Dharma Eye
October 2000 Number7

Dogen Zenji's Genjo-koan Lecture (7)

Rev. Shohaku Okumura
Director, Soto Zen Education Center

(Text: section 8)

Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot turn back into firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and it has its own before and after. Although there is before and after, past and future are cut off. Ash stays at the position of ash and it has its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it is burned and becomes ash, after person dies, there is no return to living. However, in buddha dharma, it is a never-changing tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the laid-down way of buddha's turning the dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position at one time; death is also a position at one time. For instance, this is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer.

Life-and-death and 'Self'

Genjo-koan is the first chapter of the 75-volume version of Dogen Zenji's Shobogenzo. This is one of Dogen's most popular written works. But to understand this short article is very difficult. Dogen Zenji does not explain himself, he simply expresses the buddha dharma using a very poetic and precise language that was the outcome of his profound insight and experience. In Japan, we study the Shobogenzo along with its commentaries. But, often, the commentaries made by Soto Zen masters are just as difficult as Dogen's writings. In order to understand Dogen we need to read the text and the commentaries many times and reflect on our own experience of zazen and day-to-day practice. So today, I will present my own understanding based on my own study and practice. Don't believe my words, but please learn through your own study and practice. This is the way the buddha dharma has been transmitted generation to generation.

From section 4 to 7 of Genjo-koan, Dogen Zenji discusses delusion and enlightenment, and buddhas and living beings based on the relationship between the self and all myriad things. In the end of section 7, Dogen Zenji says, "When we conceive our body and mind in a confused way and grasp all things with discriminating mind, we mistakenly think that the self nature of our own mind is permanent. When we intimately practice and return right here, it is clear that all things have no [fixed] self."

In section 8, Dogen Zenji discusses life and death, or arising and perishing as the reality of our life that is impermanent and egoless (no-fixed self). In order to discuss arising and perishing, we need to think of change of "things" within "time". We usually think we are born, live and die within the stream of time flowing from the past to the future through the present. But Dogen says it is not the only way to see the "time".

Life-and-death is an English translation of Japanese expression shoji (). The Japanese word sho () as a verb means "to live (ikiru)", and also "to be born (umareru)". This expression can be translated into English as birth-and-death. Shoji is the process of our life in which we are born, live and die.

As a Buddhist term, shoji (life or birth and death) is used as equivalent of two Sanskrit words. One is jatimarana that means the process of birth and death. This is also used as an abbreviation of "birth, aging, sickness and death" that is; the four kinds of suffering or duhkha.

In Buddhist philosophy, there are two kinds of life (birth) and death. One is life and death of an ordinary living being who is transmigrating within the six realms in the three worlds (the worlds of desire, form and formlessness) and being pulled by karma. This life-and-death is called bundans-hoji (, separating life-and-death). Another is the birth (life)-and-death of bodhisattvas who practice within the three worlds to save all beings, although they are free from transmigrating based on three poisonous minds. They continue this practice life after life toward accomplishment of buddhahood all the way through the fifty two steps of bodhisattva practice. This kind of life-and-death based on the bodhisattva vow is called henyaku-shoji (, transforming life-and-death).

There are also two other kinds of life and death. One is called ichigo-shoji (, life-and-death as one period) that is the life span between birth and death as we usually understand it. Another is called setsuna-shoji (, moment by moment life-and-death). Setsuna (Skt. Ksana) means the slightest moment, much shorter than a second. Our body and mind are born (arising) and dying (perishing) moment by moment. Dogen discusses this in Shobogenzo Hotsu-bodaishin (Arising Awakening Mind).

The second Sanskrit word as the origin of the expression life-and-death is samsara. Life-and-death is another name of samsara in which living beings transmigrate within the six realms (hell, the realms of the hungry ghosts, animals, the asuras. human beings, and heavenly beings). It is important to remember that life-and-death in common Buddhist usage is samsara, that is the opposite of nirvana. When Dogen Zenji says in Shobogenzo Shoji (Life-and-Death), "Life-and-death is Buddha's Life," he means our life in samsara is nothing other than Buddha's Life, that is, nirvana. Unless we understand this point, we cannot really appreciate the power of Dogen's words.

Life-and-death has two meanings: one is the process of being born, living and dying; another is transmigration within the six realms of samsara. And often these two are used alternatively because the usual process of an ordinary being's life is birth, living and dying, and is a part of transmigration in samsara. But here in Genjo-koan, Dogen Zenji uses this expression as the process of being born, living and dying in the case of living beings, or arising, staying for a while, and perishing in the case of things other than living beings before separation between samsara and nirvana.

