Date Written: 1233
Fascicle number and English title in Hubert Nearman translation: 3. On the Spiritual Question as It Manifests Before Your Very Eyes
Fascicle number and English title in Nishijima/Cross translation: 3. The Realized Universe
Fascicle number and English title in Tanahashi translation: 3. Actualizing the Fundamental Point
Fascicle number in 12, 28, 60 and 75 fascicle editions: 1 (60), 1 (75)
Commentaries: Don’t Be A Jerk chapter 5; The Zen Master’s Dance chapter 4; Dōgen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries; Flowers Fall by Hakuun Yasutani; Realizing Genjokoan by Shohaku Okumura.
Audio reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2fGsE71Rdk
Genjo-koan, more than any other fascicle of Shōbōgenzō, is key to understanding Dōgen’s thoughts about Zen practice. This may be because it was written for a lay disciple, Yo Koshu of Chinzei, so it concisely illustrates a number of important points pertaining to both practice and philosophy. As a result, several books have been written purely as commentaries to this one fascicle, and it is understandable why it is the first part of both the 60 fascicle and 75 fascicle collections.
In this fascicle Dōgen sets out the fact that reality can be seen in both relative terms (“When all dharmas are seen as the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings”) and absolute terms beyond all notions of separation (“When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death”). He points to the fact that the buddha way consists of holding both of these sides of reality at the same time, recognising the relative, whilst understanding there is also a deeper truth (“The Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas”).
Dōgen explains that practice is not about forcing our notion of reality onto what we perceive, but rather letting how things are unfold in their own way. In that way, we realise that we are expressions of the totality of all things. He points out that people who see that their thoughts are just thoughts and a partial view of how things are rather than reality itself are buddhas, whereas those unable to recognise their own delusion are ordinary beings.
The notion of time is explored through the idea of firewood and ash, and enlightenment is explained as being like the moon reflected in water. Dōgen also demonstrates how the view of reality of sentient beings is highly subjective using water as an example in how it appears differently to humans, gods and fishes.
Despite viewing reality subjectively, through limited senses and sense consciousnesses, Dōgen points to our experience being a total expression of all that is, complete in and of itself, and essentially endless. He illustrates this by the fact that while birds and fish are respectively confined to their own realms of air and water, and each would die if removed from it, there is no end to the exploration of air and water.
The fascicle concludes with the story of Zen Master Hotetsu and his fan.
Kōans and Stories
“Zen Master Hotetsu of Mayoku-zan mountain is using a fan. A monk comes by and asks, “The nature of air is to be ever-present, and there is no place that air cannot reach. Why then does the Master use a fan?”
The Master says, “You have only understood that the nature of air is to be ever-present, but you do not yet know the truth that there is no place air cannot reach.”
The monk says, “What is the truth of there being no place air cannot reach?”
At this the Master just carries on using the fan. The monk does prostrations.”
(This is a teaching on the relationship between buddha nature (air) and practice (fanning). Without practice, we cannot realise our buddha nature just as we cannot feel the presence of air without fanning)
Important passages (as for Fukan-zazengi, so much of Genjo-koan is of great significance that it is important to read the whole, relatively short, text)
“The Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas. And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall and weeds, while hated, flourish.”
“Driving ourselves to practice and experience the myriad dharmas is delusion. When the myriad dharmas actively practice and experience ourselves, that is the state of realization. Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded about realization are ordinary beings.”
“When we use the whole body-and-mind to look at forms, and when we use the whole body-and-mind to listen to sounds, even though we are sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image, and not like water and the moon. It is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image, and not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side, we are blind to the other side.”
“To learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body-and-mind, and the body-and-mind of the external world, fall away. There is a state in which the traces of realization are forgotten; and it manifests the traces of forgotten realization for a long, long time.”
(to be honest, I much prefer the Tanahashi translation of this passage if you have it, and it is much better known, beginning with “To study the buddha way is to study the self…”)
“When people first seek the Dharma, we are far removed from the borders of Dharma. But as soon as the Dharma is authentically transmitted to us, we are a human being in our original element.”
“Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless, we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past. We should recognize that firewood occupies its place in the Universe as firewood, and it has its past moment and its future moment. And although we can say that it has its past and its future, the past moment and the future moment are cut off. Ash exists in its place in the Universe as ash, and it has its past moment and its future moment. Just as firewood can never again be firewood after becoming ash, human beings cannot live again after their death.”
“A person getting realization is like the moon reflected in water: the moon does not get wet, and the water is not broken. Though the light of the moon is wide and great, it can be reflected in a foot or an inch of water. The whole moon and the whole sky can be reflected in a dew-drop on a blade of grass or in a single drop of rain.”
“When the Dharma has not completely filled our body and mind, we feel that the Dharma is abundantly present in us. When the Dharma fills our body and mind, we feel as if something is missing.”
When fish swim in water, though they keep swimming, there is no end to the water. When birds fly in the sky, though they keep flying, there is no end to the sky. At the same time, fish and birds have never left the water or the sky. The more water or sky they use, the more useful it is; the less water or sky they need, the less useful it is. Acting like this, each one realizes its limitations at every moment and each one somersaults in complete freedom at every place; but if a bird leaves the sky it will die at once, and if a fish leaves the water it will die at once.”