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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 Albert Welter, University of Winnipeg
Philosophy East and West 56.2 (April 2006): p355 (4) © 2006 University of Hawaii Press


The field of Chan and Zen studies has been in transformation in recent decades, as an increasing number of scholars have begun to challenge the accepted story of Chan's rise and dissemination. In the process, a disjuncture has developed between how scholars have come to view Chan narrative as mythos rooted in the circumstances of Chan's development, and how it is still depicted in many textbooks and popular publications on Zen. Teachers aware of this gap have been at a loss when looking for new texts to supplant the old ones and give a more accurate view of Chan, its history, and its development. Aside from the compelling sway that Chan and Zen narratives have over the popular understanding, part of the difficulty is that the field is still in transformation. While scholars are altering, sometimes radically, perceptions and assumptions about how Chan developed, this process is ongoing. And while the picture is growing clearer, a full consensus has not yet emerged.
book cover
Into the breach a new book has come along: Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, by John R. McRae. McRae's name will certainly be recognizable to all who work in the field of Chan and Zen studies. Along with Bernard Faure, Professor McRae pioneered the study of the previously maligned, so-called "Northern School" in the West (The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism), utilizing to full advantage the scholarship of the doyenne of twentieth-century Zen studies, Yanagida Seizan. Through a series of articles, McRae has contributed greatly to emerging perspectives on Chan. The current volume under review may be taken as McRae's current observations on the subject of Chinese Chan, based on his own recent research and that of others.

The chapters that constitute Seeing Through Zen were first prepared in Spanish translation for presentation at the Templo Zen Luz Serena in Valencia, Spain. The expected readership includes three groups: "Zen and other Buddhist practitioners; students and scholars of Chinese religions, Buddhist studies, and related fields; and a general audience interested in Asian religions and human culture" (p. xi). While some of the propositions in the book will, by design, provoke healthy debate among scholars, the primary purpose for this book as I see it is as a classroom text, either at universities or for temple instruction for practitioners interested in current scholarly assessments of their religion (according to the author, many of the chapters were the basis for presentations to various groups of Chan and Zen practitioners).

Seeing Through Zen comprises six chapters: "Looking at Lineage: A Fresh Perspective on Chan Buddhism," "Beginnings: Differentiating/Connecting Bodhidharma and the East Mountain Teaching," "Metropolitan Chan: Imperial Patronage and the Chan Style," "The Riddle of Encounter Dialogue: Who, What, When, and Where?" "Zen and the Art of Fund-Raising: Religious Vitality and Institutional Dominance in the Song Dynasty," and "Climax Paradigm: Cultural Polarities and Patterns of Self-Cultivation in Song-Dynasty Chan." In addition to the back matter--"Notes," "Character Glossary," "Bibliography," and "Index"--the front matter includes a "Preface," "Conventions," and a section titled "McRae's Rules of Zen Studies." These "rules of Zen"--(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; and (4) Romanticism breeds cynicism (pp. xix-xx)--with accompanying explanations, provide an accessible orientation to McRae's approach and touchstones that are frequently returned to in the materials introduced in the following chapters.

I have two reactions to Seeing Through Zen, one as a teacher and one as a scholar. For the teacher, Seeing Through Zen represents a welcome addition indeed! I look forward to using it in my classes, and I'm sure others will as well. Written in a lively, engaging style, it is sophisticated in its analysis and creative in drawing on analogies from research as far afield as ecology. While cautioning against facile resort to conceptual oversimplifications or rhetorical enticements, McRae is not averse to providing the kind of systematic schemata and explanations that make understanding possible, especially for those less acquainted with current trends in Chan and Zen studies. Because of this accessibility and clarity, his approach will provoke much-needed debate for those indoctrinated into the certainties of traditional Chan and Zen rhetoric and mythology.

