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
- 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."
- 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
- 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."
- 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
- "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
- "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
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
- 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
- "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