Thursday, December 15, 2011

Zen Master Yanshou

Yongming Yanhou was anything but an orthodox Zen teacher. Unlike "pure" Chan Masters like Mazu and Zhaozhou, Yanshou was the third Ancestor in the Fayan School of Zen, a Pure Land Master, and a firm advocate of Bodhisattva Practice. Truly, his identity refuses to be pinned down. In Yongming Yanshou's Conception of Chan, Albert Welter paints a fascinating portrait of this complicated tenth-century Buddhist Master.

I was first drawn to Yanshou after reading Jeffrey Broughton's Zongmi on Chan, expecting Yanshou to be a mere echo of Zongmi (see my last post) without a voice of his own. What I discovered, however, was a Master, who while indebted to Zongmi's work, was a brilliant thinker and syncretist in his own right. Perfectly subtitled (A Special Transmission Within the Scriptures), Welter's book shows how, like Zongmi, Yanshou is a "scholastic" or "words and letters" Chan Master, in that he advocates the study of scriptures. In fact, he insists that Chan is not unique or separate from the "Buddhist" tradition, but as Welter says, "in fundamental accord with it." A non-factionalist, I guess you could call him, Yanshou concentrates on demonstrating how Chan fits harmoniously inside of the broader Buddhist milieu. He accomplishes this in his masterpiece, the Zongjing lu, or the Records of the Source-Mirror, which Welter masterfully translates for the last 50 pages of the book. Some of the most beautiful passages I have ever read in Buddhist literature can be found in the Zongjing lu. For instance,
"There is not a single form that is not the basis of samadhi. There is not a single sound that is not an entrance to dharani. After a single taste of it, everything is transformed into its true flavor. Even after a single whiff of it, everything enters the dharma-realm. The wind, tree branches, the moon, and a sandy beach all can transmit mind. A blazing fire, an island, clouds, and a grove or trees all promote the wondrous message [of Buddhist teaching]. With each and every step, one treads the golden world."
Exquisite! But my favorite is still when Yanshou refers to Bodhisattvas as Bodhi heroes--how inspiring!

Alas, however, history has not been kind to dear Yanshou. Due to his advocacy of "words and letters Chan" and Pure Land practice, he has unfortunately been relegated to a kind of second-rate Zen Master status. Which is why Yongming Yanshou is such an important book--it returns Yanshou to his rightful place in Chinese Buddhist history, dispelling the idea that there is such a this as "true" Chan. As I think Yanshou himself would argue, it is important to study all of Zen's great masters, not just those who have become household names. As I have said before about Zongmi and Chinul, modern Zen students could benefit enormously from studying Yanshou, for he offers us an alternative to the shouting, sutra-eschewing Zen master so commonly found in Zen literature. Yongming Yanhsou is an extremely important book for serious Zen students who are interested in Zen's rich roots.

Great job, Albert Welter. Keep the translations of the less-known masters coming!

Thanks to the publicity department of Oxford University Press for the opportunity to review this book.

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