Early Chinese Zen and Sinified Buddhism

Tsung-miBook Review
Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism
By Peter Gregory

In this book, Peter Gregory outlines the intellectual life of the mid-Táng monk Zōngmì 宗密 (780-841), claimed as a patriarch of both Huāyán 華嚴 and Chán 禪 schools of Buddhism. The book is divided into four parts, on Zōngmì’s life, on doctrinal classification, on the philosophical grounds of practice, and on Zōngmì’s relationship to the broader intellectual tradition, especially Confucianism, Daoism, and Sòng dynasty Neo-Confucianism.

Part One reconstructs Zōngmì’s biography, comparing his hagiography with other textual sources and incorporating previous Japanese scholarship. This part pays particular attention to Zōngmì’s education, from the Confucian learning of his youth to his encounter with the famed monk Chéngguān 澄觀 (738-839).

Part Two discusses the importance of doctrinal classification as a means to understand a given sect’s self-identity, since masters in various sects will rearrange their lineages for ideological reasons, and then proceeds to analyze the classification given by Zōngmì in light of those given by two of his predecessors, Zhìyǎn 智儼 and Fǎzàng 法藏. Zhìyǎn’s classifications are driven by hermeneutical reasons, Fǎzàng’s by sectarian reasons, and Zōngmì’s by soteriological reasons (in response to the rise of Chán).

Part Three attempts to map out Zōngmì’s adaptation of Huāyán metaphysics, which served as a philosophical and ontological basis for Chán practice, culminating in a systematic theory of the Buddhist path. Zōngmì articulates a variety of schemes, which Gregory then, admirably, works to synthesize. Gregory also notes Zōngmì’s reworking of the doctrine of emptiness to emphasize the affirmative aspect of the Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha), and his attempt to defuse the radical antinomian tendencies in Hòngzhōu 洪州 Chán.

Part Four consists of two chapters, one in which Gregory summarizes Zōngmì’s incorporation of Confucianism and Daoism into his own scheme, and one in which he shows how Zōngmì’s critique of Hòngzhōu Chán provide a model for Zhū Xī’s 朱熹 (1130-1200) Neo-Confucian critique of Buddhism.

Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism is an admirable work of scholarship that provides a portrait of the intellectual life and times of a major mid-Táng thinker, carefully examining primary sources, incorporating entire libraries of secondary studies in Japanese and English, and creatively summarizing very difficult and abstruse philosophico-religious texts. Reading through this book, I learned much of the doctrinal climate of Táng Buddhist philosophy.

However, this book fails in nearly every way when measured Erik Zürcher’s field-defining article, “Perspectives in the Study of Chinese Buddhism” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1982): it relies almost entirely upon the Canon, focuses exclusively on members of the elite classes, and traces out doctrinal lineages while completely ignoring praxis. Gregory’s Buddhism is the heady world of ontology, metaphysics, and sectarian squabbling. While this area is an important phenomenon, and deserves its own study, it must recognize its own limitations more explicitly.

Moreover, the “sinification” argument, that Buddhism of the Suí-Táng period represents a new developmental stage since it turned to novel scriptural interpretation and away from reliance on Indian authority, is tiresome, and completely unnecessary to Gregory’s book. It builds upon a historical outline given by Yūki Reimon 結城零問 and Robert Gimello, and argues that Zōngmì’s philosophy, which is based upon several apocryphal texts, represents a New Buddhism which no longer explains Buddhism in terms of Dark Learning (xuǎnxué 玄學) nor looks longingly to India. If we toss this word from the title, and this argument from the introduction, we lose absolutely nothing of value from this book. In fact, this disposal would only make Gregory’s analysis all the more compelling, and his picture of an intellectual powerhouse powerful indeed.

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