Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

Genjo Koan

Written by zen master Dogen Zenji translated by Prof. Masunaga Reiho

Translated in Soto Approach to Zen by Prof. Masunaga Reiho, Chapter 9, Layman Buddhist Society Press, 1958.


The Shobogenzo flow consists of ninety-five chapters. But when first put together it had only seventy-five chapters. Dogen revised these seventy-five chapters between 1248 and 1252. He finished this revision one-year before his death.

The first chapter in this collection is the GenjoKoan It was written when Dogen was 34 years old (mid-autumn 1233) and given to Mitsuhide Yo, a layman in Kyushu.

In the Zen sect Koan means problem to be solved. The Zen master gives it to the trainee, and the trainee thinks about it during zazen. The Rinzai sect especially emphasizes the Koan, but the Soto sect does not put too much stress on it. The Soto sect lays stress on daily life; it believes that the Koan should be expressed in our daily activities.

GenjoKoan deals with the Koan expressed in daily life. First, Dogen here indicates the essence of religion from his standpoint. Secondly, he expresses his basic view that original enlightenment and superior training are self-identical. Thirdly, he makes it clear that the Koan is not a formal problem but a way of life. Here he expresses the Soto view that thorough training should be integrated with zazen and daily life. GenjoKoan especially underlines these points. Though given to a layman, this essay is very difficult to understand. Anyone who understand it will be able to grasp the overall spirit of the Shobogenzo and the essence of Dogen' Zen.

Text (GenjoKoan)

When all things are Buddhism, delusion and enlightenment exist, training exists, life and death exist, Buddhas exist, all-beings exist. When all things belong to the not-self, there are delusion, no enlightenment, no all beings, no birth and decay. Because the Buddha's way transcends the relative and absolute, birth and decay exist, no delusion and enlightenment exist, all-beings and Buddhas exist. And despite this, flowers fall while we treasure their bloom; weeds flourish while we wish them dead. To train and enlighten all things from the self: is delusion; to train and enlighten- the self from all things is enlightenment. Those who enlighten their delusion are Buddhas; those deluded in enlightenment are all-beings. Again there are those who are enlightened: on enlightenment-and those deluded within delusion. When Buddhas are really Buddhas, we need not know our identity with the Buddhas. But we are enlightened Buddhas-and express the Buddha in daily life. When we see objects and hear voices with all our body and mind-and grasp them intimately-it is not a phenomenon like a mirror reflecting form or like a moon reflected on water. When we understand one side, the other side remains in darkness. To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one's self and of others. It means wiping out even attachment to satori. Wiping out attachment to Satori, we must enter actual society. When man first recognizes the true law, he unequivocally frees himself from the border of truth. He who awakens the true law in him self immediately becomes the original man. If in riding a boat you look toward the shore, you erroneously think that the shore is moving. But upon looking carefully at the ship, you see that it is the ship that is actually moving. Similarly, seeing all things through a misconception of your body and mind gives rise to the mistake that this mind and substance are eternal. If you live truly and return to the source, it is clear that all things have no substance. Burning logs become ashes - and cannot return again to logs. There for you should not view ashes as after and logs as before. You must understand that a burning log - as a burning log - has before and after. But although it has past and future, it is cut off from past and future. Ashes as ashes have after and before. Just as ashes do not become logs again after becoming ashes, man does not live again after death. So not to say that life becomes death is a natural standpoint of Buddhism. So this is called no-life.

To say that death does not become life is the fixed sermon of the Buddha. So this is called no-death. Life is a position of time, and death is a position of time . . . just like winter and spring. You must not believe that winter becomes spring - nor can you say that spring becomes summer. When a man gains enlightenment, it is like the moon reflecting on water: the moon does not be-come wet, nor is the water ruffled. Even though the moon gives immense and far-reaching light, it is reflected in a puddle of water. The full moon and the entire sky are reflected in a dewdrop on the grass. Just as enlightenment does not hinder man, the moon does not hinder the water.

Just as man does not obstruct enlightenment, the dewdrop does not - obstruct the moon in the sky. The deeper the moonlight reflected in the water, the higher the moon itself. You must realize that how short or long a time the moon is reflected in the water testifies to how small or large the water is, and how narrow or full the moon.

When the true law is not fully absorbed by our body and mind, we think that it is sufficient. But if the right law is fully enfolded by our body and mind, we feel that something is missing. For example, when you take a boat to sea, where mountains are out of sight, and look around, you see only roundness; you cannot see anything else. But this great ocean is neither round nor square. Its other characteristics are countless. Some see it as a palace, other as an ornament. We only see it as round for the time being - within the field of our vision: this is the way we see all things. Though various things are contained in this world of enlightenment, we can see and understand only as far as the vision of a Zen trainee. To know the essence of all things, you should realize that in addition to appearance as a square or circle, there are many other characteristics of ocean and mountain and that there are many worlds. It is not a matter of environment: you - must understand that a drop contains the ocean and that the right law is directly beneath your feet.

When fish go through water, there is no end to the water no matter how far they go. When birds fly in the sky, there is no end to the sky no matter how far they fly. But neither fish nor birds have been separated from the water or sky - from the very beginning. It is only this: when a great need arises, a great use arises; when there is little need, there is little use. Therefore, they realize full function in each thing and free ability according to each place.

But if birds separate themselves from the sky they die; if fish separate themselves from water; they die. You must realize that fish live by water and birds by sky. And it can be said that the sky lives by birds and the water by fish, and those birds are life and fish are life. You probably will be able to find other variations of this idea among men, although there are training and enlightenment and long and short lives, all are modes of truth itself. But if after going through water, fish try to go farther, or if after going through the sky, birds try to go farther-they cannot find a way or a resting place in water or sky.

If you find this place, your conduct will be vitalized, and the way will be expressed naturally. If you find this way, your conduct is realized truth in daily life. This way and place cannot be grasped by relative conceptions like large and small, self and others - neither are they there from the beginning nor emerging now. They are there just as they ought to be. Because the way and place are like this if, in practicing Buddhism, you pick up one thing, you penetrate one thing; if you complete one practice, you penetrate one practice. When deeply expressing this place and way, we do not realize it clearly because this activity is simultaneous with and interfused with the study of Buddhism.

You must not think that upon gaining enlightenment you can always become aware of it as personal knowledge. Although we are already enlightened, what we intimate have is not necessarily expressed, and we cannot point it out definitely. Zen master Pao-ch'ih was fanning himself one summer day when a passing priest asked: The nature of wind is stationary, and it is universally present. Why do you then use your fan, sir? The Zen master replied: Though you know the nature of wind is stationary, you do not know why it is universally present. The priest asked, Why then is the wind universally present? The master only fanned himself, and the priest saluted him. Enlightenment through true experience and the vital way of right transmission are like this. Those who deny the need for fanning because the nature of wind is stationary and be cause the wind is sensed without the use of a fan understand neither the eternal presence of the wind nor its nature. Because the nature of wind is eternally present, the wind of Buddhism turns the earth to gold and ripens the rivers to ghee.