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The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts

edited by Steven Heine & Dale S. Wright
Oxford University Press, 2004
pp 325, including index, Pinyin-Wade-Giles Conversion table
reviewed by Vladimir K.

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I possess the treasury of the true Dharma-eye, the wondrous mind of nirvana, the subtle Dharma-gate born of the formlessness of true form, not established on words and letters, a special transmission outside the teaching. I bequeath it to Mahākāśyapa.

This is one of the best known Zen kōans from the Wu-men kuan (kōan number 6, The World Honoured One Holds up a Flower) beginning the long line of Dharma transmission in the Zen tradition. Moreover, it begins the myth of Zen not depending on “words and letters” which was picked up in a later story about the legendary Bodhidharma, the first Chinese patriarch who is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to China: “A special transmission outside the scriptures, Not founded upon words and letters”.

The role of “words and letters” in Zen has often been misunderstood. For some students, reading and studying the sutras and the writings of the old masters is seen as anathema in Zen practice. However, even a cursory reading of Zen history reveals the important role that sutra study (and “words and letters”) has had in Zen practice. Reading the “words and letters” of the old masters such as Ma-tsu Kiangsi Tao-I (709-788)(P: Mazu Daoyi; J: Baso Do-itsu), Huang-po Hsi-yun (d. 849) (P: Huangbo Xiyun; J: Obaku Ki-un) and even that most iconoclastic master Lin-chi I-hsuan (d. 866) (P: Linji Yixuan; J: Rinzai Gigen) shows their deep and profound understanding of the sutras. Similarly, in later years Japanese masters such as Dōgen Kigen (1200-1253) and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) were well-versed in not only the Buddhist sutras but also the writings of the early masters.

book coverSo the question arises, is there such a thing as a “Zen canon”? Given that Zen masters have traditionally disdained depending on “words and letters”, preferring in many cases to teach via bizarre methods such as hitting, silence, non sequiturs, paradox, or shouting, what role do the writings play in Zen practice? As Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright point out in the Introduction to The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts, Zen Buddhism has produced “by far the most voluminous and important canon of sacred texts in East Asia…The variety [of which] is also extraordinary.” (p 4)  Zen literature began in the late T’ang dynasty (618-907) and continues to modern times (note the voluminous writings of modern Zen teachers such as Robert Aitken and John Daido Loori). It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is largely due to all these “words and letters” that Zen Buddhism has had such success, both in ancient times and in the modern era.

Heine and Wright’s volume looks at nine different texts that they consider as seminal in the Zen collection of sacred texts, although given the massive collection of writings available for analysis, many more (or others) could have been included. The editors point out that the choice of texts “represents a correction to the de facto canon that has been created by the limited approach of Western scholarship to Zen writings.” (p 5) Although it may be true that scholarly study of some of these texts is limited, most of these are reasonably well known and available in English translation. The first essay, “Tsung-mi’s Prolegomenon: Introduction to an Exemplary Zen Canon” (Ch’an-yuan chu-ch’uan-chi tu-hsu) by Jeff Broughton is an odd choice as there already exists an excellent scholarly work on Tsung-mi by Peter N. Gregory.[1] Likewise, “The Wu-men kuan (J. Mumonkan): The Formation, Propagation, and Characteristics of a Classic Zen Kōan Text” by Ishii Shūdō (translated by Albert Welter) is a text that has long been available in English with extensive commentaries by both scholars and contemporary Zen teachers.[2] Given the extensive contemporary work being done on Dōgen’s writings, the inclusion of Heine’s essay, “The Eihei kōroku: The Record of Dōgen’s Later Period at Eihei-ji Temple” seems somewhat superfluous. If the purpose of this volume was to expand “the range of Zen literature in the West” one can imagine that many other, lesser known, works could have been chosen.

