Healthy Skepticism, and a Field Theory for the Emergence of Chan Literature
Part One: The Art of Zen
In the wake of twentieth-century popular and scholarly writings, Chan (Zen) typically appears as a charming and inscrutable mix of Buddhist wisdom and sagely ease. Moreover, it is regularly associated with a kind of über-authenticity: Chan is completely Buddhist and yet unfettered by tradition, basking, so it seems, in the sunshine of being the religion beyond religion, with a truth that uniquely transcends right and wrong and a philosophy that, conveniently, has only ineffable tenets. And yet when we look closely at the history of Chan, and its gradual emergence in Tang dynasty (618–907) literature, we see a very different and troubling profile—troubling, that is, for those who like to think of religion and politics as separate activities, and imagine that truth, and the literature that purveys it, comes from truth and not a host of other less inspiring sources.
Elements that we have come to call Chan first began emerging in the seventh and eighth centuries in a series of aggressive and shifting lineage "histories" intent on claiming that the total truth of the Indian Buddhist tradition had recently come to China, where it was perfectly lodged in the bodies of contemporaneous Chinese men. And by "perfectly lodged in the bodies ... ," I mean that the imported Indian truth was imagined to fuse completely with the Chinese masters in a manner that annulled the anxieties of importing truth from afar and transformed these men into full-fledged masters of tradition—buddhas, in other words. In arguing for this immaculate transmission of truth, it was claimed that the totality of the Indian Buddhist tradition had been miraculously "zapped" into the being of these men. Of course, once the unthinkable vastness of tradition had supposedly become the very stuff of these men, the texts then turned to explain how the totality of tradition could be extracted from them in order to feed those hungry for the fullness of tradition. Put this way, one can see how magical the arrangement was from the beginning—hence the verb zap.
In trying to demonstrate the successful arrival of the fullness of the Indian Buddhist tradition, the emphasis in these early genealogies is not on meditation or insouciant off-the-cuff lines that might prove the mastery of tradition but rather on presenting sober historical accounts explaining why certain men, generally eminent men with court connections, should be regarded as buddhas or buddha-like, due to having inherited, directly and in a genealogical manner, the Buddha's wisdom. Thus, Chan—and at that time these genealogies did not yet bear that name or have the distinction of being a school, sect, or branch of Buddhism—was primarily a discourse dedicated to three agendas: (1) fetishizing the truth-of-tradition into a compact and transmittable form, whether a text, a robe, a poem, or simply a Thing-which-can-be-transmitted; and, then, (2) setting up convincing formats and rules for controlling that private ownership of the truth-of-tradition such that it would be restricted to a very small group of leading monks, yet offered, in a partial way, to the public and court whose recognition and patronage were sought; and, finally, (3) presenting these rather audacious claims in a rhetorical framework that made these prior two agendas appear natural, innocent, and unconstructed, and therefore acceptable.
Thus, if we can set aside the image of the delightfully quixotic and confidently rude Chan master—so carefully refined through centuries of writing and rewriting—to return to the earliest and often awkward efforts to create Chinese buddhas, we can start to appreciate how complicated this style of Buddhist discourse was as it sought to own tradition in a new and audacious manner that would refigure the landscape of religious authority in Tang China. To consider the origins of Chan in this manner, four interlocking questions will be useful. First, the question of genre: How, exactly, were these genealogical texts designed to interact with the reading public and draw them into recognizing these men as buddhas, or buddha-like? Second, the question of genre development: How were these narratives remanufactured and modified over time, and under what external forces? That is, as the genealogists borrowed from one another, why were some literary techniques advanced while others were discarded? Third, the question of content: What relationship do these texts bear to the men and their teachings described in these texts? If the particular content assigned to a deceased master shifts dramatically each time his "history" is represented, what exactly is the content of his content? This question becomes more irksome when we see how frequently accounts of the past masters were stitched together with documents drawn from other eras that previously had nothing to do with the genealogy or the figures in it. Apparently, the Chan genealogies were written with frequent trips to the dustbin of history from whence random, but useful, items were retrieved and inserted into "living" genealogies to accomplish various narrative tasks. And, fourth, the question of politics: How should we assess the social and political forces outside the texts that seem, in many cases, to have "written" the interior of the texts, even if that quasi-authorial hand of realpolitik remains an unadmitted element in the mix.
Part and parcel with the above questions regarding genre and genre development is the intersubjective nature of these texts—a crucial dynamic that has been overlooked in previous studies. Thus, I argue, and it seems obvious once it is pointed out, that these texts were not only public texts designed for the Other's consumption, but were conceived and circulated within the understanding that claims to own tradition work only when the Other is convinced. Naturally, then, these texts need to be read, if we are to read critically, as works formatted by the authors' sense for what the Other wanted to hear about truth—wedding photos for the county fair, according to the analogy in the preface. In this light, the presentation of the internal truth-experience of the master would be largely dictated by a sense for how that depiction would play out in the public sphere. Similarly, given this dialectic, it seems fair to assume that the master's experience would be created in line with the author's sense of public expectations, expectations that were based on how similar "experiences" had been cataloged in previous literary statements. In short, those realities "outside" of the text—in particular, the literary record and the trove of "public memory"—need to be recognized as crucial for the writing of not just the inside of the text but the "insides" of the masters who inhabit these texts.
Thus, besides appreciating the density of literary precedents at play in any particular claim to own tradition, we also have to admit that if these texts were really written in this competitive fashion—and I will be doing my best to show that this is the case—then they really are not about any master's particular experience of truth. Instead, the account of the master represents the crystallization of a particular historian's participation in the dense literary tradition to which he, the historian, belonged. Ironically, then, claims to own the perfect form of human experience took shape around these newly manufactured Chinese buddhas in a manner that was fully human in the sense of being a cultural and literary product but also fully divorced from any particular human's experience since it was stitched together from a range of prior cultural statements in what I call a "Frankenstein" method of giving birth to the master.
