Commentary by Thomas Cleary
The term genjokoan seems to appear first in ninth-century China and is often used in Japanese Soto Zen to refer to present being as the topic of meditation or the issue of Zen. Gen means “manifestation” or “present,” jo means “become.” Genjo means actuality-being as is, at hand, or accomplished, as of an accomplished fact. Koan is a common Zen word which is often left untranslated, having to some extent become a naturalized English word. Ko means official, public, or open, as opposed to private or personal; an means a consideration, or a considered decision. A koan in standard literary Chinese means an official report or an issue under consideration. The term was adopted in Zen with much the same meanings, only transposed into the frame of reference of Zen tradition and experience.
Genjokoan is one of the most popular and oft-quoted essays in Shobogenzo. Written to a lay disciple, it contains a number of key points stated in a most concise fashion.
The very first paragraph contains a complete outline of Zen, in a covert presentation of the so-called “five ranks” (go i) device of the original Chinese Soto Zen school. The scheme of the five ranks-relative within absolute, absolute within relative, coming from within the absolute, arriving in the relative, and simultaneous attainment in both relative and absolute-is not overtly used in Dogen’s work, perhaps because of the confusion surrounding it, but its structures are to be found throughout Shobogenzo.
Following this summary introduction, the essay proceeds to the discussion of enlightenment. Dogen says the way to enlightenment is to forget the self. The self in this sense refers to an accumulation of habits, including the habit of attachment to this accumulation as a genuine personality. Dogen calls this forgetting “shedding body and mind,” an expression which is said to have galvanized his awareness as a young man and which he repeatedly uses to describe Zen study. Commentators on Dogen’s lectures describe it in these terms: “Each moment of time is thoughtless; things do not provoke a second thought,” and “This is the time when the whole mind and body attains great freedom.”
This, however, is not the whole issue. In one of his lectures Dogen says that “shedding body and mind” is the beginning of the effort, and in Genjokoan he affirms that there is continuing progress in buddhahood, going beyond the attainment of enlightenment: “There is ceasing the traces of enlightenment, which causes one to forever leave the traces of enlightenment which is cessation.” In the Hokke scripture Buddha reveals to his liberated disciples that nirvana, cessation of afflictive habits, which had been expediently represented as the goal, is as it were a resting place on an infinite path.
In the essay The Business of Progress (or transcendence) of Buddha, also in Shobogenzo, Dogen wrote, “To go on informing the Buddha of today it is not only today is called the business of progress of Buddha.” The celebrated Zen master Hakuin said, “Without cultivation and practice after enlightenment, many who have seen the essence miss the boat”; and Hakuin’s assistant Torei said, “Lesser enlightenment turns out to be a hindrance to great enlightenment. If you give up lesser enlightenments and don’t cling to them, great enlightenment will surely be realized.” Dogen says that there are differences in depth and breadth of the realization of enlightenment, and speaks here of enlightenment as being enlightened by all things. This leads to the issue of perspective.
Dogen states that delusion is a matter of experiencing things with the burden of the self-the bundle of mental habits, ingrained views, which is identified with the self. This is a basic issue of all Buddhist thought. The condition of the self, with its set of conditioned perceptions and views, is implicitly taken as a kind of absolute or veritable point of reference, if one takes one’s experience as conceived to be reality. In order to overcome hidden prejudice in the form of unquestioned views, Dogen says that introspection is necessary, to see that things have no absolute identity, that they are not necessarily or totally as one may view them.
But then Dogen goes on to point out the absoluteness, so to speak, of relative identity. Logically, if particular things exist, or are defined, relative to one another and therefore lack absolute identity, yet that absolute identitylessness still depends on their relative identity. The approach Dogen takes, however, is not that of deduction but of direct witness (genryo), which he refers to, in classic Zen terminology, as the realms of before and after being disconnected. Thus Dogen explains the traditional “characteristics of emptiness” called birthlessness and nonperishing in terms of the noncoexistence of before and after, or the nonconcurrence of a state with its own nonexistence. Dogen’s emphasis here seems to be not on discursive understanding of this point of logic, but on presence of mind in the most thoroughgoing sense, direct experience of the present.
Dogen also speaks of enlightenment in terms of the universal being reflected in the individual; this “merging” of universe and individual does not, however, obliterate the individual or restrict the universal. This leads to the apparent paradox of life being at once finite and infinite. One life, or one sphere of experience, contains everything that is within its scope and nothing that is beyond its range. At every moment we reach, or are at, the full extent of our experience; and yet this never limits the potential of experience in itself. Each moment is complete, hence infinite, in itself, though it be finite as a point of comparison with past or future. In the Kegon philosophy, this interpenetration of the finite and the infinite is represented by the figure of “arriving in one step,” each moment of awareness being the focal point of the whole nexus of existence. Again Dogen drives at the full experience of the present without conceptually delineating it.
Finally Dogen quotes a classic Zen story alluding to the necessity of practical application even though truth, or enlightenment, is inherent in everyone. A monk asks his teacher why he uses a fan if the nature of wind is eternal and omnipresent; the teacher replies that the student knows the nature of eternity but not the principle of omnipresence, and to illustrate this principle the teacher just fans himself. As one of the Kegon philosophers said, “If not for practice flowing from reality, there is no means to merge with reality.”
The Issue at Hand
When all things are Buddha-teachings, then there is delusion and enlightenment, there is cultivation of practice, there is birth, there is death, there are Buddhas, there are sentient beings. When myriad things are all not self, there is no delusion, no enlightenment, no Buddhas, no sentient beings, no birth, no death. Because the Buddha Way originally sprang forth from abundance and paucity, there is birth and death, delusion and enlightenment, sentient beings and Buddhas. Moreover, though this is so, flowers fall when we cling to them, and weeds only grow when we dislike them.
