Reinventing The Wheel

Somewhere, probably on the Ino’s Blog back in the day, I had a little rant about a particular English 20th Century philosopher who seemed to be very pleased with himself for having discovered that the self didn’t exist as an independent entity. Apart from the irony of what looked like self-aggrandisement, I could only wonder how anyone making a living as a philosopher these days can have managed not to read a word of Buddhism. And then the other day I was reading an article on the New Yorker website, and came across this paragraph:

‘We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.’

If this is a revelation to you, I sincerely urge you to head over to the Genjo Koan, where Dogen expounded all of this more succintly and poetically, and which he elsewhere summarised as ‘shoho jisso’, which, depending on your mood, you can translate as ‘all things are ultimate reality,’ or, ‘the ultimate reality of all things.’


‘The purpose of awakening to the old stories of the Patriarchs of Zen is to modify gradually what you have understood and thought up to now, under the guidance of a Zen Master. Evenif the Buddha you have known up to now is endowed with the distinguishing marks, radiate light, and has, like Sakyamuni and Amita Buddha, the virtue of preaching sermons and bringing benefits to the people, you must believe it if the Zen Master tells you that the Buddha is a toad or an earthworm. You will have to give up the beliefs you have held up to now. But if you seek the Buddha’s marks, his radiance, and the various virtues associated with him on the earthworm, you still have not modified your arbitrary views of the Buddha. Just recognize as the Buddha what you see now before your eyes. If you follow the words of the Zen Master and turn from deluded views and attachments, you will naturally accord with the Buddha Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

I don’t recall any teacher I have worked with telling me that the Buddha was a toad or an earthworm, but as usual, Dogen makes a very concrete analogy do his work for him. The key line is the penultimate sentence.

Gary Snyder

There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.

—Dōgen, November, 1242.

On a back wall down the hall

lit by a side glass door

is the scroll of Mu Ch’i’s great
sumi painting, “Persimmons”

The wind-weights hanging from the
axles hold it still.

The best in the world, I say,
of persimmons.

Perfect statement of emptiness
no other than form

the twig and the stalk still on,
the way they sell them in the
market even now.

The original’s in Kyoto at a
lovely Rinzai temple where they
show it once a year

this one’s a perfect copy from Benrido
I chose the mounting elements myself
with the advice of the mounter

I hang it every fall.

And now, to these overripe persimmons
from Mike and Barbara’s orchard.
Napkin in hand,
I bend over the sink
suck the sweet orange goop
that’s how I like it
gripping a little twig

those painted persimmons

sure cure hunger

Suzuki Roshi

‘The first paragraph is the framework of whole Buddhism.  First paragraph:

All—when all things are in Buddhist way or Buddhist phenomena, we are enlightenment and ignorance, something to study, life and death, buddha, and people.  When all things are without self, we have no ignorance, no enlightenment, no doubt, no buddha, no people, and no life and no death.  The Buddhist way is beyond being and non-being.  Therefore we have life and death, ignorance and enlightenment, people and buddha.  However, flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our detachment.

This is, you know, the most basic understanding of—of Buddhism or Sōtō Zen, which include all the teaching of Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I was struck by Suzuki Roshi dealing with the Genjo Koan here, from a 1966 talk, not because he was talking about it – he did that quite a few times in those early years, when he wasn’t paraphrasing in more broadly – but the translation he used. I am curious if it is a version he did himself. In any case, as I have said many times, seeing a fresh translation of a well-known passage is a great way to see it anew and to think about it in a different way.

For reference, here is the Zen Center version which I know and love:

‘As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.’