Though a "Frankenstein" approach to building images of the perfect Chinese man-buddha suggests that seams and bolts would be all too visible—and they were at times—it is also true that smoothing over just those joints and sutures was something that authors worked at. In fact, in getting the master to look as lifelike and put-together as possible, authors also seem to have realized the value of a kind of literary self-negation whereby the texts displaying the masters were designed to evaporate in the reader's imagination, leaving just the alluring residue of the supposedly real-life master. In other words, to best cloak the way that historians "fathered" the masters was to work with a kind of disappearing literature that hid the life-giving powers of the historians while also giving the reader the impression of gazing beyond culture, literature, history, and politics—that is, all things human—to peer directly into the transcendent Real of human nature, as manifest in the master qua buddha. Of course, this doesn't mean that Chan's "lens of literature" really is invisible but rather that it got good at hiding in plain sight. Thus, in contradistinction to kitsch, which is recognizable as the pathetic and somewhat lovable failure to disappear as an aesthetic, the Chan aesthetic comes into its own when it draws the reader into looking through it while ignoring the tools and tropes of engagement that allow for just this kind of penetration. In this sense, Chan literature works like a paper funnel: it wraps around itself to produce an opening through which elements can be usefully poured as they avoid the constraining walls that make that opening what it is. How this literary aesthetic then contributed to a growing desire for truth-beyond-culture and how this desire provoked, ironically, the production and consumption of new forms of literature will be ongoing issues in the chapters to come.
In thinking about the construction of these perfect truth-fathers, we should also recognize that these genealogists seem to have been addressing the basic angst that any tradition has to face: How to generate convincing images of truth, legitimacy, value, and order in the eyes of the public and the powers that be and then move this constellation forward in time in a reliable manner. Once framed in this manner, Chan appears as the unintended consequence of repeated attempts to generate images of a perfect and static past that, despite its thrilling distance from the present, is, nonetheless, also fully available in the present. Of course, here we bump into the difficult matter of assessing to what degree a religion is about itself in the sense of organizing its content in forms that can "live" in time and space, in a reliably reproductive manner. Thus, that which at first appears to be about human experience turns out to be, at the very least, heavily inflected by these macro-level issues regarding the structural reproduction of meaning. Actually, insofar as Chan was largely shaped by basic Chinese notions of patriarchal reproduction, we should expect that, just as filial piety is about the reproduction of filial piety, so, too, is Chan a system designed to transmit itself, with its own being or essence defined, first and foremost, by just this need for self-transmission. In short, and it takes a shift toward something like "meme-theory" to appreciate this, Chan's whole premise of the pure transmission of total tradition can't be separated from what we might call the "biology of religious traditions," which demands that meaning be centralized, substantialized, and set on tracks to run from the past into the present and future. Those with more devotion to tradition will no doubt cry "foul" whenever someone asks about the structural forces shaping meaning—fearing, correctly, that to do so will ruin the transcendental quality of religious discourse and practice—and yet I would argue that we have fallen away from an essential element in the History of Religions if we duck a call to address these structural pressures inherent in the reproduction of a meaning system, that is, tradition. Likewise, we lose the specific "Chineseness" of Chan if we remove the Bodhidharma genealogies from the larger sphere of Chinese "historiography," which seems to have a marked penchant for just this practice of ancestor invention.
Truth in Advertising
Besides wondering about the play of structure and content in genealogies, it is probably already obvious, I will be treating the Bodhidharma genealogies as thoroughly selfish works (in the sense of the "selfish gene") in which discussions of truth and enlightenment are inseparable from concerns over power, property, and prestige. Grounds for taking such a suspicious view of Chan's origins derive from the discovery of a significant number of mutually contradictory eighth-century genealogies that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were taken from a sealed temple cache located in Dunhuang, an oasis town in western China. In the decades that followed this find, it slowly became clear that the genealogies of truth that modern representatives of Chan and Zen cling to are rather late, and clearly much reworked, versions of earlier efforts to write truth into the bodies of particular Chinese men. That the trove of the Dunhuang texts represents an embarrassing time capsule against which later versions of Chan genealogy can be measured is, however, only part of the problem. Presumably, if it were only a case of too many "true" accounts of truth's descent in time, then apologists could simply content themselves with the belief that their version of truth's history was as true as any other out there, and leave it at that.
However, the Dunhuang "scandal" opened up two other more interesting issues. First, the plethora of legitimacy-seeking genealogies found at Dunhuang casts a long shadow on the very act of seeking legitimacy in this manner. That is, this eighth-century enthusiasm for claiming to have inherited the entirety of tradition from Bodhidharma now looks like it gave rise to a minor cottage industry that busily produced these sumptuous pedigrees. And, second, seeing in these genealogies a track of repeating literary gestures that seek to create and manipulate the image of truth-beyond-writing—whether in the form of sudden enlightenment or illiterate perfection or silent meditation—makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the eighth century was a time when Chinese Buddhists learned new ways to write about truth and tradition, and did so in a manner that was fully conscious of itself and of the need to cloak these writing skills with a focus on the opposite: the perfect masters who somehow held ineffable truth apart from language, texts, and polemics.
To offer a slightly humorous analogy for the challenge that the Dunhuang texts present, imagine that you moved to a small town in Virginia, and once you became a regular at the corner bar, you began hearing from the locals how the town mayor was related to George Washington and that was why his tenure as mayor was so successful. That was interesting enough, but then one day when you ventured across town to another bar, you heard that it was actually the previous town mayor who was really Washington's descendant, a mayor who happened to be the bartender's cousin. Then, a short time later, when the campaign warmed up for the next mayor, it was widely rumored that the new figure contesting the incumbent mayor was, in fact, the one really related to George Washington. What would you do with all these stories about the connection between leadership in the present and some distant ancestor? And provided that you had a good liberal arts education, how would you think about the political economy of this town where clearly the assumption of leadership is connected to recycling a genealogy that was fixed in reference to Washington, yet also flexible enough to be redirected as necessary. In this situation, the question, Which mayor really was related to George Washington? probably isn't going to be very telling. Much more informative will be questions such as: Why did this town starting talking about its mayors in this genealogical fashion? Or, how does this claim about a prestigious past set up certain fantasies about politics in the present? And, more theoretically, what should we make of a discourse focused on paternal inheritance in which paternal continuity as a silent, antilanguage Real, works well to bolster and direct other kinds of language?
