Unlocking the Meaning of Genjo Koan
Genjo Koan is a key writing in Zen Buddhism and Japanese literature in general. Ten years ago, I wrote an article on the challenges of translating this text to accurately convey its meaning to modern readers. Now, I come back to it to solve two mysteries that eluded me.
Genjo Koan (Genjōkōan) is one of the essays in Shōbōgenzō, written by Eihei Dōgen. Dōgen’s writings are notoriously difficult to translate. Japanese, like all languages, has changed a lot since the 13th century. To complicate matters more, Dōgen often stretches the language to its limits and intertwines Chinese characters and quotations in his writing.
An often overlooked feature of translating is this: languages are ambiguous, and the translator needs to know what the author meant in order to correctly translate it. This sounds exaggerated but the reason most translations are straightforward is that the original meaning is typically not in doubt.
When the original can be interpreted in several ways, the translation usually cannot preserve the same range of meanings. If the translator cannot discern which meaning the author intended, the translation will have its own, different range of ambiguity which can accidentally eliminate the correct meaning if they do not overlap.
What Dōgen wrote seems lost in translations.
This inherent linguistic ambiguity can be compounded by obscurity as language changes over time. Shakespeare wrote his plays much closer to our present day, and yet, reading them is not trivial even in the same language.
For these reasons, translations of Dōgen’s writings can easily obfuscate what he was trying to say. This article looks at the opening four sentences of his arguably most important essay, the Genjo Koan.
The Key Four Sentences
Around the time I first wrote my article, the same sentences were also analyzed by Hoyu Ishida in his paper Genjôkôan: Some Literary and Interpretative Problems of Its Translation. Why has this opening attracted so much attention? In Ishida’s words: “Since Dōgen generally has the tendency of presenting the main message in the very beginning of each essay, the opening of Genjōkōan is very important to understand the whole work.”
Even though many translations of this essay exist, many accidentally fall prey to the challenges mentioned above and end up obfuscating, rather than illuminating, the meaning of the original text.
Many English translations of the opening paragraph are similar to this one:
 As all things are buddha-dharma, there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings.
 As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.
 The buddha way, in essence, is leaping clear of abundance and lack; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.
 Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
(Aitken, Tanahashi, et al.)
In this translation, Dōgen seem to says that because “all things are buddha-dharma” (which is unclear to begin with), certain things (delusion, realization, life, death…) exist; then he say that because of a different perspective, those things do not exist; and then he turns around and says that because of Buddha’s way, these same things do exist.
It wasn’t until I read a translation and analysis of the text by Bob Myers that I started to suspect that many translators failed to convey something potentially important in their translations. Here is the same section as translated by Myers:
 Viewing various things as Buddhistic things, then we have wisdom and we have practice, we have life and we have death, we have buddhas and we have sentient beings.
 Stripping all things of their essence, we have no delusion and no satori, we have no buddhas and no sentient beings, we have no beginnings and no endings.
 The way of the buddha inherently soars above such extravagance and austerity, uniting beginning and ending, uniting delusion and satori, uniting sentient being and buddha.
 It is falling blossoms uniting love and sorrow, spreading weeds uniting indifference and dislike, nothing more.
There are many differences here but let me point out those that led me to do my own investigation: Myers strictly differentiates the statements in the first two sentences (six things, in pairs) from the third sentence which combines these into three statements. Clearly, Myers’s third sentence is not simply restating the first sentence. The words “soars above such extravagance and lack” reinforce that what follows is superior to what came before.
Even though Ishida was not aware of Myers translation and comments, he supports the same distinction Myers made. Ishida’s translation of the third sentence is as follows: “Since the Buddha Way originally transcends the idea of many or few, there are birth-extinction, delusion-enlightenment, and sentient beings-buddhas.”
Myers also points out that the fourth sentence about flowers and weeds uses the same two-character compound structure employed in the third statement. He speculates that Dōgen specifically used these to illustrate how this synthesis of two terms works, and translated this accordingly as “falling blossoms uniting love and sorrow, spreading weeds uniting indifference and dislike.”
