40 - Being Beneficial Instead of Right: The Buddhist Concept of Skillful Means
42 - Buddha's Teachings Part 4: Right Speech - Factual, Helpful, Kind, Pleasant, and Timely

In this 4th episode of 5 on Zen master Dogen’s Genjokoan (written in 1233), I discuss the metaphors of the reflection of the moon in a dewdrop (ultimate reality reflected/realized by a limited person), and the different experiences of the ocean (the nature of relative and absolute truths).

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

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Moon in a Dewdrop: Individual Versus the Universal
How the Limited Reflects and Contains the Unlimited
Words About a Wordless Experience
Don’t Let Being a Dewdrop Stop You!
Relative and Absolute Truth
The Truth of Reality, or the Dharma
Living Without Any Fixed View
Sources

 

Today’s episode is part 4 of my series on the famous Zen text called “Genjokoan,” written in 1233 by Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen. I’m using the translation by Shohaku Okumura from his book, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Listen to – or read – the previous Genjokoan episodes for an introduction to the Zen concepts of “absolute” and “relative,” why the relationship between these two aspects of our experience is one of Zen’s central concerns, plus Dogen’s emphasis on radical non-duality, and his unique vision of practice and enlightenment.

Moon in a Dewdrop: Individual Versus the Universal

[From the Genjokoan:] When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky. The depth is the same as the height. [To investigate the significance of] the length and brevity of time, we should consider whether the water is great or small, and understand the size of the moon in the sky.[1]

In this passage of Genjokoan, the moon symbolizes the absolute, or unity, as described in earlier episodes. Everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality; this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious just as it is. Attaining realization means personally experiencing the absolute nature of reality, and thereby experiencing liberation from the delusion of the separateness of self (as well as liberation from other problematic delusions). The drop of water symbolizes a real person, like you or me – our particular manifestation in this life, which is as tiny, limited, and ephemeral compared to the rest of the universe as a dewdrop on a blade of grass.

It may help, here, to imagine what questions Dogen might be answering with this passage:

“I am so limited in my abilities, character, and understanding. Is it possible for someone like me to ‘attain realization?’”
“How is it possible to perceive, actualize, or be part of absolute reality while I remain an embodied, conditioned being deeply dependent on concepts like self, time, and space?”
“Why are people who have ‘attained realization’ still idiosyncratic, flawed human beings?”
“What good is ‘attaining realization’ if it doesn’t get rid of one’s problematic individuality?”

Essentially, all of these questions are about the relationship between realization of the absolute, and our relative existence. We may imagine people who experience awakening manage to work themselves into some transcendent state where – at least momentarily – they’re able to stick their heads out of their drop of water in order to experience something greater. Or their drop of water evaporates, or they bust out of it and renounce individuality in favor of reunion with the absolute (at least for a moment).

How the Limited Reflects and Contains the Unlimited

But this is not how realization works. We never get to peek outside of our drop of water, let alone bust out of it or manage to make it dissipate. So-called “realized” spiritual practitioners don’t achieve perfected or disembodied states. They don’t transcend ordinary, mundane reality, or – as it’s said in some Zen literature – the need to piss and shit. Dogen says, “Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water.”

In this lovely metaphor of the moon reflected in a drop of water, Dogen offers us a way to understand how realization is possible even though we are stuck in, or stuck being, our drop of water – that is, even though we never escape our karmically conditioned, mundane, embodied, short lives. Full realization is possible because, within your limited, relative experience, the absolute is reflected in its entirety. In this very place is reflected the entire universe – all of infinite space. In this very moment, this ungraspable instant, is reflected all of infinite time. So, it’s all here, within your actual experience. Within your life.

And yet – when you don’t perceive the absolute – that complete, luminous, precious reality – you may interpret the paragraph above as saying, “Your life, as you perceive it, is it. There’s nothing more.” I don’t know about you, but at certain times in my life I would have found such a statement profoundly discouraging.  Fortunately, the moon is a “vast and great light.” The entire moon can be seen in your little drop of water, but it’s not constrained to it. The same moon is reflected in every last dew drop and in every ocean, lake, and puddle. There is something greater. As Dogen says, “We should understand the size of the moon in the sky.”

