Zen, Awareness, and Dogen’s Genjokoan

The Genjokoan states:


“If someone wants to know how the many things really are, they should remember that besides appearing square or round, the qualities of the oceans and qualities of the mountains are infinitely numerous; there are worlds in the four directions. Not only the periphery is like this; remember, the immediate present and a single drop of water are also like this.”

This then, is the reason why throughout the Shobogenzo, Dogen is so vehement about continuous, ongoing practice and enlightenment. The buddha-dharma that is the universe is full of numerous qualities and wonders without end. There are “worlds in the four directions,” even in this present moment, and in a single drop of water. Your enlightenment is the enlightenment of the universe. Your awareness is the awareness of the universe. The Zen path of practice and enlightenment is the universe aware of itself, exploring itself, and experiencing itself.

~The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

by Ted Biringer


5 thoughts on “Zen, Awareness, and Dogen’s Genjokoan”

  1. Hi Barry,

    It is always a pleasure to read your comments here. And the words of wisdom you include at your own websites testify to the modesty you demonstrate here. While you (and the Korean tradition) may not make a fuss about much of anything — except waking up (and what is more worth fussing about!), your attention to the written words of Buddhas and Zen masters indicate your own awareness of them as powerful vessels that both contain and deliver wisdom to that end.

    While I am shamefully unaware of much of the great Korean tradition, I have always found the great Korean Zen master, Chinul, to be a reliable guide along the ancient Way. This statement by him is one of the many that have been encouraging, reliable guides to me:

    “I have observed that people of the present time who are cultivating their minds do not depend on the guidance of the written teachings, but straightaway assume that the successive transmission of the esoteric idea [of Son] is the path. They then sit around dozing with their presence of mind in agitation and confusion during their practice of meditation. For these reasons, I feel you should follow words and teachings which were expounded in accordance with reality in order to determine the proper procedure in regard to awakening and cultivation. Once you mirror your own minds, you may contemplate with insight at all times, without wasting any of your efforts.
    ~Chinul, The Korean Approach to Zen, Robert Buswell

    Thank you again Barry!


    Ted Biringer

  2. Ahhh . . . hunger satisfied by words about words.

    You know, the Korean Zen tradition doesn’t make much fuss about much of anything – except waking up. As ZM Seung Sahn used to say, it’s a “just do it!” tradition.

    Since my training is solely within the Korean tradition, your unfolding of Dogen both delights and puzzles me (puzzling in a *good* way). Thank you for your effort to help me.

    Also, I’m grateful for the Joseph Campbell phrase, something that has particular resonance at this particular time in life.

    May we together leave these fine words behind us and simply reside in Svaha!

    Your friend in the Dharma,

  3. Hello Barry,

    Thank you for your thoughtful, and thought provoking comments.

    My first response to your words is, “Sure! Nothing wrong with putting it in those terms!”

    Yet, the words “just” and “fuss” concerning “poetical language” seems a bit subjective here. What I mean is, in a certain sense all terms “refer to the thusness of our lived experience.” Yet, at the same time, or for this very reason, the terms themselves–each one of them–is the ‘thusness’. This is one reason that Dogen dwells so much on the ‘enlightening’ potential of ‘words and language.’ For a marvelous exploration of this, check out his essay on “A Picture of a Rice Cake” where he takes the Buddhist metaphor about “A picture of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger” and re-interprets it in a marvelously creative way in which he concludes, “Our hunger can only be satisfied by a picture of a rice cake.”

    It is a kind of radical departure from ego-centricity. A recognition that from one perspective, each particular thing (the moon, a flower, a picture of a cake, even a shitstick) not only comes forth to manifest “our experience right now” but IS us.

    It is one thing to realize this, and another to joyously celebrate this (and allow rice cakes, mountains, rivers, etc. to celebrate it too). Joseph Campbell has a lovely phrase: “Joyous participation in the sorrows of life.”

    Yes! Weeeeee! Just words? Sure! Mundane? Not in the least! Gate Gate Bodhi Svaha!!!


  4. As you know, Ted, I have very little insight into Dogen. Indeed, I’ve read more Dogen in your blogs than I have over the last 20 years!

    That said . . . this passage from Dogen, and Louie Wing’s comment on it strike me at little bit like making a lobster pie out of crawfish. (I’m straining for a metaphor, here! I don’t know if anyone *ever* makes a lobster pie…)

    As I understand it, “How the many things really are” has nothing to do with mountains, universes, oceans, enlightenment, practice, or drops of water. The “many things” is just our life, as it is, right here, right now.

    So – question – is all this fuss about mountains and water drops just poetical language used by Dogen to refer to the thusness of our lived experience in this very moment?

    This is sincere – I have no interest in arguing with Dogen or Louie Wing or you. Thanks for what I know will be a remarkably and undeservedly thoughtful response.


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