Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

Synopsis

With the growing popularity of Zen Buddhism in the West, virtually everyone knows, or thinks they know, what a koan is: a brief and baffling question or statement that cannot be solved by the logical mind and which, after sustained concentration, can lead to sudden enlightenment. But the truth about koans is both simpler--and more complicated--than this. In Opening a Mountain, Steven Heine shows that koans, and the questions we associate with them--such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"--are embedded in larger narratives and belong to an ancient Buddhist tradition of "encounter dialogues." These dialogues feature dramatic and often inscrutable contests between masters and disciples, or between masters and an array of natural and supernatural forces: rouge priests, "wild foxes," hermits, wizards, shapeshifters, magical animals, and dangerous women. To establish a new monastery, "to open a mountain," the Zen master had to tame these wild forces in regions most remote from civilization. In these extraordinary encounters, fingers and arms are cut off, pitchers are kicked over, masters appear in and interpret each other's dreams, and seemingly absurd statements are shown to reveal the deepest insights. Heine restores these koans to their original traditions, allowing readers to see both the complex elements of Chinese culture and religion that they reflect and the role they played in Zen's transformation of local superstitions into its own teachings. Offering a fresh approach to one of the most crucial elements of Zen Buddhism, Opening a Mountain is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the full story behind koans and the mysterious worlds they come from.

Excerpt

This book is a translation with commentary of sixty kōan cases that feature an important supernatural or ritual element selected from a variety of the major and minor Zen Buddhist kōan collections compiled in Sung China and Kamakura Japan. My aim is to demonstrate that the main theme underlying much of kōan (the term is kung-an in Chinese, but is better known in its Japanese pronunciation) literature deals with how Zen (Ch'an in Chinese) masters opened or transformed mountains. The mountains harbored spirits, demons, and bodhisattvas, as well as hermits, recluses, ascetics, and other irregular practitioners, and were opened through the use of symbols and rituals of spiritual purification. In contrast to conventional interpretations that view kōans as psychological exercises with a purely iconoclastic intention, the approach here highlights the rich component of mythological and marvelous elements that pervade this genre of literature in a way that complements, rather than contradicts, the demythological or iconoclastic perspective.

This approach to interpretating Zen literature is distinctive and innovative in several respects. It includes the selection of kōan cases emphasizing supernatural symbols—such as mountains, animals, and other natural imagery—based on a strict scholarly standard of translation and the citation of appropriate source materials. It also employs a method-

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