Library JournalNan presents the development of Zen thought in China as influenced by Chinese culture-meaning primarily literature and politics-and also highlights the influence of Taoism and Confucianism on the particular form Buddhism took there. Nan is at his best when discussing specific Zen teachings. But he often does not present enough background on Chinese history and literature to enable the reader easily to follow his thoughts on their influence. Also, Nan's preference is clearly for Mahayana Buddhism over Theravada, which he refers to with the pejorative term Hinayana (lesser vehicle). The book would be best used along with other books that present Chinese history, such as Heinrich Dumoulin's two-volume Zen Buddhism: A History of India and China (Macmillian, 1988-89). Recommended as a thorough presentation of several aspects of Zen in China, as long as the library has some books on Chinese history to provide background.-David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino
Parabola MagazineMaster Nan's historical narrative unfolds by means of examination of the inseparable strands of literature and culture, theory and application. Like all Zen masters, his teaching blends philosophy, myth, legend, and story with the Buddhist sutras to form a rich and engaging tapestry in which each thread leads to the practice of meditation. In The Story of Chinese Zen, one of the last of the great Chinese masters of the Zen tradition presents an elegant and compact introduction to the influence of Zen on the cultural history of China. Zen students everywhere seem to have a universal tendency to think we have realized the experience when we have only understood the words, and Master Nan sets out to put words and practice back into right relationship. Throughout the book, Master Nan traces the influence of Zen on literature and popular culture. He dismisses the split between the Northern and Southern schools of Zen, based on notions of gradual or sudden enlightenment as a minor matter, having little to do with authentic Zen itself. A more far-reaching influence on Chinese culture was the custom of Zen's Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (637Ð713 C.E.) of using the vernacular when expounding (since he was illiterate), that produced a style of teaching that in its light and witty manner of expression led to a revolutionary change toward ordinariness in Buddhism and transformed the style of virtually every genre of literature from poetry and song to the popular novel. This is one of the hallmarks of Zen teaching to this day and differentiates it sharply from the more intellectual and doctrinarian approaches. The living application of Zen became the method of spontaneously opening up the insight of students, "unlike anything else in the world." It has always been assumed in China that it is literature that informs the stream of culture. It is poetry that maintains the fabric of society. Why, asks Master Nan, does Confucius use poems to make his point? The spirit of the traditional culture of the Chinese people has always been centered on human culture.
Therefore, when you want to adjust human emotions, it is necessary to have a kind of literary art that can transcend the mental realm between apparent reality and the emotions. Only then is it possible for emotion and thought to sublimate themselves to a state of mind similar to a religious state, whereby it is possible to transcend the environment of apparent reality.The inseparable continuity of religion and literature depend on the highest values of religious thought being formulated into the highest realm of literature. The life and wisdom of Zen flourished in the milieu of Chinese culture precisely because it developed a special independent literature that was able to influence all aspects of the culture, much like the example in the West of the Bible. In the end, the connection of Zen and Chinese literature is deep and intimate, transcending differences in doctrine and philosophy, interweaving scholarship and meditation to cultivate the best in human individuals and their society.
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