How Zen Became Zen takes a novel approach to understanding one of the most crucial developments in Zen Buddhism: the dispute over the nature of enlightenment that erupted within the Chinese Chan (Zen) school in the twelfth century. The famous Linji (Rinzai) Chan master Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) railed against “heretical silent illumination Chan” and strongly advocated kanhua (kina) meditation as an antidote. In this fascinating study, Morten Schlutter shows that Dahu’s target was the Caodong (Soto) Chan tradition that had been revived and reinvented in the early twelfth century, and that silent meditation was an approach to practice and enlightenment that originated within this “new” Chan tradition. Schlutter has written a refreshingly accessible account of the intricacies of the dispute, which is still reverberating through modern Zen in both Asia and the West. Dahui and his opponents’ arguments for their respective positions come across in this book in as earnest and relevant a manner as they must have seemed almost nine hundred years ago.
Although much of the book is devoted to illuminating the doctrinal and stereological issues behind the enlightenment dispute, Schlutter makes the case that the dispute must be understood in the context of government policies toward Buddhism, economic factors, and social changes. He analyzes the remarkable ascent of Chan during the first centuries of the song dynasty, when it became the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism; and demonstrates that secular educated elites came to control the critical transmission from master to disciple (“procreation” as Schlutter terms it) in the Chan School.
How Zen Became Zen seeks to understand developments in Chan Buddhism from an angle that is radically different from most studies, which tend to depict this religious tradition as a closed system that is internally motivated. Scholars, Zen practitioners, and others interested in Chan and Zen thought will welcome this groundbreaking study.
Morten Schlutter received an MA in Chinese studies from the University of Copenhagen and a doctorate in religious studies from Yale University. He has published on various aspects of Chinese Buddhism, primarily Chinese Chan (Zen). Among other projects, e is working on a book in which he traces crucial developments in Chan Buddhist ideology through different versions of the famous platform sutra of the sixth patriarch, Schlutter is presently on the faculty of the department of religious studies at the university of lowa.
This book is about a set of crucial developments that took place within Chinese Buddhism in the Song dynasty (960-1279) that had a defining impact on the evolution of Zen Buddhism in all of East Asia and that came to permanently shape conceptions about the nature of Zen and the issues it is concerned with. It is entitled How Zen Became Zen, because although Zen (in Chinese pronounced “Chan”) existed earlier, it was not until this period that it fully developed the characteristics that we now associate with it.
By the Song dynasty, Chinese Buddhism was already ancient. Having arrived in China more than eight centuries earlier, Buddhism had become integral features of the landscape all over the Chinese heartland, and monks and nuns were part of the street scene in all of the bustling towns and cities that emerged in the Song. Just as the Song dynasty in many ways ushered in a new age that was fundamentally different from what had come before, however, the Buddhism that developed in the Song was also significantly different from the Buddhism that had characterized the Tang (618-907) and earlier periods.
Two developments in Song Buddhism are especially well known. The first is the growth of Chan Buddhism, which became the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism in the Song. The other is the sectarian dispute that took place between the Lingi and Caodong traditions of Chan in the twelfth century, involving competing approaches to enlightenment and practice known as “silent illumination” (mozhao) and kanhua Chan (literally, Chan of observing the word). Neither of these developments is wholly understood, and the questions of why the Chan school prospered under the Song and why a sectarian schism in Chan happened when it did have not been fully addressed by scholars. In this book, I argue that we cannot understand the second development if we do not understand the first, and that to do either, we must place both developments in the context of a complex web of secular political, social, and economic forces. Together with internal dynamics within Chan, the impact of these forces gave rise to the Chan School as we now know it, with its distinct institution, ideology, and literature.
In the Song, the majority of the great monasteries of the realm came to be designated as Chan monasteries, and they became centers of learning and culture where sometimes as many as several thousand monks would be enrolled, high-ranking officials would visit, and well-known poets and philosophers would gather. Famous Chan monasteries themselves were seen as sources of great and positive power; the presence of such a monastery could make evil spirits go away, bring prosperity to an area, and even improve the climate. The elite Chan clergy who were in charge of the grand monasteries ere famous monastic’s of illustrious lineages who carried with them an enormous charisma and who were recognized as a kind of living Buddhas. Such Buddhist masters were considered to be national treasures who generated significant supernatural benefits for the empire and for the local communities in which they dwelled. The Song Chan School also produced distinct forms of religious literature that became highly valued and widely read by the secular educated elite, and Chan philosophy and rhetoric deeply influenced the intellectual climate and had a substantial impact on developments in Song-dynasty Confucianism.
The beginnings of Chan Buddhism can be traced back to the early Tang, but only in the Song did Chan become the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism. Although it has long been noted by scholars that Chan Buddhism was highly successful in the Song, there is still a widespread perception that Chan, together with all of Chinese Buddhism, lost its true spirit after the Tang dynasty and that Chan in particular had its “golden age” in the eighth and ninth centuries, surviving in later ages only on wistful memories of the great masters of the past. In this view, syncretism became the prevailing trend after the Tang, rote scripture learning and mimicking of the earlier masters came to be valued, and Buddhism was infused with popular beliefs and practices. At the same time, the story goes, monks be came involved with politics and began to pander to powerful patrons. This perceived decline seemed to make Song Buddhism unworthy of serious study. Recent research on Song-dynasty Buddhism carried out in Japan as well as the West reveals a very different picture, however. It is now becoming accepted that Chan and other traditions of Buddhism showed great vitality throughout the Song and that developments in Buddhist doctrine, practice, and monastic organization in the Song all had a lasting impact on the entire landscape of Chinese Buddhism. Furthermore, scholars have become increasingly aware that very little metrical from the “golden age” of Tang Chan has come down to us directly; almost all that is known about the famous Tang Chan masters and their teachings is found in texts that date to the Song and later. I believe they must therefore be seen as an expression of the needs and interests of the Chan School in the Song and subsequent periods.
In the Song, powerful processes of religious change led to the development of what we might call the “mature” Chan School of the later Song dynasty. I will show that government policies and social forces in the Song dynasty dramatically reshaped monastic Buddhism in way that favored the Chan lineage, giving an established framework to a Chan School” and profoundly affecting doctrinal and sectarian developments within Chan Buddhism. Thus, it was in the Song that the Chan School acquired an institutional base, defined its crucial lineages, and developed its own distinctive literature. Later in the Song, in what in many ways marks a culmination in the development of mature Cha, the crucial distinction between silent illumination and kanhua Chan arose within the Chan school- an event that had a far-reaching impact not only on the Chan but on all of Chinese Buddhism and even on Confucian and Daoist thought, and that also created the framework for subsequent developments within Japanese Zen and Korean Son. The mature Chan School’s self-representation came to permanently shape an understanding of what Zen is in all of later East Asian Buddhism, creating an image that defines even modern conceptions of Chan, Zen, and Son. Thus, if we wish to understand how Zen became Zen as we now perceive it, it is necessary that we investigate the formation of the mature Chan School in the Song.
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