Dharma Eye
May 2002 Number10

Dogen Zenji’s Genjo-koan Lecture (10)

Rev. Shohaku Okumura
Director, Soto Zen Education Center
(Edited by Koshin Steve Kelly)

(text: section11)

When a fish swims, no matter how far it goes, it doesn't reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky. Only, when their need is great, their range is large. When their need is small, their range is small. In this way, each fish and each bird uses the whole space and vigorously acts in every place. However, if a bird departs from the sky, or a fish leaves the water, they immediately die. We should know that, [for a fish] water is life, [for a bird] sky is life. A bird is life; a fish is life. Life is a bird; life is a fish. And we should go beyond this. There is practice/enlightenment-- this is the way of living beings.

Fish and Bird in Zazen
In Genjo-koan, in order to discuss the meaning of our practice, Dogen Zenji uses various examples such as flowers and weeds, a mirror and it’s reflection, the moon and water, and firewood and ash. Such examples make his writing poetic and attractive. In the previous section he used the example of a person in a boat sailing on the midst of the ocean. In this section Dogen Zenji will once again introduce an analogy from the natural world in order to make his discussion more concrete. In this example, the fish and birds activity is more direct and immediate than a person sailing on the ocean. Later, however in Shobogenzo Zenki (Total Function, written in 1243) Dogen Zenji once again will use the analogy of a person in a boat.

In Shobogenzo Zazen-shin (The Acupuncture Needle of Zazen) written in 1242 (9 years after Genjo-koan), Dogen discusses Wanshi Shogaku’s verse entitled "Zazen-shin." Wanshi Shogaku (Hongzhi Zhengjue, 1091-1157) was a famous Chinese Soto (Tsaodong) Zen Master. He was the abbot of Tiantong monastery for almost thirty years from 1129 to his death in 1157. It is said that during his abbacy, the temple buildings were completed and accommodated twelve hundred monks. Tiantong was also the monastery where Dogen practiced several decades later with his teacher Nyojo (Rujing). Wanshi was well known for his excellent poetry and composed verses on 100 koans. Later Bansho Gyoshu (Wansong Xingxiu, 1166-1246) wrote commentaries on his verses and created the Shoyoroku (Book of Serenity) which is still studied by Zen students today. Dogen respected Wanshi and called him Wanshi Kobutsu (Ancient Buddha) and quoted many of Wanshi’s verses and formal discourses in his own discourses recorded in the Eihei-koroku (The Extensive Record of Eihei Dogen). This verse on the Zazen-shin by Wanshi is obviously the source of Dogen’s analogy of the fish and birds found in Genjo-koan. My translation of Wanshi’s verse is as follows.

The essential-function of each buddha and the functioning- essence of each ancestor.
Knowing without touching things.
Illuminating without facing objects.
Knowing without touching things, the wisdom is by nature inconspicuous.
Illuminating without facing objects, the illumination is by nature subtle.
The wisdom, that is by nature inconspicuous, never has discriminative thoughts.
The illumination, that is by nature subtle, never has the slightest separation.
The wisdom, that never has discriminative thoughts, has no dichotomy but sees oneness.
The illumination, that never has the slightest separation, has no attachment, but is evident.The water is clear to the bottom; a fish is swimming slowly, slowly.
The sky is infinitely vast; a bird is flying far, far away.

Even though Dogen does not use the word "zazen" at all in Genjo-koan, it is clear to me that this analogy is about our zazen practice not excluding our day-to-day activities and the entire universe as our environment. He discusses the nature of our zazen practice and how it forms the foundation of our attitude toward our entire lives. The water or the sky does not simply refer to an environment that is outside of ourselves.

What is the water?
In his comments on the "water" in which a fish is swimming in Wanshi’s verse, Dogen Zenji says in Shobogenzo Zazen-shin;

As to the meaning of the water is clear, the water suspended in space is not thoroughly clear to the bottom. [This water in Wanshi’s verse] is not the clean water that is deep and clear in the external world. [The water] that has no boundary, no bank or shore, is thoroughly clear to the bottom

According to Dogen, the water Wanshi is talking about is not simply the water in the ocean, or a river that forms the environment in which a fish is swimming. It is not the water in the "external" world separate from us. The water has no boundaries such as a bank or a shore.

