This is the first in a series of three lectures given by Rev. Shohaku Okumura on the first chapter of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo during Stillpoint’s April 2000 sesshin in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is being reprinted here from Stillpoint’s newsletter.

Genjo-Koan: Actualization of Reality

Dogen Zenji was born in the year 1200. We celebrated his 800th birthday in January of 2000. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk when he was 13 years old. According to his biography, his mother died when he was eight years old. The next year, he started to study Buddhism. His determination to be a Buddhist monk was fixed since he was very young. He practiced at Tendai Monastery in the beginning, but left the monastery after four years of study and practice. He started to practice Zen when he was 17 years old at Kenninji in Kyoto, with his teacher Myozen. At that time, Zen was very new in Japanese Buddhism. He and his teacher felt they should go to China to study more deeply under authentic teachers. Myozen and Dogen left Japan when Dogen was 23. Unfortunately, Myozen died in China when he was 42 years old. After Myozen’s death, Dogen found a very good teacher. The teacher’s name was Nyojo (Ch. Rujing). He was a Soto teacher. Dogen finally received dharma transmission from this Soto teacher. Dogen brought back Soto Zen practice from China to Japan when he was 27 years old – still very young. He went back to the original Rinzai monastery in Kyoto and stayed there for a few years, but since his lineage and practice was different from Rinzai Zen, he left. Right after he went back to Japan, he wrote Fukanzazengi, or The Universal Recommendation of Zazen . It is a very precise and poetic explanation of the meaning of zazen and how to practice it. After he left that Rinzai monastery, he lived by himself outside of Kyoto for three years. During that time he wrote Bendowa, or the Talk on the Wholehearted Practice of the Way. In it, he described zazen practice and made up the questions that people in his time may have asked about this practice, and answered them. In 1233, he established his own monastery, named Koshoji, in the southern outskirts of Kyoto. That was the beginning of Soto Zen in Japan. He had the first practice period in that year, during which he wrote Shobogenzo Makahannya-haramitsu (Perfection of Great Wisdom. Shobogenzo means the “true dharma eye treasury.” A few months after, in the fall, he wrote this Genjo-koan and gave the writing to a lay student. It is interesting that Genjo-koan was originally written for a lay practitioner. When Dogen later compiled the 75-chapter version of Shobogenzo, he made Genjo-koan the first chapter, because, I believe, this is a very basic expression of his understanding of Buddha’s teaching (the true dharma) and his practice of zazen. In a monastery, monks don’t only sit, they have to take care of all the other day-to-day things to support their practice. So Genjo-koan is the basis of the entire life of practice of the buddha dharma for his students. It has been considered to be the most essential teaching of Dogen in Soto Zen tradition. When I was in Minneapolis, I had a Buddhist study group in the winter. One year we studied Genjokoan. I worked on this translation with several of Katagiri Roshi’s disciples. Now I am working on Uchiyama Roshi’s commentary on Genjo-koan. I have made the first draft, but I am still working on polishing the English with a few priests at the San Francisco Zen Center. Hopefully it will be done within two or three years. Translation takes a long time. Dogen’s writing of the first chapter of Shobogenzo is very short, and poetic. I’m not sure whether this translation is poetic enough. It’s almost impossible to convey the beauty of the rhythm and sound, rich associations and profound implication and suggestion of many important words. I just tried to translate the meaning and logic. He uses very beautiful images about practice and enlightenment, using the moon’s reflection in the water, fish in the ocean or a bird in the sky. This morning I’d like to talk about the title Genjokoan. I translated this as “actualization of reality,” but it has more layers than that. The word genjokoan consists of four Chinese characters. Each character has several different meanings. Genjo is one compound consisting of two Chinese characters- gen and jo. Koan is another compound of two Chinese characters – ko and an. Gen has a few meanings. It means “to appear,” “to be real, true or actual.” Another meaning is “presence,” at this moment, at this place. So it means something that has been hidden has become apparent, something that did not exist comes into being. Jo means “to become something” or “to accomplish or achieve something.” For example, when Shakyamuni becomes Buddha, in Japanese we use the expression Jodo, or to complete or achieve the Way. Jo an is a Buddhist term has something to do with “becoming enlightened” or “completing the way”. Genjo as a compound has a connotation of “actually to become Buddha” or “become enlightened,” or “to complete the way.” That is the meaning of “actualization of the reality.” Koan is a famous Zen word. If you read any books on Zen, you will find the word. Commonly, the original meaning of this word was considered to be a public (or government) document. In this case, ko means “public,” as opposed to private or personal. The Chinese character for an has two parts. The upper part means “to be peaceful, steady, or to be settled down” or “to place something on something.” And the lower part of this character means “tree” or “wood.” So this character means a wooden desk on which things are placed. And the main thing that is placed on the desk in the government office is legal documents. This is how this word koan is interpreted as “public document.” This an also means “to think,” which is what government officers do at their desk. In that case, koan means a public, legal document issued by the emperor. In China, the emperor has absolute power and authority. When something was issued with the name of the emperor, no one could question or change it. It had absolute authority. So here koan is meant