A Question of Precedent
The paradigm shift that I am advocating here, though new in some respects, is not without substantial precedents that come in five forms. Forty years ago, Philip Yampolsky, in his classic study, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, mentioned in several places his impression that much of the genealogical material in this text had been worked over for various purposes. Though this appraisal did not prompt him to shift his style of reading—he still treated the Platform Sutra as reflective of real events and conversations—nonetheless, his comments, along with his framing of the history of Chan's histories, were important steps leading to other shifts that would come to Chan Studies. I should add, too, that Yampolsky's work relied to a large degree on the work of Yanagida Seizan, who, perhaps more than anyone, did a truly amazing amount of work editing, publishing, and translating the Dunhuang material after World War II, work that I and all others in the field have benefited from, even if we don't share his nostalgic views of the emergence of early Chan.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, Bernard Faure advanced a number of interesting and provocative arguments about how power, symbolic or otherwise, structured Chan discourse. Though I follow some of Faure's reasoning, and like him have benefited in particular from Pierre Bourdieu's work, my approach is different in three ways. First, I will be working more closely with the structure and details of these texts, with a particular focus on narrative and its implications for judging the content of these texts. Faure, though he started out in the text-critical mode, tends in his more interpretive works to reify Chan above and beyond the details of any Chan text without giving due attention to the particular agendas of each of these texts. Thus, to support his characterization of early Chan as marginal and antinomian, he offers chosen passages, often drawn fairly randomly from disparate texts and eras, to support this position, without giving a fuller account of the arc and function of the narratives that held these passages. My approach will be, as much as possible, to close read these texts in order to gradually build arguments about their form and content in which the medium and the message aren't so easily separable.
Second, Faure regularly treats Chan discourse without considering intersubjectivity. That is, Faure, even in his groundbreaking essay, published in 1986, "Bodhidharma as Textual and Religious Paradigm," doesn't delve into the role of fabrication, seduction, and calculated narrative strategies in Chan, and tends, like Yampolsky, to imagine that these texts can be read for their real honest-to-goodness doctrines, even though Faure will on occasion pull away from these assumptions and critique just such a reading gesture. What one senses in many of Faure's writings is that he is quite at odds with himself as he insists on various methodological insights, yet hesitates in carrying through on what those insights require in terms of reading and interpretation.
This leads to the third difference: Faure's tendency to nostalgia. Despite his evocation of a number of useful critical approaches, some of which are specifically aimed at combating nostalgia, Faure's writing remains, in my opinion, colored by the nostalgic hope of mining Chan for material that is philosophically relevant in the present and, in particular, relevant to post-1968 attempts to speak back to orthodoxy from the supposed innocence of the periphery. For instance, in the early chapters of The Rhetoric of Immediacy, his comments bounce from critiquing the whole fantasy of lineage, with its pretensions to stable orthodoxy, to still assuming a kind of innocence for the origin of Chan, an innocence that came to an end once it was brought within the sphere of the political. For instance, within the space of five pages, Faure draws attention to Derrida's critique of the fantasy of pure origins (25) and yet still describes the history of early Chan as one in which "there was a shift from the open ambiguity of the early teachings to the rather sterile dichotomies of 'orthodox' Chan" (21). And, slightly later, "once Chan became the Buddhist orthodoxy, it had to surrender its independence and become part of the imperial administration." In this unstable argument, it is hard to see how the Derridean discussion did much to revise the basic contours of Faure's history of Chan. Too, I would argue that Faure's use of the term orthodoxy has little value in describing Tang-era Chan since, in fact, orthodoxy in the basic sense of commitment to a particular defining content of tradition was precisely what no author cared about. That is, it is hard to see how having one's version of the truth-fathers accepted, however temporarily, would reflect a "will to orthodoxy," just as it seems unlikely to read these texts hoping to learn about their authors' commitments to any particular version of doxa or content. Thus, it would appear that even Faure's attempt to critique Chan with the postmodern luminaries has lodged within it a kind of nostalgia for content and the supposed innocence of discourse that arrives from the periphery. For instance, it is hard to accept Faure's claim that the paradigm of gradual versus sudden enlightenment is the essential motor of invention in the evolution of Chan textuality, an assumption that privileges doctrinal and/or experiential content over political pressures, narrative exigencies, or the demands of the "biology of tradition" and that doesn't hold up when the cycle of genealogies is read more carefully. In short, though Faure often asks good questions and brings to the field a wealth of theoretical perspective, he has never settled on a reading strategy that could explain how and why these genealogies were written, or how we ought to treat the content in them.
The third important precedent for this study is the work of John McRae, who, for the past twenty-some years, has written extensively on these early Chan texts and has, with increasingly clarity, questioned how we ought to read them. However, like Faure, even in his more critical moments McRae doesn't jump out of the paradigm of treating these works as basically reliable. Thus, for instance, though he opens his promisingly titled Seeing through Zen with rules for doubting various lineage claims (part of "McRae's Rules of Zen Studies"), the narrative that he constructs for the emergence of early Chan still follows the format that each of these texts creates for itself: Chan master Y was exceedingly brilliant and had some particular ideas that he got from Chan master X and then gave to Chan master Z, and because these ideas were so good and truthful, a community of believers formed around this lineage, and practices concomitant with these truths emerged, such as "encounter dialogues," which McRae takes to be the real essence of Chan and Zen. Besides relying on these texts to hook together a seamless flow of early Chan in which it is real ideas, practices, and masters-leading-congregations that matter, he moves too quickly from textual claims to historical realities. Thus, throughout Seeing through Zen, McRae still ends up assuming, without a clear debate about why this is a good assumption, that it was the masters who made the tradition and not their clever historians, even though he regularly points out how unreliable these texts are for gauging what anyone actually might have been doing.
As for the fourth important precedent, the past twenty years have seen the publication of detailed studies of a number of Buddhist texts and teachers in the early Tang. For instance, work on Zhiyi (532–97) and Guanding (561–632) by Chen Jinhua, Elizabeth Morrison, Leslie Penkower, and Koichi Shinohara has given the field of Chan Studies excellent material to think about the longer tracks of genealogical writing in the seventh and eighth centuries. Without their careful contributions to this period of Buddhist writing, I wouldn't have been able to frame this book as I have. Similarly, Jamie Hubbard's fine study of the Sect of the Three Levels, with its prominent Chan-looking leader, Xinxing (540–94), contributed much to my sense of repeating motifs in the early Tang.
