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Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism

by Peter N. Gregory
Princeton University Press, 1991
The Kuroda Institute, University off Hawai'i Press 2002
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Reviewed by T. Griffith Foulk
The Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol.114 No.3July-Sep 1994 pp.487-4891

© American Oriental Society 1994

This comprehensive, meticulously researched study of the life and thought of the scholar monk Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841) shines a well-deserved spotlight on a multi-faceted thinker who was, by any standard, a major player on the intellectual stage in medieval China. In doing so, the book also illuminates the social, political, and religious contexts in which Tsung-mi's writings were produced and shows how his work represented an adaptation of Buddhist doctrines and practices to the Chinese cultural milieu. Previous research on Tsung-mi, most of it published in Japanese, has focused largely on his role as a historian who chronicled the lineages TsungMiBookCoverof early Ch'an (Zen) and championed his own line of filiation (the Ho-tse branch of the "southern lineage" of Ch'an) as the best. Considerable attention has also been paid to Tsung-mi's contribution to the Hua-yen (Kegon) tradition, which subsequently claimed him as its fifth "patriarch." Author Peter Gregory is very well versed in the Japanese scholarship and uses it to good advantage. He is not taken in, however, by its simplistic caricature of Tsung-mi as a "syncretist" who tried to bridge the gap between Ch'an (characterized as a "mind-to-mind transmission" of enlightenment) and the textually based "teachings" of exegetical traditions such as Hua-yen. Gregory's elucidation of the complex philosophical, ethical, and social considerations that influenced Tsung-mi's intellectual project is both broader in scope and more nuanced than the accounts found in most previous studies.

The book is divided into four parts. Part one, entitled "Tsung-mi's Life," collates autobiographical data gleaned from Tsung-mi's own writings, references to the monk found in other contemporaneous documents, and formal accounts of his life given in later Chinese biographies. Gregory brackets the hagiographical elements and normative judgments that are found in both the classical Chinese and modern Japanese biographies of Tsung-mi and declines to engage in the gratuitous psychologizing sometimes found in modern Western biographies of religious figures. The result is a thorough and judicious recounting of the historical evidence: a biography of Tsung-mi which, though sparse, comes as close as possible to attaining the ideals of objectivity and reliability. Gregory takes special care to present the evidence for Tsung-mi's classical Confucian education as a youth and to document his subsequent interactions with various Buddhist teachers, scholar-officials, and political figures. He also describes the monastic centers and traditions of Buddhist practice in Tsung-mi's native Szechwan that the monk knew most intimately. Part one thus provides a social and historical context for the interpretation of Tsung-mi's thought in the remainder of the book.

Part two comprises four chapters on "Doctrinal Classification" (p'an-chiao), which is widely regarded by scholars today as one of the most distinctive features of medieval Chinese Buddhist thought. Gregory's primary aim is to elucidate Tsung-mi's p'an-chiao scheme, but his treatment of its antecedents is so thoroughgoing that part two could stand alone as a monograph on the background and progressive development of doctrinal classification in the Hua-yen tradition. Gregory carefully details the various ways in which Tsung-mi's p'an-chiao differed from those of his Hua-yen predecessors, most notably Chih-yen (602-68) and Fa-tsang (643-712). His main thesis is that Tsung-mi's formulation was essentially soteriological in intent: it mapped out stages of understanding on the path to Buddhahood. Earlier Hua-yen thinkers, in contrast, were either preoccupied with the hermeneutical problem of how to reconcile the apparent contradictions between different sutras that were all presumed to be the word of the Buddha, or intent on proving, for sectarian purposes, the superiority of the Hua-yen Sutra. Gregory concludes that Tsung-mi's concern with soteriology reflected the influence of Ch'an on Chinese Buddhism in the eighth and early ninth centuries, and that it represented a radical shift in Hua-yen hermeneutics.

