Norman gives the first talk on Dogen’s “Genjo Koan” in the 2017 series given to the Dharma Seminar.
Dogens’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries: Talk One
January 4, 2017
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Welcome everyone to 2017. Happy New Year! It seems fitting that we start this new year with something fundamental to us: Dogen’s Genjo Koan, which you could say is the heart teaching of Everyday Zen practice and understanding. In 1959, this was the first of Dogen’s fascicles to be translated into English. The text was written by Dogen in 1233. He came back from China at around 1225, and it took him a number of years to figure out how he wanted to practice. He wrote this text for a lay person before he had established the monastic community that became the present Eihei-ji monastery.
Dogen comes to us mostly through Suzuki Roshi, who came to the Bay Area to teach people about zazen and Dogen. Suzuki Roshi had a very wide open lens on practice. He was a very serious and austere practitioner. He sat daily – every day no matter what. In the early days, he sat a full sesshin once a month. So he was a serious and austere practitioner, and at the same time, extremely flexible and open to whatever was in front of him. Genjo Koan is a text he emphasized, so that makes it really special for us.
There are three commentaries that essentially comprise this text. The first is a commentary by Nishiari Bokusan (1821-1910). The second commentary is by Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), and the third commentary is by Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998). Uchiyama was a contemporary of Suzuki Roshi. If you were a Japanese person born in the early 20th century, you were concerned about the west, as were both Suzuki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi. They lived through the greatest catastrophe in Japanese history. Both men lived during World War II, and this completely conditioned their take on Dogen. Nishiari Bokusan was aware of westernization taking place in Japan, but as someone who was born forty some years before the Meiji restoration, westernization was something he had to tolerate rather than embrace as something formative in his life. So his commentary is quite different, as you will see, from the other two.
Let’s go to Nishiari Bokusan’s understanding of “genjo koan.”
Genjo koan is the original self-nature of the universal dharma realm as it is. This dharma realm is immeasurable and limitless. It contains past and present, the three worlds the ten directions, delusion, enlightenment, all buddhas, sentient beings, birth, and death. It also contains all other things. Each and every dharma element turns into being, emptiness, liberation, and ultimate reality.
Being is genjo koan as being. Emptiness is genjo koan as emptiness. Nirvana is genjo koan as Nirvana.
According to Nishiari Bokusan, genjo koan is the world in its most profound and inclusive aspect. It includes the material world and all other worlds. It includes time and timelessness; it includes delusion and enlightenment. This one phrase, genjo koan, stands for all that which is present on each moment. It is what we’re experiencing right now, all the time, on every moment.
He then talks about each of the four characters. It’s a four character Japanese phrase: gen-jo-ko-an. “Gen usually refers to an appearance that has been hidden.” Phenomena, the phenomenal world, appears. A tree appears that wasn’t there before. So in a sense, an appearance is something that could disappear. It has been gone before it appeared and will be gone after it appears. So gen is an appearance that arises.
Jo, he says, means completion. So genjo means that each thing that arises is always impermanent – it appears and it disappears. But each appearance is fully complete, lacking nothing. Everything that arises is both ephemeral and complete. Genjo includes Buddha, Nirvana, timelessness, endlessness, perfection. Each and everything that appears is as a total manifestation of completeness.
Ko means “impartiality and fairness.” I think he means that everything is full and complete, without lack. On the one hand, you have unity; everything is one substance. On the other hand, everything is different. So when he says ko is impartiality and fairness, he means sameness. For example, two people are always different from another, yet each person is unique. This is true for each and every appearance, because everything is the same in that it is an appearance. And yet each appearance is absolutely unique. Every blade of grass is different from every other blade of grass.
That’s how you understand ko-an. Ko is the universal aspect of everything; an is the individual aspect of everything. This is our life, and this is the pain and the joy of our lives, right? On the one hand, every human being is unspeakably lonely; on the other hand, every human being’s heart is flooded with love for and with every other human being.
Genjo is the appearance of things. Right now we can open our eyes and our ears, and things are appearing to us. Often we devalue that appearance and forget its miraculous nature. We see that things are here, and then we understand that they are gone, but we don’t see their depth. We don’t see their being eternal. We don’t see the “just this-ness” of everything, the “suchness.”
We have studied the term “suchness” before. It is a typical Zen term to indicate that every appearance is much more than it appears to be. This may be one of the most important aspects of Zen teaching and contribution to the on-going conversation about what we call Buddhism. Every appearance is “just this.”It is complete and eternal. The point of our practice is to help us to appreciate this.
Koan is sameness and difference and the dialectic between them, that each thing is itself and also universal. In effect, “genjo koan“ is a phrase that indicates the radical non-duality of our lives, a non-duality that includes and honors and validates duality itself. Difference is an essential element in duality. It’s not saying that the universal is real and that appearance is unreal. It’s saying the opposite. It’s saying appearance and universality are one and the same thing. Everything is real and unreal. Everything has absolute value, and every single thing that arises is all inclusive.
