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Poetry and Chan ‘Gong’ an’: From Xuedou Chongxian (980–1052) to Wumen Huikai (1183–1260)
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Poetry and Chan ‘Gong’ an’:
From Xuedou Chongxian (980–1052) to Wumen Huikai (1183–1260)


Although writing poems had long been a common activity among Buddhist clerics, it was in the Chan Buddhism of the Song dynasty (960–1279) that religious doctrine and poetic writing were well integrated into a distinctive literary genre. Poetic texts, often called song 頌 (poems or verses of praise) by Chan authors themselves, became an indispensable component of Chan gong’an 公案 (public case) texts, and Chan monks were a prominent group among the Song cultured elite. This paper explores the role of poetry in the development of the Chan gong’an tradition. It focuses on two of the gong’an anthologies produced during this period: Xuedou songgu ji 雪竇頌古集 (Collection of Xuedou’s Verses of Praise on [One Hundred] Old [Cases]; also known as Baize songgu 百則頌古)1 by Xuedou Chongxian 雪竇重顯 (980–1052) of the Yunmen 雲門 Chan school, and Chanzong wumen guan 禪宗無門關 [End Page 39] 無門慧開 (Gateless Barrier of the Chan Lineage)2 by Wumen Huikai 無門慧開 (1183–1260) of the Linji 臨濟 Chan school.

Xuedou’s Songgu ji formed the textual basis for the Linji master Yuanwu Keqin’s 圜悟克勤 (1063–1135) lectures on gong’an, which further led to the compilation of one of the largest gong’an anthologies, the Biyan lu 碧巖錄 (Blue Cliff Record).3 As to Wumen’s Wumen guan, it epitomized the development of gong’an in the Linji Chan tradition and is now one of the widely translated Chan texts in the West.4 An examination of the poetry on gong’an in these two Chan masters’ works may bring into focus the importance of poetry in Chan discourse while also shedding some light on the seemingly enigmatic gong’an cases produced in the Chan Buddhism of the Song.

During the last two decades Western studies of Chan gong’an have begun to emerge from the shadow of early Japanese Zen scholarship and to examine the use of gong’an beyond internal sectarian debates. Scholars have pointed out that the notion that gong’an were used for meditation to induce a sudden awakening is derived mainly from the Linji Chan tradition.5 Most recently Robert H. Sharf has further argued that the often nonsensical, riddle-like Chan cases were by no means “designed to forestall intellection”; rather, like the records of criminal cases set on a magistrate’s desk (an 案), they were “authoritative precedents and rhetorical models of how a Chan trainee was to respond to doctrinal quandaries and challenges.”6 Chan gong’an, as Sharf [End Page 40] compellingly shows, were not devoid of doctrinal purport; they were cases intended to teach practitioners how to “think” and even “act” in accord with Chan ideals.

To be clear, most, if not all, of the academic studies on Chinese Chan Buddhism recognize the fact that there is nothing arcane or esoteric about gong’an, and that the so-called “sudden enlightenment” in Chan is probably not a mystical vision attained miraculously through a divine revelation, but a calm contemplative state of mind cultivated through a critical self-understanding. Even scholars who study how gong’an should be approached as meditative objects from the Linji viewpoint are quick to point out that the Chan gong’an was by no means intended to quell thoughts, but rather to help students engage in a Chan way of thinking, cultivate a Chan mind, and foster a Chan worldview.7 On the other hand, if there is more that we can know about how students were taught to read and think about gong’an by Chan masters of the Song, poetry as an integral part of the gong’an texts deserves some attention.

First, though hymns or verses (gāthā, called ji 偈 or jisong 偈頌 in Chinese) played an important role in Buddhist discourse,8 it may be no accident that [End Page 41] the term song 頌 was adopted in Song Chan circles to refer to the verses on gong’an. Given their literary backgrounds and social connections with lay literati,9 it is reasonable to assume that the eminent Chan masters of this period were not only familiar with, but also conscious of, the long Chinese poetic tradition...