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The Blue Cliff Record Kindle Edition
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Koan offer a beautifully sublimed format for contemplation and through these koan one can fill the belly and empty the mind, so to speak.
Next stop - the Gateless Gate then, Understanding reality.
tr. Thomas and J.C. Cleary
Shambala, Boston and London 1992
I first encountered the classic of Ch'an literature known as The Blue Cliff Record nearly 20 years ago, in a review by my teacher Sangharakshita. He described it as 'a world in which Buddhism matters, is the only thing that matters, and in which people are prepared to go to any lengths in order to attain - and transmit - "the profound anti mysterious principle of Enlightenment".' I suggested, with naive enthusiasm, that he lead a seminar on The Blue Cliff Record. His response was a mischievous smile: 'You would have to be ready for anything!'
The book looks harmless enough. In its English translation it has a nice, shiny. deep blue dust jacket with a bit of calligraphy - a classical design, nothing flashy. But if you begin to read it seriously and consistently, in the right kind of conditions, it shakes you to the very core. It looms up out of the mist like a mile-high cliff face. There are no handholds. It is cold, silent, and steep. Very steep.
It consists of 100 kung-an (koan) or 'public cases', originally compiled by a master named Hsueh Tou Ch'ung Hsien (980-1052), who wrote a verse on each case - a cryptic verse pointing the way for his disciples to contemplate. About 60 years after Hsueh Tou's death, another master, Yuan Wu, gave a series of talks elucidating each case and Hsueh Tou's verses. The cases, the verses, and the elucidations together comprise The Blue Cliff Record. so called after the Blue Cliff monastery on Mt. Chia in Hunan where Yuan Wu delivered his talks.
That sounds tidy - a book in which we can read stories about Enlightened masters and then read edifying poems and talks by other masters explaining them. But this is no trendy book about Zen, full of consoling platitudes about our being Buddhas already. If we are tempted to waffle about 'the light within', here is Master Yun Men's challenge: '"Everyone has a light: when you look at it, you don't see it and it's dark and dim. What is everybody's light?" Silence! He answers the question himself. "The kitchen pantry and the main gate".' The Blue Cliff Record is full of challenges. Last summer I read the entire book on a long retreat, on a mountain in Spain. After a day of meditation, ritual, and study, before sleeping, with cicadas for background music, I read until my eyes grew heavy, and then sank into dreams that shook me. Sometimes I woke with a phrase echoing through the cave of the mind. One morning it was: 'Mahasattva Fu expounds the scripture.'
This was the title of the kung-an and commentary I had read the night before. Mahasattva Fu, an old mountain-dwelling hermit, came to town selling fish to support himself, and Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhism, summoned him to the court to expound the Diamond Sutra I see Mahasattva Fu in a patched robe and the court in their finery waiting for an edifying exposition of Buddhist philosophy. The old hermit slowly made his way to the front of the hall, mounted the teaching throne and shook the desk in front of him. I don't imagine he smiled. He just shook the desk and left. Another monk explained to the astonished Emperor that Mahasattva Fu had just expounded the Diamond Sutra ... thoroughly.
I felt as if Mahasattva Fu had been there in my troubled dreams, showing me that the Diamond Sutra was not a book to verbalise about, but diamond-hard reality itself, smashing my ideas about self, world, life... Buddhism: shaking those ideas to their foundations. Very disturbing!
'The Path has no byroads: one who stands upon it is solitary and dangerous. The truth is not seeing or hearing:
'words and thoughts are far removed from it. If you can penetrate through the forests of thorns and untie the bonds of Buddhahood and Patriarchy, you attain the land of inner peace, where all the gods have no way to offer flowers, where outsiders have no gate to spy through. Then you work all day without ever working, talk all day without ever talking; then you can unfold the device of "breaking in and breaking out" and use the double-edged sword that kills and brings to life, with freedom and independence.'
From 16th Case: Ching Ch'ing's 'Man in the Weeds'.
Yet this is the realm that - on a good day - I aspire to reach. I want to wake up one morning and know for sure that I do not know anything, not because I have read the wrong information, but because reality has come and smashed all assumptions, all borrowed ideas. On a good day I court such devastation, for it is, I believe, the beginning of liberation.
The patch-robed Ch'an travelers of The Blue Cliff Record are not afraid of such devastation, like Huang Po, who 'understood Ch'an by nature': and the nun Iron Grindstone Liu. who had studied for a long time, and whose active edge was 'sharp and dangerous'. They never settle down in 'the nest of cliche". They keep pushing beyond the boundaries. They push not only themselves but each other. For this is also a world of intense communication, in which the teachers' only concern is to break through the shell of the students' ignorance and the students are intent on breaking out of that shell to reveal their 'true face'.
Padmavajra works in the ordination team at Padmaloka Retreat Centre
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
If you want a book about the way of life, this book is not a bad bet, overall.
Not an easy book to read, but certainly on to reflect on in one's contemplative (meditative?) efforts. With the recent emphasis on Shikantaza many may find this book 'too intellectual' and perhaps they would prefer ZONGMI ON CHAN, by Jeffrey Lyle Broughton.