Limitless Potential

Starting on Friday, we at the Angel City Zen Center will hold a three day Zen and Yoga retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center. The dates are October 26-28, 2018. We are accepting applications right up until Friday morning. But please don’t wait until then because it’ll be really hard to process you if you sign up that late. Besides that, we might fill all the available spots before then.

The theme of the retreat will be Dogen’s essay “ZENKI.” 

For use at the retreat, I have made a new English translation/paraphrase of the essay. And here it is for all of you to enjoy! I will be doing three lectures about this essay at the retreat. You’ll have to be at the retreat to enjoy those.

Sadly, Word Press won’t display Japanese or Chinese characters, so all of the Japanese stuff in the footnotes is in roman letters. If you really feel like you need to see the Japanese, write me at and try to bribe me into sending you a PDF of this. You can offer me Ultraman toys, Godzilla toys, rare DVDs of The Ghoul, gift certificates to Amoeba Music, Rockaway Records, Freak Beat, CD Trader or other LA-area record stores, cash, or rides to places.


Limitless Potential[1]

The Great Truth of all Buddhas, when completely mastered[2], is breaking free[3] and is enlightenment[4]. “Breaking free” means that life breaks free of life and death breaks free of death.

So there is departing from life-and-death[5] and there is entering into life-and-death. And both of these are examples of completely mastering the Great Truth. There is also throwing away[6] life-and-death and engaging in[7] life-and-death. And both of these are also examples of completely understanding the Great Truth.  

Enlightenment is this life. And life is this enlightenment.[8]

At the time of enlightenment there is nothing but the total enlightenment of life and there is nothing but the total enlightenment of death.

This pivotal moment[9] right now causes life to be life, and causes death to be death. This very moment right now, which is the pivotal state of enlightenment itself, isn’t necessarily big but isn’t necessarily small either. It’s not the entire universe, but it’s not just one place either. It doesn’t last a long time, nor does it vanish quickly.

 Life in this very moment right now is the pivotal state of enlightenment. The pivotal state of enlightenment is this very moment of life right now. Life isn’t something that comes, nor is life something that goes away. Life isn’t the experience of the present moment, and life isn’t the realization of that experience[10]

Thus, life is limitless potential. And death is limitless potential.

There are countless realities[11] inside you[12]. Among these there is life, and there is death. Just quietly think about it for a bit. Is your own present life and the countless realities within it part of life itself or not part of life itself? There isn’t any instant or any real occurrence that isn’t part of life itself. There’s not one thing or even so much as a single state of mind that is not part of life itself.

Life is like a person on a boat. On this boat, I unfurl the sail, I steer with the rudder, I use the pole to shove off. But at the same time, the boat carries me, and there is no me beyond the boat. Because I’m sailing on it, the boat becomes a boat.

Let’s closely study this mysterious moment[13] right here and now. In this mysterious moment, there’s nothing but the world of the boat. The sky, the water, and the shore have all become the time of the boat. Which is totally unlike times when I’m not on the boat.

So life is what I make it, and I am what life makes me[14]. While I’m sailing on the boat, my body, my mind, and everything that surrounds me are the limitless potential of the boat. The entire Earth and all the universe are the limitless potential of the boat. Thus, life itself is I myself, and I myself am life itself[15].

An ancient Zen master said, “Life is limitless potential. Death is limitless potential.”

We should really look into these words. When he says “Life is limitless potential” it means that there’s no beginning or end to life. Life is the entire Earth and the whole universe. Even so, this doesn’t interfere with life being limitless potential and it doesn’t interfere with death being limitless potential either.

When he says “Death is limitless potential,” that means that death is also the entire Earth and the whole universe. Even so, that doesn’t stop life from being limitless potential, and it doesn’t stop death from being limitless potential either.

Life doesn’t get in the way of death, and death doesn’t get in the way of life.

The entire Earth and the whole universe are right there in life, and they’re also right there in death.

But it’s not as if the entire Earth is one thing and the whole universe is another thing. And it’s not like limitless potential operates as life sometimes, and limitless potential operates as death at other times. It’s not one undivided thing, and yet it’s not separate things either. It’s not identical, but it’s also not different.

So, the many real things we experience in life are limitless potential. And the many real things we experience in death are limitless potential. Furthermore, even states that are beyond life and death are limitless potential too. Within limitless potential there is life and there is death.

The limitless potential of life and death is like a person extending an arm. Or it’s like a person reaching back in the middle of the night to adjust a pillow[16]. Such action is realized[17] where there is an abundance of divine light[18].

In the very moment of enlightenment, the limitless potential of life and death become completely clear. We might feel that before enlightenment, there was no enlightenment. We feel that way because we ourselves are a manifestation of enlightenment.

And yet, the time before enlightenment was the previous manifestation of limitless potential. And, even though there was a previous manifestation of limitless potential, that doesn’t get in the way of the current manifestation of limitless potential.

Every moment is limitless potential. Because this is so, our different ways of understanding are different fragments of enlightenment vying to be realized[19].

(This talk was presented at the castle of Lord Yoshishige on December 17, 1242.)


[1] Zenki, this is the title of the piece. It’s untranslatable. The first character means “all” or “total.” About the second character, Nishijima and Cross say that it “carries the meaning of a momentary opportunity for action.” It is part of the word for machine and refers to the part of a machine that moves. Nishijima and Cross use “All Functions” as their title for this essay. Tanahashi and Brown use “Undivided Activity.” Nishiyama and Stevens go with “The Total Activity of Life and Death.” Abe and Waddel use, “Total Dynamic Working.” Reiho translates it as “Full Function.” Thomas Cleary translates it as “The Whole Works.” My first teacher, Tim McCarthy prefers “The Whole Shebang,” which is the title I’m using for it in my forthcoming book. For this version I am using “Limitless Potential” not because I think it’s the best translation (Cleary’s “The Whole Works” is the one I think comes closest), but because it sheds light on an aspect of the term that other translations do not.