Last, the most important of the five precedents that have shaped this book is the work of T. Griffith Foulk. Much of what I take for granted in my approach to reading Chan comes from my graduate studies with Foulk at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Foulk, in his 1987 dissertation, argued that Tang-era Chan could not be read through Song-era documents since the Song authors clearly made up much of the Tang material. Foulk's approach gave me a sense for authorial creativity in Chan writing, along with an appreciation for Chan's close court connections in the construction and dissemination of histories of truth. Equally important, Foulk's more recent work, such as his "The Koan: The Form and Function of Koan Literature," shows a keen interest in understanding the cycle of writing and rewriting Chan material as later authors continued to develop literary techniques to perpetuate control over truth and authority. Though I won't be addressing koans or Song-period Chan, Foulk's research figures prominently in the conception and articulation of this book's arguments, as it does in most current work on Chan.
Next to these five precedents, I should also point out that in the years that I have been working on this book, other scholars have been contributing to the discussion and have, likewise, been interested, in different ways, in adopting a more literary approach to the material and addressing political matters as well. Thus, this book, though not necessarily in agreement with the findings of these scholars, can be profitably read against the work of Wendi Adamek, Timothy H. Barrett, Jeffrey Broughton, John Jorgensen, Mario Poceski, Albert Welter, and Dale S. Wright, all of whom have taken up issues in early Chan and offered a range of interesting positions. Pointing out our various differences regarding interpretation and historiography would take another book, but I have nonetheless tried throughout this book to point the reader to their arguments and perspectives.
I mention these precedents to give a sense for the evolution of the field of Chan Studies and to remind the reader that academic writing develops under discourse rules that likely parallel those determining early Chan writing. That is, modern academics also have their county fair competitions and seductively fashion their "photos" in accord with a sense for what might win the day and, likewise, borrow heavily from precedents that seem to have worked in the past. Thus, no surprise that this book's effort to refigure the historical narrative for thinking about early Chan comes out of the work of many previous scholars, as well as the contributions of current colleagues, who provided the material for many of these arguments and the intellectual context that made me think that these arguments would be at least partially accepted. Whether the model I offer here succeeds in holding together the disparate historical and literary facts remains to be seen, but I hope that, nonetheless, the basic reading strategies that I present here will be interesting and useful for further discussions.
A Genealogy of Genealogies
To construct a history of the Bodhidharma genealogies, I think it best to begin with a review of literary efforts to win and control leadership roles during the Sui (589–618) and early Tang. At this critical juncture when China was reunified after several hundred years of intermittent civil war, figures such as Xinxing and Zhiyi were put forward as particularly attractive Buddhist leaders. Thus, though they are not normally counted as precursors to early Chan, from the wider perspective of a history of polemics they appear essential to this study as they present early literary efforts to organize Buddhist authority. The genealogies of Zhiyi are especially relevant because they seem to have directly influenced the early Chan writers. Thus, after this introductory chapter in which I discuss my reading strategies, chapter 2 delves into the way Zhiyi and Xinxing were constructed as quasi-buddhas for the newly unified Sui empire.
Chapter 3 takes up the question of Shaolin Monastery and its complicated legal problems under the Tang dynasty. This history of litigation will be the backdrop for reading that crucial stele written for master Faru (d. 689), in which Shaolin presents itself as the preeminent Buddhist institution by claiming that Faru descended directly from the Buddha, via Bodhidharma. This short narrative, which turns the biography of Faru into a history of true-Buddhism-in-China, complete with the trope of sudden enlightenment, seems to have set off the following cycle of writing and rewriting Bodhidharma genealogies during the early part of the eighth century.
Chapter 4 analyzes Du Fei's (n.d.) appropriation of the Faru biography in his Record of the Transmission of the Dharma Jewel (Chuan fabao ji), a text that marks the birth of the genre of the free-floating genealogical claim. Chapter 5 turns to a close reading of what appears to have been a slightly later appropriation of the Bodhidharma legacy by the prince Jingjue (b. 683?), who proclaimed his own enlightenment and wrote the History of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara Sutra (Lengqie shizi ji) as proof of his inheritance. Chapter 6 considers the complex literature associated with Shenhui (d. 758), literature that reveals the solidification of a number of themes, even as part of it reveals the ferocity with which genealogical disputation could be conducted. In the conclusion, I address what it means to read Chan sources in this critical manner and what we might take away from this study as we think about the human love affair with transcendental truth.
Though the design of this book is itself linear and genealogical, I need to clarify that the actual mode by which these various texts influence each other is a good bit more tangled. Thus, for instance, though text D might appear to have been written partly as a response to text C, it likely knew text A and B, and thus text A's influence on D isn't simply through the chain of A→B→C→D but also directly A→D and indirectly from A→B→D. This isn't so troubling to think through, but things get worse when text E is written knowing A and D, seeing what D took from A, and then deforming content from A again but in a manner mediated by seeing what D did to A. Or, more specifically, if author of text E read D and then returns to A, his appropriation of A has to be seen as partly determined by his reading of D's reading of A. Of course, then when author of text F picks up the ball, all this further densifies. Oddly enough, what we will see repeatedly is that direct borrowing is fairly traceable, since authors seem to have wished to borrow the cachet of prior statements even as they twisted them in new and unprecedented ways. Hence, there is regularly a problem of surplus vestiges in these texts, with text D incorporating more of text A than it really needed, and then text E shaves down its borrowing from text A but inadvertently picks up elements from text D that it does not exactly need or want.
