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Genjokoan – Dharma Seminar (Talk 1 of 4)

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/13/2006
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Dogen Studies

This talk was given in Vancouver May 13, 2006, and replaces the first Dharma Seminar talk which was not recorded.

Part One of Four Talks on Dogen’s Genjokoan published in “Moon in a Dewdrop”, one of his most important and poetic works on the Dharma, Practice, and Enlightenment.


Genjokoan – Dharma Seminar (Talk 1 of 4)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 13, 2006


Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

This weekend I want to talk a little bit about Genjokoan, a fascicle of Dogen's. I probably won't get through the whole thing, but I'll just get as far as I can.

First of all, I would like to point out what many have said about Dogen's brilliance and uniqueness as a religious writer. I don't know of anybody in the world of religions who writes quite like Dogen does. His style, his approach, is really unusual. Even though post-modern thought is not particularly interested in religion, per se, Dogen has been the darling of post-modern philosophers and thinkers, because of the uniqueness of his way of expressing his practice. What is specifically unique about Dogen, and why he appeals to post-modern thinkers, is not only that he has a unique relationship to language, but also that he is the only Buddhist writer that I know about who writes about time as a spiritual issue.

Dogen appears to be very critical of something that you sense in conventional Zen language, the idea that language is trivial. In conventional Zen language, our concepts and our descriptions of life are trivial, and what's not trivial is real experience – on the one hand, you have language and talk and thought, and on the other hand, you have real experience. It says that we should sit on our cushions and go for the real experience, and that language and thought are superficial by comparison. You really get that feeling when you read Zen literature, and it seems as if the Ancients are saying that.

Dogen is really critical of that point of view. He thinks that it is very superficial and that it is a misunderstanding both of language and of experience. Dogen sees the obvious point that language is an experience. In other words, if you speak a word or have a thought in words, that's an experience. It's a different kind of experience than seeing something or feeling something with the body; but then again, tasting something is a radically different experience from touching something. Think about it. When we eat an apple, we pick it up with our hand, take a bite out of it with our mouth, taste it with our tongue, and we call that "eating an apple." But it is actually several distinctly different experiences. If we say, "What a delicious apple," that's another experience – in language.

So Dogen says that to create a hierarchy of those experiences – one is good, one is bad, one is deeper, one is shallower – is really to misunderstand the nature of our experience and to limit ourselves. So he sees, on one hand, that language is an experience, and on the other hand, he's willing to admit that all experiences – that we can know as experiences – are mediated by language and thought. The human world, the world we live in, is a world mediated by language and thought. So our experience is always linguistically conditioned.

This view of Dogen's is strikingly modern. It is something that Wittgenstein discovered and wrote about in the twentieth century. That's why post-modern thinkers really love Dogen, and there is a great, legitimate consonance between Dogen and some of the fundamental and really important culture changing insights of post-modern thought. But with one crucial difference: Most post-modern thought finishes with a critique of everything. There can be a bleak sense to it. Whereas Dogen, through this way of thinking and looking at the world, affirms the possibility of meaning and spiritual practice. He not only affirms it, but says there is nothing but that. Life is nothing but that. Life is spiritual practice. Awakening is not some special experience that we can have apart from language. Awakening is the nature of being, the nature of living, and so any way of practice that will awaken us to that reality is true Zen.

Another point that I would make is that the best word we can apply to Dogen's thought is "all-inclusive." This word "all-inclusive" is characteristic of Dogen's Zen. There is nothing excluded from our spiritual practice. There is nothing that is not part of our spiritual development. There's nothing that is not sacred, nothing that is not whole and holy.

So it's a radically non-dualistic point of view. An all-inclusive, non-dualistic point of view also includes duality. If it doesn't include duality, then it's dualistic, right? That's why Dogen's writing is beautiful and difficult – for its sense of paradox. Reading it is a kind of mental yoga. You read it, and you realize, "Look at how I am taking something that is all-inclusive and right away narrow it down and make it into: ‘This is better than something else. This is right and that is wrong.'" And then Dogen takes that away from you in the next sentence. He forces you back. "Oh, that's included too. Oh, everything is included."

