this review Creative Commons licensed Creative Commons License
Zen Books Reviewed
Hakuin's Daruma


Zen Teachings

Translations & Sutras
Dogen Teachings
Commentaries & Teishos
Koan Collections & Studies

Zen Centers

Miscellaneous Zen Teachings

Buddhism by numbers
five ranks of T'saoTung
photo essay: on the Buddha Trail in India
shi and li
Zen master names
Non-English Sites & Teachings

Zen Essays

Critical Zen
Historical Zen
Nagarjuna & Madhyamika

Dogen Studies

Philosophical Studies of Zen


(you must enable Javascript to see the above email link)

I support Mailnull to fight spam

Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism
by John R. McRae
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2003,
pp 204, including Endnotes, Character Glossary, Illustrations, Bibliography and Index
reviewed by Vladimir K., September, 2004


John McRae's latest book will surely upset some Zen students, Buddhist practitioners and teachers and, I suspect, a number of academics. John McRae is the Professor East Asian Buddhism at Indiana University and has published extensively on early Chan history so perhaps other academics may not be as surprised by this book as the non-expert may be.

book coverSeeing through Zen is a critique of the contemporary understanding of Chinese Chan history which has come down to the West, largely uncritically, through a mythology (and that's probably the best word for it) created mainly by the religion itself over the last two thousand years to be swallowed (in many cases) lock, stock and barrel by Western teachers of Zen and their students. Over the last twenty or thirty years both Western and Eastern academics have begun a more critical evaluation of the history of Chan based largely on translations of primary writings of the school itself using a more nuanced understanding of historical development, sociology, economics, linguistics — indeed, a wide array of scholarly tools which enable a more holistic (and far more complex) understanding of the development of Chan.

McRae makes it clear in the Preface to the book that this is not about how to practice Zen and that he is not a Zen master. Any reader expecting to learn more about how Zen is practised or how to achieve enlightenment will be disappointed and should look elsewhere. However, the book is "resolutely" about Zen. McRae's agenda here is to engage the reader in an "active and critical imagination of the medieval evolution of Chinese Chan Buddhism…to consider all the available evidence from all possible angles, testing hypotheses and evaluating objections." (p. xiii) In which case, one could ask, why should a Zen practitioner read this? McRae gives a simple answer:

If Buddhist spiritual practice aims at seeing things as they are, then getting past the foolish over-simplifications and confusing obfuscations that surround most interpretations of Zen should be an important part of the process. (p. xii)

For some, this reinterpretation of history may be painful as long-held beliefs about the development of Zen come under close scrutiny. All religions need myths and exemplars to spur faith and practice, Zen more than most, it being a particularly demanding practice. However, if one's faith in the Buddha Way, the Dharma, the practice itself, is based on "foolish over-simplifications and confusing obfuscations", then a re-examination is necessary and if the faith is found wanting by this process one's faith cannot be considered sound in the first place. McRae's book is part of an ongoing process of placing Zen in a clearer historical context which often clashes with the mythologies taught in today's Zen centres in both the East and the West. Zen Buddhism is all about removing the scales from our eyes and seeing clearly. This should include the history of the religion itself. All illusions must be seen through. Chan deserves a book such as this but this is only a beginning in the long process of taking Chan out of medieval China and Zen out of Japan and dragging it, often kicking and screaming, into this new millennium.

McRae begins by looking at traditional Chan lineages. Any Zen student who has done even a modicum of reading on the topic will have run across these lineage charts. (for example see: Aitken, 1990, Appendix I; Yamada, 1979, Appendix IV; Sekida, 1995:403-405, Ferguson, 2000; Dumoulin 1994:365-374) The fact that these lineage charts are of dubious accuracy (or, if you wish, dubious "reality") has been fairly well known for some time. McRae takes this uncertain provenance one step further and asserts his Second Rule of Zen Studies: "Lineage assertions are as wrong as they are strong." (p. 8) What McRae is interested in is not the so-called authenticity of these charts, but the role these lineages played in the development of Chan, which brings forth his First Rule of Zen Studies: "It's not true, and therefore it's more important."(p. xix)

