45 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 3: Prayer for Personal Transformation
47 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1: Do Something, Don’t Just Fall Asleep

In today’s episode we finish up the Genjokoan, focusing first on the rather long passage comparing our path of practice to the way a fish swims in the water, or a bird flies in the sky. Then I’ll talk about the story at the end of the essay, where a monk asks a Zen master why he uses a fan when the nature of wind permeates everywhere, which is really a question about why we practice if reality ultimately lacks nothing.

Read/Listen to Genjokoan Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 or Part 4

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Limited Perception Doesn’t Obstruct Awakening
We Don’t Have to Be Other Than Who We Are
Transcending Versus Accepting Our Limitations
If Everything’s Okay, Why Do Anything?
The Third Position, Not Stuck in Relative or Absolute
Why We Wave a Fan (Practice)

 

Limited Perception Doesn’t Obstruct Awakening

[From the Genjokoan:] When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. When the bird’s need or the fish’s need is great, the range is large. When the need is small, the range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole of space and vigorously acts in every place. However, if a bird departs from the sky, or a fish leaves the water, it immediately dies. We should know that [for a fish] water is life, [for a bird] sky is life. A bird is life; a fish is life. Life is a bird; life is a fish. And we should go beyond this. There is practice-enlightenment—this is the way of living beings.

Therefore, if there are fish that would swim or birds that would fly only after investigating the entire ocean or sky, they would find neither path nor place. When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality. When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualized reality. This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice. [For this] there is a place and a path. The boundary of the known is not clear; this is because the known [which appears limited] is born and practiced simultaneously with the complete penetration of the Buddha Dharma. We should not think that what we have attained is conceived by ourselves and known by our discriminating mind. Although complete enlightenment is immediately actualized, its intimacy is such that it does not necessarily form as a view. [In fact] viewing is not something fixed. (Okumura 2010)

This passage is about how we can transcend our limited self by becoming our limited self completely. This is very important, and many earlier parts of the Genjokoan were leading up to this. We the birds and the fish – living, practicing, and seeking. We want to know the truth of reality, and sense that it is infinitely greater than what meets our eyes – and yet we can never leave the domain of our experience, or comprehend the infinite. Our individuality, humanity, and limitations seem to prevent us from personally knowing the absolute. However, the water and the sky are the seamless reality within which we function, and from which we are not separate. As part of the absolute, we can know it.

Dogen points at this truth earlier in Genjokoan, when he writes, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.” (I discussed this passage in Genjokoan Part 1.) This means that when we awaken to seamless reality (or the “absolute,” or unity), we participate in this seamless reality with everything. Awakening is not about realizing something about the universe. It’s joining the universe – or realizing we were never separate from It to begin with.

This teaching that our incomplete perception isn’t an obstacle is addressed in yet another part of Genjokoan, when Dogen says that when we are “seeing color and hearing sound” with our whole body-and-mind, we perceive things intimately, or directly. When this happens, “one side is illuminated, [and] the other is dark.” As I discussed in Genjokoan Part 2, I agree with Bokusan Nishiari’s interpretation of this passage: in perceiving wholeheartedly and intimately, everything we don’t see is “dark,” or part of the great, undifferentiated seamless reality. Whatever we don’t perceive is still very much present, and no real boundary can be drawn between what we perceive and what we don’t. Therefore, there is completeness in the act of perception, however limited it is. This is what prompted me to write:

“All of Dogen’s teaching, all of the Genjokoan, all of our practice is fundamentally about this paradoxical nature of our existence: How we realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute as a limited being? Not in spite of our limited being. Not once we transcend our limited being. Not only when we give up our limited being. Not when we discover an alternative, unlimited being. We remain a limited being and we awaken to how, simultaneously, all things are Being-with-a-capital-B, and there are no real boundaries around or within that Being.”

We Don’t Have to Be Other Than Who We Are

Now, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to write that last paragraph based solely on the Genjokoan passage about one side being illuminated while the other is dark. Fortunately, I knew the Genjokoan also included this lovely section on birds and fish, which is where Dogen further develops the idea that we are fully capable of realizing, actualizing, and living in harmony with the absolute as a limited being, even though that may seem impossible.  And then, not only does he tell us it’s possible, he tells us how.

