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  • Reading Chan Encounter Dialogue during the Song Dynasty:The Record of Linji, the Lotus Sutra, and the Sinification of Buddhism
  • Ben Van Overmeire

Consider the following story:

Counselor Wang the Prefectural Governor, and the other officials requested the Master to address them. The Master took the high seat in the Dharma Hall and said: "Today, I, this mountain monk, having no choice in the matter, have perforce yielded to customary etiquette and taken this seat. If I were to demonstrate the Great Matter in strict keeping with the teaching of the Patriarchal School, I simply couldn't open my mouth and there wouldn'tbe any place for you to find footing. But since I've been so earnestly entreated today by the Counselor, why should I conceal the essential doctrine of our School? Now is there any adept warrior who forthwith can array his battle-line and unfurl his banners here before me? Let him try proving himself before the assembly!"

Amonk asked, "What about the cardinal principle of the Buddha-dharma?"

The Master gave a shout.

The monk bowed low.

"As an opponent in argument this young reverend is rather good," said the Master.1

This passage opens the Record of Linji, a compilation of dialogues, anecdotes, and speeches published during the Song dynasty (960–1279 ce). In this text, the "Master" is Linji Yixuan (臨濟義玄; d. 866 ce) himself, one of the legendary sages of Chinese Zen or Chan Buddhism. And this is not the only time he will shout: from the many fragments collected in the Record, it appears to be one of his favorite pastimes. Despite this strange personality trait, Linji is a figure of towering importance in Chan: Heinrich Dumoulin is not alone when he claims that with Linji, Chan reached its "unsurpassed zenith."2 More recently, John McRae has called the Record "one of the most important Chan texts of all time."3 Over time, Linji's exploits and the actions of other famous Chan masters have become matters for reflection in Chan ritual and [End Page 209] practice. For someone unfamiliar with this school, the story quoted above might seem odd. Such a person could wonder how a text that somewhat resembles Dadaist drama could possibly function as religious scripture. This article will take a step toward understanding this problem by connecting the formal features of the Record to the historical and institutional contexts in which the text originated. These contexts, namely the Song dynasty and the Chan school, require some introduction first.

During the Song, Buddhism in China underwent momentous changes, turning away from what had until then been considered the motherland of the religion: India. Examining the remarkable lack of Indian sutra translations during the Song, Tansen Sen concludes that Indian Buddhism was not important anymore for Chinese Buddhists. Instead, the interest of both laity and clergy turned to distinctly domestic Buddhist schools and texts.4 During the Song, Buddhism thus completed its Sinification, a process that arguably started with the very first translation of Buddhist doctrine into the Chinese language.5

In this period of innovation, Chan became "the dominant form of elite monastic Buddhism."6 The Chinese character chan (禪) means meditation, and it should be no surprise that the school that took this term as its name would attach greater importance to contemplative practice than religious doctrine (at least in theory). Having emerged as early as the sixth century ce, Chan gradually distinguished itself from other Chinese schools of Buddhism by stressing a "special transmission outside the scriptures." Chan Buddhists claimed they did not need to study texts to understand what Buddhism was. Not even the words of Shakyamuni Buddha himself as they were encoded in the sutras transmitted from India were deemed necessary for spiritual attainment. Instead, Chan Buddhists claimed that their masters had received a special instruction from the Buddha, a teaching beyond words. This instruction was far superior to textual explications of Buddhism, they said, and had been transmitted across the ages in an enduring lineage of extraordinary men called "patriarchs" (zushi 祖師).7

Although Chan Buddhists thus based their lineage upon transmitted nonverbal teachings, this was a largely rhetorical move.8 Indeed, Chan literature—which would soon...


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