Suzuki Roshi was a deep student of Dogen, and you can appreciate Suzuki Roshi's very simple and widely permissive point of view so much more when you understand Dogen. This non-dualistic, inclusive point of view is beautifully described in Suzuki Roshi's simple saying, "You are perfect as you are. And you could improve a little." [Laughter] We think, "Oh my God, I have so much improving to do!" But he might respond, "Because I understand and have faith that I am perfect as I am, why don't I make a little effort to improve? Not that I need to be anguished over my imperfections, but my imperfections are also perfect, and knowing that, why don't I improve a little?"

The point that I want to make here is that just as experience and language for Dogen are not completely different spheres of activity, with a firewall between them, so it is that enlightenment and practice are not two very different categories, with a wall between them. It's not that we are toiling away at our practice here in the cave – toiling and toiling and toiling and giving up a beautiful day, so that we can, through sacrifice and diligence, have a bit of happiness later on, when we're enlightened and immune from all problems. It's not that practice is a pathway of toil and diligence that leads to the beautiful flowered field of nirvana or enlightenment. For Dogen practice is enlightenment. When you practice, enlightenment is there. Enlightenment is not a state of mind that we aspire to later on, that is not present now. Our enlightened heart is present now, whether we practice or not. When we practice, we bring it to light. Every moment of practice is a moment of enlightenment, and there is no gap or space between them.

Think about it. The enlightenment that we could attain – this beautiful state of mind – is far too limited, far too small, compared to this all-inclusive practice, in which absolutely everything that arises, even our problems, even our suffering, even the world's confusion, is an expression of our awakening. It is a much bigger picture than "This is it, but not that. This kind of thing, but not that kind of thing." We would need to live inside a glass bubble to be enlightened in that way. And for us as lay people living in the world, a corollary of this same idea is the fact that there's also no hard and fast distinction between so-called spiritual practice or Zen practice and so-called ordinary life, or non-practice. Every moment that arises is a moment of awakening, whether in a zendo, or not in a zendo; whether we think we're doing Zen practice, or we don't think we're doing Zen practice. On every moment, everything is included. Whatever we're doing – talking to another person, walking down the street, driving in our car, looking at a cloud, cleaning our house, arguing with our spouse, being mad or being happy, whatever we're doing is practice, if we learn how to give ourselves to it and let go into it.

That's why Dogen's practice is so important for us in this modern life that we're living. We can realize practice in whatever we are doing. This is my sense of practice and my strong belief – that we can be fully committed, 100% committed, religious people, living in this world as it is, in our various roles of husband, wife, mother, father, business person, doctor, lawyer, candlestick maker. We can use that as a vehicle for our practice, for our ongoing, endless understanding of our human life. Everything we do can be a vehicle for kindness, for compassion, for opening.

So these are the underlying ideas of Dogen Zenji, and he speaks about them most beautifully and most thoroughly in Genjokoan.

The title of the piece is quite unusual and interesting. What does Genjokoan mean? The character gen seems to mean "something appearing; that which appears;" and not just something that appears, but something that appears "just as it is." We crash our way through life and very seldom have the experience of "just this." Sometimes in nature we have that. We look at a tree or a cloud and say, "God! Just there!" In other words, that experience suddenly catapults us out of our usual concepts. We human beings are really burdened. Even when we don't know it, we are thinking about some problem that we have. It's there. It's in the body and in the soul and in the spirit, and we could be going around not knowing. We're really burdened all the time, and if we have a moment when we're not burdened, and all of our pre-conceptions and habits and problems for some reason or another just fall away, it's like a revelation, and we just see: "That tree! It's just there. I never saw a tree before." We can also have that experience with something inside of us as well.

When that appearance – something just as it is, absent all of our delusion and confusion, just such as it is – when that appears, that's gen – the real, pure nature of phenomena. And the feeling is that it's not something we can possess, or even something we can know, because things always are just as they are; but we don't apprehend them that way. When we sometimes have this experience, then we can have a sense of its presence all the time. We can have faith in it. We can sense it, even if we aren't always in a position to directly know something as knowledge.

