Chan Rhetoric of Uncertainty in the Blue Cliff Record

Sharpening a Sword at the Dragon Gate

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Steven Heine
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Blue Cliff Record, which has long been celebrated as the “premier work of the Chan school,” was created by Yuanwu Keqin, a Chan master in Southern Song dynasty who collected and provided prose remarks on one hundred gongan/koan cases that were selected and appraised by Xuedou Chongxian. This collection is famous for the legend that it had been lost for almost two centuries after Dahui Zonggao—the foremost disciple of Yuanwu—incinerated the original tablets due to the discrepancies of teaching principles between them. The work of author Steve Heine is a study focusing on, but not limited to, the Blue Cliff Record. By placing the Blue Cliff Record into an extended historical framework, Heine provides perspicacious analysis on the commentary tradition of Chan Buddhism—including verse remarks (頌古), prose comments (拈古)and prose remarks (評唱)—so that the trajectory of the development of gongan cases commentary could be manifested. In addition to the longitudinal analysis, Heine explores the rhetorical strategies that both Xuedou and Yuanwu use for remarking gongan cases in a cross-sectional way, thus displaying the multilayered rhetorical voices in these flexible comments.

Chan Rhetoric of Uncertainty in the Blue Cliff Record is broken into six chapters, accompanied by four appendices. The first chapter is the “prelude” of the book, roughly explaining the necessity of taking the standpoint of “uncertainty” to understand Yuanwu’s distinctive rhetorical style. As Heine points out, “[uncertainty] encompasses the notion of Chan doubt that many keyword proponents support, but [also] represents a more basic and freewheeling interpretative awareness by avoiding the view that this sensation is an inevitable stepping-stone to the attainment of certainty through mastering the keyword” (29). The second chapter considers a variety of genres of Chan literature, which impacted the formation of multilayered rhetorical style in the Blue Cliff Record, including several Chan masters from different Chan houses who were famous for their remarks on gongan cases. The next two chapters deal with the discrepancies between Xuedou, Yuanwu, and Dahui, respectively, which is the essential part of the book. In this part, Heine discusses several debated questions: How does Yuanwu appraise Xuedou’s remarks? Is Yuanwu’s way of commentary due to the inheritance and development, or the criticism and rejection, of Xuedou’s remarks? Is Dahui’s keyword method included in Yuanwu’s prose remarks potentially? Does Dahui endorse or oppose Yuanwu’s commentary style? In solving these issues, Heine concludes that Yuanwu’s approach to gongan commentary is compatible with and reinforcing of Xuedou’s verse, while both Yuanwu and Dahui remain skeptical about the attachment to language, believing that it will be “a poison to counteract poison or delusion to bury delusion” (170). The fifth chapter analyzes gongan cases in the Blue Cliff Record with great detail, in which Heine presents the three different levels in commentaries reflecting Xuedou and Yuanwu’s responses to diversity, and disparity within Chan. (188) The last chapter discusses the great influence that the Blue Cliff Record brought to later generations, in which the two legends of Dahui’s destroying the tablets and Dogen’s transmitting the collection have been examined. In doing so, Heine tries to reveal the significance of Dahui’s keyword method behind these legends. Moreover, the Blue Cliff Record’s rhetoric voice was inherited and developed by gongan collections in later times, even though it had been lost in circulation for two centuries.

As the title reveals, the main theme of the Blue Cliff Record is “uncertainty.” It indicates that on the one hand, this collection is not “reader-friendly” given that the correct answer to gongan cases—the riddle-like statement—is usually received by the heart and understood tacitly between master and disciple. As a result, the question of the answer makes the gongan case itself fulfilled with uncertainty. To most Chan practitioners, gongan cases are still conundrums due to their unaware attachments. On the other hand, according to Heine’s argumentation, Yuanwu’s commentary not only weakens the “certain” implication given by Xuedou, but also deliberately creates an uncertain atmosphere in order to eliminate fixations and inclinations in the reader’s mind. In other words, Yuanwu is so alert to the limitations of language that he never breaks the “certainty” with “uncertainty.” Yuanwu’s attitude towards language is in accordance with the philosophical principle of “detaching from two sides”—to avoid attaching flowery language and inscrutable silence at the same time. In Yuanwu’s view, rhetoric is a double-edge sword, which partly serves as the expedient mean assisting people to reach their realization, but meanwhile, the fixed language also results in restrictive thinking. The uncertainty of Yuanwu’s commentary settles the contradiction between self-attainment and the reliance on literature within Chan Buddhism, for it constantly denies the statements and appraisals that Xuedou and Yuanwu previously made.

To conclude, it can be said that Heine offers a more holistic study on the Blue Cliff Record in comparison with other academic works focusing on the same topic. The great value of Heine’s work is its unique vision, and the angle of seeing and addressing problems. In presenting a distinctive analysis on the rhetoric of Yuanwu, Heine has not only connected the Blue Cliff Record with previous commentary tradition in Buddhism, but he has also unfolded the key role of Yuanwu and his rhetorical style as the turning point in the development of Chan remarks. The only shortage in this volume is that Heine fails to pay enough attention to the circle of literati, who had a great impact on the formation and evolution of Chan literature in Song dynasty. But all in all, Heine’s innovative interpretations of the Blue Cliff Record will benefit scholars studying the fields of religion, literature, philosophy, and history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lu Zhang is a doctoral student in East Asian studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven Heine is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Founding Director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida International University.

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