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.'”

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