Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part four in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this fourth lesson I turn again to Eihan Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), Buddhist priest and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen that teaches enlightenment is reached by the practice of Zazen, sitting cross-legged in meditation. Dōgen is known for his practical advice in many of his writings, giving concrete instructions to followers of his Way. In his book Shōbōgenzō he explained the foundational philosophy of his teachings. The first chapter of Shōbōgenzō is called Genjōkōan, and consists of just thirteen short paragraphs, some not longer than one single sentence. If we understand these thirteen paragraphs, we come closer to understanding the philosophy of Zazen, and closer to an understanding of the philosophy behind our lutedō. So although Genjōkōan might not yield any practical lessons as such, it will deepen our understanding of the Way of the Lute.

Genjōkōan was written for a lay practitioner in 1233 and revised for insertion as the first chapter in Shōbōgenzō in 1252. This was a time when Buddhist philosophy was widely understood in Japan, although different schools might differ on details, so some concepts of Buddhism that Dōgen assumed his readership would have grasped immediately might need some explanation for us. Also, Genjōkōan was written in a poetical language which even for modern Japanese is hard to understand, so we must accept some things to be lost in translation.

I will try to show the relevance for my lutedō of the first six paragraphs of Genjōkōan. But as these paragraphs touch upon very complicated matters, and in a very condensed and not always straightforward way, I suggest that you do not accept my explanations unquestioningly but ponder about the meaning and relevance of Dōgen´s writings for your own lutedō.

Genjōkōan is a word with many possible translations. It is often translated as something close to The Actualisation of Enlightenment, or Actualising the Fundamental Point. For the sake of our lutedō I would like to propose a rather free translation into Realising Music Through Lute Playing.

The first three paragraphs of Genjōkōan are worth quoting in full, as they are the essence of Dōgen´s teaching, and show how his teachings differ from more commonly known Buddhist teachings.

1) When all dharmas*) are the Buddha Dharma, there is delusion and realisation, practice, birth, life and death, Buddhas and sentient beings.

2) When the ten thousand dharmas are all without [fixed] self, there is no delusion and no realisation, no Buddhas and no sentient beings, no birth and no death.

3) Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realisation, sentient beings and Buddhas.

*) Dharma or Buddha Dharma means the teachings of the Buddha.

The first sentence summarises the teachings of Buddha: our lives are full of suffering. This is true when we hang on to our sense of independent selves and make self-centred desires the priority of our lives. Pleasure, happiness and success are equal to misery, unhappiness and failure in the sense that they are just two sides of the same coin: they are the results of our efforts to cling on to what we regard as our permanent lives. This notion of living with a sense of independent selves will make us look at everything around us as separate from ourselves and influencing our (un)happiness. If we choose such lives we will suffer the ups and downs of what is known in Buddhist teachings as samsara. Instead we could choose to live with the belief that everything in life is impermanent and lacks independent existence, in other words everything will perish and everything is connected to everything else. This notion of emptiness impresses upon us the knowledge that one day we will die and it teaches us not to attach ourselves to the trivial ups and downs of our personal lives. Seeing the connection between ourselves and all that is around us, we will feel connected to everything and everybody and no longer be influenced by our relation to the things outside ourselves, as we will feel in unity instead of separated from the world around us. Instead of living in the misery of samsara when trying to gratify our personal desires we are shown the possibility to live in accordance with the reality of the impermanence of life and the lack of independent existence. In Buddhist teachings this is called nirvana. Living in accordance with this reality will result in a more peaceful life. We are all brought up in a certain culture and acquire moral values accordingly, so we are used to calling some things good and some things bad. The good things make us happy and the bad things sad. The first sentence of Genjōkōan calls the good things (realisation = nirvana, practice = living according to the Buddha Way, birth, life, Buddhas = enlightened beings) and bad things (delusion = not seeing the truth of the impermanence of everything, death, sentient beings = beings subject to suffering) by name and makes a distinction between them, giving us the choice to live according to the one or the other.

The second sentence of Genjōkōan contains the essence of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. It says everyone has the ability to become Buddha, that is to escape samsara and to live nirvana. According to Mahayana Buddhism the Heart Sutra presents the true teachings of Buddha. The Heart Sutra, a text from the first century AD, basically confirms Buddha’s teachings by negating them – a concept very common to Zen. Mahayana Buddhism indeed teaches us that even Buddha’s teachings are not exempt from the truth that everything is empty, so we should not cling even to them as irrefutable truths. This is a refreshingly liberal point of view. Dōgen says it like this: if the teachings of Buddha (the dharma) are without fixed self (meaning if everything is in unity and not divided), the distinctions between good and bad are gone; there is no good or bad anymore. Instead, everything simply is.

