“Zen,” said Ronald Eyre, the seeker-host of the BBC television series The Long Search, “is fatally easy to talk about.”[i] That being so, few people have spoken or written as much about Zen—while keeping it plenty difficult—than Eihei Dōgen (born Dōgen Kigen in Kyoto in 1200 CE), the founder of Japan’s Sōtō Zen sect.
For 550 years Dōgen’s main work, Shōbōgenzō (or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”), remained a Sōtō Zen secret. Since its release to the public in 1811, Shōbōgenzō has become not only a celebrated Zen text, but has won wide recognition for its anticipations of themes that remained latent in Western philosophy until Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, and Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida in the twentieth. That a contemporary of St. Francis and Thomas Aquinas should be mentioned in such company—and still be venerated as a theologian and founding monastic by his own sect—is remarkable indeed.
Of the ninety-five or so Shōbōgenzō fascicles, the short piece called Genjōkōan, written in 1233, is almost universally acknowledged as the keystone–and as the first hurdle of an extremely challenging course. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, in their seminal 1970’s series of Dōgen translations, remarked how “many have written of the difficulties, beauties, and unobtainable depths of Genjōkōan.”[ii] Today, they could remark upon how many have translated it. How many other Japanese works—classical, medieval or modern—have been translated into English over ten times since 1970?[iii]
Why, then, another translation? I can offer two excuses. The first comes from the conviction, born of considerable time spent with this and with other Dōgen works, that at least some of the difficulties of Genjōkōan arise from problems with the received text. A second colophon by Dōgen’s disciple and successor Ejō establishes that Genjōkōan was not incorporated into Shōbōgenzō until many years after it was written. What I imagine is that Ejō worked from an annotated copied of Genjōkōan, possibly one that reflected his many years of Q&A with the master, and that the version that has come down to us is Ejō’s recension of this complex document.
One may object of course, that much of the difficulty of reading many parts of Shōbōgenzō stems from Dōgen’s often deliberate inconsistency, his bald use of paradox, his extremely free manipulation of traditional sources, his habit of deconstructing koans and sutras and then reassembling them with the terms switched around and the standard conclusions reversed, stating all the while that “all the Buddhas” have always practiced and preached what he seems to have just invented. The problem is not so much understanding Dōgen as staying with him as he undermines the critical—and even the imaginative—distance from which one could safely evaluate his statements. To a great degree this is what the mature Dōgen of the Shōbōgenzō is about.
I have no answer to this objection except to say that Genjōkōan is not like that; unlike many of the other famous Shōbōgenzō fascicles, it reads like a document that wants to be, if not “easy,” at least straightforward. Within it one can readily detect a standard hortatory trajectory, but one that is clouded by unexpected asides, ill-fitting parenthetical remarks, mixed metaphors, and quotations from other Dōgen pieces that seem to treat a completely different subject. To remedy this, my version eliminates 27 of the approximately 75 “sentences” of the received text and changes the order of several sentences that follow the famous first paragraph. Do I claim is to have somehow discovered or reverse-engineered the “true” or original Genjōkōan? Not at all. I only claim that this version represents a plausible presentation of Dōgen’s principal theme, which is the relation between enlightenment and everyday practice and experience.
My second excuse was – “was” because this translation actually dates from 2004 – the desire to present a rhetorically consistent version to English-speaking readers that reflected my take on the teaching. Onishi-san’s warning aside, Dōgen’s writing, while certainly poetic, can take on a rough, nonparallel, stop-and-go quality that can be off-putting if carried forward too literally into English. As one reader said, “Dōgen reads like Browning, but you prefer Tennyson.” Yes, so I do. And so, if I paraphrase Dōgen at points, it is not just to emphasize my reading, but also to enjoy and amplify how much his Tennyson-side accomplishes through diction and rhythm and pace. The problem is, Dōgen reads like Browning and Tennyson. In English, it’s better to choose.
Over the years, I have lost touch with many of those who assisted me in this work. Still, I would like to thank Nobuhiro Onishi, Hiroki Tanaka, and Shohaku Okumura Roshi, while emphasizing that none of them is responsible for or would necessarily approve of this version or approach. It feels odd to put forward a translation that I could no longer undertake – such Japanese capability as I had in 2003-2004 has long since disappeared. But Genjōkōan burns with fresh heat.
This version is dedicated to Hiroki Tanaka – greetings from afar! – and to Shadi Hamid, whose recent writings on the place of religion in American culture have compelled me to consider my own starting point. Genjōkōan is where I start.
1A moment arrives when everything is dharma. At that point illusion and enlightenment both display it. Rigorous practice displays it. Life displays it. Death displays it. All the Buddhas display it—and all living things. 2But let even one moment be without self, and illusion and enlightenment vanish. Then there is no birth and no extinction. Then there are no Buddhas and no sentient beings. 3And right from that spot the Buddha Way begins, leaping free from the first of both empty and full. And with it come birth and death, illusion and awakening, beings and Buddhas. 4For all this, we still feel regret when favorite flowers fall; we still hate it when weeds take their place.
5Trying to understand this from the standpoint of “self” is delusion; discovering yourself in the flux of things around you—that is enlightenment. 7When Buddhas are truly Buddhas, they have no need to see themselves as such. 8Yet Buddhas they are and show themselves to be.
