20. What are your views on Buddhism? More specifically, the controversy about D. T. Suzuki.



Necessity for Detailed Study


Suzuki Modern Zen


Hu Shih Version of Chan and Revisions


Hinayana and Shakyamuni Buddha




Vajrayana Traditions of India and Tibet


Sudden and Gradual in Chinese Buddhism

20.1  Necessity for Detailed Study

Buddhism is a very big subject. My introduction to that religion occurred in 1965, when I visited the Buddhist Society of London. However, I did not commence a detailed study until the early 1970s, when I began to borrow books on Buddhism from Downing College Library in Cambridge. It was primarily the Mahayana traditions which I then studied. One task was to understand how the various sects and traditions had spread from India to Central Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, and yet other countries. The diversity of teaching, ethnic complexities, and the time-scale of many centuries, comprised a challenging field of investigation.

I discovered that many Western enthusiasts of Buddhism did not apply themselves to any detailed study of this religious phenomenon. They expected to get "enlightenment" by adopting the practice of meditation. There were many disappointments. The practitioners often opted to follow a particular tradition, usually Zen (associated with China and Japan) or Vajrayana (associated with Tibet). I did sample both of those traditions, but without becoming a partisan (Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 43-5).

What interested me was the Buddhist phenomenon as a whole, and from a historical and philosophical standpoint, not from any sectarian one. How many times did I find Zen elevated above all other religions and philosophies? There were numerous instances of that approach available in popular literature, and I developed an allergy accordingly. I became aware that specialist scholarship was probing Zen in a more analytical spirit than generally known.

I returned to these matters in the 1980s at CUL (Cambridge University Library). I was able to track ongoing books like Professor Bernard Faure’s highly rated The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (1991). A version of Zen was included in my Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 103-122. Here I incorporated a topic that was marginalised for many years prior to the 1990s, namely the debate between the Japanese savant D.T. Suzuki and the Chinese scholar Hu Shih. Both of these men were University Professors; their respective worldviews were conflicting.

A controversy now centres upon D. T. Suzuki, who has been criticised in relation to Japanese nationalism of the late Meiji era and the early twentieth century. The full argument has some strong extensions.

20.2  Suzuki Modern Zen

Daisetz_Teitaro_Suzuki (1870-1966) became widely regarded in the West as the major expositor of Zen Buddhism. Some commentators state that he achieved enlightenment. He became a Professor of Buddhist philosophy at Otani University in Kyoto from 1921, and was later a visiting Professor at Columbia University during 1952-7. His output should not be underestimated. He could speak seven languages and wrote many books. He contributed such influential works as Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols, 1927-34) and Zen and Japanese Culture (first edn 1938; second edn 1959). Another major book was his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1932). Perhaps more widely read were his Manual of Zen Buddhism (1934), Living by Zen (1949), and The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (1949).


hu shih

l to r: Daisetz T. Suzuki, Hu Shih

The reputation of Suzuki for enlightenment derived from his early years. While studying at Tokyo University as a young man, he took up the practice of Zen at weekends, and during vacations, with the Rinzai priest Soyen Shaku (1859-1919). This occurred at a monastery of Engakuji Zen Temple in Kamakura. Suzuki did not become an ordained monk, instead remaining a layman. His fabled enlightenment in 1896 is associated with the practice of koan, the enigmatic phrases which later became popular in America. Suzuki married an American Theosophist in 1911. Conservative Japanese Zen practitioners regard him as a populariser of Zen.

Suzuki’s version of Zen was innovative and apologist, following a Buddhist trend occurring in the Meiji era (1868-1912). His version of bushido, the cult of the sword, is very easy to criticise. Suzuki was the son of an army doctor, and the descendant of a samurai family. The present writer questioned the status of enlightenment (satori) credited to Professor Suzuki by Western partisans of Zen (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p.187 note 177). Descriptions of satori are often vague, making this experience easy to claim by persons far less accomplished than Suzuki. To his credit, the Japanese savant is reported to have been unimpressed by outpourings of the Beatniks Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; the occasion was a meeting they gained with him in New York. These innovators believed they understood Zen; others were in strong doubt on such points.

After his Zen phase at Engakuji Temple, in 1897 Suzuki moved to America, where he remained until 1908. In later years, many Westerners came to regard him as a Zen teacher. However, he rejected that role, instead adopting the career of a writer and lecturer. In 1949, Suzuki said to one Western enquirer: "I am a talker not a teacher." His own report of his 1896 satori at Engakuji claimed the "real state of samadhi" in ceasing to be conscious of the Mu koan prescribed by his mentor Soyen Shaku. According to Suzuki, this experience enabled satori or enlightenment. The satori was endorsed by "a series of checking questions" in a formal interview with Soyen (Richard M. Jaffe, introduction, Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki Vol. 1, University of California Press, 2014, p. xxii). Both of these "enlightened" entities were sponsors of the Japanese war effort.

Suzuki has been accused of Zen nationalism. This theme is expressed by such scholars as Professor Robert H. Sharf. Zen nationalism involved a disconcerting factor generally ignored in the West during the lifetime of Suzuki:

It was no coincidence that the notion of Zen as the foundation for Japanese moral, aesthetic, and spiritual superiority emerged full force in the 1930s, just as the Japanese were preparing for imperial expansion in East and Southeast Asia. (Sharf, Whose Zen: Zen Nationalism Revisited, 1995)

Suzuki is here viewed in terms of presenting the Japanese Zen experience as both unique and universal. The deducible claim of some exponents like Suzuki was: "Zen is truth itself, allowing those with Zen insight to claim a privileged perspective on all the great religious faiths" (Sharf 1995:46). Zen uniqueness was introduced to the West "through the activities of an elite circle of internationally minded Japanese intellectuals and globe--trotting Zen priests, whose missionary zeal was often second only to their vexed fascination with Western culture" (Sharf, The Zen of Japanese Nationalism, 1993).

Sharf observes that Japanese military victories, including defeat of the Chinese in 1895, influenced a national tendency to view Japanese accomplishments with reference to bushido, the way of the warrior. "The fact that the term bushido itself is rarely attested in pre-Meiji literature did not discourage Japanese intellectuals and propagandists from using the concept to explicate and celebrate the cultural and spiritual superiority of the Japanese" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism, linked above). A work by Nitobe Inazo entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan, was published in English in 1900. This was the tip of the iceberg. "A generation of unsuspecting Europeans and Americans were subjected to Meiji caricatures of the lofty spirituality, the selflessness, and the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese race" (ibid).

The first English language books on Zen emphasised a close relationship between Zen and the fashionable "way of the samurai." The first of these books was published in 1906, namely Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot by Soyen Shaku (1860-1919), a priest of Rinzai Zen who was the abbot of temples at Kamakura. He was also a teacher of Suzuki. Soyen included in his published sermons a brief defence of Japanese military aggression in Manchuria. The priest asserted: "War is not necessarily horrible. provided that it is fought for a just and honourable cause" (cited in Sharf, Japanese Nationalism). Nationalists viewed military aggression as honourable, in the cause of the divine Emperor. The Zen abbot glossed war with the statement: "Many material human bodies may be destroyed, many hearts may be broken, but from a broader point of view these sacrifices are so many phoenixes consumed in the sacred fire of spirituality" (cited in Sharf, art.cit).

