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Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries


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Mel Weitsman, Michael Wenger and Shohaku Okamura
Counterpoint, Berkeley 2011, 223 pages
reviewed by Vladimir K.

Eihei Dōgen (1200 – 1253) is undoubtedly the most important Zen master to come out of Japan. He is generally acknowledged as the founder of the largest Zen sect in Japan, the Sōtō sect. His life’s work of teaching is encapsulated in the masterly Shōbōgenzō, a collection of essays, letters and talks  that express his understanding and vision of Zen Buddhism. There are various editions of the Shōbōgenzō published over the centuries: a seventy-five chapter edition assembled by Ejō, Dōgen’s Dharma heir; a sixty-chapter edition from 1329; an eighty-four chapter edition (1419); and a ninety-five fascicle edition from 1690 (Kim, 1987:235) which is still used today. Nishijima and Cross’ s 4-volume English translation is based on the ninety-five chapter edition. While Ejō’s seventy-five chapter edition  places Genjo Koan as the first writing, the ninety-five  fascicle edition puts Bendowa (1231) as first, followed by Maka-Hannya-Haramitsu  (1233)  and then Genjo Koan (1233).

Although various editions of the Shōbōgenzō were compiled over the centuries, it wasn’t until 1811, after twenty years work, that all the chapters were published. Four years later, in 1815, a complete boxed set was published, the first time the whole work was widely available. Up until then, Dōgen’s writing was only available to a select few Sōtō monks but these monks generally did not lecture to their students about the contents of the Shōbōgenzō. Kept in manuscript form at various Sōtō temples, Dōgen’s work was more a secret talisman than a working, teaching document. Indeed, from 1722 until 1796, the Japanese government actually banned any publication of Dōgen (Bodiford, 2006). By 1905 Eiheiji, the head temple of Sōtō, began a series of conferences on Dōgen and since then there has been a whole industry of books, monographs and conference papers on Dōgen and the Shōbōgenzō.

Dōgen’s Genjo Koan: three commentaries, by Mel Weitsman, Michael Wenger and Shohaku Okamura is not the first book dedicated to this important, seminal work. Shohaku Okamura wrote his own appreciation of this work titled Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo (Wisdom, 2010) and Hakuun Yasutani published Flowers Fall: a commentary on Zen Master Dōgen’s Genjōkōan (Shambhala, 1996). There are, of course, various commentaries now available in other books and there are many translations of this essay. While Shōbōgenzō is generally translated as Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Genjōkōan has many different translations.
book cover
The book under review, Dōgen’s Genjo Koan, offers commentaries by three different Zen masters: Nishiarii Bokusan (1821 – 1910), Shunryu Suzuki (1904 – 1971) and Kosho Uchiyama (1912 – 1998). William M Bodiford claims that Bokusan was the first to lecture on how to understand Dōgen’s ShōbōgenzōI (op cit). Both Suzuki and Uchiyama are in the same lineage as Bokusan, which is a little unfortunate as it would be interesting to have a comment from a Zen master not in the same lineage. As for the meaning of Genjōkōan, Uchiyama translates it into modern Japanese as “the ordinary profundity of the present moment becoming the present moment” (p 151) Later, he uses “the ordinary world, nothing is hidden”. (p 154) Bokusan deconstructs Genjōkōan as gen: appearance; jo as completion; and ko as impartiality and fairness. Koan means law or government. (pp13-15) I have given a very simplified break-down here of Bokusan’s explanation. He goes into quite a bit of detail trying to explain the meaning of  Dōgen’s title.  Shunryu Suzuki, on the other hand, abstains from expounding on the title. In the Introduction, Dairyu Michael Wenger offers a handful of different translations: the question of everyday life, actualizing the fundamental point, the matter at hand, the realized law of the universe, manifesting absolute reality, the actualization of enlightenment, manifesting suchness, living what is, according with the truth. (p 1) Basically, they all have the same meaning.

It is said by some that Genjōkōan was written in 1233 to a lay student of Dōgen, Yōkōshū. However, as Thomas Kasulis argues, this seems highly improbable. Nishiari Bokusan notes that this is “the most difficult of the entire Shobo genzo”. (p 11) Kasulis, quite rightly, questions why Dōgen would send this difficult essay as a letter to a layman. “What would he make of it?...Could Dōgen really have been so out of touch with reality that he thought a layperson like Yōkōshū…would be able to fathom the complexities of such a “letter”?” (Kasulis, 1978) Dōgen, even with the best teachers, is never easy. One of my Zen teachers, who was fundamentally against reading of any Zen text, said that one should read Dōgen only after experiencing kensho (another of my teachers said, “Read everything.”). While I do not agree with the former view (kensho is not prerequisite for reading Dōgen), I would not recommend Dōgen to a beginner in Zen.
All in all, I enjoyed reading this. Shunryu Suzuki’s chapter is somewhat disjointed but the editors have pointed out that there is no extant complete record of Suzuki’s lectures on Genjōkōan and what we have here is a compilation of talks over six years, beginning in 1965. Suzuki is always gentle in his talks and works hard at simplifying and clarifying complex Zen teachings (hence the enduring popularity of his Zen Mind, Beginners Mind). Uchiyama personalizes much of his lecture on this essay, bringing in his life’s story and various anecdotes to help illuminate Dōgen. Nishiari Bokusan’s teisho is complex and thorough, but not for the faint-hearted. For example, his comment on what is one of Dōgen’s most famous lines:

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad dharmas is delusion. That myriad dharmas come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment.
Self here does not mean the human self. The myriad dharmas here are not objects opposed to self. The myriad dharmas are the myriad dharmas of the self. This self is the self of myriad dharmas. For this reason, dropping off self is called myriad dharmas, and myriad dharmas without self are called self. (p 40)
Bokusan goes on for five more pages explaining this one line from Genjōkōan. Thorough, complex but not for beginners.

I cannot recommend this book for newcomers to Zen Buddhism but for those who have some practice behind them, this makes a nice addition to the study of Eihei Dōgen. Studying Dōgen is a lifetime project but then, so is zazen. The two complement each other. But to approach zazen with some idea of accomplishing something is not Dogen’s zazen. As Suzuki point out, “If you say, “I have to sit. That’s all. Period,” there is no meaning of zazen, even if you just sit. That will work out beautifully. This is zazen.” (p 106) Here is where one can begin the study of Dōgen.


Bodiford, William M (2006) Remembering Dogen: Eiheiji and Dogen Hagiography, The Journal of Japanese Studies 32.1 (2006) pp1-21
Kasulis, T.P. (1978) The Zen philosopher: A review article on Dogen scholarship in English, Philosophy East and West, Volume 28, no. 3, July 1978, p. 353-373
Kim, Hee-Jin (1975), Eihei Dōgen: Mystical Realist, Revised 1987, University of Arizona Press, Tucson

Further Reading

for a free complete copy of Shōbōgenzō as well as translations of individual essays, see my Shobogenzo page
for other essays about Dōgen, see my Dogen Studies page

Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo  Wisdom, Boston, 2010
Hakuun Yasutani Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen's Genjokoan Shambhala, 1996
Taigen Daniel Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans.Dōgen's Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku , Boston: Wisdom Pub., 2004. 
John Daido Loorie & Kazuaki Tanahashi, The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen's Three Hundred Koans, Boston & London: Shambhala, 2005.