[Buddha-l] Tozan's blue mountain and white cloud

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Thu Apr 17 11:40:47 MDT 2008


> Any recommended reading on this area of Buddhist development?

Tons (literally). (Zen always says it is beyond words, etc., but they
produced more literature -- words -- than the rest of the Buddhist tradition
put together. Contemporary writers on Buddhism seem to be following suit.)

Which to read depends on what you are looking for. Do you want to play with
your head; learn the real history and uses koans were put to in China, Korea
and Japan; or do koan practice? If the latter, forget the books for now and
find a Zen teacher who knows what s/he is doing. If you want to play, then
keep in mind that basically, until the 1990s, Western literature on Koans
was dominated by the DT Suzuki (not to be confused with Suzuki Shoryu)
spiel, which mystified koans, taking them as mind-games that frustrate and
transcend thinking and language, exclusively the provenance of Rinzai Zen.
Lots of stuff, presupposing Suzuki Zen, came out, perhaps most notably:

The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
by Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki
Harvest Books (1966)
amazon link

Writers in this mold went out of their way to make koans sound nonsensical
(that was the point), and confute any attempt to bring reason to bear,
(mis-)translating koans to sound as outrageously absurd as possible. That's
still the prevalent impression among nonspecialists.

That would be fine if it had historical roots in actual Chan/Son/Zen usage.
The indispensible antidote and must-read is

Victor Sogen Hori. Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice
University of Hawaii Press (February 2003)
amazon link

(Hori is a practicing Zen teacher, so this is not some scholarly debunking
by a dry academic who doesn't "get it".) The key part of this book also
appears as an essay in

The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism
by Steven Heine (Editor), Dale S. Wright (Editor)
Oxford University Press (2000)
amazon link

another must-read. The Heine/Wright book arose out of Heine's work on Dogen.
First, Dogen, as a Soto figure, should not have been using koans at all, but
his work is filled with them. Secondly, all the stuff that everybody was
writing about koans bore no resemblance to what Dogen was doing, and was
thus useless for working with Dogen. As Heine talked to other Zen
specialists, he discovered that they too found that the prevailing
literature on koans was largely incommensurate with the actual koan
literature they were working on -- in China, Korea and Japan. Hence the
book, which attempts to show what Buddhists were really doing with koans
throughout the ages.

That also led to

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters
by Steven Heine
Oxford University Press (2004)
amazon link

More freewheeling is

Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Koan Study
by John Daido Loori (Editor)
Wisdom Publications (2005)
amazon link

In the case of Dogen and Soto, in recent times it came to light that on his
last night in China, rather than sitting in mindless meditation, he spent
the entire night copying out a collection of 300 koans (took him all
night -- not xerox machines or scanners in those days). He used many of
those in his subsequent writings once back in Japan. See

The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans
by John Daido Loori and Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala (2005)
amazon link

These should keep you busy for awhile. There is tons of other stuff out
there, but the essential reading is Victor Hori's book.


More information about the buddha-l mailing list