Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries

The fine folks at Counterpoint Press sent me a copy of Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries for my review. So here goes.

First off, the by-line on this thing is a doozy. Here’s what it says under the title:

Translations and
Commentaries by
Nishiari Bokusan,
Shohaku Okamura,
Shunryu Suzuki,
Kosho Uchiyama,
Sojun Mel Weitsman.
Kazuaki Tanahashi, and
Dairyu Michael Wenger


You always know the extent to which a movie is going to be a piece of garbage by the number of names in the writing credits. One writer can make a good movie with a specific point of view and something interesting to say. When movies are written by committee the committee always succeeds in removing anything worthwhile about the story and replacing it with whatever they’ve agreed on will appeal to, as well as avoid offending, the greatest number of people.

This book is the product of a large Zen institution. I almost wrote that it was the product of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC). But the inclusion of material by Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okamura widens things even further. Uchiyama and Okamura stem from the same root lineage as the folks at SFZC*, but do not belong to that institution itself. Because of its association with a big institution I was a little worried whether I’d be able to give this book a good review.

My problem with a lot of the stuff that comes out of SFZC these days is that it tends to be watered down. This was the trouble with their edition of Dogen’s Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo). It’s not that it’s a bad translation. In fact it’s one of the best around. But it’s also a translation by committee. That committee sat together and worried about a lot of fairly ridiculous “problems” with the text such as whether or not the phrase usually rendered as “kingly bodhi tree” might be considered sexist. Which is the sort of thing you’d expect a bunch of uptight middle class liberals from San Francisco to wring their hands about. Thus in a number of areas of the text, rather than giving you what Dogen actually said, they give you what a bunch of uptight middle class liberals from San Francisco are comfortable with him saying. Fortunately they generally restrict themselves to fairly innocuous changes like making “kingly bodhi tree” into “royal bodhi tree,” which I admit is pretty much the same thing. But still, the flavor of their translation is Rice-a-Roni (the San Francisco treat) rather than the kind of plain boiled rice Dogen would have served you.

Anyway, that’s not what’s going on with Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. So just forget I said any of that stuff. The reason there are so many authors in this book is because it is a compilation of three commentaries, each of which has two or three authors or editors attached. The first is by Nishiari Bokusan, who was the teacher of Shunryu Suzuki’s teacher Kishizawa Ian. This is translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Mel Weitsman. Tanahashi is Japanese and speaks English but is not an ordained Zen teacher. Weitsman is American and does not speak Japanese but is an ordained Zen teacher. So one can guess that Tanahashi is responsible for the actual translation into English while Weitsman made it sound more Zen and that the two of them hashed out the translation to make sure the final piece was true to the original. Though I can’t help wondering if they also removed any offending sexism or suchlike in the process.

The second commentary is attributed to Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and the first abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. But Suzuki himself never prepared any commentary on Genjo Koan as such, at least not for publication. He did, however, give a number of lectures on Genjo Koan over a period of six years. So Michael Wenger and Mel Weitsman went through those lectures with the assistance of Jeffrey Schneider and stitched together a Frankenstein monster commentary that reads as if it were a single piece. They did a good job. It’s very hard to spot where the sutures and the bolts in the neck are in this version. But, again, I can’t help wondering what Suzuki himself would have made of it. I’ve heard that while he was happy with Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, which was put together in a similar fashion, he thought it was more what his students heard him say than what he actually said. I’d guess he’d feel the same way about this piece.

The final commentary is the purest. It was prepared as a single piece by Kosho Uchiyama and then translated by Shohaku Okamura. Okamura was not only a direct student of Uchiyama but is a Japanese Zen monk whose English is at such a high level that he didn’t need help in preparing a readable translation. I suppose he had an editor, just like any English speaking author would. But this is still Okamura’s own vision of the piece. So even though Uchiyama himself didn’t approve it, we can be pretty sure this is very close to how he would have said things if he’d been able to speak English.

That being said, I find Suzuki’s portion to be the most readable and easy to understand, while Bokusan’s runs a close second. Unfortunately Uchiyama’s commentary comes off a little too stilted and scholarly for my taste. This doesn’t seem to be Okamura’s fault since Okamura’s sketch of Uchiyama’s life, which precedes the commentary, is highly readable and very warm.

