- The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy
Albert Welter's outstanding work, The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy, begins with a story we all know. The Tang dynasty was the golden age of Chan Buddhism. During that time unsurpassed giants of the tradition gave living expression to a secret transmission beyond the scriptures. Perhaps no single individual embodied this expression more than the antinomian, iconoclastic Buddhist rebel, Linji. We know this because evidence for it is found, among other places, in the text that bears [End Page 558] his name. Therein we find the great innovations of the master himself—innovations that accurately reflect his life and views and which have been faithfully passed down and affirmed by devoted followers.
Now, as Welter notes, no scholar worth his or her salt would teach history as simplistically as this. But, still and all, in essence this story is basically accurate. Right? Well, as it turns out, no—or if not simply no, certainly not quite. Building on the work of Buddhologists such as Yanagida Seizan, Welter analyzes the history of the Linji lu (Record of Linji), rather than the history of the man or his school. By doing so he discovers facts that suggest the Record to be both more and less than an accurate historical account of an innovative Buddhist. While it may be such an account, it is also, and perhaps primarily, a good story. As a good story it reflects the interests and motivations of its authors, editors, and intended audience.
To arrive at these conclusions and explain the details, Welter's book charts a course through an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. While the strength of the work's arguments are found in chapters 3-5 and the conclusion, we'll need to pay close attention to details presented in the first two chapters in order to fully appreciate what follows. If we do so, our patience will be amply rewarded.
The first chapter provides an overview of "patterns of orthodoxies in Chan." Here Welter examines some of the ways in which various expressions of Chan orthodoxy reflect specific social circumstances. As Welter details, during the early Song dynasty a crisis over Chan orthodoxy arose among rival factions and their aristocratic patrons. One result of that crisis was the production of a distinctive Buddhist literary form—the yulu, or "records of sayings" genre.
Focusing on the historical origins of yulu generally, the second chapter shows that while this style of text initially arose through the very same process of recording a master's public lectures that accounts for much of Chinese Buddhist literature, its development and the Chan orthodoxies that were created were a product of specific forces at work during the early Song. Under the influence of these forces, various Song literati edited and created accounts of Chan masters that reflected their own tastes and concerns.
Chapters 3-5 and the conclusion focus on the Linji lu specifically and show how the process mentioned above led to the creation of the Linji legend. Central to Welter's extended argument are several interrelated historical developments that combined to produce what he refers to as a "strange brew." First, the ascent of yulu was a product of the dominant position achieved by the Linji faction in the early Song. Second, the Linji faction achieved that status because prominent members of the literati advanced the movement's fortunes by producing yulu, including the Linji lu. Third, these yulu helped the movement because they claimed to represent an accurate historical record of a new and special "practice outside the teachings." Fourth, that claim notwithstanding, many of the features of that "special practice" mirror elements of a then fashionable point of view within Song literary culture. Among other things, that literary point of view prized spontaneous expression, unconventional actions, and artistic license over traditional forms of deliberate, formal exposition. Providing such "strange" stories with a sufficient cloak of historical possibility to be [End Page 559] believable was...