Excerpt: Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases

Read a brief of Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases: A Translation with Commentary by Steven Heine and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Oxford University Press.

By Steven Heine

Constance Kassor’s review from the Spring 2024 Buddhadharma:

The tradition of Buddhist poetry in China continued to evolve after the poet-monks of the late Tang dynasty. In the Northern Song dynasty, the tenth- and eleventh-century Chan master Xuedou composed one hundred verse commentaries on select gong’an (Japanese: koan) cases. This collection of verses was eventually incorporated into the Blue Cliff Record, but, as Steven Heine argues in Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases: A Translation with Commentary, it is an autonomous text that deserves careful study. This book contains the first complete translation of Xuedou’s Odes, situating his work in terms of its broader religious and literary contexts. Alongside the translation of each of Xuedou’s odes, Heine includes a critical summary of the gong’an case considered and an explanation of the Odes’ religious symbolism and broader context. [Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of Chinese characters and endnotes; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt:

The songgu or odes is a category of brief “eulogies” or “encomia” (song) offering stirring remarks on “established” or “precedent” (gu; literally “old” or “ancient”) stories concerning the spiritual exploits of iconic teachers, usually but not always drawn from accounts of the Tang-dynasty leaders included in Chan transmission of the lamp records. Many other types of poetic and prose commentaries on gong’an that were produced from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries in China and Japan remain important, including additional styles composed by Xuedou. Yet the Odes stands out because its verses are said to express the fluency of the literature of the prestigious Hanlin Academy, while embodying the savviness of the performance of a sword dance by daring to defy conventions through incorporating numerous rhetorical features that make this poetry particularly vivid and persuasive in conveying the underlying meaning of dialogues. 

The core stories cited in the collection were selected by Xuedou from among several thousand examples of exchanges, which later came to be referred to as gong’an, whereby Chan teachers tested and challenged their disciples and/or rivals in dharma battles or contests of will featuring cryptic yet witty repartee. The winner of the match was invariably the adept who best demonstrated the quality of jifeng, or the ineffable capability derived from authentic awareness, instead of false claims of wisdom, to seize an opportune moment for creating a dramatic turnabout enabling the winner to gain an advantage over his exchange partner or adversary. Xuedou sometimes interpolates into the dialogues, as in case 4, where he says that the interlocutors are “thoroughly exposed!” in that the true state of their religious situation, whether admirably advanced or deserving of criticism, or in some instances scorn, is fully revealed by means of the encounter.

The deliberately perplexing nature of these interactions, often featuring uncertain or ambiguous and paradoxical implications, begs for explanations by commentators such as Xuedou, even if the verse remarks sometimes further complicate the meaning or, contrariwise, oversimplify it or divert the reader’s attention. The Odes, long studied as the preeminent exposition of the genre containing lyrical poetry composed in a specialized yet idiosyncratic discursive style, is a crucial representative of the intellectual movement sometimes referred to as literary Chan (wenzi Chan). This outlook developed during the Northern Song by borrowing heavily from yet altering traditional Chinese poetic forms, especially the typical quatrain or four-line, seven-character truncated verse (jueju) style that included various rules for rhyming and tonal patterns. Xuedou uses this convention primarily for edifying or instructional purposes rather than aesthetics or art for art’s sake.

The text was compiled by Xuedou’s disciple, Yuanchen, probably in the 1060s. According to the preface by Tanyu , Xuedou “selects the most sublime examples of stories from records of the dialogues of ancient sages”. Furthermore, “through verses he captures their fundamental moral message and thus transmits essential Chan teachings. Xuedou hopes that those who are ignorant will be enlightened, those with blockages will be illumined, those stymied by delusion will be extricated, and those stuck in the mire and unable to reach beyond it will gain liberation.”

To convey the mysterious quality of an enlightenment experience through writing poems, Tanyu explains, Xuedou expresses much more than praise for the sayings of prior masters. He conveys concisely and critically his own unique understanding of the objectives underpinning their interactions, often by alluding to images drawn from legends or folklore or conveying the splendor of the natural environment to provide appropriate counterpoint that ironically highlights an emphasis on attaining authentic subjective awareness.

