Notes on the "Genjokoan" Chapter of the Shobogenzo
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
- 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 also
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
- "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
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 here-and-now.