Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters

by Steven Heine

See All Formats & Editions

With the growing popularity of Zen Buddhism in the West, virtually everyone knows, or thinks they know, what a koan is: a brief and baffling question or statement that cannot be solved by the logical mind and which, after sustained concentration, can lead to sudden enlightenment. But the truth about koans is both simpler--and more complicated--than this. In


With the growing popularity of Zen Buddhism in the West, virtually everyone knows, or thinks they know, what a koan is: a brief and baffling question or statement that cannot be solved by the logical mind and which, after sustained concentration, can lead to sudden enlightenment. But the truth about koans is both simpler--and more complicated--than this. In Opening a Mountain, Steven Heine shows that koans, and the questions we associate with them--such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"--are embedded in larger narratives and belong to an ancient Buddhist tradition of "encounter dialogues." These dialogues feature dramatic and often inscrutable contests between masters and disciples, or between masters and an array of natural and supernatural forces: rouge priests, "wild foxes," hermits, wizards, shapeshifters, magical animals, and dangerous women. To establish a new monastery, "to open a mountain," the Zen master had to tame these wild forces in regions most remote from civilization. In these extraordinary encounters, fingers and arms are cut off, pitchers are kicked over, masters appear in and interpret each other's dreams, and seemingly absurd statements are shown to reveal the deepest insights. Heine restores these koans to their original traditions, allowing readers to see both the complex elements of Chinese culture and religion that they reflect and the role they played in Zen's transformation of local superstitions into its own teachings. Offering a fresh approach to one of the most crucial elements of Zen Buddhism, Opening a Mountain is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the full story behind koans and the mysterious worlds they come from.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Koans are paradoxical statements intended to derail mental business-as-usual for the Zen Buddhist student on the journey to enlightenment. A book about koans at first glance seems itself paradoxical, since it requires the cognitive discrimination that koans seek to upend. Yet the tradition of koans comprises centuries of commentary by students and masters, which records the mental wrestling that koan use embodies. With this study, Heine, a professor of religious studies and history at Florida International University, augments his own contribution to Zen studies, which already consists of a dozen books. Heine organizes koans from a variety of sources to illustrate the Chinese and Japanese historical contexts from which the koan "canon" emerged. He argues that koans play upon, and with, elements of the supernatural that prevailed in the popular religious traditions that Zen encountered and transformed. His 60 selected koans, for which he provides his own prose translations, support his thesis and distinguish yet another interpretive strand in the bundle of non-dualistic possibilities entangled in the koan. This is not a book for the nightstand Buddhist; readers educated in Buddhist thought, however, can better appreciate the whimsical and formidable discipline that koans represent and cultivate. This book is a respectful and respectable contribution to the growing body of contemporary Buddhist studies at a time when Buddhism is establishing a vital presence in the American religious landscape. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

"This is an innovative reading and presentation of Zen literature. It breaks new ground in the study of Zen and in the interpretation of k?an literature, setting a standard for these in terms of scholarly rigor and broad accessibility that is truly impressive. Opening a Mountain will encourage us to read k?ans in much more articulate literary, sociological, and historical setting than we have previously managed. This is an excellent book." --Philosophy East & West

"This is an innovative reading and presentation of Zen literature. It breaks new ground in the study of Zen and in the interpretation of koan literature, setting a standard for these in terms of scholarly rigor and broad accessibility that is truly impressive. Opening a Mountain will encourage us to read koans in a much more articulate literary, sociological, and historical setting than we have previously managed. This is an excellent book."--H-Net

"Erudite and well-researched.... Religious scholar and historian Heine is well-qualified to guide an exploration of the contexts from which various koans have emerged. The book is fascinating."--NAPRA Review

"A respectful and respectable contribution to the growing body of contemporary Buddhist studies at a time when Buddhism is establishing a vital presence in the American religious landscape."--Publishers Weekly

"Heine is an accomplished, deft writer.... For those intrigued with koans, the enigmatic teachings of Zen Buddhism, this text offers translations of and critical commentary on sixty of these always lively, often maddening, anecdotes."--The Asian Reporter

"An important step towards reading the Zen records more within the context of the broader cultural environment that generated them." --Japanese Religions

