The Confucian Patriarch in Ch’an


The Buddha rejected the concept of a rigid hierarchy within his monastic communities – instead making the Dharma the guiding light for all Buddhists whether ordained or not. This important fact explains why the Buddha did not ascribe a central position such as that of a ‘pope’. Of course, the Buddha rejected theism and referred to himself as a man who ‘directly understood’ reality (i.e. ‘Buddha’). It is his enlightened ‘knowing’ that is preserved in the wording of the Dharma, and it is the Dharma that has authority over the training of all beings, and not single a human. It is true that head monks and senior incumbents do retain a certain authority over those with less training time as a monastic, but this is simply because such a monastic has more experience in understanding and applying the Dharma in his or her practice, and can use this experience to effectively guide others. Therefore authentic Buddhist monastic communities in Asia do not use the Christian theological re-working of familial terms such as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, because the Dharma as practiced by fully ordained monastics, renounces ‘desire’ and everything connected with ‘desire’. This means that a ‘head’ monastic within the Buddhist temple is not an ‘abbot’ or ‘abbess’ because no such equivalent rank exists within Buddhist philosophical terminology.

This being the case, why then, does the Ch’an tradition have the generational designation of ‘Patriarch’, given that a patriarch is generally understood to be a dominant and powerful father figure. The answer as to why the Ch’an School has the term ‘Patriarch’ is due to its tradition being influenced by Confucian thinking. The Confucian ideogram for ‘Patriarch’ is ‘祖’ (zu3). The left-hand particle ‘ 礻 ‘ is a contraction of ‘ 示 ‘ (shi4) which represents an altar. The right-hand particle is ‘ 且 ‘ (qie3) which signifies an altar with a stone tablet placed upon it. An altar is used within the Confucian tradition for ancestral worship whereby those living today pay their respects to all their familial ancestors in the past, acknowledging the genetic link that connectss antiquity to the present. As ‘ 且 ‘ (qie3) can also be used in its archaic form to represent a ‘penis’, it is generally accepted that only the ‘male’ line of the family is worshipped within this manner, with the possible exception of the Hakka ethnicity where women are generally acknowledged as equal to men – with particularly prominent Hakka women marrying so that their male partners take the name of the female line – in such a situation the gender roles are reversed, and it is the women’s surname that is engraved on the clan stone that sits on the ancestral altar. This concept of Confucian ancestry is an acknowledgement of successful procreation through the generations, and this explains why ‘祖’ (zu3) or ‘Patriarch’ also refers to a ‘surname’ that survives through the ages.

As Ch’an masters have been generally celibate, the idea of successful procreation does not hold for the perpetuation of their respective lineages. In the case of enlightened lay Ch’an masters – even if they have off-spring it is not guaranteed that their children will be enlightened beings. Therefore the Ch’an concept of ‘Patriarch’ deviates away from the Confucian model as it rejects familial implications and gender bias. Although the Ch’an tradition remains indifferent to physical procreation, such an idea is replaced by what may be termed as ‘spiritual’ reproduction – if ‘spiritual’ is defined as ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’. A Ch’an Patriarch is not a man or a woman, but is one who has achieved (or ‘inherited’) the pristine enlightenment of the Buddha that is not dependent upon expedient circumstance, and is beyond (but inclusive) of all duality. This explains why ‘祖’ (zu3) or ‘Patriarch’ as used within the Ch’an School also refers to the name of a distinct Ch’an Lineage that survives through the ages.

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.

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