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Making Zen Your Own: Giving Life to Twelve Key Golden Age Ancestors


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By Janet Jiruyu Abels,
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 187 pp including Bibliography, Sources, Lineage Chart, Map
reviewed by Vladimir K.
February, 2012

To make Zen Buddhism “your own”, you have to live it, walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Janet Jiruyu  Abels has tapped into the so-called “Golden Age” of Zen to find those ancestors who could walk the talk and live the Zen life. These twelve ancient ones, beginning with the legendary Bodhidharma (c. 440-528) and ending with Fayan Wenji (885-958), laid the foundations of Zen as we know it today. Of course there were many more than twelve who influenced Zen in the three-hundred year period covered in this book, but this is not a history book — it is a book of teachings (teishos in Japanese) delivered by a contemporary Zen teacher who uses these stories as a basis for teaching Zen students. As such, I think it succeeds admirably as Janet Abels is clear and hits the main points in practice.  Many who are new to Zen will find this a most useful beginning to their practice and understanding of Zen and as a thumbnail sketch of some of the history.

Abels discusses the twelve in more or less chronological order, beginning with Bodhidharma, the Indian master credited with bringing Zen to China sometime in the sixth century. Abels then jumps to Huineng (638-713), the sixth and last Zen Patriarch who supposedly wrote the Platform Sutra, the story of his life and teachings. The remaining ten chapters are devoted to Mazu (709-768), Shitou (700-790), Guishan (771-853), Linji (d. 867), Zhaozhou (778-897), Dongshan (807-869), Deshan (782-865), Xuefeng (855-908), Yunmen (864-949), ending with Fayan (885-958). Most, if not all, of these masters have ended up in various kōan collections, their sayings and going-ons studied and commented upon even today.
book cover
For someone not familiar with these masters and their stories, a delight awaits. These stories are full of passion, intrigue, and, well, sometimes just fun. Who doesn’t love the story of Huineng, after winning a poetry writing contest over the head monk, receives Dharma transmission, the bowl and robe of Bodhidharma, from Master Hongren who then sneaks him out of the monastery late at night, fearing that his monks would kill Huineng if they knew the master had given transmission to this illiterate hayseed from the south (Hongren called him a “barbarian” on the first meeting).  Or the story of Deshan, master and lecturer of the Diamond Sutra who is bested on the road by a dumpling selling lady (you have to watch out for these ladies who occasionally pop up in these stories — they can be formidable interlocutors). Or how about the famous Zhaozhou (perhaps better known in the West as Joshu of “mu” fame, often the first kōan a student receives). At the age of sixty, after his own master, Nanquan dies, sets off on a twenty-year pilgrimage to test his enlightenment with some of the greatest Zen teachers of the day. He finally settles down in an old, beat-up monastery in Northern China and commences teaching. For the next forty years! He finally passes away at the age of 120, having rejected all worldly luxuries (the story says his monks’ hall had only walls on two sides and the master’s chair was broken and stayed that way). What wonderful tales these are!

Abels says in her introduction, “Knowing the history of our Zen ancestors… is, it seems to me, indispensable for anyone interested in Zen.” (p 4) I would generally concur with her here although “indispensable” may be a bit of an exaggeration as many people have become enlightened through Zen without much knowledge of the ancestors.  But if we take up Abels’s point, then I would suggest we should also be aware that many, if not most, of these stories, are not necessarily true historical accounts. These tales of the masters are not history but teaching devices (which is how Abels uses them). For example, two of the arguably most influential writings of the history of Ch’an are the Tsu-t’ung chi (the Patriarch’s Hall Collection, 952 ) and the Ch’uan-teng lu (Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, 1004). The origins of the kōan collections can be traced to these texts but these texts were not created to offer Zen teachings. They were created to establish the legitimacy of the Ch’an sect by creating an orthodoxy and lineage which could be traced back to Sākyamuni Buddha. Ancestry was (and still is) very important in Chinese culture and to be seen as a legitimate independent religion separate from other forms of Buddhism, Ch’an had to differentiate itself and create an readily acknowledged identity and what better way than to claim that the enlightenment of the masters and Patriarchs can be traced directly back to the Buddha? As Albert Welter points out, these two documents “represent significant steps in the process of winning an established place for Ch’an within Chinese culture.” (Welter, 2004: 139) Although the Ch’uan-teng lu exemplifies “classical” Ch’an, “with its records of the unconventional behavior  and antics of famous Ch’an masters and patriarchs…the entries in the Ch’uan-teng lu are best read as fictionalized projections that conform to the model of Ch’an supposedly pioneered by Ma-tsu and his descendants”. (Welter, 2004:169) These texts, which are the basis for subsequent writings about the masters, should be seen as literary devices constructed to confirm the orthodoxy and lineage of a master and  “not a reflection of actual behaviour.” (Welter, 2004:172)

