34 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 1: Non-Duality, Intimacy, and Enlightenment
36 - Buddha's Teachings Part 3: The Noble Eightfold Path


My second episode focused on the famous Zen text “Genjokoan,” written by Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen in 1233. In this episode I cover “the moon reflected in water” section, and the “to study Buddhism is to study the self” section.

Read/listen to Genjokoan Part 1 



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Nature of Our Experience of Absolute and Relative
Perceiving Versus Participating in Reality
Absolute and Relative – Illuminating Only One Side at a Time?
Learning the Self
The “True” Self Which Is One with the Universe


This episode is part 2 of my series focusing on the famous Zen text called “Genjokoan.” As I explained in the last episode, the author of this essay is Eihei Dogen, a Japanese Zen master born in the year 1200. I’ll continue working our way through the text verse by verse, using the translation from Shohaku Okumura’s book, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. I advise listening to the first Genjokoan episode if you haven’t already done so, because in the interest of minimizing repetition, I’m going to assume you’ve already heard my discussion of the meaning of the text’s title, “Genjokoan,” as well as my introduction to the following three weighty topics:

  • The concepts of “absolute” and “relative” in Zen, and why the relationship between these two aspects of our experience is one of Zen’s central concerns;
  • Dogen’s emphasis on radical non-duality – reminding us not to get stuck thinking only in relative terms, or only in absolute terms;
  • Dogen’s vision of the nature of practice and enlightenment.

We will, of course, be continuing to develop our understanding of these topics in this episode. Note: in the interest of providing variety in your listening pleasure, I’ll take a break from our study of Genjokoan next week in order to cover a different kind of topic, and then I’ll return to it.

The Nature of Our Experience of Absolute and Relative

So, on to the next section of Genjokoan:

[From the Genjokoan:] “In seeing color and hearing sound with body and mind, although we perceive them intimately, [the perception] is not like reflections in a mirror or the moon in water. When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.”

Personally, I really like the translation of the first sentence by Robert Aitken and Kaz Tanahashi in the book Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries (Counterpoint Press, 2012): “When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharmas intimately.” (Here, “dharmas” a lower-case-d “dharmas,” which simply means “things.”) The subject of this sentence points to one of the most essential aspects of Zen practice: learning to tune into our unmitigated, direct experience using our entire being: body-and-mind as one organism. This is seeing and hearing (as well as tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking) while “fully engaging body-and-mind.” When we do this, there is no sense of “self” as separate from the things the “self” is perceiving. At such a time, we “intuit dharmas intimately,” and experience our lives in a direct, fresh, and vital way – rather than through the filter of our concepts and views. Every diligent Zen student should ask themselves deeply, “What is this activity of intuiting dharmas intimately, or experiencing things directly? What is it like?”

Ironically, unmitigated, direct experience is simultaneously remarkable and utterly ordinary. It so defies discursive explanation that we often turn to poetic language and imagery to express it, like Japanese Soto Zen priest and Dogen scholar Bokusan Nishiari (1821-1910) does in his commentary in the book Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries:

“Lingyun [an ancestral Zen master] had realization when looking at peach blossoms; it’s seeing forms with bright mind. Xiangyan [Shiang-yan, another ancestor] had realization through the sound of a stone striking bamboo; it’s hearing the sound and being enlightened with the Way…

“‘You intuit dharmas intimately.’ This is good. There is no dharma outside of the self, and there is no self outside of the dharma. Facing forms, the entire body becomes forms. Facing voice, the entire body becomes voice. The self and the object become not-two. At the time of ‘seeing peach blossoms,’ the entire world becomes peach blossoms. At the time of ‘hitting bamboo,’ the entire world is ‘crack!’ That’s the moment when the forms are truly seen and the voice is truly heard. At this moment you intimately intuit it.”[1]

These Zen practitioners, Lingyun and Xiangyan, are said to have studied diligently for a long time, but unequivocally experienced the absolute dimension of their lives only when they finally really saw the peach blossoms, or really heard the sound of a stone striking a stalk of bamboo. In one sense, this complete, unmitigated experience is profound, but it’s also very simple. When there is no separation between self and the world, there is only this moment’s radiant occurrence. Significantly, it’s not radiant because it’s great as compared to our ordinary daily experience; it’s radiant because that’s the nature of reality.

Perceiving Versus Participating in Reality

But then Dogen warns us that this experience of reality is “not like reflections in a mirror or the moon in water.” In what sense? What does this warning mean, and why does he offer it?

Think of the nature of a reflection. It’s two dimensional. The mirror or the water is passive and separate, reflecting something outside.

