Buddhism—Schools: Chan and Zen

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Zen is the latest Japanese development in a number of similar Buddhist traditions known as "Chan" in China, "Seon" in Korea, and "Thiên" in Vietnam, all supposedly having origins in India. It is an open question whether there is a sufficient degree of homogeneity to label this multifarious tradition "Chan" or "Zen." A safe alternative would be to treat each of the regional variations as distinct traditions, or even to handle the numerous subcategories in each of the East Asian regions as not necessarily connected with each other, at least not in the sense of a historical continuity.

One factor that makes these traditions especially complex is their emergence at various times and in various settings without being submitted to a central religious authority that would have defined their identity, their doctrine, and their structure as a religious unity. The multifarious nature of these traditions does not mean that Zen institutions did not participate in games of power; they certainly did. The vicissitudes of these lineages result from influences that cannot be reduced to institutional fates and orientations, or to their connections with political contingencies. This is because in most cases their self-proclaimed criterion for religious authority was spiritual realization.

Zen Agendas

While there is no unified tradition, this presentation uses the word "Zen" to indicate the fuzzy field comprising all the traditions mentioned above. For the sake of simplicity it is convenient to adopt the widely used Japanese pronunciation, except when referring to a specific geographical area.

Since many Zen lineages and most Buddhist schools seek to disentangle the nexus of our projections even on sacred matters, awareness of our own hermeneutic circle is a necessary prerequisite for examining the possible confluence between traditional and philosophical approaches to Zen. One of the sources that have shaped the understanding of Zen is the agendas of those who first introduced it to Western audiences and readers. Fortunately, a growing array of sharp studies is now available to facilitate the deconstruction and subsequent understanding of how missionaries, apologists, and romantics contributed to fabricating a contemporary notion of Zen. These studies examine why, for instance, Daisetsu Suzuki (18701966) in his own time and context chose to present Zen as the finest product of "Japanese spirituality," and even to claim, "As I conceive it, Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion" (1961, p. 268). Works by Faure, McRae, and Wright provide an insightful analysis of this crucial dimension and some of the necessary antidotes. One of their achievements is to reveal contradictions inherent in the discourse of apologists who denied their own historicity.

The Concept of Meditation

"Zen," pronounced "Chan" in Chinese, has an interesting linguistic background. The Chinese compound "channa" was used to phonetically transcribe the Pali terms "jhāna" or "jhān," from which it derives. "Dhyāna" being the Sanskrit equivalent for the Pali "jhāna," popularizers often simplify this etymology by explaining "chan" as if it derived from "dhyāna." Eventually "chan," the first half of the compound, became a word in itself, retaining some of its original implications.

Indian Buddhists chiefly used the word "jhāna" as a generic term for meditation (singular) and as a technical term for particular meditative states (plural). For example, in the Sutta-nipāta, "jhāna" is always singular, and appears in contexts such as "One who possesses the strength of wisdom, born of the moral precepts and restraints, who is tranquil in mind and delights in meditation, who is mindful, free from attachment, free from fallowness of mind and the Intoxicants, is called a sage by the wise" (I.12, verse 212; Saddhātissa 1985, p. 22; italics added). Here "meditation" is apt, as long as the English word is understood in its pseudo-etymological sense of (re )centering the mind, an approximation for one of the definitions of "jhāna," the mind "focused on one point" (Skt., ekagrātā ), and as long as the object of this concentration is understood as being nondiscursive.

The technical usage of "jhānas" in the plural refers to particular meditative states, often translated as "absorptions" or "enstasis." In the Buddhist canon the jhānas gradually were systematized to include four stages. An even more elaborate description of these stages in the canon mentions how the practitioner moves through these four successive absorptions, then enters the four "attainments" (samāpattis ), which culminate in the ninth stage with cessation of perception and feeling (Pali, saññāvedayitanirodha ), better known as the attainment of cessation (Skt., nirodha-samāpatti ).

