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Review of No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan


No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan, translated by Thomas Cleary, Bantam.

Billed as a translation of the Wumenguan, a classic collection of Chinese Zen koans and commentary, this book is far more than that. Thomas Cleary, translator of such Asian religious texts as the I Ching and the bestselling The Art of War, supplements the original thirteenth century version of Wumenguan with much new material. For each of the forty- eight koans presented here, Cleary includes the commentary by Wumen Huikai, the original author, as well as commentary from several different Zen masters from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries. Then Cleary comments of these earlier remarks, putting them into less metaphoric language and comparing one to another. He also explains terms and concepts unfamiliar to the Western reader. The result is a multi-layered exposition of each koan, giving the fledgling student a rich overview of how koans work, the ways they have of being interpreted, and the enlightenment they can provoke. As Cleary explains, “This book unravels the secrets of the most popular collection of koans, revealing them as tools for opening up the inherent genius of the mind.”

As an example, the koan, “The world is so wide, so vast; why put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell?” is followed by a 100-word comment from Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Zen master Gushan, and a three-page discussion from Cleary. This wealth of analysis–from several perspectives–offers the student a greater opportunity to gain the multiple insights this koan embodies.

In addition, Cleary’s introduction outlines a practical way to use the koans in this book to foster Zen consciousness–a state of mind free from automatic habits of thought and emotion. Based on Wumen’s own teachings, this method aids the serious student to calm the inner turmoil of the mind, drop the blinders of conditioned thought, and achieve control over his mental state. No Barrier can therefore be used as a training manual for reaching Zen consciousness. Or, for the casual reader, as a valuable guide to Zen thought and its expression through the traditional koan.

--Thomas Wiloch