Part of my Buddhist Texts series, this episode focuses on a famous Zen text called “Genjokoan,” written by Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen in 1233. Genjokoan is one of the most popular and widely studied of Dogen’s essays. In the interest of unlocking it’s profound teaching for you, I’ll proceed through the essay verse by verse over the course of a few episodes.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Meaning of the Title, “Genjokoan”
The Basic Buddhist Teachings
Mahayana Teachings of Emptiness
Dogen’s Pointing toward Radical Non-Duality
Our Relationship with All Things in the Universe
My Story about Oneness with a Flower
What is the Nature of Awakening?
This episode is part of my Buddhist Texts series, and it focuses on a famous Zen text called “Genjokoan.” The author of this relatively short text – an essay, really – is Eihei Dogen, a Japanese Zen master born in the year 1200. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk at age 13, and eventually traveled all the way to China to get answers to his burning spiritual questions. When he got those answers, he went back to Japan and established his own monastery, where he taught a form of Zen that was called “Caodong” in China, and came to be called “Soto” in Japan. Dogen was a prolific writer, producing close to 100 dense and poetic essays like Genjokoan, along with other texts. Ironically, Dogen’s writings fell into obscurity not long after his death and have really only become popular again within the last hundred years or so, but today his teachings are revered throughout the Zen Buddhist world as deeply profound and eloquent.
Genjokoan is the first essay in a collection of Dogen’s writings called the Shobogenzo, or “The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” Genjokoan is also one of the most popular and widely studied of Dogen’s essays, because, as Dogen’s writings go, it’s pretty down-to-earth and accessible. That said, accessibility is relative, and the meaning of Genjokoan is still not immediately obvious to someone unfamiliar with Buddhism, Zen, and particularly with the poetic imagery used by Dogen and by Chan or Zen writers in general. And even once you know what a particular passage is trying to say, really understanding it for yourself is, of course, another matter entirely.
In the interest of unlocking the profound teaching of the Genjokoan for you, I’ll proceed through the essay verse by verse. First, I’ll talk about the widely accepted interpretations of the language and imagery Dogen uses, so you can get a sense of the teaching being conveyed in a more or less objective sense (although Dogen’s essays really do read more like poetry than prose much of the time, so there’s always a measure of speculation when interpreting or translating them). After I give you the basic interpretation of a verse, I’ll then spend a little time trying to explain it from the point of view of Zen practice – which of course means I’ll be adding another layer of interpretation. Because we’ll be considering the text so thoroughly, it will take us several episodes to get through it. Next week’s episode will continue with Genjokoan, and then I’ll take a break to visit a different topic before returning to it.
I invite you follow along and allow Dogen’s words – as well as the interpretations – to flow into your consciousness and out again, without trying too hard to figure it all out intellectually. The most powerful aspects of Dogen’s writings, for many of us, tend to be their evocative quality – again, like poetry. Even though you intellectually may not have any kind of grasp of what Dogen’s talking about, you might find something within you stirred by his language, as if, at some deep level, you’re familiar with the truth he’s pointing to. I advise you to honor and explore those stirrings, and even to practice translating some Dogen passages into your own words – you might be surprised how much of his teaching you actually do understand!
One last note before I begin working my way through Genjokoan: for the translation of the text, and for much of the interpretation of it, I am indebted to Shokaku Okumura’s book, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. (Click here for a pdf of Okumura’s translation.) Another good text is Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries. Note: no other piece of Dogen’s writing has so much material available on it, so Genjokoan is a great place to begin your Dogen study.
The Meaning of the Title, “Genjokoan”
To begin our study of Genjokoan, then, we should first consider the title. Okumura sensei says the Japanese character genjo means “reality actually and presently taking place” and koan refers to the intersection of two aspects of reality: the individual, or relative, and the universal, or absolute. Therefore, Okumura translates Genjokoan to mean “to answer the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity.” Other translations of the title are, “Actualization of Reality,” “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” and “The Realized Law of the Universe.” (Click here to read a bunch of different translations of Genjokoan.)