We were born at a certain time in the past. In my case, I was born on June 22nd, 1948, fifty-two years ago. When I was born my body was tiny. Since then, my body and also my mind have been constantly changing. The baby became a boy. The boy became a teenager. The teenager became a young adult. The young adult became a middle-aged person as I am now. If I am lucky, the middle-aged person is going to become an old person. And eventually the old person is going to die and disappear.

Between our birth and death, we are constantly changing, experiencing various conditions. But somehow, we commonly think that fifty years ago, the baby was Shohaku and fifty years later this middle aged person is the same Shohaku. Thirty years ago, I was a newly ordained young monk with lots of energy and problems. Now, thirty years later, I don't have so much energy and I have totally different kinds of problems. My way of thinking was very different when I was twenty. I never thought I would live in the United States and speak English. My way of thinking has been strongly influenced by American ways of thinking since I came to this country. And yet we usually understand that I am the same person I was when I was a baby, as I was when I was a teenager, and when I was in my twenties, and then thirties, forties and fifties. This is our common understanding. We almost always believe it to be so. But, is it really true?

Buddha's teaching of no-self

If, it is true, then we have to agree with a theory that there is something that does not change within ourselves. And this unchanging entity stays intact right through the very process of changing. This one thing, which is not a baby, a teenager, a young man, a middle-aged man, or an aged man, changes it's appearance through the flowing of time. It is like one person who changes clothes one outfit after another depending upon the occasion. My body and mind, which are constantly changing, are like various pieces of clothing that I put on and take off. This one entity which does not change goes through the process of changing only in appearance. This is an idea Indian people believed at the time of the Buddha. This one thing called atman transmigrates through many different conditions being pulled by good and bad karma. The atman (soul) is pure but it is imprisoned in the body that is source of delusive desires.

The definition of atman (ego or fixed-self) in Buddhist philosophy according to the Abidharma-kosa, written by the famous Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, is that the atman is something which is permanent, only one, the owner of this body and mind (five aggregates) and the operator of the body and mind (). The Atman is like the owner and driver of a car and the body and mind; as the five aggregates that are always changing, are like a car. The owner owns the car and drives the car as far as the car runs. When the car becomes old and not possible to fix anymore, then the owner gives up that car and buys a new one. The Atman (soul or ego) is like an owner of this body and mind. When this body and mind dies, the owner leaves the body and mind and it will be born with the new body and mind. This is the basic idea of how the atman (soul, ego) transmigrates and is born again and again life after life. And according to the Indian belief, depending upon our good and bad deeds, the atman transmigrates from a hell to a heaven within the six realms.

If we do good actions and accumulate good karma, we will be born with a good body and mind in a good circumstance. When we do bad actions and accumulate bad karma, we will be born with an inferior body and mind in a difficult environment. This is the theory of karma that was widely believed in Indian society at the time of the Buddha.

When the Buddha taught anatman, that is, no-atman (no soul, no-ego, no self). He was against this basic idea of atman that is a permanent entity transmigrating in samsara. Buddha taught that there are only five aggregates (form or material, sensation, perception, impulse and consciousness) which are not substantial. In the case of human beings the five aggregates refer to body and mind. Buddha taught that only the five aggregates exist and nothing else. And the Heart Sutra says that those five aggregates are in their self-nature empty.

Then what is transmigrating? This is a very natural question. The Buddha negated the theory of atman but did not negate the belief of transmigration because that was the basis of social morality in India. The Buddha put emphasis on cause and result (or). If we do bad things we have to receive a painful effect. If we do good things we will receive a pleasurable effect. This is the principle of causality. If so, if there is no atman, who does the action and who receives the result? Buddha said that the self has to receive the result of one's own karmic actions. What is this self, if it is not atman? This is a question often asked regarding the Buddha's teachings. And many Buddhist philosophers in various schools tried to logically explain this problem. And yet, as far as I know, there is no perfect answer so far. Without offering any perfect explanation, both the theory of no self (anatman) and the belief of transmigration within six realms are maintained within almost all Buddhist traditions.