Despite the importance of these nine meditative states, no Indian Buddhist school ever focused exclusively on the practice of absorptions or the practice of meditation. Such developments in the Chinese cultural sphere constitute a huge semantic leap and a complete reinterpretation of the tradition. (See Griffiths [1993] on jhānas.)

The Emergence of Chan as a Distinct Movement

Details of how Buddhism entered East Asia around the first century CE and gradually spread within the Chinese cultural sphere remain surprisingly ill defined. At a certain point after the end of this transmission process, in some circles, meditation ceased to be considered as only one of the three central methods of self-cultivation (morality, concentration, and insight), and groups of practitioners started identifying themselves as adepts of Chan, understood in the sense of "meditation."

When did Chan Buddhism emerge as a distinct movement, historically and geographically? Here again caution is required, because those seeing themselves as spokespersons for Chan largely defined their identity in contrast with other Buddhist schools prevalent at that time. If we adopt the scheme proposed by John McRae (2003), this phase began with proto-Chan around 500600 CE, which coincides with the growing success of the rival Tiantai lineage. In the following stage,

at the beginning of the eighth century the self-described successors to this community exploded on the national scene, and in the process they described themselves as an identifiable religious movement using the lineage model. No matter how diverse and multifaceted the Chan movement was at this point in time, no matter how fuzzy the boundaries were between it and other realms of Chinese religious life, from this point onward Chan had achieved a significant level of sectarian identity. (McRae, p. 121)

Yet in the Chinese context it would be inaccurate to speak of members of an organized "meditation school." Even in the ninth century, Guifeng Zongmi (780841) included in his Chan yuan zhu quanji duxu (Preface to the collected writings on the source of Chan) a list of Chan teachers that included the Tiantai patriarch Zhiyi (538597) (Gregory 1991). Put differently, "Chan" in the sense of meditation never exclusively belonged to the Chan School. For one, it was part of the Buddhist legacy and played a central role in the practice of other lineages, such as the Tiantai School. For another, as John McRae convincingly argues, the organization of Chinese Buddhism never implied a sectarian-centered administrative system. Despite a heavy bureaucratic apparatus and the government-sponsored system that emerged in the Song dynasty (9601279), monasteries were mostly administrated in rotation by the different lineages, and in China sectarian borders never became as strictly delimited as in premodern and modern Japan.

Sectarian developments took a further turn in Japan during the Tokugawa period (16001867) and evolved into the present rigid structures at the beginning of the Meiji era (18681912). Yet even in Japan until at least the eighteenth century, the expression "Chanzong" (Jpn., Zenshū ) meant the Chan lineage or the principle of Chan, and by no means referred to the Zen School or any institutionalized sect. The latter connotation emerged in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, when in 1872 the new Ministry of Doctrine created a single school labeled "Zen sect" including the Rinzai, Sōtō, and Ōbaku denominations. However, this forceful attempt to centralize Buddhist institutions met such strong clerical opposition that the government quickly stepped back. It recognized the independence of the Rinzai and Sōtō schools in 1874, then the autonomy of the Ōbaku School in 1876.

Geographically, where did Chan emerge? Saying that it emerged in the Chinese cultural sphere, rather than in China, aims at avoiding the easy assumption that China (understood as the modern nation) was the one and only cradle in which the Chan tradition grew up. This point is still controversial. Thich Nhât Hanh, a leading representative of the Vietnamese Thiên tradition, claims that the area of Jiaozhou, a colony of southern China from 111 BCE until 939 CE corresponding to present Thuan Thanh in northern Vietnam, saw the emergence of such a tradition at a much earlier time. He argues, "Buddhism was first introduced to Vietnam from India via the sea trade routes, beginning around the first century CE. Many people think that Buddhism came to Vietnam through China, but in fact it arrived first in Vietnam from India and was subsequently introduced to southern China from Vietnam" (2001, p. 4). This idea is appealing, especially to demonstrate that the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition is older than that of its former Chinese oppressor, but the additional suggestion that Buddhism was introduced to southern Vietnam (Cham at the time) from Jiaozhou seems difficult to support. Further, Nhât Hanh's presenting Kuong Tang Hôi (Chin., Kang Senghui; d. 280) as the first patriarch of Zen in Vietnam is questionable. Unfortunately, Nhât Hanh's ambiguous use of the word "Zen" and his agenda to demonstrate the antiquity of the Vietnamese tradition with a candidate who predates proto-Chan by more than two centuries undermine the reliability of his perspective. (For a balanced evaluation of the construction of Vietnamese orthodoxy, see Nguyen's [1997] study.)

