circle of the way



This is part of a series of articles on the arc of Zen thought, practice, and history, as presented in The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern WorldYou can start at the beginning of this series or simply explore from here. 

Ox Gognan from the Met

Explore Zen Buddhism: A Reader's Guide to the Great Works 


Chan in China

> The Great Koan Collections

Zen in Korea

Zen in Japan

Additional Resources

It was during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) that the great gongan (Chinese) or koan collections were put to paper: The Blue Cliff Record (Bìyán Lù or Hekiganroku), The Gateless Barrier (Wúménguān or Mumonkan), The Book of Serenity (Cóngróng lù or Shōyōroku), and The Record of Empty Hall, though the latter is less known to westerners.

The Circle of the Way gives a brief history of koan practice:

Xuedou Chongxian (980–1052) was a master of the Yunmen house who liked to write commentaries. It was said that he had a strong Confucian education before he became a Buddhist monk, and he applied a Confucian appreciation of literary scholarship to his study of Buddhism. One day he asked his teacher, “The ancient masters did not produce a single thought—where is the problem?” The teacher hit Xuedou twice with his whisk, and Xuedou became enlightened.

Among the texts attributed to Xuedou is a collection of one hundred gongan to which Xuedou added his own verses as commentary. This was the Xuedou heshang baice songgu or “Xuedou’s verses on the old cases.” These were probably not the first collection of “old cases,” but these cases would become the basis of the first of the great koan collections, the Biyan lu, known in English as the Blue Cliff Record.

Below are some of the works we publish that relate to this time period.

Blue Cliff Record

The Blue Cliff Record

We have two works specific to the Blue Cliff Record.  There is Cleary's classic translation of the collection itself.

The Blue Cliff Record is a translation of the Pi Yen Lu, a collection of one hundred famous Zen koans accompanied by commentaries and verses from the teachings of Chinese Zen masters. Compiled in the twelfth century, it is considered one of the great treasures of Zen literature and an essential study manual for students of Zen.



Secrets of theBlue Cliff

Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei

Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record is a fresh translation featuring newly translated commentary from two of the greatest Zen masters of early modern Japan, Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) of the Rinzai sect of Zen and Tenkei Denson (1648–1735) of the Soto sect of Zen. This translation and commentary on The Blue Cliff Record sheds new light on the meaning of this central Zen text.

Gateless Barrier

The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan

For more than seven centuries the Mumonkan has been used in Zen monasteries to train monks and to encourage the religious development of lay Buddhists. It contains forty-eight koans, or spiritual riddles, that must be explored during the course of Zen training. Shibayama Zenkei (1894–1974), an influential Japanese Zen teacher and calligrapher who traveled and lectured throughout the United States in the 60s and 70s, offers his own commentary alongside the classic text. The Gateless Barrier remains an essential text for all serious students of Buddhism.


Passing Through the Gateless Barrier

Passing Through the Gateless Barrier: Koan Practice for Real Life

Gateways to awakening surround us at every moment of our lives. The whole purpose of koan (gongan, in Chinese) practice is to keep us from missing these myriad opportunities by leading us to certain gates that have traditionally been effective for people to access that marvelous awakening. The forty-eight kōans of the Gateless Barrier (Chinese: Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan) have been waking people up for well over eight hundred years. Chan teacher Guo Gu provides here a fresh translation of the classic text, along with the first English commentary by a teacher of the Chinese tradition from which it originated. He shows that the kōans in this text are not mere stories from a distant past, but are rather pointers to the places in our lives where we get stuck—and that each sticking point, when examined, can become a gateless barrier through which we can enter into profound wisdom.

No Gate Gateway

No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan

A monk asked: “A dog too has Buddha-nature, no?” And with the master’s enigmatic one-word response begins the great No-Gate Gateway (Wu-Men Kuan), ancient China’s classic foray into the inexpressible nature of mind and reality. For nearly eight hundred years, this text (also known by its Japanese name, Mumonkan) has been the most widely used koan collection in Zen Buddhism—and with its comic storytelling and wild poetry, it is also a remarkably compelling literary masterwork. In his radical new translation, David Hinton places this classic for the first time in the philosophical framework of its native China, in doing so revealing a new way of understanding Zen—in which generic “Zen perplexity” is transformed into a more approachable and earthy mystery. With the poetic abilities he has honed in his many translations, Hinton brilliantly conveys the book’s literary power, making it an irresistible reading experience capable of surprising readers into a sudden awakening that is beyond logic and explanation.

Two Zen Classics

Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Records

There is an excellent commentary on both The Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Barrier by Katsuki Sekida (1893–1987), who began practicing in Japan but then taught in Hawaii and the UK.

Book of Serenity

Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues

The Book of Serenity is a translation of Shoyo Roku, a collection of one hundred Zen koans with commentaries that stands as a companion to the other great Chinese koan collection, the Blue Cliff Record (Pi Yen Lu). A classic of Chan (Chinese Zen) Buddhism, Book of Serenity has been skillfully rendered into English by the renowned translator Thomas Cleary.

Compiled in China in the twelfth century, the Book of Serenity is, in the words of Zen teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson, "an auspicious peak in the mountain range of Zen literature, a subtle flowing stream in the deep valleys of our teaching, a treasure house of inspiration and guidance in studying the ocean of Buddhist teachings." Each one of its one hundred chapters begins with an introduction, along with a main case, or koan, taken from Zen lore or Buddhist scripture. This is followed by commentary on the main case, verses inspired by it, and, finally, further commentary on all of these. The book contains a glossary of Zen/Chan terms and metaphors.

Recordof Empty Hall

The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans

The Record of Empty Hall was written by Xutang Zhiyu (1185–1269), an important figure in  Chan Linji (Rinzai in Japan) Buddhism and in its transmission to Japan. Although previously little-known in the West, Xutang's work is on par with the other great koan collections of the era, such as The Blue Cliff Record and Book of Serenity.

Translated by Zen teacher Dosho Port from the original Chinese, The Record of Empty Hall opens new paths into the earthiness, humor, mystery, and multiplicity of meaning that are at the heart of koan inquiry. Inspired by the pithy, frank tone of Xutang's originals, Port also offers his own commentaries on the koans, helping readers to see the modern and relatable applications of these thirteenth-century encounter stories. Readers familiar with koans will recognize key figures, such as Bodhidharma, Nanquan, and Zhaozhou and will also be introduced to teaching icons not found in other koan collections. Through his commentaries, as well as a glossary of major figures and an appendix detailing the cases, Port not only opens up these remarkable koans but also illuminates their place in ancient Chinese, Japanese, and contemporary Zen practice.

Although the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity, two of the important collections in the Harada-Yasutani curriculum, share more than one-third of the same cases, only five cases from The Record of Empty Hall are from Blue Cliff Record and only one occurs in the Book of Serenity. In addition, the Blue Cliff Record, Book of Serenity, and the Gateless Barrier share many kōan and they also share from the same set of teachers. The Record of Empty Hall stands out both for sharing  cases both from what are now the most well-known kōan texts, and also for a selection of unusual teachers from the lamp collections. To name a few: Shíshì, Zhāngjìng, Sānjuéyìn, and Yèxiàn.

Continue to next article in the series: The Seon Tradition in Korea >