A Search for Meaning
Ten years ago, this compelled me to turn to the original text to see if I could confirm which translation and interpretation might be correct. Today, I am also trying to answer some questions which I overlooked back then.
Even the first few words show why translating Genjo Koan is a challenge. Translations that begin with “As all things are buddha-dharma” (Tanahashi et al.) sound very esoteric even though the original text is less obscure than it this would lead you to believe.
First, the translation should not open with “As” or “Because” but rather with “When.” The Japanese compound means ‘occasion’ or a period of time, literally ‘season’ (時節, time-period). ‘While all things…’ could also be a good translation also but it could be misread as not applying to a time period.
Second, “are” is not a suitable translation for naru (なる) here. Even though the vast majority of translations simply use “are,” Myers explains that “this term … encompasses a series of meanings ranging from ‘to be’ to ‘to become,’ including nuances such as ‘to be formed into.’ ” His view is supported by Nishijima and Cross, as well as the context.
For people unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, the ‘buddha-dharma (literally ‘buddha things’ ) means Buddhistic teachings. In this context, it introduces the Buddhistic concepts in the rest of the sentence. For these reasons, my preferred translation would be: “During the time when various things are seen as Buddhistic concepts…”
Restating or Synthesis?
Many translations either avoid repetition in the first two sentences by using phrases such as “there is X, Y, and Z” or they group similar concepts using “there is X and Y.” The unfortunate consequence is that the structure of the first three sentences in English may end up similar to each other, and quite different from the structure in Japanese.
Looking at the interlinear translation below, the first sentence has six concepts introduced by six “there is” phrases; the second sentence negates six concepts with six “no” phrases, and the third sentence has only three “there is” phrases with two-character compounds. This warrants the explicit emphasis Myers put on this feature in his translation (using “[uniting] beginning and ending” etc.).
Reading the third line as a synthesis of the first two lines — rather than a repetition of the first line — is also supported by Dōgen’s preamble of leaping over (or transcending) the ‘abundance’ and ‘lack,’ which refer back, according to Myers, to the two world views expressed in the first two sentences.
The First Mystery
The reality is a bit trickier. Looking at the interlinear translation, it is easy to see that the first sentence has ‘delusion realization’ (迷悟) as one of the six concepts. The second sentence negates these separately, as two concepts, using Japanese words ‘confusion’ (まどひ) and ‘understanding’ (さとり). And then in the third sentence, the same compound reappears as ‘delusion realization’ (迷悟) as one of the three combined concepts.¹
What happened to ‘practice’ which was implicitly paired with ‘delusion-realization’ in the first sentence? (The other pairs being birth and death and enlightened and ordinary beings.) And how can the presence of this compound in the first sentence be reconciled with the synthesis idea?
A Simple Continuation
The fourth sentence is notoriously difficult to translate — and in most translations — it is disconnected from what came before by starting with “Yet.” I am now convinced that it is more than an observation or an illustration of the synthetical quality of the compounds. Linguistically, it directly continues with the contrasting of concepts from the preceding statements and takes it into our everyday world.
Flowers and weeds elicit opposing feelings, but are they that different?
First, the flowers and weeds: Both are plants, but some are viewed with longing, others with aversion. When read on a page, the similarity between the two is striking: 華 and 草.
The contrasts extend to the action — the flowers wither, the weeds grow — and to the feelings associated with them.
‘Longing’ is the translation of the compound ‘love pity’ (愛惜). It has a quality of not wanting to part with something. But the way Dōgen uses ‘aversion’ is more complicated: while ‘discard dislike’ (棄嫌, ki-ken) does not exist in Japanese as a compound, when reversed (嫌棄) we get the Chinese word for ‘aversion’ which — when read in Japanese (ken-ki) — has the same meaning.²
Looking also at the individual characters, we see that ‘love’ and ‘dislike’ are clear opposites. ‘Pity’ (惜) is made of a semantic component ‘heart’ (忄semantic) and a phonetic component ‘past’ (昔). In contrast, ‘discard’ (棄) is an ideogram of a child, basket, and two hands (‘throwing out a child in a basket’). It has a meaning of rejecting and abandoning.
