Norman gives his sixth talk in the Genjokoan 2017 series to the Dharma Seminar.
Genjokoan Talk 6
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
February 8, 2017
Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager.
When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.
I want to remind us all that that passage comes right after:
When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.
I want to give my own brief commentary on the first passage, because I didn’t find the commentaries too illuminating. It seems ridiculous that we think that the shore is moving and the boat is not moving, but it is pretty much true in our experience. We do experience that the world is changing all around us: time is passing, life is going by. We, however, think that we remain the same. We have the idea that we have always been here. It seems, in other words, that from the beginning, I have constantly been me. I’ve been me the whole time, and the world is just swirling all around me.
So to deal with this destructive illusion we have to do something drastic like sitting zazen – which is keeping our eyes closely on the boat. The thing about zazen is that it warps your ordinary subjective experience. Zazen eventually erodes your sense of self. Little by little, it shows you that your mind is just as shifting, just as changeable and just as unreliable as the passing world.
Usually we try to project and identify with something that is unshakable. We make a larger identity for ourselves: our family, our religion, our country or maybe, truth or justice or goodness or art. We think that what we see and feel is absolutely the truth. Even when we have a bad opinion of our self, because we think we are inadequate in some way, we believe it. I know, because I have the absolute truth about myself. It is really ironic, especially when the truth is bad news.
So we need to get it that the boat is actually moving. There is one thing that is completely reliable, one thing that we can always count on, and that is the shifting, changing, empty nature of our lives and of everything in the world. That’s the one thing we can be sure of, that there is nothing to be sure of and nothing to hold on to. There is no absolute truth that we can have faith in.
So both the boat and the shore are always moving and that is buddha-dharma. That’s what we trust. That’s what we have faith in.
This next passage from Genjo koan is very famous:
Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot return to 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 positon 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 [or non-life]. It is the established way of Buddha’s turning the dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing [or non-death]. 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.
Dogen is talking about the relationship between delusion and enlightenment. When we come with some suffering, we are seeking some relief. We’re thinking, How am I going to get from my present unsatisfactory predicament to a better one?
When you first seek dharma, you are far away from its environs, but at the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.
So in so many words, Dogen is trying to explode the conventional idea that I have to remake the unsatisfactory me into an improved, better, future me. Everybody has this idea right? So he is telling us that this idea is not true. It’s a very self-destructive notion. This is an impossible set-up.
So in the firewood passage, he is talking about delusion—the me that needs to be fixed – and enlightenment—the future me that I hope to be when I am not so miserable. Therefore, the passage is about time, because this me and the future me is a process I am going to undergo over time. All my efforts to change myself have to do with time.
…firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after… Ash stays in the dharma positon of ash, with its own before and after.
In his commentary, Uchiyama Roshi says:
“Dharma position” (hoi) means the Way dharmas are independent prior to separation between subject and object or self and others; that is, the way things are.
Continuity and change over time, as we view it, is not the way things are. Everything exists in its own moment, complete in that moment. There is a reality beyond the subject/object, self/other, past/present/future dichotomy.Firewood is not a step to becoming ash, and ash is not a continuation of firewood.
Firewood is just firewood; ash is just ash.
In other words, every moment is complete and full and illuminated in itself. The moment when we think we are deluded and we reject that moment, we are looking forward to another moment, and then that moment of delusion is the illuminated moment. It is fully complete in its dharma position and includes everything in it. We are rejecting the moments of our lives that we feel are lacking in favor of a future condition which we will never achieve. We are not seeing in this moment that a future condition is here right now. Whether it is firewood or it is ash, every moment is full and complete and all-inclusive. Causality, one thing changing into another thing, is impossible. Nothing carries over from moment to moment.
Uchiyama Roshi says:
When we say firewood becomes ash with the human rational mind, we appreciate both of them and relate “before” and “after” to one another, making a causal order. That is because we burn firewood and it becomes ash. The reality of life before such thoughts come from our brain is that firewood is only firewood; ash is only ash.
He says that when every moment is complete, when we are plunging ourselves into every moment and really committing ourselves to every moment fully, we won’t have a conceptual overlay of regret, guilt and desire. I imagine that every person is walking around under a tremendous cloud, that is pressing down on our heads and shoulders – this cloud of regret and sin and guilt, including all the character formation and the past traumas. It’s like we are walking around with a ball and chain, dragging ourselves through life. If you practice in this way – with no before and after – you make a fresh start every moment.
Uchiyama Roshi says:
To make a fresh start is to arouse bodhi-mind. Then, I arouse bodhi-mind again and again, repeatedly millions of times. After all, to live means to have continuous aspiration to make a fresh start each moment. We live and die with the power of the reality of life prior to any separation between life and death.
Dogen is telling us that we really do have to take a deep breath and realize that there is a fundamental misconception in our living – this cloud of regret and sin and guilt. It’s like we are walking around with a ball and chain, dragging ourselves through life.is important because it makes us suffer. It’s ironic that we are so arrogant and are totally committed to that misconception. If somebody tries to talk us out of it, we will argue with them. Because even though it makes us suffer a lot, we are very committed to it.
Uchiyama Roshi says:
Therefore, even though we say a person attains enlightenment, there is no such transition as delusion becoming enlightenment…
Right, firewood doesn’t become ash. Firewood has its own before and after. Delusion doesn’t become enlightenment. Delusion has its before and after; enlightenment has its before and after. Each one has its own dharma position that is complete in itself.
