Zen Echoes - Foreword
The voices of three female Zen masters reverberate in this much-needed collection.
Foreword by Susan Moon
In the following pages, you get to hear a conversation between four wise
Buddhist women: Miaozong, Baochi, Zukui and their translator, Beata
Grant herself. They meet each other right here, across vast distances of
time and space, and you get to meet them, too, and hear their interweaving
This is the first English translation of a remarkable book. In the
twelfth century, the female Chan master Miaozong wrote commentaries
in verse for a number of classic Chan kōans. Five centuries later,
two more female masters, Baochi and Zukui, who were friends, added
another layer when they collaborated to write verse commentaries in
response to Miaozong’s verses, as well as to the kōans themselves. In
her substantial and informative introduction, Grant speaks of the significance
of this book as the first collection of commentaries that is
only by women. She provides historical and cultural context for the
kōans and verse commentaries, and biographical background on the
How grateful I am to Beata Grant for bringing us these verses. This
book reminds me how much we contemporary American Buddhist
practitioners and readers of Buddhist literature owe to the scholars. We
can’t take Beata Grant for granted. Bringing these verses into modern
English requires translation beyond translation. It can only be done by a
very knowledgeable scholar.
To translate means to “carry across,” and translating ancient Chinese
into modern English takes a lot of carrying, across culture, space, and
time: from Chinese characters to the roman alphabet, from China across
the Pacific to the West, and in this case from twelfth-and
seventeenth-centurywriters to twenty-first century readers.
The Chinese characters are printed in the book immediately following
the English translation of each kōan and verse. To my eye this delicate
code is completely mysterious, and it seems magic that anyone would be
able to turn these latticework tiles into English sentences.
As I understand it, a Chinese character contains many possibilities,
and sometimes simultaneous meanings and puns. One character can contain
many words and can be unpacked in different ways. There are also
many cultural and Buddhist references embedded in Chinese writing, so
Grant needs to know not just the individual characters, but how they work
together in their own cultural context.
Grant must also choose the English idiom that best expresses to us the
voices of these long-gone Chinese women. Chan masters, including these
three, often spoke bluntly: “It’s all a bunch of crap.” The imagery is strong:
“The nostrils his mother gave him turn black with frostbite.” Often surprising:
“The white sun in the blue sky grabs the fire and runs off with it.”
And occasionally gentle: “On the limitless misty waves, a leaf of a boat.”
It must be a challenge to ring these changes in English. A few times a
footnote says, with disarming transparency, “This translation is tentative,”
affirming the difficulty of the job. But mostly the footnotes give important
and clarifying background information, elucidating many of the references.
They are further evidence of Grant’s scholarship and are full of
wonderful tidbits and stories. Taken by themselves, they could make a
lively prose-poem chapbook.
Kōans are famously difficult to “understand” in our ordinary way of
thinking, and the verse commentaries hardly straighten things out for us.
Chan is nonlinear, and the point is to stretch and open wide the mind,
taking us beyond habitual thinking.
So, let the mystery itself be part of the pleasure of the reading. Here is
Zukui, responding to the well-known kōan “Nanquan Kills the Cat”:
Below the sharp sword, both were good at turning the body;
There is nobody walking under the moon along the old road.
That which was blocked has been transmitted and flourishes;
At the golden gates, the secret armies halt by imperial decree!
Kōans and commentaries can be read like dreams, like poetry. And these
commentaries are poetry—after all, they are in verse. They add further
chords and resonances to the kōans, as you might expect from the title The
Concordant Sounds Collection of Verse Commentaries.
Repetition is one way to approach the mystery. I like to memorize a
verse that touches me, and say it over and over to myself, until I connect
with it like a familiar dream. I chose this verse of Baochi’s:
A mud Buddha does not pass through water;
Thoroughly merged, nothing left incomplete.
If you wash with water your face will shine;
If you drink your tea, your lips will be moist.
I’m drinking my tea right now, and my lips are completely moist. The
mud I’m made of is completely dissolved in the watery air.
Once in a while a verse comes along like a simple song, and this welcome,
too. Here is Baochi’s verse on the kōan “Every Day Is a Good Day”:
On clear days, the sun comes out;
When it rains, the earth is damp.
There is no need to think about anything else,
Except to finish up your business.
One of the things I appreciate about these verses is the open expression
of emotion they sometimes contain. (I can’t help wondering if this has
anything to do with the fact that they are by women.) For example, in
response to the kōan about Huike cutting off his arm in order to prove his
sincerity to Bodhidharma, Zukui writes,
He was able to get his mind pacified, but his wrist was severed.
Thinking about it makes one want to cry out to the high heavens.
And Baochi, commenting on Zhaozhou’s challenging question: “Do
you have it? Do you have it?” writes, “My breast surges with hot blood;
can anyone understand this?”
These verses use words to speak of what is often spoken of in Zen/Chan:
the impossibility of expressing the ultimate truth in words. Miaozong says,
To go on and talk about the real Buddha being within
Does nothing but show you’re already muddleheaded.
Baochi puts it this way:
The real Buddha sits within.
By putting it into words you’ve made a mistake—
And yet, here are all these wonderful verses. Thank you, Beata Grant, for
making the mistake of putting them into English words.