Dharma Talk on
Eihei Dogen Zenji's
Genjokoan

Read Part 1 here and
Part 2 here.

Reprinted by permission from the Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter, August and September, 2005.


Firewood turns into ash and does not turn into firewood again. But do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. We must realize thatfirewood is in the state of being firewood and has its before and after.. Yet having this before and after, it is independent of them. Ash is in the state of being ash and has its before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, so after ones death, one does not return to life again. Thus, that life does not become death is a confirmed teaching of the buddha dharma. For this reason, life is called the non-born. That death does not become life is a confirmed teaching of the buddha dharma. Therefore death is called the non-extinguished. Life is a period of itself. Death is a period of itself. For example, they are like winter and spring. We do not think that winter becomes spring, nor do we say that spring becomes summer.

This may be the most difficult to understand part of the Genjokoan fascicle. Here Dogen talks about firewood and ash, and uses this simile of firewood and ash to talk about birth and death. Suzuki Roshi says that you can explain it, but your explanation can't be perfect. In this world of constant transformations, we have the idea of continuity; of one thing following something else. We think of a progression from birth to childhood, youth, maturity, middle age, old age, and death. That is our experience. We are born, and we die, and then what? So, what is birth and what is death? That is the great matter, the great question.

Dogen is not denying the progression of birth to death, but is emphasizing the immutable position of each moment's existence. It is usual to think in terms of discontinuous or segmented periods of time, like 9:00 o'clock or half past 10:00, or before and after. Something is happening now, something happened in the past, and something will happen in the future. That, of course, is a valid, usual way of thinking, but it's only one perspective on "Being/time."

He continues, "We must realize that firewood is in the state of being firewood, and has its before and after. Yet having its before and after, it is independent of them. Ash is in the state of being ash, and has its before and after." Firewood is firewood and ash is ash. This moment which is just this moment, has its before and after. The next moment (which is just this moment) has its before and after.

Each one is independent. We tend to think of life as flowing, but each "moment" has countless micro-moments, or frames. When you watch a movie, each frame is different. Each one is independent and has its history and its future. But that particular frame will always be just that frame. It didn't change into the next frame. So in discontinuous time, we have 1:00 o'clock and 2:00 o'clock. But continuous time is always "Just now."

Dogen says that we tend to think that time is moving along. But where is it going? It's now 10 minutes to11:00, and soon it will be 11:30.The bell will ring and we have to do something else. But there is always only this moment. There is only just now. Although there is no coming and going we can also see that there is unceasing change in time, while time does not move. "The water stands still, while the bridge flows."

Within the totality of life is birth and death. Within birth, be completely born. Within death, be completely dead. Birth and death appear on each moment on each inhalation and exhalation. Are we dead or alive? From one point of view, you can say I'm alive and not dead. But from another point of view, you cannot say whether this is life or death. The monk knocked on the coffin and asked, "Teacher, is this corpse dead or alive?" His teacher said, "I won't say, I won't say."

"Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, after one's death, one does not return to [this] life again. Thus, that life does not become death is a confirmed teaching of the buddha dharma. For this reason, life is called the non-born. That death does not become life is a confirmed teaching of the buddha dharma. Therefore, death is called the non-extinguished."

That which is not born cannot die. Because we feel and experience our somebody-ness, we have this problem. Although on one level there is birth and death, there is no, non-dependent one who is born and dies. There are only the continuous transformations of our fundamental nature in the phenomenal world.

"That death does not become life is a confirmed teaching of the buddha dharma. Therefore, death is called the non-extinguished. Life is a period of itself. Death is a period of itself. For example, they are like winter and spring. We do not think that winter becomes spring, nor do we say that spring becomes summer."

When summer comes, just enjoy summer. When spring is here, enjoy the flowers. In winter, put on your coat and light a fire. Therefore, understanding impermanence leads to liberation. What we'd like to have is liberation from impermanence. But to be free from impermanence is to totally go with impermanence. It really is freedom 'within' impermanence. Liberation from trying to preserve something, which cannot be preserved, is called freedom. Being attached to something, which is not permanent, is called suffering. Continuous life is ko, like the vast ocean of dynamic stillness. Discontinuous life is an, the ever changing dynamic movement of the waves. This is the basis of our koan, Genjokoan, the koan of our dynamic everyday life, and our continuous practice.

