Some Straight Talk on Zen Practice-Enlightenment
The spirit of Zen is at once as ancient as the origin of the universe and as fresh as the morning breeze just now starting up from the newborn Earth. It is informed by original wisdom and the wisdom accumulated since before the empty eon – it is inspired by the perennial impulse to novelty, and by questions and ideas beget in the ever-arriving moment of now. As the realized and realizable truth (Buddha-Dharma) Zen cannot be restricted to any fixed-form, thus enlightened vision and expression must be granted access to the widest possible field of human endeavor. Therefore, if Zen is to be “authentic” it cannot be confined to any defined field, division, or realm of human thought or habitation past, present, or future. If Zen is the pursuit of “truth for the sake of truth,” as Dogen (and other Zen masters) contends, it cannot be exclusive of anything, and indeed must be as inclusive of science and art as it is of religion and philosophy. For truth is as present in the realm of alcoholism, mass transit, and daydreams as it is in seated meditation, Haiku, and mountain monasteries. So while the terms and grammar of Zen, if they are to maintain their liberating potency, must remain firmly grounded in the history, tradition, and mythology of Zen Buddhist doctrine and methodology, as truth, Zen can only be enlivened, elaborated, increased, and intensified by the true insights, discoveries, and accomplishment of real culture in all the world’s civilizations.
The phrase, “Zen practice-enlightenment” here means the authentic actualization of Zen as portrayed by the classic Zen masters, particularly the Japanese master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) The implication that human liberation consists not in a particular attainment, but in an ongoing process of realization was inherent in Buddhism from its beginnings, but it was Dogen that provided one of the most (if not the most) elaborately detailed and comprehensive account of the significance of this truth in written form; his extensive elucidation on the nature and dynamics of Zen practice-enlightenment, Shobogenzo (True Dharma-Eye Treasury). The vision of Zen revealed by Shobogenzo presents the “great matter of life and death” as a “pursuit of truth for the sake of truth” which is engaged through and as the deliberate actualization of the universe (genjo-koan).
"Genjo" means “actualizing,” “manifesting,” “fashioning,” “making,” “generating,” “realizing,” etc.; “koan” means “public case” (as in “unconcealed” or “self-evident”), “the universe,” “the issue at hand,” “the present existence-time” (here-now), “reality,” “fundamental point,” etc. “Koan” also denotes specific expressions particularly effective for conveying enlightened wisdom (bodhi-prajna); in this sense, koans can consist of situations, activities, gestures, or objects, but usually consist of words in the form of stories or sayings from traditional sources of wisdom and mythology including scripture and poetry, but most commonly the classic records of Zen. Genjokoan, then, means “manifesting the universe,” or “actualizing the fundamental point.”
The term, genjokoan, was not coined or redefined by Dogen, as are many of his favorite terms, but had been actively used with the same significance in Zen for centuries (for instance, by the Chinese master Yuanwu, architect of the Zen classic, Hekiganroku [Blue Cliff Record]). In Shobogenzo, however, the term (thus the significance) of “genjokoan” is emphasized by being given a central role as a kind of touchstone keeping our awareness from wandering too far from our real situation in the world here and now. Shobogenzo is also unique in the extent to which it elucidates the details of the dynamic process of the “actualization” in question. Briefly, this actualization is portrayed as being realized through the practice-enlightenment of seeing through and casting off narrow ego-centric restraints; thus allowing the many things (myriad dharmas) that constitute the universe to be continuously actualized as they are (to realize their true nature). Practice (experience) is the activity of enlightenment (existence), enlightenment is the nature of practice – thus practice-enlightenment is the actualization of the universe. For the true nature of our existence is experiential, and the true activity of our existence is experiencing – thus our own true nature is actualized (made actual) through the actualization of the true nature of the universe (genjokoan).
According to the vision of Shobogenzo, actualizing the reality of genjokoan requires exposure to a complete and accurate expression of truth (the verbal teaching of Buddhism encountered through the words of reliable teachers, texts, or a combination of these), sustained focused study, clear accurate understanding, sincere dedication to concentrated practice (shikantaza; zazen-only), personal experiential verification of true nature (kensho; seeing true nature; or Dogen’s preferred term, kenbutsu; meeting Buddha), and finally, ongoing enactment (praxis, or practical application) in the everyday world.
The task of Zen doctrine and methodology is to point directly to the true self (the true nature of each human being) and provide a path or way for the individual to awaken to their true nature and thereby activate authentic practice-enlightenment. Zen accomplishes this task partly by providing a number of fundamental viewpoints from which we can see (thus experience) certain truths necessary for achieving effective progress along this path. The fundamental viewpoints necessary to an accurate understanding (thus actualization) of true nature are in no way unique to Zen, Buddhism, or even to what is commonly understood as “eastern” religion. In fact, the principles insisted on as essential by Zen are essential to every school, tradition, or system of thought, east or west (or north and south for that matter) insofar as they are concerned with authentic truth; there are not two realities, and no one has a monopoly on the truth. That said, Buddhism, Zen, and certainly the vision provided by Shobogenzo, are charged with a potency for actualizing and transmitting the wisdom of liberation that may be more directly accessible than any other presently available source.
Everyone that has ever experienced genuine aspiration (bodhicitta) for the Buddha Way that has not yet done so, is wholeheartedly encouraged to give the teachings and practices of Zen as expressed by Dogen’s Shobogenzo – as they are (not as they are “interpreted” by others) – a sincere opportunity to be actualized through your own illumination by the myriad dharmas throughout space and time.