Excerpt: The Blue-Cliff Record, translated by David Hinton

Read a brief of The Blue-Cliff Record by David Hinton, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Shambhala Publications.

By David Hinton

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

As Buddhism made its way into China, the term dhyana became transliterated as chan. (Later, in Japan, it would be pronounced zen.) And while Chan Buddhism also involves meditative practices that transform the mind and lead to awakening, these practices are taught differently than the jhana practices of Theravada Buddhism. David Hinton’s translation of the classic Chinese text known as The Blue Cliff Record (Shambhala) encapsulates Chan teachings on meditation. The text’s multiple kung-an (koan in Japanese) are cases for a practitioner to consider deeply in meditation. Each case is followed by a gatha—a poetic commentary that adds another layer of meaning. In his translation, Hinton asks readers to consider these cases as something more than cryptic poetry. They are, he argues, “masterpieces of classical Chinese literature, carefully constructed literary/philosophical texts” designed to induce a state of awakening in those who contemplate them. Hinton’s translation is followed by a list of key Chan terms with detailed explanations of their meanings, a glossary of more general Buddhist terms, and an index of important names and references to other Chinese texts that present similar cases. 

The Excerpt:


There are no answers, only depths. If there were an anthem for The Blue-Cliff Record and Ch’an more broadly, this might be it: there are no answers, only depths. But the depths—oh my, the depths are wondrous indeed! For those depths are beyond the words and explanations and understanding that answers normally entail—and there, anything and anywhere is the answer: willow seed-fluff swarming sunlit through afternoon skies, hummingbird probing blue-violet iris blossoms veined gold, someone answering a knock at the courtyard gate:

Boundless wind and moon are the eye within the eye,

limitless heaven and earth the lamp beyond the lamp.

A million homes amid dark willows and lit blossoms:

knock at any gate anywhere, and someone will answer.

This poem was considered a kind of preface to The Blue-Cliff Record , and indeed The Blue-Cliff Record is all about dismantling the answers one might expect to find in the teachings of some sage-master, about opening those depths that are one’s own inherent nature. But learning how The Blue-Cliff Record works its magic beyond words, how to inhabit those depths beyond explanations—naturally, that requires a few words and explanations.

The Ch’an written tradition cultivated those depths over centuries, primarily in prose works by and about Ch’an masters, records of their lives and teachings. These records contain a great deal of conventional explanatory teaching, which is necessary to prepare students for Ch’an’s wordless insight, its boundless depths. That direct insight is conveyed in the more literary dimension of those records: poetry, which is perfectly suited to the quick, deep insights of Ch’an, and storytelling typified by poetic distillation: enigmatic sayings and wild antics intended to upend reason and tease mind past the limitations of logical thought. These are performative, rather than explanatory—enacting insight, rather than talking about it. As such, they operate with poetic wildness and immediacy, instead of the usual discursive explanation. In this, they come as close as language can to those depths of Ch’an insight that lie outside words and teaching.

Ch’an teachers began drawing especially revealing moments from the records of earlier teachers, moments that distill the essential insights of Ch’an, and using them as teaching tools. These scraps of story came to be known as kung-an (now widely known in its Japanese pronunciation: koan)means a “law-court case,” or more literally a “public case,” and it was adopted to the Ch’an situation for a number of reasons. First, a presents a factual situation that needs to be understood accurately, like a court case—understood, however, at a level that precedes thought and analysis. Second, each represents a kind of precedent to which practitioners can refer. And finally, masters originally conducted training in “public,” when the entire monastic community was gathered together. Hence the translation adopted here: “sangha-case” ( sangha meaning “a Buddhist community”).

