Book Review: The Sayings of Layman P’ang: A Zen Classic of China
Translated by James Green
Shambhala Publications, 2009, 144 pages.
When the mind is at peace,
The world too is at peace. –Laymen P’ang
Layman P’ang was a Chan/Zen Buddhist during the Tang Dynasty. He serves as an exemplary figure to those Buddhists practicing outside of monasticism. He studied and practiced Buddhism with his whole family and from his stories about them and his writings come the most famous of the Buddhist sayings.
In an age where it was common for those spiritually-minded individuals to give up their possessions and families and go off to live in a monastery, old Mr. Pang chose not to take that route. Instead, he and his family made a living selling baskets and studying with many traveling masters through the years. This book is a collection of nearly 60 stories of Mr. P’ang and his family, and his dialogues with these masters. In these discussions, sometimes the Master would teach Layman P’ang something, but just as often the reverse would happen.
Most of the stories are fairly cryptic to the modern reader, and are essentially koans. One reads the story and asks, ‚Äúwhat just went on there?‚Äù There are extensive footnotes after each story, but rather than explain the meaning, most of the footnotes explain more about the characters or put the story in some kind of context. It’s usually up to the reader to find the meaning.
There is a lot of introductory material in this book before the stories actually start, and much of this introduction is valuable in itself. It explains the significance of being a layman compared to being a monk, and why P’ang is looked at as a traditional hero. It gives a bit ofhistory about the various masters and monks mentioned in the stories and what they are best known for.
The book is short, at 144 pages with largish type and lots of white space. You could read it in an evening if you wanted to make the attempt, but as with most books of this type, it would probably be better to read one or two of the single-page-long stories per day and give them time to make sense.
If you enjoy koans, pick this book up. It’s got the usual koan-style stories in it, but there is enough help in the footnotes to understand what was really going on. Even if you don’t enjoy the ‚Äúriddle‚Äù aspect of koans, Layman P’ang’s thoughtful, mysterious, and funny insights are worth a look.