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Morten Schlütter’s ‘How Zen Became Zen’

March 30, 2011

Note: This is the second of two book summaries for my class on Chan scholarship.  The book is How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute Over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China by Morten Schlütter published by the Kuroda Institute in 2008.  Despite the title, we never quite get to ‘Zen,’ which is the more widely known Japanese rendering of the original Chinese ‘Chan.’  In fact, we never get out of twelfth century China, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t relevant to Zen.  In fact, it provides a detailed peek into the birth of what later became the Soto Zen school and it’s older cousin, the Rinzai Zen school.  I found it overall a fairly easy read (for an academic work) with many interesting details about Chinese society and the early soteriological stances of the two schools, stances that have survived, largely intact, to this day.

How Zen Became Zen image from

In this book, Schlütter presents the split between two schools of Chan during the Song dynasty, the Caodong Tradition (Soto) advocating “silent illumination” and the kanhua practices of the Linji Tradition (Rinzai).  During the twelfth century, the defunct Caodong school was revived by some charismatic Chan masters including Furong Daokai (1043-1118) who developed the notion of silent illumination that was propagated by his Dharma descendants, especially Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157) and Zhenxie Qingliao (1088-1151).  This was relentlessly criticized by Chan master Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) of the Linji tradition, who instead advocated his teaching of kanhua, or gongan (koan), meditation.  The primary soteriological dispute revolved around what constituted enlightenment and how it could be achieved.  However, as much as this was a dispute about Dharma, it was also a competition for resources in the form of patronage.  How this competition played out was impacted by the relationships between Buddhism, the state, and elite lay society. (p. 10-12, 65)  Schlütter argues that in order to understand “the sectarian dispute that took place between the Linji and Caodong traditions” we must first understand “the growth of Chan Buddhism, which became the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism in the Song.” (p. 1)

In Chapter 1 Chan Buddhism in the Song: Some Background, Schlütter sets up the basic Chan history.  By the beginning of the twelfth century, the official lineage of Chan had been set and the importance of that lineage established.  It was from this direct mind to mind transmission that the enlightened Dharma was passed down, starting with the Buddha himself, through the Indian patriarchs to Bodhidharma, and from Bodhidharma through the Chinese patriarchs to Huineng, who, mostly through the efforts of Shenhui, was recognized as the official sixth patriarch of Chan.  After Huineng, the lineage branched out, with more than one Dharma heir per generation and Chan thus proliferated throughout the Song into what was called the five houses. (p. 14-20)

“However, among the Song secular elite, just like in modern popular understand, Chan was considered distinctive not so much for its lineage as for its unique literature and its depictions of iconoclastic Chan masters.” (p. 15)  This may be in large part because the five houses of Chan all claimed a common ancestor and generally played well with each out, downplaying any disputes.  Schlütter rejects other models depicting factionalism during this period between the five houses.  He believes this makes the later rivalry between the Caodong and Linji schools all the more significant.  Schlütter concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of the literati class and their interaction with Chan monks during this period. (p. 24-28)  “Much evidence exists to show that the worldviews of the literati and the Buddhist monastic elite were largely coextensive.” (p.29)

Chapter 2 focuses on The Chan School and the Song State.  The imperial court basically tried to control the threat Chan represented in terms of money and power while at the same time reaping the benefits it could bestow through prestige, blessings, and merit.  They did this by issuing official plaques to monasteries, ordering monasteries without plaques to be torn down (though this was enforced haphazardly, if at all), and controlling (sometimes outright selling) the selection of abbots at monasteries.  The later was done through a classification system that either deemed monasteries as hereditary, in which case the abbot much come from the “tonsure” family of that monastery, or public, in which case the abbot was selected from outside the monastery (but usually from the same tradition).  Despite the “unprecedented” degree of regulation, Buddhism also expanded “significantly.” (p. 31-40)

Chan arguably benefited the most from state policies that favored the conversion of hereditary monasteries into public ones at a time when “public” was practically synonymous with “Chan.”  It wasn’t until later that Tiantia, Huanyan, and Vinaya (as opposed to the hereditary monasteries commonly called “vinaya” monasteries) also petitioned and were able to become public monasteries.  The abbots of public monasteries had to be approved and were often chosen directly by the state (at the prefecture or imperial level) and often served for only a few years before moving on to a new post. (p.41-47)

