The Five Houses of Zen

A Review by Sarah Fremerman

The Five Houses of Zen
Translated by Thomas Cleary
Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Boston, 1997.
208 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Zen masters are known for favoring direct experience over doctrine as a means of realizing truth, and Master Yun-men, whose works are included in Thomas Cleary’s new anthology of classical Chinese Zen teachings, The Five Houses of Zen, is said to have forbidden his disciples to write down any of his lectures. The ones Cleary has translated survived only because, apparently, one disciple secretly copied them down onto a paper robe (ironically, a garment the monks wore as a symbol of the transient nature of existence). Cleary has been almost single-handedly responsible for making a growing body of traditional Zen teachings available to Western readers, and his translations in this collection are, as always, lucid and poetic. Yet, as Master Yun-men probably realized, ideas and techniques that work for one generation of practitioners might not necessarily work for another. As with much Zen literature, these teachings from ninth- and tenth-century China provide an intriguing glimpse of an alternative way of experiencing the world. Zen is a method for clearly perceiving reality. But these readings can be perplexing, and at times the effort to make sense of them feels like trying on someone else’s eyeglasses: no matter how powerful the prescription for enlightenment, one person’s glasses can’t necessarily correct another person’s spiritual nearsightedness.

In his introduction to the text, Cleary reminds us of the traditional Zen attitude toward all written doctrine. “Buddhist scriptures were not treated by Zen adepts as holy writ that was necessarily regarded as literally true, but as compendia of potentially useful ideas, outlooks, and exercises, commonly couched in sometimes dazzling symbolic language.” Writing about Zen is, after all, a paradox—words about the futility of language, ideas about the limitedness of conceptual thought. Zen Buddhism originated in T’ang-dynasty China (619-906 C.E.), and the “direct transmission” style of Buddhist teaching culminated in the ninth and tenth centuries with the “Five Houses,” which represent the major classical Chinese Zen masters and their various teaching styles. By then, over the course of several hundred years, Buddhism had taken root, flowered, and branched off into many different schools of thought in China. In the face of tremendous diversity and formalized ritual, Zen represented a return to the values of simplicity, personal insight, and direct experience.

The audience of disciples and practitioners to whom these Zen masters’ teachings were delivered was very different from that of Cleary’s readers today. Zen had thoroughly penetrated Chinese culture, and often the masters spoke to what they considered to be serious misinterpretations of Buddhist teachings. They repeatedly advised their disciples to go beyond surface appearances, to transcend the boundaries of language and intellectual thought. The urgency of their admonitions suggests a general preoccupation at that time with dogma, ritual, empty metaphysical argument and debate.

In recent generations, Zen teachers have lost the basis; students have no guidance. They match wits egotistically and take what is ephemeral for an attainment. Where is the heart to guide others? No longer do we hear of knowledge to destroy falsehood. Caning and shouting at random, they say they have studied Te-shan and Linchi; presenting circular symbols to each other, they claim they have deeply understood Kuei-shan and Yang-shan.

In twentieth-century Western culture, on the other hand, Buddhism is not yet well known, and in fact has only barely begun to take root. In a way, Cleary’s work parallels the great translation projects that were undertaken in China during the second century, when Buddhism first appeared on the scene. If the teachings of the masters of the Five Houses might be described as a kind of postdoctoral Zen, addressing the concerns of thoroughly experienced practitioners, then in the West we are, in that sense, just entering kindergarten. When Zen master Yung-ming talks about cessation and contemplation, concentration and insight, do we really understand what he means? I suspect these teachings resonate much more deeply, carry more force and intensity, in the original Chinese. In translation, it is very easy to think one has understood the essence of a passage such as this one, attributed to the Zen master Huang-po.

This reality is mind; there is no truth outside of mind. This mind itself is truth; there is not mind outside of reality. Mind is inherently mindless; and there is no mindless one, either. If you mindfully try to be mindless, then minding is there. It’s just a matter of silent accord; it is beyond all conception. That is why it is said that there is no way to talk about it, no way to think about it.

Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Cleary’s work will recognize the transparent, weightless quality of his prose, and he keeps his own commentary to a minimum, letting us decide for ourselves how to respond to the material. While others write books summarizing or theorizing about Buddhism, Cleary is occupied with the more crucial task of actually mobilizing the historical process of its assimilation into Western culture. The tone of these translations is straightforward and unapologetic, and their images resonate with a poetic, if often incomprehensible, appeal.

Empty yet aware, the original light shines spontaneously; tranquil yet responsive, the great function manifests. A wooden horse neighing in the wind doesnot walk the steps of the present moment; a clay ox emerging from the sea plows the springtime of the eon of emptiness. Understand? Where a jade man beckons, even greater marvel is on the way back.
(Attributed to Hung-chih)

Many of these passages are meant to thwart intellectual analysis rather than stimulate it, and although it’s nice to read clean text unencumbered by references, occasionally it might help the reader to have a few notes explaining allusions or the use of certain images in the text. Cleary has provided an extensive glossary that explains unfamiliar terms and references, but it’s not always clear which passages need explanation, and which are meant to be accepted unquestioningly, without trying to understand them. Also, the introduction to the text, with its profusion of Chinese names, is a little confusing; the brevity of Cleary’s writing may leave less educated readers struggling to keep up.

By definition, a book about Zen strays far from the direct, original purpose of its teachings, and these translations are probably best understood as a temporary expedient, a voice making East intelligible to West. If we read them as an end in themselves, or as a guide to meditation practice, we risk ending up with a shallow interpretation. There is, of course, nothing inherently Asian about the essence of Buddhism, and maybe the next step will be to rethink this material in terms native to Western culture. Having 20/20 vision of ultimate truth would be ideal. But what we need now is a different prescription for enlightenment, a pair of glasses that brings our own world into focus.

Sarah Fremerman spent seven years as a Zen nun in Kyoto. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Image: By Sokei-an, courtesy of First Zen Society of America.  

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