Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism

Of all the great Zen ancestors--Dahui, Huineng, Linji, Chinul, Yunmen, Layman Pang--I would have to say that Mazu touches me the most deeply. His directness--"Ordinary Mind is the Way"--and unwavering insistence on revealing the spiritual life of this mind and this body are just remarkable, and inspire my life and Zen practice.

To say that Mazu is a Zen giant is an understatement. Almost every Zen school in history can trace its lineage back to either him or Shitou, so naturally I want to learn as much as I can about this iconic figure in Chan history.

I first encountered his teaching in Sun-Face Buddha, a book I recommend to everyone, and then more critically in Zongmi's polemical criticism of the Hongzhou school (see previous post). Zongmi, last patriarch in the Heze school of Zen and a young contemporary of Mazu's students, considered the Hongzhou approach iconoclastic, antinomian, and morally myopic. And yet, whenever I read Zongmi's criticism of Mazu's teachings, such as "All dharmas are Buddha's liberation. All dharmas are liberation," and "The Way does not belong to cultivation," I kept thinking, What are you talking about, Zongmi? Mazu is the man! Everything he said resonated with me.

This has led me on a quest to learn more about Mazu's highly inspirational and influential Hongzhou school. My first stop is Jinhua Jia's The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism, a fascinating exploration of myth versus reality in the historical development of Chan through the 8th and 10th centuries.

Zen history abounds with lore, or "apocrypha" as scholars like to call it. And part of what Jinhua Jia does is dispel a lot of the fabrications that Zen has accumulated. For instance, Jia challenges the idea that Baizhang composed the monastic code that he is famous for developing. Jia attributes this to Baizhang's students, whom he credits with much of the success that Mazu's Hongzhou school garnered after the great master's death. Jia even reveals that much of what scholars and Zen students have identified as the "golden age of Zen" during the Tang dynasty is in fact inaccurate, a historical embellishment of Song-era Chan students. This includes the very idea that Mazu was an iconoclast who eschewed Zen practice. Much of Hongzhou's trademark encounter dialogues--exchanges between a student and master--were fictional, composed after the masters were long dead, and only retroactively inserted as if they had existed since the Tang dynasty. But don't take my word for it; Jia does a much better job at convincing readers than I ever will.

What Jia develops is a lucid, humanized account of Mazu's life and unique approach to Zen. He stresses time and again, that though Mazu's Zen was criticized as being heretical, Mazu was simply making explicit teachings from the Tathagatagarbha literature that had hitherto been implicit. What I walked away from The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism with was a richer understanding of Mazu and his brilliant Hongzhou school, as well as how he fit into the complex historical milieu of Chan.

I have a yearning to learn as much as I can about Mazu, and Jinua Jia's book has both fed and fueled that quest. He has left me intrigued as to how much influence Mazu and his Hongzhou school had on Korean Seon, Kanhua Chan, and Seung Sahn's lineage in particular. If you are at all interested in how Zen developed--and I certainly am!, because I want to know where it came from--then read this book. Jia's scholarship is meticulous, his conclusions fascinating, and his prose incisive.

I would like to thank Janice at SUNY Press for sending me a copy of this book to read and review. Thanks so much the opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. It should be noted that the Hongzhou school was created centuries after Mazu during the Song dynasty. Also that the places where folks like Mazu resided may not even have had monks halls, a later invention in zen.