The Philosophical Turn

There are contemporary philosophers who seek inspiration in Zen or Buddhism, and there is a philosophical endeavor within the tradition itself. The former case stretches from intellectual curiosity to the commitment of Nishida Kitarō (18701945), whose Zen practice laid the basis for a major part of his philosophical work. Yet even Nishida claimed not to formulate a Zen philosophy, but only to reflect about universal philosophical problems in the light of his personal understanding of Buddhism. In any case, Nishida and his philosophical project must be appreciated within the context of the Japanese industrial revolution. Japan was engaged in importing techniques and culture from the West at a high pitch. To compensate for the unbalance caused by this new situation, Japanese thinkers sought to highlight the unique aspects of Japanese culture. This desire found expression in efforts by Nishida and others to demonstrate the compatibility or superiority of the alleged intuitive thinking of the East with the newly imported Western rationality. (About Nishida, see Heisig 2001, Tremblay 2000, and Yusa 2002.)

The philosophical articulation of the tradition itself is a more difficult subject. The difficulty stems not from the alleged absence of rationality in the East Asian Buddhist tradition, a critique overcome by the dedicated work of a generation of scholars. Rather, it results from the absence of a clear demarcation between Zen philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. Kasulis observes that, despite a huge literary production, traditional Zen accounts fail to justify their distrust of verbal distinctions or dualistic formulations "simply because it has already been offered by traditions influential in the very emergence of Zen Buddhism" (1981, p. 15).

Here the term "Zen Buddhism" (an oddity coined by Daisetsu Suzuki that should be avoided in scholarly contexts) confirms the suspicion that philosophical questioning cannot be confined to Zen alone, insofar as it constitutes a subcategory of the Buddhist worldview. Past attempts to present Zen as special and unfathomable are now better understood for what they were: sectarian proselytism. This observation does not prevent one from asking whether, after all, the Zen traditions have a specific philosophical perspective to offer.

Specific Features of Zen

The quest to discover the real self, with subtle nuances sometimes labeled as "awakening" or "seeing one's true nature," is not a uniquely Zen feature. No doubt it occupies a central place in the Zen traditions, but it equally belongs to all Buddhist schools, being precisely what makes them Buddhist. Yet each particular Buddhist approach definitely displays a different flavor. For instance, Pure Land practices favor more devotional attitudes, while the Tiantai or Huayan traditions tend to privilege a more intellectual apprehension of the Buddhist path. Specific features can be found in the style of teaching, in the emphasis on particular types of cultivation, in doctrinal formulations or textual records, in rituals, and in the interactions with distinctive sociohistorical contexts. The use of vernacular Chinese in the Chan literature to duplicate or imagine dialogical encounters also constitutes a new genre.

The special features of the various Zen lineages did not pop up from some transhistorical background. Scholars now unanimously agree that most of the above-mentioned features of Chan in the Chinese cultural sphere found some degree of standardization during the Song dynasty. This means that even philosophical investigations into the spiritual cultivation of past Zen practitioners must cope with a double-layered filter: the construction of various orthodoxies in the Song period and subsequent interpretations by proselytes, which often replicate or amplify the first filter. With this in mind, let us nevertheless examine an example of a Zen teaching device where the context appears sufficiently explicit.

