A few months ago I bought a four volume set of The Shobogenzo, translated by by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. In this set there was not only a translation of the Shobogenzo, but an interpretation of each chapter of the text in modern language. I found these interpretations extremely helpful in actually understanding the text, as a lot of the original language was quite obscure.

Recently, I also picked up The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas Cleary. However, in his text there are no direct interpretations of the chapters, and so I'm having trouble understanding some of them.

I largely understand Zen itself, but the original language of The Blue Cliff Record often just doesn't seem to get to the point, or make that point clear.

So I'm wondering if any modern, English interpretations of The Blue Cliff Record exist?

3 Answers 3


A monk asked Tonzan, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan replied, “ three pounds of flax.”

-Case 18 from The Gateless Gate

Which is enough flax to make a monks robe. But it's stated as raw material, as before the compounding of fabrication. I think that is worth drawing attention to. I heard this framed as just surrealism, as a refusal of the answer to take the question seriously, that Buddha can be anything, or as saying the question isn't answerable. But that isn't what was happening.

Far from just being gnomic and impenetrable utterances, blank walls to crash the mind against, koans -public cases- often simply assume a deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy that a monk who dedicated their lives to the practice and so hearing and practicing koans would be expected to have. A favourite example of this for me is Dongshan on non-sentient beings expounding the dharma. This isn't simply 'impenetrable to the discriminating mind'. It is deeply engaging with a discontinuity between philosophical strands in Zen.

I strongly recommend Steven Heine's book on the origins of the koan tradition 'Opening A Mountain' (available to download at fhe excellent Zen resources site terebess.hu). This covers the Transmission of the Lamp genre which covered the lineages of teachings through capturing decisive moments and interactions usually of past with future abbots but sometimes confrontations with hermits and Wuist sorcerors. This helps understand how the Zen Golden Age was exactly about asserting this new tradition against other teachings and practices. Then the extraction of decisive interactions as koans. Then capping verses, from the role of these in teaching.

Of course Zen is about 'direct transmission, beyond words and letters'. We should be looking to the moon not the pointing finger - but I think there is a danger of ignoring the form of the finger, and so failing to see where it points!

  • Three pounds of flax is about the transition between the second and third jhana. 😉
    – user22122
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 23:01
  • @000: Does Zen do jhanas..?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 23:16
  • Not explicitly, but they are states of consciousness you will invariably run into provided you are using correct technique. This particular koan is a good example of how they’re taught. Zen is more concerned with conveying phenomenology and guiding people through a particular experience than it is labeling that experience (not that labeling in necessarily bad; it’s just not what zen does).
    – user22122
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 23:20

Shobogenzo is much more didactic than The Blue Cliff Record. One is a collection of expository essays - talks really - whereas the Blue Cliff Record is a collection of koans. Not that Dogen isn’t monumental obtuse and hard to follow sometimes but koans are, by their nature, utterly impenetrable to the discriminating mind. In fact, that’s the whole point. Thy weren’t intended to be understood that way. I could explicitly tell you what a particular koan is getting at, but you will still have no idea what I’m talking about until you’ve seen into that koan yourself. It’s like eating an apple. I could talk about crispness, acid, and sugar, but until you take that bite yourself, the words are meaningless.

The only way to work with koans is to sit with them. The only way to sit with them is under the direction of a teacher who has penetrated their mysteries. You can certainly form an intellectual understanding of them. Academics have been doing that for centuries now. But studying that way won’t get you any closer to their meaning.

  • That's fair. I guess I've 'penetrated' enough Zen concepts already that I'm too lazy to read three or four pages of obscure text to figure out a marginally important point. Some of them I've managed to get just from the title and pointer, but others are just obscure enough that I have trouble putting the work in. I'd hope an interpretation exists that's done the heavy lifting, but I'm doubtful.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:01
  • 2
    The heavy lifting is the whole point. If you aren’t sweating (and I mean literally sweating in many cases), you aren’t really experiencing what they have to offer. Zen is a practice, not a philosophy. It’s somatic, not axiomatic.
    – user22122
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:15
  • I understand. Heavy lifting is a challenge when you've got two small boys in tow. I'll take the didactic nature of the Shobogenzo and call it a day, for now.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:21
  • Let me give you a specific example. I think Nansen’s cat is in about the middle of that collection. The answer to that koan is a visceral kind of release. In some ways, it’s the experience of dying. In some ways, it’s you finally coming into being. A zen teacher might ask where you feel the cat. He might ask you to show him your pair of slippers. None of that can be arrived at just by reading and intellectually understand the koan. The experience is a-intellectual. It’s also highly personal.
    – user22122
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:22
  • 1
    Hah! Fair. Don’t forget, they’re koans too!
    – user22122
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:23

Despite the other very good answers, I actually did end up finding an English translation / interpretation:

The Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei. Translated by Thomas Cleary.

It's not a modern interpretation, but an interpretation of all 100 cases nonetheless.

I've now also taken a look at the Sekida translation as mentioned in the comments below, and his version strikes me as being closer to an interpretation than translation (in other words, what I'm looking for). Cleary seems to be trying to accurately represent the original text, where Sekida seems to be trying to portray the text in a clear way. So far I'm finding Sekida's version much clearer and easier to understand.

  • Check out the Sekida translation. (amazon.com/Two-Zen-Classics-Gateless-Records/dp/1590302826) This is the standard English translation used by most contemporary Rinzai/Obaku lineages in the west these days. The Cleary translation is OK, but it lack a lot. Take Case 57 for instance. The koan has completely different titles in both editions. This owes directly to the fact that that while Cleary was an excellent translator, he wasn't a practicing student of Zen like Sekida who was a lay priest. What do I mean by that? (Con't below)
    – user25734
    Commented Feb 15 at 19:50
  • In Cleary, it's rendered as Josshu's Stupid Oaf. Sekida calls it "I alone am holy". I'm not sure where Cleary is getting his title, but for Sekida, "I alone am holy" comes from the turning phrase one uses when working with this koan. Those four words are the distillation of what that koan is pointing to. This happens a couple of times when comparing the two translations.
    – user25734
    Commented Feb 15 at 19:57
  • 1
    Moreover, Sekida is much more precise when rendering the essence of a koan into English. Cleary sorta gets there, where Sekida often nails it. Again, Case 57 is really good example - picking and choosing (C) vs. choice and attachment (S).
    – user25734
    Commented Feb 15 at 19:57
  • Just to be clear - neither Cleary or Sekida discuss what a particular koan is getting at. Either commentary is on par with a list of ingredients. The means for combining them, their proportions, and how to cook them remain unsaid - to say nothing of the tasting. The true essence of koan work is discovered with the application of deep samadhi and oral, individual interviews with a teacher. There is no other way to understand them.
    – user25753
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:57
  • I understand, but I am finding the ingredients in Sekida's version much less obtuse and easier to piece together. I wouldn't call his descriptions an interpretation of the koans as a whole, but rather an interpretation of the original text into more straight-forward language. So in practice the translation strays far enough from the original that it becomes an interpretation of the text. Where Cleary seems to be aiming for an accurate depiction of the original, a one-to-one translation. This isn't quite what I was asking for in my question, but it works for me.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Feb 22 at 2:14

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