This is the essential point in this section. Delusion is formless in itself. Enlightenment is the formless life prior to any separation between delusion and enlightenment. All of us are living and dying such formless life. We are deluded or enlightened within formless life.
So there is no delusion or enlightenment. There is no life or death. There is only the full commitment to this experience. Giving our self to this moment, fully disappearing into this moment, is the practice that goes along with this philosophy, this teaching of buddha-dharma.
Nishiari’s phrase that I found really helpful is great settled mind. The conceptualizations that we have of our lives exactly serve to destabilize and unsettle our mind. In fact, that’s the pain itself. The feeling that the mind is unstable and shaky is the pain.
Here he is talking about a great settled mind:
Today is only today. Yesterday is only yesterday. This is the landscape of discontinuation in the dharmadhatu without self.
Continuation is on the surface, but underneath the surface, every moment is discontinuous and fully complete. Moments have no self. There is no self that carries over. This radical teaching about the discontinuation of every moment is found from the very beginning, even in early Buddhism.
You may think that Nishiari of the present will continue without being cut off because cause and effect or action and result extend throughout the three worlds. But this is an ordinary view. The Nishiari of today will never appear again, even in one million years. Birth does not become death. Death does not become birth. Birth is only birth. Death is only death. And they never overlap each other.
When you are alive you are 100% alive. Even if you are one second away from death, you’re completely alive. You’re not almost dead; you’re completely alive. And then when you are dead, you are not alive at all. Death and life do not overlap. Birth is only birth. Death is only death.
So instead we should have one direction that is all-inclusive; one time that is all-inclusive. Now at the place of one time, one direction, lies the bull’s eye of great settled mind.I think of it as renunciation. You’re renouncing this mind that is constantly being pulled around by life. You are letting go of everything but your full commitment to being alive in this moment. That’s what he means by “one direction, all-inclusive“.
This is the decisive point of the settled mind. Instead of worrying, you just die. Boom! Without any delusion. To die—Boom! Means to not be rigid.
So he’s not talking about dying, particularly. He’s talking about renouncing everything else but this moment. And when you do that, you are not rigid. You’re open to whatever happens in your life. The reason that he uses the word “die” is because the renunciation of everything else but this moment does require that you are really accepting death. There will be a moment when you have to let go. Boom! And then in order to be able to let go in that moment, you have to really and truly accept that death is a built-in condition of this moment of our lives.
Now it is specifically taught in Buddhism that life does not become death. For this reason, life is called “no-life.” It is specifically taught in Buddhism that death does not become life. Therefore, death is called “no-death.”
Life is a period of itself; death is a period of itself. They are like winter and spring. We do not call winter the future spring; nor spring the future summer.
Suzuki Roshi comments that Dogen is not talking about life or death, as we think of it, when he says: “When death is accepted as death through-and-through, it is not death anymore.”When we say death, we are comparing it with life. Life and death, as we know them, are exactly our conceptions of life and death. The actual life and the actual death are a different matter.
Because you compare death with life, it [becomes] something, but when death is understood, completely, as death, death is not death anymore. Life is not life anymore when life is life through-and-through.
When death is understood as “no-death,” life is understood as “no-life.”This “no” means emancipation or liberation. This statement points to the thing itself. It is not negative.
When we point out something directly we say “no.” Because when you say “death,” you are comparing death to life. When we reach this understanding, death is death, life is life. And death and life are the same. Both are conditionality of unconditionality.
Life is polluted by a concept of death, or life polluted by a fear of death. “The reality of life,” as Uchiyama Roshi puts it, or “a deeply settled mind,” as Nishiari Bokusan puts it, could be called no-life, absolute life, or full and complete life.
Suzuki Roshi says, “Life and death are the same.” We think, What? How can he say life and death are the same? That sounds completely crackers. How can somebody say this? And then he says, “Both are conditionality and unconditionality.”
Probably we would completely agree that we don’t think life and death are the same. To us, they seem like very different things. So maybe one way of looking at this is there is the surface, which is the conventional life that we live, and we can’t live life any other way but in our conceptual framework. And there’s the foundation – no life, absolute life, or full and complete life – upon which the surface depends.
There is no life without change and development. And change depends on time. The absolute disappearance of every moment is a requirement for time. If this moment didn’t disappear, you wouldn’t have time. Time requires the disappearance of every moment. Life and death, as we think of them, depend on time.
Every molecule in your body is definitely going to live on. There are no molecules that will not continue to go on in other life forms. Similarly, your consciousness, the essence of what makes you think you are you, is not erased at the time of your death. Consciousness rolls on. As Vasubandhu says, the transformation of consciousness keeps on going.
This is a way of saying that death is actually life. There is no death. Death is life in other forms. So life is death, and death is life. This is totally reasonable and scientific. So then the question would be: How would you live?
I think that’s our practice. We’re not kidding ourselves that we are now deluded and we are going to get enlightened some day, that we are going to pass from one state to another over time. Rather, we are committed to doing our practice. We’re sitting, chanting, studying Dogen. We are certainly trying to be present to our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions, our words every moment. And we do all this with a great hope that, little by little, our lives will manifest this truth that Dogen is talking about. That we can live our lives with maximum love and with minimum fear.