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Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism

By John R. McRae. University of California Press, 2003. 204 pages 
reviewed by George A. Keyworth, American Academy of Religion.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Chico: Mar 2006. Vol. 74, Iss. 1; pg. 256


THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK suggests an intriguing question posed by one of the leading American scholars of Chan/Zen Buddhism to students, scholars, and practitioners: how should one go about researching and understanding Zen? McRae’s answer is straightforward: follow “McRae’s Rules of Zen Studies” (xix–xx), of course.

1. It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important.
2. Lineage assertions are as wrong as they are strong.
3. Precision implies inaccuracy.
4. Romanticism breeds cynicism.
McRae’s rules appear to emulate the famous four-part slogan, attributed to Bodhidharma by Muan Shanqing in the Zuting shiyuan (Chrestomathy from the Patriarchs’ Hall, 1108), which characterized the mature Chan school for its Song dynasty (960–1279) participants: A separate transmission outside the Teachings (jiaowai biechuan); That is not established by means of language (buli wenzi); It points directly to the human mind (zhizhi renxin); And causes one to see their nature and become a Buddha (jianxing chengfo).

book coverThis correlation is more appropriate than one might expect; Seeing through Zen seeks to reexamine—and correct preconceived notions about—how the Chan lineage (chanzong, J. zensh) should be understood not in terms of “palpable circularity at work, with historians of China building comprehensive theories based in part on a romanticized image of Chan, and apologists for Chan buying into those theories because they served the missionary agenda” (103), but by what McRae calls the “Song-dynasty climax paradigm” (103 and throughout book). This paradigm seeks to place the rise of the Chan lineage directly within the contexts of Chinese history, literature, religion, and culture: “The emergence of Chan as the single most dominant Buddhist tradition in China came about, in effect, because it fit so well in the post-Tang world” (72).

Although McRae’s thesis firmly establishes Song Chan as the most relevant topic for scholarly inquiry, the bulk of the primary research presented in Seeing through Zen renegotiates his earlier work on pre-Song topics, including the rise of the East Mountain School and genealogical portraits of Bodhidharma (chapter 2); the place of Heze Shenhui (684–758) in launching the Platform Sutra as the conduit for the cult of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (638–713) (chapter 3); and the ever-present problem of interpreting encounter dialogue as prototypical Chan practice (chapter 4). Over twenty years of critical investigation of these subjects is apparent throughout the volume. In chapter 2, “Beginnings: Differentiating/Connecting Bodhidharma and the East Mountain Teaching,” for example, there is an especially concise and effective discussion—and handy chart—that illustrates the historical evolution of hagiographical accounts about Bodhidharma (25–27). McRae’s treatment of new research regarding the significant role of so-called “Northern School” polemics and perspectives in the reception of the Platform Sutra is also to be welcomed by expert and novice students of early Chan alike (60–69). Perhaps the most considerable addition to McRae’s apparent rethinking of his earlier work lies in a particularly lucid presentation of the context within which Chan developed during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Although the effects of the introduction of Tantric Buddhism (mijiao), anti-Buddhist suppressions (e.g. Huichang [845] and Huang Chao [875–884]), and the ostensible end to the translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese have been introduced elsewhere as factors affecting the rise to prominence of the Chan lineage, McRae’s conclusions are characteristically succinct and straightforward (69–73).

To navigate the reader toward his thesis of a “Song-dynasty climax paradigm” (103), McRae introduces the reader to a much more straightforward understanding of the antecedents of the mature Chan narrative than can be found in any single volume in English. In chapter 1, “Looking at Lineage: A Fresh Perspective on Chan Buddhism” (1–21), for example, McRae posits how the foundation for the rise to dominance of the Chan lineage in the Song can be traced back to the end of the seventh century, and the complete Chan genealogy certainly to 952, with the completion of the Zutang ji (Anthology of the Patriarchs’ Hall)—and perhaps as early as 801, to the Baolin zhuan (Transmissions of Treasure-Grove Temple). McRae then proposes seven distinct rules to construct a more nuanced portrait of the Chan lineage and its patriarchs and deftly summarizes his “String of Pearls” fallacy to deflect many of the truly egregious sins of some earlier Zen scholarship (9–11). In an attempt to elucidate a more accurate chronology for the development of the Chan school, McRae provides the only serious taxonomical flaw in Seeing through Zen. McRae presents the “Phases of Chan”—Proto-Chan (ca. 500–600); Early Chan (ca. 600–900); Middle Chan (ca. 750–1000); and Song-dynasty Chan (ca. 950–1300)—as a “provisional device,” which illustrates precisely the sort of teleological fallacy about the chronological development of Chan that his own “String of Pearls” metaphor seeks to correct (11–21). In a volume that constructively argues against erecting false paradigms that circumvent a picture of the Chan tradition in its native contexts, simplistic stages only serve to entice the reader to backslide toward the very representation of Chan history McRae wishes to transform.

