[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.