Aug 26, 2020

Tibetan Zen by Sam van Schaik

Discovering a Lost Tradition

Michael O'Neill reviews a book about a forgotten history of Zen in Tibet by the Head of Endangered Manuscripts at The British Library.

Book Cover

The Mogao caves near Dunhuang in Gansu province in North Western China were a forgotten outpost of Imperial China, abandoned for nearly a thousand years until they were rediscovered early in the last century. Individual Buddhist monks went to meditate in solitary retreat in small caves from the 4th century CE. Some of these caves grew into substantial monasteries, temples, and libraries. When Islam arose as the predominant religion in the region and this branch of the Silk Road as abandoned, the area went decline and the caves were also abandoned and forgotten. Just over one hundred years ago a Chinese Daoist, Abbot Wang found some of the abandoned caves and took to sweeping away the dust and sand blocking the entrances. In 1904 he broke down a wall at the back of a corridor leading from the main cave and found what we now know to be the “Library Cave” containing literally stacks of ancient manuscripts and books, in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian. Abbott Wang was ordered to reseal the cave by the governor of Gansu, but word had already spread to Western scholars that a trove of ancient Buddhist manuscripts had been found along a lost branch of the Silk Road. British, Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese adventurers, archaeologists, explorers and Buddhist scholars all arrived within 5 years to explore the caves and removed manuscripts. The largest portion was taken by the French scholar Paul Pelliot, who worked with the Chinese academic Luo Zhenyu to edit and publish the manuscripts in 1909.

The Dunhuang caves have suffered waxing and waning of interest as the vast political changes of the last century came and went in the region. The documents have continued to fascinate and inform students of language, archaeology, Daoism, Confucianism, Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism since their discovery. The six hundred or years that the caves were in use and that the library was accumulating documents cover a sufficient span of time to see the rising and waning of several strands of thought, devotional practise and religious development.

Like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or Gnostic Gospels they cast a light into stages of the development of our current understanding and also show us lines of thinking that died out or never made it into the modern canonical texts. The Dunhuang Library cave documents the perished line of Tibetan Zen. Even the title of the book seems to require some additional punctuation or a conjunction or even an exclamation mark to help us with this seemingly implausible combination. The book Tibetan Zen, with the subtitle Discovering a Lost Tradition delicately brushes away the dust and lets us see the birth and demise of Chan Buddhism in the region of North West China. It is hard to do justice to a book of such range and scholarship in a short review but some key themes strike this modern day practitioner.

Sam van Schaik does not merely give us a textual analysis but highlights for us the importance of the archeological context; were these manuscripts found in a nice orderly catalogued fashion or piled on the floor in haste? Was the library really a place of referring to texts or for storing or hiding manuscripts from danger? We see the importance of the form of the manuscript, scroll, folded text or book which could cast light on if it was meant to be read in private study or used in public ritual such as ordination or taking of the precepts. At each stage our subtle and scholarly guide leads us through the reading of texts related to this, to us, unlikely branch of Buddhism. Thus is it important to remember that a book is never just about its contents and a whole range of interpretations can be based on its archaeological context, written or printed format and presumed or deduced mode of use.

The story of Tibetan Zen is encapsulated in the legend that doctrinal disputes arose between Indian and Chinese Buddhists at the Tibetan Court. Chan monks from China debated with Mahayana scholars from India. Later Tibetan Buddhists claimed a resounding victory for the Indians and saw India as the valid source of Buddhist doctrine. China was politically suspect and with it, was its association with the instantaneous approach of a Chinese monk named Heshang Moheyan, long forgotten in China, but who came to stand for Chinese Buddhism, and Chan Buddhism, in particular in Tibet. It is important to remember, however, that there were no Zen monasteries anywhere in China at the time that Dunhuang flourished. Zen was taught in monasteries alongside other forms of Buddhist practise. As the author points out “The Chan manuscripts from Dunhuang, both Tibetan and Chinese, present an inclusive and evolving state of affairs during the 9th and 10th centuries bringing together most of what had gone before”. The neat divisions of today’s lineages and schools would not have made much sense to a monk in the 10th Century. Rather than precise and continuous lineages we see “strings of pearls” where individual masters taught at various times and locations without directly traceable linkages. Zen was more an emphasis of style rather than a school in its own right. However the genealogy of the schools of thought were very important and there are documents with teachings that would be familiar to any Zen practitioner today. We read of the arrival of Bodhidharma and his teaching of the four practices; 1: current suffering is retribution for previous unskilful actions, 2: current misfortunes must be borne without clinging to unhappiness in accordance with the practice of causes and effect, 3: the practice must be entirely without effort, that is being driven by objects of desire and 4: that the practice be in accordance with the Dharma, that is that it comes from a universal principal of pure essence.

The importance of lineage is also underlined as we read of the transmission to the early Patriarchs common to all future lineages of Zen. Commonly referred as a special transmission outside the scriptures these lineages, even if with occasional gaps, are still important in Zen. That is not to say that the scriptures do not and have not always played an important role. Which exact scriptures however, can change over time. The documents trace the importance of the Lankavatara Sutra in early Zen and it gradual replacement with the Platform Sutra. The Heart Sutra had yet to establish itself as a core text and does not even appear in the Index of this book although the Prajnaparamita Sutra is mentioned in passing in a number of translated documents.

Other elements of the Zen tradition are seen in their early evolution. Encounter dialogues were later formalized as an integral part of Zen training. While this formalization had yet to take place we find documents in the Dunhuang collection recording these sometimes challenging, brusque exchanges between master and aspiring student.

Throughout the book we see the identification of Zen with the Instantaneous Approach pitted against the more gradualist Indian schools. This valuable book shows us that what ultimately became very different approaches to Buddhist practice in Zen and Tantra shared early influences and sought ways to live together. The common goal of quieting the mind has many paths to it. Not all have survived and we owe Dr van Schaik a debt of gratitude for the work of bringing this path back to life for us.

(Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition by Sam van Schaik; pub. Shambhala publications 2015, pp 176).

Text copyright to Michael O’Neill


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