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Zen's Chinese Heritage

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, February 2001

ZENíS CHINESE HERITAGE: THE MASTERS AND THEIR TEACHINGS, by Andrew Ferguson, Wisdom Publications, 2000, ISBN 0 86171 163 7, pp. 518, £19.95 (paperback).

Zen has never been comfortable with words. As Master Joshu said, "Attaining the Way is not difficult. Just disdain choosing. As soon as words are present there is choosing - there is understanding. Itís not to be found in understanding." For this reason, the idea of a book - any book - on Zen can seem something of a contradiction. Traditionally, Zen is taught one-to-one, master-to-student, in a slow, laborious process which is ultimately unique to each student. When enlightenment finally comes, it is something which occurs spontaneously within the student, and cannot be transmitted or expressed in words. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some small steps on the road to enlightenment through the study of those who have trodden the path before. This is why words and books are useful, and indeed often essential, tools in Zen teaching.

The present book is an ambitious and successful addition to the toolkit available to English-speaking students of Zen. Spurning modern developments and interpretations, it is concerned with the traditional Zen teachings which originated in China between the 5th and 13th centuries. The words and actions of more than a hundred and sixty of the most important masters are presented, with only a bare minimum in the way of commentary. While there is much here of great historical interest, the book is not intended as a historical treatise but as a Zen teaching aid. As Tenshin Reb Anderson says in the Foreword: "...clinging to our deluded stories of who and what we are is the origin of suffering... The stories presented here... offer virtually endless opportunities to free ourselves from our habitual stories... It is not that the old stories are delusion and the new ones are enlightenment; rather itís that clinging to... stories is deluding and not clinging to them is enlightening."

The first part of the book deals with what the author describes as the "legendary period" of Chinese Zen (480 - 755), covering the early patriarchs such as Bodhidharma, Sêng-tsían and Hui-nêng. The second part covers the "classical period" (755 - 950), including many of the most famous Zen masters such as Hyakujo, Layman Pang, Nansen, Obaku, Joshu, Rinzai, Ummon, Tokusan and Tozan, alongside dozens of their less familiar contemporaries. Finally, the third part deals with what the author calls the "literary period" (950 - 1260), characterised by the compilation of the great Koan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate. Within these three sections, the chapters are arranged chronologically, covering each of the successive generations of masters from Bodhidharma onwards. After the seventh generation both masters and schools start to proliferate rapidly, so it is helpful to find a large fold-out lineage chart in the back of the book. Early Chinese Zen was surprisingly sectarian: for example, of the 181 names on the chart, only 23 are in a direct line of succession from Bodhidharma to the Japanese Rinzai school.

Together, the book and the lineage chart provide a unique insight into the early development of the Zen style, and the subtle differences between schools and generations. Some of the stories will be familiar to most students and practitioners, but many will be new, and even the best known quotations take on new significance when viewed in their full historical context. The author makes no assumptions about the readerís prior knowledge of Buddhism or Chinese history, and all potentially confusing references are explained in notes in the back of the book. The presentation throughout is lucidly traditional, unhampered by modern attempts at scholarship or reinterpretation (although the traditional messages are occasionally couched in 21st century jargon - on page 26 we are told that during the seventh century Zen became a "full-featured religion"!).

The translations are the authorís own, from Chinese originals published on the internet. In the handful of cases that I checked, his translations are not drastically different in interpretation from others that are available. For example, his version of the third Patriarchís famous poem ("Faith in Mind") can be compared with that by Venerable Myokyo-ni in the May 1999 issue of The Middle Way (which she titles "On Faith in the Heart"). In 146 lines there are perhaps a dozen significant differences, but never so different as to be contradictory or incompatible. Most of the discrepancies (like Heart/Mind, for which the Chinese character is the same) can be put down to ambiguities in the original. Of course, the differences between two equally valid translations can be a Zen lesson in themselves: we should not become too attached to our favourite version! Master Tozanís famous answer to the question "What is Buddha?" is normally translated as "three pounds of flax", so to see it rendered here as "three pounds of... hemp" is quite a jolt (while technically very similar, hemp and flax conjure up quite different emotional and cultural associations). It is even more surprising, a few pages later, to find Tozanís near-contemporary Shuzan answering "three pounds of hemp" when asked "what is the mind of the ancient buddhas?" Either this is an astonishing case of great minds thinking alike, or at least one of these masters was being slightly less than spontaneous!

I have a few minor quibbles with the book. Foremost among these is the authorís insistence on using unfamiliar Pinyin transliterations of Chinese names, rather than the more traditional Wade-Giles (for the early patriarchs) or Japanese (for the majority of the later Chinese masters). Thus Sêng-tsían is referred to as Jianzhi Sengcan, Joshu as Zhaozhou Congshen, Rinzai as Linji Yixuan, and so on. Full translations are given in tables at the back of the book, but I spent so much time referring back and forth between these and the text that it detracted from the pleasure of reading the book. My second complaint concerns the illustrations, or lack of them. There are a dozen or so very small black and white photographs of temples and stupas, which add little to a book which is essentially about people. I know that portraits exist of at least some of the Chinese Zen masters, and I would have liked to see these alongside their words. And one final, very minor criticism. There are at least two obvious errors on the lineage chart (Joshuís dates are given as 78 - 987 instead of 778 - 897, while Obakuís are incorrectly given as being identical to Hyakujoís). This leaves one wondering how many less obvious errors there may be.

These few minor points aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book which can be recommended to students, practitioners and anyone else interested in learning more about traditional Zen teachings. The book is equally well suited to sequential reading or dipping into at random. However, it is probably not advisable to read more than a few pages in one sitting, or else there is a risk of losing the basic message. These stories are intended to help readers break out of the familiar pattern of verbal and interpretative thinking, not seduce them further into it. A quotation from page 320 of the book is relevant here. Above his door, a monk wrote the word "mind". Above his window he wrote "mind", and on his wall he wrote "mind". On hearing this, Master Hogen said 'Above the door he should have written the word "door". Above his window he should have written "window", and on the wall he should have written "wall".'

Copyright © 2001 Andrew May

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