The Blue Cliff Record (1125) is the second most popular and central koan collection after the later Gateless Gate (1228), containing 100 koans, 82 of which were taken from the earlier Transmission of the Lamp record (1004). Yuanwu composed the Blue Cliff Record at Blue Cliff Cloister of Lingquan (“Ling-Chuwan”) temple, near the Blue Cliff Springs famous for pure waters used in tea, taking koan cases, questions and comments from his lectures he gave between 1111 and 1112 CE, “Turnabout Chan”, in Yuanwu’s words, which allows the wise, the “sage and a half”, to freely and instantaneously change directions between any things in any situation.
Yuanwu says in intro to the first case, “Being shown one corner and finding the other three, sizing up fine grains and lead weights with a glance, all this is the tea and rice of patch-robed monks.” Nagarjuna, Buddhism’s central logician, teaches the Four Things (Catuskoti), which can be placed as four corners on a square diagram: things are, are not, are and are not, and neither are nor are not. If we have four overlapping positions available in every situation, then we are free to move no matter how we are boxed in if we are unstuck.
We have already covered many of the Blue Cliff Record’s hundred gong-an cases. The first case is Bodhidharma arriving in China and upsetting Emperor Wu. Zhaozhou’s picking and choosing is the second case of the text. Mazu’s Sun Faced Buddha is the third. In the twelfth case, a monk asks Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?” and Tung Shan says, “Three pounds of hemp,” which is quite similar to Zhaozhou’s seven pound hemp shirt, the forty fifth case. Mazu twisting Baizhang’s nose after ducks flew away is the fifty third. Nanquan killing the cat is case sixty three, and Zhaozhou walking out with a sandal on his head after hearing about case sixty three is case sixty four.
In the 17th case, a monk asked, “What is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West?” and Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome.” Meditation can be a pain in the ass. This is not the only thing that Buddhism means, but because Buddhists, and particularly Chan-Dhyana meditating Buddhists, sit a great deal, Bodhidharma’s lineage means a great deal of things, which includes sitting for a long time being tiresome quite often. It isn’t the single truth of Buddhism, but even the question, “What is the single truth of Buddhism?” could be interpreted to mean, “What is the single truth of Buddhism right now, for you or whomever you think you are?” The question can always be interpreted universally, and it can always be interpreted particularly.
In the 22nd case, Hsueh Feng said to the assembly, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,” a strange unexplainable beast. “All of you here must go take a good look.” Yunmen took his staff, threw it to the floor, and pretended to be terribly frightened of it. This sounds nonsensical at first but contains obvious sense when we slowly take in its situation. In the Hindu Nyaya Sutra judging a rope or stick to be a snake is an example of our senses leading to mistakes of judgement. Hsueh Feng says that there is a strange creature on a mountain and we should all look, but the only possible candidate for turtle-nosed snake in the situation is Hsueh Feng and his strange story, taking our attention with his words and simultaneously redirecting it, casting it away from himself out onto some strange mountain to look for an unseen creature. Hsueh Feng, his words and his purpose are known and unknown, a strange living being that is opposed to itself, like a turtle-nosed snake. Yunmen throws down his staff and pretends it is a snake, imitating Hsueh Feng throwing out words and pretending they are a living creature on a mountain we should all be concerned about, showing us that he understands Hsueh Feng’s tricky meaning and is free to turn it against him.
In the 25th case, the hermit of Lotus Flower Peak, a strange arhat-like character who comes in to lecture monks after doing his own thing on a mountain by himself, held up his staff before the assembly and said, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they agree to stay here?” No one answered, so he replied, “Because they gained no strength on the path.” He then asked, “In the end, how is it?” No one answered, so he replied, “With my staff across my shoulders, I pay no heed to people. I go straight into the endless mountains.”
In the 31st case, Maku went to Zhangzhing’s place, circled Zhangzhing sitting in the central meditation seat three times, and shook his ringed staff once and took a proud stand. The khakkhara staff, known in China as the xizhang (tin stick) and in Japan as shakujo, is a staff for traveling Buddhist monks topped with several jangling metal rings that scare away ghosts and demons, warn animals so they won’t be surprised and scared, and call out to people who need help and teachings. By circling three times and shaking his staff, Maku is likely taking a protective and compassionate stand in the name of Buddhism and all conscious beings in the face of the endless circles of birth, existence and death, the number three used by many cultures to signify endlessness (…). Zhangzhing said, “Correct, correct.” Maku went to Nanquan’s place, master of Zhaozhou, and did the same. Nanquan said, “Wrong, wrong.” Maku said, “Zhangzhing said ‘correct’. Why do you say ‘wrong’?” Nanquan said, “Zhangzhing is correct. It is you who is wrong. This is what is turned about by the power of the wind. In the end it breaks down and disintegrates.”
