November 15, 2023
Dear Practice Period Sangha,
Here we are again with such a rich and wonderful passage from Genjo Koan, so rich and wonderful that we can’t seem to stop ourselves from offering these extravagantly long email-missives … which still feel like we are only scratching the surface. Please take it in as your life/ time/energy/attention allows.
Here is this week’s passage:
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing one practice is practicing completely.
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.
What are we swimming in? What are we flying in? What is our medium? What is our element as human beings, as sentient beings? What is our element as Zen practitioners?
As human beings, we are swimming in delusion, and no matter how far we swim, there is no end to delusion. We’re swimming in birth and death, and no matter how far we swim, there is no end to birth and death. We’re swimming in samsara or cyclic suffering, We’re swimming in myriad things. We’re swimming in grief. We’re swimming in conditioning and enculturation and ancestral karma. We’re swimming in people, places, colors, sounds, smells, sensations, feelings, emotions, mental states, thoughts, ideas, experience, impacts, connectedness, feelings of separation, delusions, dualities, complexities…
As Sarah has pointed to in a few talks about Fukanzazengi, Dogen’s instructions for meditation, where he talks about zazen being as “like a dragon gaining the water…like a tiger taking to the mountains,” our practice is ultimately about learning to move in our element. And for us as human beings, our proposal is that our elements are all of the above, or concisely, our element is complexity. The tiger making it into the mountains and the dragon getting into the water are descriptions of powerful beings inhabiting their elements, which supports them coming into the fullness of their power. What if we could encounter complexity, and even delusion, like this: the elements we are made for, the realms in which we come into the fullness of our capacity and power? Can we consider that there isn’t somewhere else to go to manifest the fullness of our beings….but right here in the mess of delusion.
One of our all-time favorite comments on Genjo Koan is by Bokusan Nishiari, “We cannot step out of the koan.” We swim in the koan and no matter how far we swim, there is no end to the koan. This affirms this moment right here totally as the place of practice-realization, and it also affirms the endlessness of practice-realization, which is the endlessness of wholehearted inquiry, which is the endlessness of the dynamic unfolding of love and compassion, which is the endlessness of the unforeseeable potentials and possibilities of intimate meeting.
However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements.
The fish does not leave the ocean, the bird does not leave the sky. This is affirming our life, and the particular person each of us is, and the particular world this is, as the medium or element of practice.
Working with this right here. The Koan is Manifest. I don’t find the koan by changing the conditions of my life, or going somewhere else, or becoming a different person. This is not to say that Genjo Koan means I just passively accept the world and my life as it is. This points us to the vigorous activity of embracing the koan of what’s Right Here as the ground for engagement in the world.
When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its·realm.
It might be obvious how the bird and fish depend on the air and water respectively for their lives. What we can also work with is how the air and water also depend on the bird and the fish for their lives, how the element, medium or realm, depends on the beings that inhabit it for their life to fully manifest. The way the air lives is through the birds that fly through it. The way the water has life is in relationship with the fish it sustains. This is the reciprocal intimacy of relational life. Whether our field is big or small, it’s relational, intimate, and boundlessly so. And this is “life.”
This is an encouragement to let this/each moment be incomparable: neither large nor small, neither self nor other. Any way I can compare this moment is a circle of water. How is it to let this moment be an ocean?
If we forget about the vast ocean, we can get confused in comparing today and yesterday, here and somewhere else, self and other, the past and present and imaginations of the future. And so, we can get confused and become half-hearted about this moment, this place, this day, or this life.
As far as practice-realization is concerned, we don’t need to make this moment more interesting, or bigger or smaller, louder or quieter, easier or more difficult, more or less painful. Totally covering my full range, I happen with the ocean and the ocean happens with me. The ocean is the ocean of the swimming fish. The swimming fish is the swimming fish of the ocean. The self is not something apart from myriad things. The self is made of the myriad things, totally covering our full range and totally experiencing our realm.
If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.
Know that the water is the Koan and air is the Koan, the bird is the Koan, the fish is the Koan. The Koan must be the bird and the Koan must be fish. The Koan must be you. The Koan must be me. The Koan of infinitely relational intimate manifestation.
It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
We are working from the translation by Kanuaki Tanahashi and Arnold Kotler published in Moon and a Dewdrop. When Tanahashi-sensei released his complete translation of Shobogenzo, he made some changes. This is a place where the revised translation is quite different: “You can go further. There is practice-enlightenment which encompasses limited and unlimited life.” You can go further – there is no end to birth, death, delusion, things, water, air, life and the Koan. There is no end to realizational practice, and realization going beyond realization.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place.
This is seeing freedom in terms of freedom from our element, our medium, our present circumstances. And This is being deluded about freedom, as Dogen says earlier in Genjo Koan, “Sentient beings are greatly deluded about realization.” The freedom of Genjo Koan is realizational freedom fully inside our element, fully embracing the complexity and vastness of connections that we inhabit and give us life even beyond our knowing. And these are Buddha-moments, these are moments when “Buddhas have great realization of delusion.”
Genjo Koan is a koan of loving fully, loving this life, loving this world. Embracing embodiment. Accepting this person – who I am – exactly as I am. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Be beautiful, be yourself.” To embrace this moment of being wholly and exactly this self. This is where and how I can love this world and love this life.
When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’.
This brings us to the place where the term “Genjo Koan,” or “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” appears in Genjo Koan (the text).
Not understanding this world in an objective way, or by getting outside of it. Opening to the truth of this world from the inside, in the water of the ocean, in the air of the sky, finding our place where we are, finding our way at this moment, finding our seat, finding ourselves completely here. Intimate. Finding my place where I am is loving this place, exactly right here. Then practice becomes Genjo Koan. This is loving this moment as it is.
We can take up and maybe even enjoy the thought that the whole universe and all of time want us to love this moment. Our participation or engagement in this moment reflects our engagement in the entire universe. This is Genjo Koan as The Mystery of Manifestation. When we give ourselves fully, whole body and whole mind, to this moment, this moment gives itself fully to us. The universe claims each particular of us as its own. We allow ourselves unconditional belonging.
Swimming in the ocean, not trying to control the myriad things, being actualized by myriad things, receiving myriad functions, and being deeply resourced by intimate relationality.
The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing one practice is practicing completely.
Every moment is a conversation of the three times: past, present and future, an intersection of all three. Our bodies, our ideas, other people, buildings, roads, tiles and pebbles are all in the flux of past actions shaping present circumstances, shaping future realities. In every encounter, the vastness of this intersection is ours to appreciate, even while what we can perceive is only one slice, one moment, meeting one thing.
So we can ask ourselves all the time: Is this place a circle of water or an ocean? Is the way something I see or know, or something I become and already am? Am I meeting one thing or hoping for something else? Am I doing one practice or is my attention divided?
“We cannot step out of the koan.” It’s not something we solve or pass. The life of awakening is not something we ever figure out. It’s not something we get. While it might frustrate an impulse to grasp, this can be a source of boundless joy. It is the joy and meaning and fulfillment of endlessly giving and receiving with all beings as the true body of awakening.
With much gratitude for your practice,
Charlie and Sarah
Zen Priests, Dharma Teachers