"When a fish goes through this water, we cannot say that there is no movement. Although [the fish] migrates more than ten thousand miles, [their movement] cannot be measured and is unlimited. There is no bank from which to survey it, there is no air to which [the fish] might break the surface, and there is no bottom to which it might sink. Therefore, there is no one who can measure it. If we want to discuss its measurements, [we say] only that the water is thoroughly clear to the bottom. The virtue of zazen is like the fish swimming. [Although, in our sitting, we progress] a thousand or ten thousand miles, who can estimate it? The process of going that thoroughly penetrates to the bottom is that the whole body is ‘not flying the way of the birds’."

According to Dogen, the water in Wanshi’s verse is boundless water without the limitations of a shore or a bank by which we can objectively measure how vast or how small it is. This is, of course, the water of emptiness. No separation between the fish, and the water, the earth or the air. This is another description of what Dogen has said earlier in Genjo-koan; "Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice/enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice/enlightenment through the self is realization." Dogens emphasis here is not on the objective facts, but on the reality that is manifested when we practice with the attitude of "all things carry out practice through the self."

In the Bendowa (Wholehearted Practice of the Way) Dogen also said, "Even if only one person sits for a short time, because this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all time, it performs everlasting buddha guidance within the inexhaustible dharma world in the past, present, and future." It is obvious that the key is our practice of zazen.

What is the Sky?
About the sky in which a bird is flying, Dogen comments;

"The infinitely vast sky" is not what is suspended in the firmament. The sky suspended in the firmament is not the infinitely vast sky. Moreover, the space that perme-ates here and there is not the infinitely vast sky. [The sky] that is never concealed or revealed and that has nei-ther outside nor inside is the infinitely vast sky."

Again, this sky is not the space outside us. The sky and the bird are one without separation. We are com-pletely part of the sky. The sky is inside us too.

"When a bird flies through this sky, flying in the sky is the undivided dharma. Its activity of flying in the sky cannot be measured. Flying in the sky is the entire uni-verse, because the entire universe is flying in the sky. Although we do not know the distance of this flying, in expressing it with words beyond distinction, we say "far, far away." "Go straightforwardly, there should be no string under the feet." When the sky is flying away, the birds also are flying away; and when the birds are flying away, the sky also is flying away. In studying and pene-trating the "flying away", we say "Simply being here." This is the acupuncture needle for the immovable sitting.
In travelling ten thousands miles by "simply being here," we express it (zazen) in this way."

When a bird is flying, the sky is also flying. The bird is a part of the sky and the sky is the part of the bird. The entire sky is the wings of the bird.

This is not true only in zazen. When a fish is swim-ming, the whole water is swimming. When a bird is flying, the entire sky is flying. When we live, the entire universe is living with us. Fish and water, bird and sky, all living beings and the universe are completely one. When we sit in zazen and let go of our discriminative thoughts, we are completely one with the universe. When we stand up from our cushion, however, and go out of the zendo we again start to think, make distinctions, evaluations, and judgements. As Dogen says, sometimes we think the shore is moving, sometimes we think we are moving, sometimes we think both are moving, sometimes we think all things in the world are totally separate individual entities. Based on such thinking, naturally we make choices and take action. But our unity with all beings remains because whatever we think about, thinking is just thinking. Thinking cannot change reality.

For example, until the time of Galileo Galilei (1564- 1642), people in Europe thought that the earth was not moving, but rather the sun, the moon and the stars were moving around the earth. In reality, regardless of both common people’s and Galileo’s ideas, the earth had been moving around the sun since its birth 4.6 billion years ago. Our thought cannot change the reality.

In reality we are all tiny parts of the universe. Each one of us is a collection of causes and conditions. We are products of the co-evolution of Life and the Earth. I am made of things that are not "me". The foods I eat are not "me". The air I breathe is not "me". The water I drink is not "me". But without, foods, air and water that are not "me", "I" don’t exist. Not only water, air and foods, our life itself is a gift from the universe.

As Human beings, we are born in human society and because we are born in a very immature stage, we cannot live without support from others for a long time. We cannot even stand up until we are over a year old. We need to be fed without working for a long time, at least until we become teenagers. In order to become really independent members of our society, we have to study for about 20 years or more. Until then we are basically supported and taken care of by our society.

Even the language we use to think is gift from our society. We are taught how to think and behave through the process of education. Because I was born and grew up in Japan, I think using the Japanese language and act mostly according to my Japanese system of values. The Japanese language is the result of a culture created by all the Japanese people who have lived in the land of Japan.

Our self and all beings in the entire universe, past, present and future are all connected. This is not a mysterious truth, which can only be seen in a certain mental condition such as a trance or by using some special spiritual intuition. This is a very simple, plain reality we can understand using our reason. Still, we are almost always losing sight of this plain reality due to the separation and discrimination created by our thinking using words and concepts.

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