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Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei
Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2000, 354pp
reviewed by Vladimir K., October, 2003


The Cleary brothers, Thomas and J. C., translated the Blue Cliff Record (J. Hekiganroku; C. Pi Yen Lu) in a wonderful edition published by Shambhala in 1992 which has become a standard text in many Western Zen centres. The 1992 edition, which runs to nearly 650 pages, comes complete with verses and comments by the compiler, Hsueh Tou Ch'ung Hsien (980-1052) (J. Setcho, remarks, commentaries and introductions by Yuan Wu K'e Ch'in (1063-1135) (J. Engo), and useful translators' notes which help with some of the metaphorical phrases and an excellent appendix of brief biographies of the major characters, drawn primarily from The Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (C. Ching Te Ch'uan Teng Lu).

book cover

So, why another translation by Thomas Cleary? This slimmer volume presents commentaries by two of the great masters of early modern Japanese Zen, Tenkei Denson (1648-1735) and Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768). Tenkei was a Soto master and Hakuin taught in the Rinzai tradition, so we can compare how these two outstanding teachers approached each koan from the viewpoint of the two sects that make up Japanese Zen. In this edition, Cleary has included only the introduction to the case by Yuan Wu, the case itself and the verse by Hsueh Tou. Each section is commented on by both Tenkei and Hakuin, often line by line. Cleary has, perhaps wisely, omitted any comments himself, allowing the text to stand on its own. Nor is there any appendix or index in this translation although there is a proper table of contents which enables the reader to find a particular case easily.

Cleary notes in his introduction that the original text of the Blue Cliff Record runs to over 550 pages in English translation while the comments by Tenkei would be over 1000 pages in translation and Hakuin's commentaries would add another 900 pages. A text of nearly 2500 pages would make the material virtually inaccessible to the average reader so Cleary has chosen to present the commentaries only on the introduction, the case and the verses. Furthermore, he also admits to "interpretative paraphrase and alternative readings" (p. xii) in his translations rather than "just reproductions" of the language. Therefore, the reader must trust that Cleary's paraphrasing reflects, if not the actual wording of the original, but the intent of the original authors.

As this is a compilation of writings not only of parts of the original Blue Cliff Record, but expositions by two Japanese masters, Cleary has used Japanese names throughout the text rather than the Wade-Giles Chinese used in the earlier translation. This expedient seems appropriate, given the context of the work and it does make it easier for the English speakers as Japanese romanizations of names are not only less difficult to pronounce, but much of Western Zen has been taught through the Japanese tradition and the names of the Chinese masters are more familiar in Japanese than in Chinese transliterations.

The commentaries by Hakuin are, unfortunately, incomplete. His comments on the introduction to the first koan and his expositions on the sixteenth through twentieth cases are missing. Tenkei's comments are, however, complete. It is said that Hakuin lectured on the entire Hekiganroku fourteen times over a thirty year period of teaching. It was from these talks that a compilation was made by an unknown associate, Secret Commentary on the Blue Cliff Record, and kept hidden until a lay devotee made a copy. We must be grateful that this extraordinary work was not lost forever and thankful that Thomas Cleary has been able to present this most important collection to the English-speaking world.

Although Hakuin is well known to many Zen students, information on Tenkei is rather sparse. I have been unable to find any books in English about Tenkei and very few references to him in any histories of Japanese Zen. Heinrich Dumoulin's opus, Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2, makes passing mention of Tenkei as "the important scholar" (1990: 336). According to Dumoulin, Tenkei was an important interpreter of Dogen's works but he disagreed with Dogen's stance on Dharma succession, placing understanding of the true Dharma through enlightenment ahead of the master-disciple relationship so vigorously promoted in Dogen's writings. Unfortunately, Cleary gives very little information about Tenkei other than saying, along with Hakuin, he was one of the "outstanding figures in the reformation of near-senile Zen" (p. x) during the Tokugawa period.