Soyen Shaku was keen to depict Westerners as being generally unsuited to Eastern mysticism. Large numbers of the aliens became converts to Zen and samurai lore. Many years later, some Westerners were keen to pay high prices for lethal Japanese swords, which gained a repute as being warrior talismans of a virtually transcendent category.

Soyen Shaku served as a chaplain to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. In 1904, the pacifist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote to Soyen, requesting the abbot to join him in denouncing the war. Soyen refused, demonstrating a nationalist spirit. After that war, Soyen attributed the victory of Japan to the samurai code (Wikipedia Soyen Shaku, accessed 12/01/2019).

The second Zen book in English was Religion of the Samurai: A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan (1913). The author here was the Soto Zen priest Nukariya Kaiten (1867-1934). He was also a university professor and a friend of Suzuki. One message in his book is that only in Japan was Buddhism still alive; the author promotes the idea that pure Zen could only be found in Japan. Moreover, "Zen is an ideal doctrine for a newly emergent martial Japan" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism). Nukariya Kaiten stated: "It is Zen that modern Japan, especially after the Russo-Japanese War, has acknowledged as an ideal doctrine for her rising generation" (cited in Sharf, art.cit.). Nukariya "argues that the spirit and ethic of Zen is essentially identical with that of the samurai" (Sharf, op. cit.). Late Meiji era Zen apologists were keen on bushido and national spirit, an ideology blending easily with themes of imperial conquest and unconditional obedience to the Emperor.

Suzuki furthered the connection of Zen with bushido. "The notion that Zen is somehow related to Japanese culture in general, and bushido in particular, is familiar to Western students of Zen through the writings of D. T. Suzuki" (Sharf, art. cit.). Suzuki remained a middle class Zen layman. Much of the writing about his life is "hagiographical in nature." Sharf further describes Suzuki as "a product of Meiji New Buddhism," meaning the reaction to government opposition and loss of income and land for Buddhist temples. The defensive partisans "readily admitted to the corruption, decay and petty sectarian rivalries that characterised the late Tokugawa Buddhist establishment." The new Buddhists of the late Meiji era "actively appropriated the ideological agenda of government propagandists.... They became willing accomplices in the promulgation of kokutai (national polity) ideology - the attempt to render Japan a culturally homogenous and spiritually evolved nation politically unified under the divine rule of the emperor" (Sharf, art.cit.).

Despite the popular accolades gained by Suzuki in the West, Paul Demieville, "perhaps the greatest scholar of East Asian Buddhism of his day, decried the manner in which Suzuki attempted to embrace the whole of Japanese culture under the banner of Zen" (Sharf, art. cit.).

Various critiques of Suzuki have emerged in more recent years. A strong issue is that of his alleged support for Japanese military aggression in Asia, including the Pacific War dating to 1937-1945. One of his emphases was "the sword that kills and the sword that gives life." Some have seen in such phrases "at the very least tacit support for Japanese militarism and expansionism in Asia" (Richard M. Jaffe, introduction, Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki Vol. 1, University of California Press, 2014, p. xvii). Suzuki definitely supported the earlier Russo--Japanese war and the colonisation of Korea. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, exploiting natural resources and cheap labour, and forcing Koreans to adopt the language and religion of Japan (primarily Shinto).

In 1904, Suzuki invoked Buddhism in his attempt "to convince Japanese youth to die willingly for their country." This was eight years after his "enlightenment." Satori decoded to warcry. In the Russo-Japanese war, 47,000 young Japanese men lost their lives in the death programme advocated by Suzuki, Soyen Shaku, and many other zealous Buddhist exponents. See Brian Victoria, "Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki," The Asia-Pacific Journal (2013).

Many years later, some controversial writings of Suzuki, on Zen and bushido, were given to editors of Japanese military journals. This gesture cannot be considered pacifist. However, those writings do not employ themes like "Japanese spirit" (yamato damashii), dying for the imperial cause, or State Shinto, concepts common in the output of other Japanese intellectuals of that era (Jaffe 2014:xviii). His own agenda wished "to displace the increasing emphasis on Shinto as the foundation of Japanese life" (ibid:xvii).

The partisan Jaffe interpretation is described in terms of being "calculated to neutralise the criticisms that, since the 1990s, have destabilised his [Suzuki's] heroic image as a custodian of Asian tradition." Quote from George Lazopoulos, Zen Again: Reconsidering D. T. Suzuki (2015).

A defensive version of the contested situation is: "Like many Japanese intellectuals of his generation, Suzuki passively accepted Japanese imperial expansion and the increasingly military aggression against China in the 1930s, although Suzuki did later admit his guilt for his failure to be more outspoken" (Jaffe 2014:xvii). On several occasions during the late 1930s, and 1940s, he wrote (in private letters) that the war in Asia, and against the Allies, "would cause great harm to Japan" (ibid:xviii). In a letter of 1941, Suzuki commented: "This war is certain to take us to the brink of destruction - indeed we can say that we are already there" (ibid.). By that time, Suzuki could evidently foresee the backlash from America.

An American scholar of Zen has contributed the significant book Zen at War (1997; second edn, 2006), and also Zen War Stories (2003). Brian (Daizen) Victoria reveals that Zen Buddhist traditions supported the aggressive political and military disposition of Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, and even afterwards. Almost all the Japanese Buddhist temples strongly supported Japanese militarism. A basic belief discernible is that war was necessary to implement dharma (Buddhist religion) in Asia. Chinese Buddhists criticised this disconcerting development.

Victoria has shown that Zen theory influenced the Japanese military. A prominent example was Lt. Colonel Sugimoto Goro (1900-1937), who died in battle in China. His posthumous book Taigi (Great Duty) was popular amongst young officers. He wrote: "Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my self. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit of the imperial military." Goro described his role in terms of "soldier Zen." His death was honoured by Zen communities. Goro was treated as a national hero by his teacher Yamazaki Ekiju, leader of Rinzai Zen. Ekiju was a fervent nationalist who celebrated the emperor. Japanese wartime Zen leaders interpreted a Buddhist doctrine of the non-existence of self in an improvised manner, meaning complete willingness to die in the service of emperor and state. This was definitely not the original meaning of such concepts (Victoria, "A Buddhological Critique of Soldier-Zen in Wartime Japan," in M. Jerryson and M. Juergensmeyer, eds., Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010). The war against China was justified by soldier Zen. Obedience to the emperor was first and foremost.

The crux of this situation is: "Institutional Buddhist leaders were united as one in their fervent promotion of the war effort" (Victoria, Zen War Stories, New York: Routledge 2003, p. 226). Rinzai leader Yamazaki Ekiju wrote; "The faith of the Japanese people is a faith that should be centred on His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor" (ibid.). The Zen sects were monarchist at this period. The Zen soldier Sugimoto Goro informs that, amongst Buddhists, only the Zen movement had enshrined the Emperor in image formats featuring Amitabha Buddha. A wartime emphasis of influential layman Suzuki is revealing: most of Japan's problems could be solved instantly "if the warrior spirit, in its purity, were to be imbibed by all classes in Japan" (ibid:202).

