How Indian Buddhism evolved into American Zen

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How Indian Buddhism evolved into American Zen

China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen by David Hinton, Shambhala, US $17.95, Pp 162, September 2020, ISBN 978-1611807134

The American Zen is generally seen as the Buddhism that originated in India and reached Japan via China, where it was significantly evolved. In Japan it became known as Zen. Twelve centuries later, it reached America where it was shaped by the Japanese traditions. In China Root, David Hinton says that his is not the whole story. He continues that this narrative involves a stunning project of cultural appropriation in which Ch’an is presented as if it were Japanese. He says that even the names of Chinese Ch’an masters and important terminology were widely changed into Japanese.

Hinton says that this story leaves out just about everything that matters to Ch’an. It would be more accurate to say that when Buddhism arrived in China during the first century of the current era, it was fundamentally reinterpreted and reshaped and reshaped by Taoist thought, its more abstract metaphysical sensibility becoming grounded in an earthly and empirically based vision. The result of this amalgam which began to take shape from third into fifth centuries C.E. is Ch’an. And in this transformation, Buddhism is so transformed by Taoist thought that, aside from a few institutional trappings. It is scarcely recognizable as Buddhism at all.

Hinton articulates that it may be still more accurate to simply say that the influence of Buddhism pushed native Chinese philosophy to a new level of clarity and intensity, for the originators of Ch’an essentially adopted aspects of Buddhism (texts, ideas practices) that they found useful in enriching their own Taoist understanding, while reconceiving them fundamentally in Taoist terms. Most important among these imported Buddhist elements was a central focus on the nature of empty-mind, consciousness emptied of all content, a focus cultivated through a highly developed practice of empty-mind meditation known as dhyana. He argues that Ch’an found meditation a useful stage in training, but at more advanced levels reconceived and in the end dismantled it, returning to an enriched versions of ancient Taoism’s concept of meditation.

And Buddhism functions generally as a conceptual framework to dismantle – part of the Ch’an adventure of razing all conceptual constructions. This imperative to disassemble ideas was certainly present in the forms of Buddhism that arrived in China, part of why it appealed China’s artist-intellectuals.

Ch’an was more of a rebellion against Buddhism. Hinton says that it is most accurately described not as Buddhism reconfigured by Taoism, but as Taoism reconfigured by a Buddhism that was dismantled and discarded after the reconfiguration was complete. Ancient China’s artist-intellectual class saw Ch’an as a refinement and extension of Taoism. He argues that the more Ch’an is seen at the deep levels essential for awakening, the more Taoist it looks; while the more it is seen at shallow or institutional levels, the more Buddhist it looks.

Written from Tao-Ch’an perspective, China Root is a much-needed addition to the existing literature on the topic. It explains how Indian Buddhism and Taoism blended to give birth to Ch’an and then evolved into Japanese Zen and how it traveled to America. Most American practitioners will find their worldview transformed with new, informed perspectives. David Hinton has used plain English to make it accessible to lay readers as well, especially in the West. He very passionately and brilliantly explains philosophical concepts such as Absence, Presence and the Empty Mind. Hinton proves that he is an accomplished scholar and teacher of the topic as well as a master translator of Chinese. It is a required reading for all students and experts of Buddhism and Zen.

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