Thursday, July 30, 2015


When potential has not been fully experienced, we feel that we already understand it. When we actually do experience potential, we feel that some aspect of our understanding must surely be lacking.

For example, when sailing out beyond the mountains and into the ocean, when we look around in the four directions, the ocean appears to be round; it does not appear to have any other shape at all. Nevertheless, the great ocean is not round nor is it square. The actual qualities of the ocean are inexhaustible: to fish it is like a palace and to an island it is like a necklace.  But as far as our eyes can see, it just appears to be round. 

As it is for the ocean, so it is for potential.  Whether caught up in the dusty world or beyond our worldly frame of reference, potential encompasses innumerable situations, but we understand only as far as our eyes can see. We should remember that beyond being square or round, the full aspects of oceans and mountains are numerous and endless, and there are whole worlds in the four directions. Not only is the vastness of space like this: remember, this present moment and a single drop of water are also like this. (liberally adapted from Genjo Koan in Dogen's Shobogenzo)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Dogen assumes the relative viewpoint in the next sentence of Genjo Koan:
When the moon is reflected in water, the moon does not get wet and the water is not disturbed. Though the light of the moon is wide and great, it is reflected in a foot or an inch of water. The whole moon and the whole sky are reflected in a single dewdrop on a blade of grass. 
He then compares this observation with a statement that transcends the relative and the absolute:
Potential does not annihilate the individual, just as the moon does not disturb the water. The individual does not hinder potential, just as a dewdrop does not hinder the sky and moon. 
And then he wraps the paragraph up with the practical:
The depth of potential may be as high as the moon. We can experience its duration with our body and mind, and observe its breadth the sky and the moon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Continuing to reinterpret, possibly misinterpret some might say, Dogen for my own purposes, Genjo Koan, the third fascicle of Dogen's Shobogenzo, continues to discuss misconceptions about what I call potential, using some easily understood analogies.
When people seek after potential, they are very far from potential. But as soon as potential is realized, we are human beings in our original element.
Picture a person in a boat on a river: When she looks to the shore, she mistakenly assumes that the shore is moving. If she keeps her eyes fixed on the boat, she knows that it is the boat that is actually moving.  Similarly, when we try to understand potential on the basis of our confused assumptions about body and mind, we mistakenly assume that our own mind or our own essence is a fixed or permanent thing.  But as we become familiar with potential, the truth is evident that there is no "self" in potential
Firewood becomes ash - it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless, we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past.  Remember, in the eternal present moment, firewood is always firewood. Even though the present firewood has a past and a future, the past and the future are not part of the present moment.  Ash exists in the present moment as ash, and it, too, has a past and a future. Firewood, after becoming ash, does not become firewood again.
Similarly, after death, human beings do not live again, but it is not said that life turns into death.  Buddhists call this “no appearance.” Similarly, death does not turn into life. Buddhists call this “no disappearance.” Life exists in the present moment and death exists in the present moment.  It is the same, for example, with winter and spring. We do not think that winter becomes spring, and we do not say that spring becomes summer.  It is always the present moment, regardless of the season.

Monday, July 27, 2015


In Genjo Koan, Dogen continues his discussion with the following lines (paraphrased below):
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be experienced by potential.
To be experienced by potential is to let your body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away. 
There is a state in which all traces of realization are forgotten, and a state where the traces of forgotten realization are manifest for a long, long time.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

While We Are Experiencing One Side, We Are Blind To The Other


When we use the body and mind to look at forms, and when we use the body and mind to listen to sounds, even though we are sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image, and not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side, we are blind to the other side.
Dogen, speaking quite straightforwardly now, tells us that when we perceive the so-called external world, we are still not separate from that external world, like a mirror's image is separate from what's being reflected, or the reflection of the moon on the water is a separate thing from the moon itself. The words that you're reading right now in this post are not "out there" somewhere separate from you yourself.  It's all potential experiencing potential.

While we are experiencing the world of the relative, the world of various forms and objects that our discriminating mind divides from limitless potential, we are blind to the fact that those various forms and objects also include the one experiencing them.  In the world of the absolute, both subject and object, the perceiver and the perceived, are both nothing but potential.  But while we experience the relative, we are blind to the absolute.  

This implies that if we stop using the body and mind to sense forms and sounds, the blindness may fall away.  To do this (stop using mind and body), sit quietly somewhere, etc. . . .  

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Totem of Practice and Delusion


Dogen continues bouncing from one viewpoint to the other in the next passage of Genjo Koan, the third fascicle of the Shobogenzo:
Driving ourselves to practice and experience potential is delusion. When potential actively practices and experiences us, that is the state of realization. 
Those who realize their delusion are buddhas. Ordinary beings are those who are deluded about realization. 
But there are also people who realize potential on the basis of realization, and there are people who fall deeper into delusion due to their own delusions. 
Those buddhas who realize potential do not consider themselves to be buddhas. Nevertheless, they are buddhas as they continue to experience potential.
I've taken a lot of liberties with my interpretation.  I encourage the interested reader to compare my interpretation with any of the fine translations out there to get a better sense both of what Dogen was saying and what I mean.