The word “koan” also means public case. I think that it was a legal term. Legal books were full of koans, public precedents for cases. The idea is, just like in the law today, there are legal precedents. A certain thing happened to a particular person in a particular place, and a legal decision was made. This decision becomes a precedent for similar situations in the future.
So the stories of the old Zen Masters are like this. An encounter took place between Zen Masters, and it now serves as a kind of template for exactly the same thing that will come up in our lives. If we really understand this koan, we will understand how to live our lives when that same issue arises in our lives. The difference, of course, is that the whole essence of the law is that it is reasonable and rational; whereas, the essence of our inner lives is not like that. Ours is an intuitive and felt way of living, rather than something we can exactly figure out. So to do koan study is not a rational study as much as it is an intuitive, creative flash.
How do we understand our lives? Every moment really is a koan. Being and non-being are the same. Life is the same as death. This is the ultimate koan. Genjo koan is the koan of the arising of the present moment in its particularity and in its universality. How is it possible that being and nonbeing, that life and death, are simultaneous? That’s a koan. Genjo koan. It’s not a koan of a story of a particular event of the ancients. It’s a koan of the arising of any moment of our lives, in the circumstances of your life. So genjo koan could be translated as the koan of the present moment.
Now we come to Suzuki Roshi. This is Suzuki Roshi’s global statement about the meaning of this text:
The secret of all the teachings of [Buddha] is how to live in each moment, how to obtain absolute freedom moment after moment. This is the theme of the Genjo koan.
Moment after moment, we exist in interdependency with past and future and all existence. In short, if you practice zazen, concentrating on your breathing moment after moment, you will be keeping the precepts, helping yourself and others, and attaining liberation.
We do not aim for or emphasize some particular state of mind or some particular teaching. Even though it is a perfect and profound teaching, we do not emphasize the teaching only. Rather, we emphasize how we understand and how we bring the truth into practice. This practice does not mean some particular practice only. When we say “Zen,” Zen includes all the activity of our life.
That was Suzuki Roshi’s practice. So it seems that what he is telling us is that in Genjo Koan,Dogen is writing about an essentially open, flexible and responsive form of practice. This is what the dry, technical word “non-duality” really amounts to in life: flexibility, openness and creativity. It’s exactly beginner’s mind. It’s exactly “not always so” – not having assumptions, not holding on to this or that, but being willing to meet every moment and see what happens.
We will go on to the first sentence of the commentary by Uchiyama Roshi:
In the Shobo Genzo, all words should be understood as meaning beyond dichotomy.
In other words, beyond duality. Shobo genzois words beyond dichotomy. Words, big or small, have no meaning in and of themselves. There is nothing that is “big.” To a frog, a wasp is really small, but to a bobcat a frog is small. So there is no actual thing big or small; they are only relative concepts that depend on each other.
However, usually people think that there are big things and small things and never question this. But big or small in conventional usage only has meaning in comparison. This is truly an incomplete way of looking at things. When the word big is used in the Buddha Dharma, [in this case in Shobo genzo] it goes beyond such comparison and relativity. To understand words in this way is to read words as the Buddha Dharma.
Then Uchiyama talks about the syllables gen-jo-ko-an. He says gen means appearance, just the same as Nishiari Bokusan said. But jo, he says, means “becoming,” which is pretty much the opposite of what Nishiari Bokusan said. He said it means completion, remember? And now Uchiyama says it means becoming. Becoming is the opposite of completion. Becoming is a state of flux. We’re in a state of always becoming what we have not been before. We don’t know who anybody really is, because they’re in a position of vacating the position that they are in right now and then going off to another place. So this is why everybody is so miraculous and marvelous, because they’re not even really there. They’re just in the process of becoming elsewhere.
So becoming seems like the opposite of completion, unless Nishiari Bokusan is telling us that that’s what completion is. There could be no completion other than that. So the completion that we think that we are manifesting: I am me, is reallyincomplete. That’s me grabbing hold of something that I’m presenting as myself. My real completion is: I’m always in flux. Being endlessly in change, without ever stopping, is the fact of our lives. And that’s completion.
Knowing that that’s so and living that would be to have some peace right? And some deep acceptance and love, seeing that my completion involves everyone else’s completion with me. I don’t change in space; I change in this world according to what happens to me with everything and everyone. So my becoming is my love and my connection. As Suzuki Roshi said in the beginning of his commentary, we exist in interdependency in every moment with everything. And that is our completion.
Uchiyama Roshi interprets ko. He says, “ko means public,” and then he says “like government, to promote fairness and equality.” This is an interesting and important element, because he is saying that this teaching about equality, in which everything is the same, becomes transposed into social thought. That is a government, and when you think about it, this is really true. Why would there be a government? There would be a government to promote fairness and equality. Otherwise, everyone would just go out and shoot everybody else. But a government promotes fairness and equality; that’s what a government is supposed to do.
