Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ascending the "Platform Sutra"

The Platform Sutra is a seminal Zen text, despite the fact that the principal figure isn't even the Buddha. I'm taking a course on the sutra at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies, and so I was extremely excited when Columbia University Press sent me a copy of a brand new title about the scripture  Readings of the Platform Sutra – to read and review.

Edited by Morten Schlutter, author of How Zen Became Zen, an excellent book in its own right, and Stephen F. Teiser, Readings of the Platform Sutra engages the Sixth Ancestor's landmark scripture from nearly every imaginable angle – historical, autobiographical, doctrinal, and soteriological. The book explores the history of the sutra, providing vital context regarding Shenhui, the Sixth Ancestor's alleged Dharma heir, and Shenxui, the leader of so-called "Northern Chan," a school accused of being gradualist and dualistic. Without a doubt, the book enhanced my understanding of, and thus my engagement with, the sutra. As a bit of a side note, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of CUP's reprinting of Yampolsky's classic translation of the Platform Sutra.    

Readings contains some of my favorite Chan scholars: Morten Schlutter, Wendi Adamek, and of course, Peter N. Gregory. (You know that you're a real Buddhist geek when you have favorite scholars.) Gregory's essay, "The Platform Sutra as the Sudden Teaching," is my favorite. In it, Gregory elucidates some of the most puzzling passages on nonduality in the Platform Sutra. For instance, he clarifies Huineng's often misunderstood stance on thought. It was attachment to dualistic thought that he rejected, not thinking in and of itself, for thinking, like all other dharmas, is a manifestation of the Absolute. Huineng's solution was non-thought, the complete non-separation of meditative concentration and wisdom. To him, concentration was the essence of the Absolute, and wisdom its function. They are, like a flame and its light, inseparable – nondual.

The collection also contains an excellent, informative essay by Brook Ziporyn "The Platform Sutra and Chinese Philosphy," which as its titles suggests, contextualizes the Platform Sutra within the Chinese philosophical milieu. As Westerners, we tend to think of Zen as having sprung out of a vacuum, completely independent of social and cultural influences. In this essay, Ziporyn does a good job at demolishing that assumption by demonstrating how the Platform Sutra borrows heavily from Daoist and Confucian literary, philosophical, and symbolic tropes.

Readings of the Platform Sutra is really a great book; it answered many questions, but made me question my understanding of what I thought I already knew – the true mark of a good book. Was Huineng real, or is he the invention a fledgling school trying to solidify and legitimate its role in the competitive religious terrain of Tang dynasty China? Was Shenhui even his student?  

And most importantly, are any of these questions relevant to anyone besides a scholar? I think yes. As modern Zen practitioners, we need to critically examine all of the traditions and teachings that our ancestors have protected and handed down to us. That's one of the Buddha's first teachings – question everything, even, and especially, the teachings themselves. So we need to evaluate and question orthodoxy, constantly ask, Why am I chanting these words and bowing like this?

Buddhism is interested in waking up, not blind obedience or perpetuating an institution for the institution's sake. Readings of the Platform Sutra poses some excellent questions that are very applicable to modern, Western Zen. It, like Zen itself, destabilizes our notions of what we think we know. In the end, for me, it raises more questions than it answers. In the past, this might have bothered me. Maybe it's my Zen practice bearing fruit, but I appreciate the pregnant silence that Readings leaves me with. I hope it does the same for you.


Thanks to Columbia University Press for sending me the book to review.

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