My version of the title of Genjokoan is this: Honoring and manifesting the relative and absolute dimensions in your life, simultaneously. Some background on the whole Zen teaching of absolute and relative will be useful, here: early on in the development of Chan Buddhism in 7th and 8th century China, it began to describe reality as having two aspects, or dimensions: the relative, and the absolute. In the relative sense, we’re all separate individuals, and we need to discriminate one thing from another, and define things through comparison: tall and short, good and bad, profound and mundane. But all discriminations are relative, and in truth the boundaries between things are arbitrary and largely conceptual. In the absolute sense, we’re all just parts of one, seamless reality, and we share the same fundamental nature – existent and empty at the same time. (Click here for a handy chart comparing and contrasting the absolute and relative dimensions of reality.)
Don’t worry if this discussion of absolute and relative doesn’t make sense to you right away, because it’s basically the subject of the whole Genjokoan and we’ll be exploring it a lot more. Actually, the relationship between the absolute and relative is one of the primary concerns of Zen as a whole, so this topic shows up all the time, in all kinds of Zen teachings. The “two sides” are identified using many different paired words and images: unity and individuality, one and many, emptiness and form, dark and light, buddhas and ordinary suffering beings, enlightenment and delusion.
Why is this whole topic of absolute versus relative so central in Zen? It’s not purely philosophical. We experience the relative as we navigate our daily lives, relying on our ability to compare and discriminate in order to make decisions. The relative is the world of self versus other, good versus bad, success versus failure, gain versus loss. It’s our experience of individuality and separateness – a rich dimension of our life, but the relative world can also be exhausting, overwhelming, isolating, and depressing. The absolute dimension of our life is what we remember at certain moments when we have a sense of a larger, underlying meaning or connection – a sense of God, or the divine, or the “more,” or whatever you want to call it. When we taste the absolute dimension of our life, things may make sense, or seem worth it, or appear profoundly beautiful and complete even though they’re utterly ordinary.
In our daily lives, the absolute and relative dimensions of reality sometimes appear to be in contradiction – or at the very least we experience one side and then the other, bouncing between the two. Where is our experience of the divine when we’re upset with traffic? Where is our anger when we’re experiencing the divine? Genjokoan is about our practice with this. How do we live in harmony with – not just understand – the two aspects of reality, which are simultaneously true and mutually interdependent? I invite you to ask yourself deeply, “What does this koan/question mean to me? How does it manifest in my life? Why should I care? Are there any moments in my life when I honor the absolute and the relative in the same moment?”
The Basic Buddhist Teachings
Genjokoan begins with three statements about life, or reality, each from a different dharmic perspective. The first is this:
Okumura explains that the first sentence here refers to the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha – foundational Buddhism, in other words. The first “dharma” is a lowercase-d dharma, which just means “things.” The second “dharma,” part of the term Buddha Dharma, is capital-d Dharma, meaning “truth” or “teaching.” So, when you view reality – all things – from the point of view of Buddhist practice and teaching (“all dharmas are the Buddha Dharma”), “there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings.”
To explain this list of things which are aspects of Buddhism: According to the teachings of the Buddha, your experience of reality is profoundly impacted by the state of your mind, or your views. If you are “deluded” – if you don’t understand the true nature of reality, including the nature of self – you inevitably create stress and suffering for yourself and others. “Realization,” on the other hand, liberates us from the cycle of transmigration – or the endless process of “birth, or life, and death,” rebirth, and generation of karma that keeps the whole cycle going. We achieve realization through “practice,” and those who attain full realization and liberation are buddhas, or “awakened ones,” as compared to us ordinary “living beings.”
I talk about these foundational, original Buddhist teachings in Episodes 9 (Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment: What Did He Realize?) and 27 (Buddha’s Teachings Part 2: The Four Noble Truths), so I won’t explain them further here. The important thing to realize about this passage in the Genjokoan is that it occurs at the very beginning – stating up front the foundational truths of original Buddhism, in condensed form – and that it is part of a three-sentence verse. The next line of Genjokoan states the emptiness aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, contrasting it with the description of reality from the point of view of original Buddhism. The third sentence then reconciles the two sides, reminding us that both are true simultaneously.
Mahayana Teachings of Emptiness
[From the Genjokoan:] When the ten thousand dharmas are without [fixed] self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no living beings, no birth and no death.