Mahayana Writing and the Genesis of This Book
In tracking this cycle of competitive lineages, we should not lose sight of the fact that the buddha lineages were also designed to undermine the Indian sutras. Clearly once the fathering of truth-fathers had been accepted, the value of the sutras was diminished since a living buddha was now on hand who, besides having the advantage of being available for giving up-to-date commentary, spoke Chinese instead of a distant Indic language. Of course, in accomplishing this subversion of the sutra genre, Chan authors relied rather heavily on the form and content of the sutras, and this invites speculation on the long-term vicissitudes of Mahayana rhetoric. For instance, when we look closely at the early genealogies, we will see that there was a steady, if experimental, effort to create a literature that was dedicated to delivering the supposed orality of Chinese buddhas. This unsteady Chinese literary-orality was designed specifically to replace the preeminence of the literary-oralilty of the Indic sutras, even as it clearly borrowed sutra content. Thus, as usual, the past was overcome only by reorganizing the elements of the past in a manner that mimicked that past even as it rendered it less essential.
In this struggle between imported and native literary genres, there is also an equally interesting struggle between sutras and monasteries. The Mahayana sutras that were best loved by Tang readers generally belong to what could be called the category "promiscuous literature," with sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, or the Vimalakirtinirdesa offering the totality of tradition to anyone who would read them with devotion. Hence, by offering the reader a "cult of the text," this style of Mahayana sutra does not rely directly on monastic forms of authority since the texts simply ask to be read, copied, worshiped, and passed on. Bodhidharma genealogies, on the other hand, are dedicated to lodging the totality of tradition in particular Chinese men's bodies, and, in other cases, in particular Chinese monasteries. Thus, and painting in broad strokes, if certain Indian Mahayana texts—such as the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra—were dedicated to taking tradition out of the monasteries, then Chan rhetoric was intent on putting it back into the monasteries, or the men who inhabited those monasteries. It was, in fact, in the hope of making sense of these longer arcs in Buddhist rhetoric that I set out to write this book after treating the literary forms of several Mahayana sutras in Text as Father.
Part Two: The Origin of a Theory of Origins
The first thing to notice in making sense of early Chan literature is that for about four hundred years, from the end of the second century to the end of the sixth, authority and sanctity in Chinese Buddhism appear not to have been articulated in "spiritual" genealogies. Though one can find lineages or intimations of lineages in some encyclopedias and prefaces to translations, as far as I know they were not used to present contemporaneous Chinese Buddhists as buddha-like figures. This situation changed significantly when in the seventh century there appeared several high-profile claims that the essence of the Buddhist tradition flowed down exclusive "family lines" into particular Chinese Buddhist leaders who were now presented as buddha-like. Though these seventh-century claims regularly recycled elements of earlier protolineage material, they still represent a fundamental shift in the use and meaning of Buddhist lineages because they transformed the earlier material into a more potent and commanding form of religious discourse. Similarly, presenting these new lineages began to take on a life of its own as authors broke free of previous genres, such as the encyclopedia entry, the sutra preface, or the funeral stele, and, by the beginning of the eighth century, began working up an entirely new Chinese Buddhist genre: the freestanding genealogy of truth.
Dynasty Shifts and Moments of Weakness
When we return these genealogies to their historical settings, we see a number of dynamics tugging them into existence, such as those moments when the State seems to have been insecure in its symbolic standing and sought Buddhist help to construct legitimacy for itself. At these "hot" moments in the dialectic, the State may have even invited Buddhist authors to inflate their own cosmic prestige in order be able to more impressively confer legitimacy on the throne—to be the State's Big Other, in other words. At the very least, it seems that for brief moments time the State was particularly generous, saying, in effect, "We, the State, are prepared to recognize your new claims to own tradition in order that you, quickly, give us what we need: your formal recognition, an act that will require that you take it upon yourself to speak for all Buddhists, all Chinese, and, in fact, the entire cosmos." In time, once the newly enthroned dynasty begins to widen its net of support, and accrues a kind of legitimacy simply from having held the throne for some time, the quid pro quo deal tendered to the Buddhists likely will become less generous.
Given the structure of these exchanges, it shouldn't be surprising that it was during these hot spots of dynastic upheaval that the more inventive genealogies were written. Two factors seem essential for explaining this. First, dynasty changes were particularly unstable moments, not simply because the newly enthroned State was symbolically weak, but also because the various structures linking the prior dynasty to Buddhist systems of recognition were plowed under. Consequently, with the arrival of a new political dynasty, Buddhism likely would also undergo a "dynasty" shift as the previously established conduits of power—the stable connection of certain Buddhists to State power—were reconfigured. Thus, though Buddhism as a whole would be relied on to deliver legitimacy, the actual agents and structures for delivering that mana would, in principle, have to be renegotiated. In fact, at times this open-field competition was so freewheeling, for example, during Empress Wu's reign (690–705), that we need something like a "peacock theory" for describing the interaction, with the throne as the female peacock, evaluating the parade of various male peacocks displaying their lustrous plumages. This model is particularly useful because it expresses not only the interplay between the throne and the Buddhists but also the competition between the various Buddhist "suitors."
The second factor crucial for explaining the surge in genealogical innovation at the time of dynasty shifts has to do with another aspect of the law in China. Though China has a remarkably long history of maintaining a solid core of imperial law, with some continuity even back to the Qin dynasty (221–206), the advent of a new dynasty apparently was cause for Buddhist anxiety over the issues of landownership and monkly privilege. That is, the newly installed dynasty often decreed that the Buddhist monasteries had to surrender their land, or their precious metals, or defrock large numbers of monks so that they would again pay taxes and make themselves available for corvèe labor. Consequently, the arrival of a new dynasty was seen as a time when Buddhists might in effect be asked to reapply for the right to maintain control over their lands and valuables, rights that though sanctified by the previous dynasty would now be up for renegotiation. Just this anxiety seems to have spurred Shaolin Monastery's political efforts in the seventh and eighth centuries, in particular, its effort to create a lineage for itself that explained why it was the unique site of the most perfect form of Buddhism.