Zen exponents employed themes of no-self and non-duality "to legitimate Japanese militarism and indoctrinate soldiers with an ideology of self-sacrifice." This tendency jettisoned the essential Buddhist precept of ahimsa or non-violence. A loophole for this dismissal was the nondual doctrine of emptiness (shunyata). The reported exhortation of a seventeenth century Zen teacher to a warrior patron reads: "The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness.... The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword." This relativist message was tailor-made for samurai actions of killing. Zen was accordingly often criticised by other Buddhist traditions for antinomian dismissal of monastic ethical precepts (James L. Ford, The Divine Quest, East and West, State University of New York Press, 2016, p. 297).

In 1941, the Soto Zen leader Omori Zenkai (d.1947) was a strong supporter of Japanese militarism. He wrote: "It is in killing the idea of the small self that we are reborn as a true citizen of Japan" (Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 116). A serious confusion is evident. Soldier Zen, and the Japanese army in general, was not killing the small self but instead victim bodies that became corpses.

In his revealing output, Brian Victoria has also emphasised an obscured reference in the Suzuki article Rush Forward Without Hesitation (1941). This article appeared in Kaiko Kiji, the Imperial Army Officers Journal, in June 1941. Suzuki there states: "I believe one should pay special attention to the fact that Zen became united with the sword." This is a reference to soldier Zen. The wartime writings of Suzuki are a headache for pacifists and Buddhist believers in ahimsa (non-violence). Suzuki praised medieval warlords like Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen for demonstrating the unity of Zen and the sword. These two sixteenth century samurai "were responsible for the deaths of thousands of their enemies and their own forces, each one of them attempting to conquer Japan. Suzuki lumps these warlords together as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the proper mental attitude acquired through Zen training" (Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death).

Suzuki became ascendant in the 1930s with such works as Essays in Zen Buddhism. He had an influential habit of describing Indian Buddhism as inferior to the Japanese version. Suzuki expressed "a harsh view of the fate of Buddhism, particularly Chan, in China" (Jaffe 2014:xvi). He even stated: "There is no Zen in China worth speaking of" (ibid:xvii).

Less well known are Suzuki articles on the Nazi regime, appearing in a Kyoto newspaper of 1936. "When read in the context of the times, Suzuki's articles are actually a cleverly worded apologia for the Nazis" (Victoria, "D. T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11 no. 4, 2013). The Zen exponent is disconcerting on the subject of Hitler's attitude to Jews. Brian Victoria here reminds that the content of these articles "reflected the pro-Nazi thinking of many Japanese at that time."

Elsewhere, Suzuki urged that traditional Japanese Zen lacked social engagement and logic (ronri). He emphasised that logic was necessary for Westerners to accept Zen. The issue here becomes the extent to which he changed Zen from the older model via the "logical and irrational" format of Modern Zen, the extension of Meiji New Buddhism. Suzuki's version of Zen enlightenment was influenced by the thought of William James, and also by his close friend Nishida Kitaro (Jaffe 2014:xiii). Critics say that Suzuki decontextualised Zen tradition, his version being regarded as authoritative Zen by his Western supporters, who failed to discern the nationalist ideology at work. Suzuki Modern Zen should now be distinguished from the modern Rinzai and Soto monastic orthodoxies in Japan.

In 1984, there were over 23,000 ordained Zen priests in Japan. These men had undergone a minimum of two or three years monastic training. They staffed over 20,000 registered Zen temples in Japan. "The vast majority of these functioning Zen priests have little knowledge of, or interest in, the musings of intellectuals such as Suzuki, Nishida, or Hisamatsu" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism).

Suzuki presented bushido to a Western audience as "the very embodiment of Zen" (Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death). He glorified the sword in a well known work eventually entitled Zen and Japanese Culture, originating in the 1930s. This book conveyed the impression that samurai were Zen practitioners. Suzuki samurai ideation saturated the American Zen sector, where swords became revered as tokens of Buddhism. The samurai were a warrior class not basically inclined to contemplation or koan, although a number of them did opt for Zen affiliation, discernibly advantageous to Zen temples. New Buddhism apologists presented bushido as a code of chivalry. The operation of that martial code evaded fixed rules, serving relentless imperial purposes of conquest and colonisation. The samurai sword was an instrument of death and execution, with other savage excesses also occurring via use of that weapon.

The wartime writings of Suzuki on bushido were evidently regarded by the Japanese army as a boost for morale. His article Zen and Bushido was selected for inclusion in the "military-dominated" book Bushido no Shinzui (The Essence of Bushido). This was published in November 1941, less than a month before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour. Other contributors to that work included the prominent Imperial Army General Sadao Araki (later sentenced as a class-A war criminal). The Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945) penned the introduction. The Suzuki article stated: "When it comes time to act, the best thing is simply to act. You can decide later on whether it was right or wrong. This is where the life of Zen lies. The life of Zen must become just as it is, the life of the warrior" (Victoria, "The Negative Side of D. T. Suzuki's Relationship to War," The Eastern Buddhist 41, 2:97-138, pp. 134-5; article dated 2010). Critics say that this argument amounts to amoral relativism.

Brian Victoria informs that the same 1941 article by Suzuki "contained not so much as a single word acknowledging the immense suffering inflicted on the Chinese people by Japan's ongoing aggression" (ibid:136). This trait converged with the disposition of Prime Minister Konoe, who has the repute in earlier years of escalating the war with China after the Nanking bloodbath; this aristocrat stated that Japan was irrevocably committed to conquest of China. Fumimaro committed suicide at the end of the World War, upon learning that he was to be tried as a suspected war criminal.

Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese imperial army invaded and oppressed Manchuria, Mongolia, China, Burma, and elsewhere. Korea was already a victim of colonialism, and remained so for many years. The imperialist aggressor employed tactics of extreme violence (Edward Russell, The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes, 1958). The neo-samurai army executed civilians, conducted massacres, wrecked cities, and abused prisoners. They launched a very brutal war against China, including the infamous Nanking Massacre of December 1937. The bloodstained swords and bayonets served imperial policies of conquest and devastation.

The Nanking Massacre can still shock any sensitive person. At least 300,000 Chinese were killed, mostly civilians. At least 20,000 women were raped, but some estimates say 80,000. Most of the raped women were brutally killed by the "chivalrous" code of deadly bushido. Japanese soldiers (or samurai) raped girls less than ten years old, and women over seventy years old. They also raped pregnant women and nuns. Many women were gangraped by samurai terrorists. The molesters were also compulsive looters who burned Nanking to ashes. "The brutalities included shooting, stabbing, cutting open the abdomen, excavating the heart, decapitation, drowning, burning, punching the body and the eyes with an awl, and even castration or punching through the vagina" (History of Nanking Massacre). Some victims were disembowelled. The Japanese government afterwards refused to apologise for these and other World War Two atrocities.

