Master Yunmen

From the Record of the Chan Master "Gate of the Clouds"Sam Hamill

Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Urs App.
Kodansha International: New York, Tokyo, London, 1994.
272 pp., $25.00 (cloth), $12.00 (paper).

You must neither fall for the tricks of others nor simply accept their directives. The instant you see an old monk open his mouth, you tend to stuff those big rocks right into yours, and when you cluster in little groups to discuss [his words], you're exactly like those green flies on shit that struggle back to back to gobble it up! What a shame!

Ch'an master Yunmen (864-949) issued few directives. He was suspicious of traditional practices and what he considered to be overreliance on meditation; he dismissed the significance of honors, whether they came from the emperor or from fellow monks; he challenged the teaching of the patriarchs and other figures of authority; and in general, he stripped away all the usual devices, from the physical to the philosophical, of Ch'an teaching. And yet the Record ofYunmen is one of the primary sources for kung-an (Japanese koan) study in Ch'an and Zen. He was among the first to make use of the conversations of preceding masters as a formal system for training monks:

"Someone asked Master Yunmen, 'What is most urgent for me?'

"The master said, 'The very you who is afraid that he doesn't know!'"

Taking his name from Mount Gate-of-the-Clouds, where, at age sixty-four, he saw completion of his "Ch 'an monastery of Enlightened Peace," he spent the last two decades of his life (923-942 C.E.) teaching monks and dedicated lay disciples far from the constant swarm of visitors that beleaguered him during his tenure at Lingshu monastery in Shaoguan.

He had spent years in pilgrimage and studying with Ch 'an master Xuefeng. He interviewed many great teachers before settling. And no doubt his healthy skeptical turn of mind was polished and brought to fruition during these encounters. The "last of the Ch'an giants" was renowned for his "one-word barriers," as when a monk asked, "What are the words of the venerable buddhas and great patriarchs?" Yunmen replied, "Dumplings!'"

His way relied upon the oral tradition, and he never lost his doubts and suspicions about written language, which could, after all, be treated in a purely literal way. He banned all note-taking during his talks. Whether myth or fact, Buddhist folklore has it that a certain monk took to wearing paper robes in order to secretly record the master's sayings in the hems.

In one of his most often quoted episodes (Case Sixty in the Blue Cliff Record), Yunmen "held up his staff and said to the assembly: 'This staff has turned into a dragon and swallowed the whole universe. The mountains, the rivers, the earth—where are they to be found?'"

This is the first English translation of a major portion of the Record of Yunmen, the result of a decade of research by Urs App, Associate Director of the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism at Hanazono University in Kyoto. That App has also presented a most human Yunmen is commendable, and his brief biography and comments on the teaching of the master are very helpful in keeping Yunmen's humanity in perspective.

Preparing for death, Yunmen forbade mourning clothes and wailing and ceremonies with funeral carriages, saying, "This would be a violation of the Buddha's precepts and a source of trouble for the Ch 'an school." He was buried in his living quarters.

A thousand years later, Yunmen remains a staff, a "Gate of the Clouds," a mountain, an ancient dragon. It is easy to deify the long dead. It is hard to get boulders into one's mouth. Urs App has managed to present the living teaching of a genius who remained—to the end—a modest, decent man.

 

Sam Hamill is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His Midnight Flute, poems from the Chinese, was just published by Shambhala Publications.

Image: A replica of Master Yunmen's mummy, Yunmen Monastery, southern China, 1990.

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