Part Three 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 3 of 4)
Part Three of Four Talks on Dogen's Genjokoan – Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Edited and abridged by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
So last time we were discussing the really important line, "To study the Way is to study the self." Continuing to section number five, page seventy, Dogen says,
When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self.
I think this is a very commonplace experience. When you first go to a dharma place, you don't quite know why you are interested in it. Or maybe you do know why you are interested in it, but even if you have read a lot about Buddhism and thought a lot about it, you always feel somehow alienated. It is as if there is some distance between you and the practice. So when you first look for dharma, it does seem that dharma is somewhere far away, and you think, "The other people are really into it. They really must be doing it, and I'm not."
But even though you may think that, and that's very natural, the fact is that the first minute you step in the door, and before that, dharma was already correctly transmitted within you. You are immediately your original self. The word "immediately" is really important, and it means it's true. Your thinking and your conditioning, which is what causes you to feel that you are very far from the dharma, might be far from the dharma. Over time that conditioning will change as you practice. When you come to your basic human birthright, which is below the level of your thinking and conditioning, it is the immediacy of your human experience. In other words, your human consciousness is by its nature immediately the original self. And it's there in the beginning. Many times it is said, "You don't actually come to the dharma. That within you that is seeking the dharma drags you along." It gets your conditioned mind to think that this is a good idea. But really it's something within you, very deeply human within you, that you didn't even know was there, that was actually manipulating you, bringing you there, so that you could awaken to it.
When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving.
Which is true. Have you ever had that experience while rowing a boat? It does feel as if everything is flowing by. If you're in a car, the same thing: everything is flowing by and you're not moving. But we know that's not true.
But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, [If you watch the boat intimately, more intimately than we're used to watching it,] you see that the boat moves. [And this is a metaphor for the self, or life.] Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind, [our ordinary body and mind, the way we conventionally examine things,] you might think that your mind and nature are permanent.
And this is what we experience. Have you ever noticed how other people are changing all the time and getting older, but you're not? Have you ever noticed that? You don't think that you're actually changing. Other people are, but you're not.
So that's how we experience things. Our self is a constant, and everything around us is changing. But if you really pay attention to what's going on – sit down, breathe, and not move for awhile – you begin to notice that everything is changing, all around, all the time, within me and outside me.
When you practice intimately and return to where you are, [When you do zazen; when you're really mindful, when you're closer to your experience than we normally are,] it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.
The reason why we think that we're not changing is because, in a way, consciousness doesn't change. Consciousness is constant, but we put on top of consciousness a definition of who we are, and we think that is not changing. But, actually, that's completely changing all the time. What's not changing is consciousness itself. But we're changing – our personalities, our hearts, our minds. Our bodies are in a constant state of flux, and we come to realize this by practicing intimately and returning to where we are – which is zazen.
So, in other words, the continuity that we see in our lives, which is actually there, is not there at all in the way we think it is. The continuity that we think of in ourselves is fake.
In the next part he is talking about the illusion of continuity and the reality of continuity. This is another famous passage:
Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet do not suppose the ash is future and the firewood is past. [As if the firewood has continuity and has changed into ash.] You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future.
In other words, firewood is its own universe. All of time is in that moment of firewood. Everything is there, in any moment, in any appearance, including the appearance of you or me. In every breath, all of time is there, and there's no continuity – real continuity – from past to future. It's an illusory continuity.
Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which also includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it has become ash [because if it had real continuity, it could become firewood again. But it can't, because it doesn't have real continuity. It can't become firewood again], you do not return to birth after death.
So the burden of this is that each moment of time is full and complete in itself, moment after moment. One important understanding of time and continuity and identity is that every moment is its own universe. It produces another moment, very much like the preceding moment, which is why it looks like continuity. Often the metaphor used is of images in film. Discrete images look like human bodies across space, but it's really one discrete image after the other, each one relating to the last one quite closely, so that it looks like continuity.
This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.
So, we think our life turns into death – we die. But we don't die. We are just not there. Death is its own moment.
Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha's discourse thatdeath does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.
The Diamond Sutra has this kind of teaching. Everything is empty of its own definition. Birth doesn't exist. Life doesn't exist as an entity. You can look for life, but you can never find it, because it's not solid. You can look for you and me, but you can't really find us. The closer you look at something, the more problematic it gets, and the more you tend to see connections and not the thing itself. Thich Nhat Hanh would pick up an object, like a flower, and say that it is made up of non-flower elements. There is no such thing as a flower. There is a flower appearing. So "flower" is made up of non-flower elements. And you are made up of non-self elements.
The only way there could be birth is if birth, in reality, is no-birth. And the only way there can be death is if death, in reality, is understood as no-death. In other words, in conventional language, we say that something exists because it has continuity, at least from one moment to the next; otherwise, it doesn't exist. If something has no continuity, if it doesn't have any carryover from one moment to the next, it literally doesn't exist in conventional terms. So that is why birth is known as no-birth, and death is known as no-death. Birth is empty of birth. Death is empty of death. The Diamond Sutra says, "Like a phantom, a bubble, a light show, a cloud, a lamp – so should all conditioned existence be viewed as not solid – as not real."
