New Book on Ch’an

A new book on Ch’an was released back in September: China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen, by David Hinton. A reader’s note from the book states:

The primary project of this book is a direct and philosophical one: to describe the native conceptual framework of Ch’an in ancient China, to make it available to contemporary philosophical understanding and spiritual practice. This native understanding and practice of Ch’an is largely missing in contemporary American Zen because that conceptual framework was mostly lost in Ch’an’s migration from China through Japan to America. Indeed, that conceptual framework appears already lost in Japan, for little trace of it appears in the writings of the great Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, whose many books introduced Zen to the Western world.

The Taoist-link with Ch’an Buddhism is a decisive discourse within this book, but perhaps a little too much exclusivity as the dominant tone. As other reviewers of this work have noted, there are certain elements that were absent, such as the Bodhisattvic vow, the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination, but above all else the crucial absence of sutra texts such as the Lankavatara. Indeed that crucial and essential link to Ch’an, initiated when Bodhidharma handed his disciple Huike his copy of the Lanka—a gesture that gave birth to the Ch’an enterprise. Also, to suggest that Ch’an was anti-Buddhist is ludicrous at best. Despite these reservations, the book does offer a fascinating insight into the history and meaning of the Chinese characters used to express Ch’an ideas. The following excerpt from the Existential Buddhist states it best:

Having stated this reservation up front, let me say that Hinton presents a fascinating account of how English translations of the Chán literature really do a significant disservice to Chán’s Daoist heritage. He shows how certain characters that have clear Daois tmeanings are simply left omitted, untranslated, or mistranslated in well-known English translations—for example, the characters “玄” (xuán) meaning “dark enigma” and 文 (wén) meaning “inner pattern,” referring respectively to the ungraspable nature of the Dao and its intricate inner pattern. Hinton also shows how words that have important double meanings are translated as if they only have one meaning. For example, the Chinese character 無 (wú,Chinese; mu, Japanese) is usually translated simply as “no” or “not” as in the kōan of Zhāozhōu’s dog, or in the long list of negations in the Heart Sutra.

Hinton claims that 無 is also the character for the Daoist principle of “absence.” The movement of the Dao is a continuous movement from absence to presence and back again to absence. Absence is thus the fertile void from which the 10,000 things manifest and return, and parallels, in some respects, the Buddhist idea of Śūnyatā (emptiness) in its implications for non-dual wholeness. Thus, when Zhāozhōu says “wú” 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 無 occurs twice, first as a particle at the end of the student’s question expressing negation (“A dog has a Buddha-nature, no?”) and then as Zhāozhōu’s answer, this time as an affirmation of the principle of absence. This double role of 無 as both a negation and as the principal of absence can also be seen in the Chán concept of “no mind” which could be understood as a mind without thoughts, but also as “absence mind,” an awareness of the undivided constantly emerging wholeness of reality, of which mind is just one more emergent phenomenon.

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