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  • Formation and Fabrication in the History and Historiography of Chan Buddhism
  • James Robson
Fathering Your Father: The Zen of Fabrication in Tang Buddhism by Alan Cole. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. xix + 340. $65.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.
How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China by Morten Schlütter. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. Pp. x + 290. $48.00 cloth, $27.00 paper.

The study of Chan/Zen Buddhism has undergone a number of epochal shifts over the course of the last century.1 It is now no secret that the Chan/Zen tradition was initially imagined as the pinnacle of Eastern transcendental spiritualism and marketed as an antidote to Western rationalism and materialism by a slew of Chan/Zen apologists fired by Orientalist fantasies and ideological agendas. Their idealized images of an iconoclastic, anti-institutional “pure” Chan/Zen Buddhism began to receive critical scrutiny at the turn of the twentieth century with the important discovery of thousands of documents in the Dunhuang [End Page 311] caves. Without reviewing in detail the entire history of Chan/Zen studies here, we can identify a few important general nodes in its evolution. Following the seminal scholarship of Paul Pelliot (1878–1945), Hu Shi (Hu Shih) 胡適 (1891–1962), Paul Demiéville (1894–1979), Jacques Gernet, Iriya Yoshitaka 入矢義高 (1910–1999), and Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山 (1921–2006), a new generation of historians of Chan Buddhism emerged with fresh questions and historical approaches.2 The next generation of Western Chan scholars, including Urs App, Jeffrey Broughton, Robert Buswell, Bernard Faure, T. Griffith Foulk, Peter Gregory, John R. McRae, Robert H. Sharf, Dale Wright, and Philip Yampolsky (1920–1996), were influenced by Yanagida’s scholarship and the newly available Dunhuang manuscripts; they strove to provide a historical critique of Chan origins and to rehabilitate and reposition certain significant Chan figures in a revised historical narrative.3 Gaining inspiration from groundbreaking studies, scholars of Chan shifted from critiquing the “origins” of the tradition to focusing on the developments of later periods. They demonstrated the important role Song-dynasty (960–1279) texts played in fashioning our image of the Tang dynasty (618–907) as the golden age of the Chan tradition.4 Now, scholars have at their disposal volumes of detailed (and [End Page 312] critical) historical and textual studies evincing a wide range of new theoretical and methodological approaches, translations of primary texts, and general treatments of various important texts and facets of the tradition.5

Together Alan Cole’s Fathering Your Father and Morten Schlütter’s How Zen Became Zen invite us to reflect on a number issues in the contemporary study of Chan Buddhism and represent recent attempts to move the field of Chan scholarship forward in new directions. Cole’s Fathering Your Father engages the earliest phase of Chan developments, up through the Tang dynasty, whereas Schlütter’s How Zen Became Zen addresses the later developments of the Chan tradition up through the Song dynasty, when Chan became the dominant form of Buddhism in China. Although there have been no major new textual discoveries forcing us once again to radically revise our understanding of Chan history and doctrine, these studies profess to bring new research and reading strategies to the subject.

In gestures now commonplace in the academic scholarship on Chan/Zen Buddhism, both authors introduce their studies as antidotes to the overly idealized popular images of Chan/Zen. Their prefatory disclaimers, though unnecessary for specialists in the field, are most likely still required to caution general readers that these works differ from the bulk of books on Chan/Zen, which glorify their subject.

Despite this caution, however, Cole seems to be trying to reach out to a popular readership. General readers of Fathering Your Father will no doubt appreciate its lively writing style, but those not well versed in Chan scholarship will run out of patience with the protracted academic arguments. If general readers find it difficult to follow Cole’s methodological approach to Chan texts, they should not feel dispirited, since even seasoned scholars will find themselves scratching their heads as they try coping with Cole...


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