In short, all things, including people, objects, and ideas, are “empty” of inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. Things don’t exist in-and-of-themselves in the way we think they do. Ultimately, the boundaries between things can’t be pinned down, and there is no permanent self-essence to be found within them. Everything is impermanent, and each thing is what it is because of its relationship to everything else. In order to function in the world – to make decisions, act, and communicate – we conceive of things like delusion, realization, and buddhas, but ultimately even these things are empty.
Why is it important to contrast the teaching of emptiness with the statement about the foundational truths of Buddhism? The teaching of emptiness is a medicine to treat the problem of attachment, and we can become attached to Buddhism just like anything else. It’s easy to imagine, isn’t it, that as Buddhists we could enshrine the concepts of delusion, practice, realization, and suffering, and imbue them with self-nature and permanence, or as Okumura says, make them into “irrefutable truths.”
Imagine us correcting and editing one another: “Oh, don’t do that, that’s just being attached!” Or “Of course, I shouldn’t really care because everything is impermanent.” Or, “Do you think so-and-so is a Buddha yet?” We could start to vilify desire or delusion of any kind, or withdraw from life because it’s just a source of dissatisfaction or suffering, or we could get self-righteous with the people we know who don’t practice. We can, essentially, end up using the Buddhadharma as a tool of self – making the self feel more substantial, important, and secure – and superior to all those ordinary attached beings who suffer in delusion.
Not only that: According to the Mahayana, insight into emptiness is an essential part of the Buddhist path. If you stop with a limited understanding of original Buddhism, you may end up stuck in duality, or in the relative dimension of good and bad, deluded and enlightened. There’s plenty of beneficial work to be done in the relative realm, but true liberation – according to the Mahayanists – requires us to awaken to absolute dimension of reality as well.
Dogen’s Pointing toward Radical Non-Duality
This brings us to the third sentence of the first, three-part verse of the Genjokoan, where Dogen points us toward the radical non-duality of Zen:
[From the Genjokoan:] Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.
Essentially, Dogen is reminding us not to get stuck even in the duality of relative versus the absolute. According to Okumura, “abundance,” here, refers to “positive” things like realization, arising, and buddhas, while “deficiency” refers to their opposites. The “Buddha Way” – or the path of according with reality – goes beyond such a dichotomy. In other words, our life has both a relative and absolute dimension, but reality itself transcends such a distinction. Sure, everything is empty, but there’s still life, isn’t there? Despite the fact that even Buddhism and practice are empty, delusion does lead to suffering, suffering hurts, and practice helps.
Because emptiness does not actually negate relative reality, Dogen restates the reality of “arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas” – and yet, because of the truth of the first two sentences, this third sentence is different. It’s not just a restatement of the first statement from the point of view of original Buddhism. With full consideration of both the relative dimension of delusion-versus-realization and the absolute dimension where no such distinctions exist, we arrive at an integrated sense of reality which doesn’t deny anything.
How do we enact Dogen’s teaching, and avoid getting caught in either the relative or the absolute view? We realize our liberation is constantly enacted in the daily dance of life. We only know emptiness because there are things and people and experiences to be empty (emptiness is not something that exists separate from form, as I explain in Episode 19 on the Heart Sutra). We only know non-attachment because we have loved, gotten attached and let go. Even a moment of perfect liberation is experienced through your body and your senses, and along with the floor, the light, and your surroundings.
In our practice, we first give up resistance to impermanence and no-self, and this is liberating. Then we give up resistance to the ungraspable nature of liberation, letting go even of setting ourselves up in opposition to relative world of stress and suffering. Then we turn toward all of existence – including struggle, suffering, and delusion – as being inseparable from the Great Reality we want to know intimately. Complete Buddhist practice and liberation, then, at least from the Zen point of view, includes three steps: 1) relative practice to clear away delusion and relieve suffering, 2) awakening to emptiness in order to appreciate the absolute dimension of our lives, and 3) a transcendence of the duality of absolute versus relative.
This transcendence of duality is Genjokoan, or “honoring and manifesting the relative and absolute dimensions in your life, simultaneously.” The rest of Dogen’s essay uses a series of images and metaphors to describe the experience and practice of Genjokoan.
Our Relationship with All Things in the Universe
[From the Genjokoan:] Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.