So gen basically means things as they are, without our projections and preconceptions – this mysterious, ineffable nature of being itself. The character jo means "complete, full, all-inclusive." So gen-jo, then, is the total manifestation of things on every moment as they truly are – beyond our human narrowness. I think the implication is that it is what is actually going on, moment after moment – everything arising, fully and completely, beyond our problems and pre-conceptions. And that includes ourselves. We also are arising that way, moment after moment. Everything inside and outside of us is arising that way. But, of course, the tragedy of our human situation is like that of a fish swimming in the water, who says, "Where's the water? I'm thirsty. Give me something to drink!" That's our situation.

So that's gen-jo. I think we all know what the word koan means. In fact, I keep trying to remember to look it up in the American Heritage Dictionary, because I assume by now that the word koan appears in an American dictionary. Because it is now an English word, meaning, I think, some sort of spiritual puzzle or some paradox that we try to solve. The word originally was from the Chinese kung ans, which meant "a public case," or a legal precedent, on which you would base future deliberations. So they took that word and applied it to the sayings and doings of the ancient, classical, Chinese Chan masters, so that we could make our own their insights, and bring them up to date and into the present of our own lives.

But there's an esoteric, possibly spurious, etymology for the word koan. Ko is taken to mean the sameness or unity of all things – as in everything being empty, without any substantial nature. We don't have to be Buddhists to know – because scientists say the same thing – that what looks to be a substantial, concrete series of objects of the universe is actually a big, indefinable miasma of constantly exchanging events. We can never find anything discrete. Everything is flowing in and out of everything else. In that sense, there is nothing. Everything is a unity in its emptiness.

So that's one esoteric meaning of the word ko, and the an part of ko-an, is the opposite of that – the discrete, pristine being of each and every separate thing. Every blade of grass is different from every other blade of grass, even though there are no blades of grass, and there is only oneness. On one side of the equation, every blade of grass is unique – every insect, every mite crawling around in your eyebrows, every bacterium inside your body, is unique; but at the same time, and on the other side of the equation, there is only oneness.

So ko is like the darkness, when you turn out the lights – we're all one. An is like turning the light on – you turn the light on, and everything appears. So ko-an is the paradox of these two sides of being. To penetrate a koan is to stand with clarity within this paradox. So Genjokoan is the koan, the paradox, of the manifestation, as it is, of each and every thing, completely and totally. That's what the title, Genjokoan, means.

Various translators have different ways of translating the term. Cleary translates it as "the issue at hand." The issue – which is his version of koan – and the "at hand" meaning "manifesting here and now." It's kind of a clever translation, I think. The Shasta Abbey translates it as "the spiritual question as it manifests before your very eyes." Pretty good. In Moon in a Dewdrop, Kaz translates it as "actualizing the fundamental point." I've used a translation like "the koan of what is," or "the koan of being," or "the koan of the present moment."

We do not need to go to the Ancients to see this koan arising on every moment of our living. I think that Dogen really meant this as a practice – seeing that on every moment of our living, the deepest spiritual problems arise, and are there for us to enter into. So a lot of the times I work with Genjokoan in a very simple way – as a practice. We all have problems – it might look like a practical problem, and maybe it is, or a psychological problem, and maybe it is, but if we look more deeply at the problem, it always is a problem that brings up everything, and it is always a spiritual problem, if we want to approach it on that level.

And so Genjokoan, the practice of Genjokoan, would be to sit with, to meditate with, whatever arises in our lives, as a koan, as a challenge to see it all inclusively and to transcend our ordinary view. And every moment it that. Literally every moment of being alive is that paradox, because we are complete Buddhas, and at the same time, we are these poor schlemiels, with all these problems. Every moment is passing away, and every moment is eternal. How could we be alive in this world in this way? The only way to live it is to penetrate this koan, this paradox.

