By Daniel Scharpenburg


“Yesterday was unsettled. Today is settled. We’re all going, kicking and screaming or not. Might as well care for each thing as we go.” -Dosho Port

I was excited to review this book—The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans by Dosho Port. In this interest of full disclosure, I’ve met Dosho Port two times.

Once I traveled to the Nebraska Zen Center to take the Introduction to Zen Class he co-teaches with his wife Tetsugan, and I met him again when he stopped to meet up with me for lunch on his way down south to visit Tam Bao Temple in Oklahoma. I made him try some KC barbecue. I asked him a lot of questions that day. I don’t know if he remembers it as well as I do. I’m sure a lot of people ask him lots of questions.

The Nebraska Zen Center is in Omaha, which is about three hours north of where I live in Kansas City. It’s in a house. The truth is a whole lot of Buddhist temples in this country are in houses in neighborhoods. I don’t know if people are aware of that.

Anyway, I read Dosho’s first book Keep Me In Your Heart for a While which is about his teacher Katagiri Roshi, I’ve been following his blog on Patheos for years, and I listen to his podcast. I guess I’m a fan. This book is a new translation of a collection of koans by an old teacher named Xutang, or Empty Hall. This information has rarely been translated into English.

Dosho did this translation and wrote a commentary. Someone reading this may not know what a koan is. I’ll give you a little passage from the book that describes koans and Dosho’s view of them.

This is from the introduction:

“Why koans? A koan is an encounter dialogue with a truth-happening place embedded in it. Koans are a wonderful aspect of our inheritance from spiritual geniuses that lived, in most cases, about twelve hundred years ago. This book contains one hundred such encounter dialogues. Even a single koan has the power to open the treasure store of non-dual wisdom and unrivaled joy.”

Koans are stories. Sometimes they’re quite confusing. They’re designed to help us turn our minds away from delusion and toward our true nature. At least that’s how I understand them. But what’s really the point? Dosho says koans don’t bring us to enlightenment. He describes them in a really insightful way that’s relatable, I think. He uses these koans to tell us a little bit about things like his dog, his wife, and his neighbors. Those are things many of us have, so that makes these old stories a tiny bit more real for us.

He says “Koans are like banana peels all over the floor—they maximize the possibility of slipping through dualism and seeing true nature.”

If Enlightenment is like falling, then koans are like banana peels on the floor. They don’t make falling happen, but they increase your chances of falling.

So, in these hundred koans, he does something that’s not normally done—he makes them relatable. He references his dog, his wife, his inability to sleep and many other things. I’ve read many books on koans and they have varying degrees of quality, in my opinion. A lot of writers have trouble making these things come alive on the page.

Koans are immensely hard to write about. I’d say this belongs on the list of great books on koans. My favorites are Passing Through the Gateless Barrier by Guo Gu and Introduction to Zen Koans by James Ford Roshi. I won’t list books I don’t like, but this one belongs on the list of greats.

So, this is a wonderful book. But here’s a big question. Who is this book for?

I wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. This is not an “introduction to zen” by any stretch of the imagination. I suppose there could be casual fans of koans who may be interested in this book. Maybe people who love poetry and riddles would get something out of it. But the target audience is serious zen students and that should be clear right away. Many of these koans are very short. A lot of them are just one or two pages, including the commentary, but this is NOT light reading.

Someone could read this entire book in a week, but with texts like this that’s probably not the best way to study it. Rather, a better way is to read a koan (again, there are 100) and reflect on it for a while.

Really, that’s true of most spiritual texts, I’d say. It’s not to be read the same way we read other books. This is for study and reflection.


Photo: Shambhala Publications

Editor: Dana Gornall


Read more: How Zen Koans are Helping Me with Life’s Tough Questions