Genjo Koan

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Sunday, August 20, 1967
Morning Sesshin
Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara

(Note from Brian Fikes: The first portion of this lecture was not recorded. This is the first [sic]1 in a series of [three] lectures on the Genjokoan given during the sesshin ending the first training period at Tassajara.)


Our understanding will be four: one is form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, and form is form, and emptiness is emptiness. Form is emptiness is, you know—may not be so difficult to understand, form is emptiness, but this understanding will be misunderstood like—some radical or some advanced, hasty people may understand this way—this view of form is emptiness: “Yes, form is emptiness. There is no need for us to attach to some particular things. Now form is emptiness.” [Laugh] This is very—looks like very clever, but this is—even though this is—this view of life is maybe better than to attach to some particular form or color, because view of existence—it's actually many, many view of life. And view of non-existence is more deeper. If you see any—any things which—if you see something actually it looks like permanent and it has—it looks like to have some self-nature. But as we explained already, and you have—as you have understood already, there is no special nature—self-nature for anything, this is the way[?], and everything is changing. As long as everything is changing, nothing is permanent. So, this is more advanced view of life maybe.

But emptiness is form is rather difficult to understand. The emptiness which is the—some—emptiness which is the absolute goal we will attain, or enlightenment itself, is form. So, whatever you do, that is enlightenment itself. This is rather difficult to understand it, or to accept it, because you think emptiness is something—unusual thing. So, something unusual is something [that] is very common. This is rather difficult to understand, especially when you practice zazen. Even though your practice is not perfect, that is enlightenment. But this statement is very difficult to accept it: “No [laughs], my practice is not perfect.” So, in this way, you will—it may be hard for you to accept it. But if you understand form is emptiness and emptiness is form, back and forth in this way, the form is form and emptiness is emptiness. Emptiness—when emptiness come, everything is emptiness. When form is—form come, form is form, we accept things as it is.

So, when we come to the understanding of “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness,” there is no problem. This stage, or this understanding, is the understanding, “When the moon is in the—even the moon is in the water, the moon will not be broken—water will not be broken, nor the moon will not be wet.” Moon is moon, and water is water. This is form is form and emptiness is emptiness. But here there will be a misunderstanding whatever—and then there will not be no need to practice Zen, you know: “Form is form, emptiness is emptiness. If that is true, why do we practice zazen?” [Laughs.] This kind of misunderstanding you will have. But one understanding of the four should include the rest of the three, you know. The one statement of the four include all of four statement, four ways of understanding. If it is not so, it is not true understanding. But the meaning of the four statement actually is the same. So, if you say form is form, or emptiness is emptiness, or form is emptiness, or emptiness is form, one is enough, you know, for you. This is true understanding of Prajnaparamita.

And here Dogen Zenji referred to the koan: “Priest—Priest Hotetsu of Mount Myoho was fanning himself." He was a disciple of famous Hyakujo Zenji, and he was a very good Zen master. “Priest Hotetsu of Mount Myoho was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, 'Sir, the nature of wind is permanent, and there is no place it does not reach. Why then must you fan yourself?'” If wind is everywhere, why do you fan yourself? Do you understand? Why, [if] everyone has Buddha nature, when—and when form is emptiness or emptiness is form, why then must you fan yourself? “'Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,' the master replied, 'you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.'” “Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent, ” even though you understand form is emptiness, but you do not understand that emptiness is form, in other words. “'What is the meaning?' asked the monk. The master just fanned himself” [laughs, laughter]. He didn’t answer, but he just fanned himself [laughs]. You know there is big difference between a man who is fan himself and who does not fan [laughs] himself. One will be very hot [laughs], one will be very cool, even though wind is everywhere [laughs]. “The master just fanned himself. The monk bowed with deep respect.”

“This is an experience of moving Buddhism and correct proving Buddhism and its correct transmission,” Dogen said—Dogen Zenji said. “Those who say we should not use a fan because there is a wind, know neither permanency nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent. The wind of Buddhism actualize the goal of the earth—gold of the earth and ripens the cheese of the Long River.”

“Ripens the cheese of Long River.” This is a quotation from Gandavyuha Sutra—Kegon Sutra. The—the water of the Long River is supposed to be the pure milk, you know, is pure milk—it is said that. But even though the water of the river [is] pure milk, if you do not—if you doesn't get through the right process, it cannot be cheese, you know. Milk is milk, and cheese is cheese. So, if you want to well ripen cheese, you should work on it. Even though there is wind, you know, if you do not fan—use your fan, it will not make you cool. Even [though] there is a lot of gold on the earth, if you do not pick up, you cannot get gold. This is a very important point.

People may think Zen is wonderful teaching, you know. “If you study Zen, you will acquire complete freedom [laughs]. Whatever you do, if you are in the Zen Buddhist robe, it is all right [laughs]. If you wear a black robe like this, whatever you do is all right. We have that much freedom in our teaching.” This kind of understanding looks like, you know, ??? observing the teaching that every—every form is emptiness, but form –form[?]—what we—do I mean by form is emptiness is quite different. Back and forth we practice, we train our mind and our emotion and our body. And after those process, you will acquire the perfect freedom.