So that's the title, Genjokoan. Now, in the few moments remaining, I'll just share with you a reading of the opening of Genjokoan, which is very famous and beautiful. And, by the way, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this text, or don't know it, I really encourage you to find it in Kaz Tanahashi's Moon in a Dewdrop. His text is a collection of Dogen's translations, that are, I think, some of the most important ones. It is a very lucid and beautiful translation. So, here's his version of the opening section of Genjokoan:

As all things are buddha-dharma [everything is the path; everything is the way], there is delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

So this is the way it is – everything is buddha-dharma, and so, we look around and we see there is delusion and enlightenment; there's birth and death; there's buddhas on the one hand, and us poor souls on the other hand, trying to get a few steps toward being a Buddha in this lifetime.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self,

So this is another way of saying that everything is buddha-dharma. Saying that things are without an abiding self is another way of saying that they are empty. There is no "me" and "you." There's a bunch of atoms, and space, and consciousness – whatever that is. There doesn't seem to be that much difference between consciousness and physical matter, when you get down to the smallest degree of observation. So, as everything is, in fact, empty of a separate self in its fundamental reality, there is no delusion. There is no realization. There are no buddhas. There are no sentient beings. There is no birth, and there is no death. Right? Because where would you find these things? How could you pluck them out of this endless, constant flux? So, on the one hand, there are buddhas, and on the other hand, there are no buddhas. Then Dogen says,

The buddha way [and now he is talking about the practice of Buddha] is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one;

One of the things about Dogen is that there are lots of possibilities for interpretation. Without getting too complicated about it, one possibility is that "the many" refers to the first sentence, "all things are the buddha-dharma." There are all these different things – buddhas and sentient beings and so on. And the second sentence, "all things are without abiding self," refers to the oneness of things. So it's like thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The actual living of the buddha way is leaping clear of the many and the one. It is beyond both of those viewpoints.

Thus there is birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

Back to the first position. What's the difference between this third position and the first position? Maybe in the first position we believe that there really is delusion and realization, Buddha and practice, and so forth. We believe it. We think it's really true. And the third one is that we know we have to practice, we have to bow to buddhas, and we have to try to get over our illusions and delusions. But we also know that we are perfect just as we are, which is why we have to bow to the buddhas, and so on. We bow to the Buddha on the altar, not because we believe in the Buddha, but because we know there is nothing but the Buddha. We are bowing to ourself, and ourself is bowing to us. But we have a Buddha, because in this world you have to have something.

And then is my favorite part.I remember the first time I studied this, in the early 1970's with Masau Abe. I was almost reduced to tears by the beauty of this next line, and I've never forgotten the way it affected my sense of what my life has been. After all this, he says,

Yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

Very sad, and very beautiful. He could have said, "In attachment we rip each other apart. And in aversion, we burn down the world." That would be just as accurate, but he doesn't put it that way. In other words, given this deep appreciation of what the world really is, and of what we really are, we return to the human world as it really is, with all of its strife and suffering, and our own human problems, as they really are. We don't think that somehow our spiritual practice is going to make us immune and transcendent and above it all. We're right down there with what we have to deal with, and we know that it's sad and tragic and difficult. Blossoms fall. They don't last forever. But when blossoms fall, it's beautiful. And weeds grow. They get in the way. They choke off the other plants. But weeds are life; weeds are beautiful. Even though we pull them out, we appreciate them, because without weeds, nothing will grow.

To me this is so beautiful. This is why I so much love Dogen's practice, because it's really saying practice is not about overcoming human problems. It's not about becoming serene and transcendent. It's about embracing our lives as they really are, and understanding at every point how deep and profound and gorgeous everything is – even the suffering, even the difficulty. So we forgive ourselves for our limitations, and we forgive this world for it's pain. We don't say, "That's not pain." It is pain. You don't say, "It's not difficulty." It is difficult. But when we embrace the difficulty and break through Genjokoan, we see this is exactly the difficulty we need, and this difficulty is the most beautiful and poignant thing in this world.

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