To paraphrase: Despite our preferences, our lives are inevitably filled with things that cause us discomfort and pain (that is, weeds) and the things we love change or pass away (those are the flowers). This causes us dukkha (stress, dissatisfaction, or suffering), so we engage in spiritual practice in order to free ourselves from dukkha. After all, that’s what the original Buddhist teachings tell us to do! If we free ourselves from delusion, we can attain liberation.
However, this approach – seeking enlightenment for ourselves – is limited. It’s “conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment.” (Note, instead of simply saying “enlightenment,” Dogen often used Japanese terms that are best translated as “practice-hyphen-enlightenment,” because he strongly emphasized practice and enlightenment are one and the same thing.) As long as we go about seeking enlightenment for our own benefit – in the same way that we go about the other activities of our lives, trying to change or achieve something for ourselves – we remain stuck in delusion. We still see ourselves as separate from all that is, and cling to relative world of good and bad. We may strive and strive – reading, meditating, trying to be good people – but somehow our spiritual aspirations elude us.
Dogen says, then, that realization is when “all things come and carry our practice-enlightenment through the self.” What does this mean? Clearly it is not something “we” do in the ordinary sense of the word. This is a very subtle teaching that may best be expressed by a story:
My Story about Oneness with a Flower
“Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.”
Before any spiritual practice, we’re completely absorbed in the relative and don’t even question it. If I’m looking at a flower, there’s me, and there’s a flower. It’s obvious. I have my existence, and each thing or being I encounter has its own existence. We may be related in some way – I may notice and value a flower because it’s beautiful, or I may know the flower’s a weed and think of getting rid of it, or maybe I hardly notice the flower at all. There is me moving through life encountering different things that make my life pleasant or unpleasant, easy or difficult. No matter how I feel about things, inevitably flowers fall and weeds grow. Sometimes life is good, and sometimes it sucks.
Then I experience what Buddhists call the arising of “The Mind That Seeks the Way” – I encounter an inspiring spiritual practice and consider the possibility that there’s a different way of living. I hear about unity, or absolute reality. It sounds intriguing, and I’d like to understand more – and maybe even experience some of it for myself, because it seems like it would really change my outlook on life. So, I set out to find that flower again, and this time I’m really going to look at it. Buddhism says that ultimately my “self” is empty and there is no separation between me and all things – and I want to experience that.
“Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.”
So, I sit next to the flower and try to look at it without any sense of separation from it. I try to drop my sense of self, to let go, to allow my mind to settle to the point where there are no thoughts. I sit zazen for many hours at a time in retreat, stay up late at night sitting, try to reach an altered state where the sense of separation will fall away. But no matter how hard I try – no matter what I try – there’s still me staring at the flower, a brutal and undeniable reality of difference.
This is what I think Dogen means by “conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice enlightenment.” Unfortunately, it’s a stage we can’t skip. We don’t understand how it’s delusion until we try it, exhaust it, and eventually give up on it.
To return to my story, then, I reach this point of exhaustion and give up. However, I don’t give up practice; that’s become a deeply ingrained habit. I still sit zazen, and try to pay attention to reality. I do give up any hope for the special experience of the absolute I wanted. I find myself worn down, transparent, bored with myself and ready to try something different. Essentially, I’ve given up any hope for my self – that I’m going to get something out of this practice.
“All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”
Because I’m still practicing, I end up looking at the flower again. As I do so, I am well trained so I don’t jump into the old narrative assumption of me on my self-interested journey through life, encountering a flower that may or may not seem beautiful to me. At the same time, I now look at the flower with no spiritual agenda. Not trying to see it as empty, not trying to feel one with it, nothing. Just looking, like when we’re just sitting in zazen.
At last: There is the flower and me and the dirt and the breeze and the warmth of the sun and the ant crawling by… and everything – including me but with no special emphasis on me – is one, luminous, precious reality. There isn’t me realizing how it’s all one, luminous, precious reality (at least, not until later) – in the moment of prajna, or enlightenment, we all participate in this reality together. This reality includes unity and difference at the same time, and (a little poetry of my own):
The teachings of the buddhas and ancestors are written in all the atoms and cells,
and each manifestation loudly proclaims the truth by its very existence.
But actually, no comment is necessary. It’s just things as they are.
What is the Nature of Awakening?
