"Genjō Kōan" - What does that actually mean?

 Although I mentioned in the previous entry that the translators of Genjō Kōan usually agree on the meaning of Dōgen’s words, this is not the case for the very title of the essay. My three primary translators, Okumura (2010), Nishijima and Cross (1994) and Tanahashi (2013) all present quite different renderings of the title.

The Sino-Japanese original of the expression Genjō Kōan is usually given as 現成公案. The first part – Genjō, 現成 – is translated as “to manifest”, “(self-) evident” or “(self)-existing” in Soothills Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. This part is not controversial amongst the translators who render it as “reality” (Okumura), “realized” (Nishijima and Cross”) and “actualize” (Tanahashi). The problem lies in the second part of the expression, the word Kōan - 公案. According to Soothill, a Kōan was a “dossier”, “case record” or a “public law”, in other words a legislatorial term in imperial China which initially had no connection with Buddhism. In a wider sense Kōan came to be understood as an obvious reality that applied to everybody irrespective of personal views, or, according to the entry in Wikipedia, the “principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person”. With this meaning in mind, the early Chinese Chan Buddhist started to collect memorable dialogues between teachers and disciples and called them “Kōan”. This use of the word made sense because the stories were understood to elucidate the objective truth of Buddhism. Later still, Kōan stories were given to Zen students as objects of spiritual exercises and aids to enlightenment. It is in this last sense that the term “Kōan” became known in the West.

With these commonly accepted interpretations for the words Genjō and Kōan in mind, we can now turn to the translations of our three preferred authors. Just to complicate things even further as they already are, Okumura points out that Dōgen in his original text used a slightly different expression for the word “Kōan” - 公按 - than the commonly used 公案 (Okumura, 2012, loc. 76 ff.) The phonetic rendering of both expression in Japanese is exactly the same. Okumura also points out that most translations and dictionaries treat the two versions of the word Kōan as synonymous. Nonetheless, referring to the earliest commentator of Dōgen’s writings by his contemporary and disciple Senne, Okumura renders Kōan - 公按 - as “to keep one’s lot”. After a few more semantic twists and turns Okumura finally arrives at “To answer the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity” as the meaning of Genjō Kōan. Nishijima and Cross remain closer to the commonly held interpretations of Genjō Kōan. Emphasising the original legal context of the word, they translate “Kōan” as “Dharma” or the “Buddhist law that governs the universe”. And taking this interpretation one step further, they render “Kōan” as the “universe” itself. Their suggested translation of Genjō Kōan is thus “The realized universe” (Dōgen, 1994, p. 33.) Tanahashi’s translation is probably the freest among the three. He suggests “Actualizing the fundamental point” as translation of Genjō Kōan. For Tanahashi, the “objective reality” of Kōan is the “experience of complete nonseparation”, and this is his “fundamental point” (Tanahashi, Levitt, 2013, p. 99.) All three translations involve a large degree of freedom. Among the three, Okumura has researched the title most thoroughly, dedicating a whole chapter of his book to the topic. But his rendering is too convoluted for my liking. Genjō Kōan consists of only two compound words or four Chinese characters. It should be possible to produce a more concise English translation of the term. Kodo Takeuchi and Issho Fujita in an article published on website of the Japanese Soto Zen School do just that. They render Genjō Kōan as “complete manifestation of established truth”. I like this interpretation of “Kōan” as “established truth”. It preserves the original legal meaning of the word, but it also caters for the philosophical and religious connotations that the term has eventually assumed.

Now, that we have some understanding what Genjō Kōan means, we can ask why Dōgen chose such an ambivalent expression for a title that even trained Japanese Zen teachers find hard to interpret consistently. For an answer, it will be necessary to delve deeper into the controversial history of “Kōan” in Chinese and Japanese Zen. This will be the topic of the next blog entry. 


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

Koan. (2021). Wikipedia. Available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koan.

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

Soothill, W. E., Hodous, L. (1934). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. Available from http://mahajana.net/texts/soothill-hodous.html.

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

Tanahashi, K. and Levitt, P. eds., (2013). The Essential Dōgen. Writings of the Great Zen Master. Boulder: Shambala.

Takeuchi, K., Fujita, I (translator). (No date). Genjō Kōan (Complete manifestation of established truth). Available from https://www.sotozen.com/tch/library/key_terms/pdf/key_terms06.pdf.


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