The truth of Chan Buddhism—better known as “Zen”—is regularly said to be beyond language, and yet Chan authors—medieval and modern—produced an enormous quantity of literature over the centuries. To make sense of this well-known paradox, Patriarchs on Paper explores several genres of Chan literature that appeared during the Tang and Song dynasties (c. 600–1300), including genealogies, biographies, dialogues, poems, monastic handbooks, and koans. Working through this diverse body of literature, Alan Cole details how Chan authors developed several strategies to evoke images of a perfect Buddhism in which wonderfully simple masters transmitted Buddhism’s final truth to one another, suddenly and easily, and, of course, independent of literature and the complexities of the Buddhist monastic system. Chan literature, then, reveled in staging delightful images of a Buddhism free of Buddhism, tempting the reader, over and over, with the possibility of finding behind the thick façade of real Buddhism—with all its rules, texts, doctrines, and institutional solidity—an ethereal world of pure spirit. Patriarchs on Paper charts the emergence of this kind of “fantasy Buddhism” and details how it interacted with more traditional forms of Chinese Buddhism in order to show how Chan’s illustrious ancestors were created in literature in order to further a wide range of real-world agendas.
Alan Cole is an independent scholar who has taught at Lewis & Clark College, Harvard University, the University of Illinois, the University of Oregon, and the National University of Singapore.
“Cole offers an original, innovative, and compelling history of Tang-Song Chan literature that challenges and corrects many of the more long-standing misrepresentations of the tradition. Patriarchs on Paper’s great strength and originality is in taking Chan literature seriously as literature and allowing readers to access this world with all of the excitement of a literary detective story. With an extremely high degree of analytic sophistication, Cole has rendered this large and often contentious body of secondary scholarship into a coherent narrative of literary and institutional history intelligible and meaningful to the nonspecialist. The manuscript is exemplary in presenting a critical history of deeply complex material that is at once rigorous and engaging."—D. Max Moerman, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard and Columbia University
"Using lively, provocative, and accessible prose, Alan Cole provides his readers with a compelling behind-the-scenes look at the emergence of Chan as a literary tradition. In Patriarchs on Paper, Cole retraces the steps of some of Chan's most celebrated authors to show how they tried to secure legitimacy, patronage, recognition, and much more through their creative use of new models of authority, brand consciousness, conspiracy theories, and playful dialectics. This book is a must-read for anyone looking to take a brisk and refreshing stroll through the forest of conceptual thickets known as Chan or Zen."—Juhn Y. Ahn, University of Michigan