Entangling Vines - Introduction

A Classic Collection of Zen Koans


352 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614290773

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ISBN 9781614290964

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The koan collection Shūmon kattōshū 宗門葛藤集 has found an able translator in Thomas Kirchner, a ten-year veteran of Zen monastic life and presently the caretaker of Rinsen-ji, the subtemple that serves as the Founder’s Hall of Tenryū-ji in Kyoto. In translating this work, one of the most important texts for Japanese Rinzai koan studies, Kirchner worked closely with Rev. Hirata Seikō (1924–2008), the former Chief Abbot of the Tenryū-ji branch of Rinzai Zen and former master of Tenryū-ji monastery.

Born in the state of Maryland in 1949, Kirchner left the United States in 1969 for a junior-year-abroad program at the International Division of Waseda University in Tokyo. There he studied Japanese culture and religion, and practiced the martial art of kyūdō (Japanese archery). His first encounter with a Zen master was with ninety-five-year-old Katō Kōzan Rōshi (1876–1971), the priest of a small temple in the mountains west of Tokyo and one of the greatest Zen teachers of that generation. Through this connection he later met Kōzan Rōshi’s successor, Tsukada Kōun Rōshi (1898–1985), priest of the temple Shōan-ji in Nagano Prefecture, where Kirchner moved in early 1971 to begin formal Zen practice.

Kirchner’s encounter with these two exceptional teachers determined the course of his subsequent training. In the Spring 1996 issue of the journal Zen Bunka, Kirchner briefly described his stay under Kōun Rōshi. I find it a particularly evocative picture of his early contact with Zen, so I reproduce it here in full:

On the weekends I used to attend the meditation retreats at Katō Kōzan’s temple Toku’un-in, located deep in a valley where two rivers joined. It was on one of these visits that I first met Tsukada Kōun Rōshi.

Every autumn, as the Japanese maples started to redden, Kōun Rōshi and several of his students would visit Toku’un-in to pay their respects to Kōzan Rōshi. On these occasions meditation would be cancelled, and everyone would gather around a large table for an informal dinner in honor of the visitors. Kōun Rōshi, seventy-two years old at the time, had none of the mysterious air that I once associated with Zen masters. He was a plain man, looking rather like an old farmer, with a gaze that was open, yet penetrating and perceptive.

Those at the table asked me if there was anything I wished to ask Kōun Rōshi. As it was, a question had been on my mind for some time. I had come to Japan on a student visa for my junior-year-abroad program with Waseda, and had remained after the program to begin Zen practice. To support myself I was working as an English teacher, an activity that my visa status did not, strictly speaking, allow. Full honesty with oneself is central to Zen practice, I felt, and yet in order to practice Zen I was having to lie. I asked Kōun Rōshi what I should do in such a situation. He immediately replied, with a goodnatured laugh, “In a situation like that, you should be completely honest about telling the lie.”

My plan had been to live at Toku’un-in from January 1971, but when I arrived at the temple soon after the New Year’s holiday it became obvious that Kōzan Rōshi’s failing health would make that impossible. The people there recommended that I stay instead with Kōun Rōshi at Shōan-ji, saying they would notify him of my coming. The next morning I went to the nearby town of Itsukaichi and boarded a local train for Nagano Prefecture, high in the mountains of central Japan. At about seven o’clock in the evening, after several transfers and a few extended stops at snow-covered rural stations, each one colder than the last, I finally arrived at Nakagomi, the town nearest Shōan-ji. A twenty-minute bus ride took me to the foot of the long stone path leading up to the temple through a grove of giant cryptomeria trees. The moonlight, reflected by the snow, cast a pale glow over the winter landscape.

Reaching the temple, I noticed lights on in the room next to the entrance hall, and called out in greeting. Kōun Rōshi had not, it turned out, received word of my coming, but if he and his wife were surprised to see a shaven-headed foreigner standing in their entranceway they did not show it. My request to stay was accepted without so much as a raised eyebrow. Thus began my half-year stay under this unusual master.