Bourdieu and the Pricey Economy of Buddhist Genealogies
To get a clearer sense of these rough-and-tumble struggles to own the Buddhist tradition and to be a suitable Big Other to the throne, I would like to introduce a reading strategy that is somewhat parallel to Pierre Bourdieu's reading of the art world of modern France, as he presented it in his 1977 essay, "The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods." As the title promises, Bourdieu wanted to explore the complex workings of the field of cultural production that directs the world of art. His essay is useful for writing a history of Chan for three reasons. First, he is committed to an interpretive framework in which the interior, or content, of a piece of art/literature is to be read in a multidirectional manner. The content of art or literature is to be seen not as sui generis or isolatable from surrounding mercantile and symbolic economies. Second, Bourdieu is interested in understanding the production of images of innocence and disinterest, images that he argues belong to the world of art in all its economic and competitive aspects. Hence, Bourdieu insists that the various vectors in the production and marketing of art are regularly mediated through conduits of disavowal or negation. No surprise, then, that we get phrases such as "Art for art's sake" floating around in thickly contested and thoroughly capitalized art scenes. In short, a key component in organizing the economy of art, on both the monetary and symbolic levels, is the construction of belief in a zone of artistic freedom and integrity that somehow rides above and beyond the cutthroat world of art dealers. Hence, the myth of the artistic genius who supposedly remains impervious to the Real of art's economy, even as this construction of innocence is crucial to just that economy. By insisting on this play of levels and negation, Bourdieu describes how art takes on the pristine image of value-beyond-any-economy but does so precisely to better participate in the money economy.
And, third, Bourdieu offers a useful paradigm for thinking about fields of contention, as he describes how artists jockey to collect, control, and perpetuate whatever cachets of value and connection they may have won. Thus, Bourdieu builds up a model for the "taking of positions" on the field of art production in which the pressures and pulls on artistic work arrive not only from the other side, the economic side, but also from one's competitors. In defining this side of art production, the work of other artists either can be seen as a vehicle to piggyback on, in the event that the work of the Other has been recognized as value, or it can be positioned as a stepping-stone—an essential element in the construction of new art, but whose presence has use only insofar as it is negated and surpassed.
To get an idea of how this kind of competition might have worked in Sui/Tang China, below I first offer a general model for the external discourse pressures, and then a more limited model for struggles between competing genealogists.
A Mountain of Symbolic Power: The State and the Shape of Buddhist Genealogies
If we imagine the field of Tang-era society as a topographical map in the form of one mountain of symbolic power—provided by the State apparatus—then, ringing the highest central peak, we ought to imagine several smaller sister peaks that are located on the flanks of the central mountain. These secondary peaks represent a range of institutionalized forms of cultural, social, and economic power, including the "big" aristocratic families, the literary tradition and its representatives, the budding education system, the Confucian ritual tradition, the emerging Daoist clergy, and, of course, the Buddhist establishment. In setting up this thought experiment, I am suggesting that insofar as elevation equals distinction, power, and privilege, sites of elevation were dispersed in a variety of institutions and cultural practices, yet were grouped around the State in a pattern of symbiotic support that nonetheless included competition and intrigue.
In terms of the interactions that took place on this crowded field, it appears that there was a gradual homogenization in which differences were minimized in favor of securing shared interests. And, given the complexities of such multivariable engagement, we might expect that any particular author on this field would pitch his discourse in such a manner that it would be efficacious on several fronts. Hence, an effort would be most likely to succeed when it struck a balance by piggybacking on the proven themes-of-success of prior contestants, even as it treated other themes and contestants as stepping-stones. In view of these pressures, we shouldn't be surprised to note that biographies of Buddhist masters, aggressive though they were, were also written on the basis of widely shared assumptions about generic Chinese values. Jumping a bit ahead for effect, while this model might seem ungainly for the moment, it will certainly pay its way as we try to understand the profiles of Chinese buddhas that emerged by the middle Tang in which their images appear Frankensteinesque—stitched together from elements drawn from a vast array of previously established forms of symbolic capital.
Passage from India and the Innocence of Time Past
Unacknowledged in my above mountain analogy is the major problem that Buddhism's origin in India presented for medieval Chinese Buddhists. This problem took two forms. First, Buddhism as an import was always vulnerable to chauvinist and xenophobic rhetoric based on the assumption that good things could only be Chinese things, and thus Buddhism as an Indian creation was basically a barbarian entity to be discarded along with all the products of other undercivilized places. This vulnerability played out in important ways as Chinese authors sought ways to negotiate Buddhism's foreignness. For instance, it can't be happenstance that Chinese origins for perfect Buddhism were established in figures like Huineng who achieved enlightenment on his own, more or less, and whose contact with the lineage from India does little more than confirm what he had already owned through his basic Chineseness (see chapter 6). This dynamic also seems responsible for the way Chinese Buddhist masters were regularly depicted as Laozi look-alikes.
The second form of the India problem had to do with explaining how the geographic, linguistic, and cultural divide between India and China was overcome. On one level, this gap between China and India, or more exactly, the Buddha's India, played out in a variety of theories regarding transmission, theories that were put forward to create a workable bridge between the two cultures. On another level, this anxiety over transmission and interpretation was addressed by slowly making the need for transmission disappear. That is, though the genealogies were clearly intent on explaining how perfect Buddhism came to China, the success that the genealogies won for themselves meant that India became less and less important for articulating truth and legitimacy. Thus, once genealogists started producing Chinese buddhas, there was little point in returning, via texts and travels, to India. Ironically, then, theories explaining the genealogical descent of tradition from India became the most secure way for talking about Chinese things.
In publicizing these new, exquisite identities for the Chinese masters, the genealogies had to produce, in their narratives, convincing images of other figures recognizing the masters in just this manner. Ironically, then, though the genealogies promised to deliver the most sublime point of view from which to view the Real and the essence of tradition, they would in fact need to spend considerable time creating and presenting to the reader other reliable spokespersons viewing and ratifying the owners of that sublime viewpoint. Of course, this sets up the awkward situation of trying to get the reader to look, correctly, at other figures in the narrative looking correctly at the Chan masters, all in order that the reader can conclude that he is getting an obstructed vision of the truth-fathers. Thus, in the promise of offering a vision of the visionaries, we see several layers of mediation just in the way that Roland Barthes's delightful essay explains how the Eiffel Tower works as a relay between seeing, being seen, and, in a certain sense, seeing seeing itself.
