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The Teachings of Master Wuzhu: Zen and Religion of No-Religion


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by Wendi L. Adamek
Translations from the Asian Classics, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011
208 pp including Notes, Bibliography and Index

Early Chan (ca. 600-900)[1]was a period of establishment for Chinese Chan. Around the end of 7th century, lineage charts began to appear to lend an air of authenticity to various factions. It was through the tireless efforts of Shen-hui (670-762) (J. Kataku Jinne) that one faction, the so-called ‘Southern School’ and its patriarch, Hui-neng ( 638–713), the sixth (and last) patriarch of Chan, became the dominant sect to which all later schools would trace their lineage. The importance placed by early Chan on lineage enabled it to separate itself from other forms of Buddhism in China and it also reflected the importance in  Chinese culture of genealogy, thereby giving Chan an extra legitimacy, albeit one that was self-imposed.

One of the most important documents of this era became known to us as The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the only writing outside of the purported words of the Buddha to acquire the label of ‘sutra’. This so-called ‘sutra’ is still studied today in virtually all Zen monasteries around the world, attesting to its enduring popularity and influence. Claiming to be the true history of the patriarch Hui-neng and a recording of his teachings, the document’s true provenance can no longer be established. The earliest version found, an obvious (and rather poor) copy of an even earlier document, is the Dunhuang manuscript written sometime around 830-860 [2]. Among the many thousands of manuscripts preserved in the Dunhuang caves, another, lesser-known document, the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Generations) was also discovered.
book cover
While Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra went on to glory and admiration over millennia, the Lidai fabao ji, a near-contemporaneous account of Chan Master Wuzhu (714-774), faded into obscurity and neither the manuscript nor the Master are remembered in the subsequent development of Chan. However, this does not negate the importance of this unique manuscript in the study of early Chan. As Wendi Adamek states,
The Lidai fabao ji gives us remarkably lively glimpses of Wuzhu and his interlocutors, both adoring and hostile. It also gives us a window into a world of complex religious and cultural battles, many of which continue to resonate today.(p.3)

She goes on to claim that “The huge repository of Chan lore owes much to the disciples who created…the Lidai fabao ji” (p. 62), as the stories of the text found their way into the official annals of Chan and modified the shape of subsequent Chan literature while the text itself was repudiated and forgotten.

In this book by Wendi Adamek, The Teachings of Master Wuzhu: Zen and Religion of No-Religion, Adamek explores this complex world in her introductory chapters. She places the manuscript in the context of medieval Chinese Buddhism and gives a brief foundational history of the Buddhism of the era. In the second chapter, she explores the thorny issue of Chan transmission and lineage and Wuzhu’s place in this lineage. The importance of Bodhidharma’s robe as the symbol of authenticity of transmission is explored. The convoluted history of the robe makes fascinating reading as the Platform Sutra clearly states that the robe stopped being the symbol of transmission with Hui-neng [3]. This, however, does not preclude Wuzhu ending up with the robe via the Korean master Wuxiang (‘the Venerable Kim’), a master Wuzhu met face-to-face but once.

The third introductory chapter is devoted to Wuzhu’s teaching and it is here we come to know the radicalism of Wuzhu’s Dharma. He abandoned the daily rituals of the monastery, teaching that “confessing and repenting and intoning prayers, all this is empty delusion.” (p. 154) No-thought (and therefore, no merit in rituals) was central to his teachings and led to much criticism and disapproval from other monks. While he saw that all beings are fundamentally pure and complete, with “a single thought [produced by] the deluded mind of beings, the Three Worlds are dyed” and therefore ‘no-thought’ had to be provisionally taught: “if there is no presence of thought, then no-thought itself is not.” (p. 122) Taking this to an extreme led Wuzhu’s school, the Bao Tang, to ‘sit in idleness’, rejecting all forms of worship, even the precepts; a religion of no-religion. When one wanted to join the sect, one just shaved the head, donned the robes and sat. Taking no mind as the ultimate practice, the school went beyond the distinctions of right and wrong leaving it open to the charge of antinomianism and nihilism. 

Another aspect that revealed Wuzhu’s radical interpretation of Chan was his acceptance of women as disciples. This is explored in the fourth chapter. In the Lidai fabao ji there are a number of instances where women arrive at Wuzhu’s doorstep seeking the Dharma and upon hearing Wuzhu’s teaching, ask to join the monastery and to become disciples. Wuzhu accepts these women, giving them a Dharma name and the women become part of the sangha. This was highly unusual in medieval China and led to further censure by some of Wuzhu critics.

The final chapter before the translation of the text is a brief look at Wuzhu’s legacy. While the Lidai fabao ji lived on for some time before being forgotten, the Bao Tang school could not carry on without their charismatic leader and gradually faded from Chan history. “Wuzhu truly went into the marketplace with empty hands, offering no sin and repentance, no merit and no thought.” (p. 66) Perhaps this was too radical for the average monk and layperson. Perhaps Wuzhu’s contemporary,  Mazu Daoyi (709-788) had a more palatable teaching with his  “everyday mind”. Whatever the reason, Wuzhu’s teaching was unsustainable and he faded into history.

A little more than half the book is taken up by Adamek’s translation of Lidai fabao ji. All in all, this is an admirable translation which allows the non-specialist entry into Wuzhu’s world. There are, however, a few clunky phrases such as when Wuzhu questions various visiting masters and asks “What scriptures and treatises does the Dharma Master explicate?” [4]The reply comes, “I explicate the Nirvana-sūtra.” It is hard to believe that anyone in normal conversation would use ‘explicate’ in preference to ‘explain’ or ‘clarify’ or even ‘teach’. However, putting aside such occasional ‘academese’ language, the text is clear and readable.

One aspect that I would have liked some discussion about is the debate surrounding the authenticity of the Lidai fabao ji. In Wendi Adamek’s essay, Robes Purple and Gold: Transmission of the Robe in the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Ages), she makes it  clear that the Lidai fabao ji is a “ fabric of self-promoting fictions”. (p. 58) Adamek quotes John McRae as calling this text the “most egregious of all” texts indulging in “patent fabrications and questionable attributes.” She acknowledges these tales when she says, “I wish to show that the Lidai fabao ji’s fabrications should not be discarded lightly.” (p. 59) However, in her book, no mention is made of this, an unfortunate oversight as the book offers plenty of scope to explore this interesting issue more deeply. 

However, with these minor exceptions, this is a fine translation and introduction to Wuzhu’s teaching and is the type of book which all who are interested in Zen/Chan history should have on their bookcase.

1 I am using McRae’s dating and nomenclature here. (See McRae, 2003:13)

2 For a detailed explanation of this document, see Yampolsky, 1967.

3 “The robe may not be handed down.” (Yampolsky, 1967:176) (see also Yampolsky, 1967:112-113)

4 For example, see p. 132

Adamek, Wendi L (2000) Robes Purple and Gold: Transmission of the Robe in the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Ages), History of Religions, Vol. 40. 1, (Aug. 2000)

McRae, John R. (2003) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles

Yampolsky, Philip B. (1967) The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Columbia University Press, New York

Further Reading

Vladimir K. Legends in Chan: the Northern/Southern Schools Split, Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra

Whalen Lai Ma-Tsu Tao-I And The Unfolding Of Southern Zen

Gary L. Ray: The Northern Ch'an School And Sudden Versus Gradual Enlightenment Debates In China And Tibet

Robert B.Zeuschner: The Understanding of Mind in the Northern line of Ch'an (Zen)