November 9, 2023
Dear Practice Period Sangha,
Here is the section of Genjo Koan we are working with this week:
When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing. For example, when you sail out in a boat to the midst of ·an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this. Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.
What is it when dharma does not fill your whole body and mind? Maybe I am thinking my view is complete, or I am believing in what I know as the whole truth. The mind can often fall into this kind default close-mindedness that is always reductive, and can often also be complacent. In terms of practice, when I feel certain about something, can I attend to what’s happening for me and in me? Can I make some space to ask: What do I actually know?
How is it when dharma fills your whole body and mind? The “something” that is missing is not a lack, or a lack in our true nature, it’s not something missing in the Dharma, or in our body and mind. To feel and understand “something is missing” is to appreciate how my view, what I know, is always limited, partial, and never actually objective. Moments when we can feel this are moments when our true nature is speaking to us: “something is missing.”
Although this can sound like just one “something” is missing, in most moments, it’s usually that most of reality is missing, an unquantifiable vastness and depth of all being, the fullness of what’s happening right here for us as embodied subjectivities undergoing myriad forms of non-stop change is “missing” from our perception. So in these moments of feeling the vastness missing, can we attend to and tune in to our subjectivity…and not try to get rid of it or away from it, but really own and take responsibility for it?
For example, when you sail out in a boat to the midst of ·an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way.
In the Soto Zen tradition, the story is that this image is based on Dogen’s own experience traveling by boat across the Sea of Japan when he went to China in 1223, and getting to a place where no land was in sight. The whole of his literal perception was then a circle of water.
And right there in that experience of only being able to see a circle of water- while also knowing there is much more to the world then just what was visible in his perception at that moment. We can engage this practice all the time, we can ask: Right now, what is my circle of water? What do I think is happening? Do I think I’m seeing the whole of the ocean, or am I appreciating this is only a circle of water within a vastness beyond my perception?
This is a way of engaging and embodying “not-knowing.” This is not trying to get rid of my knowing or thinking, but to open around it so that it’s just part of what’s happening. This is to give up grasping my thinking as the “whole ocean,” to give up the “feeling” of knowing which can be something like: “I have a good sense of what is happening here.” “Not-knowing” is not becoming blank, though, it’s just becoming aware that our circle of perception is limited. And then iIt’s opening curiosity and a nonstop sense of inquiry and questioning into whatever is happening. The problem or issue is not thinking or knowing, but how I apprehend them, how I’m involved in or grasp at them, how I confuse myself into thinking I have the whole story.
But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety.
We never have the whole story. Knowing and thinking is always a partial, always a limited account, always a circle of water in the ocean.
In practice, “not-knowing” is not an excuse to be uninformed or take refuge in ignorance. Rather, it heightens our sense of not being fully informed and being genuinely interested and open to new information, new insights, new data, as well as different views, interpretations and experiences of what is happening. It is nonreductive or really anti-reductive. It is ongoingly opening to the complexities, ambiguities and endless subtleties of who we are, and each situation we encounter. As a practice of knowing, it is giving up certainty and embodying humility. My participation in the world is always a work-in-progress. Everything I say or do is an offering or an experiment.
When we think of this image of the circle of water we remember a teaching Reb Anderson offered at Tassajara when thinking about this image of how, if we are in the mode of believing our circle of water to be the whole of reality, what happens to us when a whale swims through? We might be so invested in believing the circle of water as the whole story that we won’t even be able to see the whale…or at least need to spend a lot of energy trying to deny its existence! This can happen to us all the time. Impermanence can be the whale. Death can be the whale. Grief can be the whale. Or the whale could also be freedom, and liberation. Sometimes we can be so stuck on knowing stuff that a whale of freedom is passing by and we’re wholly committed to pretending it’s not there and can’t possibly fit into our field of awareness. Alternatively, we can get really into looking for whales. If we get into understanding that our view is limited, we start to look for signs of life from beyond our knowing.
Why does this matter? How does this support practice? A good example is how we are engaging with the painful unfolding of the violence in Israel and Palestine. This very practice of knowing our perception is limited supports us to keep the door open to complexities beyond our previous perceptions, which can lead us to committing to learning more, and to actively seeking the perspectives of people whose views we haven’t heard before or don’t easily align with our own.
