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The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism

by Bernard Faure
Reviewed by Jeffrey Dippmann
Philosophy East & West V. 49 No. 3, July 1999 pp. 386-388
©1999 by University of Hawaii Press

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Bernard Faure has established himself as the preeminent and most creative Chan scholar in the United States . Working with and going beyond recent Japanese scholarship, he has reevaluated the philosophical interpretation of Chan from a postmodernist perspective. In his latest work, The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism, Faure once again makes a vital contribution to the field, though this time from a historiographical standpoint. Expertly translated by Phyllis Brooks, this streamlined and concise text brims with insight.

    Chan's internal dispute between "Southern" and "Northern" schools and its ninth-century emergence as an authentic form of Chinese Buddhism reflect a common theme in the development of religions-the struggle for and "will to" orthodoxy. Despite victors' claims to the contrary, orthodoxy is created from a confluence of factors both historical and theoretical. Often emerging only after identifying and eradicating opponents whose views may or may not be accurately characterized, orthodoxy and the heresiographer's art generally oversimplify the rival's theories, setting up a monolithic countertradition as a kind of straw man. Rather than revealing objective truth, orthodoxy often conceals the situation's complexity and the continuity or homogeneity of heterodox and orthodox traditions.

    Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Chan. Taking as historically objective the Platform Suutra's account of Shenxiu's (ca. 605-706) ill-fated poetic struggle with Huineng (638-713), scholars have relegated the study of the former to the scrap heap of history. Accordingly, they have viewed the doctrines of Shenxiu's Dongshan (Northern) tradition as simply an evolutionary step in the linear progression of the emergent orthodoxy, while Shenhui (684-758) receives unwarranted credit for establishing that orthodoxy with his spirited attack on "gradualism" and simultaneous promotion of "subitism."

    Faure ably redresses this historical slight to the Northern School . Drawing upon his seemingly inexhaustible store of textual and historical knowledge, he elucidates Shenxiu's teachings and demonstrates that the Chan patriarchal lineage was the self-conscious "product of people on the margins, the result of their desire to become the party of the orthodox" (p. 9). Utilizing the Dunhuang manuscripts, he reconstructs Dongshan doctrine by analyzing its complexity and richness, thereby reversing the one-sided history of Chan that had buried Shenxiu's contributions under centuries of proscription.

    Given the limited scope of this review, I can only mention four major areas illuminated by this study: (1) the political "necessity" behind Chan genealogical construction and the manner in which these vertical lineages obscured the "rhizome"-like influences between rivals; (2) the syncretic/eclectic nature of Dongshan doctrine and its contributions to "Classical" Chan; (3) the existence of several Southern and Northern schools as opposed to unified monoliths; and (4) the dismissal of the notion that Chan developed along an invariable pattern leading from gradualism to subitism.

    The book breaks naturally into three parts. The first two chapters reconstruct Shenxiu's life and thought. Supplanting Shenhui's polemical characterization, Faure disentangles the complex political, social, and religious context of Tang China to create a portrait of a monk reluctantly accepting imperial patronage while maintaining an eclectic and highly syncretic practice and doctrine. This "spirit of syncretism ... characterized Shenxiu and his disciples ... [setting Dongshan] apart from its victorious rival, whose vigor is only the other face of a doctrinal intransigence" (p. 129). Ironically, that same receptivity may have weakened the school to the point of breaking under Shenhui's pressure (p. 144).

    Chapters 3 and 4 examine the Northern School following Shenxiu's death, exploring the upstart sect's adaptation to changes in imperial favor and policies, challenges by antagonistic schools, and the loss of its most vigorous leaders just as Shenhui mounted his challenge. Faure demonstrates that Shenhui's attack was generated by the claim that Puji (651 -739) had received the seventh patriarch's mantle, and speculates that the patriarchal robe's transmission and single-line filiation were inventions of Shenhui. Additionally, despite his denunciations, we can detect many of Chan's basic doctrines (i.e., subitism) in Dongshan theory.

    The final section examines an early Chan "history," Jingjue's (ca. 683-ca. 750) Lengqie shizi ji (Record of the masters and disciples of the La.nkaavataara), which illustrates the internal dynamics of pre-classical Chan. As Faure shows, the Record alters the genealogical tradition to promote a marginal group among Shenxiu's disciples, one that sought to elevate the La.nkaavataara-suutra to preeminence. Historically associated with Bodhidharma, the suutra's supposed gradualist overtones theoretically informed Dongshan thought. Eventually supplanted by the praj~naapaaramitaa Vajracchedikaa-suutra, whose subitism reportedly influenced Huineng, this suutra may have generated contention between two, and possibly three, separate cliques within Dongshan. Faure speculates that this factionalism ultimately opened the door for Shenhui's critique and fostered the Northern School 's decline.

    Philosophically, the reader is left wanting more on the connections between the Yogaacaara-Vij~naanavaada, Maadhyamika, and satyadvaya traditions in relation to Jingjue's Record (pp. 137-138), along with the comparative influences of non-Buddhist traditions (an admitted second step in Faure's analysis--p. 6). However, to understand fully the historiographical underpinnings of Faure's earlier works, The Will to Orthodoxy is another welcome and highly useful contribution from one of our most respected scholars.


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