Every day Kōun Rōshi would rise with us at four-thirty in the morning for an hour of zazen in the piercing cold of the meditation hall. After seating himself he would lean forward and strike his own shoulders several times with his short warning-stick (keisaku), as if to spur himself on to greater efforts. Zazen was followed by private sanzen instruction, then about thirty or forty minutes of sutra chanting in the main hall. At the end of the formal sutra service Kōun Rōshi would take a few sticks of lighted incense out on the porch, raise them toward the morning sky in his wrinkled hand, and read a few short sutras.

Kōun Rōshi read the sutras with an unusual rhythm. Katō Kōzan Rōshi once called him a tanuki (a racoon-like animal with a trickster reputation), and, sure enough, whenever anyone tried to follow his rhythm Kōun Rōshi would subtly change it.

But, tanuki though he may have been, Kōun Rōshi had no deceit. There was a deep integrity about him; at that time I was full of unrealistic ideals about Zen, enlightenment, and Zen masters, yet nothing that Kōun Rōshi said or did during the entire time I was there betrayed those ideals, or seemed in any way dishonest or false.

Unusually for a Zen master, he was something of a philosopher, a man who enjoyed discussing ideas and who had a gift for explaining complex problems in simple terms. No matter how abstract or theoretical a question I would ask, he always had a concrete reply that somehow cut through to the core of the issue. Never in these discussions did I sense any impatience—he would explain until I was satisfied, however long that took. The master also put great value on samu 作務, manual labor. The best jobs for Zen monks

were weed-pulling and emptying the toilets, he said, and even at his age he would help with those chores.

Later, after I left Nagano and began formal monastic life, I would sometimes return to Shōan-ji during the off-season. No matter what my doubts and questions were at the time, merely being with Kōun Rōshi for a few days was enough to dispel them.

The rōshi remained in good health until the end of his life. According to his wife, one evening he said “I’ll rest now,” and went to bed. That night he died in his sleep. He was eighty-eight years old.

Desiring to experience formal monastic life, in June 1971 Kirchner entered Shōfuku-ji monastery in Kobe as a lay monk and trained there for three years under Yamada Mumon Rōshi (1900–1988). In 1974 he was ordained and given the name Shaku Yūhō 釋 雄峯, and soon afterward entered Kenchō-ji monastery in Kamakura as an unsui (a formal Zen training monk). He remained at Kenchō-ji under Minato Sodō Rōshi (1912–2006) until 1978, when he left monastic life for several years to complete his college studies. After receiving a B.A. in Buddhist studies from Ōtani University in 1981, he resumed his training under Sodō Rōshi, who had in the meantime moved to Kennin-ji monastery in Kyoto.

In 1984, after three years at Kennin-ji, Kirchner left the unsui life and moved to the Daitoku-ji subtemple Hōshun-in. Returning to his academic studies, he received a masters degree in Buddhist studies from Otani University and in education from Temple University (Japan). In 1992 he accepted the position of copyeditor at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture at Nanzan University in Nagoya, and he worked there for six years on the Institute’s journals and monographs. During this period he lived near the Sōtō Zen temple Tokurin-ji, where every morning he tended a large vegetable garden before heading to work. Following a health breakdown in 1997 he resigned his position and returned to Kyoto, where, in addition to his duties as caretaker of the Tenryū-ji subtemple Rinsen-ji, he works at the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism at Hanazono University.

Kirchner’s varied life experiences, including monastic training, meditation, academic research, and professional translation and editing, can be seen as part of his overall practice of Zen. These elements have now come together to make the Kattōshū available to the English-speaking world.

The Shūmon Kattōshū

The Shūmon kattōshū is one of the few major koan texts to have been compiled in Japan. The name of the compiler (or compilers) is unknown. So, too, is the date of compilation, but the fact that the first printed version appeared in the year 1689 makes it, at the very latest, a work of the early Tokugawa period (1600–1868).

Most of the 272 cases that constitute the Kattōshū were taken from Chinese koan collections popular in Japan, like the Wumen guan 無門關 (Gateless Gate), Blue Cliff Record 碧巖錄, Record of Linji 臨濟錄, Record of Equanimity 從容錄, and Record of Xutang 虛堂錄, as well as biographical literature like the Jingde-Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp 景徳傳燈錄 and Compendium of the Five Lamps 五燈會元.

