in the China Root: Taoism, Ch’an and Original Zen (Shambhala, 2020) translator / poet David Hinton makes two closely related arguments. The first, his strongest argument, is that English translations of Chán texts obscure, distort and obliterate Chán’s significant debt to Daoist thought. The second and somewhat weaker argument is that Chán is an offshoot of Daoism that incorporated Buddhist meditation into its own image and then redesigned it, instead of being an authentic descendant of Buddhism itself. There is no doubt that when Buddhism established itself in East Asia, it went through a significant process of Sinization, as it was 1) originally understood through the lens of Daoism and then 2) more thoroughly understood as the vast corpus of Buddhism literature was gradually translated into Chinese. There is also no doubt that the authors of the great works of Chán literature – e. B. The Transfer of the Lamp, the Platform Sūtra and the Kōan Collections – were at least as well versed in Laozi, Zhuangzi, Kongzi and Mengzi as they were in the Buddha, Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. The way in which Chán practitioners and thinkers negotiated the mutual assimilation and adaptation of Buddhist to Taoist ideas with their multiple similarities and incompatibilities is an infinitely fascinating subject.
Much of Hinton’s reasoning is philological. In other words, as the Chinese borrowed existing Chinese characters from the Daoist lexicon to translate novel Sanskrit words, even after centuries of use in their new Buddhist context, those words continued to mean what they meant to Daoists – no more and not less. Hinton may very well be right, but it is also possible that the words developed new and slightly different meanings in their new context, although they continued to retain the penumbra of some of their older connotations. I suspect this is a topic that scientists can (and will) discuss endlessly without reaching a final, generally agreed conclusion.
Having set out this caveat beforehand, I would like to say that Hinton presents a fascinating account of how English translations of Chán literature really do significant damage to Chán’s Daoist legacy. He shows how certain characters with clear Daoist meanings in well-known English translations are simply left out, not translated or incorrectly translated – for example the characters “玄” (xuán) for “dark riddle” and 文 (wén) for “inner” pattern ” which refers to the incomprehensibility of the Dao and its intricate internal pattern. Hinton also shows how words with 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 of the Daoist principle of “absence”. The movement of Dao is a continuous movement from absence to presence and back to absence again. Absence is thus the fertile void from which the 10,000 things manifest and return, and in some ways corresponds to the Buddhist idea of śūnyatā (Emptiness) in its implications for non-dual wholeness. So when Zhāozhōu says “wúIn response to the question of whether a dog has Buddha-nature, he not only denies it, but also points out the Dao and its undivided wholeness. In fact, Hinton points out that there is a bit of a play on words in the original Chinese version of this kōan, since the character kommt appears twice, first as a particle at the end of the student’s question expressing the negation (“A dog has a Buddha nature, no? ”) and then as an answer from Zhāozhōu, this time as confirmation of the principle of absence. This dual role of 無 both as negation and as a principle of absence can also be seen in the Chán concept of “no mind”, which can be understood as a mind without thoughts, but also as a “mind of absence”, as awareness of the mind undivided, ever-arising wholeness of reality of which mind is just another emerging phenomenon.
From here, Hinton looks at the fundamental Chán practices of sitting meditation and the Kōan practice from the perspective of the Daoist Wúwéi (無為, inaction or “absent action”). The arduous one-sided meditation so common in early Buddhist practices is replaced by an effortless open awareness of the constant arising of presence from absence and the indivision of being. The loosening of koans becomes a performative act in which solutions do not arise from thinking, but from the spontaneous action of the universe, as if it manifests itself in individual thinking and action. Meditation and kōan practice become the practice of oneness with all things here and now and a way of experiencing / expressing wholeness rather than attaining a transcendent nirvāṇa. When Chán speaks of “seeing one’s original nature” (見 性; jiànxìng, Chinese; kenshō, Japanese), this means discovering the already existing and always existing unity with the unfolding of the Dao. For Hinton there is no difference between “Buddha-nature” and that constant emergence of presence from absence and back again. Hinton also explores the influence of Chinese landscape painting on mountains and rivers, on Chán’s sensitivity and on how “mountains and rivers” are manifestations of Dao, as well as the emergence of thoughts and feelings – inner and outer landscapes that are one unified Reflect process.
All of this is certainly present in Chán, but much is also omitted from Hinton’s analysis. For example, Hinton’s analysis omits any mention of the bodhisattva vows, precepts, karma, the four noble truths, paramitas and brahmaviharas, dependent origins, and much more. The lamp transmission stories and kōan collections highlight Chán’s Daoist antinomic side, but do not reflect the Chán masters, who are equally deeply anchored in the broader Buddhist and Confucian traditions – traditions that she and her disciples might take for granted. Her transmission was a special transmission that went beyond letters and words, but this transmission did not eliminate the need to develop sophisticated wisdom, character and compassion. We see this clearly, for example, in the later Japanese Zen of Dōgen, who repeatedly said that one only had to sit zazen – forget everything else – but then also prescribe in detail how to read sutras, burn incense, bow, wear your robe, repent, sing, prepare meals, and wash your face.
I’m having a couple of issues with some of Hinton’s editing decisions. First, he transliterates Chinese names using the Wade-Giles system rather than the Pinyin system that most contemporary scholars use. Second, he refers to Chán masters by the English meaning of the Chinese characters that make up their names, rather than by their Chinese or Japanese transliterations. For example, he describes Zhāozhōu as “Master Visitation Land” and Linjī as “Master Purport Dark Enigma”. This is fine as long as you have the Chinese / Japanese transliteration equivalents in a footnote or appendix so you can easily align their names with the names you already know, but without them it’s just plain annoying. My final point of contention is the lack of footnotes to document research to support claims about Chinese and Chanic history. Without them, it is impossible for the reader to know or guess which scholarship they are relying on. For example, Hinton argues that the separation of the self from nature is due to disturbances in Paleolithic culture caused by the development of agriculture and the written language and an accompanying shift from a gynocentric to an androcentric worldview. That sounds good. As far as I know, it may be completely true – but I would like to know how he knows this and if it’s backed by scientific research. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the works cited at the end of the book contain no scientific references.
Despite these reservations, I found this book very valuable. I learned a lot about the history and meaning of the Chinese characters used to express Chán ideas. The book has helped me better understand the Daoist contributions to modern Zen practice and better understand the reasons for some of the underlying discontinuities between Zen teachings and those of other Buddhist schools. The book is written at a level that the average Zen practitioner can appreciate and enjoy.
I just wish Hinton’s approach had been a little more scientific. As a non-scholar who is not fluent in Classical Chinese, I have not always been sure how fully I could trust Hinton’s interpretations and alternative translations. When writing a book, there is always a trade-off between the enjoyment of the book for the general reader and the benefit for the scientific type. There’s never a perfect way to do this, but I wish Hinton was a little more wrong on the science side.
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