11To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. 12To study the self is to forget the self. 13To forget the self is to find yourself in the ten thousand things. 14Finding yourself in this way you let go of body-versus-mind: for yourself, for everyone. 15Enlightenment is forgotten, but hour-by-hour it is manifested through this forgetting.
9Taking in colors completely, having a sound fill you, body and soul: this is to meet intimately—far more than seeing yourself in a mirror or the moon on water. 10What you encounter you can realize. What you don’t remains in the dark.
33[Yet in a sense] a person winning enlightenment is like the moon reflected on water. 34The moon doesn’t get wet. The surface of the water is not torn. 35Although its light shines far and wide, the moon can come to rest upon a puddle. The whole moon and everything in the sky can dwell upon the dew in the grass, upon a single drop of water. 36The experience of awakening does not rend or tear a person any more than the moon makes a big splash, 37and a person presents no more obstacle to realization than a dewdrop presents to the sky and the moon. 38But the realization must be as deep as the moon is high. 39And as to whether that moment is slow or fast in coming, you must inspect each point of light in the ponds and flooded fields, you must fathom the wide and narrow of the moon and the sky.
50Fish pass through the oceans and never run out of water. Birds fly through the sky and do not find its end. 51Not since the beginning of the world have fish or birds separated themselves from the sky or ocean. 52When they have need, they make full use of their element. 53When they don’t, they don’t. 54These creatures use what is open to them and whether close or far, they rest or somersault as they please. But if a bird forsakes its element, it dies at once. If a fish strays from the water, it dies immediately. 55Understand that the sky means life. Understand completely that water is your life. 57And there is life through the bird and life through the fish. 57We only have air and water because of them. 58And there may be more than this: 59Think of their practice and all their experience. Think of all those lives of birds and fishes.
60This being so, if it reached the end of the water or completely penetrated the heavens, the bird or fish that achieved this could no longer follow the way of water, could no longer find a place in the sky. 61When you occupy your place, your continuous activity manifests the entire universe. 62When you traverse your way, that sustained activity is the realization of everything there is. 63This place, this way is neither great nor small. It does not arise from within or without. It has no past or present. It is just what is, being fully itself.
64And so this is how it is when through diligent practice you realize the Buddha Way: when you attain one dharma, you penetrate that dharma; when you take up a task, that task is your practice. 65And in this way we come to understand why the boundaries of the comprehensible are beyond what we can know from a given point. Even though this place is what it is, even though we push to comprehend the way completely, our desire to comprehend and our penetration of the Buddha Dharma are like brother monks who live and practice together. 66Do not imagine that to gain that place is to experience it as blazing personal conviction or certain conceptual knowledge. 67If you could completely realize at once everything there is to know, the intimate core might be lost. Indeed, how could it not be lost?
68Zen Master Hotetsu, of Hemp Springs Mountain, was fanning himself. A monk approached him and asked, “By nature, the wind is always circulating; there is nowhere it does not reach. Why then, sir, do you find reason to use a fan?” 69The Master replied, “Though you understand that the wind is always moving, you have not yet grasped how it reaches everywhere.” 70The monk asked, “What really, then, is the reason the wind reaches everywhere?” 71At this, the Master only continued to use his fan. 72The monk made a worshipful bow.
73The authentic realization of the Buddha Dharma, the true transmission of the living way: both are like that. 74If you say, “Do not use a fan!”, since the wind is always active, or “There is always this wind!”, even if you do not fan, then you neither know the wind nor understand how it circulates without ceasing. 75It is because the nature of wind is always to move that winds from the Buddha’s house bring forth the gold of the earth and fill its rivers with tangy milk.
–Written on the 15th day, 8th month, of the first year (1233) of the Tenpuku Era and presented to Lay Disciple Yo Kōshū of Chinzei.
–Put in final form [by Ejo ] in the fourth year (1252) of the Kenchō Era.
–Translation, Tom Barson, 2004 (rev. 2020).
[i] Ronald Eyre, Ronald Eyre on the Long Search (Cleveland: Collins, 1979), p.124.
[ii] Waddell, Norman and Masao Abe, The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, Albany: SUNY Press, 2002, p. 39. Many of the translations in this volume appeared some years before in the Eastern Buddhist.
[iii] The following translations were consulted in the course of my work, with the words in double quotes being the translators’ English rendering of Genjōkōan:
- Waddell and Abe, “Manifesting Suchness”, op. cit., pp.39-45. Still the gold standard.
- Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point”, in Kazuaki Tanahashi (ed.), The Moon in a Dewdrop (New York: North Point, 1985), pp.69-73.
- Hee-Jin Kim, “the Realization-kōan”, in Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness: Selections from Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1985), pp.51-60. You get Dōgen’s wildness in this version.
- Francis Cook and Taizan Maezumi, “The Way of Everyday Life”, in Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, On Zen Practice (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002), pp.133-138. This translation is identified as a revision of the Aitken Tanahashi translation.
- Francis H. Cook, “Manifesting Absolute Reality”, in Francis H. Cook, Sounds of Valley Streams (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), pp.65-69.
- Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, “The Realized Universe”, in Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (London: Windbell Publications: 1994), pp.33-37.
- Shohaku Okumura, “Actualization of Reality”, serialized in Dharma Eye: The Soto Zen Journal, 2000-2002. Dharma Eye was formerly available online at www.sotozen.net. Subsequent to my work, the Okumura translation was updated, with a commentary that many would regard as definitive, as Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010.