Part three, entitled "The Ground of Practice," contains the most ambitious and potentially controversial chapters in the book. It begins by outlining what Gregory refers to as Tsung-mi's "cosmogonic map." This is a five-stage diagram of the process of "phenomenal evolution" through which: (1) the ultimate ground of being - identified with the "one mind" of perfect enlightenment, the true dharmadhatu, and the tathagatagarbha (2) divided against itself and produced an aspect of mind that is subject to birth-and-death as well as one that is unconditioned and unchanging, (3) allowed a differentiation in the mind of birth-and-death between the (relative and conditioned) states of enlightenment and delusion, (4) produced in the deluded mind a false sense of separation between a perceiving subject and perceived objects, and (5) gave rise in that framework to (a) mental discrimination, (b) awareness of pleasure and pain, (c) attachment, (d) conceptual elaboration, (e) activity (karma) based on such attachments and concepts, and finally (f) the suffering of karmic bondage in which ordinary beings find themselves. Gregory calls this schematic diagram of the etiology of deluded sentient existence a "cosmogony" because it is a theory "regarding the birth or creation of the universe" or a "description of the original order of the universe" (p. 175, n. 5). In Tsung-mi's view, each of the stages in the process of phenomenal evolution could be countered and undone by bringing to bear a particular set of Buddhist doctrines and practices, thus reversing the process in a systematic manner and enabling one eventually to move from the state of suffering in karmic bondage (stage 5) "backwards" to a realization of the original state of perfect enlightenment (stage 1). Gregory holds that Tsung-mi's five-stage diagram, when viewed from the perspective of a practitioner, thus appears as a "map" of the path to liberation.

The central thesis of part three is that Tsung-mi devised his five-stage "cosmogonic map" (as well as a similar "etiology of delusion" formulated in ten reciprocal stages) in order to "provide an ontological ground for Buddhist practice." In particular, Gregory argues, Tsung-mi valued the doctrines of the tathagatagarbha and "one mind" because, by positing an ultimately real ground of all phenomena (including both deluded and enlightened states), it allowed him to counter the antinomian and negative conative implications of the San-lun (Madhyamaka) doctrine of emptiness and to subordinate the radically apophatic rhetoric of emptiness to a kataphatic (positive) mode of discourse. As Gregory demonstrates, Tsung-mi's Confucian training and native conservatism put him in opposition to the more radical tendencies in certain Ch'an movements (especially the Pao-t'ang and Hung-chou schools), which seemed to reject traditional Buddhist forms of cultivating morality, meditation, and wisdom. By portraying those modes of cultivation as tools that were indispensable for the progressive dismantling or reversing of the cosmogonic process, Gregory argues, Tsung-mi was able to provide them with a firm "ontological" underpinning that had great appeal to native Chinese sensibilities.