In spite of the very real merits of the book, however, I have some reservations as a scholar. Let me preface my remarks here by admitting that perhaps no one, at this stage of our knowledge, could produce a "fault-free" text on the subject. We are simply too early in our research--the crucial area of Song Chan and its influence over both the tradition's past and future, for example, have only recently been acknowledged. And while McRae laudably emphasizes the central role played by Song Chan, his analysis ends there. Future scholars working on later periods in China, or on Chan-inspired traditions, Zen in Japan, Son in Korea, or Thien in Vietnam, will undoubtedly require accounts that include these developments. Yet, it would be unfair to criticize the current volume on these points, as the author makes no claim to such comprehensiveness, even if it were possible. In some sense, then, McRae's book serves as a reminder that our labors in the field are just beginning and far from over. The recognition of Song Chan has not only rendered faulty the presumptions about a Tang "golden age of Zen," but it has also paved the way for fresh approaches that validate other previously underappreciated developments in the tradition.

As the title of the book indicates, it is as much about how we should look at Chan as about Chan itself. McRae has quite judiciously, in my view, chosen not to eschew narrative altogether, but has constructed a new central narrative for discussing the doctrinal and social evolution of the school. Whatever reservations others may have regarding the construction of this narrative, it serves two very useful purposes. In the first place, it provides students with an alternative way to look at the development of Chan, one that is not so wedded to the mythological assumptions inherent in traditional accounts. Second, the narrative will likely provoke the very kind of debate needed among scholars, useful for arriving at greater clarity over our subject matter and over the inherent biases of our own approaches. Summarized in "Figure 2: Simplified chart of the phases of Chinese Chan" (p. 13), McRae's narrative divides Chan development into the following phases: Proto-Chan (ca. 500-600), Early Chan (ca. 600-900), Middle Chan (ca. 750-1000), and Song Dynasty Chan (ca. 950-1300). In an accompanying note, McRae acknowledges the need for a "postclassical phase" or phases covering developments after the Song, but refrains from providing it here since these developments are not treated in the book. Each phase is characterized by the mention of a few leading figures and developments, a text, and a summary of some distinguishing aspects.

As innovative as McRae's strategy is for reformulating Chan, there are vestiges of the traditional approach lurking in it. The "great man" approach to history, elsewhere disparaged (p. 10), is still in evidence. While far removed from the hagiographic presentations of Chan lore, which are depicted with great accuracy and ingenuity (see, e.g., the discussion of Bodhidharma on pp. 24-28), McRae still focuses on Chan figures primarily as historical actors rather than textual creations. On the one hand, this is unavoidable. How can one discuss Chan except through the heroic models held up for emulation? On the whole, McRae does a fine job analyzing the dynamics associated with the presentation of these models--Bodhidharma, Huineng, et al.--in classical sources. I only wish that the focus had been drawn in terms of the literary documents through which they became known rather than the legendary figures themselves. In short, I prefer an approach to Chan's development based squarely on known documents, an approach suggested by Jeffrey Broughton in The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Record of Zen (see Appendix B: "Toward a Literary History of Early Ch'an," pp. 105-118). All other discussions relating to Chan figures, doctrines, et cetera, in my view, ought to be framed by this literary context and questions associated with it, such as who produced the text, why it was produced, for what purposes and functions, and so on. Not that this level of discussion is not included in McRae's book. It is, but it is relegated to a feature of Chan's development and does not command the primary focus of the narrative that I would give it. In the end, however, this reservation should not be taken as a criticism, but more about emphasis and nuance than actual substance. And while I am also less enamored with the focus on doctrine and the overwhelming importance of the Hongzhou school, encounter dialogue, and so on, these standard features will likely make the text very popular among its target audiences.

In short, McRae has done a remarkable job balancing scholarly criteria with accessible presentation. Scholars working in the field may find minor flaws and, depending on their own areas of expertise, may wish for different coverage. This is inevitable, even healthy, given the current status of scholarship in this area. In the end, however, this is a remarkably well written and well conceived work. Seeing Through Zen is a much appreciated addition to the field, and will go far in "setting the record straight" among the interested public audience with an appetite for Chan and Zen history, including students and practitioners.

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