The proliferation of public Chan monasteries was very successful for most of the Song, but by the late twelfth century “public monasteries designated Chan were only slightly more numerous than those designated Teaching [Tiantai or Huanyan] and Vinaya.” (p.48)  However, in the late Song the fortunes of Buddhism changed when Emperor “Huizong’s anti-Buddhist policies culminated in 1119, when a series of decrees ordered Buddhism to be assimilated into Daoism.” (p. 51)  Eventually this was rescinded, but for the rest of the Song the granting of new plaques practically stopped and Buddhism lost much favor from the state, making the patronage of the regional and local literati class all the more important (p. 52-53), as described in Chapter 3 Procreation and Patronage in the Song Chan School.

Abbacies were important to the Chan lineage because only an abbot could give transmission and thus have Dharma heirs.  Every monastic was part of a tonsure family, that is, the family of the master who ordained him or her.  However, in Chan it was also important to become part of a transmission family, or to receive “certification” of one’s enlightenment from a Chan master.  A Chan master’s Dharma heirs were rarely his tonsure disciples.  In addition, Schlütter notes that “Almost all the instances I have found depict the student as sending an inheritance certificate to his master, and it is often made clear that this happened immediately after, but only after, the student had been appointed to his first post as an abbot at a public monastery.” (p. 64)  While a few monks and lay people who never held an abbacy are listed as Dharma heirs, no one other than an abbot was every shown as having Dharma heirs. (p. 55-66)

In theory, high-ranking clergy chose the candidates for abbot of prominent monasteries who were then approved by secular authorities.  However, in practice, the educated elite were far more involved and abbots often directly appointed at the prefecture, and occasionally imperial, level.  The prestige of the monk in question, could then be added to the prestige of his benefactors and their power reinforced by their ability to appoint him. (p. 70-72)  “It is therefore not surprising to find that Chan masters were active and willing participants in literati culture,” throughout the Song. (p. 73)  During the twelfth century, the Song state was less involved and more power devolved to the regional and local elites.  This, combined with a growth of Neo-Confucian philosophy, some of it staunchly anti-Buddhist meant “It must have been quite clear to the Chan school and other groups of elite Buddhism that to survive and flourish, it was crucial to gain support from the literati class and local government.” (p. 76)

Chapter 4 A New Chan Tradition describes how in the late eleventh century, “the Caodong tradition began to undergo a remarkable revival.” (p. 78)  By the first decade of the twelfth century, a monk named Furong Daokai (1043-1118) became very well known, along with his Dharma brother, Dahong Baoen, both Dharma heirs of Touzi Yiquing (1032-1083).  “The most serious problem Daokai and Baoen faced with the legitimacy of their lineage concerned their own master Touzi Yiqing.” (p. 86-87)  Yiquing is listed as a dharma heir of Dayang Jingxuan (942-1027), the last holder of the Caodong lineage, although the two never met. Instead, “the real transmission was said to come from Fushan Fayuan [991-1067], who is said to have ‘held it in trust’ for Dayang Jingxuan.” (p. 88)  Although controversial and questioned, this odd lineage does not seem to have held the Caodong back.

Daokai was appointed abbot of the Shifang Jingyin monastery by imperial edict in 1104.  Though his and Baoen’s fortunes waxed and waned, they managed to gather a large number of disciples, lay patrons, and Dharma heirs, especially in Daokai’s case. (p. 79-85)  In the second generation after Daokai and Baoen, several prominent Chan masters rose, including Hongzhi Zhengjue and Zhenxie Qingliao. (p.97) Scholar Ye Mengde recorded that by 1135, “three of ten Chan enthusiasts followed Caodong,” meaning literati, not monks. (p.104)