If we act like a mirror, we may be very still, clear, empty of self-concern and perceiving things in a very objective way, but there is still a sense that there’s an “I” that’s observing, perceiving, or reflecting the universe “out there.” What we reflect may seem beautiful and grand, but it’s really just our image or idea of reality, not reality itself.

In contrast, as I described in the last episode (Episode 34, under What Is the Nature of Awakening?), “In the moment of prajna, or enlightenment, we all participate in reality together. Reality includes unity and difference at the same time.” In a moment of total absorption, when we truly “intuit dharmas intimately,” there is no sense of that “I” am reflecting or intuiting – no sense that “I” have now perceived reality directly. All beings and things awaken with you, through you, and you through them.

Absolute and Relative – Illuminating Only One Side at a Time?

Now we get to the line that has always been troublesome to me: “When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.”

I think many people see this sentence as saying that when we “see forms or hear sounds while fully engaging body-and-mind” and “intuit dharmas intimately,” we engage the absolute dimension of our lives – and therefore the “self,” and the relative dimension, is in the “dark,” or not perceptible. Presumably then, the opposite is true: when we experience a sense of self and operate in the relative world, the absolute dimension is in the dark, or not perceptible. After all, unlike the reflection in a mirror, life is three-dimensional, so there is always a side you’re not seeing. You’re either operating “in” the relative, or “in” the absolute.

This line of the Genjokoan has always bothered me because of this interpretation, which seems very dualistic to me. It seems to suggest we’re doomed to be separate from a unified experience of reality as long as we have any sense of self, or as long as we want to operate in the relative world.

Even if this is not what various authors and teachers have meant in their commentaries on Genjokoan, this is an interpretation I believe is carried – consciously or unconsciously – by many Zen students: We figure that our lives will be mostly “spent” in the relative, nourished by vague memories of our past experiences of the absolute. Then, at certain times, we get the opportunity to “switch modes” and tap into the absolute – understanding, of course, that “we” aren’t even really there to experience it. This description of having to switch between absolute and relative certainly manages to express our experience of practice, at least early on in our training, or at certain times.

But Dogen’s Zen has got to be deeper than that, doesn’t it? What happens if we depart from the dualistic interpretation I just described?

Nishiari, the Japanese Dogen scholar I quoted earlier, seems to interpret the meaning of “dark” in a non-dualistic way, taking it to refer to “all things merging in darkness.” As we’ve discussed, in Zen, dark often signifies the absolute, or non-differentiated reality; in this case Nishiari seems to be proposing that when you intimately intuit dharmas, there is no “other side:”

“When we intuit that the self and outer realm are not two, but one, there is not a second person throughout heaven and earth. When we illuminate one side, the dharmadhatu [the realm of the absolute] becomes one side, the ten directions [the cardinal directions plus up and down, meaning everywhere] become dark and all collapse.”[2]

Nishiari continues, suggesting that if our limited, one-sided illumination is complete, we touch the infinite:

“This one side merges with all dharmas in darkness and there is nothing left out. It’s called dark. One dharma comprehends myriad dharmas in darkness.”

There is nothing left out. Any experience, any insight, any view is partial, but when we completely illuminate it, the whole universe is revealed within it. (Don’t worry if you don’t get this right away – other parts of the Genjokoan address this point, so we’ll return to it later.)

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.

What does this mean for our actual, daily practice? It means we can rely on the fact that we are not cut off from the absolute just because we manifest as a person. In a moment of wholehearted participation in reality, the self is there; it still has a limited view, but by its wholehearted participation it realizes the whole of reality through just what it can see and experience and know. This “self,” of course, is not the conventional self that is defined by our relationships and details (that self is actually fairly easy to forget). The “self” that participates wholeheartedly is the Self that lies underneath all of our details – a momentarily-separate parcel of life that wonders about existence and absolute reality.

We don’t have wait until we’ve managed to get rid of our sense of self in order to intuit dharmas intimately with our whole body-and-mind. So, we’d better get busy.

Learning the Self

Now we come to what is probably the most famous verse of the Genjokoan, which pretty much sums up all of Zen practice:

[From the Genjokoan:] “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.”

As Shohaku Okumura says in Realizing Genjokoan, the word translated as “to study” is narau, which means “to get accustomed to,” or “to become familiar with.”[iii] This isn’t intellectual study.

To put it another way, “to become familiar with the Buddha Way is to become familiar with the self.” I also like the translation “to learn,” which makes it, “to learn the Buddha Way is to learn the self.”

What is the nature of this self we are becoming familiar with, or “learning?”

We’re taught in Buddhism that we should see beyond, and let go of attachment to, our “small” self – the karmically conditioned self, the self of details and relative relationships: our body, thoughts, emotions, opinions, desires, possessions, abilities, etc.

