Genjokoan – We Have a Fan Because Wind Nature Is Everywhere

The final chapter of Shohaku Okumura’s work on the Genjokoan, entitled “We wave a fan because Wind Nature is everywhere,” is based on a koan by Chinese Zen master Baoche of Mt Magu:

“Zen Master Baoche of Mt Magu was waving a fan. A monk approached him and asked, ‘the nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?’
The master said, ‘You know only that the wind’s nature is ever present – you don’t know that it permeates everywhere’.
The monk said, ‘How does wind permeate everywhere?’
The master just continued waving the fan.
The monk bowed deeply.”

“Wind nature” in this koan is, of course, a reference to Buddha nature. Magu Baoche had a special place in Dogen’s heart because he was the Dharma heir of Mazu Daoyi (709-788) and he “represented a master who was a vehicle of the authentic Buddhist teachings before the Zen tradition separated into the Five Schools.” Mazu was associated with two famous sayings“: “The mind is itself Buddha” and “Ordinary mind is the Way.” “Seeing ultimate reality (li) within concrete phenomena (ji) was the basis of Mazu’s teachings and that of his disciples. “In other words, they taught that Buddha nature is not something hidden in living beings. They said, rather, that all concrete phenomena and all beings are themselves manifestations of tathata, or ultimate reality … When the monk in this final story of Genjokoan says, “Wind Nature is ever present and all pervading,” he is referring to the traditional Zen teaching that Buddha nature is always manifesting and never hidden.”

One may then ask, if Buddha nature is always manifesting and never hidden, “why did Magu have to wave a fan in order to reveal the wind (Buddha nature)? If everything is the manifestation of ultimate reality (tathata) and we are enlightened from the beginning, why do we need to study and practice?” This was, of course, the question that had haunted Dogen in the early part of his life, and led him to look for an answer in China. Dogen clearly resonated deeply with Magu’s thought.

The monk asking the question believes that Buddha nature is, like the wind, “ever present in time and all pervading in space.” This is, Okumura points out, “a very different understanding of Buddha nature from its original conception.“ He continues with a short presentation of what was meant by “buddha nature” in early Mahayana. In India, the word most commonly used to refer to buddhata (buddha nature) was tathagata-garbha, made up of “tathagata,” buddha, and “garbha,” womb or embryo. “Tathagata-garbha refers to the teaching that each living being is a womb containing the embryo of a tathagata, of a buddha.” It is “the hidden, dormant potential to become a tathagata; it is inherent in all living beings.” It is in China that the term “Buddha nature,” as the translation of the Chinese “fo-xing,” became popular. “A famous analogy uses the image of a diamond covered with rock and dirt. The diamond represents the Buddha nature that exists in all of us … but is hidden beneath the rock and dirt of delusion. One must therefore first discover the diamond and then remove the dirt and rock and polish the diamond with Buddhist practice. Only when a person becomes an enlightened buddha is the true beauty of the diamond revealed.”

This view, however, was often criticised as a resurgence of the Hindu concept of atman, since atman, too, was seen as “a pure, changeless spiritual nature confined within the body.”

A first step beyond this view was taken by the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana attributed to an Indian Buddhist teacher – Asvaghosa (c. 80c.-150) – though some scholars now believe it was composed much later in China. “The text says that the One Mind … has two aspects. One is the aspect of mind in terms of the absolute, or tathata (suchness). The other aspect is the aspect of mind in terms of phenomena, or samsara (the cycle of birth and death) … These two aspects are mutually inclusive. The absolute tathata is like water, and beings living in samsara are like waves of water created by the wind of ignorance. This wind both disturbs the calmness of the water and separates it into the individual waves. In terms of absolute tathata, all living beings (waves) are fundamentally tathata (water), being enlightened from the beginning. This aspect of reality is called “original enlightenment” (hongaku) or ultimate reality (li). Living beings, however, are influenced by the wind of ignorance and therefore create karma that causes them to transmigrate within samsara. The basic idea of this teaching is that we must practice to become free of ignorance and return to original enlightenment. This aspect of reality is called “the process of actualization of enlightenment (shikaku) or concrete reality” (ji).”

