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  • Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters
  • Dale S. Wright
Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters. By Steven Heine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv + 200. Hardcover $25.00. Paper $17.95.

On the beautifully designed cover of Steven Heine's Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters, we gaze at one of the masterworks of Chinese painting, Kuo Hsi's Early Spring, painted in the late eleventh century at what may have been the pinnacle of the Chinese Zen monastic tradition. Allowing our eyes to wander up, down, and across this truly great work, we spot the curved roof of a Buddhist monastery gorgeously nestled in a rugged valley halfway up a towering, mist-covered mountain. No image could more adequately capture the mystique that Chinese Zen monasticism attained in that era and has continued to cultivate into the modern period. Steven Heine's new book masterfully communicates the aura of Zen in those times by highlighting a segment of kōan literature that features the work of Zen masters in "opening a mountain." While it is clear that the mountain in this phrase is really a Zen monastery, and that this phrase became a standard way to refer to the initiation of a new monastery, Heine unravels this act of opening by detailing the enormously interesting historical/cultural tradition behind it.

Long before the emergence of the Zen or even the Buddhist tradition in China, mountains symbolized numinous, spiritual power. Early Taoists had already used the image of the mountain as a metaphor of mysterious, otherworldly reality. Chinese [End Page 194] popular tradition pictured the deities residing at these far-off and little-known elevations. Buddhists continued to capitalize on images like this until literature valorizing the T'ang and Sung dynasty Zen masters brought them to their current cultural position. Climbing a mountain, and dwelling there, required the utmost mental and spiritual discipline. Residing in that lofty sphere, one attained a vision of the world that in its depth and breadth trumped any understanding that could be attained in the world below. The mountain recluse and the enigmatic Zen master who drew disciples into remote mountainous regions for mental or spiritual training is by now one of the best known, most powerful images in the world. It is quite understandable that the great Zen masters would "open" their monastic training centers in the kind of setting depicted in Heine's reconstruction of the idea of the mountain in Chinese history.

What Heine's analysis makes clear, though, is that there is much more to the act of "opening" than we have hitherto assumed. Prior to the movement of Buddhist monasteries into these remote areas there existed a largely oral tradition concerning enigmatic mountain recluses who, like the legendary Taoist Lao-tzu, had withdrawn from the world in the quest for profound spiritual vision. Popular images of these visionaries were widespread throughout China in the medieval period, and no parallel to them existed in the staid, scholarly world of Buddhist monasticism. The movement of monastic Buddhism into that domain, therefore, necessitated a conflict and melding of images, and the terms in which this ideological battle would take place would not be derived from the rarified philosophical and textual traditions that had made Buddhism so impressive to earlier generations of Chinese converts. Instead, Zen masters would compete for popular recognition in south-central China in terms that were familiar to the residents of that area, namely of magical powers, demons, local deities, and the visions, apparitions, and exorcisms that supported that premodern metaphysical world.

The innovation of Opening a Mountain is that, while not denying what Heine calls the "conventional understanding" of the kōan tradition, which has been communicated in largely modern, demythologized, psychological images, the book undertakes the study of kōan literature by being particularly attentive to these clear representations of the extent to which Zen was born and cultivated in a premodern world. Opening new territory in Zen kōan studies, Heine works his way back into the medieval Chinese mentality that would have set the context for the emergence of the kōan tradition...


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pp. 194-197
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