Critical Voice or Rhetorical Device

One of the literary monuments of the Song period is the Blue Cliff Record (Biyan lu ), a Chan anthology with commentaries by Yuanwu Keqin (10631135). The following dialog is provided here as it stands as case 11 in the Hundred Cases of Xuedou, the older version containing only the cases selected by Xuedou Zhongxian (9801052) without Yuanwu's commentary:

Huangbo taught the Sangha saying: "All of you people are stuffing yourselves with wine lees! If you keep roaming this way, how could this [decisive] moment [ever] arrive? Are you aware of the nonexistence of Chan teachers in the whole Tang China?"

At this point, a monk emerged [from the crowd] saying: "What about all those [like you] who help students and lead the Sangha?"

Huangbo."I didn't say Chan is nonexistent, only teachers are nonexistent." (Taishō 48: 151b11b16)

Previous translations used the expression "gobblers of dregs," which sounds good in English and has the advantage of evoking lowlifes, but remains unsatisfactory. The provocation at the beginning of the passage refers to wine lees to make listeners aware that just as eating wine lees leads to intoxication, so depending on teachers and repeating teachings without personal insight is delusive.

Another overlooked dimension of this passage is the allusion of this metaphor to the Buddhist canon. The Nirvana Sutra tells an elaborate story about an ignorant king debating with a wise physician. The physician describes a marvelous medication that counteracts the effects of poison. This drug is actually a particular type of milk produced under strict conditions:

If the cows don't eat wine lees, smooth grasses, or barley chaff, their calves will choose the good [path]. For grazing they will neither stay in the highlands nor come down to swamps. They will drink in limpid streams and won't be forced to run. They will not gather in herd with the bulls. Their drinking and eating will be adjusted; they will fit walk or immobility and find their place. Milk [produced] this way perfectly eliminates all ailments. (Taishō 12: 378c0407)

Should this metaphor remain obscure, several commentators offer keys to understanding it. Huiyuan (523592) of Jingying Temple provides a straightforward explanation: "If the cows represent the bodhisattvas , wine lees represent ignorance, smooth grasses represent avidity, and barley chaff represents anger" (Taishō 37: 651a1921).

In this light, the utterance attributed to Huangbo (d. c. 850) is far from simple rudeness to his audience or a dismissive critique of contemporary teachers. This teaching is a rhetorical device pointing at the auditors' fundamental ignorance and need to rediscover true autonomy. Whether Huangbo really uttered these words is best answered by Wright's careful statement: "The Huang Po texts available for our reading should be attributed not to any one creative individual or mind, but rather to the Zen tradition in China as it took shape over many centuries" (1998, p. 18).

The above excursion into the maze of intertextuality serves three purposes. First, it illustrates the immaturity of most Chan translations. Second, it shows the interdependence of Chan texts and Buddhist classics, and the need for further integration of the two fields. Third, it allows one to envision these dialogs in the context of monastic practice.

The Priority of Soteriological Concerns

If a common thread binds together the different Zen lineages, it may seem to be their uncompromising emphasis on awakening, based on the premise that the means and the end ultimately are not separate. In his characterization of Buddhism in general, Guy Bugault notes the primacy of the soteriological dimension over theoretical constructs, saying, "Accurately speaking, Buddhism at its original stage was neither a religion nor a philosophy, but a psychosomatic discipline including three elements: morality (śīla ), concentration (samādhi ), and intellectual discernment or acies mentis (prajñā ). None of them can function without the other" (1994, p. 43, translated from the French).

As with the poisoned arrow representing existential disease (Pali, dukkha ), the most urgent task is to remove it, speculations about its nature or shape being no more than delusive thought. Acute intellectual discernment is required to remove the arrow. The subtle boundary separating concentration and intellectual discernment is itself a theme worthy of examination, from both the Zen and philosophical perspectives. If there is a philosophical aspect specific to the Zen traditions, it is not so much in their striving to remove the arrow than in their emphasis on going beyond it, aiming at removing all traces of the operation.

See also Buddhism; BuddhismSchools: Hua yan; Dogen; Jinul.


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Michel Mohr (2005)