NO BARRIER: Unlocking the Zen Koan
Thomas Cleary
Bantam Books: New York, 1993.
224 pp., $9.95 (paperback).

THOMAS CLEARY is a genius, the blurb on the back cover of my page proofs announces, as if this were not already obvious by his production over the past sixteen years of dozens of translations of Chinese Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian texts. These include his monumental three-volume The Flower Ornament Scripture, which might be the lifework of a more pedestrian academician. They also include his translation ofThe Blue Cliff Record (with his brother J.C. Cleary), the Book of Serenity and the Transmission of Light. Now with this translation of the Wumenkuan (Mumonkan), his oeuvre of translation includes the four main collections of Zen Buddhist koans with their classic commentaries.

I would be far less effective as a writer and a teacher if Thomas Cleary had not devoted his life to translating Asian texts. At least three of his books are on my desk more than they are on the shelf. My students use his translations of classic commentaries when working on their koans and find them indispensable. All of us owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Yet I must say that sometimes the explanatory nature of his translations does not fully convey the richness of the original. Here is his rendering of a sentence from Wu-men’s comment to Case One, “Chao-chou’s Dog”:

If you do not pass through the barrier of the masters, and do not interrupt your mental circuit, then your consciousness will be attached to objects everywhere.

As closely as I can read it, this sentence is literally:

If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.

It seems to me that “your consciousness will be attached to objects everywhere” tends to close down the imagination that can be fully released otherwise with Wu-men’s marvelous metaphor.

Yet Cleary does come up with incisive translations. In response to the question in Case Two, “Are enlightened persons subject to causality?” he renders Pai-chang’s response: “They are not blind to causality.” Many of us have struggled with that line, and none of us have been this successful. Thus, the panorama of translation in this book has its highs and its lows.

As the book jacket announces, this is the first translation of the Wu-men kuan made directly from the Chinese, but there have been at least eight earlier translations through the Japanese, beginning with The Gateless Gate, by Nyogen Senzaki and Saladin Reps, published by John Murray in 1934. Senzaki left an unpublished commentary on his translation, and five of the published versions include commentaries by their translators. Cleary also offers his own comments, so in a sense he is not breaking new ground. But in fact the book is distinctive in at least two ways.

First, with his access to the compendiums of Chinese scholarship, Cleary has culled interesting and pertinent verse and prose comments by various masters on most of the forty-eight cases selected by the original editor, Wu-men Hui-k’ai. These comments are otherwise unavailable to Western readers. This unique feature alone makes the book very important.

Second, Cleary’s commentaries cast light on the metaphysical implications of each case. Traditionally Zen commentaries have been poetical rather than philosophical and discursive. “Zen discourse” would be considered an oxymoron—the very term teisho (usually translated “dharma talk”) means “a presentation of the shout.” But Cleary evidently feels that Western readers need his explanations.

An exceptional few of his interpretations are not discursive. He closes his remarks about Case Three, “Chu-chih’s Finger,” by saying: “A popular Zen meditation theme is, ‘All things return to the One, where does the One return?’ This is the way to work on the koan of [Chuchih’s] finger.” I found myself pausing to muse on this comment.

Generally, however, I did not pause but soldiered on through erudite terminology. This turned out to be intellectually productive. Cleary is expressing something hermeneutically important when he speaks of “the ineffable transcendence of quiescent nirvana” and “the infinite livingness of suchness.” In commenting on “Chao-chou and the Hermits,” he remarks:

In this case, the Zen master says that whichever perspective you are absorbed in, it is crucial to be able to go back and forth freely to attain both ultimate liberation and objective compassion. Either perspective can kill you or bring you to life: The mythical “third eye” is nothing but the centered “Middle Way,” a faculty of vision that so to speak hovers over the pivotal point at which one may plunge either into nirvana as such or thusness as such.

When you get at what Cleary means by “nirvana” and “thusness” you will have a handle on this case, on this book, and indeed upon the philosophy that can be extracted from Zen Buddhist experience. But there is a problem here. How does one get a handle on the experience itself? Cleary is concerned about this, but he can only speak from his own experience, which I gather was not the outcome of formal practice. In his introduction, he remarks:

Many people have found it useful to stand, sit, walk, or lie in a very quiet state while trying to solidify their koan recollection or perspective, but to really master Zen it is imperative to develop the capacity to practice Zen in the course of all activities.

I agree, but this is as close as he ever comes to mentioning zazen, the formal practice of seated, focused meditation that has been the central feature of Zen Buddhist practice from its inception.

Instead of recommending zazen, Cleary makes several suggestions about how to read his book and how to use koans to return to meditative mind in the course of daily affairs. In this he is a bit like Krishnamurti, another teacher whose own spontaneous experience influenced him to de-emphasize formal practice.

Not only does Cleary pass over zazen, he seems to question the transmission process. Nan-ch’uan and Chao-chou left no enduring historical line, he says, because “they were so high-minded.” However, he goes on to say, “their quintessential reflections of enlightenment have been preserved for all time in Zen symbolism.” Cleary seems to be reserving a place for himself in Zen “symbolism,” not as a student, not as a teacher with students, but as one who has studied carefully, who has experienced spontaneously, and who conveys his insights to others from a distance.

This could be all right. Some Zen ancestors were quite aloof, and as to being self-taught, after all, the Buddha himself was a spiritual autodidact. But so was the problematic contemporary guru Rajneesh. This is shaky ground, and in Cleary’s case the ground has a major fault. His interpretations are usually interesting, often profound, often to the point, but almost all of them are no more than explanations. No matter how deep, they remain philosophy. I can see how they would be useful, even illuminating for an old-timer in Zen practice (they certainly are for me), but I would imagine that they could set up a false, rational floor for the new student.

I do not get the sense that Cleary understands that a koan is an arcanum of perennial wisdom and compassion that with close, focused attention can abruptly be taken into the gut and spleen. One can’t eat metaphysics, and generally on reading this work I found the koans analyzed into their nutritional components and thus, while intellectually very appealing, quite inedible. The point of the jokes, so to speak, was laid out clearly and I could not laugh.

For example, Cleary finds Hsiang-yen’s koan “Up a Tree” symbolizing “the attachment of a conditioned mind to the fragment of reality perceptible through the worldview to which the mind is habituated by personal and cultural history.” Whew! If a student said that to me in a personal interview, I would comment, “An ‘N for philosophy,” ring my little bell, and say goodnight.

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