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
690 KB

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The cases in this chapter deal with encounters that Zen masters had with images and symbols of nature animated by supernatural properties that are reflected in popular religious beliefs. These koans demonstrate that while Zen masters admired mountains as a realm of purity and transcendence where they could practice meditation in seclusion or establish a new monastery, they also had to contest with, overcome, or assimilate magical forces—including spirits, gods, and bodhisattvas as well as demons—that controlled the entranceway to those domains. This was done through the power of Zen rituals, contemplation, and rhetoric that was able to challenge and successfully overcome diverse and dispersed supernatural elements in the mountain landscape and ultimately transform them into representations of the Buddhist Dharma.

    The term "mountain" in Zen can refer to real places where monks journey in search of an ideal location for a hermitage retreat. Or, the term implies a sacralized sense of space populated by supernatural forces and engaged by pilgrims and other travelers. Mountains, with their towering, misty peaks and valleys below, with their rushing streams and lush vegetation, represent interiority and the progressions and digressions of the spiritual path. According to traditional Buddhist cosmology, mythical Mount Sumeru was the central structure of the universe, and a koan in the Pi-yen lu (case 23) cites a passage from theAvatamsaka Sutra concerning the "Wondrous Mystic Peak," a symbol for ultimate reality, that is identified in the case with here-and-now reality. In general, koan records and commentaries vacillate between asserting/affirming the supernatural context explicitly or implicitly and the iconoclastic tendency to negate and transcend supernaturalism as the only conceptual sphere, or to reorient this imagery from a demythological perspective.

    Supernatural imagery stemming from the influence of the hagiographical context of monk biography texts is most clearly evident in the first group of koans in this chapter attributed to masters of the Northern and Ox Head schools. The Northern school was dominant in the early eighth century until it was surpassed by the followers of sixth patriarch Hui-neng. The first two cases in this section deal with the threatening presence and conversion of local gods and demons. However, the third case shows a transition from an emphasis on an engagement with supernatural elements to the importance of an encounter dialogue between monks that transmutes supernaturalism into a symbol for interior realization. The case representing the Ox Head or Niu-t'ou school, another early Zen movement located on the mountain of the same name and led by master Niu-t'ou Fa-jung, also reveals a shift from a reliance on supernaturalism to iconoclasticism.

    By the time of the hegemony of the Southern school in the late eighth and ninth centuries, supernatural implications were placed in the background of koan discourse while the rhetoric of irony and demythology appeared at the forefront. The emphasis shifted to the role of ritual and rhetoric as a way for a master to establish and declare his leadership of a mountain domain. The dialogues involving Tung-shan Liang-chieh, who established his own important lineage that later flourished in Sung China and Kamakura Japan, reveal the subtle games of wordplay and purposeful ambiguity concerning the meaning of mountain landscapes that Zen masters play. Beginning in the late tenth century, the center of the Southern school became the "Five Mountains" monastic system in Chekiang province.

    The final section highlights the encounter between the visionary, supernatural realm of Mount Wu-t'ai in northern Shansi province, which represented an entirely different style of Buddhism based on esoteric or tantric beliefs, and the iconoclastic trends of Zen contemplation that resisted but could not help but be attracted to the Mount Wu-t'ai brand of religiosity. Although many prominent Zen masters tried to prohibit their disciples from making the long trek, the potential for receiving visions of the bodhisattva Manjusri had a powerful appeal that appealed to a steady stream of seekers.

Northern and Ox Head Schools

1. Yüan-kuei Subdues the Mountain God

Main Case

Master Yüan-kuei of Mount Sung used divination to choose a cottage in a valley deep in the mountains as a site to practice a life of reclusion. One day, a strange man appeared in the deep mountains wearing formal attire and accompanied by a large retinue of attendants. He demanded to see the master. Yüan-kuei, noticing that his visitor had a strange and unusual manner, greeted him, "Welcome, friend, why have you come here?"

    The man answered, "Master, don't you recognize me?" The master replied, "I view Buddha and sentient beings equally. Why should I distinguish you from the rest of them?" The man declared, "I am the god of the mountain, and can make people live or die. How can you regard me as just one more being?"

