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Genjokoan #1: The Meaning of the Title, “Genjokoan”

Okumura sensei says the Japanese character Genjo means “reality actually and presently taking place” and Koan refers to the intersection of the two aspects of reality: the individual/relative and the universal/absolute. Therefore, Genjokoan means “to answer the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity.”

My “translation” of the meaning of Genjokoan: Actualizing the simultaneous truths of unity and difference in your life.

These two sides of reality sometimes appear to be in contradiction, or at the very least we experience one side and then the other, bouncing between the two. Genjokoan is about our practice with this. How do we live in harmony with – not just understand – the two aspects of reality, which are simultaneously true and mutually interdependent? This is a central question in our Zen practice, which is why Dogen’s essay “Genjokoan” is so widely revered and studied.

Ask yourself deeply, “What does this koan/question mean to me? How does it manifest? Why should I care? Are there any moments in my life when I honor the absolute and the relative in the same moment?”

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? Keep reading…

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. Keep reading…

Genjokoan #4: Our Relationship with All Things in the Universe

[From the Genjokoan:] Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization. 

At my Zen center right now we’re studying one of the most treasured Zen texts: Zen master Dogen’s essay “Genjokoan.” This week we’re focusing on this passage:

“Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.” (translation by Shohaku Okumura)

To understand this passage, you first need to consider the two aspects of reality:

Unity (also called the “Absolute”) – Everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality; this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious just as it is; it is not compared to anything and is therefore not lacking anything; it does not depend on anything being any particular way, and therefore is not dependent on our achieving/attaining/finishing anything.

Difference (also called the “Relative”) – The reality of differentiation and manifestation; although each and every being and thing is part of a larger whole and is empty of any inherent, enduring self-nature, each thing also exists in a very real way; there is no life, no Being without the relative, and when Being manifests it’s always in a relative way; there is nothing to be absolute, complete, luminous, and precious without the relative. In the reality of difference there are things to be achieved/attained/finished that help relieve suffering.

Then you need to recognize what Zen practice is about:

Genjokoan, or “Actualizing the simultaneous truths of unity and difference in your life” (my translation) – This is our spiritual practice, and it isn’t easy, but it’s the way to authenticity, effectiveness, and liberation. The Relative is what we’re usually aware of and can’t see beyond. In practice we seek to directly perceive the Absolute as well, by momentarily letting go of all differentiation: self vs other, good vs bad, worldly vs spiritual, sentient vs insentient, etc. Then we have to actualize in our daily lives these two simultaneously true and mutually dependent realities. That is, not just understand them intellectually, but enact and live them.

Okay, so what about flowers falling, and conveying oneself around or not? What is Dogen talking about? I thought it might be helpful to give you a real-life example: mine.

My Story about Oneness with a Flower   Keep Reading…

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 like. 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? Keep reading…

Genjokoan #6: Our Experience of Absolute and Relative

[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? Keep reading…

Genjokoan #7: Learning the Self

[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? Keep reading…

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

[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.” Keep reading…

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

 [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? Keep reading…

Genjokoan #10: The Individual Versus the Universal

 [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. Keep reading…

Genjokoan #11: The Nature of Truth

 [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. Keep reading…

Genjokoan #12: We Don’t Have to Be Other Than What We Are

 [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… 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… 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. Keep reading…

Genjokoan #13: If Everything’s Okay, Why Do Anything?

[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. Keep reading…