Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings


Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings, translated and edited by Urs App
Shambhala, 2018. 297 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

A little background. The Japanese word koan does not mean “riddle” or “mysterious saying” or anything like that. It just means “public case.” Like when you’re in law school you have to buy a “case” book? That’s all the word koan means—cases, like that. The Chinese word for this, which has never caught on, is gong-an. For reasons not hard to trace, the Chinese terms for various Buddhist things have never had the currency their Japanese equivalents have enjoyed. Cf. “zen” (Japanese) vs “chan” (Chinese)—the two words mean the same thing: “meditation.” Zen Buddhism is meditation Buddhism. And “cases” are just very brief dialogues between monks, snipped out of context, and subjected to review. A comment on the exchange is deployed, and then comments on the comments, and so on.


Now, I don’t know what other people do. Me, I was satisfied with a single book of koans for more than twenty years. It’s the easiest of the four most famous sets of these things; it’s less than half the length of the shortest of the others. It’s called Wumenguan in Chinese: “The Gateless Gate.” Many Americans encounter this text in a little book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. You get forty-eight public cases, plus one extra. Five of ’em feature a Chan Master called Yunmen: “Cloud Gate” in English, “Ummon” in Japanese. Here’s where the book under review gets into the act….


I mentioned the cases are snipped out of context. That’s a little misleading, but only a little, ’cuz even when they’re in context, there’s no context. The original book from which any given “case” derives was almost always the “Recorded Sayings of Master Whoever,” and in such records what we encounter is a continuous rigmarole of exchanges in random order: pages and pages of bewildering spangablasm without any white space or paragraphing to give you a second to breathe. The first major service the compilers of Wumenguan and Biyanlu and Congronglu (etc) did was to give you a second to breathe.


Breathe now. I’m about to get you to Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings. You wanna know: Is this book the rigmarole just mentioned? Answer: No. The editor/translator judged that that would be unreadable. Too long and just unreadable anyway. So he does the smart thing: He breaks it up into cases, selects the best, numbers ’em, and—this is important—footnotes everything, so you’re only as bewildered as you’re supposed to be. He’s not just putting in the white spaces that should have been there in the first place; he’s making it so you know what you’re looking at. Also, there’s a spreadsheet in the back that lets you take in at a glance where any given Yunmen case appears in the four major koan collections. That chart is gold. If I had a chart like that for every one of these dharma MVPs, I’d be a happy Buddha. 


So, in short, this book is A#1. I sincerely wish there were ten more like it. I’m going to throw down one famous gong-an here, so you can get a taste, but if you’re into this kind of thing you’re gonna wanna drop the fifteen bucks.


Someone asked Master Yunmen, “What is the absolute concentration that comprehends every single particle of dust?”

The Master replied, “Water in the bucket, food in the bowl.”



ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).