‘Is the Way attained through the mind or through the body? The teaching schools say that, since body and mind are identical, it is attained through the body. Yet since they say that body and mind are identical, it is not explicitly stated that the Way is attained by the body. In Zen the Way is attained with both body and mind. If you contemplate Buddhism with the mind alone, not for ten thousand kalpas or a thousand lives can you attain the Way. But if you let go the mind and cast aside knowledge and intellectual understanding, you will gain the way. Those who gained enlightenment by seeing blossoms or hearing sounds achieved it through the body. Therefore, if you cast aside completely the thoughts and concepts of the mind and concentrate on zazen alone you attain to an intimacy with the Way. The attainment of the Way is truly accomplished with the body. For this reason, I urge you to concentrate on zazen.’(Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

Here Dogen appears not only to be echoing Lama Rod’s post from yesterday, but his own words in the Fukanzazengi.


Mountains and rivers intimately transmit the power of mountains and rivers.
From the outset the self has not had much ability.
Who cannot grasp which of these sides returns?
After fully questioning once, question it again.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

‘”It’s our way,” (Lena) says, ” to take only what we need. I’ve always been told that you never take more than half.” Sometimes she doesn’t take any (sweetgrass) at all, but just comes here to check on the meadow, to see how the plants are doing. “Our teachings,” she says, “are very strong. They wouldn’t get handed on if they weren’t useful. The most important thing to remember is what my grandmother always said: ‘If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away. If you don’t give it respect, it will leave us.'” The plants themselves have shown us this.’ (Braiding Sweetgrass)

‘If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery — before you enter the monastery you will see the small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo. “Hanshaku-kyo” means “Half-dipper Bridge.” Whenever Dogen Zenji used (dipped) water from the river, after he used half of it he returned the water to the river again without throwing it away. That is why we call that bridge Hanshaku-kyo — Half-dipper Bridge. In Eiheiji monastery when we wash our face we do not fill the basin. We just use 70% of the basin and after we wash it we do not throw the water away from the body. We empty the basin this way — toward the body. It means to respect the water. This kind of practice is not based on just economy. It may be pretty hard to understand why Dogen Zenji returned the water after he used half of it. This kind of practice is beyond our thinking. When we feel the beauty of the river, or water, we intuitively we do it in this way. That is our nature. But when our nature is covered by some economic idea you may think it doesn’t make any sense to return the water back to the river.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

Shohaku Okumura

‘I think Buddhist and Zen teachings too often put emphasis on no-self and universal-self and forget about the self that is not others. And the actual self that is in a community is one that is not others. How can we manifest “no-self” and “universal self” through the self that is not others? We need to realize that I am responsible for doing what I should do. No one else can practice for me. This is the most important point when we practice as a member of the community. Through studying Buddhist teachings, we study “no-self”; when we practice zazen, we study the “universal self” that is beyond separation of self and others. And within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this individual person that is not others can manifest the reality of “no-self” and “universal self”. This is the most important and difficult koan in our day-to-day practice.’ (from an article on Dogen’s Eihei Shingi)

Jan Willis

‘Nirvana is not a place! Rather, it is simply a view! Remember what the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said: “Between samsara and nirvana, there is not the slightest thread of difference.” The only difference is in one’s perception of it. Viewed with attachment, our world of experience is samsara; viewed without such attachment, it is nirvana.’ (from Lion’s Roar)


‘Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.’ (Genjo Koan)

I am sure there are other words from Dogen that illustrate the first point, but this was the one that came to mind.


It seems that the mountain spring wind 
Has begun to blow - 
On the peaks and in the valleys, 
Myriad flowers are shining.

Trusting WordPress to have done its sums right, this marks the 2000th post of this blog. It seems appropriate to have Dogen mark the occasion with one of the waka poems from the book compiled by Shohaku Okumura a few years ago, which I was lucky enough to be able to buy when he visited Tassajara to speak about the poems when the book was released.

As I have said before, compiling this blog is good practice for me, encouraging me to read widely. It feels great to share meaningful pieces every day, and little snippets about my life sometimes, and I hope it is beneficial for you as well. Thanks for being a part of this creation over the past five and a half years. I think I will keep going…

Myriad flowers are shining across San Francisco at the moment, none prettier than the California poppy in profusion. Even though Twin Peaks has been re-opened to cars, and is not the haven it has been for the past year, it was quiet enough to take this picture the other day when I went up on my bike.