The Japanese bayoneted infants, forced family members to rape one another, beheaded children, threw bodies into wells to poison the water supply, and buried civilians alive. It was the first of many similar massacres, though none took place on the same scale as that at Nanking. (Mel Judson, Japanese War Crimes)

The early 1940s saw the extension of bushido crime into horrific concentration camps of the Second World War. The samurai code of no surrender was matched by a contempt for prisoners still alive. When I was a boy, hideous stories about victims were fairly common in Britain. Unfortunately, many of these recitals were true and understated. My own mother informed me that a man in the same street as her family had become a concentration camp victim. He somehow got a message despatched from bushido hell, informing his relatives in Cambridge that the abusers had cut out his tongue. My mother was allergic to the sight of Japanese swords, knowing that these weapons were used to execute prisoners. Some prisoners who returned alive to Britain could not adapt to ordinary life; these victims of torture and harassment had been pushed over a psychological precipice by their vicious tormentors. Many Second World War samurai swords, and earlier examples, eventually became popular as warrior fetishes of a badly educated consumer population in Western countries.

One of the very numerous bushido atrocities occurred at Hong Kong in December 1941. The troops of General Ito Takeo arrived at a sanctuary for ninety-six wounded enemy soldiers. At the hospital entrance, the protesting medical doctor was shot in the head, his body afterwards being repeatedly bayoneted by compulsive murderers. "In the wards, a massacre of unprecedented ferocity took place. The Japanese ripped the bandages off the wounded patients and plunged their bayonets into the amputated arms and legs before finishing them off with a bullet" (George Duncan, Hong Kong Atrocities). Other bushido events occurred within the Hong Kong colony:

Atrocities were committed at various locations throughout the colony, including the rape of thousands of women and young girls. On this day, any misconceptions the world had that Japan was a civilised nation, disappeared into thin air. (Duncan, Hong Kong Atrocities)

The scale of samurai oppression extended to the so-called comfort women who were forced or tricked into living at Japanese military brothels between 1932-1945. The Japanese leaders destroyed many documents that might incriminate them, but sufficient evidence remains as testimony to extensive abuse. Estimates of the number of victims have varied from 200,000 to 400,000. There were many Koreans, but also Chinese and women of other nationalities, who became sex slaves of the samurai. These slaves were raped many times daily. They were also beaten (and even tortured). An unknown number committed suicide. Only about 25 per cent of them are thought to have survived the ordeal. One of the Korean survivors eventually became famous as a protester. See Obituary: Kim Bok-dong (2019). Kim died at the age of 92, "without ever receiving the apology she wanted, still railing against the injustice." The predatory samurai had no appreciation of any non-Japanese culture. Some of their victims were inmates of the Jingling Women's University at Nanking; students were taken away in trucks to live a degraded existence in Japanese army brothels. Despite all the evidence, Japanese nationalists still deny events they do not wish to remember.

From the invasion of China in 1937 until the end of World War Two, the Japanese military regime murdered nearly three million to over ten million victims. The death toll was probably about six million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese among others, including Western prisoners of war. The bushido democide was attended by a military belief that enemy soldiers who surrendered, while still able to fight, were criminals (R. J. Rummel, Statistics of Japanese Democide).


20.3  Hu Shih Version of Chan and Revisions

Coming from a very different background to Suzuki was Hu Shih (1891-1962), the Chinese philosopher and educator. He was not a subscriber to either Confucianism or Buddhism. His arranged marriage in 1917 partnered him with an illiterate girl who suffered from the affliction of bound feet, a disability which had been encouraged by the Confucian system for many centuries. Meanwhile, in 1910, Hu Shih was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in America. He moved on to Columbia University to study philosophy, there coming under the influence of his new tutor John Dewey (1859-1952), the famous pragmatist philosopher.

Hu Shih returned to China after securing his doctorate. He became a Professor at Peking (Beijing) National University, the centre of intellectual life in China. He subsequently became a leading figure in the emergence of modern China. He was a prominent liberal intellectual in the May Fourth Movement of 1917-23. Hu Shih both advocated, and mediated, use of the vernacular as the official written language. The obstruction was the classical Confucian language which had been ascendant for many centuries. The masses were still ninety percent illiterate, blindly indoctrinated with Confucian tradition imposed by the higher classes. Hu Shih assisted a project of relegating the status of Confucian texts to that of reference works rather than prescribed manuals to be routinely memorised.

Confucianism was now seen as a barrier to cultural growth, a religion advocating superfluous ritual, class distinctions, and a filial piety obstructing independent thought. Hu Shih was a strong critic of Confucianism. He also resisted nationalist sentiment, insisting that China must abandon "pretensions to uniqueness" (Hu Shih: An Appreciation). Until 1928, China was ruled by oppressive warlord regimes. Afterwards, as an independent intellectual, Hu Shih was in conflict with the Nationalist government. The subsequent Communist government was another doctrinaire problem for liberalism. His output eventually reaped neglect and disdain, subsequently reassessed by Chinese scholarship in the late 1980s.

Hu Shih disagreed with the version of Zen Buddhism promoted by D. T. Suzuki. In China, Zen is known as Chan, which commenced long before the transplantation to Japan. According to Hu Shih, “Zen can be understood only within its historical context.” This statement comes from his 1953 article on Chan Buddhism in the journal Philosophy East and West. That article was entitled “Ch’an Buddhism in China: Its History and Method.” Hu Shih there states:

My greatest disappointment has been that, according to Suzuki and his disciples, Zen is illogical, irrational, and, therefore, beyond our intellectual understanding.... The Chan (Zen) movement is an integral part of the history of Chinese Buddhism, and the history of Chinese Buddhism is an integral part of the general history of Chinese thought. Chan can be properly understood only in its historical setting.... The main trouble with the "irrational" interpreters of Zen has been that they deliberately ignore this historical approach. "Zen," says Suzuki, "is above space-time relations, and naturally even above historical facts." Any man who takes this unhistorical and anti-historical position can never understand the Zen movement or the teaching of the great Zen masters. Nor can he hope to make Zen properly understood by the people of the East or the West.

In the same issue of the journal, featured the response of Suzuki, “Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih.” Suzuki did not retract his ideology. He maintained that Zen had to be understood within. The "irrational" Zen was generally triumphant outside China. "Hu Shih’s views were forgotten outside the ranks of scholarship, which has since tended to prove those views correct. In the uncritical sectors elsewhere, the influence of ahistorical Zen has been disastrous in various aspects of New Age belief and sentiment” (Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, p. 107).

Hu Shih’s revised version of the Chan patriarch Shen-hui was rather different to that of Suzuki, and is still of interest. He was the first scholar to study the Tun-huang manuscripts preserving the teachings of Shen-hui (684-758). His biographical study of that Chan practitioner was published in 1930. Hu Shih was partial to Shen-hui, but his assessment of textual processes concluded that the traditional history of Zen amounted to “about ninety per cent humbug and forgery” (quoted in ibid., p. 115). The pragmatic Hu Shih was nevertheless sympathetic in his conclusion that a sane method existed behind the apparent madness of classical Chan practitioners. There thus emerges an alternative complexion to such diverting pleasantries as: “My dear fellow, how fine are the peach blossoms on yonder tree!” (Quoted in ibid., p. 121, and citing a 1931 article of Hu Shih).

