the buddhist roots of chan

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  • 8/6/2019 The Buddhist Roots of Chan

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    &f\V\ ~v0dlA ~Yhqek t V \\ ,( vr:' t A O u \ L\ A V \ ' N ' of \:0\tJA\~ ~ ( sC ;

    c ; / o C ) .

    CHAPTER 1The Buddhist Roots of Chan

    Buddhism originated in northern India some 2,500 years ago as aresponse to the suffering inherent in the human condition. Beginningin his own lifetime, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama-the Bud-dha, or "Awakened One" -were quickly spread throughout India,and, over a period of fiveor six centuries, they were carried across theentire continent of Asia. With the rise of transoceanic commerce andpolitics from the seventeenth century onward, Buddhist teachings andpractices spread into Africa, Europe, and the Americas and now exer-cise a truly global reach.Unlike the other major world religions, Buddhism is Iilotorganizedaround a universally shared core textJi!

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    8 CHAN BUDDHISM

    between the meaningful and complex life stories ofboth persons andpeoples. In the case of Buddhism and especially the Chinese develop-ment of Chan, this interweaving and eventual interpenetration of his-tories has been particularly complex and deep.

    T he In dia n B irth o f B u dd hist T ho ug ht a nd P ra cticeIn the sixth century H.C.E., the subcontinent of India was in the midstof a cultural and intellectual tidal shift. Between eight hundred and athousand years earlier, nomadic Aryan peoples from Central Asiahadcrossed the Khyber Pass to settle on the Ganges plain. For reasons thatremain unclear, the powerful urban centers that had characterized theindigenous Harappan culture from the middle of the third millenniumB.C.E. had for the most part already been abandoned. Aided by theadvent of iron tools and weaponry, large agricultural communitieswere gradually consolidated under Aryan rule, and there developedthe distinctive social, political, economic, and religious institutions

    e./\" '\'" that would dominate the life of the subcontinent for centuries there-IJ .1). , i ( after. By the sixth century, however, the pressures resulting from'..\.' r.,~.l.". .expanding political states, increasing urban development, and the riseIv ~ l\ v,l;\ v ' c . .. of a monetary economy were opening deep fissures in the authority of

    the dominant aristocratic and religious elites. In particular, criticismbegan circulating of the beliefs and ritual practices derived from thecollection of Indo-Aryan religious hymns known as t I

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    thus immaterial godhead or divine force. Instead, they insisted thatn~ su~ves :_he~eath of the body.thar good and evil are humanconstructs,_anathat reality isessentially and thoroughly material. Likemany present-day scientists, such proponents of materialism gener-ally argued that real l iberat ion was not some imagined release fromthe world, but the power of making and acting on choices in it. Themost extreme of these advocated indulgLng sense desires withoutrestraint or restriction in a hedonistic celebration of individual free-dom, with no thought of future l ives and consequences that would infact never come.Arrayed between these extremes Werevarious traditions more con-

    cerned with fin~~_ t l 1 ~ _or:ect_pr~ctice for realizing moksha ratherth~~~solute doctrin:~ a~~,t>,"reality." Most often~-thes;;;-ups

    1, advocated the immediate rejection of family life, material comforts, familia] andcommunal duties, caste identification, and the concerted'. / cti f thI :)1:;'hv/ pra lee 0 one or ano er form of ascet ic self-discipline and lor con-

    a ;: S~?1'(..: : '~ t~~plati~n. Through a process of literal abstraction, many such tra-Uditions aimed to cut the pract it ioner ,f reeof all but the most tenuous

    th_read~of connection with worldly life and experience~freedomfrom VIrtually any cause of perceived bondage. Other traditions, likethose that found fullest expression in the epic philosophical drama ofthe Bhagavad-Gita , were more explicitly conservative and advocatedunion or yoga simply through doing one's own duty, without regardto conseq~ences and the appearance of ri.~htand wrong.-:--It was I.nto a world of such complexlyfco_m~tIn[ vi

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    12 CHAN BUDDHISM

    together illan altern~:tive, monastic community organized to promotefI:\'ft 'li\I"'--\\~-i~t:nsifiedpr~ctioe. For those who diose to rema_iIlliouseliolders~(dN\)01Io\Vllf\~l:aKing,m some ways, the steeper approach to the Middle Way-he

    provided guidelLnes for revising the meaning of their social relation-I_\- . ._~ A ships in ways conducive to the realization of full liberation from. suf-

    f , \ " \ e v V 1 ~ : V - - feri Th' hasi al d_ -\ ( enng. IS emp asis on mUhl._ypport an the relevance of rela-\NI /, '\ V " / I V ! ' hi al i f -1' h --U . hOE_~_It'~'tO:_:_l~~on 0 en Ig tenment would later be central to the

