by Koun Franz
In Shobogenzo Zenki, Dogen writes, “There is letting go of birth-and-death and vitalizing birth-and-death and such is the practice of the great way.” Earlier, he said there is detachment and there is penetrating. Then, just after that, he says there is letting go and there is vitalizing. So we can see these as synonyms: detachment and letting go, penetrating and vitalizing. And after both descriptions he says, “such is the thorough practice of the great way.” We’ve already established that thorough means truly thorough, all-pervading.
He continues, “Realization is birth, birth is realization.” If we read Zen texts, realization is often a synonym for enlightenment, and the words that we often hear for enlightenment are satori or kensho. But Dogen was not a big fan of this kind of vocabulary. His realization here is genjo (現成, the same found in his Genjo Koan), which means actualization, as in the sense of something become actual—realization meaning literally to make something real, as in when someone says, “I realized my dream of becoming a chef.” It isn’t that one figured that dream out, that they didn’t get it at first. It became manifest.
As we see earlier in the text, these two words, emancipation and realization, carry a lot of weight—emancipation being to penetrate through to something and let it go, and realization being to actualize something. “There is nothing but birth totally actualized”—another way to write this might be “Nothing that is not total actualization of life exists in the moment of actualization; nothing that is not the total actualization of death exists in the moment of actualization.” All of this is a very pretty way of saying that actualization, within this definition, is total. You can’t actualize this—whatever this is—without actualizing everything. As we continue through this text and we read “birth and death” or “life and death,” these pairings can be useful to us, both because they are the extremes of experience and because we give them a lot of power. And Dogen is suggesting that we attribute a great weight to our actions. But we can just as easily substitute for birth and death—it can be as simple as “this and that,” whatever we think are opposite or separate somehow in this process of actualization.
So we let go of something, and at the same time we make it vital. We can see this in a very obvious way in zazen. We come with all sorts of ideas about what zazen is supposed to be. We read about it, and maybe our friend does it and had all sorts of wonderful experiences, and so we’re kind of waiting for that. We’re expecting something. Or maybe it’s not that, but maybe we picture the Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree and we want to manifest that. But zazen is none of those things. We carry those things with us, but that’s not zazen. Zazen is vitalized when we let go of those things and we find ourselves just sitting. It’s easy to say, “Just sit.” It’s not so easy to do. And when it does happen, then maybe we can kind of catch it—we think, whoa, that was cool. We think, That was zazen—or worse, it’s, Oh, this is, this is zazen—and then we’re out of it. What’s happening when we sit is just a stripped-down version of activity. And it’s happening all the time, but we miss it because we’re looking at something else. We bring it to light when we stop asking for it and we let it happen.
We say that an enlightened person may not recognize herself as an enlightened person. I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, well, what’s the point? I would want to know. But if you penetrate yourself, and in doing so let go of yourself, who will be there to have this idea about who I am? Your actions will remain, and you’re there (you don’t dissolve) but at that point you’re witnessing something quite vast.
“At the time of realization, there is nothing but birth totally actualized. Nothing but death totally actualized.” Here, for the first time but not the last, Dogen is saying that birth and death, which he’s been talking about the whole time, are the same. “At the time of realization there is nothing but birth. At the time of realization, there is nothing but death.” They can’t be separate. This kind of realization is inclusive of both birth and death. It’s inclusive of past and future, of subject and object. It excludes nothing.
Dogen writes, “Such activity makes birth wholly birth, death wholly death.” (Again, instead of birth and death we could say “this” and “that.” Such activity makes this wholly this. It makes that wholly that.) This word “activity” is important. It’s ironic, maybe that in a tradition that involves a lot of sitting very still, the teachings are always about action. Here, the word for activity is kikan, which is like a mechanism. It’s the thing within a machine—it’s the relationship part of the machine, like a hinge. It’s the part on which the machine might move or pivot (one translation referred to it as a “mainspring”). It’s where the machine turns. So this pivot, this hinge, is what’s being translated here as activity. It’s a pivot point, and it goes beyond subject and object.