    The master said, "I am originally unborn. You claim to be able to make me die, but I see you beyond any discrimination as empty of selfhood and you see me beyond any discrimination as empty of selfhood. Even if you can destroy emptiness and yourself, I will remain unborn and undying, so why should I accept your claim to control my living and dying?"

    The god bowed down to the floor in reverence and said, "I am the most confident and upright of the gods. But I didn't realize that you possessed such eloquence and wisdom. Please grant the true precepts that will enable me to transcend the world." The master replied, "When you ask about the precepts you are already observing the precepts, because there are no precepts apart from seeking out the precepts."


This dialogue is cited from CCL vol. 4 (Taisho 51:233b), a section in the earliest transmission of the lamp history that includes a listing of the hagiographical records of many of the Northern school patriarchs, usually without any form of additional commentary. Although the Northern school was centered in the twin capital cities of Chang-an and Luo-yang, it also flourished at nearby Mount Sung. This case incorporates elements of ritual and supernaturalism along with an emphasis on Zen iconoclastic rhetoric expressing a nondual philosophy. In the end, it is the rhetoric of nonduality that wins the day by overcoming the manifestations of supernaturalism based on the contemplation of emptiness and absence of selfhood.

    The case begins with Yüan-kuei guided to his site of reclusion in the mountains by a magical process of divination. He finds himself in the "deep mountains," a term used repeatedly in Zen literature to refer to the inner recesses of a mountain range where traces of civilization vanish and one faces only the forces of untamed nature as well as the lurking presence of the supernatural. In the deep mountains of Mount Sung, deities appear as snakes or some other shapeshifting apparition and weep at death or express repentance for their misdeeds as an avenue for their conversion to the Buddhist Dharma.

    Here the deity takes on a human appearance that gives away its true identity by manifesting a "strange and unusual manner" and asserts its power over life and death. Yüan-kuei responds by evoking the ultimate equality of living and dying from the standpoint of the "unborn," a notion of the empty ground of existence that becomes important for later Zen thinkers, especially the Japanese master Bankei. When Yüan-kuei's assertion of the meaning of emptiness proves effective in transforming the deity; who then asks to receive the precepts, the master makes a very interesting comment about the essential uselessness of the precepts in relation to Zen contemplation. This approach is actually quite similar to the Southern school philosophy.

    In traditional Buddhist practice, taking the precepts, or ascribing to the list of 250 ethical vows, is the centerpiece of the ordination process that is renewed during a fortnightly repentance ceremony that functions as a kind of Buddhist Sabbath. Another important time for renewal of the precepts is the end of the three-month rainy season retreat. While the Zen monastic institution has always adhered to the formal practice of taking the Buddhist precepts, it also gained prominence by advocating a new philosophical position that the precepts—as specific codes of conduct or commandments—were essentially unnecessary and even counterproductive if considered a means to the end of attaining enlightenment. Zen philosophy argues that the genuine meaning of the precepts is nothing other than ongoing contemplation of the unborn.

    On that issue, despite the sectarian rivalry that led to its demise, the Northern school's outlook expressed in this dialogue is consistent with the philosophy of Hui-neng's Platform Sutra. This text makes a basic distinction between "repentance about things," which is considered an inferior approach, and "repentance about the principle (of emptiness)," based on nonduality. However, the CCL narrative later indicates that in the end, Yüan-kuei allows the deity to repay his indebtedness by magically transplanting cedar trees on the mountain. Yüan-kuei even warns his disciples against talking about this incident for fear of being accused of supporting the supernatural by competitors from other religious schools.

2. Tao-shu and the Trickster

Main Case

Master Tao-shu, in seeking the Dharma, decided to go on a pilgrimage to visit places he had never seen. After studying at various sites he returned to Northern school patriarch Shen-hsiu, who enlightened him with a single word. Tao-shu understood the subtle meaning of Shen-hsiu's teaching, and in later years he became a good vessel for the Dharma. Using divination to find a dwelling place, he built a humble hermitage at the Three Peaks of the Shou State to continue his practice in solitude. He attracted a following of young disciples.