The third sentence of Genjōkōan presents Dōgen’s own teachings. It says what we regard as good (abundance, arising = growth, realisation = nirvana, Buddhas = enlightened people) or bad (deficiency, perishing = death, delusion = not seeing the truth of the impermanence of everything, sentient beings = beings subject to suffering) is all included in the Buddha Way. There is no path going from bad to good, no way to change from a ‘sentient being’ into a ‘Buddha’. Dōgen says everything is included in our lives, everything has two sides and we should aspire to live the two sides of everything. If we do that, we truly live the reality in this world without chasing unattainable goals (like trying to become a Buddha and thereby creating yet one more samsara for ourselves). If we live like that, we live nirvana, here and now.

How does this philosophy of life help us to become better lute players? Dōgen talks about good and bad things, and he talks about our selves and the world around us. In his first sentence he says both good and bad things exist and he opposes them, implicitly inviting us to live aspiring the good. He also says we should realise we are in unity with the world around us and forget our independent selves, as the independent self is a cause of suffering. In his second sentence he says there are no good and bad things by denying the division between them. He tells us we can live without suffering if we live according to the Buddha-nature we are all born with. In his third sentence he does make a distinction between good and bad again, but says everything has a good and a bad side at the same time, and we have to express these both sides in our actions to live this reality. He also says although we should realise we are in unity with all around us without independent selves, we are individuals living our own lives at the same time. We should actualise the two sides of this reality simultaneously in our actions. For us that means playing music while being one with the music and our lutes, but at the same time express our individual selves in our own music. In other words, life is universal and so is art, but we can live our own lives and express our own art.

What is good in our lute playing and what is bad? When playing a piece, we can play the correct or the incorrect notes, play with a beautiful tone or with an ugly one, play the correct rhythm or an incorrect one, use musical, ‘correct’ phrasings, articulations and dynamics or non-musical, ‘incorrect’ ones. In our studying we can use our time efficiently or waste it, in a concert we can please our audiences or bore them. You can think of more examples from your own playing. How do we treat this distinction between correct and incorrect playing? Do we create our own lute-samsara by chasing personal gratification in playing? Is our happiness dependent on how many correct or incorrect notes we play? Are we happy when we have success and public recognition and do we feel our value as lute players is dependent on being able to play certain (difficult) pieces? And on the other hand, do we feel unhappy if nobody likes our playing and we cannot play those difficult pieces? This is creating our own suffering and will not help us to play any better. Genjōkōan’s first sentence invites us to live lute-nirvana by not chasing after such personal gratifications, but instead to accept our playing without judgement. Don’t see yourself as separate from the music you are playing, so don’t create a relation between you and the music as separate entities, because such a division will create value judgements that are a cause of suffering. It doesn’t mean we should stop improving ourselves, as we should still be able to recognise what needs improving, but it does mean we should stop letting value judgements decide our happiness. That will at the very least create a more relaxed attitude in playing. Genjōkōan’s second sentence assures us we can be lute-Buddhas and there is no correct or incorrect; everything we do simply is, and there is no teacher or audience with an absolute judgement on our playing. Again, this is a lesson in acceptance of who we are and what we do, although this time the distinction between correct and incorrect is gone. Quite how this applies to playing music is hard to understand, because although it is debatable whether incorrect notes make ‘bad’ music, and also tastes in music will differ, still we can distinguish a good performance from a not so good one, in other words there is standard by which we can judge music. A standard implies a distinction between correct and incorrect, so this seems to be in contradiction with the second sentence of Genjōkōan. For an answer to this apparent contradiction we have to turn to Dōgen’s own teachings in the third sentence of Genjōkōan. Here, we touch upon the heart of our lutedō: when recognising the correct and incorrect in everything we play, we can use it, learn from it, correct it and improve on it, without it distracting us from making music. When realising music is part of universal life, as are we, we will stop thinking of ourselves as separate from the music we are playing. But at the same time we can also express our own individual musicality through that universal music.

What does this mean in practical terms? Dōgen gives the answer in the next paragraph of Genjōkōan. I will quote the first sentence:

4) Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.

