- The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy: The Development of Chan's Records of Sayings Literature
Linji Yixuan 臨濟義玄 (d. 866), also known as Rinzai in Japan, is one of the best-known historical figures associated with the Chan and Zen traditions of East Asian Buddhism. He is widely regarded as a paradigmatic exemplar of the novel type of iconoclastic Chan ethos—invented by a cluster of dynamic and charismatic Chan masters—that supposedly burst onto the Chinese religious scene during the glorious heyday of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Linji's posthumous fame is largely based on the success of later generations of prominent disciples in transforming the Linji School 臨濟宗, which traced its spiritual ancestry back to him, into the dominant Chan faction and main representative of Chan orthodoxy, not only in China but also throughout the rest of East Asia. Much of the popular lore and iconoclastic imagery associated with Linji, along with the common knowledge about his life and teachings, are based on the Linji yulu 臨濟語錄 (Record of the sayings of Linji), a text composed during the Song era (960–1279). Ever since its initial compilation in the early eleventh century, Linji's Record has enjoyed great popularity and revered status [End Page 395] as an essential repository of timeless Chan wisdom, to which the numerous modern translations testify, including several different versions in both English and Japanese.
While the Linji yulu is conventionally regarded as a record of the life and teachings of Linji, in his important new book The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy: The Development of Chan's Records of Sayings Literature, Albert Welter presents us with a fundamentally different way of looking at the text's provenance and function. He argues that it is best to view Linji's record of sayings as product of a protracted process of religiously inspired and ideologically inflected myth-making. At its core, this process involved the retroactive refashioning of Linji's image as a prominent patriarchal figure, which was undertaken by the Linji School (or faction) in the course of its rise to unparalleled preeminence and power in the socioreligious world of Song China. Welter succeeds in compellingly telling the interwoven stories of the creation of a hagiographical narrative about an illustrious monk from the Tang era and the formation of a Chan movement that, to a large extent, established its claims to legitimacy by tracing its spiritual ancestry back to that same monk.
The book is primarily concerned with the complex literary processes and assorted historical exigencies—especially social and political circumstances, along with ideological imperatives—that shaped the gradual creation of a corpus of Chan writings centered on Linji. These relatively short texts underwent various changes and editorial revisions, until the compilation in the twelfth century of the standard version of the Linji yulu, which became widely circulated and was subsequently included in the Chinese Buddhist canon. By situating the creation of Linji's record into a broader historical framework, the book also serves as a study of the evolution of the records of sayings (yulu 語錄) as a distinct literary genre that served as one of the linchpins of the new Chan ideology that developed during the Song era. As a result, Linji the man and his Tang context largely recede into the background. For the most part the book is also not concerned with the contents of his sermons or the doctrinal underpinning of his thought. On the whole, this is an excellent book that makes noteworthy contributions to the study of Chan history and literature, and sheds helpful light on the political, religious, and literary worlds of Song China. It nicely complements Welter's outstanding Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism (Oxford, 2006), and helps establish its author as one of the leading scholars in the field of Chan/Zen studies.
The main body of the book consists of five chapters, which are accompanied by...