Dogen and no-self

In the case of Dogen, in the Bendowa (Talk on the Wholehearted practice of the Way) and a few other chapters of Shobogenzo such as Sokusinzebutsu (Mind is itself Buddha), and Bussho (Buddha-nature), he clearly negates the atman. In Bendowa, question 10, Dogen said:

"The idea you have just mentioned is not buddha-dharma at all, but the fallacious view of Senika.

This fallacy says that there is a spiritual intelligence in one's body which discriminates love and hatred or right and wrong as soon as it encounters phenomena, and has the capacity to distinguish all such things as pain and itching or suffering and pleasure. Furthermore, when this body perishes, the spirit nature escapes and is born elsewhere. Therefore, although it seems to expire here, since [the spirit-nature] is born somewhere, it is said to be permanent, never perishing. Such is this fallacious doctrine.

However, to learn this theory and suppose it is buddha-dharma is more stupid than grasping a tile or a pebble and thinking it is a golden treasure. Nothing can compare to the shamefulness of this idiocy. National Teacher Echu of Tang China strictly admonished [against this mistake]. So, now isn't it ridiculous to consider that the erroneous view of mind as permanent and material form as impermanent is the same as the wondrous dharma of the buddhas, and to think that you become free from life and death when actually you are arousing the fundamental cause of life and death? This indeed is most pitiful. Just realize that this is a mistaken view. You should give no ear to it."

(The Wholehearted Way, P.32-33, Okumura and Leighton, Tuttle, 1997)

Some people think mind to be permanent and body to be impermanent. In this case, mind was considered to be atman; that is, pure and permanent. And the body was considered to be the source of delusive desire and impermanent. In this case, mind was called shinsho (, mind nature) and body was called shinso (, bodily form). And this mind-nature was often used as a synonym of buddha-nature. This is the reason Dogen negates the idea of kensho (, seeing the nature).

On the other hand, in Shobogenzo Sanjigo (Karma in the Three Times), or Jinshin-inga (Deeply Believing in Cause and Result), Dogen puts emphasis on faith in the principle of cause and result beyond this present lifetime. Also in Shobogenzo Doshin (Way Mind) Dogen encourages people to deeply take refuge in the Three Treasures; Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And gives advice that one should ceaselessly chant "I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha" during the period of chuu (antara-bhava) between death in this life and the next birth, that is usually considered to be 49 days. He said, we should chant "I take refuge in the Buddha," life after life until we reach buddhahood. I am pretty sure Dogen himself believes in the bodhisattvas' henyaku-shoji, (transforming life and death) that is, as the Buddha did, bodhisattvas practice life after life because of their vows to save all beings and accomplish the buddhahood.

For me, these two sides seem to contradict each other. At least, I don't understand that if there is no atman (permanent self) beside this impermanent body and mind, what is chanting, "I take refuge in Buddha." after the death of this body and mind? Anyway, if this is a contradiction, Buddhism itself has had this contradiction from the very beginning until today. Many Buddhist philosophers have tried to clarify this point and no one has been completely successful.

I am not going to try to create a new theory to explain this contradiction. I don't believe in rebirth and yet, I don't negate it. There is no basis to believe or negate it. What I can say for sure is, "I don't know." The important thing for me is to practice in this lifetime as the Buddha instructed in the Dammapada, "To refrain from anything bad and practice everything good. Purify your mind. This is the teaching of the seven Buddhas." If there is rebirth, it is all right, I will try to practice in the same manner. If there is no-rebirth, I don't need to do anything after my death. So I don't need to think about it in that case. Even if I don't believe rebirth as a person, I don't negate the principle of cause and result. What I am doing now will have result even after my death. My practice is a result of my teacher's practice.

This is how I answered the question about rebirth until recently. But after I became fifty, I found that I have a wish to live the next life, simply because this lifetime seems too short to practice the buddha way. For example, I have been working on the translation of Zen Buddhist texts from Japanese to English, and there is too much work for me to do in this lifetime. Also my life seems too short a span to fully understand the true meaning of Buddha's, Dogen's and other teachers' words. I need much more time to translate all the texts I want to introduce. I wish to be reborn as a Buddhist again and continue to work on it. I think this is because I am aging and have found my limitations. Probably the belief in the Bodhisattva's henyaku-shoji (transforming life-and-death); ceaseless practice life after life because of their vows was originated in this awakening to the limitations of our personal lives.