Buddhist scholar Morten Schlütter, discussing Huineng and the Platform Sutra (which Abels acknowledges in her introduction as being written after the master’s death) asserts unequivocally that “scholars have long ago shown that the story of Huineng should be understood in the context of competition among different factions of Chan in the years after Hongren’s demise, and that virtually nothing in the Platform Sutra can be taken as historical fact.” (Schlütter, 2007:383) [1] I could go on pointing out that modern Buddhist scholars do not take the stories of the ancient masters as historical records but it would serve little purpose. Enough to turn to John McCrae and to say that “Statements of lineage identity and “history” were polemical tools of self-assertion, not critical evaluations of chronological fact” and that the greater the detail in the story, “the more we should recognize them as literary tropes.” (McRae, 2003:xix)

So what does all this mean for a book such as Making Zen Your Own and does it matter? Credit must be given to Abels for noting this in her introduction. She makes it clear that the stories in this book, based as they are on historical records which “do not necessarily present historical facts in the way we think of facts”, are created with “biographical details …[which are] not always factual and were often tailored to fit a particular Zen master after he had passed away”. (p 6) But I do think it matters that these are just stories, not history. Too many Zen teachers slide over this point (or do not acknowledge it at all), leaving their students thinking that these entertaining (and revealing) stories and dialogues actually happened. If Abels’s assertion that knowing our Zen history is “indispensable”, then we need to know not only the stories and kōans, but also what modern scholars have discovered about the “true” history of Ch’an. Furthermore, Abels has admirably contextualized these stories in the history of China. For much of the time in this age, China was in turmoil, culminating in the mass slaughter of the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). During the era covered in this book, Buddhism was suppressed or persecuted four times, in 567, 574-577, 845 and 955. Many of the ancient worthies had a tough time of it but this did not stop them from going on pilgrimage through dangerous territories. Abels notes the bravery of these masters.

This is an excellent book of teachings with clear insight evident which should help many on the path. Those unfamiliar with the stories will delight in the narratives of these masters and the sparkling,  engaging style Abels brings to these tales. There is over a thousand years between the masters and us but they are still alive and teaching us and I’m sure they will continue for another thousand years.  


1. see also my Legends in Ch’an: the Northern/Southern Schools Split, Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra


McRae, J.R. (2003) Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation and Genealogoy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, University of California Press, Berkely and Los Angeles

Schlütter, Morten (2007) Transmission and Enlightenment in Chan Buddhism Seen Through the Platform Sūtra (Liuzu tanjing 六祖壇經), Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, no. 20, pp. 379 ~ 410 (2007)
Taipei: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies available here

Welter, Albert (2004) Lineage and Context in the Patriarach's Hall Collection and the Transmission of the Lamp in The Zen Canon: Understanding Classic Texts, eds. S. Heine and D. S. Wright, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Some Further Readings

Hu Shih: Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism in China
Ishii Shūdō & Albert Welter The Wu-men kuan (J. Mumonkan) The Formation, Propagation, and Characteristics of a Classic Zen Kōan Text 
Charles W Swain: The Emergence of Ch'an Buddhism: a revisionist perspective
Albert Welter The Textual History of the Linji lu (Record of Linji): The Earliest Recorded Fragments
Dale S Wright Historical Understanding: The Ch'an Buddhist Transmission Narratives and Modern Historiography