Although Uchiyama’s commentary is the most scholarly-sounding of the three, none of these are really scholarly commentaries. A scholarly commentary on Genjo Koan would tell you about Dogen’s life, about what was going on in Japan at the time, about Dogen’s use of language, about the background of the various quotations he uses, and so on. In this book you get just enough of that stuff to follow along. These are commentaries by Zen practitioners whose main intent was to help other Zen practitioners deal with their practice.

In that, I feel these are very useful for those of us who practice Zen in the West today. Granted all three commentaries are by older Japanese men. But none of these commentaries are so ancient that they feel removed and distant from us the way a really old commentary might. The earliest of the three is Nishiari’s, which dates from the early twentieth century. The most recent is Uchiyama’s, which dates from the 1970s. They are all, therefore, modern looks at the 800 year old Genjo Koan. Contemporary life even intrudes into the commentaries themselves when Shunryu Suzuki refers to the traffic noises outside the hall in Northern California where he delivered his talks and relates this directly to what Dogen was writing about hundreds of years before cars were invented.

Some might feel this makes the commentaries less valuable since they are so far removed from Dogen’s time. One could complain that people so distant from the author’s own era can’t possibly know what he was talking about. But I don’t feel that’s the case. It’s more important that all three of the commentaries are by practitioners. What’s more, like us, these practitioners have to deal with the kinds of things Dogen never had to deal with.

It’s funny to me when people act like we, today in the West, have so much more trouble practicing Zen than the folks in Asia hundreds of years ago. In spite of traffic noises and blaring boomboxes, we really have it a lot easier than people in Dogen’s time did. They had to deal with wars and famines and political uprisings the likes of which are seldom encountered by any of us these days. The distractions we have to deal with are, admittedly, a lot more attractive and easily available than those of Dogen’s time. But our excuse for not practicing is because there are so many more websites to look at and besides there’s a guy upstairs practicing Jimi Hendrix licks, rather than because we’re about to starve to death since the rice crop failed and the Mongols are burning down the village. It’s really no contest. We’ve got it very cushy by comparison.

The commentaries in this book are by people who understand the unique nature of the distractions to practice contemporary people face. Though they may not be as hip and pop culture savvy as the trash I put out, they’re very useful to anyone serious about pursuing Zen practice in our time.

*Some people in the comments section insist that this is wrong. However, Michael Wenger says the following in his introduction, “(Nishiari Bokusan’s) commentary is the first in this collection. In fact, all of the other commentaries in this volume are in his lineage.” Until I find further clarification I’ll take Michael Wenger’s word on the matter.


Don’t forget, if you want to practice some Zen, beginning Sunday January 15th 2012 I will be hosting Zazen every Sunday night at 7 pm at the Akron Shambhala Meditation Center. Maybe I’ll even give you my take on Genjo Koan. The address is:

133 Portage Trail Ste. 202
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

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135 Responses

Page 3 of 3
  1. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 14, 2012 at 11:23 pm |

    Ok, anon#108, I scratched out some graffiti on the ZFI wall, here. Just to keep you company!

  2. anon #108
    anon #108 January 15, 2012 at 2:55 am |

    My instinctive response is to say "Thank you, Mark"…for keeping me company. I often feel like a lone voice at ZFI – I guess most people do.

    But it's Brad who should be thanking us. After all, there's no such thing as bad publicity; the more fuss about BW, the more moolah and nookie for our Dear Leader, right?

  3. proulx michel
    proulx michel January 15, 2012 at 4:58 am |

    Anon #108 wrote

    the more fuss about BW, the more moolah and nookie for our Dear Leader, right?

    Indeed, especially with those who have nothing but bad things to say about Him. "Parlez de moi en mal, parlez de moi en bien, mais parlez de moi!"

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 15, 2012 at 5:07 am |

    votre mère parle de moi!

  5. anon #108
    anon #108 January 15, 2012 at 7:16 am |

    There's not much of me on the net, but here's an old curio I just came across (me on bass, in my folk-rock period):;=related

    It's from a BBC show called "A Little Night Music," recorded in '81 . I'm trying to find out where the rest of it is.

    I am dancing…in my head. Honest.