Eventually, in tenth-century Sung Dynasty China, teachers began gathering these sangha-cases into collections used for training students. Three of these collections established themselves as the enduring classics, perennially employed over the centuries in China, then Japan, and on into Zen practice around the world today: The Blue-Cliff Record (ca. 1040 c.e.), The Carefree-Ease Record (ca. 1145), and No-Gate Gateway (1228). Such sangha-case collections are now generally treated by most teachers as mere collections of stories that provide an occasion for teaching. But in fact, they are masterpieces of classical Chinese literature, carefully constructed literary/philosophical texts designed to create— in and of themselves and without further explanation—a direct and immediate literary experience in the reader: the experience of awakening’s wordless depths. In this, they are the culmination of Ch’an literary creation: a new and unique and profound literary form that combines zany storytelling with poetry and philosophical prose. Indeed, a sangha- case, containing the barest minimum of explanation, represents themost fully-realized written vehicle of Ch’an’s “separate transmission outside all teaching.”

This is typical of the Chinese philosophical tradition, where the seminal classics are all literary in nature—poetry and storytelling replete with interesting characters engaged in revealing conversation and events. For philosophy in ancient China was all about immediate experiential wisdom, rather than the abstract truths that occupy the Western tradition. And so, the world we enter in Ch’an literature is a community not of religious acolytes, but of philosophers exploring the deep nature of things together, and in a way that is experientially transforming.

The Blue-Cliff Record is the earliest of Ch’an’s classic sangha- case collections. It established the form employed by collections that followed: the sangha-cases themselves supplemented with commentary. This form extends a tradition wherein classic texts included commentary that was considered an integral part of the text and a major philosophical genre in its own right, a tradition stretching all the way back to the beginning: the I Ching, China’s first book, is virtually all “commentary.”

In The Blue-Cliff Record, this structure divides neatly into two levels— a primary text and a secondary text—written by two different Ch’an masters. (This structure repeats exactly in The Carefree-Ease Record, and with one variation in No-Gate Gateway .) The primary text was written by Snow-Chute Mountain (Hsüeh Tou: 980–1052). It includes, first, the sangha-case itself, a scrap of story that Snow-Chute selected from the Ch’an tradition and retold with revisions that suited his literary purposes—most often radical distillation that highlights the story’s essence. And second, the gatha (sutra-poem), a poetic “commentary” that provides an additional layer of insight. These function as direct teaching itself, as close to the immediate experience of wordless insight as we can get in language. This primary text contained one hundred chapters, each including a sangha-case and a gatha . It was known as Snow-Chute Mountain’s Gathas on the Ancients (ca. 1040), and it was widely-influential.

The secondary text came eighty-five years later, when a Ch’an master named Awake-Entire (Yüan Wu: 1062–1135) used Snow-Chute’s collection as a teaching text, giving lectures on each of the chapters. Awake-Entire’s students took careful notes, which were eventually compiled and shaped into an extensive commentary on Snow-Chute’s primary text. Although there is some direct teaching here, it mostly operates as secondary explication. The compilation of these two texts became The Blue-Cliff Record (1125), named after the site where Awake-Entire taught.

ere we see a clear example of the conflict between Ch’an as direct mind-to-mind transmission outside of teaching and answers (primary text) and the natural belief that understanding comes through explanatory teaching (secondary text). This conflict between direct wordless transmission and explanatory teaching is a problematic running all through the Ch’an tradition—not only because explanation precludes direct insight, but also because explanation is inevitably necessary as preparation for that wordless awakening, and in any case it serves institutional Ch’an’s need for teaching programs, etc. One of the most famous flash-points in this conflict occurred when Awake-Entire’s successor, Prajna-Vast (Ta Hui: 1089–1163), forcefully insisted that Ch’an awakening only comes through direct non-verbal insight, that eloquent explanation is a hindrance because it encourages students to rely on conceptual understanding. Awake-Entire’s commentary provides a classic example of eloquent explanation: it is massive, many times larger than the original text, drowning the original in explication. And in a dramatic act of direct Ch’an teaching in the sangha-case spirit, Prajna-Vast destroyed the original edition of Awake-Entire’s Blue-Cliff Record and burned the wooden printing-blocks. He thereby overthrew his own teacher and forced students to encounter the direct teaching in Snow-Chute Mountain’s original collection of sangha-cases and poems, rather than the secondary explanation that defies wild Ch’an’s wordless spirit.

