How Zen Became a Social Construct

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Book Review:
How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute Over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China
By Morten Schlutter

In the last thirty or so years, scholars of Chán 禪 (Zen) Buddhism, such as T. Griffith Foulk, have demonstrated that our understanding of Chán in the Táng 唐 dynasty (618-907) is in fact a later, Sòng 宋 dynasty (960-1279) construction. We have no direct access, but only the mediation of biased hagiographers and polemicists. Thanks to these researches, Chán of the Táng is a “known unknown” – we understand our own ignorance of it.

In How Zen Became Zen, Morten Schlütter focuses on the obvious follow-up question: what, then, was Chán in the Sòng like, and how did we come to have our current understanding of Chán? To Schlütter, the crucial turning point is the twelfth century, and the growth of sectarianism, best known in the attacks of Dàhuì Zōnggǎo 大慧宗杲 (1089-1163) on Fūróng Dàokǎi 芙蓉道楷 (1043-1118). Dàhuì, a leader of the Línjì 臨濟 sect, emphasized the importance of kànhuà 看話 practice, in which one meditates on the key phrase of an encounter dialogue (gōngàn 公案, generally known in English by its Japanese name, kōan). Dàhuì, in addresses to lay practitioners, emphasized thatkànhuà was the only way to enlightenment, and contrasted this method with the “silent illumination” (mòzhào 默照) advocated by Dàokǎi and others in the Cáodòng 曹洞 sect, which he claimed was useless.

Schlütter’s stated aim is to understand this sectarian dispute. He does not see it primarily as doctrinal hair-splitting, but the result of larger social forces which developed throughout the Sòng dynasty. Therefore, the majority of the book provides a social history of Chán Buddhism from beginning of the Sòng through the twelfth century, focusing especially on state policies toward Buddhism and elite patronage of various monks and monasteries. The rise of Chán, for example, he attributes to government’s effort to make monasteries public (shífāng 十方), in which abbots are subject to official appointment. By the end of the eleventh century, as power became more localized, monasteries depended on the patronage of local elites for their survival, and therefore monks had to make an effort to appeal to these patrons. One of the ways of doing this was to compose and disseminate transmission histories and other types of literature

Schlütter also notes how Cáodòng had nearly died out, and was then revived in the late eleventh century. This posed a threat to the well-established Línjì sect, potentially usurping patrons, and so Línjì leaders like Dàhuì responded by attacking the Cáodòng lineage. These attacks mischaracterized Cáodòng’s “silent illumination” to some degree, and heightened the differences between the two. This led to an increasing sense of sectarianism, which became codified in later times as the “five traditions” of Chán, and which survives in Japanese Zen to this day.

How Zen Became Zen appears to have been well-received, praised in scholarly journals, and this is justly so. Schlütter contextualizes a doctrinal dispute through social history. While his goals are similar to, say, Peter Gregory in Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, he draws on a wider range of source material, such as government manuals, official histories, commemorative inscriptions, funerary inscriptions, essay collections, travel descriptions, and private letters, as well as typical “Buddhist” sources like the Canon. He also explicitly states in the Introduction that his focus on the elite is necessarily limited, and that a neat distinction between elite and popular religion doesn’t hold: one of the reasons the state was interested in promoting Buddhism, for example, was to generate spiritual power. Schlütter also writes very clearly, explicitly stating his thesis, summarizing his conclusions, and explaining jargon.

Because he covers his bases so well (giving nods to the importance of popular religion, Daoism, Neo-Confucianism, print culture, the role of women, etc.), it’s hard to criticize Schlütter’s work outright. The book’s catchy title, How Zen Became Zen, implies a longer historical scope, from the Táng up through the twentieth century, but I suspect the title was an editorial decision with University of Hawai’i Press. I could also wish for more emphasis on the literary qualities of Chán writings in the Sòng, but to do so would be to wish for a different book.

Perhaps the one strong criticism I would give the book is that it shares the assumptions of all social history: that historical events are explainable through larger power structures, such as governments, religious institutions, etc. While these are, of course, important, social histories downplay individual actors, and tend toward historical determinism.

The possibility of authentic religious experience, too, has no place in such a framework. All texts, be they polemical, instructive, literary, or otherwise, can be understood in terms of larger social forces. A monk writes a text on meditation for the laity in order to attract followers and ensure that his teaching survives – nothing is said of whether or not the monk genuinely believes he is helping his followers, or whether the followers genuinely believe they are being helped by the monk. Such speculation as to people’s authentic interests, I suppose, is beyond the reach of historical inquiry, but it is an important factor in why people adhere to various ethical and spiritual teachings. To deny it at the outset is to lose something essential, if ineffable.
Nonetheless, Schlütter’s work succeeds in everything it sets out to do, and should prove to be a touchstone for scholars of Sòng history and Chinese religion alike.

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