Life-and-death and "Time"

Well, I have discussed about atman and anatman too long. I need to talk about "time" and life-and-death. Dogen's philosophy of the unity of "time" and "being" is very famous among philosophers not only in Japan but also in the West. It sometimes compared with the thought of modern Western philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Since I don't know much about Western philosophy, I cannot tell whether Dogen and Heidegger thought the same thing or not. Anyway, this section of Genjo-koan is one of the sources of Dogen's idea of identity of "time" and "being". Later, he wrote Shobogenzo Uji (Being Time) and clearly said, "Time is just being, and all beings are time." "All beings in the whole Universe are stretching in a row and at the same time, it is my being-time. Because being and time are one, it is 'me(self)-being-time'."


Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot turn back into firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and it has its own before and after. Although there is before and after, past and future are cut off. Ash stays at the position of ash and it has its own before and after.

Here Dogen compares life and death to firewood and ash. We commonly think that a seed sprouts and grows gradually and after long period of time, becomes a big tree. When we need firewood, we cut the tree, split it into small pieces, pile them and dry them to make them into firewood. And when we burn the firewood, the firewood becomes ash. This is the same as we think our own life and death. I was a baby, I grow up for about twenty years, I then stop growing and live as a grown-up for certain period of time, then I start to get older and older and finally die. Finally, I will be burned and become ash.

We think there is a stream of time, like a river that is flowing from the beginningless past to the endless future. When I was born I appear in the stream and when I die I disappear from the stream. But the stream continues to flow before my birth and after my death. This is our thought about time, history and our own lives. And as a thought, it might be not wrong. But this is not exactly how we live and die.

According to Dogen, 'time' is 'being' and 'being' is 'time'. As a tree, a tree has it own time. As firewood, firewood has it own time. As ash, ash has also it own time. Each being is at its own dharma-position (hoi, ), and at each dharma-position, each being has its own past and future. When a tree is at the dharma-position of a tree, it has it own past as a seed and its own future as firewood. When firewood is at the dharma-position of firewood, it has its own past as a tree and its own future as ash. When ash stays as its dharma-position as ash, it has its own past as a tree and its own future as something else. If ash is scattered on the mountain it will be part of the mountain and help other beings to grow.

And the dharma-positions of a tree, of firewood, and of ash are independent of each other. When we use the analogy of tree, firewood, ash, or each stage of our own life and death, each position seems to have length of time. But, as a reality, the present moment does not have any length. If there is length, no matter how short it is, we can cut it into half and one half is already in the past and another half is still in the future. When I say "now", when I pronounce "n", "ow" is still in the future. When I pronounce "w", "no" is already in the past. The present moment has no length. It is zero. When we think of a certain period of 'time' including the present moment, all which exists is only past and present. The present moment is just a "line" without any width as its definition in geometry. Isn't it strange? The present moment is the only reality, the past is already gone and the future has not yet come. Still there is nothing that can be grasped as the present moment. The present moment does not exist. So, time does not really exist. Still, at the present moment which is zero and does not exist, the entire past and the entire future are reflected. And this present moment (zero) is the only real reality. And at each moment, everything continuously arises and perishes. Each moment everything is new and fresh.

A seed stays at the dharma-position of a seed and it has it own past and future. Since a seed has life, it has a power to negate it's own position when it has appropriate conditions such as moisture, temperature, sun light and so on. It sprouts and becomes something that is not a seed. When a seed fully functions as a seed according to its own life force, it negates itself and becomes something else. That is the reality and function of a seed. A seed is not stuck in a stage of being a seed. A baby is the same. When a baby fully lives as a baby, within it's life force, it has a power that negates babyhood and becomes a boy or a girl. That is the function of the lifeforce of a baby. Everything has this life force which negates itself and changes into something else, this is what "everything is empty in it self-nature" means. A baby is a baby because a baby negates its babyhood. The Buddha is Buddha because the Buddha is not Buddha.

A baby Shohaku negated itself and became a boy Shohaku, and the boy Shohaku negated itself and became the teenage Shohaku. The teenage Shohaku negated itself and became the grown-up Shohaku. There is continuation but the baby Shohaku was not a boy Shohaku and the boy Shohaku was not the teenage Shohaku. Is there something which does not change within this constant change? According to the Buddha's teachings there is nothing. All existences are just correction of five aggregates of each time. There is a continuation, therefore the baby Shohaku did not become a bird, a dog or other human beings beside Shohaku. But there is no Shohaku as a fixed self. Isn't this strange? Yes it is strange. This reality is very difficult for us to grasp. This is why, we call the reality 'wondrous dharma' (myoho, ) as in the title of the Lotus Sutra (, the Sutra of Wondrous Dharma Like a Lotus Flower).

