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SeeingThroughZen Discussion

Eras of Chan

McRae presents a historical interpretation of the Zen (Chan) tradition in contrast with the ahistorical lineage model:

Proto-Chan ~ ca. 500–600

Bodhidharma (d. ca. 530), Huike (ca. 485 to ca. 555 or after 574)

Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices

Summary: Multiple locations in north China; practice based on Buddha-nature; no known lineage theory. Known through traditional texts and a few Dunhuang documents.

Early Chan ~ ca. 600–900

Hongren (601–74), Shenxiu (606?–706), Huineng (638–713), Shenhui (684–758)

Northern, Southern, Oxhead factions

Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

Summary: Various loosely defined factions/groups, with different approaches to “contemplation of the mind”; relationship between this and proto-Chan unclear; lineage theories appear from 689 on as a unifying ideology; known through numerous Dunhuang documents and traditional sources.

Middle Chan ~ ca. 750–1000

Mazu (709–88), Shitou (710–90), Linji (d. 867), Xuefeng Yicun (822–908)

Hongzhou and Hubei factions, antecedents of the Five Houses

Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall

Summary: Emergence of “encounter dialogue” as primary mode of practice and discourse, recorded in colloquial form and massive quantity in 952, and implying a genealogical model of religious cultivation; not present in Dunhuang documents but known through Song dynasty texts and idealized as a golden age during Song.

Song-dynasty Chan ~ ca. 950–1300

Dahui (1089–1163), Hongzhi (1091–1157)

Five Houses, Linji and Caodong schools

Blue Cliff Record

Summary: Greatest flourishing of Chan, which as an administrative ideology dominated the Chinese monastic establishment; the image of Tang-dynasty masters operating in enlightened spontaneity was inscribed in highly ritualized Song-dynasty settings; snippets of encounter dialogue were collected, edited to serve as precedents of enlightened activity, and used as topics of meditative inquiry.

(found on page 13)

Retrospective Authenticity

The text does not read like a translation, and the role of the “historical” Bodhidharma in its composition is beyond our knowing at this point. Probably it was written on his behalf by Tanlin on the basis of information about the master’s teachings conveyed to him by Huike, so that the text has a kind of retrospective authenticity that is common in the Chan tradition. But the important point is that this treatise was accepted by a community of Bodhidharma’s successors as embodying his teachings. (pg. 28)

Historicity of the Platform Sutra

But there is still more to say about the opening Platform Sutra anecdote itself. 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. How is it possible to be so certain? First of all, Shenxiu studied with Hongren for a few years at the very beginning of the latter’s teaching career, so he was nowhere in sight when the events in question are supposed to have occurred. Second, the very notion of selecting an individual successor to serve as “sixth patriarch” would have been inconceivable in the latter years of Hongren’s life, since the concept of a Chan “monosuccession”—that there was one and only one orthodox succession of patriarchs—appeared only later, in the teachings of Shenhui. Third, if the matter had been known to Shenhui, who was a master storyteller dedicated to promoting Huineng’s identity as sixth patriarch, he certainly would have included it in his writings. We have good evidence to show that in the late 730s Shenhui was ignorant of most of the details of Huineng’s life. It is probable, but by no means certain, that Shenhui only thought to contribute to the embellishment of Huineng’s life quite late in his own career.

There are also indications that the Platform Sutra verses — both those attributed to Shenxiu and to Huineng—were generated utilizing “Northern school” rather than “Southern school” writings. We have already seen references to the “path of bodhi” and the body’s serenity as the bodhi tree in “Northern school” writings above (see p. 53), as well as allusions to not seeing “a single thing.” In this context it is significant that a Dunhuang manuscript containing numerous metaphors in the manner of the “Northern school” contains the line “within suchness there originally is really not a single thing.” The Chinese for this line is similar to the famous later third line of Shenxiu’s Platform Sñtra verse, implying that the scripture was modified on the basis of ideas originally transmitted in a “Northern school” style or context. Since “Northern school” refers to a sizeable movement associated with literate court society and Buddhism, while the “Southern school” of Shenhui and Huineng was a minor voice from the provinces to the east and far south, it should not be too surprising that the invention of a tradition associated with the latter used resources derived from the former. (pg. 67)

"Duels" in the Chan Tradition

McRae employs the term 'duel' to describe a sort of antinomy (as we might conceive of it in essence) or dialectic (as we might conceive of it in function) that appears in the Chan Tradition. These are dualities that are in some sense oppositional and in some sense complimentary or even co-dependent. There are correlates between these 'duels', though McRae cautions not to attempt looping all of them into the same two perennial categories in describing their relation to each other, as these are dialectics that occurred in different historical contexts. (essentialsalts)

It has long been recognized that Huineng and Shenxiu, the figureheads of the so-called Southern and Northern schools, function within traditional Chan ideology not as two isolated individuals, but as an inextricably related pair simultaneously linked in collaborative and competitive relationship. Together they constitute a single literary and religious polarity expressed as a relationship between two human exemplars. A convenient shorthand for this complex bimodality is the French word duel, which carries the meanings of both “duel” and “dual” in English. Thus the doctrine of sudden enlightenment associated with the Southern school cannot be explained without reference to a gradualist doctrine attributed to the Northern school. (This simplistic explanation of sudden versus gradual is woefully inadequate in the face of historical reality, but it must have been very effective in disabusing trainees of their simplistic notions of meditative “achievement.”) (page 14)

The gradual/sudden distinction is thoroughly ridiculed as a false dichotomy that is not so much a historical reality as it was a polemical weapon leveled against rivals. In truth, there was never really a sudden school that didn't teach techniques of gradual cultivation, or vice versa. See Chinul for details on Zen's synthesis of sudden and gradual. McRae lists three such 'duels', and compares them to a duel in Neo-confucianism:

Proto-Chan: entrance of principle vs. entrance of practice
Early/classical Chan: maintaining the mind vs. encounter dialogue
Song-dynasty Chan: silent illumination vs. viewing the phrase
Neo-Confucianism: quiet sitting vs. investigating things

(more about this on page 139)

Ultimately, McRae attempts a few categorizations of these positions - immanentist (seeing the immanent quality of mind) vs. exemplification (exemplifying this quality in everyday behavior); or else samatha vs. vapasayná - but settles on an appreciation of the different insights that different interpretive models provide:

What should be most instructive, in fact, is the very lack of congruence between the immanentist/exemplification, sudden/gradual, and samatha/vipasyaná pairs. (page 142)

Influence of the Northern School

Shenxiu interpreted every passage of every scripture he considered in terms of its instruction concerning Buddhist spiritual cultivation, and he advocated a manner of living in which even the most prosaic of one’s activities became—in every feature and detail—an act of religious practice. There is a definite connection between this style of interpretation and the later Chan emphasis on having one’s practice extend to every facet of daily life.

Shenxiu’s message was breathtakingly simple, since he in effect told his followers to simply practice contemplation of the mind now, working to be bodhisattvas here and now, in this very lifetime, in every moment of their lives. There are echoes of this fundamental attitude not only in later Chan, but also in the early-ninth-century “enlightenment in this body” doctrines of the Japanese Tendai and Shingon school figures Saichê (767–822) and Kñkai (774–835), whose teachings were clearly inspired by the Chan innovation. (page 51)