Genjo Koan

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Reading Dogen

It's not any particular thing he says...

Dogen's writing—succinct and poetic—can be a challenge. When you listen to Dogen it seems he says one thing and then another. "This is no good," you might think. "This doesn’t help." But it can help. Dogen shows the way your mind works. It’s the trajectory of Dogen’s words which gives us a hint. It’s not any particular thing he says, but it’s the trajectory of his statements.

As other teachers have said:

Dogen's writing of the first chapter of "Shobogenzo" is very short and poetic. (In translation) ...it's almost impossible to convey the beauty of the rhythm and sound, the rich associations and profound implication and suggestion of many important words. …He uses very beautiful images about practice and enlightenment, using the moon's reflection in the water, fish in the ocean or a bird in the sky. Shohaku Okuhura
Dogen wrote at the outermost edge of human communication, touching with every sentence such mysteries as self and other, self and no-self, meditation and realization, the temporal and the time-less, forms and the void… He wrote of the attitude necessary for understanding, of the practice required, of the various insights that emerge, and of the many pitfalls. He did not generally write for beginners-most of his points require very careful study, and a few of them elude almost everybody. These challenges are compounded by his creative use of the Japanese language of his time. It has been said that he wrote in Dogenese, for he made verbs of nouns, nouns of verbs, created new metaphors, and manipulated old sayings to present his particular understanding. Robert Aitken

Why study Genjo Koan?

The Genjo Koan addresses how one can live one’s life.

You don’t have to read it. But if you want to engage with a great teacher’s engagement, it may help you to open our heart and change your habits of thinking and acting.

Dogen was talking about something that was very close to him and his style was the best way he could say what was really true and could help people. It can be difficult. It’s not like “Take two aspirins and see me in the morning” The world is vast and wide. And you’re part it. You’re part of the solution. If you’re trying to solve it, to fix it, you’re not seeing your participation with it.

Is Genjo Koan about how to gain realization and enlightenment?

Dogen uses terms like realization and enlightenment precisely because they’re so loaded. You think there’s something special that’s going to stick out, so he uses that as a carrot…

How do you study Genjo Koan? Should you study each verse? Every line?

It’s not to work on the verses. It’s to work on your life. This is the koan of your life; it’s not the koan of Dogen’s. You’re not going to study something called Genjo Koan, which is something that Dogen has which is special. Rather Dogen is pointing out that the question — the koan or the contradiction of our life — is always in front of you.

He's asking you for the Genjo Koan.

So Dogen is asking- “What is the question of your life?” He’s asking you for the Genjo Koan. He’s not giving you what the Genjo Koan is. He's asking: How do you understand your life? What are you doing? Who are you? That’s what he’s doing. He’s not saying, “Here it is, figure out who it is.”


As you do this course, reflect on Dogen's words. You're not trying to figure them out — "What does this mean?" You're not trying to figure Dogen out — "What is he telling me?" Follow the trajectory of Dogen's words in your mind.

Occasionally you'll come across a box like this where you are guided in what to reflect on in the verse you are engaging. However, in this course every line of Dogen's is to be reflected on. Remember: These are not to be analyzed, not to be "understood" — but to reflect in your mind as a koan for your life.