There we are, little birds and fish, striving to live good lives and, in order to do so, to understand our relationship to the rest of the universe. We struggle, search, travel, explore, study, strive, etc. We can’t help but feel restricted by our bodies, circumstances, and karma. Not one of us can step outside of who and where and when we are. We may gain a measure of peace and happiness by accepting our situation – by getting used to being a fish, and learning to be content with our little part of the ocean – but it can seem that by doing so, we give up the possibility of experiencing something greater.

Dogen assures us the we can do both at the same time: we can realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute and wholeheartedly be exactly who, where, and when we are. We can experience the great ocean and great sky right here, in our own little part of the ocean or sky. We can live the life of the universe as we go about our daily affairs. We can feel part of a whole, complete, luminous, seamless reality in the midst of our imperfect world.

Transcending Versus Accepting Our Limitations

How?! “When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality. When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualized reality.” What does it mean to make something our own? This isn’t about identifying something with our small sense of self, or exerting control over it. To me, “making something my own” implies loving, appreciating, caring for, taking responsibility for, and realizing my interdependence with something or someone.

When we find our own, true place, we stop searching all over for it. We settle into our home. When we find our own, true path, we stop worrying and wondering about other paths and devote ourselves entirely to what is in front of us. When we fully inhabit our lives without trying to be anyone, anywhere, or anywhen else, our practice and activity naturally become “actualized reality.” It’s important to note that the term translated in this passage as “actualized reality” is “Genjokoan.” When we inhabit our lives completely, we resolve the koan of “actualizing the simultaneous truths of unity and difference in your life.” (See Genjokoan 1 for a discussion of the term “Genjokoan.”)

That’s all well and good, but how do we know whether we’re “just living our lives” in a limited, complacent, self-absorbed sense, versus “just living our lives” in a wholehearted way that allows us to realize, actualize, and live in harmony with the absolute? Although Dogen warns us that, “We should not think that what we have attained is conceived by ourselves and known by our discriminating mind,” he also says that when complete enlightenment is immediately actualized, it is intimate. In a moment of wholehearted inhabiting your life in an enlightened way, you show up for your life instead of letting it slip by while you dream of other things. Even if things aren’t exactly how you’d like them to be, life feels real and vibrant. You feel authentic and present, and there is no question in your mind about whether you’re doing your best. At the same time, you are fully aware that you don’t know what comes next, and that life is fragile and fleeting.

Watch for the moments in your life that are like this, they can be easy to miss.

If Everything’s Okay, Why Do Anything?

[From the Genjokoan:] [The] Zen Master of Mt. Magu was waving a fan. A monk approached him and asked, “The nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?” The master said, “You know only that the wind’s nature is ever present—you don’t know that it permeates everywhere.” The monk said, “How does wind permeate everywhere?” The master just continued waving the fan. The monk bowed deeply.

The genuine experience of Buddha Dharma and the vital path that has been correctly transmitted are like this. To say we should not wave a fan because the nature of wind is ever present, and that we should feel the wind even when we don’t wave a fan, is to know neither ever-presence nor the wind’s nature. Since the wind’s nature is ever present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great Earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream. (Okumura 2010)

The “nature of wind” is buddha-nature, and “waving a fan” is spiritual practice. The essence of the question being discussed here is this: “Zen teaches that everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality, and this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious. Not only that: The universe is complete, luminous, and precious and you’re intimately part of its perfection whether you realize it or not. Realizing it for yourself is nice, but ultimate reality isn’t dependent on your realizing. So we don’t have to do anything, right?”

This is not a philosophical question, at least not as it’s presented by Dogen. This is about what really matters in life. It’s about how you should live out your aspirations and embody your natural compassion.

Should you “wave a fan,” or practice to improve yourself and the world? From the beginning, Buddhism has been about refusing to simply accept dukkha, or suffering, and instead to do something about it. We meditate, study, practice mindfulness, behave morally, and seek to let go of self-attachment and develop liberative insight.

And yet, part of the liberative insight is that we don’t exist as independent, inherent selves the way we think we do, and letting go of “I, me, and mine” relieves suffering. We discover that nothing has been lacking from the beginning, and everything and everyone is empty. Therefore, shouldn’t we let go of our very desire for things to be better in the world and in our own lives? After all, desire causes suffering, so if you can just accept things as they are, suffering ceases. This would be not waving a fan, but transcending our discomfort in the heat by connecting with the reality that there ultimately is no one sitting there sweating, and suffering is optional.