Acting on and witnessing myriad things with the burden of oneself is “delusion.” Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment. Great enlightenment about delusion is Buddhas; great delusion about enlightenment is sentient beings. There are also those who attain enlightenment on top of enlightenment, and there are those who are further deluded in the midst of delusion. When the Buddhas are indeed the Buddhas, there is no need to be self-conscious of being Buddhas; nevertheless it is realizing buddhahoodBuddhas go on realizing.
In seeing forms with the whole body-mind, hearing sound with the whole body-mind, though one intimately understands, it isn’t like reflecting images in a mirror, it’s not like water and the moon-when you witness one side, one side is obscure.
Studying the Buddha Way is studying oneself. Studying oneself is forgetting oneself. Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all things. Being enlightened by all things is causing the body-mind of oneself and the body-mind of others to be shed. There is ceasing the traces of enlightenment, which causes one to forever leave the traces of enlightenment which is cessation.
When people first seek the Teaching, they are far from the bounds of the Teaching. Once the Teaching is properly conveyed in oneself, already one is the original human being.
When someone rides in a boat, as he looks at the shore he has the illusion that the shore is moving. When he looks at the boat under him, he realizes the boat is moving. In the same way, when one takes things for granted with confused ideas of body-mind, one has the illusion that one’s own mind and own nature are permanent; but if one pays close attention to one’s own actions, the truth that things are not self will be clear.
Kindling becomes ash, and cannot become kindling again. However, we should not see the ash as after and the kindling as before. Know that kindling abides in the normative state of kindling, and though it has a before and after, the realms of before and after are disconnected. Ash, in the normative state of ash, has before and after. Just as that kindling, after having become ash, does not again become kindling, so after dying a person does not become alive again. This being the case, not saying that life becomes death is an established custom in Buddhism-therefore it is called unborn. That death does not become life is an established teaching of the Buddha; therefore we say imperishable. Life is an individual temporal state, death is an individual temporal state. It is like winter and spring-we don’t think winter becomes spring, we don’t say spring becomes summer.
People’s attaining enlightenment is like the moon reflected in water. The moon does not get wet, the water isn’t broken. Though it is a vast expansive light, it rests in a little bit of water-even the whole moon, the whole sky, rests in a dewdrop on the grass, rests in even a single droplet of water. That enlightenment does not shatter people is like the moon not piercing the water. People’s not obstructing enlightenment is like the drop of dew not obstructing the moon in the sky. The depth is proportionate to the height. As for the length and brevity of time, examining the great and small bodies of water, you should discern the breadth and narrowness of the moon in the sky.
Before one has studied the Teaching fully in body and mind, one feels one is already sufficient in the Teaching. If the body and mind are replete with the Teaching, in one respect one senses insufficiency. For example, when one rides a boat out onto the ocean where there are no mountains and looks around, it only appears round, and one can see no other, different characteristics. However, this ocean is not round, nor is it square-the remaining qualities of the ocean are inexhaustible. It is like a palace, it is like ornaments, yet as far as our eyes can see, it only seems round. It is the same with all things-in the realms of matter, beyond conceptualization, they include many aspects, but we see and comprehend only what the power of our eye of contemplative study reaches. If we inquire into the “family ways” of myriad things, the qualities of seas and mountains, beyond seeming square or round, are endlessly numerous. We should realize there exist worlds everywhere. It’s not only thus in out of the way places-know that even a single drop right before us is also thus.
As a fish travels through water, there is no bound to the water no matter how far it goes; as a bird flies through the sky, there’s no bound to the sky no matter how far it flies. While this is so, the fish and birds have never been apart from the water and the sky-it’s just that when the need is large the use is large, and when the requirement is small the use is small. In this way, though the bounds are unfailingly reached everywhere and tread upon in every single place, the bird would instantly die if it left the sky and the fish would instantly die if it left the water. Obviously, water is life; obviously the sky is life. There is bird being life. There is fish being life. There is life being bird, there is life being fish. There must be progress beyond this-there is cultivation and realization, the existence of the living one being like this. Under these circumstances, if there were birds or fish who attempted to traverse the waters or the sky after having found the limits of the water or sky, they wouldn’t find a path in the water or the sky-they won’t find any place. When one finds this place, this action accordingly manifests as the issue at hand; when one finds this path, this action accordingly manifests as the issue at hand. This path, this place, is not big or small, not self or other, not preexistent, not now appearing-therefore it exists in this way. In this way, if someone cultivates and realizes the Buddha Way, it is attaining a principle, mastering the principle; it is encountering a practice, cultivating the practice. In this there is a place where the path has been accomplished, hence the unknowability of the known boundary is born together and studies along with the thorough investigation of the Buddha Teaching of this knowing-therefore it is thus. Don’t get the idea that the attainment necessarily becomes one’s own knowledge and view, that it would be known by discursive knowledge. Though realizational comprehension already takes place, implicit being is not necessarily obvious-why necessarily is there obvious becoming?
Zen Master Hotetsu of Mt. Mayoku was using a fan. A monk asked him about this: “The nature of wind is eternal and all-pervasive -why then do you use a fan?” The master said, “You only know the nature of wind is eternal, but do not yet know the principle of its omnipresence.” The monk asked, “What is the principle of its omnipresence?” The master just fanned. The monk bowed.
The experience of the Buddha Teaching, the living road of right transmission, is like this. To say that since (the nature of wind) is permanent one should not use a fan, and that one should feel the breeze even when not using a fan, is not knowing permanence and not knowing the nature of the wind either. Because the nature of wind is eternal, the wind of Buddhism causes the manifestation of the earth’s being gold and by participation develops the long river into butter.
—Translated by Thomas Cleary from Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo