Book of Serenity

One Hundred Zen Dialogues

Author : Cleary, Thomas

Read an extract of this title

Book of Serenity

Book Details

  • Publisher : Shambhala Publications
  • Published : 2005
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 464
  • Size : 228 x 152mm
  • Category :
    Chinese Buddhism
  • Category 2 :
    Zen: General
  • Catalogue No : 3809
  • ISBN 13 : 9781590302491
  • ISBN 10 : 1590302494

By the same author

Japanese Art of War

Japanese Art of War

Price £10.71

save 33%

Minding Mind

Minding Mind

Price £10.88

save 25%

I Ching [Pocket Classics]

I Ching [Pocket Classics]

Price £4.68

save 33%

Wisdom Price : £21.75
Publishers Price : £29.00 (Save 25%)
Add to basket
Availability : Usually available in 24 hours
Add to wishlist


New paperback edition. A companion volume to Cleary's well-respected translation of "The Blue Cliff Record" this book is the other, equally revered classic collection of koans, the Shoyo Roku. - paradoxical teaching devices which have been associated with Zen since the 10th century. Whatever its source, each koan points directly to the nature of ultimate reality.

Compiled in China in the twelth century, the Book of Serenity is, in the words of Tenshin Reb Anderson, "an auspicious peak in the mountain range of Zen literature, a subtle flowing stream in the deep valleys of our teaching, a treasure house of inspiration and guidance in studying the ocean of Buddhist teachings." Each of its one hundred chapters begins with an introduction, along with a main case, or koan, taken from Zen lore or Buddhist scripture. This is followed by commentary on the main case, verses inspired by it, and finally, further commentary on all of these. The book also contains a glossary of Zen/Chan terms and metaphors.

"Thomas Cleary has translated a medium-sized library of classic texts of Buddhism, Taoism and I Ching studies, and the Book of Serenity is a major contribution to his already staggering body of work." Sam Hamill.

Read an extract of this title


THE Book of Serenity is a classic text of Chan Zen Buddhism, a vehicle of an ancient knowledge said to go back to time immemorial and to have been originally transmitted from mind to mind. The continuity of Zen transmission was fostered by periodic revisions and renewals in a body of special techniques and the knowledge subtending them. Many of these techniques are encoded in the Book of Serenity, and the use of this kind of literature to help elicit certain perceptions is itself one of these techniques.

The branch of ancient tradition that came to be known as Zen is customarily traced back in Chinese history to the late fifth and early sixth centuries C. E., and was approaching the end of its third overt major phase in China when the Book of Serenity was compiled.

These three phases consisted of the era of the founders (6-8 cent.), who worked to establish the principle of experiential internalization of knowledge against a background of excessive intellectualism; the era of the creative proliferation of different transmission lines with particular modes of presentation (8-10 cent.); and the era of dramatic development of Zen literature and the refinement of the use of stories as a medium of teaching and practice (10-13 cent.).

The founding of Zen in China is traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma (d. 535), an Indian yogin, but one of the founders of Zen in japan, Dogen Zenji (13th cent.) equates the Buddhism transmitted by Bodhidharma with that represented by the earlier Sengzhao, who died in the early fifth century. Sengzhao, an assistant of the famous Buddhist translator Kumarajiva and a great author in his own right, is believed to have actually experienced absolute reality beyond intellect, and his superlative writings were highly esteemed and often quoted in classical Zen lore.

Notably, Sengzhao stated that absolute reality is beyond the grasp of concepts, and therefore can only be experienced intuitively or mystically, not by the discursive intellect. In pursuit of this theme, he wrote that the special knowledge called prajna (gnosis) in Buddhist terminology could not properly be called knowledge in the ordinary sense because it is objectless, comprehending no specific concrete thing but rather the nonexistence of inherent identity in objects of conventional knowledge.

Furthermore, Sengzhao discoursed on relativity and absoluteness in time, on the incomparable experience of direct perception, and on the ultimate unity of all existence. He always maintained the limitation of words, however, and noted that any attempt to express the ineffable I would inevitably be like setting up a target inviting an arrow. His contributions to Chinese Buddhism made him one of the most highly regarded mystics of all time, and someone with whom the later Zen Buddhists felt a special affinity.

The existence of Bodhidharma, the reputed founder of Zen in China, has been questioned by some scholars; other scholars, however, find what appears to be evidence of the existence of at least one Bodhidharma, possibly two or more. Whatever the historical facts of the matter may be, Bodhidharma certainly exists as a symbol of the Zen tradition of the living exemplar, the bearer of the "mind to mind" transmission. His name, which means "the religion of enlightenment," may be taken as representative of the early emphasis of Zen on using Buddhism not as an object of knowledge (intellectualism) but as a means of knowledge (experientialism).