    There lived on the mountain a strange, mischievous spirit, who frequently appeared as a beggar talking and laughing, and at other times manifested in the figure of a bodhisattva or a hermit. Sometimes, the spirit produced radiant lights or spoke in strange voices and echoes. Although the young monks saw and heard them, none of them were able to fathom what these phenomena really were. After ten years of tricks, the spirit vanished once and for all, and no more shadows, figures, or voices ever appeared.

    Master Tao-shu told the assembly, "That trickster deceived many people with his pranks. There was only one weapon against his antics—the 'way of non-seeing and non-hearing.' The talent of playing tricks is limited and eventually exhausted. But the capability of non-seeing and non-hearing is limitless and inexhaustible."


Also cited from CCL vol. 4 (Taisho 51:232b), this koan highlights the rhetoric of emptiness in an encounter between a master and the spirit of the mountain that has a menacing, persistent presence. Tao-shu begins his path as a pilgrim who is enlightened by a "single word" from the main patriarch of the Northern school, Shen-hsiu. Like Yüan-kuei in case 1, he continues his journey by using divination to discover an ideal site for reclusion in the deep mountains. Yet Tao-shu's solitary practice in a "humble hermitage" attracts a following of young monks who are disturbed by the tricks of the spirit and turn to their teacher for solace, so that this encounter becomes a test of his own powers.

    In contrast to case 1, in which the spirit is lured to appear in human form by the presence of an accomplished meditator and quickly repents and converts, this entity manifests as a trickster for many years. It appears by either shapeshifting into the form of a beggar, hermit, or bodhisattva—which is also a power that Buddhist deities utilize for compassionate pedagogical purposes—or taking on a quasi-physical appearance as a radiance or a sound. In any case, the spirit is illusory and deceptive. But, in a way that is very similar to the previous case, Tao-shu performs an exorcism that eliminates the mischievous appearance of the spirit through the power of his contemplation and rhetoric of nonduality. The master overcomes the spirit by preaching a message of "non-seeing and non-hearing." Like the notion of the unborn, this refers to a fundamental identity of form and formlessness, illusion and reality, or what is perceptible to the senses and what is beyond the realm of sense perception.

    Evoking the way of non-seeing and non-hearing proves effective in vanquishing the spirit. This could imply Tao-shu's ignoring of the spirit by acting as if it were only an illusion that did not deserve or require any more attention. Or it could support a holding fast of his mental energy to offset the force of negativity represented by the spirit's presence. The other monks, who were aware of the trickster's manifestations but never had an understanding of their origins or meaning, are relieved and impressed by the master's capabilities. The master eliminates the troublesome obstacles to the genuine opening of the mountain, so that the landscape is now able to receive the presence of the Dharma.

3. Master Chiang-mo, Subjugator of Demons

Main Case

Master Chiang-mo Ts'ang of Yen-chou hailed from Chao county. His surname was Wang, and his father was a government official. He was ordained as a novice at the age of seven. At that time, there were numerous strange, abnormal, or supernatural beings lurking in the fields, but he fearlessly handled them, so he was given the name Subjugator of Demons (Chiangmo). He later received the transmission from master Ming-tsan of Kuangfu Temple. Some time after this, Chiang-mo decided to be ordained and to study the Dharma seriously with the Northern school, which was flourishing in the country at that time. Chiang-mo resolved to gird up his robe and enter their Dharma Hall.

    Master Chiang-mo was challenged by master Shen-hsiu, "You are called the Subjugator of Demons. Here there are no spirits lurking in the mountain or ghosts haunting the trees. What kind of demons will you subjugate?" Chiang-mo replied, "If there are Buddhas, then there are also demons." Shen-hsiu said, "Perhaps you are one of the demons. Then you would surely dwell in a mysterious, unthinkable realm." Chiang-mo said, "The realm of the Buddhas is empty. What other kind of realm can there be?"

    Shen-hsiu commented, "I'm sure you will leave relics at your burial mound!"


This dialogue is cited from the same section of CCL vol. 4 (Taisho 51:232b-c) as are the previous two koans, but this case reveals a significant shift in focus from the process of claiming a mountain through an encounter with the local god or demon to an exchange with Shen-hsiu, who as leader of the monastic institution challenges an irregular monk's supranormal powers. Shen-hsiu, the main patriarch of the Northern school, is depicted as the true liberator and arbiter of the mountain domain, although the teaching of emptiness and the equality of opposites—in this instance, the unity of Buddhas and demons—remains consistent with the basic message of the previous dialogues. However, the case concludes with a spotlight on the popular religious practice of venerating relics.