In this next part Dogen talks about the extent and the limitations of our understanding. "When the truth (Dharma) does not fill our body and mind, we think that we have enough. When the truth (Dharma) fills our body and mind, we realize that something is missing." Dogen is expressing the fact that the more we investigate, and the more knowledge we obtain the more we realize how little we actually do know. There is investigation through thought, and knowing through intuition, which is to directly touch the essence of mind, without the intermediary of thinking. The two processes working together create a balance. In practice, our intellectual life proceeds from the intuitive state of zazen, which is its touchstone.

The wonderful thing is that even though we don't fully understand, we can still whole-heartedly throw ourselves into practice. We can swim and play in it and know it. He then says, "For example, when we view the four directions from a boat on the ocean where no land is in sight it seems circular and nothing else. No other aspects are apparent. However, this ocean is neither round nor square, and its aspects are infinite in variety. It is like a palace, it is like a jewel, it just seems circular as far as our eyes can reach at the time. The ten thousand dharmas are also like this. Although ordinary life and enlightened life assume many aspects, we only recognize and understand through practice what the penetrating power of our vision can reach."

According to the four views of the scholar Asanga, fish see the ocean as a palace, celestial beings see it as a jewel ornament, hungry ghosts see it as pus and blood, and humans see it as water. As human beings our information is determined by the limitations of our five sense doors and the thinking faculty, so anything that falls outside of the rather limited sphere of those faculties, isn't acknowledged. There is also the fact that most of the information we receive, is construed in a biased, one sided and dualistic way. So instead of seeing things "as it is," we are mostly looking at a picture of reality which is created by our imagination. The term "ordinary life," is literally,"dusty realms." The dusty realms are those of the fighting demons, animals, hells, human beings, hungry ghosts, and heavenly places. In each realm there is a bodhisattva who's effort is to see clearly, letting go of discriminating mind and return to wholeness.

Dogen continues, "In order to appreciate the ten thousand dharmas we should know that although they may look round or square, the other qualities of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; furthermore, other universes lie in all quarters. It is so not only around ourselves but right here, and in a single drop of water."

I wouldn't be surprised if Dogen intuited that the earth was round. Although it is important for us to know this for various reasons, it also seems important to know that the earth is flat, and that the sky is not only above us but right down at the soles of our feet. Suzuki Roshi mentioned the "gokumi," the Japanese term for the smallest particle. Whatever that particle is, is gokumi. It is somewhere between something and nothing. I wonder what we look like to a being so huge that we have no idea of its shape, that looks like a gokumi to another being?

"A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims, there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the sky. However, the fish and the birds have never left their elements from the beginning. When their activity is large their field is large. When their activity is small their field is small. Thus each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them fully expresses its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird, and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment and people are all like this."

Here Dogen is talking about our human situation and our Buddha nature. Each one of us is like a fish in the endless water or a bird in the vast sky, at one with its element. He is talking about how we exist in Buddha nature, as Buddha nature, which is vast like the ocean or the sky, and has no special shape or form. Even though we may feel that we don't know what Buddha nature is, or perhaps feel separate from Buddha nature, we have never left it from the beginning. When we need to go far, we go far. When we don't need to go anywhere we stay where we are. But whether we go far or stay put, we are one with the vastness of the sky and the depth of the water.

We can illustrate this in various other ways, like in the Heart Sutra, which says, "Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form." Then he says, "Thus wherever you stand, you don't fail to cover the ground. We may stand on one spot, yet this spot that we cover is the entire ground — the whole ground. There is only one place to be, but that one place is infinite in variety and includes mountains and rivers, cities, countries and borders. When we drop all of the arbitrary boundaries, there is only this place." Zazen is our ordinary activity that covers the whole ground. Now, he says, "If a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place."

If you feel that you need to have a complete understanding before you enter into practice you may never get around to it. If you feel that you need to know everything about zazen before you do it, you may never do it. If you feel, "I must be a better person before I do this," or If you feel that you can know the limit of understanding through your thinking mind, you will never get around to experiencing your True Self. So it is important, actually, to allow yourself to be a little bit stupid. If you know too much, or if you feel that you must know something, then you put a stumbling block in your way. In order to practice and experience Buddha nature directly, it's best to give up our opinions. Rational mind, thinking mind, or accumulated knowledge, won't help much, and can be a hindrance. Our usual way of figuring out what to do doesn't help with our painful legs. We can't think our way out. But we can give up and let go. Before we get it all figured out we can begin moving in it. This is the advantage of practice. We can practice and experience enlightenment without understanding or realizing it. It's wonderful that we can do this. All we need to do is step in. Although we want to know how to swim and get to the other side there is no way we can figure it out. We just plunge in and start swimming. "When we find our place, right where we are, practice occurs actualizing the fundamental point." Finding our place right where we are, moment to moment, is the point.

