“Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings” by Urs App


“Once the Master asked, ‘What is the question that lays it all out?’ In place of the asked monk, Yunmen answered, ‘Whack the monk next to me.’”

And so it goes, the enigmatic answers, the whacking and insults, another Zen master confounding clerical ignorance with what looks like obfuscation and deliberate ambiguity. It was, apparently, Yunmen who coined the phrase “every day is a good day”, too; this line may well contain the essence of Buddhism, as long as we remember that every day is also a bad day or neither good nor bad.

Yunmen was a master of koans, those short, pithy and often baffling sayings through which the great Zen teachers express their teachings. Indeed, as the introduction points out, we can’t know whether the original listeners could make any more sense out of many of them than we can now.

What does being a person actually mean?

Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings, Urs App (Shambhala, July 2018)
Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings, Urs App (Shambhala, July 2018)

Urs App, an eminent Swiss scholar of Buddhism who has spent a number of years teaching in Kyoto, here delivers a thorough presentation of the Chan (Chinese Zen tradition) as exemplified in one of its most distinguished proponents, Yunmen Wenyan (c. 864-949). App here discusses Yunmen’s life and teachings in a brilliant introduction which gives us a history of Chan, a biography of Yunmen and an explication of his teachings, all in clear and vivid language, through which we can get a very good idea of what this great teacher said, and which is followed by a very generous selection of Yunmen’s recorded talks, koans and dialogues as well as a discussion of the source-material at the end of the book.

App begins by drawing readers into a personal experience of Yunmen as he describes a pilgrimage he made to the monastery at the foot of Mount Gate-of-the-Clouds, or Mount Yunmen in southern China, seven hours’ train journey from Guangzhou and then some. After a bus ride and a two-hour walk App arrived at the monastery, much of which was built in the 1980s. However, in the older Founder’s Hall, at least up until the time of the Cultural Revolution, you could actually meet Yunmen himself, as his mummy (depicted here in a 1928 photograph), perfectly-preserved, still presided there. Now, however, visitors have to be content with meeting a replica instead, which is still quite impressive. It’s a gentle face, looking a good deal younger than Yunmen’s eighty-plus years when he died, but if you look closely enough it’s not difficult to imagine a gleam of humour or a flash of anger passing over it.

“Chan” is a name derived from the Sanskrit dhyana, which denotes meditation or concentration, and was later adapted into Japanese as “Zen”, it best-known form today. Of course, there were monks who meditated long before Chan Buddhism became known as a “movement” in China, as well as masters and pupils of various schools of Chinese Buddhism. As the years went on, App tells us, instead of masters just expounding Buddha’s words, they began to develop ideas of their own, “and they were not beyond whacking and swearing if the need arose.” This suggests that teaching had become more informal and less structured, not reliant on established texts any more, not simply scholars but practitioners, people who lived the teachings they presented to their students.

Thus we have the advent of what App terms “the Classical Age of Chan”, to which Yunmen belonged and of which he was the last great representative. As App explains it,


the central concern of Chan is nothing other than the thorough seeing of one’s own nature, and the Buddha and the enlightened masters after him tried guide and prod their students towards this.

App is a fine scholar as well as a consummately-skilled translator

What does being a person actually mean? We might tentatively note that Socrates, a near-contemporary of Buddha, also taught the maxim “know yourself”. Getting back to the bare essentials and removing the obstacles to enlightenment is the object of Chan, and for Yunmen and others this meant presenting their teachings in a direct, sometimes brutal way. What is the true self, Yunmen invites us to ask ourselves and to seek for, not the “I” of illusion, the one that is rooted in dualisms and transitory objects.

This is, essentially, what Yunmen is doing in the koans and saying presented here by Urs App, who understands how Yunmen’s mind worked and how he strove to express his sayings in as direct a manner as he could, thus giving the students and monks no excuse for misunderstanding what he was saying. Many sayings are answered for the audience by Yumnen himself, an interesting technique, anticipating what they are thinking because he has experienced what they are experiencing and is helping them in cutting through the barriers to enlightenment which are caused by each listener’s selfish “I”, which operates on the duality between observer and what is observed. As App puts it succinctly, “since one aims at leaving behind any duality, even nothing (which is opposed to something) is too much.” We need to become one with things, Yunmen teaches, not try and actually be them.

To sum up, App quotes from a work called The Blue Cliff Record (c 1125), a compilation of koans with a commentary by Yuanwu Kequin, in which the teachings of Yunmen are described this way: (1) They permeate heaven and earth. (2) They follow the waves and adapt to the currents. (3) They cut through all streams [of delusion]. And, from Yunmen himself, “Come on, pose me a question outside the Buddhist teaching!” On behalf of the monks he replied, “Even one is too much.”

App’s translations almost make readers feel that they’re in the room with Yunmen and his pupils. He uses direct, colloquial English without too much reference to either British or American colloquialisms, although phrases like “dime a dozen” might briefly puzzle non-American readers. App translates fluently and cogently, presenting Yunmen in English as near to the original as anyone could ever get. If Yunmen’s wish was to communicate directly and clearly, then App’s translation has done him proud.

From the appendices and bibliography we can understand that App is a fine scholar as well as a consummately-skilled translator, although anyone who has read his Birth of Orientalism already knows that.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.