This means that even though we are a continuation from our babyhood as we have karma (influences from the previous experiences) from the past, our life is always new and fresh. There was a Japanese Soto Zen priest whose name was Rev. Doyu Ozawa. When he was a young soldier in the World War Two, he lost both of his legs. After the War, because he had no legs, he had to go through many difficulties. After all the struggling, he made up his mind to believe that he was born just now, without legs. That was how he could accept the reality of his life at this moment, and could live positively without his legs. And after that, he was always smiling. After Uchiyama Roshi retired from Antaiji in 1975 and lived in Ogaki, he met Rev. Ozawa and encouraged him to write about his experiences. Rev. Ozawa's book became one of the bestsellers of the year.

We all have the past as karma, memory, habit, and experiences, but the past has already gone. We all have the future as our hopes, wishes, vows, and ambitions, or goals, but the future has not yet come. This present moment is the only reality. How can we live fully at this moment? If we are firmly caught up in the past experiences, we are afraid to change. If we put too much emphasis on the future, this moment becomes merely a step to the future. When we live in such a way, if we die before reaching our goal, our life becomes meaningless.

Dogen's teaching of time allows us to live fully right now, and right here, in this given condition and change this condition as a practice of this moment. This is what he meant when he says that "there is before and after, but the before and after are cut off." As he wrote in the first three sentences of Genjo-koan, "there is both life and death, enlightenment and delusion, buddhas and living beings" and at the same time there is no such thing. And again, he discusses how we should practice with life and death, living beings and buddhas, delusion and enlightenment.


However, in buddha dharma, it is a never-changing tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the laid-down way of buddha's turning the dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position at one time; death is also a position at one time. For instance, this is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer.

In Shobogenzo Shoji, Dogen says exactly the same thing; "It is a mistake to think that life turns into death. Life is a position at one time with its own before and after. Consequently, in the buddha dharma, it is said that life is itself no-arising. Death is a position at one time with its own before and after. Consequently, it is said that death is itself no-perishing. In life there is nothing other than life. In death, there is nothing other than death. Therefore, when life comes, just live. And when death comes, just die. Neither avoid them nor desire them."

Is this difficult to do? Yes, it is. We want to chase after something like such as life, enlightenment, buddha and escape from something we don't like such as death, delusion or living beings. Our main mortive in our lives is greed and hatred, like and dislike. Sometimes we are successful and feel like a heavenly being sometimes we fail and feel as miserable as a hell dweller. This is samsara in our present life-time.

In Shobogenzo Zenki (Total Dynamic Function), Dogen says, "Life in the present moment lies in this functioning mechanism, and this functioning mechanism lies in life in the present moment. Life is not coming; life is not leaving; life is not appearing; and life is not becoming. Rather, life is a manifestation of total dynamic function, and death is manifestation of total dynamic function. You should know that among the countless dharmas within the self, there is life and there is death."

In 1975, Uchiyama Roshi retired from Antaiji when he was sixty-three years old. He retired while he was so young because he was physically a very weak person. He said that after retirement, his practice was facing his own life-and-death. When he was around seventy, he published a collection of several poems on life-and-death. The following are his poems where I think Uchiyama Roshi expresses the reality and practice of life-and-death within no-life-and-death.


Water isn't formed by being ladled into a bucket
Simply the water of the whole Universe has been ladled into a bucket
The water does not disappear because it has been scattered over the ground
It is only that the water of the whole Universe has been emptied into the whole Universe
Life is not born because a person is born
The life of the whole Universe has been ladled into the hardened "idea" called "I"
Life does not disappear because a person dies
Simply, the life of the whole Universe has been poured out of this hardened "idea" of "I" back into the universe

Just Live, Just Die
The Reality prior to the division into two
Thinking it to be so, or not thinking it to be so
Believing it to be so, or not believing it to be so
Existence-nonexistence, life-death
Truth-falsehood, delusion-enlightenment
Self-others, happiness-unhappiness
We live and die within the profundity of Reality
Whatever we encounter is buddha-life
This present Reality is buddha-life
Just living, just dying---within no life or death

Samadhi of the Treasury of the Radiant Light
Though poor, never poor
Though sick, never sick,
Though aging, never aging
Though dying, never dying
Reality prior to division---
Herein lies unlimited depth


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