THE BLUE CLIFF RECORD
Translated by Thomas Cleary and J. C. Cleary
Shambhala Publications: Boston 1992.
648 pp. $60.00 (hardcover).
COMPILED in the twelfth century by Ch'an master Hsueh Tou, The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of one hundred kung-ans (koans) with commentaries and verses by other early Ch'an masters. These "public cases" were introduced in Japan by Dogen Kigen, founder of the Japanese Soto school, in the thirteenth century, despite his concerns with over-intellectualization in koan practice. It has since been almost uniquely revered among Zen Buddhists of Rinzai, Dmmon, and Soto schools alike.
In a famously difficult case, a monk asks Tung Shan, "What is Buddha?" and Tung Shan answers, "Three pounds of hemp." The commentary reminds us that the original path is wordless, and yet we use words to illustrate the path. And after verse and more commentary, a translator's note refers to the time Yun Men was asked, "What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?" and he replied, "Cake."
In the fiftieth case, a monk asks Yun Men, "What is every atom samadhi?" and Men replies, "Food in the bowl, water in the bucket." His reply is reminiscent of the well-known Zen view of mountains before and after enlightenment. The Blue Cliff Record "cuts off conceptual consciousness," as Yun Men says of Ch'an teaching.
First published in 1977 in three volumes, this first American translation, by Thomas Cleary and J. c. Cleary, is graceful and transparent, and the brief biographies of Ch'an masters compiled by the translators are a wonderful resource.
Whether used as a primary text for formal or informal koan study, or whether read simply for the pleasures of the text, The Blue Cliff Record is a book to live with.
Sam Hamill, a Contributing Editor to Tricycle, is a poet, translator, and the editor of Copper Canyon Press.