Zen Books Reviewed
Translations & Sutras
Commentaries & Teishos
Koan Collections & Studies
Miscellaneous Zen Teachings
Buddhism by numbers
five ranks of T'saoTung
photo essay: on the Buddha Trail in India
shi and li
Zen master names
Non-English Sites & Teachings
Nagarjuna & Madhyamika
Philosophical Studies of Zen
I support Mailnull to fight spam
Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi's Yuan-jen lun with a Modern Commentary
Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity represents the fruits of Peter Gregory's long interest in Tsung-mi, a figure of immense importance in Chinese Buddhism.The contents of the book include an Introduction containing subsections titled "A Window on Chinese Buddhist Thought," "Historical Context," and "A Note on the Translation." This Introduction is a valuable guide to the intricacies of Chinese Buddhist thought on the one hand and the more specific context of Tsung-mi and the Yuan-jen lun on the other.
Following the Introduction is a "Running Translation" (pp. 43-62), which gives an uninterrupted translation of the text, without commentary. This is followed by an "Annotated Translation and Commentary" (pp. 65-206), which forms the substance of the work. It is subdivided into a Preface and four parts: (1) "Exposing Deluded Attachments: Confucianism and Taoism"; (2) "Exposing the Partial and Superficial": "The Teaching of Humans and Gods," "The Teaching of the Lesser Vehicle," "The Teaching of the Phenomenal Appearances of Dharmas," and "The Teaching that Refutes Phenomenal Appearances"; (3) "Directly Revealing the True Source: The Teaching that Reveals the Nature"; and (4) "Reconciling Root and Branch: The Process of Phenomenal Evolution." The book also contains a useful Glossary of Names, Terms, and Texts, and a Guide to Supplemental Readings, in addition to a Bibliography and an Index.
One way of reading Professor Gregory's book would be to look at it as a more accessible version of his earlier and more scholarly work, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). There is definite overlap between the two. No doubt the earlier work is aimed more at the specialist than the one currently under review. However, to view the present work only in these terms would not do full justice to it and the contributions that it makes to the study of Chinese Buddhism. Rather than as merely a recapitulation of his earlier work, it is better to view it as an application of Tsung-mi's sinification of Buddhism to a particular text. As such, it is a valuable and important contribution not only to our knowledge and understanding of Chinese Buddhism, but also to the way Buddhism was adapted in the sinification process.
As I read the work, I imagined it meeting a surprisingly broad range of interests. To specialists, it is attractive for its comprehensive and systematic presentation of Chinese Buddhist thought, backed by Gregory's impressive and erudite insights. For example, it is hard to imagine a more skilled analysis of Tsung-mi's comments on Buddhist cosmogony (pp.134-139) and its comparison to Taoism (pp. 139-142). To those working in other areas of Chinese thought, here is a work in which the often arcane idiom of Buddhist terminology is explained in ways that emphasize how Buddhist thought operated in the Chinese context. As such, the work can go a long way in demonstrating how Chinese Buddhism interacted with native Chinese traditions and contributed to debates in the Chinese as well as Buddhist contexts. To students in a variety of courses. here is a text that explains the operation of Buddhist thought in the Chinese cultural context in ways that are informative and understandable, but will also challenge students to read Chinese Buddhist texts in a highly nuanced way. As "a window on Chinese Buddhist thought," the book can serve as an attractive entry for a variety of specialists working in other areas desiring to acquire an understanding of East Asian Buddhism. For example, Tsung-mi's adaptation of "the process of phenomenal evolution" from the Awakening of Faith should be of interest to a variety of scholars working on religious and philosophical texts in various traditions for the comparisons it invites.
Another attractive aspect of the book is its format. While Gregory always strives to be explanatory in the book, the content is focused on a translation of a particular text that is not of particularly great length. Without the assistance of Gregory's expert commentary, many readers would probably miss the greater significance of the text's content. For students, in particular, the commentary amounts to an exercise on how to read a Chinese Buddhist text. The translation itself is superb, and includes the Chinese text so that serious students can easily compare the translation to the original. Gregory's own comments are distilled from numerous sources. These include comments made by Tsung-mi in another of his works, the Ch'an Preface, where he considers much of what is discussed in the Yuan-jen lun, but in a different context, and two Chinese commentaries on the Yuan-jen lun, one by Ching-yuan (1011-1088) and the other by Yuan-chueh (dates not given). Several Japanese translations and commentaries were also consulted. In a word, Gregory's work serves as a model for future scholars wishing to present translations of key East Asian Buddhist texts to a broader audience. The exceptionally fine translation sets standards that all who translate Chinese Buddhist texts would be well advised to take note of.
In addition, this book addresses a large, general concern about the study of Chinese Buddhism, namely that it has long been dominated by the study of Ch'an (Zen), particularly as interpreted through modern Japanese scholarship. Emphasis has been on "Hung-chou Ch'an," the Ch'an teaching of such figures as Ma-tsu Tao-i, Huang-po Hsi-yun, Paichang Huai-hai, and, of course, Lin-chi I-hsuan. Notwithstanding the importance of these figures in Chinese Buddhism in general and Ch'an in particular, reading Chinese Buddhism from this perspective leaves one with a decidedly one-sided point of view. These figures provide only a negative understanding of the "mainstream" development of scholastic Buddhism, including considerable developments within Ch'an predicated on harmony between Ch'an and scholastic teaching. Making an important work like Tsung-mi's Yuan-jen lun accessible in this form should help to remedy the imbalance.
Another large concern
facing textual studies of Chinese Buddhism, the situating of
intellectual debates and concerns into their social context (including
political and economic aspects), is only partially addressed. At a
recent panel honoring Jacques Gernet on the publication of the English
translation, Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the
Fifth to the Tenth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press,
1995), of his classic work Les aspect economique du bouddhisme dans la
societe chinoise du Ve au Xe siecle (Saigon: Ecole Francaise d'
Extreme-Orient, 1956), the speakers were asked to reflect on the
meaning of this work forty years after its initial publication in
French. One speaker suggested that the task facing the study of Chinese
Buddhism was no longer to redress the imbalance between doctrinal and
textual studies on the one hand and actual religious practice on the
other, but to resituate intellectual and doctrinal debates within their
active social context in order to revive the relevancy of doctrinal and
textual study. in this regard, I wish that the work under review could
have expanded its discussion of the "Historical Context" to include
more information about the social and political context in which
Tsung-mi lived and operated, so that the discussion of Tsung-mi's role
in this context could be treated in the same detail as his contribution
to Buddhist discourse. A judicious treatment of Tsung-mi's literati
connections (reviewed in Gregory's earlier Tsung-mi and the
Sinification of Buddhism, pp. 73-88) could have helped set Tsung-mi's
concerns more directly in the specific political discourse of his day. This does little, however, to detract from an excellent work, one that
sets standards for future Chinese Buddhist doctrinal and textual studies to
Updates to thezensite
Zen Book Reviews
Miscellaneous & Reading Lists
Journals and Acedemic Sites of Interest
Essays of Interest
If you wish, you may make a small donation to help this site defray overhead costs.