36 - Buddha's Teachings Part 3: The Noble Eightfold Path
38 - The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship

 

In part 3 of my series on the famous Zen text called “Genjokoan,” written in 1233 by Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen, I discuss the sections about seeking the Dharma, riding in a boat (recognizing self-nature is impermanent), and firewood and ash (the Great Matter of Life-and-Death).

Read/Listen to Genjokoan Part 1 or Genjokoan Part 2

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Paradox of Seeking What We Already Have
The Illusion of Permanent Self-Nature
Seeing Through the Illusion of Permanent Self-Nature
The Great Matter of Life-and-Death
Practicing with Life-and-Death, Zen-Style
Sources

 

If you haven’t listened my first two episodes on Genjokoan, I advise you to do so before listening to this; to minimize repetition, I’m going to assume you’ve already heard my introduction to the concepts of “absolute” and “relative” in Zen, 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 vision of practice and enlightenment.

Before I get started, though, I want to refer you to a handy 1-page chart I made, listing 10 paired terms describing the relative and absolute dimensions of reality (click on the image to the right, or here for a pdf). The pairs in this chart include phenomena and principle, form and emptiness, and separateness and unity. Each term is defined. Personally, I’ve found it very helpful to refer to this chart when discussing teachings about the absolute and relative. Sometimes Zen discussions can get… well… a little intellectual and philosophical. They can lead us to all kinds of incorrect assumptions – such as thinking “the absolute” is transcendent place or plane that we experience only during enlightenment, or that it’s separate from the relative, or that the relative is somehow an imperfect or defiled dimension that manifests despite the purity of the absolute.

In this chart, you get to think about all kinds of different ways the absolute and relative are related to each other, all at once. If you allow the chart to stretch your brain, you might find it easier to understand how the absolute is simply a quality of the relative, and relative is everything – including all that’s beautiful and right with the world. I may focus an episode on this chart at some point in the future, but for now I’ll go on with our discussion of Genjokoan.

The Paradox of Seeking What We Already Have

So, we’ve gotten to point in the text where it says:

[From the Genjokoan:] When one first seeks the Dharma, one strays far from the boundary of the Dharma. When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person. (Translation of all Genjokoan passages by Shohaku Okumura)

Amazingly, these lines are relatively straightforward. When we start on a spiritual path, we start to seek for a deeper truth, or an alternative way to live. This is good, and necessary. However, we naturally assume what we’re looking for is something other than what we’ve always had. After all, if it’s something we already have, why are we dissatisfied? Unfortunately (or fortunately) the Dharma is not like other things we seek to understand or master; it’s about completely and utterly inhabiting this very place, and this very life in a way we’re totally unfamiliar with. Our seeking outwardly, however sincere and well-intended, ends up distracting us from what we actually need to do.

At the same time, we have to seek in order to what any of this really means. To not seek is to just resign ourselves to the status quo, which means we’ll never taste the rewards of Dharma practice. Dogen makes this statement not to discourage us from seeking, but to remind us – right from the beginning – that, ultimately, we won’t find the answers out there. When we’ve “strayed far from the boundary of the Dharma” and still haven’t found satisfaction, Dogen’s words will come back to us. And who knows, maybe with his warning we’ll be able to avoid chasing the truth all over the planet

As for the second part of this verse, “When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person,” Shohaku Okumura helpfully points out the “original person” is a translation of the Japanese honbun nin.[i] In Realizing Genjokoan he explains, “Hon can be literally translated as original, true, root, or sourcebun means part or portion, and nin is person. So this word, which has the same meaning as ‘original face,’ refers to a person who is one with the original source that exists before karmic conditioning.”

In other words, when we really “get” the Dharma, or truth, we wake up to the reality of our absolute nature. We don’t suddenly become connected with the absolute – we realize we’ve always been part of it, or it’s always been an aspect of us. The Dharma being “correctly transmitted” is not something that has happened in the past or will happen in the future. The correct transmission happens only right now. So much more could be said, but let’s move on…

The Illusion of Permanent Self-Nature

[From the Genjokoan:] If one riding in a boat watches the coast, one mistakenly perceives the coast as moving. If one watches the boat [in relation to the surface of the water], then one notices that the boat is moving. Similarly, when we perceive the body and mind in a confused way and grasp all things with a discriminating mind, we mistakenly think that the self-nature of the mind is permanent. When we intimately practice and return right here, it is clear that all things have no [fixed] self.

It’s easy to make all of this into philosophy, or some kind of abstract theory of phenomenology (or the experience of consciousness from the first-person point of view). What is Dogen talking about here? Obviously, this passage refers to giving up the delusion of having an inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. But what’s emphasized here is the process of perception – the mistaken ways of perceiving that we employ every day.