As a self-described specialist of pre-Song Chan, McRae’s remarks about Song Chan are nevertheless some of the most astute to be found anywhere in English. Chapter 5, “Zen and the Art of Fund-Raising: Religious Vitality and Institutional Dominance in the Song Dynasty” (101–18), for example, subjects to criticism how western scholarship—especially the well-known protagonists D.T. Suzuki and Heinrich Dumoulin—presents Chan as a jewel in the crown of the now antiquated theory of a Tang-dynasty “Chinese renaissance” (103–107). McRae then suggests that Chan hagiographical literature (e.g., Zutang ji and Baolin zhuan) may have received considerable attention by local elites as a means to domesticate and establish a new, officially sanctioned, Chinese Buddhist religious hierarchy (108–111). Therefore, McRae argues that the Chan lineage, rather than producing a separate institutional framework apart from the Chinese samgha, sought to dominate it at the top—in the position of the abbot, with Chan-abbacy monasteries established by the Song period (115–118). McRae is certainly echoing the pioneering work of T. Griffith Foulk here; however, in chapter 6 “Climax Paradigm: Cultural Polarities and Patterns of Self-Cultivation in Song Dynasty Chan” (119–154), one can clearly see how McRae’s scope of inquiry is nevertheless expansive. He asserts in perhaps as clear language as possible that “there was never any such thing as an institutionally separate Chan “school” at any time in Chinese Buddhist history” (122), a point scholars of Song Chan and religion will surely read with excitement.

McRae’s discussion of Song Chan follows the paradigm he applies to earlier developments: polarities between sudden/gradual, northern/southern, static/ dynamic, and essence/function serve to establish domination over the rhetorical field by a singular approach. Just as there could be no doctrinal ground to gain for the Platform Sutra without the “gradualist” Northern School, nor a Chan lineage of patriarchs without the various Eminent Monks of the Gaoseng zhuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks) collections, the mature establishment of the Chan lineage needed to produce an “other” to maintain its orthodoxy during the Song. The “Transmission of the Lamp” (dengshi, J. tosh) histories compiled during the Song—in 1004, 1036, 1101, 1183,1204, and 1252—show the need to contend for continued rhetorical supremacy within Chan. McRae carries the notion of a centralizing theme within Song dynasty lineage propagation, as well as notions of practice, to demonstrate how apparent polarities between the Linji school (J. Rinzaishu) Dahui Zonggao’s (1089–1163) kanhua Chan (investigating the critical phrase of the gong’an, J. koan), and the Caodong school (J. Sotoshu) Hongzhi Zhengjue’s (1091–1157) mozhao Chan (silent-illumination meditation), as well as between Song Buddhists and Neo-Confucians, effectively maintain an orthodoxy by emasculating other approaches to religion, philosophy, and transmission (138–142).

The most exciting points raised in Seeing through Zen come when McRae generalizes about how Chan was received within Chinese society at large. He suggests that traditional Chinese cultural views regarding death and the gods oppose traditional Indian notions because “the aim is to maintain an ongoing series of relationships between deceased ancestors and the living” (146). Therefore, the Chan patriarchal lineage developed in large part as a “mortuary religion,” which “provided a format for Buddhist practice that matched the pattern implied by Chinese funerary customs” (147–148). Overall, Seeing through Zen is a book that will likely provoke students to rethink the way they understand Chan Buddhism, and McRae should be thanked for writing an excellent primer for classes on Zen. In terms of the field of Chan/Spn/Zen Studies, however, much of Seeing through Zen is discussed by others, and in much greater depth. The book is splendidly produced, with a full bibliography, and a helpful character glossary. There are few typos (e.g., jiaowai biezhuan on p. 3 should read biechuan [chuan2]); however, the conventions for rendering Chinese with tones should either be followed consistently throughout or not at all.

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