    Chiang-mo takes his name from his reputation for subjugating or exorcising demons—that is, the strange, mysterious supernatural beings lurking in the fields, but he has not yet become an ordained Zen priest. Apparently, he wishes to relinquish his independent, solitary status and become part of the institutional mainstream. In order to gain this status and enter into the lineage of the Northern school by earning the right to wear his robes, Chiang-mo must face an encounter with Shen-hsiu inside the gates of the Dharma Hall. Shen-hsiu proclaims that the sense of space is radically different—iconoclastic and free of supernaturalism—in the Dharma Hall. There are no mountain spirits or tree ghosts lurking, and therefore nothing to be subjugated.

    At first Chiang-mo responds to Shen-hsiu's challenge by asserting the validity of the supernatural realm—"If there are Buddhas, then there must be demons"—thereby seeming to fall into the patriarch's trap. But he escapes this predicament by evoking the rhetoric of emptiness and iconoclasm, even denying the existence of Buddhas. Shen-hsiu proclaims his approval by declaring that Chiang-mo's corpse will reveal relics (sarira), which are rare, jewel-like deposits left in the cremated remains of Buddhist saints and stored in special monuments or stupas. Buddhist relics are considered to possess magical properties for healing, divination, and fortune-telling.

    Following this encounter, according to the account in the CCL, Chiangmo eventually entered Mount T'ai, and while he taught there for several years "students gathered around him like clouds." One day the master told his students, "I have gotten old and in the way. Let me return to a place where all things reach their limit." Just as he finished speaking he passed away while sitting in the lotus position, at the age of ninety-one, an early Zen master who could control the manner and timing of his dying.

4. Does Niu-t'ou Need the Flowers?

Main Case

How was it that before Niu-t'ou encountered the fourth patriarch Tao-hsin, the birds used to flock to him with flowers in their beaks, whereas after their meeting the auspicious phenomenon ceased?


This koan is based on a passage in CCL vol. 4 (Taisho 51:226c-227b) that deals with Niu-t'ou Fa-jung, the founder of the Ox Head or Niu-t'ou school. Along with the Northern school, the Ox Head school was a successful early Zen movement in the seventh century, before the Southern school became dominant through the efforts of Hui-neng and his evangelical disciple Shen-hui. The Ox Head school was known for advocating a standpoint based on "formless precepts" that was influenced by the Madhyamika philosophy of emptiness, and also became a factor influencing Tendai Buddhism brought to Japan by Saicho. The influence of Zen on the Japanese Tendai sect was short-lived, however, and it was not until the thirteenth century that Zen began to flourish in Japan based on the Soto teachings of Dogen and the Rinzai teachings of Eisai.

    As with the Northern school, the Ox Head literature was close in style to the hagiographical materials in the monk biography texts. This case emerged from a fascinating narrative about the encounter between Niu-t'ou, who was then a hermit, and fourth patriarch Tao-hsin, who came to visit his mountain hut near the northern cliff of the temple. Every day, hundreds of birds flocked to Niu-t'ou with flowers in their beaks, as a sign of nature paying homage to the meditation master. Also, a huge snake once came into his hut and stayed for a hundred days without harming the monk.

    Although he was residing some distance away, Tao-hsin became aware of these auspicious phenomena and traveled to check out the master who was receiving so much adulation. When Tao-hsin arrived in the area, he asked a monk if there was a "man of Tao" in the vicinity, and was told that on the mountain one would be hard-pressed to find someone who was not a man of Tao. But when asked to identify such a person in a more specific or concrete way, the monk was at first speechless. He then suggested that Tao-hsin venture another ten miles to find "Lazy Jung," so called because he did not bother to rise from his sitting position to greet visitors.


Excerpted from Opening a Mountain by Steven Heine. Copyright © 2001 by Steven Heine. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Steven Heine is Professor of Religious Studies and History at books on Zen Buddhism, including (with Dale S. Wright) The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (OUP). He lives in Hollywood, Florida.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews