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Genjokoan #11: The Nature of Truth

Ocean from Pixabay [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.

Genjokoan #10: The Individual Versus the Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genjokoan #9: The Nature of Life-and-Death

Firewood from Pixabay

 [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.

Genjokoan #8: The Paradox of Seeking, and Everything Is Moving

Boat from Pixabay

[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.

Genjokoan #7: Learning the Self

Self pic from Pixabay

[From the Genjokoan:] To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.

As Shohaku Okumura says in Realizing Genjokoan, the word translated as “to study” is narau, which means “to get accustomed to,” or “to become familiar with.” This isn’t intellectual study.

To put it another way, “to become familiar with the Buddha Way is to become familiar with the self.” I also like the translation “to learn,” which makes it, “to learn the Buddha Way is to learn the self.”

What is the nature of this self we are becoming familiar with, or learning?

We are taught in Buddhism that we should see beyond, and let go of attachment to, our “small” self – the karmically conditioned self, the self of details and relative relationships: our body, thoughts, emotions, opinions, desires, possessions, abilities, etc.

Do we study this “self”? Isn’t the point to forget that self? Aren’t we told from the beginning that this small self is empty of inherent, enduring self-nature and doesn’t even really exist the way we think it does?

But we do study the Buddha Way, at first, by studying the small self. It’s the only self we know. And we “study” it even though, as Okumura points out, this suggests a separation between “I,” “the self,” and the “Buddha Way” – and there really is no such separation. At first, however, we feel there is – and that’s where we have to start.

In zazen, and in whatever stillness we can summon in the rest of our life, we pay attention to ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting caught up in the details, but observing carefully. What do we think? What do we feel? What triggers us? When do we feel small and defensive, and when do we feel relaxed and intimate? Why do we feel what we feel? What do we fear? What do we hope for? Who do we think we are? What is it like when our self-consciousness falls away for a moment? What makes that happen?

We don’t have to intellectually investigate these questions, and we don’t have to go through them systematically like a course of required study. We just cultivate awareness of what’s going on in our life. We become familiar with our own living.

The online Oxford dictionary ( defines self in three ways:

  1. A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
  2. A person’s particular nature or personality; the qualities that make a person individual or unique.
  3. One’s own interests or pleasure.

We let these conventional aspects of self go when we sit zazen. Eventually we start to see how ephemeral all the aspects of small self are. We gain insight when we manage to maintain awareness through moments when, as Okumura says, we open the hand of thought and we are nobody.

And yet – we’re still there. Who’s still there? Why do we continue to talk about self? Why does Dogen say, “Sitting is itself the true form of the self?” Why does he say “All things coming and carrying our practice-enlightenment through the self is realization?”

Even though in a moment of prajna all things participate in this reality together and it’s not a matter of self realizing something outside of self…

there remains an aspect of our experience that can be called self.

It’s the self that, as Okumura says, is “one with the universe,” but it somehow still makes sense to refer to self. Why? When the self is one with the universe, doesn’t that mean self is obliterated because there is no individuality? Doesn’t that mean there is essentially no self? Isn’t self an illusion?

What self is left, and what does self mean if it isn’t about distinguishing us from others?

I think our deeper self, our “true” self, our self which is one with the universe, is more or less synonymous with life. Or, more accurately, living – because it’s about moment to moment unfolding, not a concept that can be delineated and put on a shelf (such that you could place “life” in a box next to “death” or “non-life”).

Our actual experience of living in a moment of prajna is the interpenetration of absolute and relative. Our life is not our own, our experience of living is without boundary. There is no territory that belongs exclusively to the self. And yet there is living, and that living is manifesting, in part, through our body and mind.

However, we don’t think about our unique body and mind in a moment of prajna. We don’t reflect, “Wow, look at that, the universal manifesting through my small self! So really, the universal depends on my small self to manifest! Cool, I do exist!”

Instead, in a moment of prajna you just are. Yes, there’s a body and mind there, but ultimately there are no distinct things such as you, body, mind, universe, moment, or prajna.

We sometimes call this aliveness “self” (often self with a capital “S,” or “true self”) in order to point to the vivid reality of direct experience. You can only participate in reality using your body and mind. You can’t leap into another realm of existence. Your aliveness remains, you simply recognize all things are also aliveness. So in some senses this is about an expanded sense of self – but with no central reference point.

At the same time, body and mind – as concepts we cling to – have to drop off. We get there through studying the self however we know how to experience it. At first this may be mundane and rather grueling, like having to sit in the middle of your own mess and look at it without any distraction at all.

Gradually we become more familiar with self, and look beyond our limited sense of it. “What more is there?” We wonder. We finally get so fascinated by living this moment that we forget the details of our lives. Then all things participate with us in a moment of pure reality, and we finally identify with Something Greater. (Or, as Dogen says, we are verified by all things.) At the same time, our delusive identification with the details of our small self drops away. It has to.

What does this mean to our everyday practice? That our way, the Buddha Way, is to fully explore the matter of our living. Who are you? Do you know? Are you willing to let all things verify you? Don’t you want that kind of intimacy? It’s not far away, it’s right here.

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

Genjokoan #6: Our Experience of Absolute and Relative

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.

Genjokoan #5: What is the Nature of Awakening?

[From the Genjokoan:] Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion. When buddhas are truly buddhas they don’t need to perceive they are buddhas; however, they are enlightened buddhas and they continue actualizing buddha.

Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas.

Buddhas are awakened beings. We wonder what buddhas are like, and what awakening is life. We imagine that if we are awakened we will “wake up to” some great reality that’s different from the reality we already know. We imagine we’ll see in what way everything is perfect just as it is, or how all is one and we are not separate from anything, and therefore we’ll feel inspired to shed our egocentricity and self-concern.

But in a moment of awakening there is only awakening to the way we obscure reality from ourselves – therefore each person’s path is their own, and unique. We are not awakening to a great abstract philosophical view, we are waking up from our own self-imposed dream.

Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings.

There is a difference in our subjective experience in a moment of awakening, and in a moment when we are just a living being – that is, caught up in believing in our self-imposed dream. This is being greatly deluded. Sometimes the dream is pleasant, sometimes it’s not.

And yet even when we are deluded we are in realization. What does this mean? If we don’t realize, what does it mean to be in realization, and what good does it do us? Who is realizing what?

If in the moment of awakening there is no one to realize – there is just life as it is, a complete whole – realization is not something that happens to people. It’s simply true reality. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about “being in” realization this way, with no one to realize, but because of true reality there always exists the potential of realization. We are constantly surrounded by the stuff of realization.

This is like the old Buddhist story of the man with the jewel sewn inside his cloak. While he’s sleeping at a friend’s house, the host sews a valuable jewel into his cloak. The cloaked man then wanders for many years, slipping into deep poverty and despondency. Eventually he visits his friend again, only to have the friend show him how was carrying wealth with him all the time, sewn into his cloak. The man had lived as if he was poor even though he was wealthy. There was a big difference in his subjective experience before and after realizing his wealth, but the reality had not changed.

When we are living in poverty despite the jewel in our coats, we are living beings. This is not pejorative, it’s just an observation.

Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.

Dogen can’t be satisfied with a tidy analogy. If he left us with buddhas realizing delusion and living beings being deluded about, or in, realization, that would be too easy. We’d fall into dualistic thinking, wondering if we’re really awake or not, or whether we’ve found the jewel in our cloak or not. Am I a living being at this moment, or a buddha? Oh, I guess if I’m thinking about it, I’m a living being.

So he goes further: the moment we become aware of awakening, we inhabit the world of living beings again. Just being, moment after moment, is realization beyond realization.

And then we may pity ourselves because we’re just living beings at any given moment, but if we know there are moments of awakening, we are not completely deluded. At other times we are lost in delusion and believe that’s all there is in life – this is being deluded within delusion.

When buddhas are truly buddhas they don’t need to perceive they are buddhas;

This is really about what we hope for: that we will reach oneness or awakening or whatever and be able to know it – to contrast our experience as a buddha with that of our experience as a living being and say, “Oh, this is much better.” When we are living beings we imagine that when we manage to become buddhas we will be fundamentally better people, or in possession of something special.  But this is not the nature of awakening.

However, we don’t need to perceive we are buddhas, or awakened, in order for buddhahood or awakening to be wonderful, essential, and worthwhile. That’s all we care about, after all. This is why Dogen says need, not just “they don’t perceive they are buddhas” – which is also true, but not the point here, because:

however,[even though they do not perceive they are buddhas] they are enlightened buddhas and they continue actualizing buddha.

Somehow, being awakened does not involve a consciousness of being awakened, but there is still awakening. Think about this. How can this be? How can we be awake without having a sense that “I” am awake? Sometimes we lose our sense of self-consciousness in activity, entertainment, or thinking, but then we cannot be said to be awake in this liberative sense.

