In “Genjokoan” Dogen says:


When a fish swims in the ocean, there is no limit to the water no matter how far it swims. When a bird flies in the sky, there is no limit to the air no matter how far it flies. However, no fish or bird has ever left its element since the beginning. If a bird leaves the air it dies. If the fish leaves the water, it will die. Know then that water is life, that air is life, the bird is life, the fish is life. Life is the bird and life is the fish.

If a creature tries to leave its element, to turn away from it, to act apart from or betray it, that creature begins to die. Why? Because it is turning away from the very truth of its life and the way things are. This is what the Buddha realized and that’s why every form of separation leads to suffering. But if that’s true, why do we betray our element? Why do we turn away from ourselves? Why do we betray each other?

To betray someone means to be disloyal, to be treacherous. It’s like taking a beautiful interwoven fabric and tearing it in two. What is Guishan saying when he tells Yangshan to not betray those we rely upon? When Master Linji was on his deathbed, he said to his disciple Sansheng, “When I pass on, don’t destroy my treasury of the eye of truth. Don’t betray the true dharma.” Sansheng said, “How could I destroy your dharma?” The Buddha didn’t create the dharma; we don’t sustain it. It will never be destroyed. Yet there is defiling the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Once a student, having completed his training, was leaving his teacher and said, “I promise not to disappoint you.” His teacher said, “You can’t disappoint me; just don’t disappoint yourself.” Disappointing oneself, betraying others, defiling the dharma: these aren’t different. Yangshan said, “Long ago, the Buddha expounded just this.” How did the Buddha teach about this? “I and all creatures have at once entered the Way,” the Buddha said upon his enlightenment. This means there is nothing to turn away from. Disappointment and betrayal are not possible. There is no dharma to destroy. So why does Guishan speak of betrayal?

In the early years of Buddhism developing in the U.S., as well as in current times, there have been teachers who have had extramarital affairs with students. In many cases, these have been accomplished masters who have brought many students to the dharma, who’ve created vibrant communities and produced dharma heirs. Yet their actions have also caused a lot of harm and confusion, in addition to being a violation of the precepts, their monastic or priestly vows, the student-teacher relationship, and their authority as a teacher. There is no ambiguity about this. So how do we understand this betrayal? What kind of turning away is it when it is done by one who has realized the dharma? In Buddhist practice we need to take every phenomenon, every situation—in particular the more chaotic or dire circumstances of our lives—and use those very circumstances to illuminate, to become clear, to come closer to the path. So how can we do that when a sacred trust is betrayed?

Daido Roshi always taught on the unity of wisdom and compassion—that without true compassion there is no true wisdom, without true wisdom there cannot be true compassion. This is a basic Mahayana teaching. Wisdom and compassion are one. And at the same time, we can speak of them as two. Master Dogen said our practice is to harmonize inner and outer—to deeply clarify our own mind and then to embody that clarity in everything we do. We can have insight into our self nature and not fully actualize that insight through our actions. In fact, it seems that perfect embodiment of one’s clear understanding is quite rare. But how does a person who has seen deeply into the nature of things, and who is clearly guiding other people to do the same, turn against the dharma, against others and him or herself? The answer, in one sense, is easy: desire. Betrayal only occurs within samsara, within conditioned existence, within the self-created world of the self. In that world, desire is the inspiration, it’s the fuel, it’s the engine, the vehicle, the apparent reward and the karma.

The Buddha said, “Those on the Way are like dry grass. It is essential to keep away from an oncoming fire. People on the Way look upon desire as something they must keep at a distance.” Desire is the deepest, most ancient force. It is primal. We can think about it, speak about it, we can explain it, but it often arises before thought. It seeks what is good and shuns what is bad; yet within the self-serving inner workings of the mind, good and bad can be perceived as just about anything.