The contrast of the two compounds — longing and aversion — also exists between their individual characters: love and dislike and pitying and rejecting. Just like with the flowers and weeds, the difference between these feelings turn out to be quite subtle, namely in the direction of the emotion.
The Second Mystery
This seems compelling but why would Dōgen pair ‘longing’ (愛惜) with the unfamiliar 棄嫌 (ki-ken, ‘discard dislike’) rather than with the normal order for ‘aversion’ 嫌棄 (ken-ki)? Is this a mistake in the text, or is this a mistaken argument?
Unlocking the Meaning
I believe Dōgen started with ‘delusion-realization’ (迷悟) in the first sentence because it was a familiar concept. In Mahayana tradition, delusion and realization (enlightenment) are considered to be two sides of the same thing. He did it to plant a seed of a familiar idea.
He first showed how in formal Buddhist teachings, there are all these concepts. Then how they are indistinguishable when stripped of their essence, and then extended the view where the synthesis is applied not just to delusion-realization but also to beginnings and endings and enlightened and ordinary beings.
He most definitely did not accidentally lose the concept of practice along his opening argument. In fact, the whole essay builds up to make a point that ‘delusion-realization’ is completely inseparable from ‘practice.’
Flowers, withering, longing, love, and pity. These are all opposites of weeds, growing, aversion, dislike, and rejection. But they are very much manifestations of the same things, each just on the opposite side of the same coin. By talking about flowers and weeds and the feelings of attraction and repulsion, Dōgen brings the idea of non-duality into a world we experience and understand.
Because he was trying to make a point about two concepts being one, I suspect Dōgen used ki-ken instead of ken-ki on purpose when contrasting longing with aversion in order to jolt his audience out of superficial reading. Not unlike when you read about camping and encounter the word pitfire. It can help us see what is behind the words.
The Importance of Translations
Aren’t the differences in translation very subtle or purely linguistic? I believe not. Translating 13th-century writings of Dōgen from Japanese is important both for its literary significance and for the spiritual and philosophical value it has for many people. Whether you care about the literary or spiritual aspect, both can be fully appreciated and understood only through accurate translations.
Based on my research and comparisons, my recommendation for reading Shōbōgenzō in English is to cross-reference at least two translations. The four volumes of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo by Nishijima and Cross might be the most accurate translations available. For the four key essays, I recommend the First Dogen Book by Bob Myers on the strength of the in-depth comments and some unorthodox counterviews. For a more interpretative rendition, you can also consult Hubert Nearman’s The Shobogenzo.
I created my own interlinear translation of the opening paragraph in February 2011 independently from the one given by Ishida in his December 2010 paper. The following version is updated and partially draws on Ishida’s work.
⠀諸 ⠀⠀ 法 ⠀ の⠀⠀ 佛⠀⠀⠀法⠀⠀ ⠀ なる ⠀⠀⠀ 時 ⠀ 節、⠀ すなはち
many things⠀⠀buddha things ⠀become⠀ time period, ⠀ ‘that is’
⠀ ⠀迷⠀⠀⠀⠀悟⠀⠀⠀⠀あり、 ⠀修⠀⠀⠀行 ⠀ あり、 生⠀ あり、 死⠀⠀あり、
delusion realization ⠀is,⠀ practice action⠀ is,⠀⠀life⠀⠀is, ⠀ death⠀⠀is,
⠀⠀諸⠀⠀ 佛⠀⠀⠀あり、⠀衆 ⠀生 ⠀ あり、
many buddhas ⠀ are,⠀ mass life ⠀ is.
During the time when³ various things are seen as Buddhistic concepts,⁴ there is delusion-realization,⁵ there is practice, there is life,⁶ there is death, there are enlightened beings, there are ordinary beings.⁷
⠀⠀万⠀⠀ 法⠀⠀⠀⠀とも⠀に⠀われ⠀に⠀ あらざる⠀⠀⠀時⠀⠀節、
myriad things⠀ together ⠀⠀self⠀ ⠀⠀⠀if it is not⠀⠀time period,
⠀まどひ ⠀ なく、⠀ さとり⠀⠀⠀⠀なく、
confusion⠀ no,⠀ understanding⠀ no,
⠀諸⠀⠀⠀ 佛 ⠀⠀ なく、⠀衆⠀ 生 ⠀ なく、⠀生⠀ なく、 ⠀滅⠀⠀⠀なし。
many buddhas⠀ no, ⠀ mass life⠀ no,⠀⠀ ⠀life⠀ no, ⠀perishing⠀ no.
During the time when all things are stripped of their selves,⁸ there is no confusion, no understanding,⁹ no enlightened beings, no ordinary beings, no birth, no perishing.¹⁰
⠀ 佛⠀⠀⠀道⠀⠀⠀もとより ⠀⠀⠀⠀ 豐 ⠀⠀⠀ 儉 ⠀⠀ より⠀⠀跳⠀⠀⠀出⠀⠀⠀せる
buddha way⠀ ‘from origin’⠀ abundant frugal⠀ from⠀ leap⠀ above⠀ does
ゆゑに、 ⠀ 生 ⠀ 滅 ⠀⠀⠀あり、⠀ 迷 ⠀⠀⠀⠀ 悟⠀⠀⠀ あり、⠀生⠀⠀佛⠀⠀あり。
therefore⠀ life perishing⠀ is,⠀delusion realization⠀is, ⠀⠀ life buddha⠀ is.
The path of Buddha naturally leaps above this abundance and lack, so there is birth-perishing, there is delusion-realization, there are ordinary-enlightened beings.
⠀ しかも ⠀⠀⠀かく⠀の⠀ごとく⠀⠀なり⠀ と⠀ いへども、
nevertheless⠀ thus⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀like⠀⠀⠀ are⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀although
⠀ 華 ⠀は⠀ 愛 ⠀惜⠀に⠀ちり、⠀草⠀は ⠀ 棄 ⠀⠀ 嫌⠀に⠀おふる⠀のみ ⠀なり。
flower⠀⠀ love pity⠀⠀⠀ fall, ⠀ grass⠀ discard dislike⠀⠀ grow ⠀ only⠀⠀be.
Although it can be said that it is this way, it is merely the flowers withering in longing,¹¹ the weeds spreading in aversion.¹²
- When Myers translates the first occurrence as “wisdom,” it makes the English progression a little tidier than the original text. But he calls this out in a comment, and his translation is almost the only one which does not lose the distinction between Dōgen’s use of Japanese synonyms in the second sentence.
- In Japanese, ken-ki would be however written using a different compound (嫌忌).
- ‘During the time when,’ literally ‘season’ (時節, ‘time period’), emphasizes the original text puts more emphasis on this as a period.
- Buddhistic teachings, buddha-dharma, literally ‘buddha things’ (佛法).
- ‘Delusion-realization’ (迷悟). In Mahayana tradition, delusion and realization (enlightenment) are considered to be two sides of the same thing.
- ‘Life’ (生) has a range of meanings including ‘living,’ ‘life,’ ‘birth,’ and ‘arising.’
- ‘Enlightened beings’ and ‘ordinary beings’ are used to translate ‘buddhas’ (諸佛) and ‘sentient beings’ (衆生), literally ‘masses of the living.’
- ‘Selves’ was used as a literal translation because the later part of Genjo Koan speaks about the existence and permanence of a self.
- ‘Confusion’ and ‘understanding’ are translations of Japanese words which are different from the Chinese characters for ‘delusion’ and ‘realization’ used in other sentences.
- ‘Perishing’ (滅, die, extinguish) is used to differentiate this word from ‘death’ in the first sentence. Pairing 生 (life/birth) with 滅 (perishing) suggests a beginning and an ending, so 生 was translated as ‘birth’ here.
- The compound 愛惜 (‘love pity’) means ‘longing,’ ‘missing’ or not wanting to part.
- While 棄嫌 (ki-ken, ‘discard’ and ‘dislike’) does not exist in Japanese as a compound, when reversed (嫌棄) we get the Chinese word for ‘aversion’ which — when read in Japanese (ken-ki) — has the same meaning.