Part Four 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 4 of 4)
Part Four of Four Talks on Dogen's Genjokoan – Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
We just finished the part in Genjokoan about sailing your boat out into the middle of the ocean. Remember that? The ocean looks round, and you say, "The ocean is round. There is no doubt about it. It's perfectly round." But it's not. The reason why you think it is round is because it is round – as far as you can see. But the real shape of the ocean, you don't know. We can only see as far as our eye of practice can see at this time. It's important to know that there is a kind of humility in that. "Well, this is how I see it, and I guess I'm going to have to act on what I see and what I know. And I understand that what I know and what I see is only what I know and what I see. There may be more. Nevertheless, I go forward as best I can, with humility, and a sense within my knowing that there is also a bigger space of not knowing."
A fish swims in the water, and no matter how far it swims, there is no end to the water.
We're the fish, and the ocean is life or practice. You keep going. You keep going on and on and on, and you never come to the end. There's no final point.
A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements.
The fish might say, "Where's the water?" But the fish is always in the water. There's no fish without the water. Or the fish might say, "I want out of this water. Get me out of here." But there's no way for a fish to get out of the water. Whether a fish understands what water is or not, the fish must always be in the water. That's the analogy for human beings and life, or practice, which – in this case – are synonymous.
When their activity is large, their field is large.
A tuna can swim all the way across the ocean. They're huge, open-ocean fish. They have a very large space of activity. But rockfish stay in one little spot. They don't go thousands of miles – they stay in one little spot.
When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thuseach of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm.
So, in other words, each kind of creature, (and again, this is all an analogy for us,) covers its total range – whether it's a rockfish, whose range is small, or a tuna, whose range is large. Each one is covering its total range. Each one is completely fulfilling its destiny, and each of them totally experiences its realm. Some people have amazing things going on in their lives. They make lots of money. They lose lots of money. They make lots of money again, and they lose money again. They have tons of relationships. They travel all over and live in many countries. Somebody else is staying in one little house, like Emily Dickinson, on a street in Amherst. After awhile, she doesn't even go outside for maybe twenty or thirty years. But each one is completely expressing themselves in their realm.
If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. [There's no way to leave your element.] Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.
So, we can't be separated from life, and life can't be separated from us. We can't be separated from practice, and practice can't be separated from us. There is no practice without each one of us. And there is no us without practice, without life, because life only comes to life in specific instances of life. There's no general category called "life," just as there is no general category called "spiritual practice." There is only the spiritual practice that is manifested in a person's activity. So we can't leave that. And we are that. And it is us.
It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
I find this to be a beautiful passage. In this fascicle you see the power of his poetry – probably more than in any other fascicle that Dogen ever wrote. Dogen does something really unique. He takes the poetic sensibility, and he applies it to dharma essay writing, which makes the dharma he is presenting really, really powerful.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place.
So, in other words, you can't reach the end. I don't know how good this translation is, but the sense I get of this is that there is no reaching the end, no reaching the boundary. And when you think that you're reaching the boundary, instead of swimming or flying where you are, you lose your way. The only way you can swim or fly is to swim or fly in your own element, where you are.
When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.
So that is practice – finding your place where you are in any given moment and in any given situation. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs. And this is the realization of Genjokoan: to find your own unique place in this moment, in your element. Probably I had this in the back of my mind when I was writing Taking our Places, my book about maturity. Although I wasn't at all conscious of it when I thought of the title, that's what he is saying here. When you take your place, practice occurs. Genjokoan is realized in that moment, and the whole world is illuminated.
When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others'. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.
In other words, we can't know the measure of it. We can't see the end of it. We just occupy our life fully. To bring life to our life – whatever it is. And we can't know the full measure of that.
Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it – doing one practice is practicing completely.
So doing one thing, everything is realized. If you just sit in zazen, everything is there. We just give ourselves to any moment of activity and our living – everything is there.
Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct.
In other words, you can't define or delineate realization as if it were a separate thing.
The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma.
Every moment of practice is a moment of realization. You can't say that realization is something "over there." It would be like a fish swimming out of the ocean, leaving realization. When you fully swim, when you fully give yourself to your life with courage and complete confidence, that's realization. And you can't define that. It's so various and so different for each and every one of us.
