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When Religion Refrains From Explaining “Why”
Genjokoan #3: Mahayana Teachings and Dogen's Take on the Great Matter

[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”
Genjokoan #3: Mahayana Teachings and Dogen's Take on the Great Matter