AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 202

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Session 202: Patriarchs on Paper: Literary Inventions of the Chan Masters

Organizer: Mario Poceski, University of Florida, USA

Chair: Miriam L. Levering, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA

This panel’s papers represent a new phase in the study of Chan Buddhism that moves away from straightforward arguments about Chan ideas and practices. Instead, they inquire how and why it was that certain elements or icons of Chan were chosen to represent the tradition’s essence. The fours papers consider the multifarious forces that shape the “writing of tradition,” a complex process that produced surprisingly disparate images of a perfect tradition at crucially inventive moments in the ongoing construction of Chan identify. In making these arguments, we are both de-essentializing modern notions of tradition and hoping to get closer to the historical and literary modes by which the Chan tradition was articulated and disseminated. We argue not only that specific texts and authors are exceedingly important in the development of Chan--perhaps even more important than the masters they sought to depict--but also that we can critically examine these texts to gain a sense of the external dynamics that shaped their contents, especially the images of the masters they portrayed. In particular, by considering materials from the mid-Tang, late-Tang, early-Song, and the modern eras, we show how the religious personas of noted Chan masters were reconstituted in specific ways that reflected a variety of polemical or sectarian agendas. By returning to these somewhat awkward and inchoate renderings of tradition, we hope to recover not just a fuller account of the historical genesis of the Chan tradition, but also a clearer idea of its subsequent transmissions and transformations.

Talk, Talk, Talk About It: Why Simple Truth Takes So Long to Explain in the Platform Sutra of Huineng
Alan R. Cole, Lewis & Clark College, USA

Though the Platform Sutra of Huineng is one of the most taught Chan/Zen texts in the college and university setting, there is little critical literature explaining its narrative design and polemical strategies. Thus, this paper closely reads the text to show its various agendas, and, in particular, its modes for “proving” that Huineng (638–713) was, in fact, the real inheritor of Hongren’s (601–674) dharma, and thus the sole owner of the totality of tradition. In making these arguments, I explore how the text works to fetishize tradition--in men, poems, a robe, and then somewhat surprisingly, in the physical text itself--while also showing how and why these fetishizing gestures require a lot of verbiage. In treating the narrative to a deconstructive review, I will reflect on the interplay between the frothy and billowing narratives of the truth-fathers and the hard, jewel-like truth-of-tradition that they supposedly hand down to each other, arguing that key elements in Chan ideology work themselves out through this dialectic. Moreover, in assessing this dialectic I suggest that sudden enlightenment, simplicity, earthiness, illiteracy, and antinomianism – all key elements in later Chan rhetoric – first appeared as important “shifters” in generating images of total truth beyond language, even while existing only in language and literature.

Communal Remembrances and Hagiographic Portrayals of Patriarch Ma: Buddhist Philosopher and Thaumaturge
Mario Poceski, University of Florida, USA

Critical historical and textual studies that focus on the communal remembrances and hagiographic representations of leading Chan teachers from the Tang era provide us with valuable insights into the Chan school’s broad historical trajectories, including the socioreligious circumstances and cultural milieus that affected its growth in late medieval China. When examined carefully, the varied sources about Tang Chan reveal remarkable diversity and complexity, incorporating a mélange of elements that span the elitist and the popular. The also point towards the considerable fluidity and cumulative embellishment that marked the Chan school’s evolving self-representations, which revolved around the animated images of its leading patriarchs. In this paper I examine the larger issues of historical remembrance and religious (re)imagination within the Chan tradition by looking at key hagiographic portrayals and transformations of Mazu Daoyi (709-788), as they are preserved in a variety of Chan texts, including his stele inscription and his entries in Zu tang ji and Song gao seng zhuan. The paper demonstrates how as generations of Chan/Zen teachers and writers articulated diverse visions of Chan orthodoxy, they attributed aspects of their religious outlooks and ideological agendas back to Mazu, thereby transforming his religious persona in light of ever-changing religious perspectives and institutional predicaments. In contrast to Mazu’s well-know depictions as a classic iconoclast, which have dominated both traditional and modern accounts of his life and teachings, the paper’s primarily focus is on previously ignored representations of Mazu as a teacher of doctrine and a thaumaturge.

Yongming Yanshou and the Complexities of Chan Identity
Albert Welter, , Canada

This paper explores the iconic images of Yongming Yanshou (904-976), a prominent Buddhist master and scholastic responsible for one of the seminal works of Chinese Buddhism, the Zongjing lu (Records of the Source-Mirror). Until recently, Western discourses on Chan/Zen rarely mentioned Yanshou in positive terms, ignoring or marginalizing him from the ranks of “true” Zen. The question of identity is an old one for Yanshou. While his significance was acknowledged, issues regarding his Chan status emerged early on. Already in the Song dynasty, Yanshou’s image was pulled between opposing forces: as pious “maker of merit,” as devotee of Lotus Sutra recitation, as advocate of rebirth in the Pure Land, and as earnest Chan practitioner. Those who defended Yanshou’s status as a Chan master did so in opposition to the antinomian rhetoric of the Chan mainstream. I begin the discussion with a survey of the varied textual images of Yanshou, along with a comparison of those textual images with the style of Chan Yanshou promoted in his writings, and an examination of how the images evolved over time according to external forces that shaped them. Then I review the evolution of Yanshou’s identity through three phases: as “promoter of blessings,” as Chan master, and as Pure Land advocate. I also propose another image of Yanshou, drawn from his writings, as promoter of bodhisattva practice. Finally, I look at recent attempt to reappropriate Yanshou as an advocate of the Pure Land cause.

When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern-day Zen Hagiography in America
Stuart Lachs, Independent Scholar, USA

Recently the popular Buddhist magazine Tricycle ran articles about the lives of two modern Zen masters: Walter Nowick (born 1926), an American associated with the Japanese Zen tradition, and the recently deceased Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009), from Taiwan. While one might think that Chan/Zen hagiographic narratives were only produced in the distant past, there is significant evidence that parallel styles of writing continue to be employed in the present, in East Asia as well as in America. In their recent biographical accounts, in line with Tang and Song styles of Chan writing, we see these two modern masters depicted as fully enlightened beings: selfless, iconoclastic, down to earth, fearless, open to the world, and uncommonly compassionate. By comparing these recent narratives with the actual lives of their main protagonists, the paper shows how real people were sanitized, reimagined, and transformed into iconic figures. It also uncovers how certain tropes and mechanisms, once used to create hagiographic images of Chan masters during the Tang and Song eras, continue to be employed today, whether consciously or not. In effect, familiar literary means are used to create modern representations of perfected masters that mirror traditional models. This form of writing demonstrates certain creativity, evocative of jazz riffing; in effect, it recycles or refashions old themes and images, in ways that conform to an enduring tradition even as they match the new contexts of modern life. The modern hagiographies thereby continue to reproduce traditional images of perfected Chan/Zen masters, only this time they are dressed in contemporary clothes.