Fall Ango Week 1: Practicing with Genjo Koan

September 27, 2023

“Medicine Buddha” by Michael Sawyer

Dear Practice Period Participants,

Welcome to Ango!  This is our first official weekly email.

Our main text for our Fall practice period focusing on Non-duality will be Genjo Koan by Eihei Dogen-zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan. So we want to really focus on this text this week.

Dogen-zenji composed Genjo Koan in 1233 and revised it in 1252. Genjo Koan is sometimes viewed as the essence or core of Dogen’s whole life of teaching.

Over the fall, we will be chanting Genjo Koan (in two parts) during our Saturday services at Boundless Mind Temple in Brooklyn, and we recommend also chanting it at home sometimes on your own as well. It can be a wonderful practice to memorize Genjo Koan as a devotional way to get close to the teaching and learn it by heart, almost like you would a poem. Just let the words and imagery move through you and soak in, without getting too involved in trying to figure them out.  Start to investigate how this text might support your practice engagement of non-duality.

Each week, we will send out an email with different practices and resources, as well as a section of the Genjo Koan we can take up together, in particular, that week. You can also practice with memorizing just this section each week- and see if a phrase or sentence particularly speaks to you or catches your attention.  If so, you can take up that phrase like a koan—holding it in your awareness and noticing where and when and in relation to what it shows up throughout your day.

In the Wednesday evening Dharma shares, we will consider that week’s section and how it has shown up for us in our practice life in relation to it, as well as how our practice life is going more generally.

For this week, please take time to read through, chant and get familiar with the whole text.

The Genjo Koan is a deep, nourishing and imaginative dharma offering, filled with imagery, striking, unexpected clarity, as well as challenging and mysterious passages. We might dream our way into Genjo Koan, like walking in the woods on a full moon night. We might let Genjo Koan work on us, like being the dream of a butterfly.  

Genjo (現成) can be translated as manifest, realize, actualize, appear, express, share.

Koan (公按) can be translated as fundamental point, suchness, absolute reality, truth, the heart of the matter, or left untranslated to indicate a deep question or issue which cannot be resolved through thinking or knowing.

Genjo Koan has accordingly been variously translated into English as:

 “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” “The Actualization of Reality,” “The Koan is Realized,” “The Manifestation of Absolute Reality,” “Presencing Truth,” “The Issue at Hand,” “The Realization Koan,” “The Koan of Everyday Life,” “Realization Here and Now.”

Here is the translation of the Genjo Koan we use for chanting at Brooklyn Zen Center (BZC) by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Robert Aitken (you can also find it in Moon in a Dewdrop). 

We also recommend the translation by Masao Abe and Norman Waddell. Nine translations can be found here.

If you’re curious to explore more, here are some recommended commentaries and reflections on Genjo Koan:

-Shohaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjo Koan (PDF here)

Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries (PDF here).

-Also see Brooklyn Zen Center’s own Kosen Greg Snyder’s article, “Waking Up to Whiteness” which works with a key passage from Genjo Koan.

Our final offering for this email is Giun’s, Dogen’s student, poem on Genjo Koan, composed in 1329 to encourage you along the path of your practice:

Do not overlook what is right in front of you,

Endless spring appears with the early plum blossoms.

By using just a single word you enter the open gate,

Nine oxen pulling with all their might cannot lead you astray.

With palms joined in gratitude for walking this path together with you,

Sarah & Charlie

Zen Priests, Dharma Teachers