According to Hu Shih, most Chan schools in the eighth century AC emphasised knowledge (prajna) instead of quiet sitting or meditation (dhyana). During the lengthy period 700-1100 CE, the Chan masters "taught and spoke in plain and unmistakeable language and did not resort to enigmatic words, gestures, or acts." This angle conveys a different complexion to the "irrational" question and answer method associated with koan, becoming standard in later centuries. According to Suzuki, the question and answer method amounted to prajna intuition. "The difference between Hu Shih and Suzuki is that between a historian and a religionist" (Wing-Tsit Chan, Hu Shih and Chinese Philosophy, 1956).

Assessments of the Hu Shih-Suzuki exchange have varied. A critical judgment comes from Professor John McRae, a more recent authority on Shen-hui, who says that “neither man [Hu Shih and Suzuki] seems to have had the interest or capacity to really consider the other’s position.” See John R. McRae, “Shen-hui and the teaching of Sudden Enlightenment in Early Chan Buddhism” (227-278) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (1987, Indian edn, Banarsidass, 1991), p. 261 note 15. The outlook of both contestants was quite clearly defined.

McRae has complained that Hu Shih interpreted the career of Shen-hui as a major transformation in Chinese intellectual and cultural history. “Hu defined this transformation as the reassertion of native Chinese values and the rejection of the Buddhist ideas that were so popular during the Six Dynasties and early T’ang dynasty periods” (art.cit., p. 231). The basic fulcrum for this interpretation was the teaching of “sudden enlightenment” promoted by Shen-hui, a doctrine which Hu Shih viewed as being inherently Chinese in outlook. McRae urges that, although Chan Buddhism did undergo a major transformation in the latter half of the eighth century, this did not amount to a revolution in Chinese intellectual history. Further, Shen-hui was only one of a number of monks involved in this process of change, and the “sudden” teaching was only one of the doctrinal factors involved (McRae, art.cit., p. 232).

Hu Shih referred, in his 1953 article, to the teaching of Shen-hui in terms of a “new Ch’an which renounces ch’an itself and is therefore no ch’an at all.” McRae juxtaposes this verdict with his own critical reflection that Shen-hui failed to give gradual cultivation any serious consideration, despite his concession to a period of such cultivation subsequent to insight or “awakening.” McRae assesses Shen-hui “as a missionary concerned only with increasing the size of the flock” (McRae, art.cit., p. 254). Further, “the central thread that unites all of Shen-hui’s ideas and activities was his vocation of lecturing from the ordination platform” (ibid.). The same scholar states: “Shen-hui’s polemical fervour correlates with doctrinal and practical superficiality” (art.cit., p. 251).

The image of a myopic Chan evangelist lends a critical context to attendant events celebrated in Chan lore. Shen-hui was the disciple of Hui-neng (638-713) and successfully campaigned for public recognition of this obscure monk as the sixth Chan patriarch. The famous Platform Sutra purports to preserve a sermon of Hui-neng. That document is now thought to have been composed c.780 by a member of an early Chan grouping known as the Ox-head school. The teaching of the legendary Hui-neng apparently reaped oblivion. See Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (1967). Shen-hui is now seen to have distorted the teaching of the so-called Northern School of Chan in his campaign against the “gradualists.” See McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (1986). See also McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Genealogy, and Transformation in Chinese Chan Buddhism (2003).

Complexities in the early situations of Chan are prodigious. Hu Shih tended to exalt Shen-hui. That zealous monk is now viewed as an erring sectarian in the version of history that he imposed. Shen-hui called his own tradition the Southern School, a term via which he annexed the East Mountain school associated with earlier Chan patriarchs. Whereas Hui-neng’s rival Shen-hsiu (d.706) was relegated to the status of the Northern School purportedly possessing an inferior teaching of “gradual enlightenment.”

The Shen-hui depiction of “Northern School” has been questioned. That maligned contingent apparently considered themselves to be representatives of the “Southern School,” here meaning South India, from where the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma had supposedly originated. Tsung-mi (Zongmi), who claimed to be the fifth patriarch of Shen-hui’s ho-tze lineage, “was in many respects much closer to the Northern School than to his proclaimed master Shen-hui” (Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, 1991, p. 13). For Tsung-mi, see 20.7 below.

Such considerations have prompted a suggestion that “the demarcation line drawn by historians between the two schools may be purely fictitious or at least unstable” (Faure 1991:13). See also Faure, The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism (1997). See also Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History: Vol. 1: India and China (1988), p. xx, for the relevant observation: “The abundant historiographical literature that has emerged during the past two decades shows that Suzuki’s thesis on the ahistoricity of Zen has not really been accepted.”

The idea of a non-ritualist Zen, favoured in the West, is contradicted by relegated history. "Classical Zen ranks among the most ritualistic forms of Buddhist monasticism. Zen 'enlightenment,' far from being a transcultural and transhistorical subjective experience, is constituted in elaborately choreographed and eminently public ritual performances. The genre, far from serving as a means to obviate reason, is a highly sophisticated form of scriptural exegesis" (Sharf, The Zen of Japanese Nationalism).

20.4  Hinayana and Shakyamuni Buddha

At CUL, I was also able to research the nowadays less popular subject of Hinayana Buddhism, the so-called Lesser Vehicle in contradistinction to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). Hinayana represents the early Buddhism as split into the numerous offshoots which developed from “primitive” Buddhism. The search for Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha is a rather pressing matter. Only one of the Hinayana sects survived into later centuries, namely the Theravada, associated in some minds with a gloomy monasticism far inferior to the paradoxes of Zen. The resuscitation of Shakyamuni is not to be underestimated. Buddhism began in a North Indian habitat obscured by legend, textual intricacies, and sectarian rivalries.

Siddhartha Gautama, alias Shakyamuni Buddha, reputedly attained enlightenment, thus being freed from the cycle of rebirth. His dating has been disputed. On close investigation, he was but one of several shramana sages who were in conflict with orthodox Brahmanism of the early post-Vedic era. Along with Mahavira (the Jain), he may be considered the most distinctive of these “forest philosophers,” to employ a generalising description.

Shakyamuni Buddha locates to the central Ganges Valley some centuries before the Christian era. He was born into the Gautama clan of the Shakya tribe, who are identified with the border of India and Nepal. There are prodigious difficulties in extricating a biography from the Pali and Sanskrit sources. The early canonical works of Theravada Buddhism have diverse references to the career of Shakyamuni. The events most celebrated are his miraculous birth in the Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu, his enlightenment (bodhi) under a tree at Bodhgaya (in Bihar), his preaching the first sermon at the deer park near Varanasi (Benares), and his decease at Kushinagara. Later Buddhist tradition elaborated a hagiography several centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. He inspired a monastic order of a very disciplined type. There are abundant details of the monastic code emerging in the early Buddhist religion.

