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Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 59, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 118-121 | 10.1353/pew.0.0035

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Professor Mario Poceski’s Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism aims at a systematic examination of the Hongzhou school of Chan Buddhism in Tang China, with Mazu Daoyi (709–788) and his major disciples as its central figures. This school, Poceski claims, represented the first emergence of an empire-wide Chan tradition and replaced the various fragmented schools of early Chan to become the bearer of Chan orthodoxy.

The book begins with an introduction that indicates its starting point as the separation of the history of Chan in the Tang from the pseudo-history or mythology presented in Song-dynasty records and chronicles. Poceski accepts the current opinion that all the encounter-dialogue stories attributed to Mazu and his disciples are later creations, and critically examines the traditionally romanticized image of the Hongzhou school. However, he dispels the view of some scholars that the Hongzhou school was merely a mythological creation of the Song by verifying the school as a solid and significant historical Chan tradition, and incisively demonstrates that it is feasible to use the earliest of the records attributed to the Hongzhou masters to make a valid historical reassessment. Accordingly, in the book’s Appendix, Poceski defines some of the earliest, most reliable texts of the school, including Mazu’s sermons; the Extended Record of Baizhang (Baizhang guanglu); the Treatise on the Essential Teaching of Suddenly Entering into Enlightenment (Dunwu rudao yaomen lun), attributed to Dazhu Huihai (fl. eighth century); Huangbo Xiyun’s (d. ca. 850) records; and Guishan’s Admonitions (Guishan jingce). The authorship of the treatise attributed to Dazhu may require further investigation, as scholars have found that ideas contained in this treatise are closer to Shenhui’s (684–758) thought than to Mazu’s.

The book is then divided into two balanced parts, a historical investigation and a doctrinal analysis, each comprising three chapters. In the history part, Poceski first provides a detailed biographical overview of Mazu’s life, which takes full advantage of the findings of Japanese scholarship. Poceski further studies Mazu’s immediate disciples and their activities in various parts of China, and offers a vivid picture of the Hongzhou school’s regional growth, from which he draws the conclusion that the pattern of the school’s expansion represented the first emergence of a truly empire-wide Chan tradition with strongholds throughout the country. Although this conclusion may be arguable, as the Northern, Heze, and even Niutou schools also had genealogical descendents that spread throughout the empire, it is no doubt an innovative and useful method to carefully describe the pattern of distribution of the school and to situate its position within the wider milieu of the Chan movement in the mid-Tang. Poceski also argues that the school’s pattern of growth undermines the “popular notion” of an independent Chan movement that refused to seek economic and political patronage from officialdom and the aristocracy. This notion seems to be more traditional than currently popular, as some recent studies have already noted the importance of imperial and official patronage to the growth of the school. Based on what has been discovered from several reliable inscriptions, Poceski observes that Mazu’s disciples adopted a tolerant attitude toward other Chan schools and a multilinear conception of lineage. While this observation is insightful, it is also notable that the Hongzhou masters did not forget to claim their school as the orthodox line within the extended, multilinear Chan family.

Toward the end of the first part, there is an important, original study of the Hongzhou school’s contribution to the spread and growth of Chan Buddhism in Korea.

The second part of the book examines the doctrine and practices of the Hongzhou school. Chapter 4 surveys the religious and intellectual milieus of Tang Buddhism and studies the Hongzhou school’s attitude toward religious life. Guishan Lingyou’s (771–853) Admonitions is used as the principal source to show how the Hongzhou school’s conception of Chan practice incorporated traditional Buddhist morality and monastic disciplines, while Mazu’s sermons, the treatise attributed to Dazhu, and the Baizhang guanglu are used to show how they appropriated canonical authority to present...



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