Dogen's first lines above contrast the relative and the absolute:  it is delusional to think that potential is a thing that can be grasped and attained, that it is a "thing" at all (the relative view).  Dogen contrasts that with the absolute view, a realization that everything always was and always will be potential, that we arise from potential, not the other way around.

The next pair of lines are playfully transcendental: those who realize they are deluded are awakened, and those who think that they are awakened are actually deluded.  But before we get stuck thinking "black is white and white is black," Dogen mixes it up in the next lines and says there are those who are awakened to their awakening and those who are deluded by their own delusions ("black is black and white is white").

The closing lines express the practical viewpoint, and resolve the previous lines: since in potential there is no differentiation between this or that, between self or other, those experiencing the state of potential do not think of themselves as "buddhas" or "awakened," or for that matter, as "selves."  Yet it is in this state, Dogen points out, that they are in fact buddhas. 

This raises the question, if those experiencing the state of potential do not think of themselves as buddhas, or even as selves, what do they think?  Can this question even be answered, as any answer will by necessity involve trying to imagine or reify potential and realization, which Dogen points out is actually delusion.  

However, the answer can be experienced.  In order to experience the answer, sit comfortably someplace and focus your attention on your breath. Breathing slowly but naturally, count "one," then "two," and so on with each exhalation until you get to ten, and then start the count over again.  Do this for 10 minutes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reading Dogen


I've recently heard someone describe Eihei Dogen's masterwork Shobogenzo as "basically impenetrable," and over the years I've heard many people express frustration over the difficulty of reading Dogen (and to be honest, I have experienced difficulty myself).

Shobogenzo is not an "easy" read by any stretch of the imagination, not the least reason of which are the numerous translation issues and problems. As I understand it, it's difficult to translate Dogen's medieval Japanese into modern Japanese, much less 21st Century English, and the subtlety of Dogen's concepts renders translation by those not practiced at meditation and familiar with Zen Buddhist thought nearly impossible.  

Further, I don't think Dogen wrote Shobogenzo as a book to be read from front cover to back.  It's  a distillation of everything that Dogen had learned about Buddhism in his own monastic studies and during his time in China, and what he wanted to memorialize for future generations of Japanese monks.  Also, and most importantly, he writes at various times from any one of four different philosophical viewpoints and the fun in reading Dogen is trying to keep up with him and figure out which of the points of view he's speaking from at any particular moment.

I call the four viewpoints the relative, the absolute, the transcendental, and the practical, and Dogen pretty much spells out his heuristic in the opening lines of Genjo Koan, one of the early fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  

"When all dharmas are seen as the buddha-dharma," he writes, "there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings." This is the relative viewpoint, the way most of us experience life, where the cookie-cutter mind has divided the continuous fabric of potential into separate little "things" (dharmas).  

The absolute point of view is expressed in the next line, "When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death."  Here Dogen is acknowledging that beyond the division into separate dharma-things by the mind (the ego-self), there is only potential, and all of the things he just identified - delusion, realization, buddhas, ordinary beings, life, and death - don't really exist.  If there's no self, there's no mind to divide potential into this-and-that.  He's not contradicting the previous line, he's just describing the relative world of this-and-that from the absolute viewpoint of everything being what I call potential.

The next point of view transcends the dualistic distinction between the relative and the absolute. "Because the Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity" (or any other pair of opposites for that matter) "there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are ordinary beings and buddhas."  In other words, without falling into one philosophical camp or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of dharma-things, we can regard life and death and so one while clinging neither to their existence or non-existence.  In the transcendental, it matters not whether you are eating red beans and rice, or whether you eating red beans and rice is merely potential consuming potential - there is still eating going on one way or the other.  

And finally, as we should ask all philosophers, "so what?"  This leads us to the practical, about which Dogen merely writes poetically, "Though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish."

So there you have it, four different viewpoints, four different philosophies, no one of which is "right" or "wrong," and no one of which proves or disproves any other.  When Dogen writes, he often first expresses things from one of these viewpoints - often, but by no means always, from the absolute at first, and then doubles back and expresses it again from another viewpoint, without warning when he changes or which view he's just adopted.  It can get maddening at times and Shobogenzo often reads something like "The cow jumped over the moon.  The moon jumped over the cow,  There is no cow and there is no moon, there is only jumping."  But once you get used to it, and abandon any goals of reading through his prose "quickly" or in one sitting, it can be very rewarding to follow his quick and agile mind from one vista to the next.  I enjoy reading Dogen and I enjoy the mental workout his writing provides, and if I don't read anything by Dogen for some period of time, I find that I miss it.

So here's how I would interpret the opening passage of Genjo Koan: 
"When we look at the world, we see delusion and realization, we see practice, we see life and death, we see buddhas and we see ordinary beings.  But without the discriminating mind of the ego-self, there is no delusion or realization, no life and death, and no buddhas and ordinary beings.  But as the distinction between existence and non-existence is itself just another dualistic concept, we can discuss delusion and realization, life and death, and buddhas and ordinary beings, regardless of their existential state.  For example, we can say that beloved flowers fall even as hated weeds flourish."
I don't know if any of this makes sense to anyone else - these things are hard to talk about, and maybe that's what makes Dogen so hard to read.