Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ordinary Mind as the Way

Yells, slaps, and nose twists. No, I'm not talking about an episode of The Three Stooges; I'm describing how Mazu and the early Hongzhou ancestors are commonly portrayed in history. And if you're at all attached to those images of iconoclastic Buddhist masters shouting and eschewing seated meditation, then stop reading now because those caricatures have been revised.

Mario Poceski's Ordinary Mind as the Way, an outstanding work of scholarship worthy of the highest praise, dispels many of these stereotypes. By contextualizing Mazu's Hongzhou school within the Tang dynasty monastic milieu, Poceski reveals how Mazu was far from the antinomian iconoclast that Zen lore makes him out to be.

As Poceski writes, "[Later generations of Chan writers and adherents'] pious imagery of the Hongzhou school was formed on the basis of later apocryphal stories that portrayed Mazu and his disciples as instigators of a new iconoclastic ethos." So the images that we have today are the result of later generations' attempt to solidify the Hongzhou school's orthodoxy.

The reality of the matter is that "Mazu and his disciples come across as a group of monks grounded in the monastic ethos and canonical traditions of medieval Chinese Buddhism." Which is not to say that Mazu wasn't innovative or the Zen giant that history makes him out to be. He still, just in a different way.

How so? you might ask.

Read Ordinary Mind as the Way. As you can probably already tell from my past several posts, I am very interested in Mazu and his disciples. His approach to Zen feels so fresh and vital that I just want to get up and shout when I read his teachings. No joke, I really do. So yes, I am biased about the subject, but the truth is that Ordinary Mind as the Way is an incredible read, not only for dispelling myths about Mazu and clarifying his actual character and teachings, but for its incisive explication of Hongzhou doctrine, which is second to none.

Tathagatagarbha, Buddha nature, emptiness, sudden vs. gradual awakening, Poceski somehow manages to explain Mazu's complicated position on all of these subjects, and deftly at that I might add.

Thank you Dr. Poceski for writing such a marvelous and thought-provoking book. I can't wait to read your next one about Mazu.

And special thanks to the publicity department at Oxford University Press for sending me a copy to review.


  1. Thanks for this illuminating review.

  2. I haven't read it yet because it is $50. :-)