Gregory does an excellent job of laying out the contents of Tsung-mi's theoretical formulations, but his interpretation of them as a "cosmogonic map" and his thesis that they provided an ontological basis for practice are open to debate. The process described by Tsung-mi in his five-stage and ten-stage diagrams was indeed an "etiology of delusion" (Gregory's term), but not an account of any quasi-substantive "evolution" (again Gregory's term) of the phenomena of sentient existence. The diagrams, in other words, represent a type of speculation which, if we want to use Western philosophical terms, is more "epistemological" than "ontological." Insofar as Tsung-mi presents an ontology, it is to claim that only the "one mind" is ultimately existent: all other, conditioned phenomena are "merely the ever-changing images reflected on the surface of the mind, nothing more than the epiphenomena (mo) of the intrinsically enlightened true mind" (p. 252). Thus, the reversal of the five-stage (or ten stage) process that Tsung-mi envisioned was essentially a question of successively lifting the overlaid veils of delusion by cultivating insight into the appropriate, countervailing Buddhist doctrines. It was not a matter of systematically suppressing or undoing, say through transic meditation (dhyana) or ascetic practices, any psychophysiological processes or entities that might be understood to have evolved in some substantive way. Viewed in this light, one could question the interpretation of Tsung-mi's formulas as "maps" in the sense of an aid to movement or a plan of action, although the metaphor of a map as something that conveys knowledge of a territory in and of itself (thereby obviating the need to go anywhere or do anything other than read and understand it) may be apt. As with the Indian Buddhist doctrine of the twelve-link chain of conditioned origination (pratityasamutpada), which Gregory (following the dubious lead of Frank Reynolds) holds up as another example of a "cosmogony," Tsung-mi's schemata might better be compared to the diagnosis, etiological study, and prescription for the treatment of a disease. The "disease" in this case is the suffering of karmic conditioning; the root and ongoing "cause" of its development is delusion; and the "treatment" is the study and understanding of Buddhist doctrines. It is not clear from the data presented in part three how Tsung-mi, simply by positing the existence of the originally awakened "one mind" or tathagatagarbha, could thereby have resisted the antinomian tendencies in the Ch'an of his day or strengthened his case for the traditional Buddhist practices of morality and meditation (dhyana). To establish a truly "ontological" basis for those practices, one would think, it would be necessary to hold that the delusions and passions that cloud the mind are just as real as the mind-ground itself. Such a position was in fact taken by the Northern school of Ch'an, or at least imputed to it by Shen-hui and Tsung-mi, for it was said to have regarded the impurities that obscure the intrinsically pure mind (like dust on a mirror) as substantially existent phenomena that needed to be removed by a vigorous "polishing" of the mind in meditation. Tsung-mi himself, however, rejected that standpoint on the grounds that the impurities are empty (k'ung): "they lack any independent reality of their own because they are nothing but a manifestation of the intrinsically pure mind as it accords with conditions" (p. 233). It was precisely such an understanding of the emptiness of delusion and its essential identity with the Buddha-nature, moreover, that informed the apparently radical, antinomian position taken by the Hung-chou school. The question that arises, then, is how Tsung-mi could have embraced essentially the same ontology as the Hung-chou school as a means of refuting that school's laissez-faire approach to Buddhist practice. The answer is suggested by Gregory's own account: it was not the Hung-chou school's ontology that Tsung-mi found objectionable, but rather its lack of concern with enlightenment as an epistemological phenomenon. Tsung-mi charged that the Hung-chou school, in its acceptance of the fundamental ontological identity of the one mind and its deluded thoughts, lost sight of the fact that cognitively (or experientially) it is still necessary to see through the mind's conditioned functioning, actually to realize or attest to the underlying essence, and to integrate that realization of innate Buddhahood into one's experience of the phenomenal world. For Tsung-mi, then, practice was necessary, not to effect any real change at the deepest ontological level (which is immutable) but to know the structure of being and to effect positive changes in the makeup of the conditioned mind: to transform the "mind subject to birth-and-death" from that of an ordinary suffering being into that of a Buddha.

Part four, entitled "The Broader Intellectual Tradition," deals with Confucianism and Taoism in Tsung-mi's thought and compares Tsung-mi's attempt to provide an ontological basis for the affirmation of traditional Buddhist practices with a similar turn of thought taken, in opposition to Buddhist antinomianism, by the seminal Neo-Confucian thinker Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Gregory does a good job of explaining Tsung-mi's critiques of Confucianism and Taoism and his incorporation of those two "teachings" into a p'an-chiao scheme alongside, but subordinate to, Buddhism. The comparison that Gregory draws between Tsung-mi and Chu Hsi is a fruitful one, noting as it does a "common problematic" and certain "structural parallels" in their respective metaphysical positions. If, however, one views Tsung-mi's defense of moral principles and practices as an argument couched more in epistemological than ontological terms, then the similarities between his position and that of Chu Hsi, while still striking in many respects, may be in need of some further qualifications.

In conclusion, it is a measure of the excellence of this book that it lays out the philosophical positions of Tsung-mi and many of his contemporaries with such clarity and thoroughness that the reader is able, without recourse to any outside materials, to formulate interpretations of Tsung-mi's thought that may differ in some particulars with that given by the author. With its careful, in-depth discussion of many of the key moral and metaphysical issues that engendered debate in medieval Chinese Buddhism, the book is an invaluable resource not only for students of East Asian Buddhism but of Chinese intellectual history in general.


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