An intriguing additional feature, however, is the presence of eight koans of Japanese origin. Case 61 features the Japanese monk Nanpo Jōmyō 南浦紹明 (1235–1309), who studied in China and transmitted the lineage of Xutang Zhiyu 虛堂智愚 (1185–1269); Cases 107, 144, 169, and 225 feature Shūhō Myōchō 宗峰妙超 (1282–1338), the successor of Nanpo; Cases 35, 225, and 253 feature Kanzan Egen 關山慧玄 (1277–1360), the chief Dharma heir of Shūhō and the founder of Myōshin-ji 妙心寺; Case 213 features Tettō Gikō 徹翁義享 (1295–1369), Shūhō’s successor at Daitoku-ji; and Case 225 features Musō Soseki 夢窓疎石 (1275– 1351), a contemporary of Kanzan Egen and the founding priest of Tenryū-ji. The “ancient worthy” mentioned in Case 170 may also have been Musō Soseki. Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686–1769), the great reviver of the Japanese Rinzai school, appears in Case 199 of the present Kattōshū text, although this is a later accretion that does not appear in the first edition, published when Hakuin had just been born.

With the exception of Musō, the Japanese masters who appear are all associated with the Ōtōkan 應燈關 lineage, the Japanese Rinzai teaching line starting with Nanpo Jōmyō, Shūhō Myōchō, and Kanzan Egen, and continuing through the generations of their successors (the name Ōtōkan derives from the ō 應 of Daiō Kokushi 大應國師 [Nanpo’s honorary title], the 燈 of Daitō Kokushi 大燈國師 [Shūhō’s title], and the kan 關 of Kanzan Egen 關山慧玄). The text’s design, too, follows that of a koan collection by Shūhō entitled Daitō’s One Hundred and Twenty Cases 大燈百二十則. It is nearly certain, therefore, that the Kattōshū was compiled by priests of the Ōtōkan lineage. The ascendancy of this school (all present-day Rinzai masters belong to it) secured the position of the Kattōshū in the Rinzai koan training system, a position strengthened by each of the text’s successive printings during the seventeenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

The Kattōshū, then, took form in accordance with the special character and approach of the Japanese Rinzai Zen school. The compilers—most likely a series of masters who selected and rearranged its contents in response to the practical needs of their students—created an anthology especially suited for use in koan-oriented Zen meditation practice.

The first distinctive feature of the collection is the large number of koans it contains. Its 272 cases far outnumber the 48 cases of the Wumen guan, the 100 cases of the Blue Cliff Record, and the 100 cases of Record of Equanimity. A text with this number and variety of koans would provide ample material for a master as he worked with a student over the years, examining and refining the Zen experience first from one standpoint, then from another. Kajitani Sōnin (1914–95), former chief abbot of Shōkoku-ji and author of an annotated, modern-Japanese translation of the Kattōshū, commented that “herein ar compiled the basic Dharma materials of the koan system” (1982, “Kaidai” 解題). And, in fact, most of the central koans in the present Rinzai koan curriculum are contained in this work.

Another distinctive feature of the Kattōshū is that, unlike the Wumen guan and Blue Cliff Record, the koans are presented “bare,” with no introductions, commentaries, or verses. This, too, may be seen as a result of the text’s development within the context of active Zen training: the straightforward structure of the koans tends to give them added force and immediacy, emphasizing the point that the koan is asking the student to address. The vitality of this approach is certain to bring home to English-speaking readers the fact that the question each koan confronts us with is the same as the question that Zen as a whole confronts us with, which, at the deepest level, is the question that life itself confronts us with.

Although Kirchner began the Kattōshū translation as a personal project, when the text’s many difficulties became apparent he turned to Tenryū-ji’s Hirata Seikō Rōshi for advice. Hirata met with Kirchner several times a month over the course of a year and a half to clarify the Chinese readings and discuss approaches to translating the koans themselves. Hirata’s two principal Dharma heirs, Sasaki Yōdō and Yasunaga Sodō, joined the seminars on a number of occasions.

