ultimate Truth to penetrate our body and mind? Because we want to live fully, authentically, and compassionately. We know Truth leads to such results because the ancestors have said so, but also because we have experienced this cause-and-effect connection ourselves.
Over our lifetimes we have accumulated many useful truths. We have come to understand our own personalities, strengths, and shortcomings. We have learned facts and principles that help us successfully navigate the practical world. Through our personal experience – often painful experience – we have learned about things like love, loss, growth, stagnation, responsibility, acceptance, anger, and forgiveness. We develop philosophies and views that help us make sense of the often-crazy world.
These are truths that apply in the relative world. We all hold the best truths we’ve been able to come up with, based on our particular experiences and perspectives. These relative truths allow us to function, but they are like the fish’s sense of water as a palace, and the heavenly being’s sense of water as a jeweled necklace. Over time, this is another truth we learn: everyone has their own perspective. We may believe our truth is more true or valid than someone else’s, and maybe we have a point, but there’s no denying that the other person has their version of truth and they’re holding on to it.
The Dharma – the deepest spiritual Truth, whatever your spiritual path – is not like these relative truths. However, this is not because it’s a Truth that trumps all relative truths.
If the Dharma were just a Truth that trumps all relative truths, Dogen would have said, “The ocean actually is a circle, the fish and the heavenly being are deluded.” Of course, this sounds silly, but that’s because this is just a metaphor. The ocean looking like a circle – featureless, without reference point – symbolizes the view of emptiness, or an experience of the Absolute. Instead of championing this view, Dogen compares it to all other views. Why?
Because it’s just a view. An experience of non-discrimination – of experiencing the universe as one, seamless reality – is just one way to view reality. As a view, it has its usefulness, just like other views.
But the Dharma, the real, full Dharma, goes beyond this. The Dharma includes everything, Relative and Absolute. The complete Truth is one, seamless reality that simultaneously has “innumerable aspects and characteristics.” We are part of the seamless reality and therefore can directly taste its nature, but we can never know more than a few of its inexhaustible characteristics.
So what does this teaching mean to us in daily life? It means we should maintain profound humility. We can never know anything completely in a relative sense – not even a drop of water! The philosophies and teachings of even the greatest masters are constrained by their karma – at the very least by whether they were born as a human, fish, or heavenly being. Our most precious convictions are still just views.
And yet – this teaching also means that we should fully inhabit, claim, express, and live our various truths without shame or apology. For a fish, water is a palace. For us, water is a liquid we use to quench our thirst, wash our bodies, or place our boats on. As Okumura says, our relative relationship to water – and to everything – creates our reality. There is no real, absolute, fixed view, compared to which other views are false or incomplete. There is no inherent reality to anything that can be defined as “Truth” and then viewed different ways. In a sense, in the realm of the Relative, there is only relationship and view.
Is there anything that’s not a view? Or this world just relativistic and ungraspable, which I find a depressing thought? What is the real, full Dharma – which, when it penetrates our body and mind, robs us of any sense that we have It? Yes! There is! But I can only show you by walking over and thumping you on the head. Or insisting you drink your tea. I can’t express it in words, but LIFE is not a view.
Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.
[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.
[From the Genjokoan:] Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies. However, in Buddha Dharma it is an unchanged tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the established way of buddhas’ turning the Dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring, and we don’t say that spring becomes summer.
This passage of the Genjokoan is about Life-and-Death. As Shohaku Okumura explains in Realizing Genjokoan, “Life and death” is an English translation of the Japanese word shoji. Sho means “to live” or “to be born,” and ji means “to die” or “to be dead.” Okumura goes on to explain how the term shoji has many meanings and uses in Buddhism. It can refer to the period of time between birth and death. It can refer to the process of myriad beings taking birth, living, and dying over and over, according to the idea of rebirth. Shoji can also refer to the arising and passing away of life in the present moment.
Essentially, shoji sums up our primary spiritual concerns as Buddhists and human beings. Who are we if everything is constantly changing? What is the substance of our life? If only the present moment is ultimately real, how do we relate to our past and future? What do we do about death? Is there life after death? If there is no life after death, how can we avoid despair?
