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Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan


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Edited by Stephen Addiss, with Stanley Lombardo and Judith Roitman.

Hackett Publishing Company,Indianapolis,2008. Pp. xxxii + 275. $39.95 (cloth); $12.95 (paper)
Journal of the American Oriental Society (Apr-Jun 2009): 367-370
reviewed by Mario Poceski University Of Florida

Despite the plethora of popular and scholarly books on the Chan/Zen tradition(s) of East Asian Buddhism, there is a regrettable dearth of comprehensive and reliable readers or sourcebooks that introduce a broad range of classical texts in a manner that makes them accessible to a general audience of non-specialists. This book tries to address that gap in the available literature by presenting a reasonably comprehensive yet handy reader that contains selections from a broad range of texts composed in premodern East Asia. The three editors of the book should be commended on their joint effort at putting together a balanced volume that covers a great deal of the Chan/Zen tradition's rich heritage and long history. The book contains a variety of texts composed in a number of representative genres and styles, including sermons, encounter dialogues, poems, and letters. Its primary audiences will be undergraduates enrolled in courses on Zen or East Asian Buddhism, Zen practitioners, and general readers interested in learning more about classical Zen teachings, history, or literature.

There are two noteworthy features that set the book apart from competing volumes (of which there are not that many). First, the inclusion of a few texts composed by Korean Zen teachers, in addition to the expected coverage of the Chinese and Japanese traditions, although once again Vietnamese Zen finds itself overlooked. Second, the inclusion of excerpts from works composed by (or dealing with) female Zen adepts. These are notable advantages when the book is compared to The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader (Eco Press, 1996), edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, perhaps the best example of a book of similar scope and ambition. On the other hand, the book covercoverage in the Foster and Shoemaker volume is more comprehensive, and on the whole its contents and presentation are better than those of the book under review. Another nice touch is the inclusion of a number of pertinent illustrations, which primarily consist of traditional Zen paintings and calligraphy (mostly from Japan), although for the most part the reproductions are of a rather low print quality and there is no list of illustrations at the beginning of the book. One of the illustrations, a copy of the well-known Liang Kai (fl. thirteenth century) painting that supposedly depicts the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (638-713) cutting bamboo (the original painting is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum) - which is featured prominently on the cover as well as inside the book (p. 22) - showcases the artistic talent of the chief editor, Stephen Addiss.

The book is divided into two parts of roughly equal length. The first part deals with Chinese Chan (mislabeled as Zen), while the second part covers the Zen traditions of Korea and Japan. The chapters that cover China - fifteen in total - tend to be shorter and a little more truncated, while the several chapters that deal with popular Japanese Zen masters tend to be a bit longer. Such sense of relative imbalance in terms of coverage is especially notable in the chapter that deals with Dogen (1200-1253), which is considerably longer than the rest of the chapters. By and large the selections cover major historical figures and key texts, especially those that are popular or widely acclaimed within contemporary Zen milieus, in both East Asia and the West. That includes excerpts from the records of major Chan teachers such as Huineng, Huangbo (d. 850?), Linji (d. 866), Zhaozhou (778-897), Dahui  (1089-1163), Chinul (1158-1210, Dogen, So Sahn ffiOj (1520-1604), and Hakuin  (1686-1769), as well as from popular Chan texts such as Biyan Iu  (Blue Cliff Record) and Wumen guan (Gateless Passage).

The editors have decided not to include any materials from the modern period - a reasonable choice, I think - so the book's primary focus is on selections from standard or classical texts and the records of seminal historical figures. In the case of China, the coverage focuses on the Tang dynasty (618-907) and none of the materials is later than the Song period (960-1279). The omission of any Chan teachers from the later imperial period might be perceived as a shortcoming by some, but given that the Tang and Song were the main epochs in Chan history, and also considering the amount of available space, that is not necessarily a bad editorial decision. The section that deals with Korea and Japan pretty much follows the section on China in terms of historical chronology, covering the period from the early thirteenth until the early twentieth century. Such an arrangement, however, might be misconstrued as implying that Chan largely disappeared in China after the Song era and was supplanted by the Zen traditions that flourished in Korea and Japan.

The editors' selection of translated texts is largely unproblematic, even if not particularly creative or adventurous. Possible exceptions include the two pan-Buddhist texts included in chapter one; the Heart Sutra, for instance, is hardly a "Zen text" in any meaningful sense, as it is widely used by all Buddhist traditions across East Asia (and elsewhere). Similar concerns about fuzzy boundaries can be extended to the selections from poems composed by Chinese Buddhist nuns that are included in chapter nine. The editors seem to have misread the coverage of an assortment of Buddhist nuns found in Beata Grant's nice volume - Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhism Nuns [Wisdom Publications, 2003] - from which they have made the excerpts included in this chapter, as being primarily (or exclusively?) concerned with "Zen nuns." As a result, they have included a selection from the poetry of Huixu (431-499), who lived long before anything resembling a Chan school came into existence. The connection with Chan is also problematic in the cases of some of the later nuns, including Fayuan  (601-663). Moreover, a few of the names of the nuns included in this chapter are misspelled: Chung-chüeh (p. 61) should be Cheng-chüeh (Zhengjue), while Ching-kang (p. 62) should be Chin-kang (Jin'gang). These kinds of misspellings or inaccurate renderings, trivial as they might be, are indicative of larger problems related to the book's academic foundations (discussed below). Here are a few additional examples from chapter twelve: "National Teacher Kuo-shih" (p. 99) should be "National Teacher [Hui-chung]" (referring to Huizhong, who was given the title of National Teacher or guoshi/kuo-shih), "Bohisattva Mömyö" (p. 109) should be "Bodhisattva Wangming" (Wangming (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)), and "Kan-feng" (p. Ill) should be "Ch'ien-feng" (Qianfeng).

