The Zen of No Ch’an

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There are two ways of approaching this subject, one is ‘ahistorically’ (i.e. existing outside of the realms of observable, verifiable and recordable history), and the other ‘historically’ (i.e. existing within of the realms of observable, verifiable and recordable history).  To add a clarification, the former is purely ‘psychological’ in nature, whilst the latter is ‘material’ in nature.  Ahistorical Ch’an and Zen does not depend upon the passing of history, or the recognition of cultural trends and cultural difference, whilst historical Ch’an and Zen is defined by the sum total of its recorded historical experience.  If it is assumed that the Ch’an and Zen schools share a commonality in history that purports to ‘reveal’ or ‘discover’ an underlying realm of psychological reality that is realisable by all beings, and which shares certain and definite identifying markers not dependent upon the passing of history (as regardless of the epoch, this realisable state always manifests in the same way), then Ch’an and Zen are ‘ahistorically’ identical.  However, if Ch’an and Zen are interpreted through the rubric of unfolding material history (as observed on the physical plane), then it is obvious that from this ‘historical’ point of view, Chinese Ch’an Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism are not the same.  Richard Hunn (1949-2006) dedicated the last 15 years of his life to researching on the ground, the roots of Chinese Ch’an in Japan.  To facilitate this study, he relocated to Kyoto in 1991, and centred his studies around Manpuku-Ji, or the Chinese Ch’an Manpuku Temple, situated in the Uji area of Kyoto.  This temple was founded in 1661 by the Chinese Ch’an monks Yin Yuan Long Qí, and Mu Yan.  However, although the Chinese Ch’an lineage of Linji (Rinzai) had already been established in Japan many centuries earlier, the Linji tradition as conveyed from China at this time was viewed as ‘different’ by the Japanese to their existing ‘Rinzai’ lineage.  In other words, the ancient tradition of Linji Ch’an as conveyed to Japan from Mount Huangpo (situated in China’s Fujian province), during the early Qing Dynasty, was not accepted as ‘Rinzai’ Zen by the Japanese, but instead given the separate designation of ‘Obaku’ Zen.  What distinguished this transmission of Ch’an to Japan was that it was brought directly by Chinese Ch’an monks, and not conveyed by Japanese monks who had first travelled to China to learn, before bringing that knowledge back to their homeland.  This is why, even today, the Manpuku Temple is viewed as ‘Chinese’, despite now being staffed by Japanese Zen monks.  This indicates that even then, there was a ‘disconnect’ between Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen, a widening gulf of difference that was compounded by the teachings of Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1786) – who radically ‘altered’ the manner in which the ‘koan’ was used within Linji Japanese Zen, departing considerably from the Chinese Ch’an teachings regarding the use and purpose of the ‘gongan’.  The Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw a rapid modernisation of Japan and the embracing of a rightwing nationalism that viewed Buddhism as ‘foreign’.  Buddhist schools were encouraged to move away from their Chinese roots and become more ‘Japanese’.  This led to the Soto (Caodong) lineage of Japanese Zen abandoning koan practice altogether and embracing a form of ‘quietism’ not known within the original Caodong teachings in China. Japan’s defeat during WWII, and its subsequent re-emergence as a major bulwark of US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, has led to a number of continuing misconceptions in the West.  Japanese Zen as it exists today is used as a filter to interpret Chinese Ch’an Buddhist history and culture (excluding any ‘Chinese’ view of their own history).  This is an obvious inversion of reality, as Japanese Zen did not give rise to Chinese Ch’an – on the contrary – it was Chinese Ch’an that gave rise to Japanese Zen, and it is Japanese Zen that has developed away from that original blue-print.  So prolific has this misunderstanding become, that in 2000, the American academic Andrew Ferguson felt compelled to publish his book entitled ‘Zen’s Chinese Heritage – The Masters and Their Heritage’, as something of the corrective of the Western habit of conflating Japanese Zen with Chinese Ch’an.  Even JC and Thomas Cleary, in their numerous (and excellent) translations of Chinese Ch’an Buddhist texts into English, always referred to ‘Ch’an’ as ‘Zen’.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Charles Luk (1898-1978) was forced (by his British publishers) to call his English translations of Chinese Ch’an texts ‘Ch’an and Zen’, when in fact his work had absolutely nothing to do with Japanese Zen.