Do we study this “small self” in Buddhism? Isn’t the point to forget that self? Aren’t we told from the beginning that this small self is empty of inherent, enduring self-nature and doesn’t even really exist the way we think it does?

Many people are surprised to find that we do, indeed, study the Buddha Way – at least at first – by studying the small self. It’s the only self we know! And we “study” it even though, as Okumura points out, this suggests a separation between “I,” “the self,” and the “Buddha Way” – and there really is no such separation. At first, however, we feel there is – and that’s where we have to start.

In zazen, and in whatever stillness we can summon in the rest of our life, we pay attention to ourselves. This doesn’t mean getting caught up in the details, but observing carefully. What do we think? What do we feel? What triggers us? When do we feel small and defensive, and when do we feel relaxed and intimate? Why do we feel what we feel? What do we fear? What do we hope for? Who do we think we are? What is it like when our self-consciousness falls away for a moment? What makes that happen?

We don’t intellectually investigate these questions, and we don’t have to go through them systematically like a course of required study. We just cultivate awareness of what’s going on in our body-mind, every moment we can manage. We become familiar with our own living.

The online Oxford dictionary (www.oxforddictionaries.com) defines self in three ways:

  1. A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
  2. A person’s particular nature or personality; the qualities that make a person individual or unique.
  3. One’s own interests or pleasure.

These three are the conventional aspects of self we let go of when we sit zazen. Eventually we start to see how ephemeral all the aspects of small self are, and recognize how most of our sense of self is just an elaborate story. We gain insight when we manage, for a moment, to completely let go of that story.

The “True” Self Which Is One with the Universe

And yet, even when we relinquish our attachment to self – we’re still there. We don’t disappear or go brain-dead. Who’s still there? In what sense, even at such a moment, is there a self? Why does Dogen say, “Sitting is itself the true form of the self?” Why does he say “All things coming and carrying our practice-enlightenment through the self is realization?” Why all this talk about self, even after we’ve let go of a sense of a separate, independent, inherent, enduring self?

Even though, in a moment of unmitigated, direct experience of reality, all things participate in reality together and it’s not a matter of self realizing something outside of self… there remains an aspect of our experience that can be called “self.” This self, as Okumura says, is “one with the universe,” but it somehow still makes sense to refer to self. Why? When the self is one with the universe, doesn’t that mean self is obliterated because there is no individuality anymore? Doesn’t that mean there is essentially no self? Isn’t self an illusion? What does “self” mean if it isn’t about distinguishing us from others?

Personally, I like to think of our deeper self, our “true” self, our self which is one with the universe, as more or less synonymous with life. Or, more accurately, living – because it’s about a moment to moment unfolding, not a concept that can be delineated and put on a shelf (such that you could place “life” in a box next to “death” or “non-life”).

Our actual experience of living in a moment of enlightenment is the interpenetration of absolute and relative. Our life is not our own, and our experience of living is without boundary. There is no territory that belongs exclusively to the self. And yet – there is living, and that living is manifesting, in part, through our body and mind.

We sometimes call this aliveness “self” (often self with a capital “S,” or “true self”) in order to point to the vivid reality of direct experience and awareness. You can only participate in reality with your body and mind. You can’t leap into another realm of existence. Your aliveness remains, but you recognize all things are also aliveness. So, in some senses this is about an expanded sense of self – but with no central reference point.

Even though body and mind – as concepts we cling to – have to drop off, we work toward that
“dropping off” by studying the self based on our current understanding of what that self is. We have to start where we are, not imagine what an enlightened perspective would be like. At first, studying the self in this way may feel mundane and rather grueling, like having to sit in the middle of your own mess and look at it without any distraction at all.

Gradually we become more familiar with self, and look beyond our limited sense of it. “What more is there?” We wonder. We finally get so fascinated by living this moment that we forget the details of our lives, and our delusive identification with the details of our small self drops away. Then all things participate with us in a moment of pure reality, and we finally identify with Something Greater. (Or, as Dogen says, we are verified by all things.)

What does this mean to our everyday practice? That our way, the Buddha Way, is to fully explore the matter of our living. Who are you? Do you know? Are you willing to let all things verify you? Don’t you want that kind of intimacy? It’s not far away, it’s right here.

Read/listen to Genjokoan Part 3


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.



[1] Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries, pg. 51-2
[2] Dogen’s Genjokoan: Three Commentaries, pg. 54
[3] Okumura pg. 76


34 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 1: Non-Duality, Intimacy, and Enlightenment
36 - Buddha's Teachings Part 3: The Noble Eightfold Path