Translation of the Genjo Koan by Dogen
Over the years, I keep reading and rereading the Genjo Koan (written by Dogen in 1233). In translating it, I've found new meaning, nuance, and poetry in the text. If you're reading it for the first time, enjoy it and take it in. If you've read it before, I hope you find something new in my translation. May you be happy and free.
Genjo Koan (statement on becoming the present)
In this moment, the Buddhadharma (the law of awakening) is in all things, which is to say: there is delusion and realization; there is practice; there is birth and there is death; there are many buddhas (the awakened) and there are the masses of people.
In this moment, there is no self in all things: there is no delusion and there is no realization; there are no buddhas and there are no masses of people; there is no birth and there is no death.
Leaping free from the foundations of the Buddhist path and from abundance and absence: there is birth and death; there is delusion and realization; there are people and buddhas.
But even though this is how it is, flowers fall in attachment and weeds spread in aversion. It is just that.
To carry oneself and to comprehend all things is called delusion; that all things advance and selves are comprehended is realization.
Those who greatly realize delusion are the many buddhas, and those who have great delusion of realization are the masses of people.
Furthermore, there are men and women who have realization beyond realization, and there are men and women who in the midst of delusion are again deluded.
When the many buddhas are truly buddhas, there is no comprehension that they themselves are the many buddhas.
However they are realized buddhas, and they carry on realizing buddhas.
Perceiving forms with the entire body and mind and hearing sounds with the entire body and mind, one experiences them directly, unlike a reflection housed in a mirror.
Unlike the moon and water.
When one side is revealed, the other is dark.
To grow accustomed to the Buddhist path is to grow accustomed to the self.
To grow accustomed to the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be revealed by all things.
To be revealed by all things is to shed one's body and mind and the bodies and minds of others.
Traces of realization are lost, and the lost traces of realization endlessly go out.
People, when first seeking the path, are far far away from even the path's edges.
When the path has already been correctly transmitted, one quickly becomes a true person.
People, when riding in a boat and gazing at the shore, wrongly see the shore as moving.
But just as one knows a boat advances when keeping their eyes directly fixed on the boat, one wrongly believes their self and their nature are everlasting when trying to distinguish between all things with a confused body and mind.
If one follows the path directly and returns home to one's self, the truth that there is no self in all things becomes clear.
Firewood becomes ash, and it must never again become firewood.
However, do not perceive ash as after and firewood as before.
Know that firewood resides in the nature of firewood; there is before and there is after.
While it's said that there is before and after, before and after are separate.
Ash is in the nature of ash; there is after and there is before.
Just as firewood becomes ash and will never again become firewood, after people die, they are never born again.
However it cannot be said that birth becomes death; this is a long-settled rule in Buddhism.
Therefore it's called non-birth.
Death does not become birth; this is a long-settled Buddhist tenet.
Therefore it's called non-death.
Birth is an instantaneous state; and death too is an instantaneous state.
For example, it's like winter and spring.
It is not thought that winter becomes spring, and it's not said that spring becomes summer.
A person attaining realization is like the moon residing in water.
The moon doesn't get wet, and the water doesn't break.
While the light is great and spacious, the whole moon and the whole sky reside in a puddle an inch wide, or even in the dew on the grass, or even in a single drop of water.
Realization does not break a person, just as the moon does not pierce the water.
And a person does not hinder realization, just as a drop of dew does not hinder the sky or the moon.
Its depth must be its height.
In this long or short moment, know the width or narrowness of the sky and moon by the greatness of the water or the smallness of the water.
Not having followed the Dharma (the path, the law) completely with one's body and mind, one thinks the Dharma is already enough.
If the Dharma completely fills one's body and mind, a person recalls that it's not enough.
For example when riding on a boat in the middle of the mountainless ocean and looking in the four directions, it looks perfectly round, taking on no other shape.
However this great ocean is neither round nor square; the ocean's merits are endless and cannot be used up.
It's like a palace, like a jeweled necklace.
It's just that from where one looks out, it begins to take on a circular appearance.
All things are just this way.
In the midst of the dust and what's beyond, one only sees and comprehends the conditions (the state of things) that he or she is able to grasp with the strength of his or her practice, studies, and insights.
To know the nature (the home wind) of all things, one must know the world (in all four directions), not just whether things appear square or round, and not just the many and endless merits of the ocean and mountains.
It is not just what's surrounding oneself; one must know what's directly beneath oneself and what's in a single drop of water.
A fish swims in the water, and no matter where it swims, there is no end to the water; a bird flies in the sky, and no matter where it flies, there is no end to the sky.
However, from long ago until now, the fish and the bird do not leave the water or the sky.
It's just that when the task is great, the use is great.
When the need is small, the use is small.
And just like that it can be said that each one covers its entire realm and that every single spot is tread upon; if the bird leaves the sky, it immediately dies.
If the fish leaves the water, it immediately dies.
One must know that from the water there is life, and one must know that from the sky there is life.
From the bird there is life, and from the fish there is life.
From life there must be the bird, and from life there must be the fish.
There is even more progress beyond this.
One's life and days, practice, revelation, they are all like this.
However, if after reaching the end of the water or the end of the sky, the bird or fish tries to move further, no further road nor place arises in the water or in the sky.