Those who have lived through any historical point covering the last 60 years or so in the West, will have been exposed to the ahistorical notion that contemporary Japanese Zen Buddhism is exactly the same as, and superior to, its progenitor Chinese Ch’an Buddhism.  To put it bluntly, this is a racially inspired lie perpetuated through the development of Japanese fascistic nationalism (after 1868), and its encouragement to be accepted as the ‘norm’ by the forces of Western imperialism prior to WWII, and the post-WWII US-led anti-Communist movement, that was designated by its Western perpetuators as the ‘Cold War’.  This Western embracing of a corrupted Japanese Zen was intensified after WWII, when the ‘New China’ was declared (and established) in 1949.  Correct Japanese Zen that operates respectfully within the philosophical and traditional confines of its Chinese Ch’an past does still exist in Japan, but it is not this type of Zen that the Japanese government exported abroad throughout the international community, and it is not this Zen which has taken root in the West.  This is because after 1868, Japan embarked upon a rapid modernisation plan which sought to mimic the outward military power of the Western imperial presence throughout Asia, together with the draconian, hierarchical and non-democratic policies and rhetoric of European colonies.  In other words, Japan adapted its traditional martial culture to serve a form of fascistic modernity (imported from the West), that was enthused with notions of racial superiority.  To this, the Japanese added a sense of ‘spiritual’ superiority.  Therefore, the inhabitants of any country that surrounded the island nation of Japan, were automatically deemed racially and spiritually ‘inferior’ simply because they were not ‘Japanese’.  Post-1868 Japan took-on the Western habit of colonial domination and set about establishing their own overseas empire, which included the invasion of China from the early 1930’s until Japan’s eventual defeat in 1945 – although, of course, this included the Japanese colonial domination of the Chinese island of Taiwan from 1895-1945. Japan had been steadily re-writing its own history from 1868 onwards, slowly but surely extricating itself from its obvious Chinese cultural past.  Overnight, new myths and legends were created to falsely explain Japan’s past, which included allusions to gods, dragons and swords, but no mention of China – even the Japanese language – which was originally Chinese script, was ‘altered’ to make it appear ‘less Chinese’.  Chinese Ch’an Buddhism in Japan became a major target for this revisionist make-over.  Trends within the Rinzai (Linji) and Soto (Caodong) lineages developed methods and dogmas that did not exist within Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, and which were not viewed as effective or genuine by the Chinese Ch’an masters.  It is this breakaway from authentic Chinese Ch’an wisdom and knowledge that became established in the West as being a true representation of Japanese Zen, and the subsequent academic and practical conflation of this Japanese-generated distortion of Zen with authentic Chinese Ch’an Buddhism as practised on Mainland China (and throughout the Chinese diaspora).  The Rinzai School developed the manic holding and repeating of a ‘koan’ (Ch: ‘gong-an’) in the mind – a teaching which does not exist in the Tang Dynasty Records of the Linji School preserved in China, whilst the Soto School resorted to a form of ‘silent illumination’ that also cannot be found within the same Tang Dynasty Records explaining the Caodong approach.  In reality, the Linji School did not stress sitting with a koan, and the Caodong did not emphasis sitting with an empty (and undirected) mind.  Both schools (like the other three established ‘Houses’) emphasised the ‘turning about’ of the mind at its deepest recesses by any means that worked. This included (in both the Linji and Caodong Schools) meeting the right masters, sudden actions, enlightened statements, Dharma combat, seated meditation (without sutra reading), sutra reading, and everyday activities.  A gong-an was not artificially held as a device to ‘still’ the mind, but was rather the product of enlightened dialogue and exchanges between a master and his students.  These methods either created complete enlightenment ‘here and now’, or carried the dedicated student through various stages of understanding to the final goal.  The hua tou method (originating as it does within the Surangama Sutra), turns the mind’s awareness back to the empty mind ground.  This was the preferred method of the Caodong School, but it must also be acknowledged that the Tang Dynasty Records (and other such Ch’an texts) reveal that the realisation of enlightenment occurred ‘outside’ of the meditation hall, during ordinary and mundane activities.  