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Zen Masters (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 138-142 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0008

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Zen masters have had rather bad press of late, what with the series of sex scandals at American Zen centers and the shocking revelations in some recent histories about the fascism, militarism, and even rabid anti-Semitism of some of the leading Zen masters of twentieth-century Japan. Official apologies have been issued, public mea culpas have been uttered—it has all made Zen begin to look suspiciously like an ordinary run-of-the-mill religion and the claims of Zen masters to moral and spiritual superiority seem as spurious as those of any garden-variety cult guru.

This is especially significant because, as Steven Heine and Dale Wright point out in their preface, from the very beginning Zen made much of its masters: “In contrast to most other forms of Buddhism, sacred literature in Chan or Zen consists of religious biographies, or stories about the lives of Zen masters” (p. v). These biographies, which emerged first in late Tang and early Song China, “valorized” the masters to such an extent that they “created, in effect, a new kind of Buddhism, and a novel image of enlightenment that held inspirational power for centuries” (p. v). Masters are so important to Zen because of its leading idea of the transmission of enlightenment “from mind to mind,” from master to student. Thus, the religious authority of any particular school of Zen, its “seal of authenticity,” depends to a very large degree on the authenticity of its masters’ “enlightenment.”

One issue that inevitably arises in any scholarly study of this sort is the difficulty of distinguishing between “the master of hagiographic legend” and what might be called the “real-life person” or perhaps “the master of historical reality.” Although it is obviously far more difficult to distinguish between the two when one is dealing with someone who lived, say, in the eighth rather than in the twentieth century, a number of the authors here in fact attempt this daunting task and do a very convincing job of it. Mario Poceski’s chapter, for instance, is exemplary in this respect. Dealing with the major Chan Master Baizhang Huaihai (J. Hyakujō Ekai, 749–814), Poceski identifies “three key hagiographic transmutations of Baizhang’s religious persona: paradigmatic Chan iconoclast, patron saint of Chan monasticism, and sophisticated teacher of Chan doctrine and contemplative practice” (p. 4). Basically, Poceski finds, through careful analysis of the earliest Tang sources, that only the third hagiographic image has any solid basis in historical reality. The other two are clearly latter-day fabrications by Song Rinzai Zen writers eager to prove the originality and independence of their own school that was putatively descended from this master of the “golden age of Zen.” What Poceski regards as the iconoclastic approach to Zen, as manifested especially in the many “encounter dialogue stories” that feature a questioning student and an enigmatic master, did not fully emerge until the Song dynasty, about 150 years after Baizhang’s death. Thus, there is an obvious disparity between the actual Baizhang and Song-period hagiographical depictions of him (p. 21). Interestingly, the “earliest sources” of the Tang dynasty tell us that the “historical” Baizhang was much more conventionally devoted to scriptural study as a necessary component of Zen practice. He was more of a conventional Buddhist scholar than a sutra-burning iconoclast.

Nonetheless, the “encounter dialogue stories embody a unique iconoclastic ethos that by the early Song period came to be portrayed as a central element of Chan spirituality” (p. 11). Such “depictions of Chan iconoclasm were canonized” and greatly influenced later constructions of Zen throughout East Asia (p. 11). Furthermore, as Poceski rightly points out, “The popular images of Chan iconoclasts found especially receptive audiences in the West, ever since they were first introduced by D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) during the early twentieth century as a crucial component in his repackaging of Zen for Westerners” (p. 11).

Albert Welter, in his chapter on another Tang master, Yongming Yanshou (904–75, J. Yōmyō Enju), also finds a significant gap between Tang realities and Song imaginings, showing how images of the master changed to suit the changing nature of Zen in each new age or sect: “As he...

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