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IN BRIEF

Fiction

January 20, 1991|Michael Harris

THE GATELESS BARRIER by Wu-men Hui-k'ai , translated from the Chinese and annotated by Robert Aitken (North Point Press: $29.95; 338 pp.) . The point of this and other books about Zen is that you can't learn much about Zen by reading a book; you have to do it. Robert Aitken, an American Zen master who heads the Diamond Sangha monastery in Hawaii, emphasizes that this collection of 48 koans, first assembled by Wu-men Hui-k'ai, a 13th-Century Chinese master of the Lin-chi (Rinzai) school, is a guide for practice by students already well versed in zazen, or meditation.

Zen koans (the most familiar is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?") are "not puzzles or riddles whose trick is in their clever or obscure wording," Aitken asserts. "They are the clearest possible expression of perennial facts." Koans have proven over the centuries to be effective tools for short-circuiting the everyday intellect and perceiving reality, he says, though "resolving them may take a long time, many years in some cases."

Aitken presents each koan--at most a few sentences. Then he gives us Wu-men's commentary and poem on the koan, commentary and poems by later Chinese and Japanese masters, a scholarly account of how this enigmatic little tale was handed down to us, and finally a contemporary view of its meaning. He makes no bones about the elusiveness of enlightenment or the uncompromising commitment required of the Zen student, but he does decry a tendency in Zen instruction to make the path rockier than it has to be.

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