Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Genjokoan – Excerpt from the Flatbed Sutra


An excerpt from Louie Wing’s Commentary on Shobogenzo, Genjokoan:

The fact that the Genjokoan goes to such lengths to describe the nature and actual experience of Buddhahood is enough to put Dogen in a very exclusive minority. When the experience of Buddhahood is described, it is usually simply described as “indescribable.” In Genjokoan, Dogen not only describes characteristics like, “buddhas do not know they are buddhas,” and that buddhas “continuously actualize Buddhahood,” he also describes why and how that is. The Genjokoan explains:


Mustering the whole body-and-mind to look at forms, and mustering the whole body-and-mind to listen to sounds, they perceive them directly; not like an image reflected in a mirror, and not like the reflection of the moon on water.


This is a description of the condition called Buddhahood. “buddha” describes a person in the activity or condition of authentic practice and enlightenment; the deeper meaning of zazen. The keystone of Zen practice is not “sitting meditation” (though that is where it is often first discovered), it is “mustering the whole body-and-mind” and perceiving the world directly.


Seeing and hearing (as well as smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking) sights and sounds (smells, tastes, sensations, and thoughts) with the “whole body-and-mind” means truly being one with them. When you are truly one with them, there is no sense of I see that or I hear that. Hence, buddhas do not know they are buddhas. “It is not like an image reflected in a mirror, and not like the reflection of the moon on water,

because there are not two things (e.g. moon and water). When you are authentically engaged in practice and enlightenment you do not hear a bell, there is simply, booooonngg—boooooongg. The classic Zen koan about escaping heat and cold illustrates this point wonderfully:



A monk asked Tozan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”

Tozan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”

The monk said, “What is the place where there is no cold or heat?”

Tozan said, “When it’s cold, the cold kills you; when it’s hot, the heat kills you.”



This is not advice to “accept” your situation, as some commentators have suggested; but a direct expression of authentic practice and enlightenment. Master Tozan is not saying, “When cold, shiver; when hot, sweat,” nor is he saying, “When cold, put on a sweater; when hot, use a fan.” In the state of authentic practice and enlightenment, the cold kills you, and there is only cold in the whole universe. The heat kills you, and there is only heat in the whole universe. The fragrance of incense kills you, and there is only the fragrance of incense in the whole universe. The sound of the bell kills you, and there is only,

boooong,” in the whole universe.

This is the true significance of Dogen’s notion of zazen. In spite of the convoluted arguments by some pseudo-zennists, Dogen’s use of the term “zazen” is not simply concerned with your physical posture, but with mustering your whole body-and-mind. Sitting in a meditation posture without mustering your whole body-and-mind is not zazen; brushing your teeth or raking leaves while mustering your whole body-and-mind is zazen. Dogen often refers to this state or condition as nonthinking, and sometimes as no mind. When you have become proficient at this, all places and times are illumined by the power of zazen.

Dogen was once asked, “What is Buddha?” He replied by directly indicating the realm of seeing and hearing while mustering the whole body-and-mind:



Someone [in the assembly] asked, “What is Buddha?”


The teacher Dogen said, “Finally, future births are prevented with the special attainment of cessation not arising through analysis.

The monk said, “Master, don’t teach people using Lesser Vehicle Dharma.”


Dogen said, “I am not teaching people using Lesser Vehicle Dharma.

The monk asked: “What is Buddha?”


The teacher Dogen said,

Finally, future births are prevented with the special attainment of cessation not arising through analysis.


Then Dogen said,

Heaven is not high; the earth is not dense. Mountains and rivers, and the sun and moon, are not separated. The radiant light of each place penetrates each place. A Persian riding on a white elephant enters the Buddha hall; Handan people with bare feet circumambulate the monks’ hall. What principle can we rely on to be like this?


After a pause Dogen said, “The bright moon follows someone as if there were a reason. Naturally white clouds provide rain with no mind.

Leighton and Okumura, Eihei Koroku, 3:243


Next, the Genjokoan presents the experiential realm of true zazen:


As one side is revealed, the other side is concealed.


In Hee-Jin Kim’s Mystical Realist, this line is translated as, “As one side is illumined, the other is darkened.” The implications of this simple statement run deep. In the opening lines of Genjokoan Dogen treated us to some of the practical, experiential implications of this by presenting three perspectives of reality; the relative, the empty, and the all-inclusive. Each one of these perspectives is a real aspect of the universe. All three of them are complete, and simultaneous; they are interdependent and non-obstructive. When one of these aspects is revealed, the others are concealed. When “cold” (one side) is revealed, “hot” (the other side) is concealed. Using Kim’s translation we could paraphrase thus: “as cold is illumined, hot is darkened.” This does not mean that “hot” is not present or does not exist; on the contrary, it makes “hot” an essential aspect of cold. Not only “hot,” but also everything else in time and space are included within “cold” (or any other experience of seeing, hearing, etc. with whole body-and-mind).


Next, the Genjokoan brings us to the whole point of practice and enlightenment:


To realize the buddha-dharma is to realize your self.


This is the fundamental point of Zen. Buddhism is not about a teacher or holy man of long ago and far away, it is not about metaphysical doctrines, it has nothing to do with objective knowledge; it is about you; a real live human being here and now. Enlightenment, wisdom, true-nature, Buddhahood, Zen, etc. are provisional terms employed for directing you to the truth about yourself. “Buddha” is simply a term for an awakened human being. If there is one thing that all the great Zen masters agree on, it is that buddha is not separate from ordinary people.

From The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

by Ted Biringer