We like flowers and correct notes and we dislike weeds and incorrect notes. Flowers and correct notes make us happy, weeds and incorrect notes sad. This value of good or bad makes correct or incorrect notes bigger in our eyes, when in reality both are just notes. We cannot prevent our mind from assigning these values of good or bad to everything we encounter, but we can come to realise that these values are just fabrications of our own minds. And we can try to see reality as it really is, not as we construe it. Of course, an incorrect note is an incorrect note and should be corrected! However, don’t feel bad about playing an incorrect note. Instead, simply recognise it as an incorrect note and correct it in your studies. But when playing an incorrect note while making music, accept it and don’t let it disturb you; don’t let it distract you from what you are doing: creating beauty by playing music. When playing music, just play music. We should awaken to the reality that we are connected to the music we are playing, so we shouldn’t judge the music from the outside, but be the music. This is what Dōgen calls ‘all things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realisation’, which is also in the fourth paragraph of Genjōkōan.

Paragraph five of Genjōkōan starts with the sentence:

5) When Buddhas are truly Buddhas they don’t need to perceive they are Buddhas; however, they are enlightened Buddhas and they continue actualising Buddha.

This is directly applicable to our lutedō, because when we are playing lute we are one with the music and we don’t see the music as separate from ourselves. So we will not be conscious of being one with the music, but instead we simply are the music.

Paragraph six of Genjōkōan starts with a very famous statement. One that I already referred to, in a slightly different translation, in the second lesson of our lutedō:

6) To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.

A possible rephrasing for the purpose of our Way of the Lute could be:

To study the lute is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become one with the music. Becoming one with the music is to see your own body and mind no longer as separate from that of the music you are playing.

In practical term this means we have to be clear about ourselves before we can make music. What are the thoughts that come up in your mind when you play your lute? Do you worry about the difficult bits to come, or about the mistake you just made? Do you think about the audience listening to you? Or are you like me, with thoughts coming up that are not at all connected to the music you are playing? Whatever the case may be, being clear about ourselves is recognising that this constant layer of ‘babble’ in our minds, the random thoughts that come up and that we might think constitute our personality and therefore is us, is actually blocking our contact with reality around us, as these thoughts make us an onlooker from the outside to the reality of which we are an integral part. In other words, we should stop following the fabrications of our own minds in order to open ourselves up to the music we are playing. Putting aside for a moment all philosophies from Buddhism, Zen, Dōgen and Genjōkōan, we could also say: stop being distracted by your own thoughts and concentrate on the music. This takes practice. For Dōgen the practice is sitting: Zazen meditation. In Zazen we learn not to follow the random thoughts that come up in our minds, in order to remain in contact with what we are doing.

The famous sixth paragraph of Genjōkōan does not end here, but continues:

There is a trace of realisation that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realisation.

This is a confirmation of the undeniable fact that we have to continue studying. Because the moment we think we have grasped the Way of playing music, the moment we are conscious of being one with the music, the moment we have reached satori or enlightenment, that is the moment we are actually looking from the outside to our selves in relation to our lute playing, making the distinction between our selves and the music. And that is the moment the unity between our selves and the music is gone. Here Dōgen is teaching us the most elementary lesson for all musicians: our study never ends. Only by studying are we actualising the music, only by striving for perfection in our lute playing, only by trying moment by moment to forget our selves will we be one with the music. The old truth still stands: the Way is more important that the goal. In the Way of the Lute, too, there is no goal but only Way: study and play music.

Let me end this difficult lesson with the remark I also made in lesson one: the advice to improve your lute playing given here, concentrate on your music, study hard, don’t be disheartened by failure and equally don’t stop when you think you’ve reached your goal but continue to strive for unity between yourself and the music you are playing while maintaining your personal voice, could have been given without any reference to Zen. Taking the inspiration, and some of the philosophy, of Zen, however, might give you a fresh look on what should be a familiar message. Keep in mind that Zen is not dogmatic and that its students are urged to question everything, including the truths proclaimed in its philosophy. So you are strongly urged to change elements of my lutedō, and add your own, to start your own school of the Way of the Lute.

David van Ooijen 2011

If this lesson made you curious for more about Dōgen and his teachings, you’ll find his writings and commentaries upon them widely available both in print and on the internet. For this lesson I took inspiration from: Realizing Genjokoan by Shohaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications, Boston 2010).
Find Genjōkōan in eight different English translations on the internet here.