    .; 1 ) c : : . t tt:\ - freely admitting women and the members of the lowest castes into hisr l) U communi ty, he not only denied the significance of elite status, he

    et - ttl/' f J r ; ; , r denied the significance of any essential status whatsoever. What trulymattered were not one's "state of affairs" or "identity," but the direc-tion and_q_ll~i1:j'ofone' s_attentiOIillillcl50nduct..-P~~haps no less radical was the Buddha's insistence that his ownspeech patterns and language not be considered crucial elements in

    the spread of his teachings, or Dharma. Urging his students to uselocal patterns of speech and local.dialects in spreading the Dharma,the Buddha made it clear that &.~~tlearning and intellectual sophisti-cation were not necessary for liberatio~O~~~did not ~eed the ability

    !. to readsacredtexts, the talentforI1~citing and understanding convo-'/ ' .]luted doctrmes, or the means and institutional authority to performIi complex rituals, Neither did one need to be able to enter into winningdebate with the advocates of the hundreds of views on "ultimate truth"that were then current in India. One needed only to keenly attend!tohow things have come to be, just asthey are. This alone was needed tosee the way of fully and meaningfully resolving suffering.

    The Buddha's Root teachingsAccording, to the Buddha, the first step in liberation-the firs t s tep onthe Middle Path of Buddhist practice-is to come fully to rest and

    ' > < ! f . . realize that s ome th in g i sw r o n g h e re .It may be that you are in the midst of the breakup of a love rela-

    The Buddhist Roots of Chan 13tionship. A family member or friend might recently have passed away.Or it may be that you are worried about an upcoming interview orexam, dizzy with hunger after missing your last meal, or simply wornout to the verge of exhaustion by the demands of parenthood.Whether it is a matter of dreams evaporating before our eyes, effortsgoing unrewarded, or a shock wave of terrorism breaking altogethertoo close to home, right now, thL~g_s~ar~_g2in_gwry.Hearing this, there is a! compclsion to object. Having just eaten, youfeelfull and content. Having just received a long sought after raise or

    succeeded in catching the eye of an attractive classmate or coworker,"something iswrong here" doesn't ring quite true. There is no doubtthat love relationships often fail and dissolve into spells of deepdepression and sharp self-doubt. But what could be more right ~anthe feeling of falling inlove?What could be more joyous than the birthofa first child or the moment of a dream come finally true? What wasthe Buddha's point?

    '['HE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHSAshe traveled from village to village and from town to town, the Bud-dha was often asked what he taught and how itdiffered from the teach--ings of other homeless ascetics and contemplatives as well as fro~those given by local brahmin interpreters of the Vedas and Upam-shad's. Most often, he would reply that his Dharma, or teaching, wasvery simple, consisting of only fOUIsimple truths that he would invitehis audience to consider:

    1. All this is duhkha ("troubled" or "suffering").2. There isa pattern inhow duhkha arises.3. There is a pattern in how duhkha is resolved.4. There isan Eightfold Path for turning duhkha towardmeaningful resolution.

    Like many of the first translators to render Buddhist texts intoWestern languages, many of those who heard these Four Noble Truthswould dismiss the first truth as a statement of unlimited and finallyuseless pessimism: "everything is suffering," But the first noble truthactually makes no such universal claim. The Buddha said, "All this is

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    14 CHAN BUDDHISMtroubled or suffering." Hewouh] agree that wecan eat a chicken salador a hamburger and get rid of our hunger pains-at least for severa lhours: But aside from the fact that this "solution" isnot a last ing one,there IS the problem of perspective. Is eating a hamburger a trouble-free solution to the problem of hunger in our present situation as awhole?For example, how must this "solution" appear to chickens and

    cows? How are Central American peasants affected bythe beef indus-~'s.forced. c~nversion of subsistence farmland to grazing-a cruciallmk in servxmg fast food cravings? The f irs t noble truth invi tes us tor_esista.:tin.~~~ifU~~.~~~Fe~:es in_p~erspectiv~do not r~ill~atter.They do. The fact that I m okay" does not necessarily entail that"you're okay." Realizing that all !! ri~:-our si tuat ion as a whole-is~o~ble9 or suffering. in~?_!vesH~peni~gour;elve;~e~t_9_~~;g._that,c ; : : = ? nght now, from some present perspective, thing~_ar~."!!Q._t_S2Pgell.. The second noble truth suggests that i fwelook closely enough, we

    ~Isco~er that there is a pat tern in things going wrong and that we aremvar~ably at least part of the reason whrwe are led by our usual per-spec~ve on the s~

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