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Genjokoan 2017 – Talk 7

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/15/2017
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Norman gives the seven talk on Dogen’s Genjokoan to the Dharma Seminar.

Genjo Koan Talk 7

February 15, 2017

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

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

Tonight we will talk about two verses in Dogen’s Genjo Koan:


Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky.

The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.


When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you may assume it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean and there is no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

Tonight I will select elements from our three commentators – Nishiari Bokusan, Uchiyama Roshi and Suzuki Roshi – on these two sections.

On page 77, Nishiari Bokusan points out that Dogen’s metaphor, “Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water” appears to contradict a statement Dogen make elsewhere: “Unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated and the other side is dark.”

The former crushes the dualistic view-point of the moon in the water. The latter points out that the water and the moon are truly intimate and not obstructing each other.

I think that what he is saying is that when you look at a reflection of the moon in the water or an image in a mirror, you are only seeing one side, and in enlightenment, you are seeing both sides. You are seeing everything in that reflection, and that’s why it’s not like the moon in the water or an image in a mirror. The dark side is also included. He’s not saying that there is a hidden side that you don’t see. He’s saying that in the illuminated side, the whole of the moon is included. He’s saying that the un-included and the included, the unseen and the seen, express one another. He is honoring their separation, and he is saying they express one another without obstruction.

Nishiari Bokusan says that the moon and the water are truly intimate and don’t obstruct each other. So on the one hand, there is only one thing, here and now, and everything is included in this one thing. On the other hand, there are multiple things, and each one reflects the other. And none of these things hinder any other thing in any way.

The image of Indra’s Net is the same; at every intersection there’s a jewel, and every jewel reflects every other jewel. No jewel obstructs any other jewel. So every living being is like that image.

Then Nishiari Bokusan says, “What is this intimacy?”

The moon is reflected in the water without moving a speck of dust or without changing a single form. Since the water is the moon and the moon is the water, there is no way that either is broken.

The water might be us, in which the moon is reflected. So enlightenment doesn’t disturb us. It doesn’t move a speck of dust in us. It doesn’t change our lives.

Further down the page 77, Nishiari Bokusan says:

The dharma of the entire dharmadhatu gets into this body that is five feet tall and this five-foot-tall body actualizes the enlightenment of the entire dharmadhatu.

The entire universe of truth is included in every human life and in every human story: the joys, the sorrows, the things that happen to each person.

In other words, enlightenment doesn’t improve you at all. You’re just the same person that you would ordinarily be. It doesn’t improve you, but you feel how the entire cosmos is played out through your story and through your life. And that makes all the difference! Instead of thinking, Oh, this pathetic, little life, and now it’s almost over and what have I ever done? Instead of that, you think, Ah, yes well, what a magnificent journey. Everything that ever could happen has happened, perfectly.

Later on, Nishiari Bokusan says:

This transcends large and small, wide and narrow, where large is not large and small is not small. In this way, the dharma of the entire world abides in us.

Comparing mind is the problem that we have. Our whole way of thinking about everything is comparing. So we compare ourselves to the “me” that we would like to be, or to the “me” that we had hoped to be. That comparison blinds our eyes to the full truth that is actually shining through our flawed lives. The whole truth is shining through.

Dogen says:

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water.

Your life doesn’t hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water doesn’t hinder the moon in the sky. So you are going to remain forever you, and the absolute truth is going to be expressed by that. No matter how much you struggle in your practice, or don’t practice at all, it makes no difference. This is not going to hurt enlightenment, and enlightenment is not going to express itself one iota less.

Nishiari Bokusan asks how we would live this? On page 78, he says:

Now you need to reflect on your own steps. On the conduct of each one of us, whether the matter is large or small, the entire personality, as well as the entire practice is reflected. Therefore, if you look at tiny things, you can see the totality of the person. This is a scary thing. You should reflect deeply on this and be mindful. One phrase is the result of a lifetime, one action is the accumulation of the power of practice throughout your life.

If you took this to heart, then you might say, Well what do I do about this if I believed it? The answer would be that you would stop living your life as if it were a throw away life, without paying attention. Every little thing in your life thing reflects the whole of the cosmos and the whole of the practice – so maybe now you better start to pay attention.

Nishiari Bokusan talks about zazen:

The body that is sitting upright is itself the body of the entire dharmadhatu, the body of the entire empty sky.

That’s why Dogen says that zazen is not meditation. We are not trying to fix our mind or concentrate or purify our mind. It is sitting upright, manifesting the entire dharmadhatu, the body of the empty sky. Training in zazen every day becomes something that is second nature to us, and we carry that into our lives. We see that as the most real part of our lives. It illuminates every moment.

