Book of Serenity / The Gateless Barrier

Sam Hamill

Book of Serenity
Translated by Thomas Cleary.
Lindisfarne Press: Hudson, NY 1990,
463 pp., $18.95.

The Gateless Barrier
Translated and with a commentary by Robert Aitken. 
North Point Press: Berkeley, CA, 1990,
332 pp., $14.95.

The Koan or "Zen dialogue" is the fundamental study of Chan (Zen), an oral transmission rooted in the ancient Chinese tradition of "story contemplation" in meditation. This form of practice runs parallel to the practice of "silence illumination" in zazen, each enhancing the other.

The Book of Serenity and The Gateless Barrier are two of the primary compilations of these dialogues. They have served students of Zen for hundreds of years as an aid to "cutting off the stream" of reliance upon logical thought. Some Zen masters tended to arrange koans into a formal curriculum while others selected particular koans for particular students. In either case, the idea was to set up a "barrier" in order to help the novice experience a "breakthrough" or insight. Robert Aitken reminds us that one of the original meanings of "barrier" is checkpoint. "What may be known abstractly becomes personal," he writes in his introduction to The Gateless Barrier. "The notion of transcendental oneness becomes a vivid experience of a shared and unbounded nature, and the thought of compassion is felt profoundly in a way that is consistent with its etymology: 'suffering with others.'"

In the first of the 48 "cases" of The Gateless Barrier, a monk asks eighth-century master, Chao-chou, "Has the dog Buddha nature?" Chao-chou replies, "Mu." The thirteenth century master, Wu-men, spent six years working through that one-vowel mantra-word: mu. Every commentary on this koan includes Wu-men's advice, "Don't think in terms of 'has' or 'has not.'"

Wu-men's great compilation, The Gateless Barrier, sparkles with his commentaries and verses: "A single spark lights your dharma candle." And Robert Aitken's commentary is eloquent, helpful in practice, and, from a purely literary perspective—well, enlightening. One may encounter Polonius or the Twenty-third Psalm in the midst of a commentary, making Western students and adepts feel at home.

Thomas Cleary has translated a medium-sized library of classic texts of Buddhism, Taoism, and I Ching studies, and the Book of Serenity is a major addition to his already staggering contribution. Compiled in the twelfth-century by master Tiantong, with the meditations and commentaries of master Wansong added later, the Book of Serenity draws from all the various Chan lineages, cutting across sectarian lines. Like Aitken, Cleary is very good at retaining the "folk story" flavor of oral transmission.

In his preface to the Book of Serenity, Robert Aitken writes, "Koans are the folk stories of Zen Buddhism, metaphorical narratives that particularize essential nature. Each koan is a window that shows the whole truth but from just a single vantage. It is limited in perspective." And this raises one of the primary obstacles to "booklearned" Zen: the student might come to some realization through the "study" of the "Mu koan" without ever realizing that even Chao-chou's "mu" is limited in perspective.

The eighteenth-century Rinzai monk Hakuin used to go around to the Soto meditation halls and strike the monks as they sat. "Get up, you old fools!" he would tell them, "and go do something useful." Sitting for them had become an end in itself. There have always been those for whom Zen is something one can "get." You may hear a thousand references to the "sound of one hand" koan before hearing one insightful comment. A koan is not something one can "get."

Each koan marks a checkpoint, a boundary that exists in the imagination. It can be crossed time and again, and with each crossing the perception is deepened. The Gateless Barrier and the Book of Serenity are tools that will last a lifetime, which have already lasted a millennium, enhanced by verse and commentary.

We live in an age cluttered with fast-food zen—and self-gratification. These two volumes return us to the true and difficult teaching: not to something that can be obtained—or attained—but to a way.

Sam Hamill is a poet and writer who lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and is the Editor of Copper Canyon Press.

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