In the 52nd case, a monk said to Zhaozhou, “For a long time I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I just see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge. You don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou said, “It lets foolish donkeys cross and lets fine horses cross.”
In the 60th case, Yunmen held his staff up in front of the assembly and said, “This staff has changed into a dragon and has swallowed up the entire universe. Where do mountains, rivers and the wide earth come from?” Yunmen the magician can make the universe disappear simply by holding up a single thing. Even when reading about the stick Yunmen talked about over a thousand years ago, we can lose sight of everything else. Then Yunmen pulls mountains, rivers and the entire earth out of his hat, and no one spoke of the mighty dragon stick again.
The 77th case is cake. A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?” Yunmen said, “Cake.” He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word.
In the 80th case, a monk asked, “Does a newborn baby have all six kinds of mind?” Zhaozhou said, “It is like throwing a ball into swift rapids.” Is Zhaozhou referring to the mind of the baby, his own mind seeking an answer, or the mind of the monk who asked the question? Trying to figure out which of these is the ball is like some sort of thing in some sort of swift moving water.
In the 81st case, a monk said, “On the grassy plain there are deer large and small. How can I shoot the greatest deer of all?” Yaoshan said, “Look! An arrow!” The monk fell to the floor as if dead. Yaoshan said, “Attendant! Drag this dead fellow out of here.” The monk leaped up and ran out. Yaoshan said, “How long will this fellow play with a mud ball?” The monk is asking a violent question, in tune with the song of Linji, possibly about the greatest When Yaoshan says there’s an arrow, he could be talking about the monk’s question, or he could be talking about calling attention to the monk’s question by saying there’s an arrow himself. You could only consider the second thought after considering the first, and the monk sees both which is why he plays along and falls to the floor as if dead, acting as if Yaoshan’s statement is an arrow aimed at him. Yaoshan plays along with the monk, and asks if someone can drag him out.
In the 85th case, a monk came to the hermit Tongfeng and asked, “What if you suddenly were face to face with a tiger out here?” Tongfeng roared like a tiger. The monk pretended to be frightened. The hermit laughed loudly. The monk said, “You old thief!” Tongfeng said, “What can you do to me?” The monk could say nothing. The monk created an imaginary tiger, asking Tongfeng what he would do. Tongfeng took the role of the tiger, stealing the monk’s imaginary beast from him like a thief, and the monk similarly stole the role of Tongfeng, which was temporarily vacant while Tongfeng was employed as a tiger. The monk accuses Tongfeng of stealing his imaginary role, and Tongfeng asks what the monk will do with Tongfeng’s ‘actual’ imaginary role as himself, showing that he doesn’t fear his own self stolen.
In the 89th case, Yunyen asked Daowu, “What does the bodhisattva of compassion need so many hands and eyes for? Daowu said, “It is like someone groping behind their head for a pillow in the middle of the night.” Yunyen said, “I understand.” Daowu said, “How do you understand it?” Yunyen said, “The body is covered with hands and eyes.” Daowu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but only four fifths of it.” Yunyen asked, “How would you say it, elder brother?” Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
In the 94th case, the text quotes the Surangama Sutra, “When I do not see, why do you not see my not seeing? If you see my not seeing, that is obviously not simply not seeing. If you don’t see my not seeing, then it obviously isn’t anything. How can this not be yourself?”
In the 98th case Tienping was traveling around and dropped in on Xiyuan (“Hsee-yuwan”), who would often claim that he could not find anyone who could quote a single saying of the true Buddhist teaching. Xiyuan saw Ping coming and called out his name. Ping raised his head, and Xiyuan said, “Wrong!” much as Zhaozhou did when asked, “What a perfect question?”. Ping took three steps towards Xiyuan and stopped. Again said Xiyuan said, “Wrong!” Ping approached, and Xiyuan asked him, “These two wrongs just now… Were they your wrongs or my wrongs?” Ping said, “My wrongs.” Xiyuan said, “Wrong!” Later Ping told the monks in his temple, “I did not say it was wrong then, but I already knew this was wrong when I set out for the South.”
In the final 100th case, a monk asked, “What is the sharpest sword?” Baling said, “The moon sits on each branch of coral.”