Morten Schlütter. How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008. x + 289 pp. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3255-1.
Reviewed by Jinhua Jia (University of Macao)
Published on H-Buddhism (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Dan Lusthaus (Harvard University)
The Development of Sectarian Zen
Numerous studies have discussed the competing approaches to enlightenment and practice known as “silent illumination” (mozhao 默照) and kanhua 看話 Chan (Chan of observing the word), a sectarian dispute between the Linji 臨濟 and Caodong 曹洞 traditions of Chan Buddhism in the Song dynasty. Few studies, however, seek to fully investigate the circumstances that led to this dispute and to reach a nuanced understanding of the dispute itself. Morten Schlütter’s volume makes a remarkable breakthrough on this subject.
In chapter 1, Schlütter first surveys the development of Chan Buddhism from its early stage to the Song. He adopts the widespread opinion that the entire lineage prior to the Song is best understood as a mythical construct, a sacred history that served to legitimize the Song Chan school and its claim to possess a special transmission. Some readers may partly or completely disagree with this opinion, but this is not the focus of the current volume. The chapter also presents some new, important remarks, indicating that the notion of the five houses of Chan is a construct that had little relevance to the Song Chan school, rejecting the model of Chan studies that assumes a strong factional or sectarian awareness among different schools in the Northern Song, and arguing against the common view that the educated elite saw Buddhism as a foreign and heterodox religion.
Schlütter then examines the political, social, and economic context with unprecedented nuance and depth in chapters 2 and 3. He aptly seizes the system of hereditary and public monasteries to look for the circumstances that led to Chan’s development into the leading form of elite monastic Buddhism. Hereditary monasteries were private in the sense that the abbacy and monastic offices were passed down through the tonsure family only. Public monasteries in the Song were seen as a kind of state institution, and their abbots were in most cases appointed by secular authorities and treated very much like government officials. As the earliest public monasteries all seem to have had been designated as Chan, public Chan monasteries flourished, which allowed the Chan school to develop an institutional base and an independent identity. These observations are inspiring, though one question remained unanswered: how could the Chan school dominate public monasteries, which were more famous and important from the very beginning of the Song, if it previously had not had any remarkable institutional development and independent identity? The answer to this chicken-or-egg question, however, seems also to be out of the scope of the current volume, as it has to be found from Chan school’s development in the late Tang and Five Dynasties, a crucial period that has not been sufficiently investigated yet.
Schlütter further discusses the importance of the Song literati’s patronage to the success of the Chan school and its lineages. In the Song, only a Chan master who held a position as the abbot of a public monastery could perform valid dharma transmissions and issue inheritance certificates to his or her disciples. Through their control of public abbacies at Chan monasteries, government officials and influential literati were actually in control of the procreation and dharma transmission in the Chan school. As a result, Chan masters had to appeal to the interests of the educated elite and to actively participate in literati culture. The influence of elite laypeople, Schlütter asserts, ultimately influenced the development of Chan ideology and soteriology and stimulated the dispute of silent illumination and kanhua Chan. It is insightful to indicate that the Song literati helped shape Chan ideology and make “Zen become Zen,” but exactly how they did so seems to still wait for more detailed and convincing discussions. In the Southern Song, Schlütter further describes, the combination of social and economic factors caused elite Buddhism to focus its appeal on literati and local officials to an even greater extent than earlier. Here, Schlütter’s application of the sociohistorical approach becomes very effective and nuanced: the social, political, and cultural context is not just offered as “the setting” but also described as forming an integral network with the movement of Chan Buddhism; and their complicated interaction is profoundly revealed.
From chapter 4 onward, Schlütter turns his focus onto an exploration of the sectarian dispute between the Linji and Caodong traditions supported by amazingly abundant early sources, many of which have been generally overlooked. He first examines the Caodong tradition and finds that it was revived from almost dying out at the end of the eleventh century, starting with Furong Daokai 芙蓉道楷 (1043-1118) and Dahong Bao’en 大洪報恩 (1058-1111) and reaching the peak in Daokai’s second-generation disciples: Hongzhi Zhengjue 宏智正覺 (1091-1157), Zhenxie Qingliao 真歇清了 (1088-1151), and Huizhao Qingyu 慧照慶預 (1078-1140). The reinvention of the tradition involved the remaking of its lineage, the crafting of suitable hagiographies for its ancestors, and the creation of a distinctive style of teaching and practice--the silent illumination.
Schlütter then discusses the Linji master Dahui Zonggao’s 大慧宗杲 (1089-1163) attacks on silent illumination and his creation of kanhua Chan. Dahui criticized silent illumination as a quietistic practice and passive meditation, which refused to make a distinction between inherent enlightenment and the actualization of enlightenment. Directed against silent illumination, Dahui advocated kanhua Chan and taught that focusing single-mindedly on the crucial phrase (huatou 話頭) of a gong’an 公案 (public case) would eventually lead to the breakthrough of enlightenment. Although recently some scholars have put forward a new argument that Dahui did not target Hongzhi Zhengjue or the Caodong tradition, Schlütter convincingly proves that Dahui did mean to attack the entire new Caodong tradition and as a result broke the code of harmony that the Chan school had been able to maintain in the earlier part of the Song.
Finally, Schlütter returns to the new Caodong tradition and presents plentiful evidence to demonstrate that Hongzhi and other masters in the tradition actually taught silent illumination as an approach to enlightenment and practice. He defines “silent illumination” as one that drew on the Chinese Buddhist understanding of tathāgatagarbha as inherent Buddha-nature, and placed strong emphasis on seated meditation, which aimed to achieve a mental quietude that allowed the inherent, perfect Buddha-nature to naturally manifest itself. Meanwhile, the Caodong masters did not completely reject the notion of enlightenment as a sudden occurrence and stressed the need for some kind of transformation in meditation. Thus, the attacks by Dahui and others distorted silent illumination in many ways. Schlütter also traces the origin of the silent illumination teaching and finds that Furong Daokai was the first to develop it. He further argues that, though Dahui and his kanhua Chan came to be seen as representative of orthodox Chan, the Caodong silent illumination was in reality quite orthodox, as it was very much similar to the standard meditation in Chan monastic training, as described in the meditation manuals compiled by Changlu Zongze 長蘆宗賾 (date unknown) and Foxin Bencai 佛心本才 (date unknown).
Readers may question some details, find some additional early sources, or disagree with some arguments of this work, but its solid, sophisticated, and original research is undeniably outstanding. Schlütter presents us with many innovative and insightful observations and conclusions on the doctrinal and soteriological issues behind the enlightenment dispute, which greatly enhance our understanding of the development of Song Chan Buddhism. His exhaustive search and use of all available, relevant primary materials and well-crafted application of philological and sociohistorical approaches are especially remarkable. The achievements of this excellent work will serve to inspire the field for many years to come.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-buddhism.
Jinhua Jia. Review of Schlütter, Morten, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China.
H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews.
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