It may sound pretty far out to propose that this instant reflects all of time, this place reflects all of space, and your little drop of water reflects the entire moon. Anyone skeptical of spiritual practice is likely to think such ideas are delusional. However, this interpenetration of absolute and relative is really not so remarkable. All it means is that at any given moment, at any given place, whatever is – including your bag of skin – is part of one, seamless, lively, reality. You’re part of the universe, and without you, it would not be the same universe. You’re who you are because of everything that surrounds you. You’re defined by your relationships to everything else, and everything else is defined, in part, by relationships to you – no matter how small or isolated you might feel. This moment is what it is because of everything that has come before. Everything you do will have some effect on the future. In your bag of skin is reflected the sun and moon, the earth, the force of gravity, and the wonder of evolution. Everything that every was or will be is reflected, in some way, right here.

Words About a Wordless Experience

Of course, this is an intellectual explanation of a wordless, real, embodied experience. You only perceive the absolute when you drop differentiation and allow yourself to be part of the one, seamless reality. At such a time you aren’t thinking about relationships, trying to track the passage of time, or cataloging all the things you can see reflected in your experience! There is a truth to these descriptions, but they make realization seem quite full of content when in actuality it’s just pure, direct experience of the flow of life.

Every metaphor breaks down after a while, and this is the case even with our lovely moon reflected in a drop of water. Such an image invites you to think the absolute lives outside you, and that you can experience It because It’s reflected within you. This thinking is still dualistic, dividing things up into absolute and relative, inside and outside. Actually, there is no moon and no drop of water – there is only that one, seamless, undifferentiated reality.

And yet. There is also the reality of differentiation and manifestation. In fact, there is no life, no Being, except through differentiation and manifestation – so of course, without the relative, there are no sentient beings to attain realization, and therefore no realization! So, when we’re talking about “realization” we go ahead and talk about the moon’s reflection in a drop of water. This limited metaphor describes one aspect of our experience as human beings.

Don’t Let Being a Dewdrop Stop You!

Given what Dogen has shared with us, we can try to answer those initial questions in modern-day English:

“I am so limited in my abilities, character, and understanding. Is it possible for someone like me to ‘attain realization?’” Yes. Stop using your limitations as an excuse not to seek a direct experience of awakening.

“How is it possible to perceive, actualize, or be part of absolute reality while I remain an embodied, conditioned being deeply dependent on concepts like self, time, and space?” You’re already part of absolute reality, and it’s reflected fully within your own, embodied experience. Your conditioning, attachments, and concepts obstruct only your vision, not absolute reality. Part those obscuring clouds for just a moment and the moon will shine through.

“Why are people who have ‘attained realization’ still idiosyncratic, flawed human beings?” As long as we are alive, we remain “drops of water.” “Realization does not destroy the person.” Why do we want it to? Because imperfect people create suffering and ugliness in the world? That’s certainly the case, but those imperfect people also manifest kindness, generosity, brilliance, and wisdom. There are no perfect people.

“What good is ‘attaining realization’ if it doesn’t get rid of one’s problematic individuality?” Before realization it’s your problematic individuality. After realization it’s your opportunity to manifest in the world. Your karmically conditioned, mundane, embodied, short life is your vehicle for action, and your field for cultivation. What are you going to do with it?

Relative and Absolute Truth

[From the Genjokoan:] When the Dharma has not yet fully penetrated body and mind, one thinks one is already filled with it. When the Dharma fills body and mind, one thinks something is [still] lacking. For example, when we sail a boat into the ocean beyond sight of land and our eyes scan [the horizon in] the four directions, it simply looks like a circle. No other shape appears. This great ocean, however, is neither round nor square. It has inexhaustible characteristics. [To a fish] it looks like a palace; [to a heavenly being] a jeweled necklace. [To us] as far as our eyes can see, it looks like a circle. All the myriad things are like this. Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see. When we listen to the reality of myriad things, we must know that there are inexhaustible characteristics in both ocean and mountains, and there are many other worlds in the four directions. This is true not only in the external world, but also right under our feet or within a single drop of water.[2]

We want the ultimate Truth to penetrate our body and mind because we want to live fully, authentically, and compassionately. We know Truth leads to such results because the ancestors have said so, but also because we have experienced this cause-and-effect connection ourselves, even if only in small ways. Still, what is the nature of Truth, or the Dharma? Dogen encourages us to investigate this question thoroughly.

