Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Review: How Zen Became Zen

Book Review

How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China by Morten Schlütter (Studies in East Asian Buddhism, No. 22Published in association with the Kuroda Institute)

In this masterpiece of modern Zen scholarship, Morten Schlutter presents a vastly important and astonishingly thorough account of the historical evidence of How Zen became Zen. While a number of studies in recent decades have revealed that the “traditional history” of Zen’s (Chan’s) “Golden Age” in Tang era China was actually retrospectively created in the Song Dynasty, Morten Schlutter’s “How Zen became Zen” is the first book to offer a thorough explanation, complete with a detailed analysis on how and why this occurred.

Here in this book are gathered together the groundbreaking discoveries of Zen scholarship in recent decades, PLUS an extensive range and scope of previously ignored source materials (that Schulutter has personally uncovered through meticulous research), all arranged and woven together with his own profound insight and knowledge into a rich tapestry that is both thoroughgoing and accessible.

In a meticulous, step by step presentation, Schlutter introduces the reader to all of the recent discoveries and reveals the wide range of influencing factors. Drawing on a vast array of original sources, Schlutter leaves no rock unturned. By exploring sources from competing `schools’ to governmental policies, from monastic institutions, to Chinese literati, from the recently unearthed texts in Northern China to epithets of Zen masters, readers are shown how and why Chinese Buddhism culminated in the astonishingly original and distinctive form of Buddhism known as “Zen” (Chan).

This book is essential reading (as well as reference) for all serious Zen students/practitioners.

From the Flaps:

How Zen Became Zen takes a novel approach to understanding one of the most crucial developments in Zen Buddhism: the dispute over the nature of enlightenment that erupted within the Chinese Chan (Zen) school in the twelfth century. The famous Linji (Rinzai) Chan master Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) railed against “heretical silent illumination Chan” and strongly advocated kanhua (koan) meditation as an antidote. In this fascinating study, Morten Schlütter shows that Dahui’s target was the Caodong (Soto) Chan tradition that had been revived and reinvented in the early twelfth century, and that silent meditation was an approach to practice and enlightenment that originated within this “new” Chan tradition. Schlütter has written a refreshingly accessible account of the intricacies of the dispute, which is still reverberating through modern Zen in both Asia and the West. Dahui and his opponents’ arguments for their respective positions come across in this book in as earnest and relevant a manner as they must have seemed almost nine hundred years ago.

Although much of the book is devoted to illuminating the doctrinal and soteriological issues behind the enlightenment dispute, Schlütter makes the case that the dispute must be understood in the context of government policies toward Buddhism, economic factors, and social changes. He analyzes the remarkable ascent of Chan during the first centuries of the Song dynasty, when it became the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism, and demonstrates that secular educated elites came to control the critical transmission from master to disciple (”procreation” as Schlütter terms it) in the Chan School.

Table of Contents

1. Chan Buddhism in the Song: Some Background
2. The Chan School and the Song States
3. Procreation and Patronage in the Song Chan School
4. A New Chan Tradition: The Reinvention of the Caodong Lineage in the Song
5. A Dog Has No Buddha-Nature: Kanhua Chan and Dahui Zonggao’s Attacks on Silent Illumination
6. The Caodong Tradition as the Target of Attacks by the Linji Tradition
7. Silent Illumination and the Caodong Tradition
Caodong Lineage
Linji Lineage

More Zen and Buddhist Book Reviews by Ted Biringer

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