as some thing that has absolute authority. It means we cannot doubt it. We have to accept, study and follow it. That is the original meaning of koan in common usage of the word. In Zen tradition, when Zen masters are asked questions, they say something often very unique as expression of the reality, and the masters’ answers become absolute authority to their students to study. The student needs to accept them and study them through their practice, but without criticism. In that case, the koan is considered to be the story in which the absolute undeniable reality or truth is expressed. Often in Zen koan stories, the question is not simply a question, but question and answer together express entire reality. Not only the master’s answer, but the student’s question, express the reality of truth – a question and answer between student and teacher together are the expression of absolute reality or truth. Some actions without saying any words by Zen masters are also the expression of the reality of truth. Those are also called koans. During the Sun dynasty in China (10th – 13th century), Zen became really popular. Many people, including lay people studied and practiced Zen. One teacher had many students. In the earlier times in the Tang dynasty (7th -10th century), the Zen community was rela tively small; a teacher had only 20 or 30 students, so it was possible to have daily communication. But when one teacher has a hundred or even a thousand students, it’s not possible to have day to day contact. So they used koan stories as a method to communicate and teach and practice. Some Chinese Zen masters selected important koans and composed poems or verses about the truth each koan story expresses, and made a commentary. There are several collections of those koans and verses and commentaries that became the texts for Zen practitioners. Hekiganroku, The Blue Cliff Record , which has 100 koans, was one of the most important koan collections. Mumonkan , or Gateless Gate was another collection of 48 koans. In the Soto tradition, Shoyoroku, The Book of Serenity , was made. Dogen Zenji didn’t put emphasis on so-called “koan practice” in which people use koans as objects of meditation in zazen through which kensho experience is attained. But he studied koans and wrote comments on them. Actually, many chapters of Shobogenzo are Dogen’s comments on certain koans. In the case of Dogen’s teaching, the word koan has a different meaning. When he wrote Genjo-koan, he used another Chinese character for an. The right side of the Chinese character Dogen uses is the same with the upper part of the an in the common usage, that is “to place”, “peace,” “to be settled down,” “steady” etc. But the left part of the Chinese character is “hand” instead of “wood”. This means to place a hand on something to make it peaceful. This means a kind of function or work. In this case, koan means a public work; our function for the public, not for our private desire. When we work for the public, we need to have a position within a certain system and we are expected to do things depending on what position we are in. In the oldest commentary of Shobogenzo, an is interpreted as “knowing one’s lot.” In that sense, an is individual. Ko is public. Both something individual and something beyond individual are included within this expression, koan . So this expression koan refers to the reality of our life that is the intricacy of individuality and universality. Our body has eyes, ears, nose and so forth. Each part is different from others and has particular function. But they are all connected and function as one person’s body. Each has individuality. A nose cannot be a mouth. So each has its own peculiarity, but still everything works together as a part of one body. That is the image of koan as reality of our life in Dogen’s writings. When Dogen uses the word, he points to the reality of our own life. Everything is interdependent. In order to be interdependent, we need both independence and dependence. If we don’t have independence, there’s no way to interdependence. But our independence doesn’t mean we are separate from the rest of the universe. We are connected and being supported by each other. In that sense everything is dependent on something else. Dependence and independence together make interdependence. Our life has both. This reality of interdependence-including dependence and independence – is what Dogen means when he use this expression koan . We are born, live and die within this koan. We cannot live by ourselves. We have to study how we are connected as independent beings in relationship with other independent beings, and interact in that sense. First we have to awake to that reality. Second we have to put ourselves into that reality and interact together with other beings. That is the manifestation of interdependence. Genjo-koan means we have to awake to that reality and we have to learn how to live within this reality of interdependence. Of course, because Dogen is a Buddhist, he uses Buddhist concepts. He shows us this reality of interdependence and how we can live based on awakening to that reality following Buddha’s teachings. Sitting zazen is the basic and most condensed way we actualize this reality. We sit with our own body and mind. This is really independent. Nobody can sit for me. Even when we sit together with hundreds of people, we are sitting alone. And yet in this sitting, we let go of our thought. Letting go of our thought means we let go of our individuality. Both independence and dependence are actualized within sitting. This sitting is a perfect complete actualization of interdependent origination. In this sense, Zen sitting practice is the basis of Dogen’s teaching to awaken to that reality of interdependence. It’s really precious to have time to sit together. Practice together as a sangha allows us to awaken the reality of interdependence. In order to do so, we need support from the sangha. Sesshin is a really perfect occasion of being alone together with others. We study and practice together about how we can live as a part of interdependent origination.
Thank you very much for listening.

Part two

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