  6. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles January 15, 2012 at 7:32 am |

    Great clip, Malcolm! You're looking sharp! &I; love the occasional guitar riffing in the midst of the traditional march. Swingin'& surreal! A true time-capsule, thanks.

  7. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles January 15, 2012 at 7:37 am |

    (P.S. I was listening intently to this -and its ilk, Circle Jerks et al in 1981:

    …just to place things in context, I wouldn't have known what to make of your group at all!)

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 15, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 15, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  10. anon #108
    anon #108 January 15, 2012 at 7:54 am |

    Thanks, John. That's Graeme Taylor (we left Gryphon at the same time, to go a rock-n-rollin) doing them inappropriate things on guitar.

    Strange days (aren't they all?), the early 80s. I'd just exited the punk thing, which did excite me for a while, and found myself with these guys. I liked a lot of things about the band, but not so much other things…I left. I left lots of things :/


    Thanks, 7.43am – delightful.

    And 7.44am – Oh yeah. I'd forgotten about that.

  11. Mumon
    Mumon January 15, 2012 at 8:05 am |


    I'm intrigued to try to learn archaic Japanese…but probably brushing up on my ??? is a bit more useful…

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 15, 2012 at 10:51 am |

    Anon108, so simple, and yet Brad stands to get laid and wealthy; why didn't Brad think of that!

    I really enjoyed the march, and the sight of the guys in the 80's.

    I went to a Dead Kennedys show down below the Mabuhay somewhere in the 80's, and thought they couldn't keep a beat to save their necks, which was probably true at least of that particular performance. Crowd was into it, though.

    My favorite band at the time was S.V.T., the band Jack Cassady of the Airplane put together out of a young L.A. group, featuring Brian Marnell on lead and Jack himself on bass.

  13. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles January 15, 2012 at 11:04 am |

    I contributed some graphics, and many keyboard parts to a German band called Doc Wor Mirran back then abouts, appearing alongside Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) on a few lps, like FOR SERPENTINE I AM, info here:

    He seemed to be able to keep a beat by then as I recall…

  14. Mysterion
    Mysterion January 15, 2012 at 1:18 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Mysterion
    Mysterion January 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. anon #108
    anon #108 January 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm |

    Mark – I totally LUV Jack Casady's bass playing with JA (and, while we're in CA, Phil Lesh was an obsession of mine for a long time) but I confess I don't know anything about SVT. Thanks for the heads up.

  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 15, 2012 at 5:56 pm |

    Something from "Tao Bums", for the hardcore skeleton crew:


    He who rules men lives in confusion;
    He who is ruled by men lives in sorrow.
    Yao therefore desired
    Neither to influence others
    Nor to be influenced by them.
    The way to get clear of confusion
    And free of sorrow
    Is to live with Tao
    In the land of the great Void.

    If a man is crossing a river
    And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
    Even though he be a bad-tempered man
    He will not become very angry.
    But if he sees a man in the boat,
    He will shout at him to steer clear.
    If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
    And yet again, and begin cursing.
    And all because there is somebody in the boat.
    Yet if the boat were empty.
    He would not be shouting, and not angry.

    If you can empty your own boat
    Crossing the river of the world,
    No one will oppose you,
    No one will seek to harm you.

    The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
    The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
    If you wish to improve your wisdom
    And shame the ignorant,
    To cultivate your character
    And outshine others;
    A light will shine around you
    As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
    You will not avoid calamity.

    A wise man has said:
    "He who is content with himself
    Has done a worthless work.
    Achievement is the beginning of failure.
    Fame is beginning of disgrace."

    Who can free himself from achievement
    And from fame, descend and be lost
    Amid the masses of men?
    He will flow like Tao, unseen,
    He will go about like Life itself
    With no name and no home.
    Simple is he, without distinction.
    To all appearances he is a fool.
    His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
    He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
    Since he judges no one
    No one judges him.
    Such is the perfect man:
    His boat is empty.

    – Zhuang Zi –

    Yup, Taoism, or at least Chinese wisdom (at its finest, in my opinion).

  18. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner January 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |

    Malcom, you play bass with a pick!!!