The Buddhist monastic community was known as sangha in Sanskrit. A basic difference existed between lay followers and monks or nuns. “The rules or precepts of the sangha, of which there were approximately 250 for monks, were called the vinaya” (Hirakawa Akira, A History of Indian Buddhism, 1990, p. 63). Discipline was strict; if any of the most serious precepts were broken, then permanent expulsion from the sangha was the consequence. Temporary suspension could result from the violation of other precepts.

The original Buddhist lifestyle was itinerant, with a break during the rainy season. When monasteries developed along the itinerant routes, new forms of organisation and economic complexity developed, peaking during the Mahayana era which started about the time of Christ.

One assessment of early Western interpretations of Shakyamuni stresses that “the idea of an agnostic teacher of ethics of entirely human proportions who was later divinized by the enthusiasm of his followers, remains a liberal nineteenth century European creation” (David L. Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Serindia 1987, p. 8). The “rationalist Buddha” here loses rating, the reason being textual indications of more elaborately religious connotations, including the concept of a series of Buddhas, of whom Shakyamuni was the most recent. The critical implication is that Shakyamuni himself was a promoter of the more gnostic doctrines.

The process by which various Buddhist teachings developed, is argued in detail by numerous erudite scholars of the subject. Shakyamuni’s teaching of anatman, meaning denial of atman or “soul,” is a familiar reference point. The Pali suttas, relaying the teachings of Buddha, are more subtle than conventionally assumed. “Summaries of the Buddha’s teachings rarely convey how much use he made of simile and metaphor” (Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, 1996, p.65).

20.5  Nagarjuna

The development of Indian Mahayana from Hinayana is attended by scholarly disagreements. The proliferating array of Mahayana sutras, appearing in Sanskrit during the early centuries AC, was later preserved in the Chinese and Tibetan Mahayanist canons. However, the name of Nagarjuna became more famous than any of the sutras. He is sometimes described as a nihilist. Almost nothing is known about his life.

Nagarjuna is often described as a Mahayanist. However, one erudite work about this exponent stated on the cover: “The book shows that Nagarjuna’s ideas are neither original nor are they an advancement from the early Buddhist period; Nagarjuna is not a Mahayanist.” That description comes via courtesy of the State University of New York Press. The author of the book was Professor David J. Kalupahana. The title was Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way (1986).

The work under discussion made the bold statement: “Now it is time to exorcise the terms Theravada and Mahayana from our vocabulary” (pp.5-6). Kalupahana was here attempting to show that some early Mahayanists, and others, were making an endeavour to overcome sectarian interpretations. The objective was a return to the non-sectarian form of Buddhism found in the early discourses of the Pali Canon. A new translation of Nagarjuna’s major work Mulamadhyamakakarika (or Karika) was intended to reveal that “a majority of modern scholars” had created an obstacle to understanding the correct context for Nagarjuna (ibid., p. 6). The Karika consists of verses arranged in 27 chapters. The full title has been translated as “Basic Verses on the Middle Way.”

Over the course of centuries, Nagarjuna became rated as a second Buddha by Mahayanist canonisers. Professor Kalupahana disputes this mythologisation, observing that such a pronounced elevation arose because the Mahayana schools refused to recognise the spiritual status of many early disciples of Shakyamuni mentioned in Hinayana texts (ibid., p.2).

Professor Kalupahana was not the first scholar to express the “non-Mahayanist” theme. He duly stressed that A.K. Warder was “one of the first to raise the question whether Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist” (ibid., p. 7). Professor Warder was one of the more daunting Indian scholars of the 1960-80 period, an expert in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu literature. In the lengthy work Indian Buddhism (1970; second edn, Banarsidass 1980, p. 376), Warder stressed the apparent absence of reference by Nagarjuna, especially in his major work, to the Mahayana or Mahayana sutras. “His references to sutras are all to the old (Hinayana) Tripitaka, mostly to the Samyukta; he writes simply as a Buddhist trying to establish the correct interpretation of the Tripitaka as recognised by all Buddhists.” Further, the same scholar deduced: “He (Nagarjuna) was claimed by the Mahayanists as their own, but his real position would seem to have been not to take sides in a provocative controversy hardly conducive to progress on the way” (ibid., pp. 376-7). Warder stated that five works other than the Karika were “probably” by Nagarjuna (ibid., p. 375).

Kalupahana complains that the recent pro-Mahayanist interpreters assumed that Nagarjuna must have rejected any Hinayana literature. “Not only are they reluctant to accept certain positive statements of Nagarjuna in the Karika, they are also ready to abandon some of the most important chapters in that work either as later interpolations or as having no relevance to Nagarjuna’s thesis” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 7).

A version explicitly criticised here is that of T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System (1955). Kalupahana accuses Murti of having “portrayed the Buddha as a half-hearted metaphysician introducing a theory of elements that came to be rejected by Nagarjuna” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p.xv). More muted criticisms were here made of Kenneth K. Inada, Nagarjuna (1970) and Richard Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). Basic aspects of the Kalupahana critique emphasise Nagarjuna’s teaching as “a mere restatement of the empiricist and pragmatic philosophy of the Buddha” (op.cit, p. 8). Kalupahana is opposed to the idealist view associated with much Indian religion.

Other scholars affirm that Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist who adhered primarily to the Hinayana canon. The attribution of specific texts to Nagarjuna is not straightforward. The only work universally agreed upon as his own is the Karika. Yet some scholars credit him with over a dozen works. The Mahayanist attribution is strongly related to the authenticity of these texts. That attribution is favoured in Christian Lindtner, Nagarjuniana (1987).

The disputed Nagarjuna texts became the foundation for the Madhyamaka (“Middle Path”) school of Mahayana. Nagarjuna was apparently born in the latter half of the second century AC. His biography is legendary. Medieval Tibetan hagiology links him with the monastic university of Nalanda in North India; this attribution cannot be regarded as reliable. More credence can be given to an origin in the brahman caste. Nagarjuna is said to have been born in South India.

The Nagarjuna texts are associated with a philosophical negativism. The essential emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomenal existence is emphasised. This theme has been viewed as a continuation of the early Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self), which denied the atman of Hinduism. The original context of anatman (Pali: anatta) has been debated. The term arose in a situation of conflict with the brahmanical expositors of the caste system and post-Vedic ritualism.

Nagarjuna is emphasised by Kalupahana as an empiricist; the modern commentator seems to relish the comparison he makes between the Buddhist exponent and David Hume, who likewise “refused to accept the notion of a cogito” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 81). The notion for refusal, in Nagarjuna’s case, was the atman. The Indian milieu of Nagarjuna was far removed from the much later environment of Japanese Zen, which harnessed anatman (no self) and shunyata (emptiness) to militarism.

A particular verse of the Karika (XXV, 19) has given rise to a belief in the identity of samsara and nirvana. These two Sanskrit terms are evocative of famous concepts. Samsara denotes the round of conditioned existence, while nirvana denotes freedom or liberation from that cycle. The Karika verse says there is no difference between these two polarities. This has been interpreted as a unique teaching of Mahayana philosophy. The Kalupahana exegesis urges that the relevant verse should be viewed in historical context, implying that a relativist doctrine was not intended (Kalupahana, op.cit., pp. 366-7).

