2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 109

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New Perspectives on Language in Relation to Religious Experience in Chan’s Gongan Discourse

Organizer and Chair: Steven Heine, Florida International University, USA

Discussant: G. Victor Hori, McGill University, Canada

This panel examines materials and perspectives regarding heretofore little or misleadingly tracked aspects of the theory and practice of gongan discourse in Chan Buddhism, particularly involving the fundamental issue of the role of language in relation to the attainment of spiritual realization that is said to be “independent of words and letters.” The panel consists of four papers that will be distributed before the meeting, and presenters will be limited to 15 minutes each in order to facilitate in-depth discussion with experts in attendance. Miriam Levering deals with the interface between Chan discourse and Tiantai Buddhist nianfo practice regarding the moment-of-death experience. Steven Heine shows how Yuanwu, the compiler of the first major collection of gongan during the Song dynasty, the Blue Cliff Record known for its literary embellishment, took a guarded approach toward language by neither affirming nor denying its applicability. Morten Schlütter investigates the shortcut punch-line method in post-Song Chan literary developments in relation to Pure Land practice, whereas Matthew Wilhite demonstrates that one key Chan figure of the period eschewed gongan discourse for a more realistic approach to language. Respondent Victor Hori uses fieldwork to highlight the experiential aspect of kōan practice in relation to its linguistic/literary functions. Senior scholars Heine, Hori, Levering and Sclütter, who have published widely in the field of gongan studies, although each deals with newer approaches, join junior scholar Wilhite to present diverse but interlinking methodological standpoints.

Rethinking Yuanwu’s View of the Role of Language in Chan Gongan Discourse
Steven Heine, Florida International University, USA

This paper examines a short yet crucial passage from the commentary on the first case of the Blue Cliff Record (Ch. Biyan lu, Jp. Hekiganroku), famed for its eloquent rhetorical style. In his prose remarks, which I argue have been misleadingly translated or interpreted in recent studies, Yuanwu stakes out his view of the role of language in Chan gongan discourse by valorizing the verse comments of Xuedou, compiler of the 100 cases on which the Biyan lu is based. According to Yuanwu: 若是具眼者看他一拈一掇一褒一貶只用四句揩定一則公案。大凡頌古只是繞路說禪,拈古大綱據欵結案而已。雪竇與他一拶。。。 (T 48:141a13-16) “Those who have eyes see that [Xuedou] uses only four lines of verse to settle the whole case by picking up this and considering that, praising here and bashing there. Generally, verse comments explicate Chan just by using a meandering approach while prose comments solve a kōan through remarking on its overall meaning, and that is all. But here Xuedou pinches hard…” While other renderings stress that there is a difference between verse and prose commentary, or see both as positive, what is crucial is that Yuanwu from the start of his collection emphasizes the innate limitations of discourse while at the same time showing how appropriate language can be useful.

Chan’s Merging of Gongan with Pure Land Practice in the Ming Dynasty
Morten Schlutter, University of Iowa, USA

Chan/Zen’s ambivalent relationship with language and literature is perhaps most starkly seen in its practice of gongan (Jpn.: koan) meditation. This practice was first instituted by the famous Linji master Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), and involves an intense meditational focus on the “punch line” (Ch.: huatou, Jpn.: wato) of what is typically a story about an ancient Chan master or an enigmatic question like “why did [the legendary founder of Chan] Bodhidharma come from the West?” In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a new gongan became widely used in Chan meditation: the phrase “who is reciting the name of the Buddha?” This was a reference to the widespread practice of chanting homage to the Buddha Amitabha in hope of getting reborn into his paradise. In using this new gongan, Chan seemingly embraced oral practice in an unprecedented move and appeared to combine the other-power of Amitabha worship with the self-power of Chan meditation. Scholars have struggled with understanding this development, and several have dismissed it as an example of the degeneration of Chan in later centuries. In this paper, I will examine how the Chan tradition itself has understood and explained the use of “who is reciting the name of the Buddha?” in Chan meditation. I will challenge the usefulness of the degeneration paradigm, and seek to show that Chan masters of the Ming dynasty were deeply engaged in a project to overcome the duality between language and oral practice on the one hand and the notion of a wordless transmission on the other.

Do Not Say That You Have Forgotten King and Father: Yunqi Zhuhong's Chan Realism
Matthew Wilhite, , USA

This paper examines the Ming dynasty Chan master Yunqi Zhuhong's (1535-1615) commentary on the Fanwang Jing (Brahma Net Sutra) and explores his discourse of Chan realism. The Fanwang Jing contains a list of major and minor precepts governing proper morality for monastic and lay buddhists. Specifically, Zhuhong's interpretation of the twenty-first minor precept against revenge offers insight into his moral concerns regarding the disconnect between provisional truth and ultimate truth. In acknowledging the value of provisional truth, which he associates with Confucianism, Zhuhong rejects the antinomianism prevalent in Chan discourse and embraces a gradualist paradigm for the cultivation of both the individual and society. Through his admission that provisional truth and morality are necessary to the survival of Buddhism, Zhuhong separates himself from the rejection of gradual cultivation found in the Platform Sutra, as well as the rejection of conventional logic and morality found in many encounter dialogues. Unlike the encounter dialogues and gongan of preceding dynasties, Zhuhong's Chan discourse is marked by clarity, willingness to compromise, and rejection of traditional Chan rhetorical devices. This paper aims to focus on the tone and content of the often overlooked Ming dynasty Chan discourse and shift emphasis away from that of the Tang and Song dynasties.