Genjokoan – When We Seek, We Are Far Away

The first sentence of the seventh section reads:

“When one first seeks the Dharma, one strays far from the boundary of the Dharma.”

Particularly in the West where most Buddhist practitioners grew up in non-Buddhist families, the moment we started to search for a spiritual path, and look for books on Buddhism in the local library or bookstore, marked a turning point in our lives. What, we may ask, prompted us to seek the Dharma? Okumura says: “The search for truth, for the Dharma, or for a spiritual path almost always begins as the desire to solve some problem or answer some life question. We may feel a sense of lack in our lives … I think most of us begin to practice in an attempt to fill an empty place in our lives or to recover from an unhealthy way of living.” What we may not have realized is that this seeking of the Dharma is, as such, part of the practice, and it has a name. It is called the “bodhicitta (Jap bodai-shin), a term often translated into English as “bodhi-mind,” “awakening mind,” or “way-seeking mind.”

“Yet according to Dogen, when we first seek the Dharma, we move far from the boundary of the Dharma. This is because our aspiration still involves a kind of hunting mind; we feel our lives are lacking something so we pursue what we think we are missing … The more a person practices with an agenda or goal, the more she moves away from the boundary of the Dharma.” Even though this aspiration has its roots in our Buddha-nature, at this point, insofar as it is an attempt to fill a gap within ourselves, it is a kind of desire. In this initial stage, we will inevitably project our concepts unto reality. This is why Dogen says that it “moves us far from the boundary of the Dharma.”

Okumura also notes that “in the early part of their zazen practice, people often have some sort of special experience that makes them feel fantastic.” It, however, does not last, and when it’s over, one tends to see the practice as a means to repeat this special experience. This is definitely a case of “conveying oneself toward all things,” in which one tries to catch enlightenment with a hunting mind. According to Dogen, this is delusion, far away from the boundary of Dharma.”

At the same time, “without such desire it is very difficult to find the motivation to realize the truth.” How, then, can we overcome this contradiction? Our first reaction will most certainly be to try to “fight to free ourselves from our own way-seeking minds.” Then comes a moment when “we finally tire of fighting ourselves, all we can really do is just sit.”

“Just sit” is the practice Dogen refers to as shikantaza. “Sitting zazen without desire is shikantaza, or just sitting, the practice that Dogen Zenji described as “all things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self.” The subject of this sitting is no longer “I,” because in shikantaza we let go of all thoughts, including concepts of “me” and the desire for enlightenment; we really just sit.” In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen writes: “Just practice the Buddha Dharma for the sake of the Buddha Dharma. Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out, it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and ancestors if this attitude is lacking.” Okumura comments: “When we just sit, when we let go of the desire for enlightenment and all other thoughts and emotions, all dharmas carry out practice through the body and mind. This zazen is not “my” personal attempt to attain something; rather, as Dogen said, this sitting is actually the Buddha’s practice.”

Dogen’s shikantaza, as “practice without desire,” can be paralleled with the Pure Land practice of entrusting oneself to Amida. Shikantaza cuts the practice off from any egocentric concerns or projects. In the case of Dogen mere reliance on faith is by-passed, as shikantaza relies primarily on a high level of consciousness that will catch and drop any grasping move, thereby allowing thoughts to flow freely. In his very last writing, Zen philosopher Nishida Kitaro has, however, stated that at bottom, self-power, with which Zen is usually associated, is the same as other-power. He writes: “Essentially, then, there can be no religion of self-power. This is indeed a contradictory concept. Buddhists themselves have been mistaken about it. Although they advocate the concepts of self-power and other-power respectively, the Zen sect and the True Pure Land sect, as forms of Mahayana Buddhism, basically hold the same position … In any religion, it is the effort of self-negation that is necessary.” Zen cannot be described as a religion of self-power, because it does not rely on the self, but on the negation of the self, like any other religion. What this really means is that the self becomes itself through negating itself, and it can do so because as no-self, it is nothingness, and nothingness is the activity of self-determination as the forms of the world. Nishida writes: “The self, we must say, possesses itself through its own self-negation … At the ground of the self, therefore, there must be that which, in its own absolute nothingness, is self-determining.” Absolute nothingness (emptiness/sunyata) as an activity echoes Dogen’s concept of “total dynamic function of the universe” (zenki) – and that of “total exertion of dharmas” (ipo-gujin), which will be further explained in my next post. Dogen said: “a mountain mountains a mountain, thereby a mountain realizes itself,” in the same sense as Heidegger said “the world worlds.” Emptiness is a verb.

The second sentence reads:

“When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person.”

Okumura explains that the “original person” here is the same as what koans call our “original face,” and “refers to a person who is one with the original source that exists before karmic conditioning.” Specifically, “Original person” is a translation of “honbun nin,” a reference to the self living in the network of interdependent origination. “Hon” can be literally translated as original, true, root, or source, “bun” means part or portion, and “nin” is person. This original person is actualized when we sit zazen and let go of thinking … Thoughts well up even when we let go, but we just keep releasing them without grasping … we really do nothing.” This is why Dogen says: “Zazen is non-doing”; “I” do nothing. Sitting is no longer my action anymore. The entire universe is sitting, using this body and mind; that’s all. In so doing we put our entire being on the ground of interdependent origination, on the ground of impermanence and lack of independent existence that is the original source. This zazen is itself dropping off body and mind.”

Shohaku Okumura – Realizing Genjokoan
Nishida Kitaro – “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview” in Last Writings

A stream flowing beside Eiheiji temple