However, although the choice of texts is somewhat curious to this reader, the essays themselves are excellent and, I must admit, do add to the contemporary knowledge of the development of Zen. Nine essays, each written by a different scholar (including Heine and Wright), provide a broad landscape of significant texts in the study of Zen history. The essays follow a similar structure throughout, providing a historical context, sources, genre type, important concepts and how the text was used throughout the long history of Zen. Other than the essay on Dōgen’s Eihei kōroku, all are from the Chinese Ch’an tradition. Perhaps “The Ch’an Canon” might have been a better title. The subtitle, Understanding the Classic Texts, may be somewhat misleading for some readers as this volume is not a ‘teaching’ text but a scholarly study of the history and development of these texts. The “understanding” referred to here relates to a detailed analysis of the significance and history of these writings rather than providing some kind of “Zen teaching”. Nevertheless, it is useful for Zen students to have a deeper knowledge of where their tradition came from and its development.

In the first essay, Jeffrey Broughton looks at the extraordinary writer and commentator Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841)  (P: Zongmi; J: Keiho Shumitsu), one of the most important Zen writers of the T’ang dynasty, a patriarch of both Ch’an and Hua-yen schools. Tsung-mi’s Prolegomenon, [3] a guide and analysis of the major Zen lines of the day, is unique in Zen literature. Tsung-mi met many of the major Zen figures of the day and wrote the definitive works of Zen practice of the T’ang period. As Broughton acknowledges, Tung-mi’s works are “without doubt our most valuable sources on T’ang dynasty Zen. There is no other extant source even remotely as informative.” ( p 14)  

The second essay, Mazu yulu and the Creation of the Chan Records of Sayings by Mario Poceski looks at the record of sayings of the Ch’an master, Mazu Daoyi (709-788) (P: Ma-tsu Kiangsi Tao-I; J: Baso Do-itsu), “arguably one of the most important monks in the whole history of Chan”. (p 54) Poceski surveys the text, placing it in historical context within the recorded sayings genre (yulu), not only of the Tang dynasty when Mazu taught, but perhaps even more importantly, of the Song dynasty (960-1279) when the text was created.

The next essay, the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel through the Ages) by Wendi Adamek discusses this long-lost Zen text, recovered in 1900 among the materials of the Dunhuang caves. Created around 774-780, the Lidai fabao ji is, argues Adamek, an early prototype of two important subsequent Ch’an genres, the transmission of the lamp records and the Song dynasty yulu (discourse records). Although some of the text is clearly a fabrication, Adamek points out its importance as “an earlier stage of the hagiographical sensibilities that shaped Song Dynasty Chan’s distinctive literary style and its images of exemplary practice”. (p 86)

The fourth essay covers the literature of well-known Ch’an master, Huang-po Hsi-yun (c. 780’s – 849-857) (P: Huangbo Xiyun; J: Obaku Ki-un). Dale S. Wright conducts a literary, textual and historical survey of two early yulu texts, Essentials of Mind Transmission (Ch’uan-hsin Fa-yao) and the Record of Wan-ling (Wan-ling lu), both of which were composed and edited by the scholar/official P’ei-hsiu (787 or 797-860), aided by elder monks on Mount Huang-po. Wright looks at not only the historical context but also discusses the teachings of the Huang-po literature, seeing Huang-po as a “transition figure”, one who precipitated “the bold movement out of previous customs of Buddhist discourse in China and into a new form of religious language.” (p 125)

Albert Welter in Lineage and Context in the Patriarch’s Hall Collection and the Transmission of the Lamp discusses these two important texts which served as the models for subsequent lineage literature of Ch’an Buddhism. Furthermore,  Welter claims that “The origins of both kung-an (J. kōan) and yu-lu (J. goroku) may be traced to these texts.” (p 137) He points out the importance of support of local officials in determining the shape of Ch’an teachings in regional areas and how these texts created the multilineal branches of Ch’an teachings, which eventually became officially codified within the ‘Five Houses’ of classical Ch’an.