How can we be awake – engaged, aware, alive, ready – without self-consciousness? This is our koan, or the big question in our Zen practice. We explore this question for ourselves in our zazen, in retreats, in our daily lives. It’s because this question is so central that we study the Genjokoan.

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


Genjokoan #3: Mahayana Teachings and Dogen’s Take on the Great Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genjokoan #2: The Basic Buddhist Teachings

[From the Genjokoan:] When all dharmas are the Buddha Dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings.

Okumura explains that the first sentence here refers to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha – basic Buddhism, in other words.

To begin, then, let’s explore why the original Buddhist teachings are liberating. Essentially, they teach us that all things are impermanent, without an inherent, enduring self-nature, and therefore that no permanent refuge can be found in them. To seek happiness and refuge in the things of the world leads to dukkha, or a sense disatisfactoriness that can be acute or subtle. The original Buddhist teachings also give us practices for realizing this for ourselves at a deep level. But why does this help, anyway?

Basically, we want to live. It’s in our cells. We want to exist, stay alive, not die, not end. (As long as we are mentally and physically healthy, that is.) This in itself is not a problem. Animals and plants are the same, and they don’t experience dukkha. Why do we?

Because we have self-consciousness, which is really consciousness of time. We are aware of ourselves as beings who exist through time, and we are aware that beings – and all things – are impermanent and subject to change, decay, death. We naturally become very concerned about ourselves and our existence, whether we realize it or not. We want to stay alive, and know we are alive.

To feel substantial, we collect possessions, power, relationships. To feel alive we seek excitement, intimacy, novelty, beauty. To feel safe we seek understanding and control. To feel effective and powerful, we seek activities and work that affirm our abilities and worth. To feel spiritually connected to something greater – and therefore, perhaps, not quite so vulnerable or impermanent, we seek insights, equanimity, and profound experiences.

These are the activities of daily life, so what’s wrong with them? Simply that we cause ourselves suffering when we believe our life depends on them. All of these things are impermanent and elusive; if we take refuge in them we are doomed to samsara (the cycle of sometimes being on the top of the world, sometimes on the bottom).

We don’t have to live this way if we have insight into impermanence and no-self, but what does it really mean to have insight into impermanence and no-self?  Clearly, mere intellectual acceptance of this – while helpful at a certain level – isn’t liberating in any way that would inspire you to use the word “nirvana.” This insight has to be real, experiential, and personal…

My own personal example: I feel a great joy at being of service to our Zen community, Bright Way. It gives my life meaning, a deeper purpose, and it’s rewarding on a daily basis. However, if I feel my life depends on my relationship to Bright Way, I invite suffering:

  • worry about whether it will grow and thrive
  • possessiveness of it – it needs to continue to need me
  • excitement when things go well, disappointment when things go poorly
  • devastation in case of loss (unforeseen things like health issues, or eventual old age and death)
  • occasionally it’s not going to be enough to make me happy – then what?

Fortunately, I am familiar with another way of being: not resisting the facts of impermanence and no-self. Over years and practice and hours and hours of zazen, I have looked carefully inwards and built up the courage to really experience the naked self in zazen – moment to moment, without reliance on anything, only experience, only life itself. I have gradually gotten more comfortable with the phenomenological experience of impermanence, and learned gradually to relax into it, to take refuge in it.

When I do so, there is liberation from samsara (moment by moment) because I know my True Life does not depend on anything. We ordinarily think our life is contained in this body and mind, that it’s intimately tied to the well-being and happiness of the conventional self (if I am happy, empowered, safe, free, etc., my life is good and I don’t have to worry, but if I am stressed, sad, depressed, facing failure or difficulty, oppressed, etc., my life is under threat).

All of these things affect us and the quality of our life (they are, as Uchiyama Roshi would say, the “scenery of our life”), but when we stop conceiving of a self “here” that wants or must endure that “over there,” there is no longer a sense of vulnerability. We ride the waves instead of holding desperately to a rock and getting buffeted by them.

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

When Religion Refrains From Explaining “Why”

If religion’s purpose is to help people find peace and strength and to live good lives, which I believe it is, it makes sense that people would turn to religion to explain why terrible things happen in the world – particularly terrible things that happen to individuals that apparently didn’t do anything to deserve it. [Read More…]
Source: My Journey of Conscience

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