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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
71 spring 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Reviews the new formulation of practice repre- sented by silent illumination, the great innovator of the Linji school, Dahui Zonggao, reinvented koan practice. His fundamental conviction was that the point of practice is a transformation of consciousness through a particular event in time and space called enlightenment. Dahui’s method, the kanhua approach to koan study, has proved so fruitful that it is still used today. Kanhua literally means “observing the word.” In addi- tion to taking up whole koans for study, Dahui advocated focusing on the hua- tou, the salient part of the koan, which is brought directly into meditation. For example, here is the famous encounter story often used as a first koan: A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddhanature or not?” Zhaozhou replied, “No!” The huatou in this koan is the No— Wu in Chinese, Mu in Japanese—which is repeated silently on every exhale dur- ing meditation. The practitioner also focuses on No throughout the day: “Whether you are walking or standing, sitting or lying down, you must not for a moment cease. When deluded thoughts arise, you must also not suppress them with your mind. Only just hold up this huatou,” Dahui instructed. Schlütter believes that Dahui didn’t simply invent a new meditation technique, but actually created a whole new kind of Chan. Dahui is equally well known for his critiques of what he considered mis- guided practices, including silent illu- mination. To him, silent illumination was a passive, quietist practice devoid of insight. It made two fundamental errors: attempting to use the mind to control the mind, and conflating inher- ent enlightenment with the actualization of enlightenment. In other words, if still- ness meditation is itself the actualization of enlightenment, there is no need to overcome delusion and realize one’s true nature—something the Buddha himself had to do. Dahui called silent illumina- tion being stuck in a ghost cave, and he originally developed kanhua practice so that people who had been fruitlessly practicing stillness meditation could be brought to enlightenment. For his part, Hongzhi argued on behalf of silent illumination that reject- ing still meditation and striving for enlightenment is succumbing to a kind of craving. But he did advocate something other than absolute stillness: practitio- ners should “alertly destroy murkiness” in their meditation, even as they turn from any thought of achievement. Where Dahui is forceful and direct, Hongzhi is lyrical, and his writing has a vast, dreamy scope. Here is a stanza from a piece he wrote about silent illumination: When “silence” and “illumination” both are operating and complete, the lotus flower opens and the dreamer awakens. The hundred rivers flow into the sea, and the thousand peaks face the great mountain. It’s common for Buddhist innova- tors to invent a pedigree for their work, and the creators of silent illumination like Hongzhi enlisted two great teach- ers of the Tang dynasty, Shitou Xiqian and Dongshan Liangjie, as ancestors. Schlütter shows that neither taught any form of silent illumination, and that they are more properly understood as crucial figures in the vibrant mix of Tang dynasty Chan than as Caodong-Soto progenitors. Schlütter respects the commitment of the teachers he studies: “The intensity of religious conviction, the concern for the well-being of the audience, and the great eloquence and sincerity that come across to us in the preserved writings of both the Caodong and Linji traditions of the twelfth century are still moving after many centuries.” At the same time, like most scholars he also considers the social and cultural factors that might be at play when practice traditions are cre- ated or reinvented. For example, compe- tition for practitioners and their support probably played a role in this dispute; Dahui was apparently concerned that silent illumination would be particu- larly popular with educated laypeople, who were one of Chan’s most impor- tant constituencies, because the practice provided an escape from busy lives but didn’t require frequent meetings with a teacher, as koan practice does. The book also looks at how Chan matured during the Song dynasty, when it “acquired an institutional base, defined its crucial lineages, and developed its own distinctive literature.” Schlütter also presents an engaging discussion of Chan lineages as “transmission fami- lies,” which shared with all families the age-old concerns of procreation (meta- phorically speaking) and inheritance. Schlütter touches lightly on a few intriguing subplots that it would be fasci- nating to hear more about. One involves the Sixth Ancestor of Chan Buddhism, Huineng, whose story of going from illiterate rice pounder to inheritor of the ancestral robe and bowl and founder of the Southern School of Chan is essential Zen mythology. As Schlütter lays out the argument, it was Huineng’s disciple Shen- hui who promoted this story, despite the fact that Huineng was an obscure monk mentioned in only one early source. In that text, Huineng is listed as one of the Fifth Ancestor Hongren’s ten disciples, but Hongren says that Huineng would become a master of only local signifi- cance. (Shenhui claimed this document was a forgery.) The implication is that Shenhui promoted the Huineng myth in order to back his own claim as the right- ful Seventh Ancestor. This bit of revision- ist history raises but doesn’t resolve a “Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” kind of question: if Huineng wasn’t the genius responsible for the Platform Sutra, who was? How Zen Became Zen is thought- provoking, and it clarifies and deepens our understanding of a lively, influential time in the history of Zen. Where it chal- lenges some of the tradition’s narrative about itself, we should welcome the illu- mination.