The contextual Karika terminology in Sanskrit is difficult for many non-specialist readers to integrate. A problem in verse texts is that abbreviations can be misleading. Whatever Nagarjuna meant precisely by the disputed “identity” verse, the samsara-nirvana equation underwent some questionable adventures in later Tantric guises and counterparts. Many centuries later, this was also the kind of doctrine that appealed to American antinomians of the Leary-Alpert trend, not forgetting Beat Zen.

For a critical assessment of the Madhyamaka position, see David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987), pp. 81ff., remarking that in the associated Perfection of Wisdom sutras, “the teachings about the emptiness of all concepts are to some extent balanced by recommendation given to the career of a Bodhisattva” (p. 92). However, Kalupahana is averse to the bodhisattva lore, which he views as a Mahayanist superfluity. He emphasises that the term bodhisattva occurs only once in the Karika (XXIV,32), in a context which “offers no consolation to those who accept certain doctrines of popular Mahayana” (Kalupahana, op. cit., p. 348). The monastic ideal of the bodhisattva emphasised the moral virtues of this role, depicted in terms of an altruism prepared to forego nirvana for the purpose of assisting other beings caught in samsara. The ideal was a noble one, though subject to mythologisations. The earlier Hinayana role of the arhant (saint) was depicted as inferior and selfish by comparison.

The translator Edward Conze was partial to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, known in Sanskrit as Prajnaparamita. See, e. g., Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature (1960). Other scholars are sceptical of such Mahayana sutras claiming to be Buddha Word. The presentation evidences a clear sense of competition with Hinayana antecedents; this has raised provocative questions about the rivalry between various sects implicated. Some commentators take the conventional view that the conflict was a normal development in which a religious tradition with a larger scope was in process of supplanting a more limited one.

In a subsequent book, Professor Kalupahana complained at the insistence of his critics that dependence on the Karika alone for understanding Nagarjuna is an error. The critics argued that Nagarjuna’s philosophy must be assessed in the light of “all the works attributed to him, rightly or wrongly, whether they represent his early writings or his later ones.” Kalupahana responds that the Karika was the last major work of Nagarjuna, and “as such, it supersedes any other work he may have compiled during his early years” (Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy, 1992; Indian edn, Banarsidass 1994, p. 259 note 9).

A more recent interpretation of Nagarjuna registers him as the most influential thinker in the Mahayana tradition. There is here an unusual effort to place the subject in the context of monastic debates occurring during the second century AC. See Joseph Walser, Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (2005). Professor Walser credits a number of Nagarjuna treatises as being authentic. He argues that these texts bridged the gap between the existing Buddhist canon (of the Hinayana) and the new Mahayana teachings. Nagarjuna is here depicted as providing scope for the legality of Mahayanist exegesis within the parameters of the Buddhist monastic code (vinaya). This version credits the use of rhetorical devices by Nagarjuna to ensure the transmission of texts by Buddhist monks. See also Jan Westerhoff, Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka - A Philosophical Introduction (2009).

The Madhyamaka tradition was mediated to China, and strongly sustained by the Tibetan version of Mahayana, meaning the monastic preservation of Indian texts gaining a hallowed term of survival in a different environment. Legends developed about the origins of Madhyamaka transmission, elaborated by the Tibetan chroniclers Bu-ston and Taranatha. Nagarjuna was credited with treatises relating to the Tantric tradition, but these are several centuries later than the Karika.

20.6  Vajrayana Traditions of India and Tibet

The term Vajrayana is identified with Tibetan Buddhism, the Mahayanist offshoot which gained popularity in the West from the 1960s. This exposure was partly due to the flight of the Dalai Lama and his monastic tradition from the Chinese invasion undertaken by an oppressive Communist regime.

The antecedents of Tibetan Buddhism require close study and analysis, both in the Indian and Tibetan phases of Vajrayana. The legendary siddha tradition of Tantric India has led to different interpretations. That tradition was supplemented by other hagiologies involved in the early Lamaist phase of Tibet, associated with figures like Milarepa and Marpa.

Tibetan Buddhism inherited the Indian monastic pattern of Mahayana. This was very different from the itinerant ascetic lifestyle of “primitive” Buddhism in ancient India. Tibetan monasteries, in the medieval era, featured strongly entrenched Lamaist sects of warring temperament. The eventual establishment of the Gelukpa monastic order involved a political process supporting a centralized regime at Lhasa. The Gelukpa order was headed by the Dalai Lama, who became the figurehead of Tibetan Mahayana.

A major Gelukpa monastery was Drepung, which harboured ten thousand monks. About ten percent of these were "scholar monks," whose curriculum of study lasted for fifteen years, culminating in the degree of geshe. Many less privileged monks had to support themselves via such avenues as crafts, trading, or manual work. See Tibetan Buddhism and Mass Monasticism.

Tibetan Buddhist environments were different to Theravadin societies of South-East Asia. Ceylon (Shri Lanka), Thailand, and Burma are the latter day inheritors of ancient Indian Theravada, a sect of the Hinayana. The shamanic character of Tibetan Buddhism is pronounced. Even in Theravadin countries, “many monks are involved in ‘pragmatic religion’ to a considerable degree as makers and empowerers of magical protective devices and occasionally as exorcists and the like” (Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, Smithsonian Institution 1993, p. 27). There is also the matter of Theravadin “cult-groups that form around individual Buddhist monks or occasionally laymen to whom magical powers are attributed” (ibid.). Such “cult-groups” arise in response to lay demand, but are regularly kept in control by religious or secular authorities. Such trends are sometimes described in terms of “millennial Buddhism.”

The magical aspect of Tibetan Mahayanist religion derived from the Indian phase of Vajrayana that requires careful elucidation. A delicately expressed version of this theme is: “Generally speaking, through most of the history of Buddhism in Tibet it has been ‘millenial’ Buddhism that has been paramount” (ibid., p. 29). That reference includes the pronounced ritualism devoted to maintaining a relationship with “gods and spirits” of various kinds. The monastic Lamas were the officiants of such ritualism.

Professor Samuel has questioned the common description of premodern Tibet as a centralised state under the rule of a theocratic government at the capital of Lhasa. He says that the political system was far more complex, admitting “a number of autonomous religious orders, only partly composed of celibate monks” (ibid., p. 32). The Tibetan gompa was a phenomenon varying from a small village temple to a monastic town. “Most of the larger gompa are centered around one or more series of reincarnate lamas” (ibid.). Each Lama was recognised as the reincarnation of the previous office holder in the series. Such “rebirth-series” of lamas often acquired political control over large territories, sometimes in alliance with local aristocrats. Unquestioning belief in reincarnate Lamas was pervasive in Tibet.

The Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1950 had dramatic repercussions. Many Tibetans were sent to prisons and labour camps. The monasteries were closed by Communist strategy; thousands of these sites were ransacked by Communist soldiers during the Cultural Revolution period of suppression. Some monasteries were restored, functioning as tourist sites under strict Chinese control. The suppression of Lamaism continued, any support for the Dalai Lama being proscribed. The religious persecution has involved a severe degree of Chinese intimidation, extending to the torture of victims at notorious detention centres. This situation has been criticised and resisted in the West as a breach of human rights.

