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

by Bernard Faure
Stanford University Press, 1997. xi+289 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper)
reviewed by Franz Aubrey Metcalf, California State University, Los Angeles
The Journal of Religion , Oct 1999 v79 i4 p700

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Bernard Faure is one of the rare scholars of religion whose work genuinely excites people. Any publication of his raises high hopes. We immediately wonder how the text will carry forward his great project of deconstructing (but in the nicest way) the Chan /Zen tradition and the business of studying it. That project took center stage with his twin pillars of scholarship, The Rhetoric of Immediacy (Princeton, N.J., 1991) and Chan Insights and Oversights (Princeton, N.J., 1993), works that fundamentally reshaped the landscape of Buddhist studies. But with his first words, Faure tells us this book is "a reworking of my doctoral dissertation" (p. vii), defended in 1984. He does not defend it again, instead exposing its sins (of omission), and calling it traditional historiography. Though he has revised his dissertation, he has not integrated John McRae's The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (Honolulu, 1986), nor has he reinforced the dissertation with the nuanced, postpositivist, cultural critique that gave such strength to the two works I mentioned. This book is not Faure's third pillar of Chan .

So, is this book's author the Faure of the 1990s, the revealer of things hidden since the foundation of the Chan /Zen world? Or the Faure of the 1980s, the creative but careful acolyte of Yanagida Seizen? Faure might remind us a book exists in the fusing of horizons of author and readers, and thus never has just one author. Still, on my horizon I saw a very youthful Faure, an image of the brilliant graduate student, demonstrating his skills and beginning to worry the vines he would later so expertly untwine.

Despite its anachronistic publication, we can easily place this book in Faure's oeuvre. Its author, the Faure of the 1980s, here sets the historiographic stage for the dramas of epistemological and cultural critique he will enact in the 1990s. Faure modestly promises only to reconsider the "Northern" school, to "do a preliminary re-evaluation of its doctrine and the role it played in later developments of Chan " (p. 6). Yet this re-evaluation began the deconstruction Faure still continues. He writes that even this early "I began to feel the need to run counter to the Japanese historiographic tradition" (p. 8). That traditions teleological view of Chan (with its telos of course being Japanese Zen) cannot withstand Faure's evidence and analysis. Faure warns us he "had to abandon this linear structure [of Chan /Zen teleology], at the risk of producing a text that would be difficult to read because of its fragmentation" (p. 9). Viola Faure's method! We experience difficulty in fragmented reading, but that difficulty expresses something greater: our resistance to facing a fragmented tradition, always embedded, always entwined, always enriched in impure ways.

A few words on the book's three sections. The first treats Shenxiu, the founding figure of the Northern school. Here Faure provides a political/intellectual context for Shenxiu in addition to the framework of his life and thought. With this foundation laid, the second section examines the Northern school after Shenxiu. Again, Faure does a consummately Faurean job of revealing the eclecticism and permeability of this and other contemporaneous Buddhist schools. The book's final section treats the Lengqie shizi ji ("Record of the masters and disciples of the Lankavatara [school];" a Northern school text that promotes that sutra as palladium of the true Chan lineage (= orthodoxy). Faure again supplies the context we need to understand his subject's place in the interdependent complex of Chan and other Buddhist schools.

By the volume's end, Faure has given us a sense of the Northern school's central eclecticism, its efforts at resolving the enduring Buddhist tension between samatha and vipasana, gradual and sudden practice, popular and elite religion. Though this eclecticism left the Northern school with no clear platform (so to speak) from which to defend itself against the subitist attacks of Shenhui and his epigones, the tension it preserved continues in Zen today.

I am of course saying the book fulfills its promises. Was there ever any doubt? If this review does not ring with the praise well earned by Faure's earlier English works, I lay this on its tardy publication. I recommend this book at the turn of the millennium, but wonder how much more powerful it would have been directly following McRae's work in the 1980s. In short, this remains an impressive piece of historiography, showing flashes of Faure's wide horizons as author. It is a foundational work that integrates especially powerfully with that of McRae. But I still await Faure's next great opus.


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