Birth is an expression, complete this moment. Death is an expression, complete this moment. Theyare like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end ofspring.
And it's true. When it's spring, it seems like it is spring forever. There is a dim memory that at one time it was winter, but that memory seems so unreal. Every season seems to be completely itself and to have no continuity to the next season.
This is hard to understand, and I'm not sure I'm doing a great job explaining it. I thought I would read to you a part of an old lecture by Sojun Mel Weitsman, my teacher, who has a great way of explaining things. I'll read you just a little bit of his commentary on this paragraph:
Dogen says that firewood does not become ash. Firewood is firewood, and ash is ash. Firewood has its own before and after. Ash has its own before and after. So everything is in its own dharma position. We must understand what Dogen means: that everything is in its own dharma position. One thing does not become another. Our usual life has a certain kind of continuity. It looks like one thing turns into another, but actually each moment is discrete and has its own before and after, and is a moment of just now. It's okay to understand this, but it is also necessary to live it. And this is our practice. We have to pay close attention to how we practice in this way; otherwise, zazen and practice become just a kind of habit, a routine. The aim of practice is to bring life to our life.
Understanding this point, not just in our mind, but by the way we live, is to "bring life to our life." That's what I was saying in the sitting, "Bring life to this one breath – brighten it up, make it alive." What would it be like to live your life that way – as if every moment were the last and the first moment, and every moment was a complete life? That's something we do: we bring life to our life. We can live a life that is not alive, right? It's possible. We are the only creatures who have that capacity – to live a life that's not a life. That's why we need spiritual practice – to bring life to our life. That's what it's all about.
The aim of practice is to bring life to life – to realize the no-self of everything, the interdependence of everything, and to see reality with your own eyes. So this practice is sometimes called "The practice of One Act," or "One-Act Samadhi." Samadhi has various meanings, but strictly speaking, it means concentration. But it's not the concentration as the one factor of consciousness. It means to be always seated in reality, to be aware of each moment of "right now" as it arises. How we practice that is to see each moment – to be aware of the beginning, middle, and end of each movement of each activity. Putting shoes on the shoe rack is one complete activity. Opening the door should be done with both hands, very carefully. We say we open the door to walk into the zendo. That may be so, but opening the door is just opening the door. The door there is the entire, complete act of just opening the door. Just opening the door has its own history, its own before and after, and it doesn't turn into closing the door.
You know, we had the shuso ceremony up in Bellingham a few months ago. I was doing a retreat, and the shuso, a wonderful man, John Wiley, came to dokusan right before the ceremony. I said, "John, now I'm going to tell you a secret of how to get through the shuso ceremony and answer all the questions." So, here's the secret – and now I'm revealing it to everyone! "The secret is, the way you answer all the questions in the best possible way, is that in the very beginning of the ceremony, as soon as the ceremony starts, you pay attention to every single moment. When you walk into the zendo, there is no tomorrow, and there's no yesterday. It is just giving yourself completely into walking into the zendo. When you bow, just bow, and forget everything else. Just completely abandon everything else and completely give yourself to that moment. When the questions come, it's very easy to respond, and it's no problem."
I was up in Vancouver last weekend, and John reminded me of this. He said, "Wouldn't it be nice to live like that?" And I said, "YEAH! That's the whole idea!" We don't do that very well, but this is the effort that we're making, and it is an amazing pleasure and a liberation. When you open the door, just open the door. Close the door when you're closing the door. We have a chance to practice that in the silence that surrounds everything that we do in the zendo. We train ourselves in that way of being with things.
I bring this up because this is the practical consequence in real living that Dogen is talking about. He is saying that this is actually the way it is. In other words, you pay attention with this spirit to what you're doing, giving yourself to it completely, without thinking "What am I getting out of it?".
We're not doing what we usually do – which is not being there at all. It's amazing the extent to which we really don't know what we are absorbed in. It's one thing to be distracted by this or that, but I think a lot of times we're distracted by nothing. It's as if our mind is absorbed in nothing! Or something that we're unaware of. "What happened there? I don't even know. I didn't even notice that I wasn't even there." And that's usually how we are. Maybe we're better off when we know that we're distracted or upset with this or that. At least we know what's going on!
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.
Which is true. It's amazing. Did you ever think about that? The whole moon – if you look closely enough – you can see the whole moon in a drop of dew on the grass.
The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
What he's saying is, "This is our life." In every drop of our life, in every moment of our life, the moon of enlightenment is completely reflected. Not partly, or imperfectly, but perfectly and completely, in every little drop.
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.
