Genjo Koan

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When Eihei Dogen compiled Shobogenzo, his collection of essays, he put the Genjo Koan first. The Genjo Koan, written by Dogen for a lay person, is his concise, poetic expression of the practice of the Buddha’s dharma.

The secret of all the schools of Buddhism can be said to be: being in the present. I can't think of a text that emphasizes this more than Dogen's Genjo Koan.

Genjo Koan

The title Genjo Koan is difficult to translate. Let’s look at these two words:

You may be familiar with “koans” as they are used as objects of meditation and contemplation—“koan practice”—where the koan is a problem presented to the student (e.g. “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”).

Koan as Dogen used the term here refers to a public or legal issue—a public case. As a legal case, such a koan addresses multifaceted issues or problems about which there may be dispute, disagreement or misunderstanding and provides a clear example—a constellation of principals—for us to study and examine.

Genjo means what’s right in front of you – right now, in the present. Most importantly it’s active—actualizing what’s in front of you now

You may see Genjo Koan translated as:

  • actualizing the fundamental point
    What might this mean? Is Dogen Zenji just (!) teaching us to be in the present? Or is the Genjo Koan itself the teaching of what is vital and essential?
  • the koan—question—of everyday life
    Here the question—the koan— is how we live our everyday life! So again Genjo Koan points to fundamental teachings of awakening to the reality as shown by the Buddha. The Genjo Koan is meeting life itself.
  • the issue at hand
    That’s pretty good. What's directly in front of you.

This koan is not just for priests, it’s not just for lay persons. It’s for all of us. Now.

For now let’s say that this koan, when we grasp it, reveals the way to actualizing reality. The issue at hand—things as they are.

Things as they is

Let’s begin our study of Dogen’s koan and see what he’s teaching us about practicing in our everyday lives, with what’s right here right now.