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Dogen’s Genjokoan – Talk 3

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/07/2011
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Norman gives the third talk to the Insight Yoga Institute on a reading of Dogen’s “Genjokoan”.

Excerpt from

Dogen's Genjokoan

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 7, 2011

I think what he means to say here is that we do practice not to improve ourselves or fix ourselves, because we are already beautiful, and we are already good the way we are. Nothing needs to be added; nothing needs to be improved. We practice exactly because of that appreciation of our lives, and we know that being what we are, we want to do that. That's our true expression that makes us whole.

So one final word of interpretation here about how this [the story] is Genjokoan, and how you could actually work with it, because it is such a beautiful text. You can just read it as a practice, but I want to suggest a way to understand it and work with it in a concrete way.

A koan is not a trick or a paradox. It's not something to get you to eliminate your thinking mind or your logical mind. It is a practice that would help us to see more deeply than usual our conceptualizing mind, to see beyond our usual conceptualizing framework. We are always having that framework. The idea of ourselves is maybe the chief linchpin in that framework, which we completely buy into. We are buying into the concept of ourselves, not knowing that it is an unsuccessful, painful concept.

The point of working with a koan is to be able to have access at another level to ourselves. Dogen, in effect, is saying in this text, "You don't need to go out and find a Zen story in order to do this. In fact," as he is saying here, "living every moment of time as a human being is already a koan. You don't need a Zen story from Chinese lore. All you need to do is look and see what it means to live every moment of time.

Time is already a paradox and a dilemma, because in every moment, we are both here and not here. Right? It's true! Every moment we are here and not here. Every moment we are being born and passing away. Every moment we are deluded, and we are awakened. Every moment, as he says, is sacred and immense. We can't see the end of it.

So to practice this koan, this fundamental koan, this koan of immediately arising being, is to return to the immensity of presence itself, which is what we do when we practice zazen.

So these are two methods for practicing Genjokoan. I have used these a lot with people. The first is zazen itself, returning to presence, but this can be done at any time. It is not limited to when you take a half an hour to sit and meditate. If you establish it on your meditation cushion, any time during the day, you can stop and take three conscious breaths, return to your body, and literally it is like a reset button, especially when you find yourself all knotted up with something. See if you can train yourself automatically to take three breaths and look and be present.

So that is one very simple technique to practice Genjokoan.

The second one is a little more complicated, but it is do-able. Consider your various life problems. We all have issues that come and go in our lives. Consider the possibility that when that problem arises, it is not what it appears to be. You know what it is, but suppose that is completely wrong. Suppose that all problems that arise in your life are actually genjo koans. This is the way that awakening is hitting you over the head. This is like the Zen master stick. I always say to people, "I don't need a stick. Life is good enough. You will get hit over the head. You don't need me to be hitting you over the head. Live long enough, and you will get your stick."

Suppose all problems are Genjokoan. Maybe the intractability of the problem is not the problem, it is because we are not seeing the problem deeply enough. We are not seeing it at this more fundamental or existential level.

The practice of Genjokoan would be to re-frame the problem at a deeper level, a practice level and work with that very problem as a koan. Sometimes when you do that, it actually disappears. Sometimes it doesn't disappear, and you now know what to do. You are not flailing around in a very small, circular concept in which nothing works, because when you practice it as a koan, all of a sudden you see it differently. Now other things that did not strike you as possible, become possible. You are more open, more forgiving, and you have a different perspective.


Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum

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