Keeping faith with Ch’an as direct transmission, this translation presents only Snow-Chute Mountain’s original collection of sangha-cases and their companion gathas . The Blue-Cliff Record title is retained because it is so well-known to Western readers.

7. Prajna-Leap Asks Buddha

A monk named Prajna-Leap asked Dharma-Eye: “I wonder if the master would explain what Buddha is?”

“You are yourself Prajna-Leap,” answered Dharma-Eye.


In river country, spring wind still, a mountain partridge deep among wildflowers cries out. Three-Cascade Gorge: it’s there amid towering waves that fish are transformed into dragons, but dullards just keep dipping out buckets of pondwater night.


Placid-Land Stolen Emptiness

Placid-Land asked a monk: “Where in all this wordless Absence-tissue have you just come from?”

KHO-AAA!“” shouted the monk.

“One shout. Okay, I’ll accept one shout.”


“Three or four shouts like that, and then what?”

The monk fell silent.

Land struck him a blow, and said: “You oaf! Your head’s full of stolen emptiness!”


Two or three shouts KHO-AAA! to reveal you

fathom the loom-of-origins all transformation?

If that’s what they call riding the tiger’s head,

they’re oafs, both of them, reckless and blind.

Who reckless and blind?

I come carrying all beneath heaven. I hold it out for you. Take a look!


Purport Dark-Enigma and the

Buddha-Dharma’s Vast Ch’i-Weave Insight

When he was head-monk, Samadhi-Still asked Purport Dark-Enigma: “What is the Buddha-dharma’s vast ch’i-weave insight?” Dark-Enigma leapt from his meditation seat, grabbed hold of Samadhi- Still and gave him a single slap, then pushed him away. Samadhi-Still froze and just stood there. “Head-monk Samadhi-Still,” called out another monk, “why don’t you bow?” Samadhi-Still thereupon bowed reverently, and suddenly had a great awakening.


Yellow-Bitteroot taught Purport the decisive slice exhausting each loom-of-origins moment. Who needs carefree ease then?

Opening a way through, the Yellow River god raised his hand and simply split ten million Flourish Mountain ridges asunder.

Reliance Mountain Roars

with Glorious Laughter

When he was a monk traveling, Three-Sage Mountain visited Reliance Mountain. Reliance asked: “What is your name?”

“Reliance Mountain,” replied Three-Sage. “Aren’t I Reliance Mountain?!” exclaimed Reliance. “Then my name must be Three-Sage Mountain!” At this, Reliance roared with glorious laughter.


Gathering themselves and scattering away, source-ancestral itself, they rode a tiger at origins. It demands utter realization,

but that laughter ends. Who knows where they went, caught here in this wind opening grief through a thousand ages lost.


Cloud-Gate Gruel-Cake

A monk asked Cloud-Gate Mountain: “What is small-talk that surpasses Buddhas and transcends patriarchs?”

“Gruel-cake,” replied Cloud-Gate.


Small-talk that surpasses: there’s no end of Ch’an pilgrims asking questions. It’s a fault-line gaping wide open. Can’t you see? Look!

Cloud-Gate stuffs it full of gruel-cake, and they’re still not settled. Even today: all beneath heaven reveres the fairy tales teachers tell.

Excerpted from From The Blue-Cliff Record by David Hinton © 2024 by David Hinton. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com. We thank Shambhala Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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David Hinton

David Hinton

David Hinton has published numerous books of poetry and essays and many translations of ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy. This widely acclaimed work has earned Hinton a Guggenheim Fellowship, Landon Translation Award, PEN American Translation Award, and a lifetime achievement award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.