  19. Batmonkey
    Batmonkey January 15, 2012 at 8:35 pm |

    @Shaman Willie said…

    Actually, I was referring to when Dogen floated up into the sky on a giant lotus when "mind and body fall away, fall away, fall away" at about 22:00 minutes. I hope that isn't a spoiler for anyone who hasn't watched it yet.

    Dogen got enlightened? Man, you really did spoil that one for the rest of us…

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm |

    the illustrations and movies included in the posts on this blog are simply fantastic!

  21. anon #108
    anon #108 January 16, 2012 at 2:57 am |

    I used to play with a pick all the time, Brad. My earliest influences were all pickers – Chris Squire, Lesh, Rick Danko, Macca. Mainly fingers these days, but I've grown the nails on those two fingers so there's a bit of a click with the boom. Still use a pick for some things. Whatever feels and sounds right, I say!

  22. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2012 at 4:13 am |

    Every time i read some of your learned posts i'm simply dumbstruck by the level of knowledge (fourfold philosophy, old japanese etc).

    So i thank you for the opportunity to be less dumb.

    I have a problem with the big books, big sutras and big philosophical systems, are they so necessary in buddhism?

    Isn't all, at least Soto, just a "sit down and shut up" thing?

    Aren't people supposed to experience the real nature of their mind and not read a lot of words about it or about the nature of the world which should be a mere projection of our avidya?

    Now another question.

    Morality, as we understand it nowaday, doesn't come from exepriencing the true nature of our mind, it comes (in my opinion) from the 8 fold path, which is a way to clean ourselves while looking for the true nature of our mind.

    Morality also change with time and places, what is immoral now could have been normal in other times.

    I disagree with the lack of morality exposed by sycophants, mind manipulators and so on. I knew a couple myself.

  23. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2012 at 4:22 am |

    About kensho.

    You look very critic in relation to kensho, at least the "cinemascope, dolby stereo, 3D" version of it.

    I don't have your level of achievement, but how would you define what happened to Gautama Siddharta that dawn under the tree?

    That experience was the one that started all of it. Unless it is a fairy tale like the attributes of the "Enlightened one" as described here

  24. proulx michel
    proulx michel January 16, 2012 at 6:00 am |

    Boubi wrote:

    I don't have your level of achievement, but how would you define what happened to Gautama Siddharta that dawn under the tree?

    Sorry for answering in the place of Brad, but I merely think it was a "Gosh! SO, that was it!?!"

    Because all the masters have always insisted that what we're looking for was never hidden: it was always there under our nose.

  25. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2012 at 6:35 am |

    Thanks michel

    The translations i found were more or less "What a marvel!" seeing Venus rising. Do you have any translation to direct me?

    Of course it was always in front of us, where else? What changes is the look not the object.

  26. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2012 at 6:54 am |


    Now thinking about your answer, could it be that the method influences the way the result is achieved?

    Everybody is naturally fond of the way his/her school of meditation practice, and in my opinion everybody is right, because every school works.

    You know i heard a lot of bull about each and every traditional school, and they all work and all the bull was bull.

    Recently i was invited to a tibetan couple of days of speech and meditation.

    Bottom line i didn't find any difference with what the "evil Linchi crew" (to which i belonged) was teaching or the Soto people or the Theravadas.

  27. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner January 16, 2012 at 8:01 am |

    I don't have your level of achievement, but how would you define what happened to Gautama Siddharta that dawn under the tree?

    Michel is right I think.

    Also, why do we need to define it? It's impossible to do so. To the extent that such a thing can be defined, Gautama already did it when he spent some 40 years talking about it. What can I add to that?

  28. Linchi
    Linchi January 16, 2012 at 8:10 am |

    How about:

    "I don't know."

  29. Fred
    Fred January 16, 2012 at 8:21 am |

    There were Buddhas before Buddha.
    They didn't talk about it.

  30. Mysterion
    Mysterion January 16, 2012 at 8:45 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. Kenny
    Kenny January 16, 2012 at 8:58 am |

    Some did:

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 16, 2012 at 10:01 am |

    from the link on Zen funerals (thanks so much, Mysterion!):

    "What was really surprising was Hori's account of "informal side" of being a monk.