Before we wrap up, let’s explore one more verse:
[From the Genjokoan:] Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion. When buddhas are truly buddhas they don’t need to perceive they are buddhas; however, they are enlightened buddhas and they continue actualizing buddha.
“Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas.”
Buddhas are awakened beings. We wonder what buddhas are like, and what awakening is like. We imagine that if we’re awakened we will “wake up to” some great reality that’s different from the reality we already know. We imagine we’ll see in what way everything is perfect just as it is, or how all is one and we’re not separate from anything, and therefore we’ll feel inspired to shed our egocentricity and self-concern.
But in a moment of awakening there is only awakening to the way we obscure reality from ourselves – therefore each person’s path is their own, and unique. We are not awakening to a great abstract philosophical view, we are waking up from our own self-imposed dream and encountering reality itself. Therefore, buddhas are simply those who “greatly realize delusion.”
“Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings.”
Even when we are deluded we are in realization. What does this mean? If we don’t realize we’re in it, what does it mean to be in realization, and what good does it do us? Who is realizing what?
If in the moment of awakening there is no one to realize – there is just life as it is, a complete whole – realization is not something that happens to people. It’s simply reality. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about “being in” realization this way, with no one to realize, but because of reality there always exists the potential of realization. We are constantly surrounded by the stuff of realization, which is reality itself. We can’t not be in reality. Still, there is a big difference between our subjective experience of being awake, and being caught up in self-centered dream, so it is said we are “greatly deluded in realization.”
An old Buddhist story illustrates this point beautifully. A man stays overnight at his friend’s house, and while he’s sleeping, his host sews a valuable jewel into his cloak. The cloaked man then wanders for many years, slipping into deep poverty and despondency. Eventually he visits his friend again, only to have the friend show him how was carrying wealth with him all the time, sewn into his cloak. The man had lived as if he was poor even though he was wealthy. There was a big difference in his subjective experience before and after realizing his wealth, but the reality had not changed.
When we are living in poverty despite the jewel in our coats, or greatly deluded within realization, we are (ordinary) living beings. This is not pejorative, it’s just an observation.
“Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.”
Dogen can’t be satisfied with a tidy analogy. If he left us with buddhas realizing delusion and living beings being deluded about, or in, realization, that would be too easy. We’d fall into dualistic thinking, wondering if we’re really awake or not, or whether we’ve found the jewel in our cloak or not. Am I a living being at this moment, or a buddha? Hmmm, I guess if I’m thinking about it, I’m a living being.
So, he goes further: the moment we become aware of awakening, we inhabit the world of living beings again. Just being, moment after moment, is realization beyond any discrimination of realization.
We may pity ourselves because we’re just “living beings” at any given moment, but if we know there are moments of awakening, we’re not completely deluded. At other times we are lost in delusion and believe that’s all there is in life – and that, I think, may be what Dogen means by being deluded within delusion.
“When buddhas are truly buddhas they don’t need to perceive they are buddhas;”
This is really about what we hope for: that we will reach oneness or awakening or whatever and be able to know it – to contrast our experience as a buddha with that of our experience as a living being and say, “Oh, this is much better.” When we are living beings, we imagine that when we manage to become buddhas we will be fundamentally better people, or in possession of something special. But this is not the nature of awakening.
Fortunately, we don’t need to perceive we are buddhas, or awakened, in order for buddhahood or awakening to be wonderful, essential, and worthwhile. That’s all we really care about, after all; the identification of self with enlightenment is just an extra agenda added by the ego. This is why Dogen says need, not just “they don’t perceive they are buddhas” – which is also true, but not the point here, because:
“however, [even though they do not perceive they are buddhas] they are enlightened buddhas and they continue actualizing buddha.”
Somehow, being awakened does not involve a consciousness of being awakened, but there is still awakening. Think about this. How can this be? How can we be awake without having a sense that “I” am awake? Sometimes we lose our sense of self-consciousness in activity, entertainment, or thinking, but then we cannot be said to be awake in this liberative sense.
How can we be awake – engaged, aware, alive, ready – without self-consciousness? This is our koan, or the big question in our Zen practice. We explore this question for ourselves in our zazen, in retreats, in our daily lives. It’s because this question is so central that we study the Genjokoan.
 Okumura pg 21
 Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985
 Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994
 All translations of the Genjokoan in this episode are from Okumura 2010