Lineage charts are myth-making devices designed to prove the authenticity of the teaching and to validate the teacher. Therefore, the importance of these charts lays mostly with those at the end of the chart. After all, long-dead masters have no use for lineage charts, but contemporary, living teachers and students may place great importance on these charts. To say that one's teachings are part of a long history that can be traced back to the Buddha himself gives great power and legitimacy to a contemporary teacher. (Lachs, 2002, 1994) And it is here where the importance of the myth of lineage really lies, not in the authenticity of the lineage itself. While lineages may be of great importance to those within the Zen community, the charts, based as they are on a "string of pearls" view of historical development where great men shine like the jewels in Indra's net, blinding all that is around them, lock us into a one-sided view of Chan development. They tell us nothing about why the charts were developed in the first place or the cultural and religious dynamics at play or their role in the development of the rich and variegated history that is Chan. This history is, after all, what Zen is today.

Lineage charts, like much of Chan history, are retrospective. McRae makes an important point when talking about the history of Chan as we know it today:

Time and again we find we are dealing, not with what happened at any given point, but with what people thought happened previously. We deal not so much in facts and events as in legends and reconstructions, not so much with accomplishments and contributions as with attributions and legacies. (p. 14-15, emphasis added)

Lineage charts took centuries to develop into the system we know today. Encounter dialogues [1] (which laid the groundwork for koan studies) were similarly retrospective, the first being Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) which appeared some one hundred fifty years after the encounters supposedly happened. Over the centuries these dialogues were polished, expanded upon and became ever more detailed. And this leads to McRae's Third Rule of Zen Studies: “Precision implies inaccuracy.” The details of the Zen dialogues “lend an air of verisimilitude to a story” (p. xix) but these details should be recognised for what they are: a literary trope. This is not to deny the extremely important soteriological function of these dialogues. In the final analysis, the success of these dialogues in leading students to awareness and awakening is far more important than their literary origin. However, understanding that most of these dialogues never occurred as recorded (after all, many are exchanges between master and student in private — who was there to record the words?) does not diminish their effectiveness as koans for study but it does put them in a more realistic perspective. (see Hori, 2003:3-90 for another viewpoint on koans) There is little point in dropping away one illusion to replace it with another.

Rather than trace Chan history via a series of outstanding teachers, which tends to "homologize all the individuals represented as identically enlightened representatives of a single confraternity" (p. 12), McRae creates a periodization of chronologies of Chan “eras”: Proto-Chan (ca. 500-600) beginning with Bodhidharma; Early Chan (ca. 600-900) which saw the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch emerge, along with the lineage charts; Middle Chan (ca. 750-1000), the Tang Dynasty Chan with masters such as Mazu (Matsu; J. Baso) and Linji (Linchi; J. Rinzai) and the emergence of "encounter dialogues"; and Song Dynasty Chan (ca. 950-1300), when the Blue Cliff Record was created and the period of the greatest flourishing of Chan in China.

This loose chronological grouping allows the study of Chan to break away from a static, unitarian fixation upon individual teachers and allows the study to take into account the political, economic and social climate as well as the development of the religious theology and practices. Unfortunately, in Seeing through Zen , McRae tends to skim over these other issues, focussing largely on the development of Chan doctrine, a worthy task in itself but a limited one, much of which was covered in considerably more detail in his excellent earlier book, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism. (see also McRae, 1983) Of course, his intention in this book was not to detail the social, political or economic climate of Chan's development and perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, based partially as they were on his impressive volume mentioned above.

