The Present Issue
A Translation of Dōgen Zenji’s Genjō Kōan
Note: This is an older translation of Genjo Koan. See here for the most recent version.
As truth dawns on the world, you look at things and you see the question of enlightenment, you see practice, you see beginnings and see endings, you see saints, you see sinners. But once you’ve stripped things of their selves, you no longer see confusion, nor enlightenment, nor wise people nor normal people, nor birth nor death. In the end, finally, life and death become one, confusion and clarity become one, life and death become one, the holy and the mundane become one. For at its heart the true way transcends all opposites. But these are just abstractions. You know the flower blossoms you so adore? They will nevertheless wither and fall. You know the weeds you so detest? They will nevertheless flourish and spread.
Instead of busily trying to figure out yourself what everything is, try letting things move at their own pace; they will figure it out for you.
Average people lack insight into their insightfulness; wise people have insight into their lack of insightfulness. Lack of insight perpetuates itself, whereas insight multiplies itself. You can gain true insight without necessarily being conscious of the fact that you have done so. That does not detract from the fact that you have indeed developed insight and will continue to do so over time.
You are not your reflection in the mirror, nor is the moon its reflection in the water. To intimately experience something, you need to devote your whole body and soul to seeing it, devote your whole body and soul to hearing it. As you discover what a thing is, other things recede into the background.
Following the Buddha Way really means following yourself. Following yourself really means forgetting yourself. Forgetting yourself really means trusting reality. And trusting reality really means breaking free of body/soul-ism, as it applies both to yourself and to others. Once you've realized this, the process you went through to do so will, laying itself aside, resonate on and on.
Start off by going out and looking for the truth and you only distance yourself from it. Accept the truth in yourself and before you know it you will become who you really are.
It’s like sailing along in a boat off land; it can look like it is the shore that is moving, instead of the boat. If you focus on the shore then that seems to be what’s moving, while if you focus down on the boat you’re on, then you see that it’s what’s actually moving. If your soul and body are focused confusedly on all the things outside you, you can end up imagining that you have some sort of eternal existence. Whereas by focusing on your own life and returning to your inner self, the idea that things have no intrinsic nature becomes clear.
Burn firewood and it will turn into ash, never to revert to firewood. But don’t think of ash as being some future state and firewood as being some past state. Firewood is firewood, with its own future and past. (Although we say “future and past”, these are actually quite separate.) And ash is ash, with its own future and past. A human being, once dead, will never return to life, just as the piece of firewood, once burned to ash, will never return to being firewood. This is why teachers have taught us not to say that life begets death, and thus use the term “non-born”. And that death does not beget life, and thus use the term “non-death”. Life is a state that pertains when it does, and death is a state that pertains when it does. It’s like the relationship between winter and spring. We don’t think of winter as begetting spring, and we don’t say that spring begets summer.
Gaining enlightenment is like water cradling the reflection of the moon. The moon remains dry; the water remains unbroken. However large and bright the moon, it can be reflected in a mere foot or even an inch of water, in a dewdrop on a flower’s stem, or in a single drop of water. Just as the water remains unruffled by the reflection of the moon, man remains unruffled by enlightenment. Man can no more stand in the way of enlightenment than the water can stand in the way of the moon it is reflecting. The enlightenment is as deep as the height of the moon in the sky. How long this takes depends on the depth of your water and the breadth of your moon.
Until reality permeates your body and soul, you may feel that your grasp of reality is complete. Not until reality does pervade your body and soul will you notice that it is not.
Looking out from a boat in the middle of the ocean, out of sight of land, the surface of the ocean appears to be just one huge round disk; nothing else strikes the eye. But we know the ocean is not really round; neither is it square, or any of a hundred other shapes. To a fish, the ocean appears as a palace; to an angel, as a jewel. It only appears round to us at the time based on our powers of perception. The same holds for everything. Of all the many aspects of earth and heaven, you see and understand only those that your experience has given you the ability to. In addition to round and square, whether it’s the ocean or a mountain, things have countless other aspects, with their own worlds radiating in every direction. This applies not just to things around you; but also to yourself and even a drop of water.
Swim as it may, the fish finds no end to the ocean; fly as it may, the bird finds no end to the sky. For ages both have remained in their element. Within it, they roam far or near, as the need arises. Thus always fully engaged, always fully living out their potential. Nevertheless, a bird separated from the sky would die instantly. A fish separated from the ocean would die instantly. Obviously, the ocean gives life to the fish. And the sky gives life to the bird. At the same time the bird gives life to the sky, and the fish gives life to the ocean. Does it not then follow that life gives the bird to the sky, and life gives the fish to the ocean? Carry this thought forward. It applies to your practice, your enlightenment, and your time on this earth.
You are not a bird that has managed to explore the farthest reaches of his sky, or a fish that has managed to explore the farthest reaches of his ocean, for then you would find no more paths to tread or places to rest. When you find your place, rest there and the issue will present itself. When you find your path, travel it and the present will issue itself. This place, this path, is neither large nor small, neither within nor without, neither pre-existing nor emerging now.
To master the right way, apply each thing you learn, refine each deed you perform. That is how you will find your place and your path. But you may not perceive how well your insight is developing, since your very ability to perceive it will start and progress in tandem with its development. Finding this place is not something you grasp with your head. Ultimate insight makes itself present immediately; but it may not manifest itself within you, or necessarily appear to you.
Houtetsu Zenji of Mt. Mayoku (in Chinese, Baozhe of Mt. Magu) was fanning himself when a monk approached. The monk asked, “They say ‘Wind is eternal and ubiquitous’; so why is the Master fanning himself”? The teacher replied, “You may understand that ‘wind is eternal’, but you still do not understand the meaning of it blowing everywhere.” To which the monk asked, “Well, then, what does ‘ubiquitous’ mean?” But Houtetsu simply continued fanning himself. In response to which the monk bowed deeply.
This story embodies the linchpin of our approach, and the key aspect that we must ensure is passed on correctly. To say that the wind is eternal and that therefore you don’t need to fan yourself, that without fanning yourself the wind will nevertheless blow, shows that you understand neither eternity nor the nature of the wind. It is precisely because it is eternal that, in the holy mansion, the wind gilds the earth and fills its rivers with cream.