In China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen (Shambhala, 2020), translator/poet David Hinton makes two carefully associated arguments. The first, his strongest argument, is that English translations of Chán texts obscure, distort, and erase Chán’s important debt to Daoist thought. The second, and considerably weaker argument, is that Chán is an offshoot of Daoism that integrated and subsequently remade Buddhist meditation in its personal picture, fairly than being an genuine descendent of Buddhism in its personal proper. There will be little doubt that as Buddhism established itself in East Asia it underwent a major means of sinicization because it was 1) initially understood by means of the lens of Daoism, and then, 2) because it was understood extra totally because the huge corpus of Buddhist literature was progressively translated into Chinese. There additionally will be little doubt that the authors of the good works of Chán literature—e.g., the Transmission of the Lamp, the Platform Sō«tra, and the kōan collections—had been not less than as well-versed in Laozi, Zhuangzi, Kongzi, and Mengzi as they had been within the Buddha, NÄgÄrjuna, Asaá¹…ga, and Vasubandhu. The approach that Chán practitioners and thinkers negotiated the mutual assimilation and lodging of Buddhist to Daoist concepts with their simultaneous a number of similarities and incompatibilities is an endlessly fascinating subject.
A great deal of Hinton’s argument is philological. In different phrases, as a result of the Chinese borrowed already present Chinese characters from the Daoist lexicon to translate novel Sanskrit phrases, these phrases continued to imply what they meant for Daoists—no extra, no much less—even after centuries of use of their new Buddhist context. Hinton could very properly be proper, however it’s also attainable that the phrases developed new and barely totally different meanings of their new context at the same time as they continued to retain the penumbra of a few of their older connotations. I believe this is a matter students can (and will) debate endlessly with out coming to a ultimate universally agreed upon conclusion.
Having said this reservation up entrance, let me say that Hinton presents an interesting account of how English translations of the Chán literature actually do a major disservice to Chán’s Daoist heritage. He reveals how sure characters which have clear Daoist meanings are merely left omitted, untranslated, or mistranslated in well-known English translations—for instance, the characters ”çŽ„” (xuán) that means ”darkish enigma” and æ–‡ (wÁ©n) that means ”inside sample,” referring respectively to the ungraspable nature of the Dao and its intricate inside sample. Hinton additionally reveals how phrases which have essential double meanings are translated as in the event that they solely have one that means. For instance, the Chinese character ç„¡ (wÁº, Chinese; mu, Japanese) is often translated merely as ”no” or ”not” as within the kōan of ZhÄozhōu’s canine, or within the lengthy checklist of negations within the Heart Sutra. Hinton claims that ç„¡ can be the character for the Daoist precept of ”absence.” The motion of the Dao is a steady motion from absence to presence and again once more to absence. Absence is thus the fertile void from which the ten,000 issues manifest and return, and parallels, in some respects, the Buddhist thought of ō›ō«nyatÄ (vacancy) in its implications for non-dual wholeness. Thus, when ZhÄozhōu says ”wÁº“ in answer to the question of whether a dog has Buddha nature, he is not merely denying it, but also pointing to the Dao and its undivided wholeness. In fact, Hinton points out there is a bit of word play in the original Chinese version of this kōan, because the character ç„¡ occurs twice, first as a particle at the end of the student’s question expressing negation (”A canine has a Buddha-nature, no?”) and then as ZhÄozhōu’s reply, this time as an affirmation of the precept of absence. This double position of ç„¡ as each a negation and because the principal of absence can be seen within the Chán idea of ”no thoughts” which may very well be understood as a thoughts with out ideas, but additionally as ”absence thoughts,” an consciousness of the undivided continuously rising wholeness of actuality, of which thoughts is only one extra emergent phenomenon.
