When I first received a review copy of Zen Masters Of China: The First Step East, I thought, "We don't really need another collection of stories about those old guys in China."
After all, most of the same stories can be found in Zen's Chinese Heritage, Zen Sourcebook, and other comprehensive texts, not to mention original source translations such as The Blue Cliff Record and the The Gateless Barrier.
Well, I was wrong. Zen Masters of China, although it contains no new material, organizes and recounts the old stories in a new and compelling way.
If you're like me, you're confused by the relationships among the various Chinese T'ang Dynasty masters. Who was teacher, who was student? What are the main lineages? What are the key elements of each master's teaching?
These are important issues because Zen goes forward by virtue of its stories. Whether dharma talks or brief dialogues, traditional Zen stories seem to reveal ways of living that go beyond conditioning and acculturation. Many of us were first attracted to Zen by these stories.
To organize a large sampling of essential Zen stories, Rick McDaniel has employed both chronology and lineage. And, as shown below, each chapter begins with the geneology of the teacher(s) covered.
Zen lineage charts are common, of course. For example, Andy Ferguson provides a fairly comprehensive chart in Zen's Chinese Heritage. However, I suspect most readers experience these charts as I do - overwhelming and baffling. McDaniel's pairing of charts and stories clarifies relationships and permit the reader to develop some understanding of how Zen teaching evolved over time.
As McDaniel notes in his preface, Zen Masters of China contains no new material. Everything has been published elsewhere in English translation. So if you're looking for new stories, this is not the book for you. But McDaniel has organized the stories in an innovative way and made various small changes that help us enter the stories in a new way. This is a great service. Check it out!