The Unix Koans of Master Foo

While working on The Art of Unix Programming, I became aware of a fascinatingarcheological discovery — the recovery of the lost teachings of an ancientUnix master...

Editor's Introduction

The discovery of the collection of koans known as the Rootless Root,apparently preserved for decades in the dry upper air of the WesternMountains, has ignited great controversy in scholarly circles. Are theseauthentic documents shedding new light on the teaching of the early Unixpatriarchs? Or are they clever pastiches from a later age, commanding theauthority of semi-mythical figures such as the Patriarchs Thompson, Ritchieand McIlroy for doctrines which evolved closer to our own era?

It is impossible to say for certain. All sides in the dispute have made muchof an alleged similarity to that venerable classic, The Tao ofProgramming[1]. But Rootless Root is quite different in tone and style fromthe loose, poetic anecdotes of the James translation, focused as it is on theremarkable and enigmatic figure of Master Foo.

A newer work, the Unix Power Classic[2], translates the Tao Te Ching intoan idiom similar to that of Rootless Root. Unix Power Classic may wellhave been influenced by Rootless Root, or further research may disclose thatthey had common sources.

It would be more apposite to seek parallels in the AI Koans[3]; indeed,there are textual clues that the author of the Rootless Root may haveredacted certain versions of the AI Koans. We are also on much firmer groundin seeking connections with the Loginataka[4]; indeed, it is quite possiblethat the unknown authors of Rootless Root and of Loginataka were one andthe same person, possibly a student of Master Foo himself.

Mention should also be made of the Tales of Zen Master Greg[5], though theNine Inch Nails references have cast some doubt on their antiquity and it isthus unlikely that they influenced Rootless Root.

That the title of the work was intended as a reference to the Zen classicGateless Gate[6] of Mumon, we can say with fair confidence. There are echoesof Mumon in several of the koans.

There is considerable dispute over whether Master Foo should be assigned tothe Eastern (New Jersey) School, or the Western School that grew out of thePatriarch Thompson's epochal early journey to Berkeley. If this question hasnot been settled, it is perhaps because we cannot even establish that MasterFoo ever existed! He might merely be a composite of a group of teachers, or ofan entire dharma lineage.

Even supposing the legend of Master Foo accreted around the teaching of some asingle person, what of his favored student Nubi? Nubi has all the earmarks ofa stock figure, the perfect disciple. One is reminded of the tales surroundingthe Buddha's favorite follower Ananda. It seems likely that there was ahistorical Ananda, but no trace of his actual personality has survived theeuhemerizing process by which the life of the Buddha was polished intotimeless myth.

In the end, all we can do is take these teaching stories on their own terms,and extract what kernels of wisdom may be found there.

The redaction of the Rootless Root is a work in progress, as the sourcematerials present many difficulties in reconstruction and interpretation.Future versions may include more stories as these difficulties are overcome.


[1] The Tao of Programming is available on theWeb.

[2] The Unix Power Classic is available on theWeb.

[3] The AI Koans are available on theWeb.

[4] The Loginataka is available on theWeb.

[5] The Tales of Zen Master Greg are available on theWeb.

[6] The Gateless Gate is available on the Web.


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