Within the Zen school, the debate between hongaku and shikaku was presented in terms of the opposition between the southern and the northern schools. “Traditionally the southern school is considered to have emphasized original enlightenment (hongaku), while the northern school emphasized the process of actualization of enlightenment (shigaku).” In the Platform Sutra, it is expressed in the well-known story of the contest between Shenxiu (605-706), the senior monk in the temple, and Huineng (638-713), at the time a lay worker in the milling room, when Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch of the Zen lineage, challenged the monks to write a gatha about what was “truly important.” The winner of the contest would be given the robe symbolising his appointment as the Sixth Patriarch.” Shenxiu wrote: “The body is the bodhi tree. The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand. At all times we must strive to polish it. And must not let dust collect.” Supposedly illiterate, Huineng asked a monk to read the gatha for him and, later on, asked another monk to write the following gatha: “Bodhi originally has no tree. The bright mirror also has no stand. Fundamentally there is not a single thing. Where could dust arise?”

Okumura explains: “Shenxiu’s poem says that original enlightenment must be restored by “polishing” away the “dust” of delusion through practice, while Huineng’s poem, illustrative of the sudden teaching, says that awakening to fundamental reality is realizing nothingness (there is no mirror, there is no dust).” He adds that “today’s scholars think this is a fictitious story created generations after Huineng by those who wished to raise his status, which at the time was that of a relatively unknown teacher, to that of the Sixth Ancestor.” It was, however, regarded as historical at the time of Dogen, though, at times, Dogen, who strongly admired Huineng, doubted the authenticity of some of the teachings attributed to him, with which he disagreed.

Sōjiji Temple, Yokohama – Daisō-dō or Hattō, the main training centre, designed by Itō Chūta

Dogen presents his own understanding of Buddha nature, as follows:

“The genuine experience of Buddha Dharma and the vital path that has been correctly transmitted are like this. To say we should not wave a fan because the nature of wind is ever present, and that we should feel the wind even when we don’t wave a fan, is to know neither ever-presence nor the wind’s nature. Since the wind’s nature is ever present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great Earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.”

The monk’s question to Magu Baoche about the nature of wind (Buddha nature) – “The nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?” is the same as the question which Dogen eventually posed to his Chinese teacher Tiantong Rujing: “If all phenomena are themselves ultimate reality and all living beings are themselves Buddha nature, why do we have to study and practice?” Dogen recorded Rujing’s answer in “Hokyoki” (Record in the Hokyo Era): “If people say that all living beings are from the beginning buddhas, they are the same as the non-Buddhists of naturalness. Comparing the self and the attributes of the self to buddhas is nothing other than considering those who have not yet attained to be as those who have attained and those who are not enlightened to be as those who are enlightened.”

Okumura unpacks Rujing’s answer as follows: “Rujing says that understanding self-awareness to be true awakening is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. He says that this understanding is the same as that of non-Buddhists who say that things in their natural states are equal to enlightenment. These people, according to Rujing, say that all man-made things, including practice, originate from delusion and are therefore unnecessary or even evil. But Rujing taught that we cannot see reality and practice from only the absolute perspective. Saying there is no need to practice because everything is already part of enlightenment is to deny the relative reality of cause and effect. Since human beings have the ability to express both delusion and enlightenment, we must practice in order to manifest true awakening, or Buddha nature.” In other words, those who believe that there is no need to practice forget that cause and effect, i.e., karma, prevent us from apprehending reality as it is, in its suchness. Practice is required to dissolve the karmic “thinking self” that hides it from us.

In “Fukanzazengi” ((Universal Recommendations for Zazen), which he wrote three years after his return to Japan, Dogen not only emphasises the need for practice, but explains how practice operates. Zazen, and more precisely shikantaza, is “a thinking of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of peace and bliss, the totally culminated awakening.” Basically, it deconstructs the “thinking self” shaped by karma to restore access to reality as a buddha sees it. Each time we “drop” a thought to avoid its becoming a “train of thoughts,” we learn how to live from the standpoint of the selfless self, and when we leave the cushion to interact with the world, the way we act and think – as we still need to think then – is less rooted in the egocentric standpoint of ordinary reflective consciousness.