The various translations included in the book do not break any new ground; nevertheless, for the most part they are fine and they work well in the context of the book's overall purpose and presumed audience. It is possible to quibble that some of the translations, such as John Blofeld's translation of Huangbo's Transmission of Mind (pp. 35-42), are somewhat dated. One could also object that some of the translations done by the editors are a bit on the free side, especially with regard to some of the poems, although for the most part they read well in English. The brief introductions that preface each chapter, however, are less satisfying. They tend to be superficial and are basically written from the narrative perspective of American Zen practitioners or lay enthusiasts. The introduction is more helpful and better in terms of providing broader historical and religious contexts, but here too we find uncritical rehashing of traditional Zen perspectives and biases, along with minor factual errors. For instance, Mazu  (709-788) and Shitou  (700-790) were second, not third-generation "descendants" of Huineng (pp. xvi-xvii), Zhaozhou was not a member of the Linji lineage (p. ? vii), which did not exist at the time, and seven of the founders of the Nine Mountain schools of Korean Zen were not Mazu' s first-generation disciples (p. xx), although they are said to have studied with a few of Mazu' s disciples several decades after Mazu' s death.

These kinds of minor issues point to the book's main shortcoming: its lack of solid scholarly grounding in Chan/Zen studies. The editors' general approach is more in tune with dominant trends in American Zen than with prevalent academic practices, as they are understood by experts working in the field. They seem to have made little effort to digest or incorporate recent scholarship that deals with relevant aspects of Chan /Zen history, literature, institutions, ideology, and the like. This is reflected in the selection and treatment of the texts, which are somewhat naively presented as being exclusively (or primarily) concerned with the sublime profundities of "Zen thought and practice." The editors apparently assume that the numerous stories that feature seemingly pointless eccentricities and inscrutable verbal rumblings are all unique expressions of timeless truths. Consequently, they do not seem to entertain the possibility that there may be something else going on below (or above) the surface, or that there are other less idealistic - but better informed and more historically grounded-interpretative possibilities. The lack of knowledge of current scholarly works and findings is also visible in the bibliography, which is filled with once popular but now passé volumes. Pertinent examples include the dated and anachronistic books by Daisetsu Suzuki and Heinrich Dumoulin, which present romanticized and large distorted views of Zen that have been soundly rebutted and superseded by recent scholarship. Among the few scholarly books that are included in the bibliography, the two volumes edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright, The Zen Canon and Zen Classics (Oxford, 2004 and 2006), are wrongly placed in the category of "Original Zen Texts," even though they consist of scholarly essays on various aspects of Chan /Zen literature and history.

A potential problem with the largely ahistorical and non-scholarly approach adopted by the book's editors is that it only gives a partial, unduly romanticized, and misleading picture of the development and flourishing of the various Chan/Zen traditions. There is something wrong with the notion that we can directly understand the often vague and nebulous texts presented in the book, most of which have problematical provenance and convoluted history of transmission, without at least partial consideration of the complex historical, ritual, ideological, and institutional contexts that shaped their initial creation and subsequent use. That is true not only within the sometimes tedious or stuffy confines of the scholarly milieu, but perhaps also from the perspective of serious Zen practice, even if, in the words of the editors, Zen enthusiasts might want to "not only study the texts but also experience them" (p. vii). Consequently, in important respects the book comes across as being somewhat amateurish, which is especially disconcerting when we consider that the publisher is considered to be an academic press and the book is presumably being marketed within academic circles. While this sort of thing might be fine in other contexts and is what we expect from commercial publishers like Shambhala, academic publishers such as Hackett are usually held to a different set of standards and expectations. Part of the reason for the book's problems is the choice of editors. There might be much to be admired about their enthusiasm, but none of them is a specialist in Chan/Zen studies, or even in the study of East Asian religions. The chief editor has some relevant background in the study of Zen art, but the other two hold academic posts in unrelated areas (classics and mathematics) and their connection with Zen is primarily as members of an American Zen group (they are founding members of the Kansas Zen Center, affiliated with the Kw an Um School of Zen).

Another notable shortcoming of the book is the use of the out-of-date Wade-Giles system instead of the now standard Pinyin system for the transliteration of Chinese words. That alone reduces the book's suitability for adoption as a college textbook. In addition, inclusion of bibliographic references to the primary East Asian sources, which are the basis of the selections featured in the book, would have enhanced the book's usefulness, though such information is often dispensed with in non- academic books. The same applies to the inclusion of precise citations, with exact page numbers, for the translations from other books which are reprinted here.

The concerns about some of the editorial choices and the book's shaky scholarly foundations should be considered alongside its strong points, as noted above. Hence, it will probably be appreciated more by those who approach its contents and general subject matter from the perspective of Western Zen aficionados, which includes many undergraduates enrolled in courses that deal with Zen, but less so by those with more rigorous scholarly habits and expectations. General readers and Zen practitioners alike will find much interesting material, including a number of evocative excerpts from some of the great Chan /Zen classics. That, however, leaves one with the hope that eventually we will get a superior Zen reader that is academically rigorous as well as eminently readable, which would be much appreciated by those of us who teach courses on Chan /Zen. In the meantime, given the handy size and reasonable price of its paperback version, along with the aforementioned lack of compelling alternatives, this book is worthy of consideration for use as secondary reading in college courses that deal with Zen or East Asian Buddhism, as well as an entry point into the fascinating and multilayered world of traditional Chan/Zen literature.