The Five Houses of Zen
Translated by Thomas Cleary
Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Boston, 1997.
208 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Zen masters are known for favoring direct experience over doctrine as a means of realizing truth, and Master Yun-men, whose works are included in Thomas Cleary’s new anthology of classical Chinese Zen teachings,The Five Houses of Zen, is said to have forbidden his disciples to write down any of his lectures. The ones Cleary has translated survived only because, apparently, one disciple secretly copied them down onto a paper robe (ironically, a garment the monks wore as a symbol of the transient nature of existence). Cleary has been almost single-handedly responsible for making a growing body of traditional Zen teachings available to Western readers, and his translations in this collection are, as always, lucid and poetic. Yet, as Master Yun-men probably realized, ideas and techniques that work for one generation of practitioners might not necessarily work for another. As with much Zen literature, these teachings from ninth- and tenth-century China provide an intriguing glimpse of an alternative way of experiencing the world. Zen is a method for clearly perceiving reality. But these readings can be perplexing, and at times the effort to make sense of them feels like trying on someone else’s eyeglasses: no matter how powerful the prescription for enlightenment, one person’s glasses can’t necessarily correct another person’s spiritual nearsightedness.


By Sokei-an, courtesy of First Zen Society of America.
By Sokei-an, courtesy of First Zen Society of America.

In his introduction to the text, Cleary reminds us of the traditional Zen attitude toward all written doctrine. “Buddhist scriptures were not treated by Zen adepts as holy writ that was necessarily regarded as literally true, but as compendia of potentially useful ideas, outlooks, and exercises, commonly couched in sometimes dazzling symbolic language.” Writing about Zen is, after all, a paradox—words about the futility of language, ideas about the limitedness of conceptual thought. Zen Buddhism originated in T’ang-dynasty China (619-906 C.E.), and the “direct transmission” style of Buddhist teaching culminated in the ninth and tenth centuries with the “Five Houses,” which represent the major classical Chinese Zen masters and their various teaching styles. By then, over the course of several hundred years, Buddhism had taken root, flowered, and branched off into many different schools of thought in China. In the face of tremendous diversity and formalized ritual, Zen represented a return to the values of simplicity, personal insight, and direct experience.

The audience of disciples and practitioners to whom these Zen masters’ teachings were delivered was very different from that of Cleary’s readers today. Zen had thoroughly penetrated Chinese culture, and often the masters spoke to what they considered to be serious misinterpretations of Buddhist teachings. They repeatedly advised their disciples to go beyond surface appearances, to transcend the boundaries of language and intellectual thought. The urgency of their admonitions suggests a general preoccupation at that time with dogma, ritual, empty metaphysical argument and debate.

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