What are these mistaken ways of perceiving? It’s not just about thinking that some part of us persists in an unchanging way as it moves through space, because it’s also not correct to assume you move while the shore doesn’t! Okumura explains in his chapter on this passage how, in another of his essays (Tsuki), Dogen quotes from an old Zen text (“The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment”) where the Buddha says, “[when] a cloud flies the moon moves and [when] a boat sail the short drifts.” Dogen explains, saying, “The moving together of the boat and the shore, in the same step, at the same time, in the same way, is beyond starting and stopping and is not a cycle… Do not mistakenly think limited thoughts according to your small view.” So this isn’t about convincing ourselves the self is impermanent, while stuff “out there” is permanent.

The problem is trying locate anything that doesn’t move or change, anything that’s inherently and independently real, anything against which we can measure everything else.

What does all of these mean in terms of our daily lives? Much of the time we locate the sense of permanence within ourselves. We move around with respect to our homes, cars, spouses, places of work, Zen Center, and meditation cushions.  We’re the subject, navigating the landscape of our life: Hurrying, or working, or relaxing. Sometimes the landscape changes and surprises us – delighting or upsetting us. Everything is relative to us. The world revolves around us.

This is our instinctive mode of operation. There’s no blame involved here. Of course, this mode is ultimately unsatisfactory.

At other times we locate the sense of permanence outside of ourselves. Other things – our homes, cars, spouses, places of work, Zen Center, and meditation cushions – seem more real than we are. We grasp these apparently real, permanent, reliable things and try to orient ourselves. Who are we? This kind of question often arises when our sense of self has radically shifted for some reason.

This is also a troubling, dissatisfying way to operate, because the things outside us aren’t permanent or graspable, either.

Seeing Through the Illusion of Permanent Self-Nature

What is it like when we stop trying to identify anything as permanent, fixed, or inherently real?

We wake up to life. We don’t have to figure out what’s moving relative to what; everything is relative to everything else. We don’t pin our hopes on finding something permanent, which is a great relief. We let go of the inner struggle to make sense of things, and instead live adventurously, on the edge of change, with full appreciation of impermanence. This is what Dogen means when he says, “intimately practice and return right here.” Right here – the only place life actually is. We ride along in the boat, experiencing the unfolding of life, without having to create a self-referential narrative about what’s happening.

What does this look and feel like in everyday life? When you find yourself stuck in your personal narrative (or, as Barry Magid beautifully puts it in his book Ordinary Mind, when you’re caught in the delusion of the “isolated mind”), you look up and notice what’s around you. When you find yourself pulled toward this and that, hoping it will make you happy or give you the relief you seek, you simply notice that’s what you’re doing. Then, hopefully, you will have spent long enough in spiritual practice to have the faith to let go of your fantasy about your permanent self-nature and how it needs this or that. Then you wake up to life as it is, which isn’t fixed or easy, but it is real. You may find yourself breathing a sigh of relief, no matter what’s going on, because real you can actually deal with.

The Great Matter of Life-and-Death

This next passage is a long one, and it’s about the nature of life and death, time, and existence. It uses metaphors of firewood becoming ash, and winter becoming spring, for how one thing changes into another in a relative sense:

[From the Genjokoan:] Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies. However, in Buddha Dharma it is an unchanged tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the established way of buddhas’ turning the Dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring, and we don’t say that spring becomes summer.  

In his book Realizing Genjokoan, Shohaku Okumura explains, “Life and death” is an English translation of the single Japanese word shoji.[ii] Sho means “to live” or “to be born,” and ji means “to die” or “to be dead.” Okumura goes on to explain how the term shoji has many meanings and uses in Buddhism. It can refer to the period of time between birth and death. It can refer to the process of myriad beings taking birth, living, and dying over and over, according to the idea of rebirth. Shoji can also refer to the arising and passing away of life in the present moment.

Essentially, shoji sums up our primary spiritual concerns as Buddhists and human beings. Who are we if everything is constantly changing? What is the substance of our life? If only the present moment is ultimately real, how do we relate to our past and future? What do we do about death? Is there life after death? If there is no life after death, how can we avoid despair?

I think most of us expect our religion to offer us some solace when it comes to dealing with Life-and-Death (that’s life-and-death with hyphens, also called the “Great Matter” in Zen). If our religion doesn’t help us with the Great Matter, what is it good for? Only a small fraction of people feel compelled to explore the nature of life and death purely for the sake of intellectual understanding. Most of us simply want to understand more about Life-and-Death so we’ll know how to live happier and more skillful lives; frankly, if the reality of life and death is actually just depressing, we’d be better off ignoring it as best we can.

