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Dream Conversations on Buddhism and Zen

by Muso Kokushi
translated and edited by Thomas Cleary.
Reviewed by Fred H. Martinson
source: Journal of Chinese Philosophy 22:1 1995.03 PP.99-101


P.99 Thomas Clearly has translated the Muchu mondo (lit. "questions and answers in dreams"),a record of the answers to questions put to the "national Zen teacher" (Kokushi), Muso Soseki (1275-1351) by Ashikaga Tadayoshi (1306-1352), the brother of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358). Some say the questions came from both brothers. Muso was a pupil of the very famous Chinese immigrant, Zen priest and Teacher, Yishan Yining (1247-1317), who served as abbot of the Kenchoji, Enga-kuji and Jochiji in Kamakura, and then of the Nanzenji in Kyoto, all large and important, government-supported temples. It was at Kenchoji that Muso studied with Yishan.

 In Muso's Dream Conversations, there are fundamental Buddhist concerns about topics such as meditation, koans, and enlightenment, and there are comments about tea and the arts and gardens. It is a more religious fourteenth century worldview than Yoshida Kenko's (1283-1350) in his Tsuredzure-gusa ("Essays in Idleness"), for in addition to having comments on aesthetics and the beauty of imperfection, it has much more Chinese Chan/Zen content.

 Cleary is an excellent scholar and translator of the Chinese and Japanese languages and of Buddhist content. He has just been featured by Sam Hamill in Shambhala's large catalogue for Autumn, 1994 (24-25) Hamill relates that Cleary has translated over fifty philosophical and religious classics in the past fifteen years! Shambhala publishes seven of them. Hamill stresses that Cleary is literal, highly accurate, and very readable. As did Hamill, I first encountered Cleary's work at the beginning of his translation career in his Blue Cliff Record (1971). The cases (koans) in it are from the Southern Song Dynasty and are very famous. P.100

 The organization of Dream Conversations is by topic headings followed by several paragraphs or pages of Muso's answer. There is some overlap in the topic headings such as the use of knowledge as "inherent knowledge(21)," "types of (25)," "two kinds of (39)", and "priority of fundamental knowledge (41)"; or "fundamental" as an adjective (41, 71,118 and 122 ). In "The Priority of Fundamental Knowledge" in order to realize "the fundamental knowledge of the enlightened," one should "transcend the boundaries of doctrine and mediation (41)."

 In the Rinzai tradition of Muso, one would expect koan to have a special place, and he explains their origin as a way for Zen teachers to (call) "a koan to mind without conceptualization" so that their teachings would not be figured out intellectually (102-103). He stresses that they are a tool, and that "they cannot be judged by ordinary feelings (100)."

 Another Zen emphasis is meditation (after all Zen means "meditation"), and Muso differentiates four types based on the Lankavatara Sutra: that of "ordinary cultists, "that of "examining characteristics and meaning, "that of a focus on "reality as is," and finally the "pure form that comes from suchness (179-182)."

 As an art historian, I cannot leave out Muso's comments on art. Credited with the landscape garden design of the Moss Garden in Kyoto, Muso's statement that those who just write and recite poetry in natural settings are just aesthetes "without the will for enlightenment" (112) is interesting. On the other hand, some take the "changing appearances" of nature as "work for meditation(113)."

 There are several criticisms that should be made about the design of this volume. On the negative side, the book designer chose a Korin 18th century screen painting as the cover and included a number of seventeenth through nineteenth centuries illustrations. Muso is very much a late Kamakura, early Muromachi person (that is, a fourteenth century one), and fourteenth century art such as Muto Shui's portrait of him, the Kokedera and Tenryuji gardens, contemporary zenga by Ue Gukei, Kao, Ryozen, Mincho, Tesshu Tokusai — all influenced by the Chinese style of Mu Qi in Hangzhou, who is represented in great numbers in Japanese collections, are abundant and available. The Edo Period look of the volume certainly does not correspond to the contents -—but it is striking with the gold-leaf of the screens, and was used by Shambhala for the cover of their spring, 1994, catalogue.

 The reader may ask what other types of books are to be found in this popular Shambhala series. Several are: Look! This is Love: Poems by Rumi (translated by Annemarie Schimmel ) and Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho( translated by Sam Hamill).

 On the positive side, it is almost small enough to carry in a jacket pocket, but it is not as small as the Shambhala Pocket Classics (each about 3 x 4 1/2" ),such as Cold Mountain, 101 Poems by Han-Shan (translated by Burton Watson ) which can be put in a purse or shirt pocket. Also there is a good introduction by Cleary (vi-xiv), but it is not quite as informative as his introduction for The Blue Cliff Record published by Shambhala in 1992 as a hardback, more scholarly piece. The closest comparison might best be made to W.S. Merin's and Soiku Shigematsu's translation of some of Muso's poems and sermons in the Sun of Midnight (San Francisco. North Point Press, 1989) in a slim hardback volume. In fact,the two books are possibly the only ones that one could have by Muso in English! Otherwie, one would have to turn to descriptions and anthologies that include him such as those on Japanese culture, history,or religion, by such well-known scholars as William Theodore de Bary, Martin Collcutt, and Sir George Sansom.

 Cleary has done yet another service for the academic world by translating Muso's best-known work in an extremely readable manner. This would be an excellent auxiliary text for a course in Chan Buddhism, and introduction to world religions, or even an Asian civilization class.

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