Genjō Kōan

I should not be surprised that deciding to tattoo a weird word on my forearm is inevitably going to require me to explain it. Oftentimes.

And if the word is important enough to me to ink it in such a prominent place I had better be able to explain it with matching certitude. Problem is, I am still trying to realise what it means exactly for myself.

I have been trying for some time now.

I usually say something along the lines of : it is the chapter title from a book by a 13th century Japanese monk named Dōgen Zenji.
It basically means to manifest or actualise that which tends to be obscured. Or even more simplified, to wake up to what is.

Of course there is more to it than that.
The following explanation is from Shōhaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo (2010).


Gen (現 ) means “to appear,” “to show up,” or “to be in the present moment.” It can also be a noun for something unseen that now can be seen….So gen can be a kind of manifestation or actualization of something potential into something actual.

Jo (成 ), in Japanese, means “to become,” “to complete,” or “to accomplish.”

As a verb the compound term genjō means “to manifest,” “to actualize,” or “to appear and become.” As a noun it refers to reality as it is actually happening in the present moment.


Kōan is also commonly understood as referring to a public document placed on the desk of a government office, and in ancient China it referred to a law issued by the emperor.

The (公 ) of the word kōan means “to be public.” “To be public” in this context means “to equalize inequality,”…To make something public therefore meant to make something equal. So kō in this broader sense means to equalize the unfair or unequal situations among beings that arise in this world of disorder and discrimination.

So the an of this word literally means “to push,” “to press,” or “to massage for healing.” In a broader sense, the meaning of an is “to investigate in order to fix something that is out of order,”

A full translation of Genjo Koan can be found here.

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One response to “Genjō Kōan”

  1. Hi Ian, I’m not into tattoo’s for me personally but quite like what you’re expressing with these words! Go for it if you don’t mind the pain. It sounds like something worth keeping at the front of your mind.


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