Prior to this translation, not much was known in the English-speaking world about "Korean" Zen. J.C. Cleary's introduction is useful and informative in revealing Zen as practiced in Old Korea--the first penetration of Zen from China across national boundaries (followed by its subsequent movement into Vietnam and then Japan)--and his introduction serves as a counterbalance to our unwitting orientalism of Zen by re-newing the words of T'aego, an authentic, historical voice for a vibrant and living practice. Cleary's translation is rich in its insinuations and ultimately startling in its clarity. Here is a passage from "How to Study Zen": "The days and months go by like lightning: we should value the time. We pass from life to death in the time it takes to breathe in and breathe out: it's hard to guarantee even a morning and an evening. Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, do not waste even a minute of time. Become ever braver and bolder....Mind is the natural Buddha: why bother seeking elsewhere? Put down your myriad concerns and wake up." Here it is: instant Zen: you wake up.
For about 60 pages, in the start of this book, we basically get a history of Korea. Which is fine, great, no real problem. The thing is, I bought the book to find out about T'aego. Perhaps I criticize too harshly, for J.C. Cleary delivers in this book eventually, but after what is in my view a chapter of narcolepsy. It is not until page 79 that we start hearing what T'Aego actually had to say. These sayings of T'Aego save what was destined to be a quite boring book through and through. The only reason I give the book 4 stars instead of 5, is for the beginning.
Now, as for T'Aego's teachings-they are a bit esoteric. A bit like listening to some of the Ancient Chinese masters, like Lin-Chi or Joshu. Many of T'Aego's sayings are much like a poem and/or koan. His sayings certainly take a bit of reflection at times, before the meaning of what has been said can be absorbed at all. But to me, that's wonderful. I don't like my Dharma easy or hard. I just like my Dharma. I enjoy picking apart, chewing the food given over and over again, until I feel ready to swallow. Old time Zen masters are great in this respect, for they force you to stumble intellectually quite a bit. Without some practice and introduction into Zen, this book probably won't appeal to you. I recommend it to "initiates" of Zen, though who knows. Could be you understand with no practice or understanding at all what T'Aego is saying. Anyhow, aside from the very slow beginning, tis' a good book!