20.7  Sudden and Gradual in Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhism involved the interplay and competition between several different Buddhist sects. These were eventually overshadowed by the Neo-Confucian philosophers who are thought to have assimilated some elements of Buddhism, however indirectly. Even within the phenomenon of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, there were rival sects who produced different interpretations of basic meditation features derived from Indian models.

The theme of “sudden versus gradual” can be found in various books on Zen. The relevant terms relating to sudden/gradual polarity have been closely analysed by specialist scholars, along with the textual locations. I will here endeavour to follow some of the complexities involved.

The sudden-gradual controversy is first attested in the debate visible between the Chinese Buddhists Tao-sheng (c.360-434) and Hui-kuan (363-443). The former promoted the theme of sudden enlightenment (tun-wu), whereas the latter defended gradual enlightenment (chien-wu). This was a pre-Chan occurrence. Tao-sheng has been credited with a Neo-Taoist tendency apparently influencing his “sudden” theme. Tao-sheng referred to gradual practice as a preparation for sudden enlightenment. See Whalen Lai, “Tao-sheng’s Theory of Sudden Enlightenment Re-examined” (169-200) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (Indian edn, Banarsidass 1991).

Gradualist teaching was an outcome of the basic Mahayanist position, being associated with the Indian character of early Mahayana. Chinese Buddhists increasingly found the sudden-gradual dichotomy useful as a means of explaining diverse teachings they had inherited from the Indian substrate. The context of application could vary. The most dramatic instance of tension between the basic ideals denoted here occurred in the Chan tradition, when Shen-hui (684-758) denounced the gradualism (or meditation practice) of the “Northern” Chan school. A uniquely Chinese version of Chan is said to have resulted. The word ch’an basically means practice, being derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation). Shen-hui is traditionally associated with the figure of Hui-neng, the "Sixth Patriarch" of Chan who became the subject of enthusiast lore created by later generations.

The iconoclastic Chan of the “Southern” School was influential, opting for laconic descriptions contrasting with the more didactic and logical idioms of the Indian original. This trend provided “a new rhetoric with which to express sinitic Buddhist concepts.” The tangent is particularly associated with the Hung-chou school, which employed tactics of beating, kicking, and shouting in relation to students of their form of meditation. Lin-chi (d.866) became renowned for employing a loud shout (ho) in his teaching method, while Ma-tsu (709-788) is reported to have kicked a colleague in the chest. See Robert E. Buswell Jr, “The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an-hua Meditation” (321-377) in Gregory, Sudden and Gradual.

The “sudden” method of Lin-chi involved such verbal emphases as: “Attainment is attained instantly, with no time required, no practice, no realising” (Buswell, art.cit., p. 342). More recently, that form of exegesis became popular in America. A variant of this theme reads: “All persons are in fact already enlightened, and only mistakenly believe that they are not; hence, enlightenment involves nothing more than simply accepting that fact” (ibid.). Shakyamuni and the many Indian generations of Buddhist monks would not have recognised this doctrine.

The conventional assumption of continuity between Hui-neng or Shen-hui, and figures like Ma-tsu, has been contradicted by recent scholarship. Shen-hui is located in the era of “early Chan,” whereas Ma-tsu belongs to the so-called “classical Chan.” The latter phenomenon is represented in the annals by what American scholars have termed “encounter dialogue,” meaning the spontaneous interaction between Chan masters and their students. The classical Chan dialogue exhibits paradoxes and conundrums which became the fuel for the koan formulae celebrated by later Chan annalists of the Sung era. There were harbingers of “encounter dialogue” in early Chan. However, these existed alongside varied doctrinal excursions and activities displaced by the sequel. It is possible to deduce that the popular genealogies and koan enigmas of the sequel are not superior to the precedent in any way, and furthermore, that the neglected “Northern School” had merits, despite the zealous repudiations of the polemical Shen-hui and his canonising “Southern School.”

There were Chinese reactions to the “sudden” tactics. Criticisms of the Hung-chou tradition (or lineage) were notably expressed by Tsung-mi (780-841), a monk who complained that the mood of spontaneity was “often misinterpreted by ignorant students as advocating antinomianism” (ibid., p. 336). This is significant in that Tsung-mi was a Chan historian, and also an exponent of the Southern School facilitated by his predecessor Shen-hui. Tsung-mi relates how Shen-hui became elevated as the seventh Chan patriarch by an imperial commission in 796. It is evident that Shen-hui’s attack on the Northern school had inaugurated “a period of intense and often bitter sectarian rivalry among the proponents of the different Chan lineages.” See Peter N. Gregory, “Sudden Enlightenment Followed by Gradual Cultivation: Tsung-mi’s Analysis of Mind” (279-320) in Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual, p. 280.

An additional factor is that the Chinese Mahayanist schools of Hua-yen and T’ien-t’ai were at strong variance with Chan. The former two schools identified with the gradualism of the Indian heritage, and disapproved of the extremist Chan tendencies. Tsung-mi was so perturbed at the rivalries dividing Chinese Buddhists that he described the situation in terms of: “Buddhist teachings had become a disease that often impaired the progress of the very people they purported to help” (ibid.). Seeking to offset this problem, he composed the Chan Preface. His purpose was to reconcile Chan with the scholastic traditions of Buddhist learning known as chiao. The latter represented gradualism.

The approach of Tsung-mi was basically different to the polemical attack of Shen-hui against the Northern School. The former was not only affiliated to Chan, but also to the Hua-yen tradition of Chinese Buddhism. His reconciling tactic stressed that he had encountered many Buddhists who used the terms “sudden” (tun) and “gradual” (chien) in a thoroughly inadequate manner. He enumerated the different ways in which the pervasive and confusing terms had been employed with regard to practice and enlightenment. However, despite his ecumenical position, he strongly criticised the radical Hung-chou lineage, clearly viewing this tradition as harbouring ethically backward tendencies.

Tsung-mi explicated his own viewpoint in terms of “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation.” The Chinese phrase is rendered tun-wu chien-hsiu. In this charting, tun-wu is the actual foundation for practice via the initial insight (chieh-wu). That "sudden" insight is only the first stage in a tenfold process of spiritual cultivation said to climax in the complete realisation of Buddhahood. Some commentators have deemed this a form of gradualism, while others say that Tsung-mi straddles both sides of the “sudden-gradual” dichotomy. However, there are anomalies in relation to the standpoint of Shen-hui, whom Tsung-mi claims to represent in his own doctrine of “sudden followed by gradual.” This teaching was a conservative line of defence on the part of Shen-hui in some arguments, whereas the more radical teaching of “sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation” (tun-wu tun-hsiu) was apparently the preferred doctrine of Shen-hui when he was on the offensive (ibid., pp. 305-7). See also Peter Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Chinese Buddhism (1991).

Such considerations do, at the least, serve to guard against the more fluent and uncritical versions of Chan (Zen) which have been strongly influential outside China. Exactly who gained insight or enlightenment, or exactly who was most assiduous in spiritual cultivation, are questions that may be strongly pressed in the face of routine assumptions.

Copyright © 2019 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Uploaded August 2008, modified January 2019.