I think most of us expect our religion to offer us some solace when it comes to dealing with Life-and-Death. If it doesn’t, what is it good for? Only a small fraction of people feel compelled to understand the nature of life and death purely for the sake of understanding. Most of us primarily want to understand more about Life-and-Death so we’ll know how to live happier and more skillful lives; if reality is actually just depressing, we’d be better off ignoring it as best we can.
So is Dogen offering us anything useful for our lives in this part of the Genjokoan? I hope you’ll find his teaching – Zen teaching – can provide the strength, clarity, guidance, and solace you’re looking for – but I have to admit these things are not easily attained in Zen. Well, honestly, they aren’t easily attained period – at least not in lasting, stable way – no matter what spiritual path you’re on. Simply accepting nice, comforting ideas doesn’t tend to cut it when you’re personally faced with the reality of Life-and-Death. You really attain strength, clarity, guidance, and solace when you’ve personally wrestled with the Great Matter and glimpsed the truth in an experiential way. So Dogen isn’t offering us any easy, cheerful Buddhist explanations of Life-and-Death that will instantly make us feel better.
What is this Great Matter you’re invited to wrestle with? Basically, when you experience something completely, there is no problem. Experiencing something completely – this moment of birth, this moment of life, this moment of dying, this moment of death – means living it directly, without relying on reference to past or future. In one sense, past and future are present in the reality of this moment because of causality, but in another sense they don’t really exist.
For example, let’s say you’re dying. That’s the full luminous reality of the present. It may sound strange to describe death this way, so don’t get me wrong. Dying may involve pain and confusion and messiness and grief, but ultimately all of that can be okay as long as you don’t define the moment in terms of past and future. The moment you think of your past life and health, or the moment you think of the future you’re not going to have, you’re not directly experiencing the present anymore. You’ll feel great suffering. Of course, you probably won’t be able to help thinking about the past or the future, but that’s not the point: in the moment of your dying, solace can be found in wholehearted experience of the present.
Whether we’re talking about death in the literal physical sense or in the more metaphorical moment-by-moment sense, the practice is the same. We recognize that our concepts are not reality itself. We use our minds to make sense of our world and our life, creating concepts to explain and predict. We create narratives about our lives to create a sense of coherence and make plans. These are natural activities, but if we mistake our ideas for reality itself, we create problems for ourselves.
Creating problems for ourselves is what Dogen is talking about when he reminds us that spring does not become summer. This is a great analogy he has chosen, because a season is rare example of a concept we don’t tend to reify. We think, “Of course spring doesn’t become summer!” When we’re enjoying the flowers that appear only in spring and that dry up and die in the summer heat, we naturally feel some sadness because we know things will change. However, we don’t concretize the idea of springtime and think with bitter regret, “This spring is just going to die,” as if the spring were a thing unto itself, naively producing flowers even though it’s doomed.
If we can take the same approach to life as we do to the seasons, we will taste some of the solace Zen can offer. Whatever has come before this moment has had its own reality; whatever will come after will have its own reality. We can wholeheartedly do the work of this moment – cultivating as much wisdom and compassion as we can – without worrying about past or future except to use them as convenient concepts. When things change and we feel sad, it’s a natural response to loss. Even grief has its own luminous reality – as long as it’s allowed to change like the seasons. Something always comes next, and that something has its own reality, and its own before and after.
It may be that you don’t find any solace in the thought of wholeheartedly dying, or of wholeheartedly letting someone or something die. That’s because it’s not the thought that’s the source of solace, it’s the experience. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you describe it. Many Zen teachers have tried, and sometimes their words help guide people toward their own experience of wholeheartedness. But ultimately you have to explore this teaching for yourself.
What does it actually feel like let go of the narrative that ties past to present to future? What happens when you meet death eye-to-eye, without regret and without pleading? This isn’t a matter of learning to like the ending of things, or of cutting off your taste for life. After all, Dogen says, “flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.” Despite our love and aversion, we face reality directly. It feels pure, clean, and ennobling. It feels unrestrained: being continues, time continues. In a moment of literal death, the season changes but nothing is subtracted from reality Itself.
Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.
[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.