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge [or becomes the object of your knowledge] and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
This is why I feel that our practice – Dogen's practice – is really the practice of faith. It is not exactly faith as it is understood in theistic religions. But in some profound and beautiful way, it is the practice of faith, because he is saying that you can't experience or know realization as an object of consciousness. You can't say, "Ah, that's realization! Great. I've got it!" As soon as you have that experience, you automatically know, "Oops, in my insecurity, I've decided to make yet another straw person to hang onto."
No, you can only live your awakening. You can't know it. It's inconceivable. Dogen often uses that word to express his understanding. Realization is inconceivable, because, by its nature, it cannot be an object of consciousness. Although it shines through each and every object of consciousness, it itself cannot be a separate object of consciousness. Its appearance is always beyond your knowledge, and that's why our practice is really a practice of faith. The reason I say that the word is different than how it is used in Judeo-Christianity is because it's not a faith in something else, and it's not a faith that requires a kind of leap beyond intelligence, or beyond what we know. It's a faith that comes from a feeling for living, in which we understand that the sphere in which we're moving is larger than we can possibly know. Through our practice, we become more and more intimate with that sphere of living.
The fascicle ends with a little story, which was probably what Dogen had in mind all along. You could view the whole fascicle as a kind of commentary on this koan. It is a bit obscure, and it is not included in any of the classical koan collections. Here's the case:
Zen master Baoche of Mt. Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, "Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place that it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?"
"Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent," Baoche replied, "you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere."
"What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?" asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. [Meaning he realized that he understood.]
Then Dogen ends with a very inspiring and beautiful passage:
The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of the wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of the wind. The nature of the wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha's house brings forth the gold of the earth and makes fragrant the cream of the long river.
This koan is Dogen's own koan. You remember from Dogen's biography that as a young monk at Mt. Heiji, the Tendai monastery, Dogen – who always from youth had a lot of faith in buddha-dharma – learned the teaching that we are all originally awakened. Our essence is buddha-nature, and the whole world is nothing but a manifestation of Buddha's mind. "Well then," Dogen thought, "if this is true, why do we have to work so hard to practice? What's the point of that?" And this was the question that he kept for many, many years, and that he worked with when he went to China. "If there is original awakening, if whenever we give ourselves to our experience, enlightenment is immediately right there, then why all these teachings? All this meditation and rituals – why do we have to bother with all that? What is the point?"
That was Dogen's question, it is the issue in this koan, and that's what he is really talking about in this whole essay. The master is fanning himself, and the monk comes and says that the nature of wind is permanent – meaning that buddha-nature is everybody's nature and that it is all-pervasive and reaches everywhere – so why bother to fan yourself? In other words, why make the effort to practice? That's what this is about. Baoche says you might have faith in the doctrine of original awakening, or the doctrine of original nature, but you don't really understand it. You don't really understand how buddha-nature pervades everything. It requires something of us. Buddha-nature cannot be activated without our effort. When you fan yourself, you are not producing the wind. The wind is there. The air is there. But without your moving it around, it doesn't influence anything. Right? It's there, but it doesn't cool you. In other words, it doesn't change your life or help others, unless you do something. Without your doing something, from a human point of view, it's useless. Who cares if you have buddha-nature if that original buddha-nature doesn't inspire and change lives? And it won't inspire and change lives without activity.
So the master, in the end, makes that point clear, not by using words, but by simply fanning himself. And we make that clear, not by having a belief that we tell all our friends about, or read about in a sutra, but simply by the activity, the daily activity, in everything we do and practice. When we practice, we activate the nature of our life and of life in general. We're not producing anything that was not already there, and yet without our action, it doesn't influence anything. It's as if awakening depends on us, just the way life is fish, and fish is life, air is bird, and bird is air. Enlightenment is there, but it depends on us to respond. This seems to be what is involved to be a human being – to respond to our life, to respond to our existential condition. We are called to come forward and do that. And when we do that, it's as if reality comes forth to meet us.
So, it's kind of fun to think of all the efforts that we make in practice as cooling ourselves with a fan. When we do zazen, when we give ourselves to our practice, we're fanning ourselves. We're cooling down, moving the wind around, and cooling ourselves and the whole world down.