"Actualizing the fundamental point" is one way to translate Genjo Koan. "Genjo" means actualizing in the present, appearing new, right here, right now. According to one definition, the "ko" of "koan" means level; the ground on which everything stands, while "an" means some particular place or position which Dogen calls its dharma position." At any one moment, everything in the universe is in its unique unrepeatable dharma position. It's like swimming on top of the ocean while walking with your feet on the bottom. There are two aspects of the word "dharma." "Dharma" with a capital "D" means the law or reality. That is also Buddha's teaching. "Dharma" with a small "d" means" things." Technically, dharmas are the physical and psychic elements of our body and mind. But in a broader sense it refers to all phenomenal things. Anything and everything is a dharma. Every phenomenal thing is a dharma. So Dharma with a capital "D" is the reality of the dharmas with a small "d." The "fundamental thing" about the "Myriad things." Everything is in its dharma position and, from moment to moment, that dharma position newly arises together with the whole universe. Within reality, within undifferentiated reality, all of these myriad dharmas are coexisting, and interrelated, We call it our life. To be aware of our dharma position on any moment within ultimate reality manifesting right now, is our zen practice. It's called Genjokoan, the koan of everyday life. We appear in our phenomenal position within the vastness of Buddha nature moment to moment.

Dogen says, "When you find your place (your dharma position), right where you are, that's where practice occurs, actualizing the fundmental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others'. The place and the way have not been carried over from the past, nor are they merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it — doing one practice is practicing completely." "When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs." So time is very important. In order to practice Genjokoan, we must be aware of our activity in each moment. When we sit zazen, we experience our life moment by moment in our dharma position. Each moment is continuous and, at the same time, discontinuous. We sit for 40 discontinuous minutes; but at the same time, we are actually experiencing one continuous moment. One continuous moment divided into 40 segments. Our dharma position is right here, right now, which includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Continuous time and discontinuous time are the same time, but, when we sit, we are only aware of continuous unconditioned time, which is called, "right now."

As we sit, we come up with the problem of discomfort. One of the problems that we have is to feel that discomfort or pain is an enemy; something to be conquered or done away with. But pleasure and pain don't exist independent of each other. Because we divide them we feel that one is desirable and the other is not. This world is the world of pleasure and pain. It is not the world of pleasure only, although we would like it to be. So we orient our life to try and make everything as pleasurable as possible. But it doesn't work because life is both pleasure and pain, as well as gain and loss. We would also like to conquer old age, sickness and death, or eliminate it. But in the same way that it is pleasure and pain, it is also the world of arising and passing away. We manifest on each moment and we pass on each moment. We have to embrace this. Is it good or bad, right or wrong? Within birth there is death, and within death there is birth. This moment will never arise again, even though there is nothing but this moment.

In order to be comfortable in this world, one needs to accept reality. When we don't accept reality, we easily fall victim to discomfort, although reality can be uncomfortable too. But it is not the same. To be able to experience the pain and the pleasure of life at the same time is more realistic. Within pleasure is pain, and within the pain there is pleasure. What it comes down to is forgetting all about pleasure and pain and just accepting what we have. As soon as we begin to discriminate and veer to one side or the other, as soon as we want to have one without the other, we create a problem. When we sit zazen, we don't try to create some wonderful, special, desirable state of mind, and we don't try to eliminate some distasteful thing. Painful legs, are just painful legs. When there is a pleasant feeling, it's just a pleasant feeling. We may think that when there is no feeling at all that this must be the enlightenment they were talking about. But this is just another state of mind. States of mind are continually changing, and there is no special state of mind that is the "right" state of mind. Nondiscrimination, or no special state of mind, is not a particular state of mind. It is merely giving up clinging and aversion.

The wonderful thing about zazen is not that euphoric feeling, but that you allow yourself to sit in reality. When we can sit in reality without grasping or rejecting, hating or loving, then of course we have fundamental, unconditioned joy. But we have to let ourselves experience whatever comes, and be open to everything. Zazen is vast openness, completely opening and offering ourselves and accepting whatever we are experiencing. Our tendency, of course, when something undesirable comes, is to tense up, or push away, so we have to let go of that instinct to close down.


© 2005 Sojun Mel Weitsman