The Third Position, Not Stuck in Relative or Absolute

As Dogen presents this dilemma, he harkens back to the beginning of Genjokoan, where he presents three views of the Dharma (see Genjokoan 1 for a discussion). The first is the relative view of traditional Buddhism, which includes delusion and realization, practice, and buddhas versus ordinary living beings. The second is the absolute view of Mahayana Buddhism, which says everything is empty, so asks, “What delusion or realization? What practice? What buddhas? What living beings?” But the third view Dogen presents is the radical non-duality of Zen, which says relative and absolute are simply aspects of one reality, and don’t contradict one another.

In other words, there is a difference between a buddha and a living being, or there would be no Buddhism. Waving a fan can make you feel much cooler, and practice can relieve suffering. At the same time, it’s important to awaken to the reality of emptiness so we don’t get too caught up in a desperate effort to perfect our fan-waving and escape any discomfort – or so attached to our practice and our own liberation that we actually just get stuck in delusion and desire again. It really is possible to directly experience the heat without resistance, without conceiving of discomfort. Heat just is. Suffering just is. It’s all part of one, seamless reality and there’s actually no problem.

Still, reality “goes beyond the dichotomy” of absolute and relative, so fan-waving (that is, practice) can be undertaken with a full appreciation of emptiness. Ideally, we can energetically practice to improve ourselves and the world, even as we realize that, in a certain sense, there is nothing to improve, and no such thing as improvement. If we get stuck either in the relative or absolute perspectives, our practice and enlightenment will be incomplete. It’s only when we genuinely and delicately dance with our shifting reality that truly skillful practice emerges.

Why We Wave a Fan (Practice)

To put this in concrete terms, let’s return to the monk, the master, and the fan. Now, the monk has a point. Imagine the so-called master is sitting there in the heat, miserable and irritable, busily fanning himself and wishing he was able to escape to a cooler climate. We’ve all experienced this kind of dukkha, or dissatisfaction. Something is causing us pain or discomfort, but we add to our experience of dukkha with resistance – wishing things were different, or vigorously striving to feel better. The monk says, “The nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?” Or, “In an absolute sense there is no such thing as heat or cold, and you are empty of any inherent self-nature. As a Zen master you should know this. Why do you have to rely on a fan to relieve your discomfort?”

The monk has a valid question that can be extended to us. Through our own experience – or at least through our study of Zen teachings – we know suffering is something we create. But sometimes, despite what we know, we struggle. We ignore the Dharma and strive after conditional happiness by trying to rearrange the world around us.

However, that’s not what the Zen master of Mt. Magu was doing. He doesn’t get offended by the monk’s question, but says, “You know only that the wind’s nature is ever present—you don’t know that it permeates everywhere.” In other words, you have a sense of the absolute nature of things – or the sense in which differences between hot and cold, comfort and discomfort, self and environment are illusions. But you still don’t understand how relative and absolute are two sides of the same reality, or how the complete, luminous nature of that reality permeates everywhere – even when we’re engaged in a relative activity.

In response the monks asks, “How does wind permeate everywhere?” Or, “How does the complete, luminous nature of reality permeate everywhere?” The master answers by demonstrating: he keeps waving the fan. Vast, seamless reality includes everything – our struggle, our delusion, our aspiration, our practice, our efforts to improve, our discomfort, everything. A limited view sees practice as something we do in order to attain what we don’t yet have (liberation, peace, happiness…). A similarly limited view sees how we can attain what we long for by giving up longing for anything other than this – and therefore can see practice in the relative sense as a sort of delusion or waste of time. An integrated view recognizes the perfection of the whole crazy scene: the truth exists no matter what, and yet we don’t experience it without practice. Practice is the deeper truth manifesting – the divine, if you will, spurring us on from within.

The complete, luminous universe is complete and luminous because it includes our effort. How does the nature of wind, or buddha nature, permeate everywhere? Through our waving the fan. Not because we wave a fan, as if there is no wind until we do so (or, no buddha nature until we awaken it through practice). Rather, the moment of our fan-waving is a perfect example of the nature of wind permeating everywhere.

The moment when we place our shoes straight, or say a kind word to someone, or vow to release our anger and anxiety, we are enacting universal completeness and luminosity. When we see how this is so, we realize how precious this universe is (the gold of the great earth) and transform our lives (the long river) into something nourishing and delightful.

 


Sources

Dogen, Eihei. Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011.
Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

 

45 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 3: Prayer for Personal Transformation
47 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1: Do Something, Don’t Just Fall Asleep
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