Over our lifetimes we have accumulated many useful truths. We come to understand our own personalities, strengths, and shortcomings. We have learned facts and principles that help us successfully navigate the practical world. Through our personal – often painful – experience, we have learned about things like love, loss, growth, stagnation, responsibility, acceptance, anger, and forgiveness. We develop philosophies and views that help us make sense of the often-crazy world.

These are truths that apply in the relative world. We all hold the best truths we’ve been able to come up with, based on our particular experiences and perspectives. These relative truths allow us to function, but they are like the fish’s sense of water as a palace, and the heavenly being’s sense of water as a jeweled necklace. Over time, this is another truth we learn: everyone has their own perspective. We may believe our truth is more true or valid than someone else’s, and maybe we have a point, but there’s no denying the other person has their version of truth and they’re holding on to it.

The Truth of Reality, or the Dharma

The Dharma – the deepest spiritual Truth, whatever your spiritual path – is not like these relative truths. However, this is not because it’s a Truth that trumps all relative truths. If the Dharma were just a Truth that trumps all relative truths, Dogen would have said something like, “The ocean actually is a jeweled necklace; human beings and fish are just deluded.” Or he might have said, “The ocean is actually a circle.” In his book Realizing Genjokoan, Okumura suggests that seeing the ocean as a circle while riding in a boat in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight, symbolizes the experience of emptiness, the absolute, or non-differentiation. At such a time, we may realize in what sense everything is one, and assume that is reality. But Dogen doesn’t say, “The ocean is actually a circle.” Instead, Dogen lumps it in with all other views. Why?

Because it’s not that the absolute is true, while the relative is somehow less true. In other words, while in a sense everything is part of one, seamless reality, that’s not a Truth that trumps the fact that each thing has its place, and reality has innumerable characteristics. We are part of the seamless reality and therefore can directly taste its nature, but we can never know more than a few of its inexhaustible characteristics.

What does this teaching mean to us in daily life? It means we should maintain profound humility. We can never know anything completely in a relative sense – not even a drop of water! Within a single drop of water may be many tiny forms of life; dissolved elements other than water; physical forces like surface tension, and at the atomic level and beyond, realities that defy complete comprehension. Although the great spiritual masters may have had profound insight, their philosophies and teachings were constrained by their karma – at the very least by whether they were born as a human, fish, or heavenly being. As Dogen says, “We only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see.” Our most precious convictions are still just views.

Before we awaken to the Dharma – when it “has not yet fully penetrated body and mind” – we don’t fully appreciate the limitations of our relative views, or are attached to our view of the absolute, and we think we have some kind of handle on the Truth. Ironically, then, when the Dharma does fill our body and mind, we recognize “something is still lacking.” This lack isn’t about being inadequate or inferior or anything negative like that, it’s about awakening to the nature of reality, when any conclusion we draw is limited by our perspective. There’s no problem with that as long as we recognize it, which is why, earlier in Genjokoan, Dogen said “Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas.”

Living Without Any Fixed View

Although Dogen encourages us to awaken to, and accept, the relativity of all of our views and opinions, this teaching also means we should fully inhabit, claim, express, and live our various truths without shame or apology. For a fish, water is a palace. For us, water is a liquid we use to quench our thirst, wash our bodies, or place our boats on. In his book, Okumura says our relative relationship to water – and to everything – creates our reality. There is no real, absolute, fixed view, compared to which other views are false or incomplete. There is no inherent reality to anything that can be defined as “Truth” and then viewed different ways. In a sense, in the realm of the relative, there is only relationship and view.

What is the real, full Dharma – which, when it penetrates our body and mind, robs us of any sense that we have It? Is this world just relativistic and ungraspable, which I personally find a depressing thought? Is there anything that’s not just a view? Yes! There is! But I can only show you by walking over and thumping you on the head. Or insisting you drink your tea. I can’t adequately express it in words, but LIFE itself is not a view.

[I’ll devote one more episode to Genjokoan to finish the text – stay tuned in the new year!]


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.

Endnotes

[1] Translation by Okumura in Realizing Genjokoan
[2] Translation by Okumura in Realizing Genjokoan

 

40 - Being Beneficial Instead of Right: The Buddhist Concept of Skillful Means
42 - Buddha's Teachings Part 4: Right Speech - Factual, Helpful, Kind, Pleasant, and Timely
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