Is Dogen offering us anything useful for our lives in this part of the Genjokoan? I hope you’ll find his teaching – and Zen teaching more generally – can provide the strength, clarity, guidance, and solace you might be looking for – but I have to admit these things are not easily attained in Zen. Well, honestly, they aren’t easily attained period – at least not in lasting, stable way – no matter what spiritual path you’re on. Simply accepting nice, comforting ideas doesn’t tend to cut it when you’re personally faced with the reality of Life-and-Death. You really attain strength, clarity, guidance, and solace when you’ve personally wrestled with the Great Matter and glimpsed the truth in an experiential way. So Dogen isn’t offering us any easy, cheerful Buddhist explanations of Life-and-Death that will instantly make us feel better.

What is this Great Matter you’re invited to wrestle with? Basically, when you experience something completely, there is no problem. Experiencing something completely – this moment of birth, this moment of life, this moment of dying, this moment of death – means living it directly, without relying on reference to past or future. It means being in harmony with the absolute aspect of our existence.

In the relative dimension of time and causation, firewood turns to ash when it burns, and human beings inevitably die. In the absolute dimension, there are no fixed, independent entities such as “firewood” and “human being” that can be said either to exist or to perish. There’s only one, seamless reality, within which, in a given moment, things have a place regardless of whether they can be said to be before or after the events of burning or dying. The concepts of “life” and “death” only make sense in terms of time – when we follow the chain of causation and see a being, followed by dying, followed by death. Something is said to be dead because it used to be alive. In this moment, without reference to past or future, there is just what is. No birth and no death.

Practicing with Life-and-Death, Zen-Style

Okay, to take this out of the realm of philosophy and into practice, let’s say you’re dying. That’s the full, luminous reality of the present. It may sound strange to describe death this way, so don’t get me wrong. Dying may involve pain and confusion and messiness and grief, but ultimately all of that can be okay as long as you don’t define the moment in terms of past and future. The moment you think of your past life and health, or the moment you think of the future you’re not going to have, you’re not directly experiencing the present anymore. You’ll probably feel great suffering. Of course, you probably won’t be able to help thinking about the past or the future at least a little, but that’s not the point: in the moment of your dying, solace can be found in wholehearted experience of the present.

Whether we’re talking about death in the literal physical sense or in the more metaphorical moment-by-moment sense, the practice is the same. We recognize that our concepts are not reality itself. We use our minds to make sense of our world and our life, creating concepts to explain and predict. We create narratives about our lives to create a sense of coherence and make plans. These are natural activities, but if we mistake our ideas for reality itself, we create problems for ourselves.

Creating problems for ourselves is what Dogen is talking about when he reminds us that spring doesn’t become summer. This is a great analogy he has chosen, because a season is rare example of a concept we don’t tend to reify. We think, “Of course spring doesn’t become summer!” When we’re enjoying the flowers that appear only in spring and that dry up and die in the summer heat, we naturally feel some sadness because we know things will change. However, we don’t concretize the idea of springtime and think with bitter regret, “This spring is just going to die,” as if the spring were a thing unto itself, naively producing flowers even though it’s doomed.

If we can take the same approach to life as we do to the seasons, we will taste some of the solace Zen can offer. Whatever has come before this moment has had its own reality; whatever will come after will have its own reality. We can wholeheartedly do the work of this moment – cultivating as much wisdom and compassion as we can – without worrying about past or future, except to use them as convenient concepts. When things change and we feel sad, it’s a natural response to loss. Even grief has its own luminous reality – as long as it’s allowed to change like the seasons. Something always comes next, and that something has its own reality, and its own before and after.

Maybe you don’t find any solace in the thought of wholeheartedly dying, or of wholeheartedly letting someone or something die. That’s because it’s not the thought that’s the source of solace, it’s the experience. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you describe it. Many Zen teachers have tried, and sometimes their words help guide people toward their own experience of wholeheartedness. But ultimately you have to explore this teaching for yourself.

What does it actually feel like to let go of the narrative that ties past to present to future? What happens when you meet death eye-to-eye, without regret and without pleading? This isn’t a matter of learning to like the ending of things, or of cutting off your taste for life. After all, Dogen says, “flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.” Despite our love and aversion, we face reality directly. It feels pure, clean, and ennobling. It feels unrestrained: being continues, time continues. In a moment of literal death, the season changes but nothing is subtracted from reality Itself.


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.

[i] Okumura pg. 98
[ii] Okumura pg. 110

 

36 - Buddha's Teachings Part 3: The Noble Eightfold Path
38 - The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship
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