Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From the Annals of Zen: Dogen's Genjokoan


"As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread."

(from "Genjokoan" - "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). Translated by Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, 1985 version)
This past weekend, as the Fall Ango concluded at Zen Mountain Monastery, we were informed that Master's Dogen's essay "Genjokoan" will be the subject and theme of the upcoming Spring Ango.

The "Genjokoan" is possibly Dogen's most revered essay on the essence of Buddhism and Zen practice. Like many of my fellow Zen students, I'm already exciting (also daunted) by the prospect of delving into this little gem.

Since I'm already gearing up for a thorough study of Dogen's essay, I'd like to share with anyone who happens by a few online resources and a brief biographical sketch of the man who founded the Soto Zen school in Japan.

A good resource for studying the Genjokoan can be found here. This site contains eight different English translations of the work.

I'm particularly fond of biographical details, and Dogen is a fascinating character. There a pretty good brief bio of him on the wikipedia, and a more polished one can be found in any number of books, such as Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. What follows is based on the wikipedia article and the Tanahashi book as well autobiographical details that Dogen included in his own writings.

Dogen was born in Kyoto in 1200 to a noble family, and both of his parents died when he was quite young. At the age of 13 he became a monk, studying with the Tendai School of Buddhism, which at that time was the leading sect in Japan. Apparently, he was quite precocious, because it didn't take long before he became troubled by one of the most difficult religious questions of Buddhism, or of any religion. He phrased his big question thus:

"Both exoteric and esoteric teachings explain that a person in essence has true dharma nature and is original a body of "buddha nature." If so, why do all buddhas in the past, present, and future arouse the wish for and seek enlightenment?"

In other words, if we already possess buddha-nature, why do we have to work so hard at spiritual practice? I might even dare to add: why do people not act like they have buddha-nature -- why is there evil in the world? Why do people do bad things?

It seems that this was to be Dogen's central question, and it appears (from my point of view) to comes up again and again in his writings. His Tendai teachers suggested he go to China to study Zen. He found one teacher in Japan who had studied in China, studied with him and then with that teacher's student. Ultimately he made his own trip to China.

As recorded in his essay, "Instruction for the Tenzo (Tenzo Kyokun)," Dogen shares several anecdotes that show him posing his central question (in one form or another) to the veneral old monks he meets in his travels in China. These are touching stories, and, to my mind, make Dogen a real person that I can relate to.

The "Tenzo" is a monk in a Zen buddhist monastery who is in charge of the kitchen and the meals for the entire monastic community. In the first of two anecdotes I'd like to share, Dogen writes:

"During my stay at Mt. Tiantong, a priest named Yong from Qingyuan Prefecture held the position of tenzo. One day after the noon meal when I was walking along ... he was in front of the buddha hall drying some mushrooms in the sun. He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat on his head. The sun was very hot, scorching the pavement. It looked very painful; his backbone was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as a crane.

I went up to the tenzo and asked, 'How long have you been a monk?'

'Sixty-eight years,' he replied.

'Why don't you let a helper do it?'

'Others are not myself.'

'Reverend Sir, you follow regulations exactly, but as the sun is so hot why do you work so hard as this?'

'Until when should I wait?'

So I stopped talking. As I was walking further along the covered walkway, I thought about how important the tenzo's position is."

In the second story, Dogen recounts how he encountered another monk who had made a long trip on foot to the harbor where Dogen's Japanese ship was moored. He came to buy imported mushrooms for the following day's meal.

Dogen asked:

"'When are you going back to your monastery?'

'I will go back as soon as I have bought mushrooms.'

I said, 'Today we met unexpectedly and had a conversation on this ship. Is it not a good causal relationship? Please let me offer you a meal, Reverend Tenzo.'

'It is not possible. If I don't oversee tomorrow's offering, it will not be good.'

'Is there not someone else in the monastery who understands cooking? Even if one tenzo is missing, will something be lacking?'

'I have taken this position in my old age. This is the fulfillment of many years of practice. How can I delegate my responsibility to others? Besides, I did not ask permission to stay out.'

I again asked the tenzo, 'Honourable Tenzo, why don't you concentrate on zazen practice and on the study of the ancient masters' words rather than troubling yourself by holding the position of tenzo and just working? Is there anything good about it?'

The tenzo laughed a lot and replied, 'Good man from a foreign country, you do not yet understand practice or know the meaning of the words of the ancient masters.'

Hearing him respond this way, I suddenly felt ashamed and surprised, so I asked him, 'What are words? What is practice?'

The tenzo said, 'If you penetrate this question, how can you fail to become a person of understanding?'

But I did not understand. Then the tenzo said, 'If you do not understand this, please come and see me at Mt. Ayuwang some time. We will discuss the meaning of words.' He spoke in this way, and then he stood up and said, 'The sun will soon be down. I must hurry.' And he left."

[Both of these stories were excerpted from Moon in a Dewdrop, cited earlier.]

Eventually Dogen did penetrate his question, and his "Genjokoan" is one way in which he expresses that understanding and urges us to pursue the question for ourselves. The Genjokoan concludes with a famous koan, which once again poses the same question:

Zen master Baoche of Mt. Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, "Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?"

Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent," Baoche replied, "you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere."

"What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?" asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply.

So. Genjokoan. We have our work cut out for us.

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