Short answer: Koans are great and so is putting your mind in a blender
The concussion rate among these monks must have been enormous. That is the first think I learned reading The Blue Cliff Record. This commentator’s prescription for enlightenment, discipline and/or hilarity seems to be beating people upside the head. Thirty smacks here, thirty blows there.
Apparently among Ch’an (Mandarin for Zen) monks in China at this time, you could be so offensively wrong about something you deserved a beating and that’s just how it was. It got to be amusing as I read, really, which made me wonder if I was allowed to be amused by the systematic use of petty violence by teachers against students in the name of enlightenment and education. I’m guessing this might not be PC but I’ll go with “yes” anyway.
Sorry, I should back up.
The Blue Cliff Record is the “model koan text” for Zen Buddhists, according to the back of the book in front of me. Shunryu Suzuki uses some of these koans, which are basically ambiguous, hopefully illuminating stories, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The story goes that the book was brought to Japan by Dogen Zenji just before he sailed for Japan from his study in China, where it was written. The commentator is a 12th century monk named Yuan Wu. The book also contains verses from Hsueh Tou, an 11th century monk. The actual cases are apparently folk stories from China that had been collected.
The book presents 100 sections, or cases, 35 of which are in the first volume that I own. The structure of each case looks like this:
- The Pointer: Usually something borderline incomprehensible that is loosely thematically related to what follows. It’s written by Yuan Wu and often ends with him admonishing the reader to go on, as if you have a choice after the blender your brain was just put through.
- The Case: A story in which some people in some part of China (it varies) act and speak in ways that don’t really make sense but are potentially enlightening. These are usually very short, like 3-10 lines.
- The Notes: Yuan Wu inserts notes along with these stories in which he alternately adds to what’s going on and makes fun of people in the story. He’s an amazing reader and really an inspiration for me to take better notes in the margins of the books I own. This is usually where he calls for the aforementioned beatings when someone says or does something he thinks deserves it. The notes are meant to be read along with the case, simultaneously. My favorite note is when he wonders how many blows to the back of the head it would take for a certain character. He doesn’t really say what he would be trying to accomplish but he’s kind of in awe of the guy so I think it’s mostly a compliment.
- The Commentary: Here Yuan Wu teases apart the case, borderline contradicts the opinions he had in the notes and generally educates the reader (or at least befuddles, which can be the same thing). This is the bulk of each section.
- The Verse: This is the part where Hsueh Tou provides a verse based on the case. Interspersed are Yuan Wu’s notes to the verse, which are usually either expanding on the verse or, again, making fun of it. A lot of times it seems as though he’s in physical pain as Hsueh Tou “goes too far” in an interpretation. It seems Yuan Wu lives by a “less is more” philosophy (which seeing as he’s a Ch’an Buddhist does make sense).
- Verse Commentary: Finally, Yuan Wu comments on the verse, explaining how Hsueh Tou did a good job (even if he had just made fun of parts of it earlier) and leaving the reader with something to chew/meditate on.
I know some of the above might appear flippant but I totally love this book. I think all the humor and/or irony is actually necessary, because a lot of times what the commentator is trying to get at can’t really be communicated via sincere language. The meaning is made in the seeming contradictions, humor, irony and so forth. Or maybe it’s only to be found there, I don’t know. Either way, I highly recommend it to anyone who’s working on their spiritual practice and has a literary bent. It’s both entertaining and potentially enlightening.
Editor: Ryan Pinkard