Jul 7, 2021
Jenny Hall

The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans - tr. Dosho Port

Book Review

Having completed his Koan training in 2015, Dosho Port provides an excellent translation, with commentary and historical context, to these often misunderstood texts.

Book Cover of The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans


Published by Shambhala https://www.shambhala.com/the-record-of-empty-hall.html

Xutang Zhiyu (1185-1269), was a Chinese Chan (jp. Zen) Master and was the teacher of Master Daio. Master Daio  went to China from Japan in order to bring Zen back to Japan and in order to continue the lineage of Linji Zen (jp. Rinzai Zen) which Xutang taught.

In turn, Master Daio’s pupil Daito went on to found the great monastery of Daitokuji in Kyoto which is still in existence today.

Xutang was the Abbot of ten monasteries, all of which at that time would have housed many hundreds of monks each. Two Chinese emperors regarded him as their spiritual teacher. 

The ten volumes of The Record of Empty Hall represent teachings from each of the monasteries over which he presided. What we have in this collection are the koans from the sixth volume which Xutang used with monks and laity alike. These koans are from other famous collections of what were called lamp collection - koans that were in circulation at the time.

‘’Of the handful of lamp collections available to him, Xutang selected most of the cases from “The Essential Collection of the Lamplight Connections within the [Chan] Tradition” (forty-two cases), and the Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (thirty-four cases).”

It is nice to see that this work has made extensive use of the translation by Randolph S. Whitfield, whom we have featured on The Zen Gateway, of the classic Record of the Transmission of the Lamp,  misspelling however his name several times as ‘Rudolph’ in the appendix of textual sources as well as in the notes at the back of the book!  Let’s put that down to a proof-reading error.

The work of translation of Zen texts, indeed of Buddhist texts in general, is going to be a long process, even in our day and age. We recall the fact that the transmission of sutras and commentaries from India to China took several centuries and often had to be re-translated many times before their profound meanings were properly known. We might think that this process will be much faster in our time with vastly increased resources, and much more rapid exchanges of information. However,  we now have different obstacles and restraints - such as information overload, leading to greater competition for resources. In addition, there is also the constraint of knowledge and understanding of the importance of such texts. Frankly, how much interest is there in koan collections across the general public - not because they are not important - but because we do not really understand their importance?

Therefore, I think it is important to laud new translations when they appear.

Dosho Port started his own Zen training with Katagiri Roshi in Minneapolis in 1977 and received Dharma transmission in his Soto Zen line in 1989. He then went to Japan for a year to continue his training under Harada Tangen Roshi. After this he returned to the U.S. and raised a family whilst teaching Zen and working as a special educator and administrator. He completed his formal koan training in 2015 and was given inka (succession from a lineage) at this time.

The bulk of the book is made up of the 100 koans with short illustrative commentaries by Dosho Port. To be clear, these commentaries elucidate themes raised by the koans and are not, and do not purport to be, ‘answers’ to the koan cases, which are dealt with in the interview room. 

The appendices include biographical sketches of the characters encountered in the koans and also the sources used for the text as well as notes on translations. There is no index as such, but maybe there is an argument for its non-necessity in a koan collection which has appendices as outlined.

My only gripe would be to do with some of the language used. The use of ‘no-mind’ for, presumably’, ‘mu-shin’, whilst literally accurate and used extensively in the 60s & 70s, does not, I think, convey the meaning of the term very well. 

In addition, I find the use of what I call ‘Western Zen patois’ in the Foreward and Introduction affected, but this may just be a judgement from my own aesthetic.

Obviously, this is a book for the shelf of the Zen practitioner who is interested in koan collections, their history and their use. Dosho Port gives a clear and concise history both of  the text and of Xutang, who collected these koans together in his introduction. He is to be commended for bringing this work to the english speaking Zen community and for his sympathetic comments on each koan case.

Maybe one day we will see some more of Xutang’s 10 volumes made available in English.


The World-Honored One Cares for Each and Goes

An outsider asked the World-Honored One*, “Yesterday, what dharma did you express?”

The World-Honored One said, “Settled dharma.”

The outsider again asked, “Today, what dharma did you express?”

The World-Honored One said, “Unsettled dharma.”

The outsider said, “Yesterday, settled. Today, why unsettled?”

The World-Honored One said, “Yesterday, settled. Today, unsettled.”

On behalf of the outsider, Xutang said, “Caring for each and going.”

Two nights ago, at midnight, three loud gunshots woke us. Bodhi, our old dog who sleeps at the foot of our bed, has considerable anxiety issues that are triggered by thunderstorms, fireworks and gunshots. He immediately began pacing, trembling, and drooling, so Tetsugan and I took turns comforting him.

Then, just as we were getting back to sleep, the three young women who live across the street came home, presumably, from the bar. They laughed and shouted for a half hour, repeatedly honking their car horn. 

But this last night, we all went to bed early, slept through the night, and woke refreshed. With a spring in our step, we were off to morning zazen.

Yesterday was unsettled. Today is settled. We’re all going, kicking or screaming or not. Might as well care for each thing as we go. 


* ‘World-Honoured One is a title of Buddha Shakyamuni.

(The Record of Empty Hall - One Hundred Classic Koans, tr. with commentary by Dosho Port, pub. Shambhala 2021)

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