In producing this sensation of seeing, it was clearly useful to claim that the genealogy was innocently produced according to the motto "History for history's sake." Thus, the aggressive desire of the genealogist to claim ownership of the totality of tradition was smoothed over by making the genealogy look suitably historical, and therefore desirable precisely in its own supposed lack of desire for the reader's desire. That is, the genealogy as history appears attractive for its supposedly factual, noncompetitive representation that, like the genealogy itself that trails off into the distant past, appears to originate beyond current polemical struggles and arrives in the present only through an interest in maintaining its reservoir of value for future readers. As long as the content of the genealogy manages to look like it was "written" by the deeds of the past that it describes, it will appear above suspicion. Or in other words, as long as it seems as though real history wrote this particular history, everything will be fine. Consequently, the early genealogies worked to give the impression of being above the fray of polemics so as to incorporate (in all three meanings of the word: somaticize, include, and organize) an aggressive transcendence that was successful precisely because it appeared on the back of that supposedly unmanufactured kernel of truth that couldn't possibly be accused of competitiveness since, after all, it came from another time zone and, better still, was simply true.
Instant Family and the Sudden Making of a Master
These various forms of innocence culminate in the figure of suddenness, a figure that works much as "artistic genius" does in Bourdieu's account of the French art world. In Tang China, suddenness, whatever its resonances in the literature before and after this period, was positioned in a number of these early genealogies as the way to control inclusion in the lineages as this suddenness explained how one was magically zapped into the family of truth-fathers. Obviously, suddenness put an especially brutal end to any discussion of techniques for inclusion in the lineage, techniques such as meditation or practice that might allow anyone into the lineage through their adoption of potentially efficacious means. Read in this light, terms such as sudden enlightenment (dunwu) or sudden entrance (dunru) were deployed due to concerns over identity and inclusion in the lineage, not with regard to new kinds of knowledge and experience. Thus, instead of assuming that these texts were born of human experience, and the wish to convey that experience, I believe it better to see that the category of suddenness has more to do with the binary nature of identity and the structural demands of lineage combat. One is a master or not; there are no half-masters, just as there are no half-kings, and thus movement between ordinary identity and buddha-identity cannot be gradual.
Actually, in the wake of this fundamental separation between masters and the masses that the genealogies effected, there are suddennesses offered to the masses, but these are secondary suddennesses, often associated with more minor concerns such as "sudden precepts." The two forms of suddenness can be clearly distinguished in that the masters never give their supporters the right to give authenticity, and thus, somewhat like drone bees, the recipients remain forever dependent on the source of the gift, conserved at the center of the hive. Hence, suddenness appears as a key element in establishing the public narration of a family that owns truth, a family that, like all families, preserves its boundaries by making permission to traverse that dividing boundary a gift that can only be given by those already within its limits.
With suddenness read in this manner, we ought to also reconsider the trope of the "simple" Chan master since it is clear that many of these narratives are able to delight in the simple master—and, at times, a country-bumpkin-buddha—precisely due to the narrative flexibility offered by the concept of suddenness. With each new master, regardless of his social status or real life history, zapped into his new station as this generation's reigning buddha, to speak of any other causality in the production of his identity would ruin the transcendent identity that is being organized for him. Thus, sudden enlightenment acts as a replacement for all normal ways to produce status and authority—whether through study, ethics, intelligence, or practice—and consequently allows the narrative to play up the masters' innocence and simplicity. Thus, by making enlightenment arrive suddenly and usually through the agency of the previous master, what need could a master-to-be have for study, practice, court recognition, or even familiarity with Buddhism?
In addition to the useful link between simplicity and suddenness, authors seem to have realized that they could enhance desire for these figures by casting this sudden-simplicity in the vein of very old Chinese notions of "profound simplicity" as found in the Daode jing and the Zhuangzi, two texts that were often mentioned or referenced in these genealogies. In fact, close reading a number of important Chan biographies—Hongren's and Huineng's, in particular—with a focus on this fusion of simplicity, suddenness, and lack of ambition opens up a number of interesting perspectives regarding the production of desire for these masters produced by voiding them of human desires and, in some cases, voiding them of any kind of recognizable human "interior." Actually, the way these narratives celebrate these one-dimensional figures suggests that we ought to read the desirelessness of the master as part of an attempt to purify desire-producing discourses with their opposite—the desireless and utterly simple master.
In this sense, the interior of the narrative, focused as it is on the chain of desireless patriarchs, serves as an alibi for the frame of the narrative, which is intent on evoking desire for these masters. The two must work in tandem, with form and content essentially doing each other's work, even as they pose as separate, unrelated entities: a narrative of desire works by narrating desireless men who can only be who they are supposed to be once the narrative of desire works on the reader. Hence, it is not shocking to find that the richest fantasy in these texts is that the masters contained in the narrative are not only free of language's constraints, especially written language, but also exist in spaces of subjectivity completely liberated from constraining exchanges with others. In economic terms, the text creates a field of exchange wherein "buying into the system" is induced through desire for a figure that appears lodged completely beyond the system and beyond exchange, even as that fantasy of separation and purity is produced by the system and positioned to drive the system of exchange. In short, the image of the end of intersubjectivity and exchange becomes the greatest incentive to engage in intersubjectivity and other related exchanges; or, in other terms, "art for art's sake" as proclaimed by the art dealers.
Kingmakers and Other Types of Readers
Missing in previous readings of these genealogical texts is an account of the role that the reader is expected to play in the ideological exchange that these texts demand. As outlined above, the reader must be seduced into accepting the lineage as historically real, or the text fails at its fundamental task, which is to privatize enlightenment and then display it to the desirous public. In any of the genealogical texts, enlightenment is no longer a public possibility available to the smart or the diligent, even when some texts delight in recounting the success of some extraordinary "commoner-to-master" story, as in the case of Huineng. Similarly, enlightenment is no longer distributed in varying degrees in the various schools in China. Instead, it is in the bodies of certain masters and nowhere else, with all other Buddhists resoundingly criticized for this or that fault, or, failing specific lapses, at least the fault of not having received the gift of being in the lineage.
