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Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 56, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 355-358 | 10.1353/pew.2006.0026

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Reviewed by
Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. By John R. McRae. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xx + 204.

The field of Chan and Zen studies has been in transformation in recent decades, as an increasing number of scholars have begun to challenge the accepted story of Chan's rise and dissemination. In the process, a disjuncture has developed between how scholars have come to view Chan narrative as mythos rooted in the circumstances of Chan's development, and how it is still depicted in many textbooks and popular publications on Zen. Teachers aware of this gap have been at a loss when looking for new texts to supplant the old ones and give a more accurate view of Chan, its history, and its development. Aside from the compelling sway that Chan and Zen narratives have over the popular understanding, part of the difficulty is that the field is still in transformation. While scholars are altering, sometimes radically, perceptions and assumptions about how Chan developed, this process is ongoing. And while the picture is growing clearer, a full consensus has not yet emerged.

Into the breach a new book has come along: Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, by John R. McRae. McRae's name will certainly be recognizable to all who work in the field of Chan and Zen studies. Along with Bernard Faure, Professor McRae pioneered the study of the previously maligned, so-called "Northern School" in the West (The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism), utilizing to full advantage the scholarship of the doyenne of twentieth-century Zen studies, Yanagida Seizan. [End Page 355] Through a series of articles, McRae has contributed greatly to emerging perspectives on Chan. The current volume under review may be taken as McRae's current observations on the subject of Chinese Chan, based on his own recent research and that of others.

The chapters that constitute Seeing Through Zen were first prepared in Spanish translation for presentation at the Templo Zen Luz Serena in Valencia, Spain. The expected readership includes three groups: "Zen and other Buddhist practitioners; students and scholars of Chinese religions, Buddhist studies, and related fields; and a general audience interested in Asian religions and human culture" (p. xi). While some of the propositions in the book will, by design, provoke healthy debate among scholars, the primary purpose for this book as I see it is as a classroom text, either at universities or for temple instruction for practitioners interested in current scholarly assessments of their religion (according to the author, many of the chapters were the basis for presentations to various groups of Chan and Zen practitioners).

Seeing Through Zen comprises six chapters: "Looking at Lineage: A Fresh Perspective on Chan Buddhism," "Beginnings: Differentiating/Connecting Bodhidharma and the East Mountain Teaching," "Metropolitan Chan: Imperial Patronage and the Chan Style," "The Riddle of Encounter Dialogue: Who, What, When, and Where?" "Zen and the Art of Fund-Raising: Religious Vitality and Institutional Dominance in the Song Dynasty," and "Climax Paradigm: Cultural Polarities and Patterns of Self-Cultivation in Song-Dynasty Chan." In addition to the back matter-"Notes," "Character Glossary," "Bibliography," and "Index"-the front matter includes a "Preface," "Conventions," and a section titled "McRae's Rules of Zen Studies." These "rules of Zen"-(1) It's not true, and therefore it's more important; (2) Lineage assertions are as wrong as they are strong; (3) Precision implies inaccuracy; and (4) Romanticism breeds cynicism (pp. xix-xx)-with accompanying explanations, provide an accessible orientation to McRae's approach and touchstones that are frequently returned to in the materials introduced in the following chapters.

I have two reactions to Seeing Through Zen, one as a teacher and one as a scholar. For the teacher, Seeing Through Zen represents a welcome addition indeed! I look forward to using it in my classes, and I'm sure others will as well. Written in a lively, engaging style, it is sophisticated in its analysis and creative in drawing on analogies from research as far afield as ecology. While cautioning against facile resort to...