Ehei Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan

 After having finished our in-depth discussion of Ehei Dōgen’s “Universal Instruction to the practice of zazen” – Fukan Zazengi – and a refreshing excursion into the life and verse of Japan’s famous 19th century Zen poet Ryōkan, the Wednesday study group is now returning to another masterpiece of the illustrious 13th century founder of our school of Sōtō Zen. Genjō Kōan, together with Fukan Zazengi, is Dōgen’s most important essay. Whilst Fukan Zazenig is a practical guide to silent seated meditation – zazen -, Genjō Kōan is what in today’s language would be called a philosophical treatise on the metaphysics of enlightenment. Dōgen wrote Genjō Kōan in 1233 shortly after he had managed to establish his first own temple in the vicinity of the capital Kyoto. Dōgen dedicated the text to an otherwise unknown lay person Yo Koshu of Chinzei from modern day Kyushu. It is noteworthy that Dōgen, who strongly emphasised the importance of zazen not only in Fukan Zazengi, but also in many other writings, does not mention the word once in Genjō Kōan. My initial understanding is that through Genjō Kōan Dōgen tried open a new route to Zen Buddhism specifically for an educated laity, who would not have been able to follow his teachings on monastic Zen practice. It is fair to assume that in 13th century Japan the only places where somebody could maintain a regular practice of zazen were the still few and far between Zen Buddhist monasteries. For the vast majority of those who decided not to live as monks or nuns a different approach was necessary.

Studying Dōgen can be challenge due to the huge gap in terms of time and culture between us and the Japanese master of 800 years ago. Even modern Japanese usually struggle with Dōgen’s language and his peculiar style. Luckily, we now have access to a number of excellent translations and interpretations of Genjō Kōan in English. They by-and-large agree in their respective renderings of the original, making Genjō Kōan the best understood of Dōgen’s writings in the West. The study group and the accompanying blog series will be primarily based on Shohaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjōkōan (2010). The translation by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross in their edition of Dōgen’s collected essays Shōbōgenzō (1994) will also be used. The rendering of Genjō Kōan in Kazuaki Tanahashi’s The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (2013) completes the trio of primarily consulted translations. A good version of Dōgen’s original text is available under

Many more books about Genjō Kōan are available. Jundo Cohen has just published an innovative take on Dōgen in general and Genjō Kōan in particular in his The Zen Masters Dance (2020). And to those who seek an easy entry to the text I would recommend the paraphrase and commentary on Genjō Kōan in Brad Warner's Don’t Be a Jerk (2016).


Cohen, Jundo (2020). The Zen Master’s Dance. A Guide to Understanding Dōgen and Who You Are in the Universe. Somerville (MA):  

Dōgen, Ehei (1994). Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1. Translated by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross. London: Windbell.

Okumura, Shohaku (2010). Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dogen's Shōbōgenzō. [Kindle]. Boston: Wisdom Publications. Available from

Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.) (2013). The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: ZEN Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo. Boston, London: Shambala.

Warner, Brad. (2016). Don’t Be a Jerk. And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master. Novato (California): New World Library.


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