I try sometimes to think of this in terms of grammar. In any sentence containing a subject and an object, we need a verb. That verb is the pivot point. From a relative view, we can say, well, you’re wherever you are and you’re reading this article. You (subject) read (verb) these words (object). But as long as you don’t read these words, that construction doesn’t mean anything. There’s you, and there are the words on the screen. If you do read them, we can rightfully say that you’re the subject and that the words are the object. But the act of reading transcends both because it creates both. Without this action of reading, you’re not the subject; without this action, the words are not an object. There’s no relationship. Nothing is happening.
I wish I had a brilliant way to talk about this. Verbs move from subject to object, but there should be another verb—for which we have no word—that moves in the opposite direction. If we say it in passive voice—“These words are read by me—that doesn’t do anything. The relationships stay the same. This is something we can’t express in language, or at least I’ve never heard it done, because even as these words are read by you, there is a way in which you are read by the words, except “read” doesn’t cover it. Your experience, in this moment, is inseparable from these words. If you take them away, it’s something completely different.
When we do kinhin, we’re always looking at the person in front. I can’t separate my experience of kinhin from that. I do kinhin with that person, and when she turns, I’m doing kinhin with the paint on the wall. I can go into another room and I can do kinhin, but it’s not the same kinhin. It’s a different action. It’s almost too simple, but it’s like a piece of paper: we call the front “page one” and the back “page two.” But if you can’t separate two things, then they’re not two things. They’re the same thing. My experience of kinhin includes the person in front of me, therefore she and I are the same. She and I are not two things. The wall and I are not two things. And the list goes on and on and on.
Dogen continues, “Actualized just so at this moment, this activity is neither large nor small, neither measurable nor immeasurable, neither remote nor urgent.” Actualization is not a big deal, nor is it insignificant. It’s not something happening in the background, and it’s not the most pressing thing, because all of those take place within a context measured by something else. This actualization is all or nothing. If you want to make a cake, you put all the ingredients in a bowl, but that’s not a cake. That’s just a bunch of stuff in a bowl, and so the act of stirring those ingredients together or putting them in the mixer is not a small part of making a cake, nor is it a really big part of making a cake. It is fundamentally inseparable from making a cake. Without it, there is no cake. The cake hinges on that action, but then it hinges on the next action and the next action, so we don’t measure large or small. This moment is the only moment that is this moment, so if this moment is spent walking to the restroom, that’s the pivot point of your life. The subject, which is you, and the object or the goal, which is getting to the restroom, are not particularly important. They’re held together by this action, and this action is walking. This action defines both. And again, the list goes on and on.
In summer, I sometimes pass a house that has a classic car on display in the driveway—they even park it at an angle so people can look at it. That’s nice, but if I say, “Hey, look at that car,” there’s a degree to which I’m making a mistake. It’s not really a car. It’s not doing what cars do. It’s an ornament—maybe a beautiful one, but it’s when you get in that car and you turn the key that it’s a car. Until you do that, saying that it’s a car is not meaningful; likewise, saying that you’re a driver is not meaningful. Both realities are actualized through relationship. When you drink tea from a cup, of course we call it a cup, but if you never drink from it, then what is it?
Dogen continues, “Birth in its right-nowness is undivided activity.” And undivided activity is this, this pivot. Another translation of this is “Life in the present exists in this activity.” And this activity exists in life in the present. He’s making a very clear point of saying it’s not that one is inside the other. They are mutually inside one another. There is no good example of that. An egg almost works: a complete egg contains something, but if we say that the egg is just the shell that’s holding something, that’s not true, and if we say that the egg is the yolk, that’s also not true, Neither can be divorced from egg. And if you eat it, you can’t be, either.
Koun Franz was born in Helena, Montana, but has spent more than half of his adult life in Japan. He was ordained in 2001, then trained at Zuioji and Shogoji monasteries. From 2006 to 2010, he served as resident priest of the Anchorage Zen Community in Alaska. Koun and his family now live in Canada (Halifax, Nova Scotia), where he leads practice at Zen Nova Scotia.