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Genjokoan 2017 - Talk 8

By Norman Fischer | Feb 22, 2017
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: Dogen
Norman gives the eighth and last talk of Dogen's Genjokoan 2017 series to the Dharma Seminar, Due to equipment problems the recording is only 27 minutes long.
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Genjo koan 2017 Talk 8

February 22, 2017

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


Tonight we are going to finish reading Genjo koan.

Dogen says: 

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the sky. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. 

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish. 

Besides this, further steps can be taken. Thus there are practice and enlightenment, which encompass both eternal life and limited life.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point for the place, the Way, is neither larger nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the Way has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.

Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the Buddha Way, to attain one dharma is to penetrate one dharma, to meet one practice is to sustain one practice. 

Here is the place, here the Way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of Buddha dharma. 

I’m starting on page 82, Section 13, which is a commentary by Nishiari Bokusan on this passage. Nishiari begins with the idea of the fish and the water and the bird and the sky:

A fish lives in the water and forgets the water. A bird stays in the sky and does not notice the sky. They are free only in water and sky

So this is us, right? We live our life and we forget it’s our life. We don’t notice, like a fish that doesn’t notice there is anything called water, even though it's immersed in water. We don’t know there is anything called “life,” even though we are immersed in life. And in being immersed in our lives, which are invisible to us, we are free. We are immersed in our lives, just like a fish is immersed in water. Nishiari says:

Our daily activity of the present moment is done freely without hindrance in this water, the water of dharma nature. In the emptiness of primary significance we fly around freely without contriving. As soon as we depend upon any scheming or manipulation we immediately lose the wisdom and life of buddhas and ancestors.

What’s the difference between our living immersed in life and the pain that most of feel in our lives? The difference is scheming and manipulation. The only reason we would be scheming and manipulating is for self-advantage.

On page 86, Nishiari comments on the line, “the boundary of realization is not distinct.” I think what this means is you can’t see a boundary. There is no boundary that’s discernible.

When we talk about zazen in the realm of thoroughly experiencing one dharma, invariably myriad dharmas arise altogether, study together, and practice simultaneously. Although this is not recognized, in fact necessarily there is simultaneous arising and simultaneous studying together; all dharmas and all practices are merged in darkness and practice in darkness.

That’s a description of the kind of zazen practice that follows from the teaching of this text.

This way of understanding zazen is that when we sit in zazen, we see that everything is arising in this place. Even though I am only aware of my own mind and my own body, actually everything arises simultaneously. And everything is practicing with me as I am sitting here on this cushion.

Everything is merged together in darkness and practiced in darkness. The darkness he is talking about here is not what we would conventionally understand as darkness, as something unknown or evil or problematic. What he means by darkness here is the emptiness of all phenomena – the all-inclusive emptiness of all phenomena.

We see our life; that’s the only thing that we can see. But when we have faith in the teaching that Dogen is expressing here, we understand that in this little, small piece of life that we can see, everything is there. When we sit in zazen, we are in the clearest expression of this.

Now I am going to skip to Suzuki Roshi’s commentary to that same passage on page 118.  I am going to read this at length, because it’s very interesting. Clearly Suzuki Roshi was not looking at the text and explaining it line by line. I think that he looked at the text, and it reminded him of a story.

Asahina Sogen was the abbot of Engakuji, a Rinzai temple. Long after he attained enlightenment, he got married.

I think the implication here is that getting married after attaining enlightenment is like a failure of enlightenment. You got enlightenment; why would you get married?

And his followers, I think, must have been disappointed.

Suzuki Roshi was born in 1904, and the ideal of the enlightened person was a celibate male. That’s how you can tell an enlightened person: the very dignified, celibate male, wearing robes. 

But he [Sogen] felt “something missing.”

As we said earlier, when awakened, you understand something is missing. I think what it means is he understood that to just parade around as he was, was not the correct practice.

So he wanted to be an ignorant, ordinary fellow after he attained enlightenment. He acknowledged his humanity.

In other words, get married to be ignorant, ordinary person. (Laughter.) So those of you who are not married should take heart. You are in a better shape than the rest of the people who are. Suzuki Roshi continues:

I think that is true enlightenment. He does not say so, actually. He is laughing at himself. This is very meaningful.

Once he resided in a remote mountain with his good friend, a Soto priest.

This is remarkable to Suzuki Roshi that an enlightened Rinzai priest would hang out with a Soto priest.

They practiced in the mountains because they were not satisfied with their practice. The house they built was very far away from the village. They raised their own food and supported themselves. His practice was so hard; after hard practice like that, he got married to his girlfriend. People who understand mortality and eternity, ignorance and enlightenment in a different way will be disappointed in him.

In the text, Dogen is talking about the non-difference and the non-duality between practice and enlightenment, between enlightenment and ignorance. If you think enlightenment is a superior state, then you get very disappointed when an enlightened Rinzai master gets married. If you understand, as Suzuki understands, the non-duality between enlightenment and ignorance, then you don’t get disappointed. True enlightenment is to see that there is no difference.

Suzuki Roshi continues:

But eternity is immortality. When we are a mortal being, through-and-through, we will acquire the immortal life.

When we are absorbed in the fear of pure ignorant practice, we will have enlightenment. After all, how to be a true Buddhist is to find the meaning of life in your limited activity. There is no need for you to be a great person. In your limited activity, you should find out the true meaning of yourself ... you pick up even a small stone, you will have the whole universe.

“When a fish swims in the ocean, there is no end to the water.” This is a very important point. There is no end to our practice. Because there is no end to our practice, your practice is good.

Because our practice is without end, our practice is always good, even when we think it’s terrible.  Somebody will say, I forgot to sit or do any Zen things for like 25 years. Many people I have met say, I was at the Zen Center 25 years, and I never did anything about it. Doesn’t matter. Your practice is still perfect.

Don’t you think so? But usually you expect your practice could be effective enough to put an end to hard practice. If I say, “Practice hard for just two years,” you will lose interest in our practice. If I say, “You have to practice your whole life,” then you will be disappointed. “Oh Zen is not good. Zen is not for me.” But if you understand what practice is, and if you are interested in practice, the reason that you are interested in practice is that practice never ends. That is why I am interested in Buddhism. There is no end to it. Even if human beings vanish from this earth, Buddhism exists.

Obviously this is not the institutional Buddhism that we think of as Buddhism. He’s talking about some other kind of Buddhism, some kind of fundamental truth about existence that exists, even if human beings vanish from the earth. Suzuki Roshi says:

Buddhism wants our effort always. Eternally it wants our constant effort. That is why I like Buddhism.

I just think this is so charming. I love it.

Until you are interested in this point, you cannot understand Buddhism. In this way—mortality makes eternity.

There is something really beautiful about the requirement for an endless and fundamentally hopeless effort. There is something very noble about that, this sort of endless hopeless effort. Because when you are engaged in an endless, hopeless effort, mortality makes eternity. And eternity makes mortality. Because to be engaged in an endless, hopeless effort is exactly what no person in their right mind would ever do. You are outside the realm of self-interest when you are devoting yourself to making an endless, hopeless effort.

In this way “further analogies are possible to illustrate our practice.”

Bird makes sky, sky makes bird. Fish makes bird, bird makes fish. In this way, there must be further analogies possible, further illustrations of our practice.  


Note: due to technical problems, the talk ends here.