Notes on the "Genjokoan" Chapter of the Shobogenzo by Dogen


We did not have time to go over the Shobogenzo in detail, so I wanted to note a few things about it:

This is the most famous chapter from Dogen's Shobogenzo, his largest, most well-known work. There are many passages in the "Genjokoan" that are very difficult to decipher. Scholars continue to give differing interpretations. What follows is just one possibility among others, but you should have some explanation that makes sense. Then, hopefully, you will formulate your own interpretation which will illuminate these passages in entirely new ways.

p. 133 Form, Emptiness, and Attachment

The first paragraph can be read in a vein similar to the exchange of verses in the Platform Sutra. (The translators Waddell and Abe give their own reading, but I offer a simpler, alternative reading here.)

  1. The first sentence can be seen as referring to form. "dharma" in lowercase refers to things and religious teachings (both the usual things of this world and religion itself are empty): "When things and teachings exist, thus having form, then all the components of Buddhism exist, including birth and death, unenlightened sentient beings and enlightened buddhas."
  2. The second sentence can be read in terms of emptiness: "When things and religious teachings are empty (without self), then all of reality including the things that make up Buddhism are also empty.
  3. The third sentence affirms both form and emptiness: "The Buddha Way is originally empty, beyond words (beyond fullness and lack), and precisely in that awareness beyond words, one sees things in the world of form for what they truly are, in all of their vividness in the here and now - birth and death (generation and extinction), illusion and enlightenment, unenlightened sentient beings and enlightened buddhas."
  4. The fourth sentence cuts through theorizing to point to the reality of the here-and-now. "In spite of all of this theorizing, one finds oneself attached to the beauty of flowers and disliking weeds." Dogen may have been weeding in his garden, thinking how, despite his understanding of the two-fold truth, he still had attachments to likes and dislikes. Yet, it is in the precise moment when one awakens to one's attachment that one is freed from them; usually one goes about blindly driven by attachments. One can only recognize one's attachments when one is illuminated by the awareness of a larger reality - emptiness. Illuminated by emptiness, Dogen sees his attachments to flowers; in the moment of seeing his attachments, they are dissolved in the flow of awareness, of emptiness/oneness. What at first seems a contradiction - concluding with attachments after discussing emptiness - is a resolved when one sees that Dogen is pointing to the here-and-now; there can be no awakening without being present to the reality of the moment.

This last line differs from what we saw in Hui-neng; Hui-neng emphasizes cutting through attachments. Dogen emphasizes the recognition of attachment as the same moment in which emptiness begins to open up.

The next two sentences express Dogen's sense of approaching practice. If one approaches practice with one's own preconceptions, then one is deluded and will fail to realize emptiness. If one approaches practices with the awareness of emptiness and is open to reality entering into one's awareness, then one will be like an awakened buddha who enlightens others.


p. 134 Forgetting the Self

"To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one's true self"
To study Buddhism is to inwardly study the self, not the external appearance or forms.
"To learn the self is to forget the self"
When one turns within, freeing the mind from obsession with external forms, one becomes immersed in emptiness, the oneness of reality.
"To forget the self is to be confirmed by all dharmas."
When one no longer obsess about oneself and dives into the ocean of emptiness, one finds oneself embraced by all things and beings.
"To be confirmed by all dharmas is the effect the casting off of one's own body and mind. . ."
To be embraced by all things and beings is to become freed from the shackles of the mind and body. In that moment one realizes no self, emptiness, all-oneness.

p. 136 Firewood and Ashes - Cause and Effect, Before and After

In Dogen's view, time and cause and effect are not merely "out there," objective structures of reality. Rather, they are empty forms, just like anything else.

"Once firewood turns to ash, the ash cannot turn back to being firewood."
In the world of form (conventional truth), of course one must observe the laws of time and cause and effect.
"Still, one should not take the view that it is ashes afterward and firewood before."
The conventional view is not the only view. At the level of emptiness (highest truth) there is not after or before.
"He should realize that although firewood is at the dharma-stage (thing-ness) of firewood, and that this is possessed of before and after (in our conventional way of thinking, the deepest reality of) the firewood is beyond before and after (beyond words, realized in oneness)."
One should not merely see firewood from an ego-centered, attached perspective as something useful to oneself. Rather, one truly sees the firewood, then one no longer sees it as "firewood" (something useful to me). At the moment of becoming one with the firewood, it is not firewood, and there is no longer any causal chain from firewood to ashes, no before or after, only the awareness of the here-and-now.
"Life is a stage of time and death is a stage of time, like, for example, winter and spring."
Life lives fully in the awareness of the moment is beyond time. Death embraced fully in the awareness of the moment is beyond time. If one obsesses about death while still young, one will be afraid of death and be unable to fully live. If one avoids death as one approaches the end of life, then one will be afraid of death and unable to fully embrace the difficult yet beautiful experience of moving beyond this body and mind. If one hates death, then one will be unable to grieve naturally at the loss of a loved one, unable to see that, like spring and winter, joy and grief are seasons of the heart.

p. 137 Insufficiency

"When the Dharma is still not fully realized in man's body and mind, he thinks it is already sufficient."
When one has not internalized the truth, then one is anxious to show that one's intellectual understanding is sufficient.
"When the Dharma is fully present in his body and mind, he thinks there is some insufficiency"
When one has embodied the truth, has realized oneness, and then comes out of the meditation into conscious awareness, one has separated from the oneness. Yet, illuminated by the afterglow of oneness, consciousness is aware that it cannot stand alone; it is insufficient by itself.

p. 138 Birds and Sky; Fish and Water

"We can realize that bird means life [for the sky], and the fish means life [for the water]."
There is no enlightenment apart from practice, no emptiness apart from form. Emptiness is always emptiness. Oneness is always oneness. Yet, these statements are mere rhetoric, meaningless words, unless they are brought to life through realization. The vividness of emptiness/oneness comes to life through the efforts of the practitioner. The practitioner may need enlightenment, but enlightenment needs the practitioner, just as the sky needs to bird to be truly the sky.

pp. 139-140 Fanning the Wind; Gradual and Sudden; Practice as Enlightenment

"The master only fanned himself. The monk bowed deeply."
The vividness of emptiness/oneness comes to life through the efforts of the practitioner. The practitioner may need enlightenment, but enlightenment needs the practitioner. Dogen's idea concerning sudden enlightenment is that each moment of practice is the moment of sudden enlightenment (shusho itto - practice as enlightenment). Each moment is filled with delusion and attachment; each moment is filled with the irrepressible urge to awaken. This urge erupts from a place beyond words, beyond conscious intention. Yet, it must be realized through consciousness. Unconscious oneness pierces and permeates consciousness in each moment of practice, in the here-and-now.