And perfect freedom should be only—will be acquired only under some limitation. When you are in some position, you can fulfill—fulfill—you can realize—realization of the truth will be there, will happen to you. But if you do not work on anywhere, wandering about this place to the other place, without knowing where you are, without knowing your place on which you work, then there will be no chance for you to realize, you know, your true nature. For even though you use something to make yourself cool, you know, sometime, even though you have a fan—Japanese round fan and Chinese—this kind of fan, or big, you know, electric fan like that [laughs], if you are always changing one to the other [laughs] as you wish, you know, then [laughs] you will be spend your time just to change your equipment to [laughter, laughs] make yourself cool. And you will have no time to appreciate the cool wind, you see. That is [what] most of people are doing [laughs, laughter]. If you do not have proper—if you are not in some condition, you cannot, you know, experience the reality. Reality will be experienced only when you are in some particular circumstances. And only when you appreciate it. So, that is why we say, you know, form is—emptiness is form. Emptiness may be something very good, but emptiness can [only] be appreciated in some form or color, or under some limitation.

But you cannot be attached to it, you know. Even though it is very wonderful to use big fan in Tassajara, but if you use it in San Francisco, [laughs] what will happen to you? You cannot use such a big electric fan in San Francisco. So, you—you cannot, you know, stay—you cannot use, or you cannot be attached to anything.

But you should appreciate, moment after moment, what you are doing right now, under some condition. And first of all, you must know under which condition you are—actually are. This is very important. If you are a mas—teacher, you should behave like a teacher; if you are—when you are a student, you should behave like student. So, first of all you should know what is your position, or else you cannot realize—realization of the truth will not happen to you. In this way we should understand our way. So, to realize our position and fan ourselves is the way.

So here he says, “'You do not know the nature of—even though you know the nature of the wind is permanent, everywhere,'” but strictly speaking, this is a kind of rhetoric, you know. He [the monk] doesn't know even the nature of the wind. This—this is, you know—this is just, you know, compliment, “Even though you know the nature [laughs] of wind,” you know, but actually he doesn't know the nature of the wind, nor the—what does it mean by permanency. So “'Although you understand that nature of the wind is permanent,' the master replied, 'you do not understand meaning of it reaching everywhere.'” How the wind reach everywhere, and what is everywhere, what is to reach, he [the monk] does not know idea of it. “'Although you understand that nature of wind is permanent'” —this is just compliment [laughs]. He does not know even the nature of wind, he does not know at all, about anything! While—when nature of the wind is permanent, and how it is permanent, is when the wind work to some certain direction, in some speed, under some condition, then the nature of wind will be—appear. You see?

And “reaching everywhere” means the one cool—the cool wind, which is blowing to some certain direction, in some speed, that activity of the wind covers everything—covers everything. On that moment, the movement of the wind is whole world, and ??? dependent activity of the wind. Nothing can be compared with the wind in this—under this condition. As—like ash is ash, you know, having its own past and future. Firewood is firewood, as it’s having its own past and future. Firewood and ashes are independent. So is the wind. This is how wind reaches everywhere, and this activity is beyond the idea of time.

When we attain enlightenment, all the patriarchs attain enlightenment at the same time. We cannot say Buddha is before and we are after. When you understand enlightenment, you are independent from everything. You are—you have your own past and future, as Buddha had his own past and future. And his position is independent, and your position is independent. If so, this realization is beyond time and space. In this way, wind reaches everywhere. Do you understand?

You cannot say Buddha is before and we are after, like you cannot say ashes is after and firewood is after [before]. In this way, you should understand how the wind reaches everywhere. In this way, you should realize the nature of wind, which is permanent. So, he has—the monk did not have any kind of this—any of understanding of this kind. So, the—for the Hotetsu Zenji, there was—it was impossible to explain about it—about this direct experience of reality, so he just fanned himself [laughs], appreciating the cool night wind.

This is very famous statement: “The wind of Buddhism actualized the gold of the earth and ripened the cheese of the Long River.” Only through your practice, only by your practice, or only when you practice zazen, there is enlightenment already. In this—when you practice zazen in this way, aiming at this kind of goal, you will have chance to attain true enlightenment.

Thank you very much.


1According to Wind Bell (1968, No. 1-2, p. 16), this is the last lecture of a series of three on the Genjo Koan given by Suzuki at Tassajara. The fact that Suzuki is discussing the last paragraphs of the fascicle also supports the conclusion that this is last in the series rather than first. Suzuki gave an earlier series of lectures on the Genjo Koan at Sokoji in 1966 (see SR-66-03-13-A, SR-66-05-25, etc.). -- WKR, April 30, 2001.

Previous version (Un-verbatim PDF) transcribed by Brian Fikes. Text reformatted and notes amended by Bill Redican 2/20/02. New version based on transcript on Engage Wisdom by Shundo David Haye and made verbatim by Peter Ford 4/2022.


File name: 67-08-20: Genjo Koan (Verbatim)

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 7, issue 1, 1968