Now we’re going to Nishiari Bokusan’s commentary on page 79. Dogen says:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you may assume it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

These opening lines are really important and to me; I’ve always particularly prized them in my practice. In the beginning, you think you know something. The deeper your practice gets, the more you know that you don’t know. You are more intimate to your practice, the more humble you become.

At the bottom of page 80, Nishiari Bokusan says:

But when we arrive at the ultimate realm, things become unattainable; enlightenment disappears. It’s not only that “something is missing,” but the entire body becomes lacking; this is interesting.

We see how much is missing and how much we’re lacking, but it’s okay. We’re okay with that. One continuous mistake. I think when Dogen writes this I think he really means it. It is not a joke or ironic. But I think it is also written out of the fullness of his life. Accepting his life.

Let’s go to Suzuki Roshi on these same passages, starting on page 112:

You will not be broken. You are just as you are. And when you are just as you are, through and through, there is enlightenment.

It sounds so prosaic to be you, just to be you. But actually as we all know, you being you is not that easy. I think if we were all honest about it and did a certain amount of self-reflection, we would recognize that we are defended and confused, even within being just me. A person who is just willing to be themselves, plain and simple. Period. That’s very unusual.

Suzuki Roshi comments on page 115:

When truth actually fills your body, you think that something is missing. Do you understand what he means? “Something is missing” means that if you understand the actual truth, it reveals itself in the eternal present.

Not only this moment, but eternally it will continuously reveal itself through our activity. What we do just now is not enough. We have to do another activity in the next moment.

Those are Suzuki Roshi’s comments on Dogen’s words that “something is missing.” So it’s a very funny thing that he is saying. We think that enlightenment is an experience that we have. But Dogen is not talking about an experience that we would have. He is talking about the absolute truth of our lives. Oddly, he says that truth depends on our activity. We express the truth on every moment by our activity. Our practice is the way that truth manifests our living. An activity has to go to another moment. So every activity is complete, and yet something is missing. The next moment appears, and we do something else. That’s what eternity is. That’s what the eternal moment is. The eternal moment is a moment in which we give ourselves fully, and then it passes away. So eternity for Suzuki Roshi is the eternal—the ongoing, endless process of change and impermanence.So every moment is eternal, because we know we are going to be called on for another moment.

What we do just now is not enough. We have to do another activity in the next moment.

On page 198, Uchiyama says:

Commonly we think that we are deluded human beings who wish to make ourselves into buddhas by using some technique to attain enlightenment.

As I said regarding the eighth section, we assume there must be a transition from delusion to enlightenment. However, Dogen Zenji wrote that there is no such transition, but all of us, whether we are deluded human beings or not, are living the reality of life prior to any separation between delusion and enlightenment and life and death.

So if you read that, you might wonder why are we doing all of this? We are already there. There is no transition. Nothing is going to happen. So why bother? And the answer is: that’s a really good question! That’s the question that Genjo koan attempts to answer.

I think we got this far, and I never mentioned that this was Dogen’s burning question that brought him to China in the first place. He went to China because he had a spiritual problem. He knew that we are already Buddha, so why would we need to practice? That was the question that brought him to China, and that was the question that this essay answers. If you think about all the teachings we’ve been talking about, they have all been answering the question, Why do you need to practice?

Uchiyama Roshi continues:

The reality of life, his phrase for Genjo koan, or life of the Buddha” is thus. And yet, all of us think and measure and say, “I don’t believe it.” Don’t say such cheeky things! The force which makes us think that our minds are great and makes us say such cheeky things itself wells up from the power of Amitabha or the “Life of Buddha.”

So our very comparative mind makes us unhappy. But this is our human treasure. Even our delusion and our destructiveness has its source in our Buddha nature, in our discriminating mind. It’s not evil or a mistake that we are this way. We have to learn how to hold it and understand it and practice with it.

Uchiyama points out that Dogen is specifically talking about the relationship between the particular person and the reality of life. The particular person lives the reality of life or lives Buddha nature or lives truth. So how does that work? The particularity of your life and your limitations, how do you live the truth in this particular life?

We want to live in a world where we have faith in the dignity and beauty of being human. So that’s why we would say, I know I am just as bad as anybody else. So I am not denying that. And I see the bad in me and in everybody else coming from this source of Buddha nature, so I have nobody to condemn. But I believe that there is a goodness in me and in everybody else, and I am trying through my study, through my precept practice, through my practice of the paramitas, through my sitting, through my speech practice to align my life as much as I can with the beautiful life that I know is there in me and in everybody else.

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