The Odes conveys in beguiling pedagogical fashion the value of penetrating misconceptions and defusing attachments by disclosing the roots of human afflictions and adopting transcendent, nondual perspectives to overcome the mind’s troubles, thus opening the path to insight in a way that epitomizes but goes beyond the implications of the original case record. The effectiveness of the work derives from the way Xuedou combines the formal rules of truncated verse with the irregular meters of folksongs and the cadences of tropes drawn from popular culture. This modifies the basic literary elements and introduces new discursive features reflecting the author’s distinctive religious stance.

One of Xuedou’s most acclaimed verse comments is Ode 37, which consists of four lines, including two with eight characters (both are 4 + 4) and a final couplet with seven characters per line, thus varying from the usual pattern. The opening passage repeats the keyword of the dialogue, a philosophical saying associated with the Huayan school, but the poem ends with a set of natural and musical images that are both alluring and melancholic by evoking contemplative awareness in a way that overtakes any possible preoccupation with an individual’s false sense of intellect or focus on ordinary logic and language: “Since the triple world is without things, where can you find the mind?” White clouds create a canopy, streaming waters form a lute, Playing one or more tunes no one gets. After an autumn evening rain passes, waters deepen in the pond. Xuedou’s main interpreter, Yuanwu, maintains that the poet is “overly kind in the first line, but then goes on to challenge his readers.” Furthermore, “This verse has been discussed and judged by literary critics who’ve deemed Xuedou worthy of the talent of an imperial academy scholar. . . . So, you must set your eyes attentively on this poem; if you linger in doubt, you’ll look without seeing.”

According to the discursive analysis of Zhou Yukai, Xuedou’s verse comments exemplify yet eclipse the significance of encounter dialogues by incorporating three main literary methods that were becoming prevalent in the Northern Song: indirect communication, the transformation of phenomena, and reversals of meaning. In Ode 37, these techniques are evoked respectively in lines two (“canopy” and “lute,” using nature as a symbol for human emotions), three (“one or more tunes,” highlighting the musical quality of the environment), and four (“waters deepen,” showing the mystery of self-awareness).

The device of indirection or circuitous, metaphorical writing, which is tortuous but revelatory through the twists and turns, is dependent on the use of implied, inferred, and inexplicit images. These metaphors conjure a profound existential impression that cannot be adequately described by concepts because it escapes the limits of usual perception. For example, the poet makes an analogy to spirituality by evoking a concrete object but without identifying the underlying connection, thereby leaving that task up to the reader’s imagination. Words are thereby functional based on their literary context, rather than holding a fixed or static association.

Next, the technique of transforming phenomena was, as Zhou points out, first suggested by Southern Song-dynasty (1127–1279) poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206), who said that all things can serve as material for composing poetry since they symbolize or are reflective of levels of interior awareness based on the author’s ability to recognize or endow objective scenery with human reactions and emotions. The literary critic Yan Yu (1191–1241) remarked that the way of Chan is found only in enlightenment, and the way of poetry is also seen through enlightenment. He cites as an example of phenomenal imagery a passage from the works of a Tang-dynasty poet, “The winding path leads one to a secluded place, where a Chan cloister is replete with flowers and trees.”

The third technique mentioned by Zhou consists of a pattern of overturning typical meanings to undermine misleading assumptions and assertions proposed by preceding commentators on a case in order to establish a new paradigm, which usually incorporates ongoing examples of reversal, or upending views, and often results in a double reversal. This quality makes the poems full of creative tension and vividness, especially because Xuedou challenges readers with his own opinions and commands, as when he says in line three of Ode 37, “no one gets (that tune).” Also, in another gong’an commentary, Xuedou confronts doubters by brashly demanding that “they should step forward so we can see one another face-to-face!”

From Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases: A Translation with Commentary by Steven Heine. We thank Oxford University Press for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Steven Heine

Steven Heine

Steven Heine is director of the Asian Studies Program at Florida International University. He has published numerous books on the life and thought of Dogen, including the forthcoming Dogen: Japan’s Original Zen Teacher (Shambhala).