Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy

Lately, the more I read, the less certain I am of assumptions I once held about Zen. First Mario Pocenski's Ordinary Mind as the Way challenged the conventional image that most Zen students have about Mazu and the Hongzhou school. And now Albert Welter's The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy destabilizes my understanding of Zen Master Linji, the Linji Lu his infamous Zen record, and thus the entire Linji Zen tradition.

Wow, that's a lot to do in one book. But it's true. In The Creation of Chan Orthodoxy, Welter sets out to prove how the common image of Linji--of a brusque, confrontational teacher with more fist blows than words--is a construct of his disciples in their attempt to establish Linji supremacy in Song-era China. Which they were very successful in doing; D.T. Suzuki, the iconic 20th century Japanese Zen missionary of sorts, is the ultimate champion of this Rinzai-based orthodoxy. But as it turns out, like Mazu, the Linji we know is more fictitious invention, or embellishment at the very least, than real. To what degree, no one will ever know.

Welter's main thesis is that this image we have of Linji is both a political and religious construct created to establish doctrinal and praxis-based orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy, now there's a word that interests me a lot.

I began my Zen practice with a mainstream Harada-Yasutani group, moved to the Soto-based Ordinary Mind school, and am now fully engaged in the Korean kanhua Chan tradition in the Five Mountain Zen Order. Essentially, I moved from the most orthodox form of Western Zen (Japanese) to a less mainstream Zen practice with the Ordinary Mind group, and have finally wound up on the fringes practicing Korean Soen. And if that last statement strikes you as a bit odd, I can attest to the fact that when you tell Japanese Zen students that you practice Korean Soen, you can almost smell the judgment and criticism emanating from them; because although many people won't admit it or even know it, they intuitively accept Japanese Zen as the orthodoxy. From my experience, you're made to feel like you're in middle school all over again, wearing knock-off Air Jordans that everyone is whispering about.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.

So Welter's book fascinated me on several different levels--intellectually and personally. It's a dense, scholarly read, useful for anyone interested in the origins behind the Linji (dare I say) myth. If you're at all like me, a bit of an iconoclast who likes questioning so-called orthodoxy, put The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy on your summer reading list.

If you are at all interested, here is a downloadable essay I found by Albert Welter on the formation of the Linji Lu, a kind of primer for his book. Check them both out.

Thanks to the publicity department at Oxford University Press for sending me a copy to read and review.


  1. Nice post. Most of the Japanese Zen folks I meet don't really know anything about Korean Seon. Where things sometimes break down in conversation is around zazen. They seem to value it and understand it differently than I do.

  2. I agree; it's unfortunate that there is so little interest in Korean Seon, especially since it has so much to offer. Zazen, like anything else, can easily become another form of attachment.