[2] Guujin, this word is no longer used in Japanese. The characters mean “investigate” and “exhaust.” So literally “(when) investigated to the very end.”

[3] Todatsu or choutotsu, a Buddhist term meaning liberation or attaining enlightenment.

[4] Genjou, a Buddhist term favored by Dogen (in the title of his essay Genjo Koan, for example). The characters mean “present moment” and “to attain.” So literally “attaining the present moment.”

[5] Seishi, literally “life/death,” this is also the Chinese character combination used to represent the Sanskrit word samsara.

[6] Su/sha, this character is part of the word suteru, which means “to discard.”

[7] Do/tabi, this character means “degree” or “occurrence.” Nishijima/Cross translate it as “salvaging (life and death).” Tanahashi/Brown translate it as “penetrating (life and death).” Abe/Waddell translate it as “immersion (in life and death).”

[8] Genjou kore sei nari, sei kore genjou nari. Nishijima and Cross have, “Realization is life, and life is realization.” Waddell and Abe’s version of this line is almost identical. Tanahashi and Brown consistently translate the character sei as “birth.” This character can mean either birth or life. Their version reads, “’Realization’ is birth, and birth is realization.” They put quotation marks around the word “realization.” Nishiyama and Stevens change this section quite a bit, but the line “Life and death together are the actual appearance of truth” appears to me to be their rendering of this line. I chose to make it “this life” and “this enlightenment” because of Dogen’s use of the word kore, which, in modern Japanese, means “this.”

[9] Kikan, in contemporary Japanese this means “engine,” “agency,” or “system.” The first character in this word is the same as the second character in the title of the essay. Nishijima and Cross translate this word as “momentary pivot-state,” which they say “suggests the state that is the total realization of life and death in each moment.”

[10] Sei wa gen ni arazu, sei wa jou no arazarunari. This sentence is a pun. Using the word genjou (see footnote #4), Dogen says, “Life is not gen, nor is life jou.”

[11] Muryou no hou, literally “countless dharmas.” The word dharma, in this case, has a very broad meaning. So I chose to translate it as “realities.”

[12] Jikou, means “self” or “oneself.” I chose to use “you” here to make it a bit more personal.

[13] Seitou inmo ji, the first two characters mean “just” or “exact.” The final character means “time.” The third and fourth characters, taken together, are pronounced inmo. This is a special word that Dogen often uses. It literally means “it” or “what.” Nishijima and Cross usually translate it as “ineffable.” I decided that “mysterious” sounded a little better to me than “ineffable.”

[14] Sei wa waga sei zeshimuru nari, ware wo ba sei no ware narashimuru nari. Nishijima and Cross have, “life is what I am making it, and I am what life is making me.” Tanahashi and Brown skip this line altogether. Abe and Waddell translate it as, “life is what I make to exist and I is what life makes me.” The Nishiyama/Stevens version says, “life and our existence function together.”

[15] Sei naru ware, ware naru sei, literally “Life is me, I am life.”

[16] A reference to a phrase also used in Dogen’s essay entitled Kannon, about compassion, in which he says that compassionate action is like a person reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night.

[17] Genjou (see footnote #4) is used here again. I have translated it as “realized” in this instance.

[18] Jinzuu koumyou, literally “supernatural light.”

[19] Kono yue ni, shika no gotoku no kenkai, kihohi genjou suru nari. Nishijima and Cross translate this line as, “Thus views such as these vie to be realized.” Cleary translates it as, “For this reason, such a vision and understanding vigorously appears.” Tanahashi and Brown give us, “Because of this your understanding can be manifested moment after moment.” Waddell and Abe express it as, “This is the reason for competing manifestation of such thoughts.” Gudo Nishijima’s translation into contemporary Japanese is “Kono you na riyuu kara, jouki no you na kangaekata ga, tsugi kara tugi e to kyousou no katachi de genjitsu no mono to naru no de aru.” Which I would translate as, “For this reason, the previously-mentioned ways of thinking are in competition one after another to become real entities.” I’m choosing to translate it differently because of Dogen’s use of the word genjou, which means realization, but generally refers to a specifically Buddhist sort of realization, which is also sometimes called “enlightenment.” And also because Dogen seems to be saying throughout this piece, as well as in his other writings, that our various ways of understanding, though incomplete in themselves, are limited manifestations of a holistic and unlimited understanding.


Thomas Cleary’s translation 

Ven. Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi’s translation 

Talk about Zenki by Mel Weitsman of Berkeley Zen Center 

Nishijima Roshi’s translation is available from Amazon 

Bonus: A French translation





The Angel City Zen Center is running a fundraiser right now to keep the center going. Please help them out!


I do not get any of what you donate to the Angel City Zen Center. If you want to support me directly, here’s my Patreon page! And here is a link to donate through PayPal.

 * * *

IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from! You can also get Don’t Be a JerkHardcore Zen,  Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!



Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

* * *

I’ve got a new book out now! Stay up to date on my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page

* * *

I have a YouTube channel now! Check it out!


Your PayPal donations and my Patreon page are how I get paid! Every little bit helps. Those $5 and $1 dollar contributions add up!

Thank you very much for making this blog possible! Your donations are my main means of supporting my teaching. If you find a little bit of truth in what I’m saying remember that even a small donation helps. Thank you!