Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Dogen's Genjo Koan, by Eihei Dogen Zenji

Eihei Dogen (1200 - 1253) is considered the founder of the Soto sect, the largest sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Having studied with a Zen master in China, he went back to his native Japan teaching & spreading the Dharma in that country. He is viewed as a great Buddhist teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, although his works can prove impenetrable at first, as they work as koans helping the student to transcend their little self and experience satori, or enlightenment. This book is such a work itself, and we who read it are challenged by Dogen to cut past our egoistic clinging and see what he is pointing at: our true nature.

We are not alone in this endeavor, however, for the book contains three separate translations and accompanying commentaries on its subject, the Genjo Koan, which is the opening chapter of Dogen's mammoth treatise Shobogenzo. As mentioned by Nishiari Bokusan (1821 - 1910), one of the commentators, said that Dogen's "entire teaching begins and ends with this essay…the other essays [in the Shobogenzo] are just offshoots of this one." (Dogen's Genzo Koan, p.2) So, in this book we not only have the heart of the Shobogenzo ('Treasury of the True Dharma Eye'), but we have the heart of Dogen himself, which is also - according to Soto teachings - the heart of the Buddha…and our heart, too. 

As mentioned above, there are three translations of the Genjo Koan with a separate commentary each. Alongside that of Bokusan, quoted earlier, we also have others by the well known Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904 - 1971), and Kosho Uchiyama (1912 - 1998). Each lends their own style and interpretation to the Genjo Koan, and are sensitively edited and translated by a group of Soto Zen Buddhists including Dairyu Michael Wenger of the Beginner's Mind Temple. 

In essence, the Genjo Koan ('Actualization of Reality') can be summed up as in the following words of Shunryu Suzuki in his commentary on it:  "The secret of all the teachings of Buddhism is how to live in each moment, how to obtain absolute freedom moment after moment." (Ibid. p.95) Suzuki's treatment of his subject is more spontaneous than the other two commentaries, being a fusion of several different public teachings that he gave on it between 1965 and 1971. His commentary is no less valuable to us for this, however, and his more conversational style complements the studious approaches of Bokusan & Uchiyama. To illustrate the different approaches, we'll take a brief look at what they have to say about the same section of the Genjo Koan. First, however, the section itself will be presented, followed in turn by the commentaries of Bokusan, Suzuki, and Uchiyama, the order in which they appear in the book.

"When the myriad dharmas are without a self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and no death." (Ibid. p.23)
"All names are arbitrary names, and all dharmas are arbitrary dharmas. They are only a compound of conditions. We say 'you' in relation to 'I.' When we say 'I,' it is nothing but 'I,' however much we try to make of it. There appears to be a subsetntial being that is called 'I,' but it is merely a compound of conditions. 'You' are also merely a compound of various conditions. The Buddha explained this as 'all beings are without self.' (Bokusan, ibid. pp.30 - 31)
"When all things are without self what we do is done in the realms of selflessness, like milk and water. When the whole fabric is woven completely in various colors, what you see are not pieces of thread, what you see is one whole cloth. Do you understand? There is no need to say, 'This is water' when you drink water and milk, and there is no water and milk." (Suzuki, ibid. p. 98)

"The Diamond Sutra says, 'The Tathagata taught that all forms are nothing other than no-form.' And, 'The true form is not a form. Therefore, the Tathagata calls it the true form.' The true form of all dharmas (shobo-jisso) and 'all dharmas of no-form without fixed self' are not two different thongs; they both express the vivid reality of life. Because Dogen Zenji is an intellectual person, when he talks about the side of true-form, he uses shobon(various dharmas), which is an indefinite plural noun. When he talks about the side of no-form, since a plural noun is not suitable, he uses banjo (ten thousand dharmas, or everything), which is a collective singular noun." (Uchiyama, ibid. pp.161-162)

The depth of understanding of the three commentators appears fathomless to this reviewer, and it is worth noting that whilst Shunryu Suzuki's comments are all he has to say on this short section of the Genjo Koan, both Bokusan and Uchiyama have much more to say on the matter, Bokusan's words alone extending to two pages of analysis. The different interpretations are not a problem for the Zennist, either, for it isn't in their literal meanings that we will open the Dharma gate to enlightenment, but in an existential understanding of them. Indeed, in his introduction Nishiari Bokusan advises us that we much take the Genjo Koan deep into ourselves, so that we realize that, "Being is Genjo koan as being. Emptiness is Genjo koan as emptiness. Nirvana is Genjo koan as nirvana." (Ibid. p.12) 

This is not an easy book to read, and if we approach it in too intellectual a manner, we will surely miss the point altogether. On the other hand, it is also a wonderful work. And if we spend some quality time with it, taking it into the core of our being, we will benefit infinitely. This reviewer is truly struck by its essentially quiet yet dynamic pointing to the True Dharma Eye, and recommends it wholeheartedly. There is a particularly well known and profound section of the Genjo Koan that it is fitting to end this review with, so we will let Dogen Zenji speak to us, and see if we can respond to his words by opening the Dharma Eye that we already possess. 

"To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly." (Ibid. p.24)

The above book by Eihei Dogen Zenji is published by Counterpoint Press, and is available from their website here: Counterpoint Press

A related post can be read here: Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki

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