To exemplify Song dynasty yulu texts, Morten Schlütter focuses on the record of  Caodong (WG: Ts’ao-tung-tsung; J: Sōtō-shū) Chan master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), (WG: Hung-chih Cheng-chueh ; J: Wanshi Zenji) Hongzhi lu (the Record of Hongzhi), one of the longest extant collections of yulu texts. Unlike early collections of sayings and sermons, Hongzhi participated in and approved the publication of his teachings, targeting not only his monks undergoing training and the educated lay people in front of him, but also the wider Ch’an community and, most importantly, the literati of the era.

The seventh essay, The Wu-men Kuan (J. Mumonkan): The Formation, Propagation, and Characteristics of a Classic Zen Kōan Text by Ishii Shūdō (translated by Albert Welter) is a detailed study of the sources of this classic kōan collection, which had much more impact in Japan than in China. Shūdō also looks at why this collection became so important in Japanese Zen and although the editors claim that Shūdō  “goes into much more analytic detail than do previous works” (p 5), I found this to be the weakest and least interesting of all the essays. Spending some six pages (pp 221-226) discussing “the flower” in the kōan “The World-Honored One Holds up a Flower” reveals nothing of the meaning of the kōan, becoming just an intellectual exercise in scholarship and research.

The next essay, The Eihei Kōroku: The Record of Dōgen’s Later Period at Eihei-ji Temple by Steven Heine covers relatively well-trodden ground, even if this text “until recently has received far less attention than the other main Dōgen text, the Shōbōgenzō” (p 8) Heine gives a general overview of the textual history and the theoretical significance of this seminal work, pointing out Dōgen’s extensive repertoire of Chinese Ch’an writings.

The final essay in this collection, Chanyuan qinggui and other “Rules of Purity” in Chinese Buddhism by T. Griffith Foulk covers a range of materials in the genre of rules for Ch’an monasteries, which were adaptations of classic Indian Vinaya monastic rules. The Chanyuan qinggui was published in 1103 and was the culmination of a variety of previously published monastic rules. Legend has it that  Baizhang Dazhi (720-814) (WG: Pai-chang Huai-hai; J: Hyakujo Ekai) is credited with creating the first Ch’an monastic rules but Foulk suggests otherwise. Although Baizhang is revered in Ch’an monastic circles almost as much as the Buddha, Foulk argues that the Ch’an monastic rules are “the common heritage of the Chinese Buddhist tradition during Song and Yuan” (p 307) rather than the exclusive domain of the Ch’an school.

This is a companion volume to Heine and Wright’s The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000) [4] and does an admirable job of introducing the historical and textual contexts of a number of significant Zen texts. Although the editors claim that “The Zen Canon makes available learned yet accessible scholarly studies of some of the most important classic Zen texts” (p 5) I believe that readers without  some background knowledge of the history and concepts of early Ch’an literature may have some difficulty with these academic essays. One irritating feature of this volume is the transliteration of Chinese. The editors claim that they allowed the authors to use either Pinyin or Wade-Giles to permit the writers “to work in the system with which they were most comfortable” and that most readers “will not have difficulty recognizing equivalents” (p xv). This results in an almost even split between Wade-Giles and Pinyin that this reader found most annoying. Surely the editors could have transliterated into one or the other forms after the fact, thereby not hindering the authors’ free flow of ideas or their ‘comfort’ level. All writing should consider first and foremost the intended reader rather than the ‘comfort’ of the author. A list of names in the two forms (and perhaps the Japanese equivalents for those more familiar with the Japanese tradition) would have shown consideration for less scholarly readers and perhaps have gained a wider audience for what is a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of Zen Buddhist literature.

1. see: Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, University of Hawai’i Press, 2002 (originally published by Princeton University Press, 1991)
2. for example, see The Gateless Barrier: the Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan) by Robert Aitken, North Point Press, 1990; The Gateless Gate by Kōun Yamada, Center Publications, 1979; An Analysis of of the Koans in Mu Mon Kuan by John F Fisher, Numen, Vol. 25, Fasc. 1. (Apr., 1978), pp. 65-76.
3. "prolegmenon": preliminary discourse or matter prefixed to book etc. Oxford Dictionary
4. see book review by Eric Sean Nelson

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