So your awakening does not change you. You function normally, even though you are enlightened. It's perfectly all right. On the other hand, the screwiness of your functioning doesn't have any bad effects on your enlightenment. Enlightenment is just fine anyway! No matter how screwy you are, no matter how messed up the world is – this does not affect awakening. It is shining as pristinely as it ever was. This is amazing. Isn't it something to be grateful for? Knowing this, we would live with confidence, inspired by it.
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.
Every drop of our life is vast. Every drop of time of our life is birth and death in its entirety. It is awakening in its entirety. It is eternity. We are pretty much missing it all the time, but even though we miss it, it's still the case – moment after moment after moment. And in a sense, it's our human obligation and our human need to realize it. It is our human suffering that we don't realize it, which is why we have the obligation and the need. That's why we suffer. The good news is that suffering goads us into this recognition, this realization. This is the human problem. We are limitless. We are beyond everything. We need to know it. We need to realize it. We need to make it so in our living. And when we don't, we suffer, and we feel all sorts of spiritual sicknesses, which are so commonplace that we don't even call them that.
When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand something is missing.
When he says that, you might think that it is counter to our experience, because when I feel that dharma doesn't fill my body and mind, I don't think it is sufficient. I'm longing for it to fill body and mind. When dharma does fill my body and mind, as I hope it will someday, then I expect to feel pretty good and not feel like something is missing. I think that's the psychological aspect of dharma. Psychologically we feel we lack, so we go to dharma in the hope that we won't feel that lack. So what is he talking about?
This is not referring to the psychology of how we approach dharma. It's not referring to our feeling of need or our longing or the incompletion we feel when we enter practice. Instead, it refers to our view of ourself and of our lives, which, exactly because we're longing, we take to be real and perfectly sufficient. We are convinced that we see our life, and our life sucks! We think that we need something to improve it, and we're completely convinced that our view is right. We say, "Oh please, Master, show me the dharma. Show me the dharma." We're so humble, but actually we are arrogant. We are convinced that we know who we are, what is wrong with us, and we want to be fixed. We are so convinced that we know exactly what we're after, that when the master is not able to give it to us, we say, "What's wrong with you?"
So this doesn't refer to our sense of need. It refers to our view of ourself and our lives, which we take completely for granted as being true and real. Even though it makes us suffer, we never think, "Wait a minute, maybe I'm not seeing things right." We assume, "I'm a mess, and I'm suffering, and that's really the truth. If you tell me otherwise, I'll fight with you."
When we come to know the dharma, we know our view is not always right. In other words, what we see when we really get the dharma is: "Naturally, my view is always limited. Naturally, I'm not seeing the whole story." Any story is not the whole story, but we know that. "This might be my story, and I might have to stick to it, but I know it's not the whole story. I know there's more. I can always see more. I always can understand more. And I long to see more."
This is our faith and this is also our doubt. In other words, "I know that I don't see everything, and I need to see more." So our questioning mind and our doubt are the same as our faith. In fact, there may be some longing – I think there is, actually – psychologically some longing, which remains with us throughout our practice, because we long to practice more. We long to understand more. We know that we will never exhaust the meaning and the dimensions of our human life. But it's not a desperate longing. It's not based on, "I am such a mess. I need something." Rather, it is based on a wholesome, faithful longing to understand. And a satisfying longing, paradoxically. It is very satisfying to want to continue to practice. Who wants to finish the job of being a human being? Who wants to say, "Well, I got that out of the way. Now I'll go on to other things." What? Playing darts? What are you going to go on to, after you exhaust the possibilities of being a human being? You want to keep going until the last minute. And I think maybe at the last minute we'll have the most full look at what it means to be a human being. Maybe. What about the minute after that? I don't know. Maybe then.
So that's what I think he is talking about in those lines, which can seem misleading. It becomes very clear when he gives us some metaphors right after that. For example,
When you sail out in a boat in the middle of a lake, in the middle of an ocean, where no land is in sight, and you look out in the four directions, the ocean appears to be a circle.
Right? And you look at it and say, "The ocean is round. I can tell. It's round. I can see it. No doubt about it."
But the ocean is neither round nor square. Its features are infinite in variety. The ocean is like a palace. It is like a jewel.
When you sit in the ocean, the ocean is a round body of water. But you're completely wrong. You don't really know. It only looks circular, as far as you can see at the time. And everything is like this – we only see what we see, but it's not the whole story.
Though there are many features in the dusty world, in the world beyond conditions, you see only what your eye of practice can reach.
We hope that a human life is a life in which we grow in wisdom. So it's not a tragedy, like the television commercial tells us. When our teeth start getting yellow, and our body starts sagging, and everything starts going, even our mind, this is not an unmitigated tragedy. It's what it takes to receive true, human wisdom. And we can only see as much wisdom as our life has brought us now. And we can see more tomorrow. We hope. We can only see and understand what our 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 the mountains and oceans are infinite in variety. Whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
Every moment has all these possibilities.