Hakuin, on the other hand, is well-known to many Western Zen students. He was an extraordinarily vigorous teacher who was famous not only for his sharp criticism of the decline of Zen practice, but also for his masterly calligraphy, paintings and poetry. His portrait of Bodhidharma, Daruma in Red, is one of the great paintings by a Zen master and graces the cover of Cleary's book. Although Hakuin achieved his initial enlightenment at twenty-four, he felt that he was unable to integrate this experience into his daily life and continued a vigorous and highly disciplined practice of zazen, with satori experiences "in numbers beyond count" (Waddell, 1994: xviii) until finally he achieved the breakthrough he was seeking at the age of forty-one. He had inherited a small, insignificant, run-down Rinzai temple at the foot of Mount Fuji, Shoin-ji, where he had initially been tonsured at fifteen. As his fame grew, hundreds of students came to him for instruction and, as the temple was small and penniless, most had to reside in the neighbourhood. Waddell (1994: xix) gives a colourful account of his students as sleeping and practicing "in private houses and abandoned dwellings, unused temples and halls, ruined shrines, under the eaves of farmhouses; some even camped out under the stars. The whole countryside for miles around the temple was transformed into a great center for Zen practice."

Hakuin was noted for his formidable, even terrifying, manner. Waddell quotes one of his students, Torei, as describing him as "a sheer cliff…A menacing presence stalking the temple like a great ox, glaring around with the eyes of an angry tiger." (1994: xix) This was a no-nonsense Zen master, not to be trifled with. But Hakuin was not all fire-and-brimstone. He was also well-known for the care he took of the lay people in his area, composing songs and chants in colloquial dialects to make the Dharma accessible for the common people. He has left behind a number letters to lay people which reveal a gentleness and compassion for the difficulties faced by the householder.

Hakuin's teaching was based around the use of koans. Modern Rinzai koan practice is said to be based on Hakuin's koan curriculum. He composed many koans himself for his students, "the sound of a single hand" being the most famous. He fulminated against incorrect koan interpretations. For example, on one understanding of a koan he cried, "Pffuph! Bind comments. Lifeless, perverted understanding. I get sick to my stomach every time I see or hear such rubbish. It makes you want to vomit." (Waddell, 1994: 34-35) Even though (or perhaps because) he was a tough master, he left over fifty Dharma heirs, many of whom went on to revitalize Rinzai Zen, eventually overtaking all other lineages until today "Rinzai masters universally trace their Dharma ancestry to him." (Foster & Shoemaker, 1996: 325)

This is a wonderful book of koans sure to be widely used by students and teachers alike. Academics may fume about some of Cleary's idiomatic translations such as "What the heck is this?" (p. 93) but it's the spirit, not the words themselves, that are most important and I think Cleary has captured both Tenkei and Hakuin here. Tenkei is no slouch when compared to Hakuin; he more than holds his own. For example, in koan #8, Eyebrows, Suigan, after a summer retreat, says to the group, "I've been speaking for you brethren all summer; look—are my eyebrows still there?" Hakuin's response to this is, "Asking if his eyebrows have fallen out, he hangs out a sheep head but sells dog meat." Tenkei comments on Suigan, "Isn't that annoying? What if I asked you if my nose is on; what would you say?" (p. 29) Not always do the two agree. On Nansen cutting the cat, (koan #63) Hakuin comments on the monks arguing about the cat: "This example deals with the ailment of chest-swelling in students…idlers in Nansen's community". Tenkei sees it differently: "Traditional explanations of fighting over a cat are extremely stupid.If this really happened, how could they be followers of Nansen? Why would Nansen necessarily act imperatively in such a way toward people like that?" (p. 216) Take your pick, without, of course, picking and choosing.

For koan students, this is a valuable addition to their library. For anyone interested in koans, or the work of Hakuin and Tenkei, this book is well worth purchasing. I don't think this replaces Cleary's earlier translation of the Blue Cliff Record but it does supplement it nicely. It's also a most enjoyable read; I loved this! Unfortunately, like many Zen books, it lacks an index or proper bibliography. Secrets? There are no secrets in koans.


Cleary, T. & Cleary, J.C. (1992)
          The Blue Cliff Record, Shambhala, Boston & London
Dumoulin, Heinrich (1990)
          Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2, translated by J.W. Heisig & P. Knitter, Macmillan, New York & London
Foster, N. & Shoemaker, J (eds) (1996)
          The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, Ecco Press, Hopewell
Waddell, Norman (1994)
          The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin: a translation of the Sokko-roku Kaien-fusetsu Shambhala, Boston & London

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