Book review: The Way of Ch'an

- through Francois Leclercq

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“Ch’an is not Buddhism. » This is the heart of the central thesis of translator and poet David Hinton in his recent publication with Shambhala, The Way of Chan (2023). In many ways, The Way of Chan distills the theories and arguments from his previous book, Chinese root (2020), and identifies them more explicitly in different passages of texts classified into several chapters. These sections explain how "proper" and "conventional" Ch'an Buddhism should be considered separately developing traditions, and that authentic Ch'an lies closer, in various profound doctrines, to early Chinese religion than of “Ch’an Buddhism”. this represents the historical transmission of the tradition into the 21st century.

Hinton identifies this deep tradition with Taoism and goes further to say that Ch'an the Taoist philosophy, manifested as a set of practices. The book will not be an easy read for a specialist in orthodox Buddhist studies, and as a lover of Buddhist studies myself – or at least, a graduate of the critical historical method of religious traditions since my graduate years – I had to gather all my good knowledge. faith to engage with Hinton's main message. Look no further than the very beginning, where Hinton states:

Lao Tzu established the reintegration of consciousness with Way's generative cosmological/ontological process as the goal of spiritual self-cultivation – an assumption that continues in Ch'an, defining the terms of understanding and practice. . . . And so, already here we find the native Chinese source of the fundamental ideas of Ch'an: the whole cosmological/ontological framework, emptiness, empty mind, mirror mind, meditation, non-dwelling and deep understanding being possible only outside of words. and concepts.

(Hinton 26)

This bold statement is one that I would characterize as comparative religion (discerning the affinities between two different traditions). Yet Hinton would probably say that I am expressing it backwards: that it comes from Lao Tzu et Zhuangzi particularly in texts in which Ch'an ideas first emerge, only to be identified as part of the "Buddhist" body of thought in China. Throughout the book, Hinton posits that the above fundamental ideas of Taoism, from empty mind to non-dwelling, were put forward by Ch'an. He advocated a purely experiential approach to religious realization, "with its dismantling of all religious dimensions of Buddhism." (Hinton 50) In other words, for Hinton, Ch'an is diametrically opposed to Buddhism.


The next major claim is that as Buddhism began to develop in Han China in the first century CE, the Dark-Enigma school of learning (xuanxue) began to germinate, with Hinton asserting that "the learning of dark riddles is the source of Ch'an, not as a religious project but as a philosophical project." (Hinton 50) He argues that writers such as Wang Bi and Guo Xiang spoke of the Lao Tzu/Daode Jing and I Ching, and how they discuss personal culture "in a way that would define Ch'an practice." (Hinton 52)

He says:

When Buddhist scholars began to infuse Taoism of learning dark riddles into Buddhist practices. . . the possibility of transformation inherent in Taoism and learning the dark riddles was greatly increased by these practices – primarily meditation, and later sangha case practice. . . .

Yet it never functioned as Buddhism, but as an improved form of Taoism. Indeed, virtually all of the fundamental aspects of Ch'an awakening, already present in the original Taoist texts, are extensively developed in Dark-Enigma Learning. By focusing on the deep cosmological/ontological dimensions of consciousness and the cosmos, Dark-Enigma Learning opens up the depths that allow Ch'an to invest immediate experience with such depth.

(Hinton 51)

The real substance of the book lies in the following sections, chapters 3 through 6. From the beginning, by introducing the legendary first patriarch of Ch'an, Bodhidharma, Hinton argues that the tradition of Ch'an could from the outset unfold a few Buddhist jargon, in fact, is not only anti-Buddhist (122-23) but also aims to configure the philosophical system of Taoism into a method of spiritual practice (Ch'an). (Hinton 123)

It should be noted that the strength of the book lies in its translations and in the poetic erudition of its author. The poems, catsand other passages selected from a multitude of Taoists, xuanxueand Buddhist texts are a joy to read and Hinton has a way of unfolding the specifics of the English language in a way that captures the mystique of Chinese characters – or at least those used in Chinese religious texts.

However, I do not believe that Ch'an's narrative advocating a solely experiential approach to religion – despite his deconstructive charismatic instincts and self-understanding – is accurate. The Buddha's own vision as detailed in the Kalama Suttaand indeed from the earliest tradition, what we might call "pre-sectarian", emphasize a pattern of practice that reflects what Hinton maintains as the Ch'an refutation of conventional Buddhism:

Because Ch'an insists on the obvious: cultivating the empty mind and seeing its original nature can only be an immediate and personal experience. It has nothing to do with teachers or teachings, as in Ch'an/Zen's famous statement that it is a "distinct transmission apart from any teaching." . .

Hence another central emphasis of Ch'an: you yourself are always already Buddha, the Enlightened One – another radical departure from the conventional Indian understanding of the Buddha.

(Hinton 7)

Needless to say, I strongly disagree with his last statement. Mahayana Budhology, and fundamentally recognizing oneself as a future Buddha (viakarana), is “made in India”, so to speak, even with the temporal consideration: this one is already a Buddha. And Ch'an is not the expression of a different tradition within Buddhism, such as a Manchu doctrinal candidate or a theological sleeper agent. It is simply a different type of Buddhism, which the overall Mahayana tradition has long adopted as a legitimate and orthodox stream of Dharma. back to India.

Fundamentally, I am not sure that Hinton's interpretation of Buddhism has correctly assessed the intellectual genealogy of the Mahayana. At least as far as the post-prajnaparamita literature, the establishment of an intellectual "line" was a project carried out to an almost perfect degree by the writer Joseph Walser. Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism: emptiness, power and the question of origin (2018). The Chinese expression of "Absence", as Hinton puts it, "this empty and generative cosmological/ontological fabric", the "original nature" which is the "generative void at the heart of the Cosmos", is certainly unique. But Walser's book addresses this question of origins directly, providing a superior genealogy of how Buddhism engaged with the primordial, luminescent "mind before mind" (acitam) directly from its Indian sources: “The original substance/nature (prakrti) of thought is a clear light” (prakrtis cittasya prabhasvara). (Walser 2018)

It is certainly clear that the teachings of Ch'an echo Taoism, and we can identify how Ch'an is perhaps even a Buddhist expression of Taoism– just as Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was particularly attracted to the way in which the Christian message could be reinforced by the message “beyond” Zen – but the history of Ch'an itself is deeply rooted in the “religious Buddhism”, or even institutional Buddhism. This involved debating what it meant to enjoy canonicity for sutras and commentary literature, the concern with establishing lineage, and the ways in which various Ch'an temples and monasteries sought imperial and/or governmental favor.

A final example: the existence of Platform Sutrawhom Hinton considers to be the first Buddhist-prajna text, was a founding text among several competing Ch'an currents, supposed to legitimize the sixth patriarch, Huineng. Many sinologists, historians and experts in Buddhist studies have demonstrated that this was a strategic and concrete project aimed at placing a specific scriptural understanding of the nature of bodhi and illumination before competing visions.

I would advise that to fully appreciate this book we should enter into a state of mind or a mythic sense of time, even if The Way of Chan it also lays claim to temporal time and human history – one of its weakest aspects. The rest is a literary love letter to the depth of Taoist philosophy contained in the practice of Ch'an. Nevertheless, it reminds readers of Ch'an and Zen of the philosophical ideas and principles of practice that made this school of Buddhism so powerful and beloved in the first place.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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