This generation of Caodong masters were contemporaries of Linji master Dahui Zonggao, the most outspoken, but not lone, critic of Caodong and the silent illumination practice.  Chapter 5 A Dog Has No Buddha Nature, summarizes this attack.  Dahui was known for his “famous attacks on silent illumination and his equally famous creation of kanhuan Chan, which Dahui saw as an answer to, and cure for, silent illumination.” This may have helped him become “easily the most famous Chan master of the Song dynasty.” (p. 105)  Dahui felt that by focusing on the hautou, or key phrase, of a gongan, the person would have the necessary “breakthrough of enlightenment,” an experience he described as sudden and shattering. (p.107)  This idea had precedents in earlier gongan teachings, which Dahui built on. Further, he held that this type of meditative technique “could be practiced in the midst of daily life.” (p. 115)

He criticized silent illumination as a gradual approach and as mistaking “an unreflective calm devoid of wisdom” for enlightenment, lacking that breakthrough moment.  (p. 117)  Dahui had nothing against sitting in quiet meditation and often prescribed it for his students, but he felt the Caodong understanding of enlightenment was flawed.  He felt “the followers of silent illumination refused to make a clear distinction between inherent enlightenment and the actualization of enlightenment.” (p. 119-120)

Chapter 6 The Caodong Tradition as the Target of Attacks by the Linji Tradition attempts to clarify some ambiguity in the dispute, mainly that Dahui never specifically names who or what group was advocating this heretical practice of silent illumination.  Some scholars have argued he was not aiming at Hongzhi, Qingliao, and the Caodong, but Schlütter believes there is ample evidence that these were, in fact, his targets. (p. 122-123)  Much of this fight was for the hearts and minds of the literati, to whom both Dahui and Hongzhi/Qingliao appealed in their writings, including many letters exchanged between the Chan masters and various elite laypersons.  In addition, Dahui claims to have studied silent illumination with the Caodong for two years, thus putting himself in a good place to refute it. (p. 126-130) Dahui seemed to have had a more contentious relationship with Qingliao, but a measure of respect for Hongzhi, about whom he said several positive things, which clouded the issue.  However, Schlütter concludes that “With his fierce attacks on the Caodong tradition, Dahui was the first to break the code of harmony that the Chan school had been able to maintain…” (p. 142)

Chapter 7 Silent Illuminat and the Caodong Tradition addresses the question as to whether or not the silent illumination that Dahui was attacking was a fair representation of the silent illumination the Caodong was teaching.  Most of the evidence for this is the famous poem of Hongzhi’s titled “Mozhao Ming” which “contains the only instance in all of Caodong literature in which the term ‘silent illumination’ is prominently used.” (p. 145)  Schlütter concludes that for the most part, Dahui’s description was accurate but skewed.  For example, the author feels that although “Hongzhi very rarely talked about enlightenment as an experience that occurs at a single moment in time, and he never depicted it as a shattering and decisive sudden event,” he did acknowledge “that although we are originally enlightened, it is necessary that we act on and actualize it,” thereby making a distinction between inherent and actualized enlightenment, which Dahui claims is lacking. (p. 151-152)  However, for the most part, he felt that Dahui’s characterization was “recognizable” as Hongzhi’s instructions.  The same could be said for Qingliao’s descriptions of silent illumination, though he may have been “more uncompromising” than his Dharma brother. (p. 154-155)

In this chapter, Schlütter also attempts to trace silent illumination back through the Caodong tradition, but can only find some evidence that it was added retroactively and in fact did not exist in such a manner before the twelfth century. It seems to have begun with Dokai, though it is not at all out of the blue and in line with earlier evolution of teachings on Buddha-nature. (p. 156-168)  The last issue Schlütter addresses in this chapter is the question of orthodoxy.  He concludes that “The new Caodong tradition, then, seems to have simply adopted the type of meditation already common in Chan and elevated its importance,” and that their “understanding of inherent Buddha-nature was also quite orthodox.” (p. 172-173)

One could conclude that Dahui won this fight, as the term silent illumination was never used positively after this time.  However, in practice, “Silent illumination-style meditation seems to have been accepted as completely valid … and together with kanhua Chan it has persisted down to the present day as a legitimate mode of meditation.” (p. 182)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Doju permalink
    May 31, 2012 2:12 pm

    This work sounds to me to be worth the read. I need a better understanding of this controversy as it actually unfolded in China rather than continue to guess at the references to it that appear occasionally in other types of literature. Colcutt and Bodiford helped me with the later politics as they occurred in Japan. This should help me understand the earlier phase of Zen history.Thanks Monica for the review.

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