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Chan Buddhism

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, May 2006

CHAN BUDDHISM, by Peter D. Hershock, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2005, ISBN 0 8248 2835 6, pp. 178, £11.50

"A special transmission outside the scriptures, without depending on words and letters...." This is a familiar phrase used to describe Chan Buddhism, better known in the West by its Japanese name Zen. According to tradition, Chan originated with the Buddha himself, and was passed on "without depending on words and letters" to Mahakasyapa and a succession of later masters. The twenty-eighth of these, Bodhidharma, took Chan from India to China where it continued to be handed down and built upon in an unbroken line to the present day. Thus says tradition -- but how much of this is legend and how much is historical truth?

In this book, Peter Hershock presents a concise but thorough history of Chan Buddhism in the light of current scholarship. Starting with Buddhismís roots in India and its subsequent migration to China, the book shows how the teachings were skilfully adapted to suit the different predilections of Chinese culture, effectively becoming a "middle path" between the indigenous traditions of Confucianism and Daoism. It goes on to describe the emergence of Chan as the first truly Chinese school of Buddhism, and includes detailed biographies of four of the most important early Chan masters: Bodhidharma, Huineng, Mazu and Linji (the last of these better known by the Japanese name of Rinzai). The final two chapters focus on Chanís spiritual practice and philosophy, and the continuing relevance of Chan in the modern world.

By the end of the book it is clear that the true history of Chan is rather more complex than the simple story told by tradition. Chan is not a uniquely separate lineage that can be considered in isolation from the main thread of Buddhist development -- its emergence was gradual and evolutionary, not revolutionary. Furthermore, Chan itself consists of many threads, starting in different places at different times: in Hershockís words, it is "an ecological tradition -- a highly diverse dharma rainforest". Most significantly, Chan is not pure Buddhism, but a synthesis of Buddhism with indigenous Chinese concepts such as dao and qi.

At no point does the book explicitly state who its intended audience is. On the surface, it is an academic work -- it is published by a university press, it has a rather dull cover that is unlikely to inspire many impulse purchases, and Hershock enjoys using jargon like "deconstructing" and "hermeneutics". On the other hand, his translations of Chinese texts are often highly colloquial ("I canít get the point of his profound instruction.... Iím going to pull out and go"), and he makes numerous comparisons between Chan and jazz. No background knowledge is assumed, and all technical terms and concepts are fully explained. The book would be ideal for an undergraduate on a comparative religion or liberal arts course, who wishes (or needs) to know something about Chan history and practice. Equally, the book should be considered by any practitioner of Chan or Zen who is looking for a more factual history of the subject than the traditional Mahakasyapa-Bodhidharma narrative.

Copyright © 2006 Andrew May

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