Sep 2, 2021

Three-Hundred-Mile Tiger: The Record of Lin-Chi Translation and Commentary by Sokei-an

Book Review

This version of the Record of Lin-Chi (founder of Rinzai school of Zen) comes with a hefty commentary that bridges the gap between East and West. Sokei-an's commentary is suitable for both beginners and advanced students - reviewed by Mark Bush

Book Cover for Three-Hundred-Mile Tiger: The Record of Lin-Chi Translation and Commentary by Sokei-An


This is a hefty book.  At nearly four hundred pages nobody parting with hard-earned money will feel they haven’t got value in sheer volume of reading material.  At first glance, however, this feels a little odd.  Lin-Chi (Rinzai) had a famously brief career and left a similarly concise record of his teaching, so one might expect a rather slimmer volume.  This would be the case if this were just a translation of the Record of Lin-Chi, but the great bulk of the book is taken up by Sokei-an’s commentary on the text.  The book also includes a short but nonetheless informative preface by Michael Hotz, President of the First Zen Institute of America, providing some context and a short supporting glossary of terms.  There is no doubt about the quantity of material presented here.  What, then, of the quality?

Sokei-an is well known to many as the founder of the First Zen Institute of America, and for his extensive travels in America in the before that, and it is this that gives the commentary particular value for us here in the West.  Although drawn from talks and lectures given seventy or more years ago, the examples and descriptions are familiar and still chime with our own experiences.  This gives an immediacy and familiarity to the commentary – it is clearly about our own lives and not an esoteric description of another culture.  Anyone who has read Sokei-an’s other works, such as The Zen Eye or Zen Pivots will find this style familiar.  These are very much the record of talks, and this gives the material an accessibility that might be lacking in a drier written text.  Being drawn from talks rather than starting life as written articles does give an immediacy and a life to the commentary, bringing out their directness and also in many cases their humour.  This is the great feeling of the text.  It is not a scholar offering a musty commentary on an academic translation but a teacher bringing the text to life, illuminating and explaining the text for his listeners.

The format of the book makes an easy reading experience.  Each short piece from the Record is followed by a commentary, generally of a few pages.  It is possible to take quite a short section at a time, read and sit with it before moving on.  This makes it supremely ‘dippable’, and could readily form a personal study course, taking a section a day, a week or whatever.  The text is thought provoking, the commentary illuminating without simply spoon-feeding us with answers.  Ideas are explained carefully, giving a feeling of being guided from the known into the unknown, and when this is understood we move on again.  This structure also makes it easy to return to previous sections and tackle these again.

This is not a manual of Buddhism and does not attempt to be a textbook.  As ideas arise in Lin-Chi’s sayings these are explained when needed, keeping them relevant and showing them in action rather than as dry theory.  As an introduction and explanation of Lin-Chi’s teaching this fits naturally with the idea of practice and experiencing directly rather than simply studying, and this is what gives the book great value.  Whether read as an introduction for someone just setting out, or for its challenge to look again for those a little further on or simply as an insight into the early days of Zen in the West there is plenty of weight here for everyone.  This will be a valuable addition to many bookshelves, and is highly recommended.

Mark Bush

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