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Unlocking the Zen Koan: A New Translation of the Zen Classic Wumenguam Paperback – September 24, 1997


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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

A translation of a Chinese Zen classic called the "Wumenguan" from about A.D. 1200, this book will be popular with anyone seriously interested in Buddhism or Zen meditation. There are 48 koans (symbolic stories or sayings by Zen masters), followed by commentaries by later Zen masters and then an explanation by the author. Obviously, Zen koans aren't to be unlocked by simply reading a book; to remedy this, Cleary, who has studied them for 30 years and has a doctorate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard, provides a helpful section on how to read and work with koans and the commentaries. Recommended for libraries with patron interest in the subject.
- Del Cain, V.A. Medical Ctr. Lib., Bedford, Mass.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Chinese --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: North Atlantic Books (September 24, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 155643247X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556432477
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #942,523 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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See all 11 customer reviews
I wish they would read this book before they speak.
David E. Johnston
I am greatly indebted to Thomas Cleary for helping to clear away delusions, his analyses of these koans are remarkable for their insight.
G. ORafferty
A superb explanation of Zen introduces a brilliant translation of the Wumenguan, the most famous book of Zen riddle-lessons.
Richard Brodie

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By John S. Ryan on December 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
This translation of and commentary on the well-known Wumenguan/Mumonkan is one of Thomas Cleary's finest works. (I also think well of his _Dhammapada_.) As reviewer David Johnston has noted in his excellent and accurate review, it will clear up plenty of the misconceptions about Zen encouraged by people who (deliberately or otherwise) profit from obfuscation. And Cleary's commentary -- based on some thirty years of experience with the koans themselves -- will provide valuable guidance that those professional obfuscators would probably prefer that you not have.
There are plenty of books out there that purport to be about Zen, but as far as I can tell, only a handful of them are genuinely helpful over the long haul -- Reps's _Zen Flesh, Zen Bones_, Kapleau's _Three Pillars_, Suzuki's _Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind_, the other Suzuki's _Introduction to Zen Buddhism_, maybe Alan Watts's _The Way of Zen_ and Stephen Mitchell's _Dropping Ashes on the Buddha_. Cleary's Wumenguan belongs on the shelf next to these.
Cleary insists (correctly) that Zen is not anti-intellectual or anti-reason ("not blind to causality"), and it doesn't encourage the practitioner to dissolve one's mind (or the world) into undifferentiated mush. On that basis alone, quite a few of the trendy "Zen" books currently in print can be tossed directly into the trash.
One fact of which the reader/buyer should be aware: this is the very same book that was previously published as _No Barrier_ (which the back cover of this volume incorrectly calls _No Boundary_). I've had the earlier book since it was first published and I'm glad I didn't buy this one.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By G. ORafferty on April 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
Thomas Cleary is a master. This book is marvelous, as are all of the books I have read of his. I am greatly indebted to Thomas Cleary for helping to clear away delusions, his analyses of these koans are remarkable for their insight.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By David E. Johnston on January 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
A wonderful book on Zen koans. There are a few other books on Zen koans but this is the only one with such commentaries written in simple language. Cleary is a great translator and excellent at explaining what these koans and koans in general are all about. Any body interested in Zen MUST own this book. It is perhaps my favorite book period. I have read so much hog-wash about Zen by people who don't understand it. I wish they would read this book before they speak. Zen is not
gibberish, Zen is not anti-thinking, Zen is not nihilistic. Cleary explains this perfectly through his commetaries on these koans. By the way, the koans themseleves are masterpieces but this book is especially good because of what Cleary has done. I do like to read others translations of the Wumenguan and so I recommend other books like Zen Flesh Zen Bone as well.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By John S. Ryan on December 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
Readers/buyers may want to know that this book has been republished as _Unlocking the Zen Koan_. Here's what I said about it in a review under its new title:
This translation of and commentary on the well-known Wumenguan/Mumonkan is one of Thomas Cleary's finest works. (I also think highly of his _Dhammapada_.) As reviewer David Johnston has noted in his excellent and accurate review [under the other title], it will clear up plenty of the misconceptions about Zen encouraged by people who (deliberately or otherwise) profit from obfuscation. And Cleary's commentary -- based on some thirty years of experience with the koans themselves -- will provide valuable guidance that those professional obfuscators would probably prefer that you not have.
There are plenty of books out there that purport to be about Zen, but as far as I can tell, only a handful of them are genuinely helpful over the long haul -- Reps's _Zen Flesh, Zen Bones_, Kapleau's _Three Pillars_, Suzuki's _Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind_, the other Suzuki's _Introduction to Zen Buddhism_, maybe Alan Watts's _The Way of Zen_ and Stephen Mitchell's _Dropping Ashes on the Buddha_. Cleary's Wumenguan belongs on the shelf next to these.
Cleary insists (correctly) that Zen is not anti-intellectual or anti-reason ("not blind to causality"), and it doesn't encourage the practitioner to dissolve one's mind (or the world) into undifferentiated mush. On that basis alone, probably half the "Zen" books currently in print can be tossed directly into the trash.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By calmly on August 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
At first encounter with Zen koan's, you may feel overwhelmed. Is a master needed? Is some rare enlightenment required? Is it worth an effort of perhaps many years?

Maybe. But one can also approach a collection like this in a more playful, more participatory way, which Cleary seems to encourage with his comments as translator.

My understanding of these koans isn't that great and I can't say that have changed my life so much, but rather than consider koan study something I would never have time to do or could never find a teacher to help me with, with this book one can work with the core koans, the commentaries, and Cleary's comments: Cleary provides some handles that enable a modern reader to unravel the koan, as do the commentaries given Cleary's comments, so that one can return to view each koan as a pithy statement of a difficult issue in life that can be expanded out via the book's commentaries and your own responses, then allowed to transition back to that one brief statement.

Or something like that. My ignorance is substantial but why not try to get something out of these koans rather than hold them too aloof? Zen masters and the rest of us share the human condition: did you think they escaped it? Since I adopted this attitude and used Cleary's comments, I believe I have made some progress with these koans, although I admit it is hard to see it at this time in what way it has changed my life. But perhaps considered as grounding lessons, each of the koans in this collection provide a check that one is not going off any spiritual deep end.
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