[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.