So in other words, let’s take fairness and equality as the purpose of government. Let’s make sure our governments now and in the future promote fairness and equality. It’s the perspective of order and love in a society, and the need for that to happen, and the need for forces to be countervailing when it doesn’t happen. It’s kind of an interesting way to look at it. But that seems to be what he’s implying here with ko.
An is the opposite of this. “Each thing accepts and occupies its unique place.” So everybody has a place in this life – a role, a situation. We might not like our situation. We might think it should be different, but he is saying, No. You occupy and use fully the situation that you are in.
Then he says,
The Buddha dharma is inequalityand keeping one’s position as total dynamic function. (Zenki.)
Sometimes we occupy our position; it might be a high position or a low positon. We don’t need to evaluate that or agitate for a different position. We accept our position, and we manifest it fully. Sometimes we don’t, because this is in a dynamic functioning. Sometimes we land on the one side, on equality and inclusion, and sometimes we land on the other side, on our unique positon, moment after moment.
He has his own translation of the total word, total phrase, genjo koan. He translates it as “the koan of the present moment.” Kaz Tanahashi has translated it as actualizing the fundamental point—the fundamental point meaning every moment. Or we could say, actualizing the present moment. And here Uchiyama translates Genjo Koan as “the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment.”
I think it’s wonderful because often there is an aura in religious practice of holiness, specialness, sacredness. But Zen practice makes a huge point of the opposite: No, it’s just ordinary. You know the famous koan, “What is Buddha? …. A shit stick.” Zen is famous for that. It’s the everyday, ordinary stuff. There’s nothing whatsoever exalted or special. It’s just you and I appearing exactly as we are. I love that about our tradition, that it has the ordinary, everyday sense about things. And yet, it’s profound. This ordinary, everyday stuff is not a big deal, and yet nothing could be more profound.
So the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment is genjo koan. But the present moment is never the present moment, as if we could catch the present moment, and there it would be. Of course, there is no present moment, because the present moment is always in the position of becoming the present moment. So genjo koan is the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment.
It’s really beautiful, this question of the ordinariness of the practice. And Uchiyama Roshi gives a wonderful example to illustrate this. Nothing could be more ordinary then air. Air is so ordinary you don’t even know it’s there. Who is thinking, What a nice day. There’s air today. Nobody thinks like that, but air is more important for physical life than money or diamonds. Although we cannot be alive for a moment without air, we lose sight of the fact that air is so much more valuable. There is no comparison between the value of air and the value of the fifty dollar bill in your pocket or a fantastic jewel or a diamond. Yet he says, “Even if we lose sight of it, we will not die from suffocation right away.”
So what he is saying is that genjo koan, the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment, is always in effect, whether you know it or not, whether you practice Zen or not, whether you are a total narcissistic lunatic materialistic or not. It makes no difference. You are just as profoundly ordinary in this becoming the present moment as anybody else. Everybody. That’s why everybody is practicing Zen without exception. And their practice is as good as anybody else’s. There’s nobody who has a better or more profound practice than anybody else. If we lose sight of it, it still goes on, and we don’t die from suffocation. We ignore the air, but we are still breathing anyway.
However, he says:
But if we continue to pollute the air for the sake of maintaining our luxurious lives as we do today, the time may come when we will suffocate. Therefore, it is a problem for us to lose sight of the importance of air.
If the koan of everyday life is appearing in our lives anyway, there is nothing to get that is not already here. There is nobody who isn’t doing this practice that we are doing. The only difference is, do you lose sight of it? And if you lose sight of it, probably it doesn’t matter to you. You’ll be fine. But if we all collectively lose sight of it, eventually we’re going to wreck humanity. And even if we didn’t have the environmental problems, it would be the same thing. If we all lost sight of this basically religious way of living a human life, we would just destroy each other one way or the other.
So, this happens to us. We understand who we are and what we need to do. We appreciate our practice, and then life gets going and we forget about it. We lose sight of it, right? I used to get mad at myself and everybody else for losing sight of the practice, until I realized that of course we lose sight of the practice every single day. That’s part of being human, losing sight of the practice
I think that this is really a good time for dharma. People now realize how important it is for all of us to work together toward the good, whether it’s just our families or whether it’s all the different groups we belong to. Whatever it is we are doing that promotes friendship and caring for one another, we need this more than ever. This is why this is such a good time, because there is more of a sense of its meaning and urgency.
So thank you for helping me out, I really appreciate it. I really do. So, I would encourage everybody to dust off your daily sitting practice in case it is on the shelf. Start sitting, starting tomorrow when you get up. Twenty to thirty minutes is good. And sit with genjo koan. Maybe a simple way is to sit with the question, What is it? – meaning this breath, the moment right now. What is it? What is going on here? So sit with that every day and see what happens.