What is Enlightenment and What does It Matter Anyway?

“When perceiving one side, the other side is concealed.”

So says old Dogen in his Genjokoan (translated variously but by Heine’s work cited below as Spontaneous Realization of Zen Enlightenment).

This little gem is quite a fulcrum for understanding dharma practice and making it real or as Dogen puts it in “Bendowa,”

“The endeavor to negotiate the way as I teach now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, putting a unitive awareness into practice in the midst of the revaluated world.”

I regard Dogen’s work, and Genjokoan particularly, as a source text for Soto training, not as authoritative or something to submit too but as a barrier to be met or better, as a friend  in conversation. Source texts as such are companions for us on this endless journey.

One recurrent theme on the practicing-enlightenment journey is about whether enlightenment is absolute and forever, “…all encompassing, seamless realization experienced without obstruction or partiality,” as Steven Heine puts it in “What Is on the Other Side? Delusioin and Realization in Dogen’s ‘Genjokoan’” that appears in his new book, Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies. Or whether “…even in the realm of enlightenment, opposites continue to intermingle.”

The first perspective is be characterized as absolutist and the second as relativistic or better, relational. From the absolutist view, the “one-side” passage is strained to mean that when one realizes one dharma, one realizes all dharmas. Cut one, cut all.

From the relational view, “When perceiving one side, the other side is concealed,” or “Illuminating one side obscures the other side,” indicates that the even in enlightenment, there is something hidden.

Heine does his usual high-quality, skillful job thinking through the meaning of the passage in context of Dogen’s oeuvre and the commentarial literature, ancient and modern, much of which is beyond the scope of this blog post. Let me just say that I’m into my third time through the piece and recommend it for careful study.

One striking comment that Heine makes is that contemporary commenters Yasutani in Flowers Fall and Okumura in Realizing Genjokoan both tend toward the absolutist views, as does the ancient Gosho commentary by Dogen’s disciple Senne. Now Yasutani was a strong advocate of kensho and koan study, while Okumura minimizes (or even dismisses) kensho and is a strong advocate for shikantaza only.  That they both come to the absolutist view catches my attention.

The problem (and virtue) with the absolutist view is that it’s so darn idealistic, passionately singing the Great Vows, while not fully explaining the experience of enlightenment and the pickle of putting the unitive awareness into practice. Systems that foster this view in a one-sided way (emphasizing the vertical) tend to have a lot of heat in their practice and a propensity for arrogant teachers and dependent students. This leads to trouble.

The problem (and virtue) with the relativistic view is that it’s so darn lacking in idealism and so dang sober that it does little to inspire wholehearted practice or the discovery of the unitive view. Systems that foster this in a one-sided way (emphasizing the horizontal) tend to diminish kensho and wholeheartedness. Here a controlling metaphor is “…the community is the teacher,” or “Zen without Zen teachers.” The leadership vacuum in such systems is often filled with meetings and consensus-oriented processes. And pseudo-practice.

Both views are important and we need not resolve the matter. Let both voices sing and the short-comings of each might balance in harmonious concordance. This also seems to be the conclusion that Heine reaches,

“My approach seeks a constructive middle ground that finds some degree of truth in both absolutist and relativist standpoints by stressing that there is, in one sense, no possibility of complete understanding even after self-forgetfulness takes place, in that even a buddha ‘carries a board across the shoulder.’”

That view nicely puts the “koan” back in genjokoan. In this regard, Heine summarizes a leading Dogen-scholar, Kurebayshi, as “…stress[ing] that the contents of the fascicle, which are elusive and perplexing, function as a ‘manifesting koan’ or ‘koan which reveals itself,’ thereby suggesting that the text harbors unrevealed and mysterious elements of meaning like the puzzling, riddle-like paradigmatic cases found in the main Song dynasty koan collections.”

Your thoughts about this are welcome.

Dogen and Koan: The Ultimate Truly Definitive Unquestionable Smoking Gun
Do Not Waste Your Time Admiring a Painted Rice Cake: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment
Shikantaza: Busy, Busy Karmic Consciousness - When Will it Rest?
Cold as Hell!
  • http://www.zenforuminternational.org/ Carol

    Thanks Dosho.

    Leaning towards the both/and perspective more than an either/or on this one. Sometimes all things are revealed, sometimes not. However, I’ve never known of anyone who said all things are revealed to them all the time who was actually sane.

    • doshoport

      Hi Carol,

      Me too … and I have known one person who I believe to be quite sane who had the absolute perspective and heard of a few others. And their testimony I think is significant, raising the likely possibility that there is still more to see.


  • Mike Haitch


    Interesting post.

    If a fellow does not know he is carrying a board he can do nothing about it.

    If a fellow knows he is carrying a board then maybe he can move it, carry it, drop it or pick it up again.

    If carrying a board is (sometimes?) part of being a fellow then what can he do?

    If carrying a board is optional, how would a fellow know?

    If enlightenment is dropping or moving or seeing the board then what is traceless enlightenment?

    I meet many people who do not seem to worry about these questions.

    Today I am alive. Is ittemporary? One day I may not be. Will that also be temporary?

    • doshoport


      The traceless trace of enlightenment that Dogen mentions in Genjokoan is the trace of the fellow carrying the board, no?


  • Mike Haitch

    It may be thar seeing the board and dropping the board are all illusionary. It may be that people see a board carrying fellow because they cannot see anything else. Or maybe there is another facet.

    Consider Joshu’s bridge. Is a wood bridge different from a stone bridge? Is seeing one accurate and another inaccurate?

  • Desiree

    How often is it the case that “problem & virtue” coincide?

    • doshoport

      I don’t know for sure but it seems like they coincide quite often!

  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    For a moment, let’s try taking Dogen’s statement in context and at face value (rather than trying to glean some broad, general principle from it):

    “When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined the other side is dark.”

    Dogen is talking about how we percieve things from the point of view of practicing zazen/or wholehearted, inclusive practice: He’s just sayin that, in zazen/practice, we can ‘grasp things directly’ as opposed to when we willfully look at something, when we objectify it, to the exclusion of other things around it (one thing illuminated/ other things obscured)…no?

    It seems an equally clear and practical point that a buddha, or anyone living in the world, is required to look at things in such a discerning/ non-all-encompasing way as we’re required to do that quite regularly to get by methinks… A mirror, or the water, or even a tiny dew drop for that matter, can contain and reflect the whole moon and the sky though of course, so even this limited type of ‘seeing forms and hearing sounds’ can express the whole picture.



    • doshoport


      Yes … and … Heine deals with the context and I’m giving an abbreviated version here, hopefully enough to get to the point.

      Your last paragraph seems to suggest that the unitive view isn’t functional, and this isn’t the case, imv. I’d say that the mu realization (also the basis for Dogen Zen), for instance, is incredibly practical, perhaps that’s why it’s been culled out of the myriad possible insights.

      As for “in zazen/practice, we can ‘grasp things directly’ as opposed to when we willfully look at something, when we objectify it, to the exclusion of other things around it (one thing illuminated/ other things obscured)…no?”

      That’s the rub. Dogen doesn’t directly indicate what he’s referring too (no “this” in the original – see the version below) and the punctuation is also added later! so it is widely open to interpretation. Most translators add something like “fully” (as your version does) or “wholeheartedly” but these apparently don’t occur in the original which comes off as much more neutral and not making a big distinction between the enlightened view and the deluded view.

      Heine’s bare-bones, literal translation has it this way:

      “In seeing forms by engaging body-mind and hearing sounds by engaging body-mind, although things are perceived intimately, this is not like an image reflected in the mirror and it is not like the moon in the water. When perceiving one side, the other side is concealed.”

      I find the openness to interpretation energizing and a good antidote to making Dogen the King of the Universe, proclaiming the one true dharma. Instead, the words here and in Shobogenzo generally, need to be taken in, held at our hearts, and then rubbed into our actual living.

      Thank you for your practice,


  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Of course, when it comes to interpreting Dogen I am King of the Universe…

    And while we’re demoting Dogen; what can you say on the matter from the perspective of your own practice? What does Dogen mean? We all sit more-or-less the same way, right, so we’re due our opinion. I’m not happy to wait for the next book on the subject.

    And if it’s open to interpretation then I suggest that people get on with interpreting it (I mean really interpretting it with their bones and blood and minds): That might be better (and more interesting) than waiting for some boffin somewhere to do it for us at excruciating length and dubious verbosity, and at a cost of 40 bucks or whatever… (hee, hee).

    I don’t quite buy the whole ‘unitive view’ notion as I think it’s just an impoverished and rather cold way to explain a warm and wonderfully messy, practical human actuality that is as plain as the knobbly noses on our faces. Tea cups don’t need no philosopy to be broken tea cups, they’re already being broke! Sorry bout that.

    I think Heine and others who tend towards the latest in academic hocus pocus should be approached with some caution and with the resource people’s own practical confidence and clarity. That haughty and power-laden academic language can, I suspect, be seen to further isolate Dogen as some sort of lofty, unassailable wizard. Can’t quite take to the ‘jive’ with a full head/heart of steam…. Well, It has its moments, but some of it just seems like more steam than is neccesary (to me, King of the Universe, of course).

    What is it about Dogen? I’ve seen some otherwise interesting points made in some of the most indulgently inaccesible academic jargon. Hee Jin Kim springs to mind in particular. He took it to almost darkly comic levels of jargonism at times.



    • doshoport


      Yes, I agree … and yet, I love to read the scholarly stuff, in part for the bits and pieces that really do shed considerable light on actually working with Dogen in this broken-hearted life. The scholars’ work, at it’s best, helps the “real” Dogen step forward from the mist of the interpretive tangle (often based on economic and political factions that didn’t rule the day in 13th Century Japan and certainly don’t here in the back waters of Minnesota or I suspect in Ireland).

      One piece that was new to me was about how in Dogen’s day they didn’t use punctuation. That blows my mind! Sentences free from beginning, middle and end!

      One King of the Universe to Another,


      • Desiree

        In another world, a friend and I were just talking last night about how in Greek they wrote in all caps and didn’t have spaces. It makes me wonder if they talked without spaces as well.

        • Desiree

          Either that or they accidently left on the Caps Lock when they were IMing. Seriously though — They had to at least have breath marks in their orations.

  • http://heartlikewater.wordpress.com Ray Watkins

    Geez, Dosho; your post is just elegant and nourishing and spot-on. When I read it, I feel like a stone spun about in a sling-shot, and thrown out into my path again. Schweet. Thanks for showing up in my practice.

  • Anon #108

    Hi all,

    For what it’s worth…

    Here, and throughout Genjo-Koan, I hear Dogen referencing our usual, everyday experience; our everyday perception and understanding of our relationship with the world ‘outside’.

    “When perceiving one side, the other side is concealed” describes the simple fact that when we are engaged in one activity – like reading – we are not capable of fully engaging in another – like listening; (from moment to moment) one act of perception ‘blinds’ us to another. And so, unlike a clear reflection in a mirror or in water – and so, unlike some traditional Chan/Zen presentations of the state of enlightenment – our mind does not capture all that is front of it, directly, clearly and completely – ever.


  • Anon #108

    …And I don’t believe, and haven’t found, that such an ‘un-idealistic, relational, horizontal’ view need diminish…anything valuable and true.*

    *Did I just say “valuable and true?!”

  • Harry

    [Sorry, messed up the quotes in the last attempt!]

    Hi All,

    Here’s how Nishijima/Cross render it:

    When we use the whole body and mind to look at forms, and when
    we use the whole body and mind to listen to sounds, even though we are
    sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image, and
    not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side, we are
    blind to the other side.

    In context it seems (to me) to be a statement about our normal perceptions *when engaging* body-mind, part of a bigger explanation/contextualisation of what realisation is (and is not). I note that he is not yet talking here about experience in *dropping off body and mind*… that comes in the next section, and this scheme/progression of ideas seems quite important methinks:

    …To learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves
    is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad
    dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own
    body and mind, and the body and mind of the external world, fall away. There
    is a state in which the traces of realization are forgotten; and it manifests the
    traces of forgotten realization for a long, long time.



    • doshoport

      What’s the same and what’s different before and after enlightenment, is exactly the play here. And despite the difficulty of the recent Hee Jin Kim text alluded to by Harry above, his central point on all these seeming opposites as foci in Dogen’s Zen is really powerful. For a dynamic realization (aka, life), the energy in both foci is crucial – when we obliterate one side, we sink into nondynamic living. Not one or the other, neither nor both – but the intense, intimate conversation.

      The traces of the traceless seems to me to be a repeat of one side illumined, the other dark.

      Thanks for all the thoughts today,


  • donryu

    In the “Heroic March Samadhi Sutra, (Suramgama Samadhi Sutra) after a passage wherein Manjushri encourages 200 bodhisattvas to practice this heroic path, the bodhisattva Namamati asks of the Buddha: “Bhagavat, how then should a bodhisattva practice this samadhi?”

    The Buddha replied: “Namamati, the bodhisattva who regards dharmas as empty, unresisting and perishing from instant to instant, without aversion or affection, that bodhisattva practices this samadhi.”

    …The bodhisattva Namamati said to the Buddha: Bhagavat, the method of pursuance in this samadhi is very difficult. The Buddha said to Namamati: That is why few are the bodhisattvas who dwell in this samadhi, and many are the bodhisattvas who practice other samadhis.”

    Now I ask you: where is “that bodhisattva?”


  • Austin

    This reminds me of what I read in a book called “Where’s My Zen?” when it talks about opposites. It said how it’s not about one versus the other, but rather, the thing that both are a part of. Like, each opposite is a side of the same coin. So instead of getting caught up in “success” or “failure”, rather, it’s the thing that both are a part of that we make matter. I found the book on amazon but if you google it, you’ll find a free pdf version on the author’s site. It’s a great read.