Norman gives the fourth talk in the Genjokoan 2017 series to the Dharma Seminar.
Genjo koan Talk 4
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
January 25, 2017
Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager.
I would like to talk about the line about carrying the self forward. It’s a really important point and a key to Dogen’s meaning in Genjo koan. Dogen says:
To carry the self forward to illuminate myriad dharmas is delusion; that myriad dharmas come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment.
Nishiari Bokusan says in his commentary that when self is used here, it doesn’t mean me, ego, my sense of me, my selfness. It actually means the self of the myriad dharmas.
So in other words, the distinction is not between me and the myriad dharmas. The distinction between me and the world out there, Dogen says, is false. It’s the difference between my appreciating that my mind is the entire universe and my separating myself, my distancing myself from myself. The whole world really is me; my mind really is the whole world. So mindfulness in Zen doesn’t mean I am aware of my thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness in Zen means, I am aware of the vastness of this world inside me and outside me.
On page 41, Nishiari Bokusan says, “To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad dharmas” is to look for the dharma outside of the mind. In other words, to think the dharma is elsewhere and that you are incomplete, that you have to do something, you have to be better, you have to do more. In our practice, we are simply trying to be our own life: really be our own life, without trying to externalize ourselves as someone who needs improvement or fixing ourselves to be better or get enlightened. We just need to be our lives, which means to be life.
Taking care of the world, taking care of others, is actually taking care of me. Taking care of others is how I take care of myself. And taking care of me is taking care of the whole world. There is no distinction at all between these two things. The reason I am bringing it up is because it’s also a practice. It’s a way of living: not coming forward as if life was over there, and you have to grab hold of it, but instead letting life come forward toward you as you, not as something other than you.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they don’t need to perceive that they are buddhas; however, they are enlightened buddhas, and they continue actualizing buddha.
Uchiyama Roshi translates this as “they don’t need to perceive that they are buddhas.” The other translations all say that buddhas don’t necessarily “notice” that they are buddhas. He seems to be telling us here that it’s impossible for a buddha to notice that a buddha is a buddha.
On page 180 Uchiyama Roshi says:
Relative ways of being, such as enlightenment/delusion, buddhas/ living beings, are all included in the reality of life.
He coins this phrase “the reality of life,” which indicates for him a life on a deeper, fuller level than the life that we can perceive or know. Most of what happens in our life is unknown to us. Our conscious life, the life of the self, even of perception and thought, is a small part of our lives, but yet we fully identify with that small part. So when he uses the phrase “the reality of life,” he means our whole life, which includes the part that we identify with, but also includes the part of life that we cannot perceive or know.
Uchiyama Roshi says:
Precisely awakening to the reality of life is enlightenment and living in such a way is to be buddhas. Conversely, being blind to the reality of life is delusion, and people living in such a way are [called] living beings. Therefore, this is not a dichotomy.
At the time of enlightenment, the whole reality including self and all beings becomes enlightenment. At the time of delusion, the whole reality inside and outside the self becomes deluded.
There is no place outside the self to observe the self saying, “I am buddha.”
If you have self-judgement, there must be two selves: one who is judged and the other who is judging. But he says, actually there is no place outside of the self to say I am buddha or I am a schlemiel.
Just living out of the undivided reality of life is to be buddha. All buddhas live out the reality of life. Conversely, to think “I have attained enlightenment, and I am a buddha,” this is truly ridiculous and nonsense.
So I am going to now give you a little bit of Suzuki Roshi’s commentary on Dogen’s statement:
That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance. That things advance and understand themselves—is enlightenment.
Suzuki Roshi comments:
When we have no particular, concrete idea of good and bad, we expose ourselves and accept criticism; that is enlightenment.
He is very careful to say, “no particular, concrete idea of good or bad,” meaning a fixed principal that we would absolutely adhere to and that is absolutely true: for example, a fixed idea of good or bad. When we don’t have that kind of idea, “we expose ourselves and accept criticism [and] that is enlightenment.”
When you think about it, we view the whole definition of being a person as the opposite of what Dogen is saying. Being a person is avoiding exposure and criticism. Right? Being a person means wanting to look good, wanting to be good, wanting never to be critiqued or criticized. But here he is talking about a way of life in which you would be willing – because you don’t have a concrete idea about what anything is, including who you are – to be exposed. And you’re willing to be wrong. Some people will like not say anything for their entire lives for fear they would be criticized for being wrong. Freedom is willing to be exposed and without protection. There is nothing to protect.
It is buddhas who understand ignorance. It is people who are ignorant of enlightenment. Further, there are those who are enlightened beyond enlightenment, and those who are ignorant of ignorance.