McRae's earlier book on the Northern School began his process of demythologizing Chan history and this latest volume continues his work in that direction. The earlier book is undoubtedly the superior of the two. In the Preface to Seeing through Zen, McRae states that the audience for this book is Zen and other Buddhists; scholars and students of Chinese religions, Buddhist studies and related fields; and a general audience interested in Asian religions and human culture. (p. xi) A broad brush indeed! The weakness in the book is the attempt to appeal such a diverse audience. For some, it will be too academic; for others, not detailed or academic enough. Attempting to cover such a broad field, to such a wide audience in just over one hundred fifty pages, left this reader somewhat unsatisfied and demanding more. However, even when discussing somewhat abstruse doctrine, McRae's writing style is pleasantly friendly and appealing. A non-specialist reader should have little difficulty with the majority of the writing although there are some instances where the academic within McRae has overtaken McRae the communicator. (e.g.: "…the importance of cognitive modelling..." (p. 115))

For many readers, McRae's claims and rewriting of some cherished Zen histories will be revelatory, even revolutionary. For example:

there was never any such thing as an institutionally separate Chan “school” at any time in Chinese Buddhist history . (p. 122 original emphasis)

There has been a 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. Our understandings of Chinese Buddhism…and Chan itself have been impoverished as a result. (p. 103)

On the account of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (Hui-neng; J. Eno), writing his famous verse on the wall of Hongren's (Hung-jen; J. Gunin) temple to determine the patriarchal succession found in the Platform Sutra :

The reader might wonder, for example, whether there is any possibility that the events described might have actually happened. Here we can be definitive: there is no such possibility whatsoever, and the account must be accepted as a brilliant and religiously meaningful bit of fiction. (p. 67)

On descriptions of enlightenment:

Another characteristic of early Chan writings is the tendency to compose fictionalized accounts of enlightenment experiences. (p. 94)

Statements such as these (and many others, including a lengthy criticism of Heinrich Dumoulin's Zen Buddhism: A History) may cause discomfort and controversy in many Western Zen centres should this book be taken up as an object of study and discussion by students and teachers. However, this is unlikely to happen as there still seems to be a gulf between practitioners of Zen and the academic study of the religion. Having said that, credit must go to both John McRae and a number of major American Zen centres where McRae has presented workshops and seminars on his work (a lengthy list is included in the Preface). This cross-fertilization of study can only benefit the development of Zen in the West, which is still in its infancy. Myths and stories have a place in all religions, including Zen. They add colour, depth and beauty to the practice. Unfortunately, often these stories are taken as not only some kind of 'truth', but as a rationale for unseemly behaviour and power struggles. Used properly, the myths of Zen can only add to our practice. The Zen universe is boundless and can accommodate all who participate, academics and idealists alike. We can all sing and dance together.

see also McRae's essay on encounter dialogues The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism


Aitken, Robert (1990) The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan); North Point Press; San Francisco
Dumoulin, Heinrich (1994) Zen Buddhism: A History, 2 vols.; trans. J.W. Heisig& P. Knitter; Simon & Schuster Macmillan; New York
Ferguson, Andy (2000) Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings; Wisdom; Boston
Hori, Victor Sogen (2003) Zen Sand: the book of capping phrases for koan practice; University of Hawai'i Press; Honolulu (review can be found here)
Lachs, Stuart (2002) Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi
__________ (1994) Coming Down From the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen
McRae, John R. (1986) The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'anBuddhism; Karoda Institute, Studies in East Asian Buddhism 3;University of Hawaii Press; Honolulu
____________(1983) The Ox-head School of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism: from early Ch'an to the golden age, in Studies in Ch'an and Hua-yen, Studies in East Asian Buddhism, Vol. I; eds. R.M. Gimello & P.N. Gregory; The Karoda Institute; University of Hawaii Press; Honolulu
Sekida, Katsuki (1995) Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan, Hekiganroku; Weatherhill; New York & Tokyo
Yamada, Koun (1979) Gateless Gate;Center Publications; Los Angeles

Search thezensite

Updates to thezensite

Zen Book Reviews

Miscellaneous & Reading Lists
Book Sources

Zen Links
Journals and Acedemic Sites of Interest

Non-Zen Topics

Essays of Interest
Interesting Sites



If you wish, you may make a small donation to help this site defray overhead costs.
Thank you.














Creative Commons License   free speech gif