In “Bendowa” (Wholehearted Practice of the Way), his second essay written a year later, Dogen tackles the controversy about whether practice could be dropped once “enlightenment” was achieved, and attested by a kensho” or even a full “satori.” The view that it could be dropped was “a common understanding in Rinzai Zen, but Dogen disagreed. This view emphasizes the “process of actualization of enlightenment” (shikaku).” Hakuin, who reformed Rinzai practice in the 18th century, emphasised post-satori practice. So today’s Rinzai practice has also become a life-long practice to integrate one’s insight with one’s everyday life.

Dogen’s view is based on “original enlightenment,” in the sense that reality itself is buddha nature, and as such, it “enlightens” us. We only need to “forget the [thinking] self.” In the Genjokoan the issue is brought up early on in the text when, in the third section, Dogen goes beyond Avalokitesvara’s assertion in the Heart Sutra that the five skandhas are empty, to say that they are prajna (wisdom), as was also asserted by Huineng in the Platform Sutra. It was the view underlying Dogen’s famous statement that instead of “conveying oneself toward all things” meaning “to take our distorted ideas and desires and move toward the world trying to find truth or reality,” one must open to “all things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment.” In this reverse mode, “it is not I who practice … It is rather the myriad dharmas that carry out practice through our individual bodies and minds.” Dogen echoes Kukai’s statement that the Buddha-as-cosmos expounds the truth.

Prajna, however, “cannot be a particular way in which a subject views objects; in other words, it cannot be just another viewpoint.” Enlightenment is not a state, reached once for all (which would allow us to drop practice once it is attained). It is an activity. More precisely it is the activity of practice. In fact, Okumura notes, in Magu’s koan, Magu did not answer the monk’s question “with a theoretical explanation; instead he simply continued waving the fan. Here Dogen is indicating that practice is not a philosophical debate.” So, for Dogen, “attaining a one-time enlightenment experience in which we recover our Buddha nature is not the goal of practice. Practice for Dogen is an ongoing activity in which we continue to deepen and broaden our understanding, day by day, moment after moment. For him, enlightenment is a vital life activity that we must nurture just as we must nurture our bodies … whenever we find that we have strayed from awakening, we must return to it in practice.” In the terms of Magu’s koan, asking why he keeps on waving the fan shows that one has failed to understand that prajna, one could say “emptiness itself” as interdependent and interpenetrating phenomena, is an activity, not a state attained once and for all. In the writings of the Kyoto School of philosophy, emptiness is often described as the “activity of self-emptying.” This would be a fitting characterisation of Dogen’s understanding of practice.

The last sentence of Dogen’s comment on Magu’s koan will sound a bit cryptic to most of us: “Since the wind’s nature is ever present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great Earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.” Okumura explains: “Like the water for fish and the sky for birds, “the Great Earth” symbolizes the world we live in, and “the water of the long river” symbolizes the stream in our lives. “The wind of the Buddha’s family” is the product of our ceaseless practice of vow and repentance, which is firmly rooted in shikantaza or just sitting. This ceaseless practice makes our world as precious as gold and our lives as rich as cream. Here again Dogen reveals the self and the world of the self (the ten thousand things) as they really are, totally interdependent.”

In Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist, Hee-Jin Kim states that “Dogen radically transformed the predominantly psychological conception of Buddha-nature into a predominantly ontological one whereby it was equated with, and hence used synonymously with, thusness and Dharma-nature, which in Buddhist thought referred to the impersonal ground of being or ultimate reality.” This is why Kim refers to Dogen as a “mystical realist.”

Shohaku Okumura – Realizing Genjokoan
Hee-Jin Kim – Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist

Zafus for the monks at Sōjiji Temple, Yokohama