According to Zen tradition, Bodhidharma used only one scripture in his Chinese teaching activity-the Lankavatara-sutra, which he judged to be appropriate to the current state of Chinese civilization. This scripture is one of those used by the school of Buddhism known as "yoga practice" (yogacara) or "doctrine of consciousness".

The doctrine of consciousness represents a quite pervasive thread in Buddhism that is not limited to any one school and very often used in Zen teaching. This doctrine presents the view that phenomena as we conceive and cognize them are not objective realities in themselves, but rather mental constructions made of selected data filtered from an inconceivable universe of pure sense.

To clarify this point, the doctrine defines three natures of phenomena: the imagined, or conceptualized, nature; the relative, or dependent, nature; and the perfect nature. It is held that confusion of these three natures, particularly the habit of holding onto the imagined nature of phenomena as their real nature, inhibits the mind from the freedom and higher development of which it is potentially capable, and restricts the range of experience available to the perceiver.

The imagined nature of phenomena is said to be a representation, a description, which is learned and maintained through conditioning. The world as we know it is therefore looked upon in this teaching as a convention, a set of agreements: thus cultural and individual agreements and differences reach down to the levels of cognition and perception, as anthropological and psychological research have reaffirmed in recent times.

According to the doctrine of consciousness, conventional reality, the imagined nature of things, however important and indispensable for everyday life (and hence not to be abolished by yoga), is not itself objective reality and not the limit of the capacity of consciousness. To misunderstand its representational nature and hold to it fixedly as true reality has a stunting effect on mental activity. Familiar examples of this effect might be such conditions as culture shock and associated misunderstandings, or obstacles to learning behaviors (such as foreign languages) outside of pre-established thinking patterns.

Thus while the process of conventional description and organization of experience in terms mutually coherent to members of a community is by no means to be eliminated from the human repertoire of capacities, being necessary for human life, the doctrine of consciousness recommends that it be recognized as mental representation and that the ability to transcend attachment to mental constructions be cultivated. This is said to allow the development not only of extrasensory perceptions, but of expanded and enhanced descriptive abilities to meet the evolutionary needs of society as well.

The practice of yoga now comes in as a means of actually making this detachment from mental construction a practical possibility. In order that this detachment not become nihilistic or otherwise aberrated, and that altered states of consciousness not merely be substituted as objects of fixation, the doctrine here introduces the principles of the relative and real natures of phenomena concealed beneath the conceptualized description.

The relative or dependent nature is the nature of phenomena as products of interactions of conditions. A generalized example of this commonly used for illustration is the interaction of sense faculties, sense consciousnesses, and sense data. This is the raw material of the selection and organizational process of mental construction. Since the faculties, consciousnesses, and data cannot be apprehended in themselves, outside of their mutual interrelationship, there is no way of grasping their objective nature. Their existence as individual elements, therefore, boils down to a description-a relation of mind and mental object. Hence the principle of the real nature of phenomena states that the imagined nature has no objective reality in the relative nature. This is what is sometimes called "emptiness."

A classic simile is that of a red dye painted on a clear crystal, making it look like a ruby. The red dye represents the imagined or conceptualized nature imposed on the relative nature, represented by the crystal. The real nature is the nonexistence of actual "rubyness" in the crystal. Reflections of this doctrine are to be found throughout Zen lore, and one of the major functions of Zen stories is to help to see through and break up mental fixations.

The Lankavatara-sutra likens the perceived world to waves in the ocean of consciousness. To get to know the real nature of things as they are in the state of "suchness" or "thusness," unpredicated reality, it is essential to still these waves of consciousness. The practice of methods of silencing the mind to see reality without the imposition of conditioned representation is well known in Zen Buddhism. This posed a drawback, however, which is also well represented both in Zen literature and in the writings of outside observers. From the external point of view, the drawback was that this exercise of quiescence gave the appearance of quietism, preventing understanding of the true scope of Zen action. Within Zen schools, emphasis on stilling the mind also led some to regard it as a goal, and successful stilling led some to remain fixated on tranquillity, vitiating their capacity for further progress. In both cases the problem was one of confusing the means with the end. This confusion and its consequences are referred to repeatedly in Zen and other Buddhist lore throughout the ages.

Recommended titles

Blue Cliff Record

Blue Cliff Record

Cleary, Thomas and Cleary, J.C.

Price £30.39

save 20%

Two Zen Classics

Two Zen Classics

Sekida, Katsuki

Price £18.89

save 30%

Book of Equanimity

Book of Equanimity

Wick, Gerry Shishin

Price £11.39

save 5%