This was the result of the previously correct and committed (and ongoing) practice of disciplining the mind and body during formal periods of training.  Simply sitting without direction, or manically ‘attaching’ the mind to the very words and phrases that the Ch’an method exists beyond, do not constitute genuine Ch’an practice, and do not lead to authentic enlightenment breakthroughs.  The Ch’an Dynasty Records regarding the ‘Five Houses’ of Ch’an can be read in English translation in Charles Luk’s ‘Ch’an and Zen Teaching – Second Series’ (Rider, 1987).  For an academic study of the denigration of modern Japanese Zen Buddhism, please access the excellent ‘Zen At War’ by Brian Daizen Victoria – a Soto Zen priest in modern Japan.  Many Japanese Zen masters imported into the West by the US government after WWII (as part of an anti-Chinese Communist policy of turning the Western attention away from Chinese culture and political influence), were in fact complicit in Japanese war atrocities (either directly or indirectly) during WWII, but at the time, ordinary Westerners, many of whom could not read, write or speak the Japanese language, had no way of discovering this disturbing past.  This included well-known masters such as DT Suzuki, Sawaki Kodo, Daiun Harada Roshi, Namtembo, Lida Toin, Daiun Giko, Seki Seisetsu, Yamazaki Ekiju,  Harada Daiun Sogaku, Yanagida Seizan, Yamada Mumon, Asahina Sogen, Ichikawa Hakugen, Yasutani Hakuan and Omori Sogen, amongst many others.  Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, on the other hand, was the recipient of this Japanese imperialist aggression both before and during WWII – witnessing the many atrocities.  Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), recorded in his autobiography (Empty Cloud) many such incidents.  One such story has him responding to the Japanese attempted bombing of the Buddhist temple he was in, by sitting in Ch’an contemplation in the Meditation Hall, so that the Japanese aeroplanes collided with one another and their dropped bombs did not explode.  Master Xu Yun was of the opinion that the degradation of Japanese Zen Buddhism was in part due to that country abandoning the requirement of its Buddhist monastics to follow the Vinaya Discipline after ordination.  This deficiency meant that the supposed monastics were in fact not ‘monastics’ at all as defined by the Buddha, and remained lay people, regardless of shaving heads, wearing robes and assuming a monastic name.

As moral discipline (sila) is the foundation of good quality meditation (dhyana), no enlightenment (prajna) could be realised.  The Japanese abandonment of the Vinaya Discipline was the abandonment of the heart of Ch’an Buddhism.  In the early 1950’s, Master Xu Yun persuaded the new government of China to integrate the Buddhist Vinaya Discipline into its secular law, and make it a matter of ‘legal’ responsibility for individual Buddhist monks and nuns in China to uphold the Vinaya Discipline.  This secular requirement also means that no Buddhist group, lineage or school in China can unilaterally decide to ‘abandon’ the practice of the Vinaya Discipline. As modern Japan continues its historical abandonment of the Vinaya Discipline, it is obvious that contemporary Chinese Ch’an Buddhism is very different in practice to Japanese Zen Buddhism.  This distinction is further compounded by the divergent practises developed by the Japanese Rinzai and Soto Zen Schools, that are neither practised or recognised as ‘valid’ within the Chinese Buddhist cultural milieu.  Of course, this does not necessarily mean that there are no authentic Zen Buddhists in Japan or the West, as there undoubtedly are, but these practitioners understand the purpose of the Vinaya Discipline and voluntarily apply its strictures to their daily practice.  On the other hand, although Ch’an does not distinguish in essence between a monastic and a lay person (as both emerge equally from the empty mind ground, and can both realise enlightenment), nevertheless, it is also true that a ‘monastic’ is a monastic, and a ‘lay person’ is a lay person.  The former follows all the Vinaya Discipline, whilst the latter follows only a small part of the Vinaya Discipline.  There does exist legitimate Zen Buddhism in Japan, but this is not the same as the Japanese Zen that spread across the globe following WWII.  The corruption of this kind of Zen has been noted by a number of academics, including Thomas Cleary.  Needless to say, the traditional Chinese Ch’an Buddhist – Master Xu Yun – had no formal or informal ties or connections to Japanese Zen Buddhism, and never practised (or advocated others to practice) a Japanese Zen that does not follow the Vinaya Disciple, and which deviates from established Ch’an practice.

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