As all this implies, the installation of truth in a private family has rather profound implications for the reader's relationship to truth, which, if the narrative is believed, must now be mediated by means of the text and/or the representatives of the lineage of truth-fathers that it has created. However, the process of privatizing of enlightenment is not simply a one-way street, with the texts stealing truth away from more public sites like sutras, rituals, and all the other masters-lacking-genealogies. Instead, the public needs to cooperate with the texts for the "thieving" to actually occur. I explore this dialectic below, but for now let me note that the transfer of truth into the lineage is finalized only when those outside the lineage desire the lineage for what it "has." Thus, ironically, the lineage that reproduces itself via the "internal" gift of enlightenment from master to disciple is itself fulfilled by the public "gift" of belief from those outside the lineage, who, in typical intersubjective form, are in charge of turning ordinary men into masters, even as they overlook their own role of kingmaker in the exchange.
This cycle of recognition may sound unduly complicated at first, but I believe we have to say that in a genealogical assertion of truth-through-family-belongingness, the private ownership of truth can only be secured when non–family members see the family as it wishes to be seen. Thus, privatizing truth-claims ironically exists in and through the Other, an Other who, as reader and observer, must be made to look into the lineage and see therein a fullness of truth and authority that appears to predate the language that both constructed that presence-of-truth and drew in the public vision to confirm that presence. Or, in other terms, the potency of the master can only fructify in his chosen disciple(s) in the narrative when that narrative of transmission fructifies in the reader who participates in "fathering the father" once he believes that fathers are fathering replicas of themselves behind the narrative and not simply in it.
Moreover, the genealogy's essential dependence on the reader is cloaked with a kind of solicitude from the lineage texts that regularly promises to take care of the public. Thus, though the gift of enlightenment moves forward in time, privately from master to master in these texts, there are also many promises of a partial sharing of this universal good with the public, promises that come with the rider that no other local being/institution can "serve" the population like this one, and therefore these promises to share publicly the patrimony naturally only come in the wake of privatizing enlightenment in the first place. Obviously, if the lineage members did not have what everyone wanted, how could they offer it up? Of course, the prior moment of exchange—when the public verified and legitimized the lineage—is left unspoken, making the gift from the lineage look sublimely disinterested and benevolent. In fact, the master's generosity is often likened to an "echo" in many Tang texts where he is presented as one who responds reliably and selflessly to the needs of the populace who, of course, can only be thusly served if they first serve up faith in the reality of truth in the lineage and its supposed automatic benevolence. Ironically, then, by internalizing a doctrine of an external patriarchy that reproduces itself with pure truth, the reader has estranged himself from exactly what the lineage promises to give back to him—truth and final family belongingness.
Sameness and Hyper-Sameness: Why Nobody Does It Better
Intersecting this basic two-tier system produced by founding a truth-family separate from its adoring audience is the language of universal buddhahood, which also often comes under the rubric of a family connection—buddha-nature, buddha-seed, and son of the buddha. Misunderstanding how these two families fit together has been the basis for naive comments about Chan as democratic and egalitarian. Though Chan texts might assert that all beings are repositories for an internal buddha or have the buddha-seed or lineage within themselves, only the patriarchs supposedly have actualized this nascent identity. More importantly, the lineage texts claim that their patriarchal conduit is the only source or tool for actualizing the ubiquitous universal buddha-nature, which otherwise would languish as an altogether inaccessible reality. In short, inclusion in the basic, universal family identity of buddha-nature is not simply a happy birthright but rather the basis of congenital incompletion and self-alienation since one is required to rely on the specific family of actualized buddhas qua masters who are unique in their capacity to complete, and verify, everyone else's "innate" identity.
Given the constraints of family logic, it should be clear that the claim to have the right to give identity back to the text's audience means that the gift can never really be given since, despite the promise of inclusion, one is never quite in the truth-family. Or, as argued above, this rhetoric imposes the rule that one only really has one's identity when one is sanctioned with the power to give identity to others. The logic of the situation is that the aggressive ideology intent on securing enlightenment in a sealed patriline cannot, without annihilating its reason for being, ever give back what it took away from the public. To see the truth-father in the lineage, then, is to see oneself as a quasi-son who is paradoxically vaguely family to the lineage by natural "birth" but also strictly excluded from it on the grounds of not having been "reborn" into the lineage as the next master-father. In a classic Catch-22 arrangement, you learn of your rightful patrimony from a source that, once accepted as a legitimate speaker for the reality of your patrimony, will forever prevent you from owning what they just said you actually own.
Thinking more broadly about the issue of refathering Buddhists, it seems fair to say that the genealogies of the seventh and eighth centuries adopted the basic trope of Buddhist fathers and sons as found, for instance, in the Lotus Sutra but relocated that trope in historical time, with the notable effect that the lineage now reproduces Buddhist sons, instead of the sutra. Similarly, it would seem that this genealogical rhetoric took Mahayana rhetorics that speak of the internal split between hidden buddhahood and sullied sentient beingness, as found in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra or the Lankavatara Sutra, and expanded them into a whole sociology of difference such that masters of the lineage were just those sentient beings who have folded themselves completely into the true "half" of their given identities and offer themselves up as objects of devotion for others to emulate, again with the caveat that the texts explaining this reality will not, in the absence of contact with the lineage, advance one toward this goal. In short, we have the familiar function of desire in religious literature in which total closure in truth and goodness is shown to the reader even as the very form of that demonstration serves to produce an unbridgeable gap between the reader and his own closure with truth, along with the blindness of not seeing how that seeing was constructed by means of language, presentation, and alienation.
Though the Chan genealogies work at producing just this exciting gap between the reading public and the master, this phenomenon has been largely left out of modern critical studies. The essential problem in this oversight is that we have always taken Chan to be about masters, not noticing that the masters were presented to the reader to be desired. Clearly, these texts were for the reading public—they certainly were not for the masters themselves, who were usually dead before their buddha-stature was created—and thus they have to be read as conduits conjoining the sublime icon of the master and the ordinary reader, who, in his fantasy-vision of the textualized hero, wishes to be by the master's side, or quite literally in his family. To fail to interpret these texts in this manner would be like reading or watching advertisements and thinking that they were about the products and not about the relationship between the viewer and the products, a relationship that is designed to produce future exchanges and fidelities. It is just this function of genealogical literature as a conduit that draws the eyes of the desirous reader to the advertised master that I hope to recover in the following discussions.
With these general comments and perspectives in view, let us turn to consider how two Sui-era masters—Zhiyi and Xinxing—were created as buddha-like figures.