    Monks look forward to begging days since they have a chance to remove themselves from the watchful eye of the head monk. Sometimes they enjoy themselves so much that they come back slightly drunk. Late at night, after meditation, some of the monks may gather for a cigarette where the firewood is stacked. Pulling a piece of wood from the stack, one will reach in and pull out a bottle of whiskey. Suddenly everyone has a teacup in hand and little pieces of dried fish are passed around. In monastery language this is sarei, "tea ceremony."

    Other monks may climb over the wall to go to the local public bath and afterward enjoy a bowl of noodles. Some of the more adventurous ones may even head downtown to sing in the karioke bars, always mindful that wake-up is 3:30 or 4 A.M. Of course, in the monastery there will be one or two monks who are very fussy about keeping all the rules, and they will receive their share of good-natured kidding, perhaps even be dragged against their will on some outrageous escapade.

    Hori explains that "few people can live he entirely and completely in the abrasive world of strict discipline". In fact, he argues, "one might even argue that monks can practice with such discipline only because they play so hard on the shadow side."

    Hori explains that this aspect of monastery life has two purposes:

    1."In addition to allowing the monks time and space for rest and relaxation, the behind-the -scenes life of play teaches monks not to make a religion out of Zen practice, not to treat the monastery as something holy.

    2.While the formal life of monastery discipline often isolates a monk and tests his individual personal resources, the shadow life affirms that beyond distinctions of rank and office, all monks share common social bonds and a fundamental humanity."

    Both the formal and the informal life of the monastery are thought to be equally important in Zen practice." (Hori being G. Victor Sogen Hori)

    Isn't that interesting! Also the bit about giving the precepts to people after they've died, so they can have a Buddhist funeral; the lack of response, the perfect reply.

  33. boubi
    boubi January 16, 2012 at 11:53 am |

    Brad Warner said…

    I don't have your level of achievement, but how would you define what happened to Gautama Siddharta that dawn under the tree?

    Michel is right I think.

    Also, why do we need to define it? It's impossible to do so. To the extent that such a thing can be defined, Gautama already did it when he spent some 40 years talking about it. What can I add to that?

    thanks Brad

    You are right, but my meaning was: "was it a kensho?", and as such was it a "definitive" experience that changed his vision of the world?

    Beyond this, i really like and appreciate your approach to "this thing".

  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 18, 2012 at 6:30 am |

    How many people did zazen this morning?

    Post your minutes!

    Here's mine: 0

  35. kinpa
    kinpa January 28, 2012 at 4:39 am |

    I don't know if I should start with Okumura or with Nishiari Bokuzan.
    Shohaku Okamura is a Japanese Soto Zen priest and the founder and guiding teacher of the Sanshin Zen Community, which is an administrative office of the Soto school of Japan (formerly located in Los Angeles California).
    Okumura was ordained by his teacher Kosho Uchiyama, where he practiced until Uchiyama retired in 1975. He then traveled to the United States, where he continued Uchiyama's style off zazen practice.
    To find the true self, we practice sitting just sitting. So all things which come up in our mind are just passing away. Guiding the thoughts so we can focus on our posture and breath.
    Shikantaza is not easy anyone would say so, sometimes you are facing real difficulties,
    struggling with addictions, other people and of course yourself. You are trying to remove the nails out of your brain, to not let the monster look like yourself. But then herman is catching you again and you wish he would have some brain. Dogen probably never had to deel with, neighbours putting shit into their inboxes, meditating next to flushing toilets or the new friend is fucking your mother. But grateful there is the cushion to whish you always can come back to. Timebombs are emerging and the only thing you can say is yes or no. They are ticking and through the ticking you are realizing the truth. The truth is sometimes misleading, but through the path you find the truth. The only thing there is everywhere.
    When I do my daily zazen I'm staring through a window at a balcony, sometimes there are pearls at the window, there is a point in the middle of my window where I can always go and come back to, hear the water when my roommate is showering in the bathtub like a duck. Smashing water up and down and doing wired things.
    Nishiari Bokuzan, an eminent Soto teacher of the Meiji era, calling it one of the most difficult of all the fascicles, said "This is Dogen's skin, flesh, bone, and marrow. His entire teaching begins and ends with this fascicle…the other ninety-five fascicles are all offshoots of this one."
    The milestones passed, records are broken and lessons learned.

    The king is back – Phew !

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