Both Sasaki and Yasunaga are, like Hirata, striving to find Zen’s place in the modern world even as they maintain the classical Zen tradition. Sasaki, Hirata’s successor as master of Tenryū-ji monastery, is a graduate of Kyoto University, where he studied modern academic Buddhology under Kajiyama Yūichi (1925–2004). Sasaki is the author of a book on Tenryū-ji’s founder Musō Soseki, and he is at present the leading authority on this figure.

Yasunaga, following completion of his training under Hirata, established an international Zen center at his temple, Shōun-ji, and joined the faculty of Hanazono University in Kyoto as a professor of Zen studies. He is also active in the East-West Spiritual Exchange, a program of interreligious dialogue between Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns.

The participation of these three masters, deeply versed in both traditional Zen practice and modern academic thought, helped lay a solid foundation for the readings and interpretations of the Kattōshū koans.

During the past several decades linguists specializing in Tang and Song Chinese have identified many inaccuracies in the traditional Japanese readings of the Chinese Zen literature, the implication being that these mistaken readings have led to misunderstandings of the texts themselves. This challenge to traditional Japanese Zen is one that must be taken seriously—if the texts are to be used at all, they obviously must be read in a manner that is linguistically correct. This is doubly true when translation is involved.

Nevertheless, merely reading a text in a philologically correct way does not guarantee that one understands the text’s message. The reading of any work invariably involves interpretation, and that, in turn, inevitably brings up questions of the depth and horizon of that interpretation. This is particularly true in the case of Zen texts, where the surface meaning of the words does not always directly convey the intention of the author or speaker. The paradoxical result is that readings which are correct from a linguistic point of view can suggest interpretations that are misleading, and vice versa. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of Zen literature.

The question of how to read a text in a philologically sound way does not always correspond to the question of how to read a text in a way that yields the text’s true intention (a way of reading that, in Zen, implies an almost physical process, in which the problem addressed by the text is recognized as one’s own personal problem). Zen has produced many texts, and Zen without texts is not Zen. Yet texts in and of themselves are also not Zen. Zen encompasses texts; that which the texts cannot express is approached through the texts, then experienced beyond the texts. Mere knowledge of the term “original face,” for example, does not mean that one truly knows what the term is pointing to.

The people most familiar with the use of texts in Zen training are the shike, the masters at the Zen training monasteries. During the one-on-one encounters between master and disciple known as sanzen, koans like those in the Kattōshū are given to the monk in the form of questions or problems that the monk must respond to. These questions are presented in the form of language, and the responses, too, are expressed in the form of language (including body language and silence). Yet the trajectory that connects these two linguistic endpoints is not itself a step-by-step progression of words. There occurs during the deep samadhi of zazen a leap that separates and yet simultaneously bridges the language of the question and the language of the response. This process may be characterized as one of “from language, into language,” with the inquiry emerging from words and the response emerging into words.

In this “from language, into language” dynamic lies the true significance

of “text” in Zen practice. At the same time, the text represents a form of invitation to and guidance in experiencing this movement “from language, into language.”

This dynamic continues another step in the case of the present translation: “from Sino-Japanese, into English.” Here too a leap out of language and back into language was required. The synergistic action of this double leap has given birth to a new text, one that emerges into the world of English less influenced than the original text by the outlook of Japanese culture.

In this way, translation can be a valuable approach to the re-creation of a new, more direct expression of Zen. Entangling Vines had its origins in the discussions between three forward-looking Japanese Zen masters and an experienced Zen monk from America. It is my hope that it will not be seen simply as an English translation of the Shūmon kattōshū, but as an important text in its own right.


Ueda Shizuteru


Ueda Shizuteru, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University, specializes in the philosophy of religion. His areas of interest include Christian mysticism, Buddhist thought, and Kyoto School philosophy. He is a longtime practitioner of Zen meditation.


How to cite this document:
© Thomas Yūhō Kirchner, Entangling Vines (Wisdom Publications, 2013)

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