What is the content of a person’s enlightenment? It’s their own ignorance. There is nothing to understand but ignorance for the enlightened person. There is nowhere to go.
Suzuki Roshi says:
“Enlightenment beyond enlightenment” means conscious enlightenment is not good enough. You have to give up enlightenment at the moment you attain enlightenment. When you actually attain enlightenment, what you grasp is ignorance. When you understand how ignorant you have been [and I would say and are] –that is enlightenment.
So it’s not like we project some kind of transcendent state. What Dogen is clearly saying here is that enlightenment is fully knowing your own ignorance, not trying to fend it off, not trying to protect yourself from it. It is not seeing it as some horrible flaw or taint, but seeing it as the normal cost of doing business as a human being. It is to understand our human mind and all of its grasping and clinging, and no longer to be activated by all the grasping and clinging . That is enlightenment.
Maybe this is a little bit disappointing to us, because we were hoping for something a little sexier. But actually, when you really think about this, this understanding of enlightenment is better, because how could you ever think of sustaining any state of mind? A transcendent state could not be sustained. It’s impossible; the mind can’t do that.
So instead of a transcendent state, that by definition would automatically wear out, we’re left with nothing else but life arising, on and on, in ever different, problematic, beautiful, impossible, interesting, tangled and gorgeous ways. Completely unexpected life moment after moment. I think it’s a better deal. It means that there’s not going to be a guaranteed lack of problems. It means that sometimes enlightenment is going to appear as horrible illness or something really sad or horrible politics. You never know. But when you think about it, there could not be an alternative to that. The projection of some sort of immunity from human problems has got to be an incredible, escapist fantasy.
I am going to Nishiari Bokusan’s commentary on page 49. I will be going over the same lines by Dogen from a different commentary. Dogen says:
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddha.
Nishiari Bokusan comments:
If all buddhas recognize themselves as buddhas, there is a polarization of self and other.
For a Buddha, there is no self and other. That’s why buddhas can’t recognize themselves as buddhas. The Gakudo Yojinshu [a different Dogen text] says:
“At the place of seeing, knowing perishes. At the time of attaining, mind is suppressed.”
Perception and the nature of perception is a really important theme in Buddhism. What is seeing and hearing? Every perception or thought is by its nature partial and misleading, because it depends on the dichotomy of me and you. The dichotomy of the subject of perception and the object of perception—me over here and the world over there—right away creates suffering.
So as Nishiari Bokusan says, when you really see, there is nothing to see. There is no knowing. When you attain, there is no mind. There is no experience of attaining. It’s just life, the reality of life. We can’t define it. We can’t grasp it.
In practice, therefore, there really is nothing to strive for, nothing to look for, nothing to grasp. If you found something, then it would be another delusion. That is the main point of Genjo koan. Just practice. Be firm and faithful and devoted, and just keep on going to face another moment of the reality of life.
So I’ll offer one more passage, in the next section in which Dogen talks about this question of perception quite directly. This is a wonderful passage by Dogen; I love this one.
When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharmas intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.
Here he is literally talking about the practice of perception: hearing sounds, seeing forms, not in a partial way, but with the whole body and mind. Seeing beyond seeing; hearing beyond hearing. And then in his commentary on this point Nishiari says,
Only when the eyes are blinded and the ears are clogged up does true enlightenment occur.
The moment when the mind and object perish is enlightenment. There is no recognition at all such as “that is form” or “that is voice.” When we see peach blossoms, the entire sky and ground become peach blossoms.¡¡¡
So again, this is a practice. In acts of perception, to notice what’s going on beyond the surface levels of perception. It is most beautifully practiced when you are sitting and listening to sound. That’s mostly my practice, because when I sit in the morning, there can be bird sound, wind sound or the sound of the ocean. And just to sit and listen to the sounds, without being anything other than the sounds. Just being the sound. It’s a profound thing, and it really does shift your sense of what your life is like¡¡.
Dogen says that it is not like things and their reflection in the mirror, and that it’s not like the moon and its reflection in the water, where one side is illuminated the other side is dark. When I listen to the sound of a bird, it is illuminated, and that’s the only thing there is. Everything else is dark. The rest of my life doesn’t exist anymore. There’s just what is in front of me in that moment. The whole practice of perception, that’s being pointed to here, stands for the practice of our life. The myriad dharmas come forward and awaken me in each moment. So my life goes dark, and I just receive what’s there.
We think dark means the lights are out, but actually “dark” means the opposite. Dark means all things merging in the dark. So, in my moment of throwing my life away into the perception, the encounter, the moment, everything disappears. But at the same time, in the darkness of everything disappearing, everything is there. The whole universe is there.