From right here, Hinton goes on to view the quintessential Chán practices of sitting meditation and kōan observe from the attitude of Daoist wÁºwÁ©i (ç„¡ç‚º, non-action or ”absence motion”). The effortful one-pointed meditation that’s so frequent in early Buddhist practices is changed with an easy open consideration to the fixed arising of presence from absence and the undividedness of being. Solving kōans turns into a performative act wherein options come up not from considering, however from the spontaneous motion of the universe as if manifests in particular person thought and motion. Meditation and kōan observe develop into the observe of oneness with all issues right here and now, and a approach of experiencing/expressing wholeness fairly than a way of achieving a transcendent nirvÄá¹‡a. When Chán speaks of ”seeing one’s unique nature,” (è¦‹æ€§; jiÁ nxÁ¬ng, Chinese; kenshō, Japanese) it means discovering one’s already and all the time current unity with the unfolding of the Dao. For Hinton, there is no such thing as a distinction between ”Buddha-nature” and this fixed emergence of presence from absence and again once more. Hinton additionally addresses the affect of Chinese mountains-and-rivers panorama portray on the Chán sensibility, and how ”mountains-and-rivers” are manifestations of the Dao in the identical approach that the emergence of ideas and emotions are—inside and outer landscapes that mirror a single unitary course of.
All of that is actually there in Chán, however a lot can be disregarded in Hinton’s evaluation. For instance, Hinton’s evaluation leaves out any point out of the bodhisattva vows, the precepts, karma, the 4 noble truths, the paramitas and brahmaviharas, dependent origination, and a lot extra. The Lamp transmission tales and kōan collections spotlight Chán’s Daoist-inflected antinomian facet, however fail to mirror the Chán masters equally deep grounding within the broader Buddhist and Confucian traditions—traditions they and their college students might take as a right. Theirs was a particular transmission past letters and phrases, however that transmission didn’t obviate the necessity for creating discerning knowledge, character, and compassion. We see this clearly, for instance, within the later Japanese Zen of Dōgen who repeatedly stated that each one one needed to do was simply sit zazen—overlook every little thing else—however who then additionally went on to prescribe intimately how you can learn sutras, burn incense, bow, put on one’s gown, make repentance, chant, put together meals, and wash one’s face.
I’ve just a few quibbles with a few of Hinton’s enhancing selections. First, he transliterates Chinese names utilizing the Wade-Giles system fairly than the Pinyin system most modern students use. Second, he refers to Chán masters by the English that means of the Chinese characters that compose their names, fairly than by their Chinese or Japanese transliterations. For instance, he refers to ZhÄozhōu as ”Master Visitation Land,” and LinjÄ« as ”Master Purport Dark Enigma.” This is all proper so long as you may have the Chinese/Japanese transliteration equivalents in a footnote or appendix so one can simply line up their names with the names one is already conversant in, nevertheless it’s simply plain annoying with out them. My ultimate quibble is the absence of footnotes to doc analysis supporting claims he makes about Chinese and Chán historical past. Without them, it’s unimaginable for the reader to know or guess what scholarship he’s counting on. For instance, Hinton asserts that the separation of self from Nature resulted from disruptions to paleolithic tradition attributable to the event of agriculture and written language, and by an accompanying shift from a gynocentric to androcentric world-view. That sounds good. For all I do know, it could be utterly true—however I’d like to know the way he is aware of this, and whether or not it’s supported by scholarly analysis. This downside is compounded by the truth that there are not any scholarly references within the works cited on the finish of the guide.
Despite these reservations, I discovered this guide to be fairly invaluable. I discovered a lot was new to me concerning the historical past and that means of the Chinese characters used to precise Chán concepts. The guide helped me to extra deeply respect the Daoist contributions to trendy Zen observe, and higher perceive the explanations for a number of the underlying discontinuities between Zen teachings and these of different Buddhist colleges. The guide is written at a stage the typical Zen practitioner will be capable of respect and get pleasure from.
I simply want Hinton’s strategy had been a bit extra scholarly. As a non-scholar who shouldn’t be fluent in classical Chinese, I wasn’t all the time positive how absolutely I might belief Hinton’s interpretations and various translations. When one is writing a guide, there’s all the time a tradeoff between making the guide pleasing for the final reader, but additionally helpful for scholarly varieties. There isn’t an ideal approach to do that, however I want Hinton had erred a little bit extra on the scholarly facet.