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?

2 Answers 2


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
    May 29 at 23:01
  • @000: Does Zen do jhanas..?
    – CriglCragl
    May 29 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
    May 29 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.
    – mcraenich
    May 29 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
    May 29 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.
    – mcraenich
    May 29 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
    May 29 at 0:22
  • 1
    Hah! Fair. Don’t forget, they’re koans too!
    – user22122
    May 29 at 0:23

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