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The Zen koan is mysterious to many and its significance remains disputed by scholars. Is it a challenging therapeutic device, to be left behind like a raft after crossing the river, or a self-transparent statement of the liberated mind? Is it a logic-defying paradox or does it have its own performative rationality? Is it a spontaneous and often irreverent oral expression or a complex and staged literary form understandable within its context? Is it a narrative with multiple levels of meaning or something that potentially interrupts the work of meaning, narrative coherence, and conventional understanding?
Although paradoxical and even shocking language occurs in other traditions, these two provocative volumes illustrate the uniqueness, significance, and interpretive difficulty of one of Zen's primary practices. Both works are valuable contributions to understanding the context, development, and meaning of the koan from its origins and growth in T'ang and Sung China to later Japanese developments.
Steven Heine's Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters includes translations of sixty koan cases, selected traditional commentary, and his account of each case. This rich work gathers significant koans about Zen's encounter with its "other" from a variety of koan collections compiled in Sung China and Kamakura Japan.
The volume is organized around the theme of "opening a mountain." Masters opened up mountains for Zen by confronting and converting local spirits, hermits, and other forces that would prevent or endanger its practice. It refers more broadly to the confrontation and contest between Zen masters and figures representing supernatural forces, indigenous and popular religiosity, and rival forms of practice such as that of the isolated hermit without vows and outside the Buddhist community.
The koans are presented and discussed in five sections concerning: (1) supernatural mountain landscapes; (2) irregular rivals such as hermits, wizards, and dangerous women; (3) supernatural experiences in which bodhisattvas, demons, and magical animals are encountered in dreams and visions; (4) the use of symbols of authority and transmission such as the flywhisk; and (5) experiences of confession, repentance, self-mutilation, death, and the afterlife.
Heine argues that emphasizing the ritual, symbolic, and cultural dimensions of the koan complements understanding it as using paradoxical language to free one from the reification of language through aporia and double-binds. He insightfully shows through his translations and discussions the often ignored mythological and religious dimension of many koans. Even when koans use mythic or supernatural elements ironically, it is still in reference to such a context of belief. Since the outcomes [End Page 284] of these confrontations between Zen iconoclasm and irregular practices and unconventional beings are often uncertain, the koan embodies these tensions between supernaturalism and iconoclasm, ritual and meditative clarity, devotion and enlightenment. Zen masters are not always unambiguously victorious in their confrontations and competition with popular religion in these stories of opening mountains and taming and converting spirits, shamans, hermits, unconventional and rival women (such as the "Zen grannies" and the nuns of cases 23-26), and other irregular practitioners and dangerous forces.
Zen iconoclasm is best exemplified by Lin-chi (J.:Rinzai), known for his advice to kill the Buddha and the patriarchs, who forbade travel to Mount Wu-t'ai, where popular devotional Buddhists believed Mañjus´rī appeared (see cases 13-15). Lin-chi's Mañjus´rī cannot be seen on sacred mountains but is manifested in your own activity. However, even some koans involving Lin-chi focus on his ambiguous success in dealing with P'u-hua (cases 16, 57), an irregular practitioner attributed with magical powers. Despite such warnings, the bodhisattva of compassion's sacred mountain continued to appeal to ordinary Buddhists and even Zen practitioners. In these koans, Zen is not simply demythologizing. It is playing a dangerous game of ironic ambiguity and reversal. This indicates that Zen recognizes a degree of validity in other and rival approaches and practices...