If one reaches this place, one follows this path; this is the Genjo Koan (statement on becoming the present).
If one reaches this road, one follows this path; this is the Genjo Koan.
This road, this place, it's neither great nor small; it's neither self nor other; it does not come from the past; it is not arising in the present; it is just like this.
While things are like this, if a person practices and reveals the Buddhist path, attaining the path is surpassing the path, and reaching a step is practicing the step.
The place is in this: as one grows proficient on the road, knowledge progresses and knowledge halts; and as one masters the Buddhist path, this knowledge simultaneously arises and passes away.
What is attained and lost is certainly unknown and unconsidered by one's self.
While it's said that the proof immediately becomes present (genjo), the secret certainly does not become present (genjo); this much for sure is seen.
Zen master Hotetsu of Mt. Mayoku was using a fan.
A passing monk came up and said, “The nature of wind is permanent, with neither source nor perimeter. What are you carrying? Teacher, why do you use a fan?”
The master said, “While you know that the nature of wind is permanent, you don't yet know the meaning of ‘there is no place it does not reach.'”
When the monk said, “Well then, what is the meaning of ‘without source, perimeter, or base'?” the master just kept using the fan.
僧、礼拝す。 The monk bowed.
The proof of the Buddhist path and the correctly transmitted way of life are like this.
Saying, “If the nature of the wind is permanent, you shouldn't use a fan, or without one, you can still feel the wind,” is to misunderstand permanence and to misunderstand the nature of the wind.
Because the nature of the wind is permanent, Buddhists' wind brings forth (causes to become present, genjo) gold from the wide earth and milk from the long river.
The true teaching (correct path) revealed, Genjo Koan, number one
This was written in mid autumn of the first year of Tenpuku (1233) and given to my student You Koushuu of Kyuushuu (Chin-zei).
Revised in the year of the water rat during Kenchou (1252)
The Genjo Koan has been translated many times by many people in many languages.
I'm no expert on Japanese (modern or ancient), translation, poetry, Buddhism, Dogen, the Genjo Koan, or anything really. All I've got is my little bit of experience, so looking out from my vantage point, everything appears rather round.
I recently read 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger on the recommendation of a friend and was influenced by the idea that translators are often overly keen to introduce their own phrases and interpretations, changing texts liberally. Weinberger suggests that the best translators know that the original author could have written anything, even the alterations you're considering, and they didn't. They wrote what they wrote. And they meant what they meant, which of course we'll never truly know. Yet we try.
As such, I went for a more literal translation and tried to preserve word order and the variations in sentence structure where I could.
A couple early examples:
- Sentence 1: "すなはち迷悟あり" (sunawachi meigo ari) = "which is to say: there is delusion and realization"
- Sentence 2: "まどひなくさとりなく" (madohi naku satori naku) = "there is no delusion and there is no realization"
- Sentence 2: "生なく滅なし" (shō naku metsu nashi) = "there is no birth and there is no death"
- Sentence 3: "生滅あり" (shōmetsu ari) = "there is birth and death"
I also tried to keep the poetic/visual imagery (e.g. "the home wind") where I could and indicate when Dogen used the titular phrase 現成 (genjō). I inevitably had to leave out or just plain missed some bits, meanings, and wordplay.
I was primarily working off of Kazuaki Tanahashi's English translation for the San Francisco Zen Center, Nishijima's English translation, and these two translations to modern Japanese: one by Sougen Yoshikawa and the other by Hakuun Yasutani.
A few words were particularly difficult to translate:
- 現成 (genjō) – The characters mean "present" and "become," so "becoming the present" feels right to me. I think it captures both an intention of meditation, i.e. returning to the present, and an inevitable truth of nature, i.e. the present moment is all there is. "Just this is it," as they say. However, probably the most popular English translation is "actualizing the fundamental point".
- 時節 (jiseki) – The characters mean "time" and "season," but I went with "this moment."
- 諸法 (shohō) – I'm translating this as "all things" as is commonly done. The first character means "various" and shows up in 諸仏 ("many buddhas"). The second character means "law" or "dharma" or "way" or "path" or "thing" etc. etc. 法 is quite the word to translate and I translate it differently in various places.
- 万法 (manpō) – This means 10,000 things, but once again I'm going with "all things." 万 was/is often used to mean endless, e.g. 万歳 (10,000 years! banzai! may you have eternal life!). Dogen frequently uses slight variations in words and Kanji to describe the same thing (or to capture multiple meanings), which creates rhythm and variety in the text. I tried to use different English synonyms when I could to reflect this, but sometimes (as in this case) I used the same English translation for different Japanese words.
- 行李 (anri) – This word shows up in critical passages (although all passages are pretty critical...) and was especially difficult for me to translate. I went with "follow the path." I've seen "practice" or "action" or "carrying on each day" and other translations. There are more explicit ways to say the path, e.g. 仏道 or 法, but I felt that "follow the path" captured the spirit of Dogen's words. The characters mean "go" and "plum tree" and one meaning of 行李 (kōri) is "wicker luggage." Maybe this represents what we carry with us as we move through life?
- There were many others, but you gotta call it quits somewhere ;)
In the past, I've also read Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries, which is a fantastic resource on the Genjo Koan, highlighting various translations over time. I can't recommend it enough if you're interested in going deeper.