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Definitive ‘Record of Linji’ well worth a wait of 40 years

by Donald Richie

The Linji-lu is one of the most influential of all Zen texts. Presumably a collection of the lectures and sermons of Linji Yixuan (died 866), founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism, it helped form the Rinzai sect of Zen in Japan.

THE RECORD OF LINJI, translation and commentary by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, edited by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, with forewords by Mumon Yamada and Kazuhiro Furuta. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009, 488 pp., $53 (cloth)

As iconoclastic as he was charismatic, Linji was famous for encouraging his students to discover their own Buddha-nature self even, or particularly, if this freed them from the influence of doctrinal concepts.

It was he who famously wrote: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.” He was also of the opinion that the Bodhidharma was “an old bearded barbarian,” and that both Nirvana and Bodhi are “dead stumps to tie your donkey to.”

His methods were apparently similarly decided. He is said to have employed shouting and striking as teaching methods and even, upon occasion, using his staff. The veracity of these reports has been questioned. Scholar Albert Welter has demonstrated in his 2008 study of the Linji-lu that the text was manipulated by church politics, by the Linji faction, and that the story of the lecture-collection is not that of a single figure but an entire movement that found validation in retrospective image making.

Whatever, the value of the text continues. As Mumon Yamada said in his foreword to the first edition of this translation, Rinzai Zen may be distinguished by its brusque and somewhat martial disposition, “because it attaches the highest importance to each person’s particular individuality, even as it concerns itself with that person’s universality.”

The present English translation comes from the late Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s desire to fulfill the dying wish of her husband, Sokei-an (Sasaki Shigetsu Roshi). To meet its demands, she restored the subtemple Ryosen-an at Daitokuji in Kyoto, and gathered about her a number of helpers. These included Yoshitaka Iriya, Hisao Kanaseki, Seizan Yanagida, Kazuhiro Furuta, Burton Watson, Philip Yampolsky and Gary Snyder.

Their work continued on for some 30 years, until the death of Ruth Sasaki in 1967. Although much had been accomplished — the publications of “The Development of Chinese Zen” (1953) in collaboration with Heinrich Dumoulin, “The Zen Koan” (1965) together with Miura Isshu Roshi, and “Zen Dust” (1966) — with her death, plans for publishing “The Record of Linji” had to be suspended.

Some team members thought the translation was ready for an earlier publication. But Sasaki, a severe taskmaster, would survey their labors and say “needs more work.” This eventually led to trouble in the ranks and the resignation of several members.

Work began again in 1968 with the remaining members of the Ryosen-an staff and Dana Fraser.

In 1975 a provisional translation was completed, but it was one that left out much documentation. Finally, in 1998, the present edition was begun.

It is one of which Sasaki would definitely approve. It if needs “more work,” I cannot imagine in what way. This complete Linji-lu is more than half composed of notes and commentaries. Editor Kirchner is apparently as fond of them as Sasaki ever was.

The interested reader is thus given: the Sasaki translation; Yanagida’s historical introduction, with notes; the Sasaki translation again, this time printed with both the Chinese original and (in English) the hundreds of notes and commentaries, all on the same pages; again, the original Chinese as running text; a list of all personal names in English and Chinese (as well as Pinyin and Wade-Giles transcription); and a cumulative index.

This is probably the definitive book on “The Record of Linji,” though I believe the most persuasive translation is that of Burton Watson (“The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi,” Columbia University Press, 1999). Linji apparently wrote that “sacred teachings are only sheets of paper fit for wiping the pus from your boils,” but here they all are, for our elucidation.