This practice supports an authentic, skillful and sensitive encounter with the ethical dilemmas of our lives and this culture. How do I honor a vast ocean in every person I meet? How do I honor a vast ocean in each moment of being this person? How is it to be a student of the vastness of what’s happening?
Living with uncertainty does not need to paralyze me. Grasping after certainty can actually be more paralyzing than accepting uncertainty. Knowing, certainty, and having all the answers, can actually diminish my agency, speeding along in a reactive mode. Not-knowing is caring for a spaciousness and a slower pace in which a more attuned responsiveness can flourish.
Rather than a narrow focus on “getting it right,” I can be more concerned with the quality of my offering: Is it sincere? Is it honest? Is it loving and respectful? Is it alive? Is it courageous?
It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time.
Here, Dogen is making reference to four views or experiences of water. A traditional Buddhist teaching about perception says that water is experienced differently, depending on the being/ realm. For example, water is experienced as a palace by fish, jewels by celestial beings, pus and blood by hungry ghosts, and by humans, something to drink and bathe in, etc. Hearing this teaching, we can ask: what is “water”? Is one of these experiences or ways of knowing water more true than another? Is there some other objective view of water out there somehow? In emptiness, there is no true view or experience of water. Water is empty of any inherent existence separate from how it’s being experienced and perceived. Water, like all things, is empty of inherently being anything. Any and all views of water arise from the karma, realm, body, conditioning, DNA and state of what is experiencing or knowing “water.” Appreciating this, I can appreciate that it is not just the other infinite features of oceans and mountains beyond my circle of water that are missing. Even the water in my circle of water may be “missing,” or empty, or a kind of wonderful mystery.
All things are like this. Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
How is it to appreciate, moment-by-moment, that “the other features oceans and mountains are infinite in variety”? How is it to practice, “whole worlds are there”? This can be “not-knowing” as a practice of deep respect, honoring the worlds, the histories, lineages and legacies, the far-reaching ecologies, in each person, each drop of water, each spot of land, each feeling, impulse, thought, action and interaction. The drop of water here reflects the dewdrop from last week, “the depth of the drop is the height of the moon.” There is infinite depth in the small stuff.
Nishiari Bokusan says, “There are innumerable paths of investigation.” We ask a lot of questions in our practice. This questioning is not about finding answers or figuring something out, but opening. We don’t solve Genjo Koan. We don’t get past Genjo Koan. Genjo Koan is endless inquiry as the life of awakening.
In all this, I’m not trying to get rid of my circle of water. The practice of nonduality is not getting rid of duality. Awakening does not abide inside a circle of water, or outside a circle of water. Nonduality is a liberative practice of opening in and throughout circles of water and dualities so that they can be engaged, turned, raised up or set-down in ways that are skillful, dynamic, fluid, playful and responsive. Water is empty and so water is truly a palace, a jewel, pus and blood, and what we as humans experience as water, and water is a mirror, and life, and emotion, and a medium of play, and overwhelm, and grief, and joy, and water, and ice and clouds, and tears and sweat, and guest and host, and the particular and the vast…
And in terms of attending to our circles of water, it might be helpful to know that next week we receive Dogen’s offering: “water is life…”
– Teachings from Kaira Jewel Lingo, the wonderful Dharma teacher (who sometimes teaches at BZC and is offering BIPOC one-day sit on February 25), are the center of this episode of the podcast of 10% Happier entitled “3 Buddhist Strategies for When the News is Overwhelming”
Take some time to see if you can have an embodied experience/ sensation of “you understand that something is missing.” What does this understanding feel like in the body?
See if there are aspects of these images that support you in widening your lens in any given moment this week. For example, when a feeling of certainty arises, we can ask: what is the circle of water right now?
If we can get in touch with this, then we can ask: what would the whale be?
And if we can get in touch with this, can we also consider, in any given moment: what are the reaches of my “eye of practice?”
When encountering another person (or an idea or even a building), we can hold in our heart/mind: “whole worlds are here…they are like a palace, they are like a jewel.” A perhaps more challenging turn of this practice is to look in a mirror and hold in our heart/mind “whole worlds are here…”
With many bows,
Sarah and Charlie
Zen Priests, Dharma Teachers
pronouns: she/her and he/they