Sunday, December 11, 2011

Zongmi on Chan

My Zen reading studies have, following in the footsteps of my practice, shifted from Japanese Zen to Korean Son and Chinese Chan. My search to understand the development of Zen, in terms of both praxis and theology, has led me back to the East Asian mainland. Chinul, founder of Korean Son, resonates profoundly with me. His "sudden Attainment, gradual cultivation" captures my current practice very well. After reading Robert Buswell's Tracing Back the Radiance and Hee-Sung Keel's Chinul, I decided to dig even deeper into the past to one of Chinul's forebearers, Zongmi, an even earlier proponent of "sudden Attainment, gradual cultivation." For like Fazang, Zongmi influenced Chinul so much that is not an exaggeration to say that Korean Son would not exist, at least in its current form, were it not for Master Zongmi.

The first fascinating aspect about Jeffrey Broughton's Zongmi on Chan, is its debunking the myth that Zen's "special transmission outside of the scriptures" means that Zen eschews sutra study. Like Chinul, Zongmi, a Hua-yen adept and Chan Master in the Heze school (rumored to descend from the Sixth Ancestor's Dharma heir, Shen-hsiu) was a large proponent of sutra study. He practiced what some Zen teachers would pejoratively call "Scriptural/Scholastic Chan" or "Chan of words and letters." His position, I think, is best summarized when he writes: "Scriptures are the word of the Buddha; Chan is the thought of the Buddha. There is no difference whatsoever between what the Buddha [thought] with his mind and [uttered] with his mouth." So it would seem that Zen's aversion for written teachings simply did not pertain to Tang dynasty China, and appears to be more of a Japanese (Rinzai) development than an actual tradition handed down from Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen.

In addition to his extensive and invaluable introduction, Broughton's translations of some of Zongmi's most noteworthy texts--"Chan Letter," the incredible "Chan Prolegomenon," and "Chan Notes"--provide a clear window into the mind of a great religious syncretist. Zongmi not only synthesizes Hau-yen doctrine with Chan practice, but even more impressively, he illustrates how all Chan schools are expressions of the true Buddhadharma. A tall order indeed, especially when we consider how different the Chan schools' philosophical viewpoints are.

Overall, I praise Jeffrey Broughton for this excellent book. Zongmi on Chan, as an academic and scholarly title, is an excellent complement to practice-oriented Chan classics like The Zen Teaching of Huang Po or Hui Hai's Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening, and an indispensable addition to early Chan literature and study. I recommend it to anyone interested in Chinul, Son, or Chan in general.

Thanks to the Publicity Department at Columbia University Press for allowing me to review this book.


  1. Hi Andre - nice post. Yet another extremely interesting author I've never heard of but am going to look into now.

    BTW, Although on my Blogger dashboard under “all blogs” yours is near the top being listed as “4 hours” old (that’s why I wandered over), on my blogroll, you are way down the list at “1 week” and the date/time on your post is December 3 at 8:09 p.m. I’m guessing that’s when you started the draft and that you’re using the new Blogger interface, because I had the same problem.

    I guess you could copy the whole thing into a new blank post, publish it and then delete the old one, but I found another way to fix it.

    Go to your dashboard > click “switch back” at the top near the right > click “edit posts” > click “edit” beside the post you want to re-date > click “post options” just above “publish post” at the very bottom > under “post date and time” make sure “set date and time” is selected, then change the date and time to when you actually published the post > click “publish post”.

    Your post should now show on other blogrolls as at the time posted it rather than the time the draft was started. Hope that helps.

  2. Thanks, David! I would never have noticted that. Made the change.

  3. David,

    You may have heard of Broughton's translation of Bodhidharma. Besides the Red Pine translation, it's the most popular edition.

  4. No I hadn't, but thanks for the tip!