“Ch’an is not Buddhism.” This is the core of translator and poet David Hinton’s core thesis in his recent publication with Shambhala, The Way of Ch’an (2023). In many senses, The Way of Ch’an distills the theories and arguments of his previous book, China Root (2020), and identifies them more explicitly in various passages of texts sorted into several chapters. These sections lay out the case for how Ch’an “proper” and “conventional” Buddhism should be considered separately developing traditions, and that authentic Ch’an lies closer in various deep doctrines to primeval Chinese religion than the “Ch’an Buddhism” that represents the historical transmission of the tradition until the 21st century.
Hinton identifies this deep tradition with Daoism, and goes further by saying that Ch’an is Daoist philosophy, manifest as a body of practice. The book will not be easy reading for an orthodox Buddhist studies scholar, and as an amateur of Buddhist studies myself—or at least, a graduate of the critical-historical method for religious traditions from my postgraduate days—I had to muster all my good faith to engage with Hinton’s core message. Look no further than the very beginning, where Hinton asserts:
Lao Tzu established the reintegration of consciousness with Way’s generative cosmological/ontological process as the goal of spiritual self- cultivation—an assumption that continues in Ch’an, defining the terms of understanding and practice. . . . And so, already here we find the native Chinese source of Ch’an’s foundational ideas: the entire cosmological/ ontological framework, emptiness, empty-mind, mirror-mind, meditation, non-dwelling, and deep understanding being only possible outside of words and concepts.(Hinton 26)
This bold claim is one that I would classify as concerning comparative religion (discerning affinities in two different traditions). Yet Hinton would probably argue that I have it in reverse: that it is from the Laozi and Zhuangzi in particular as texts that the Ch’an ideas first emerge, only later to be identified as part of the “Buddhist” body of thought in China. Throughout the book, Hinton posits that the foundational ideas of Daoism above, from empty-mind to non-dwelling, were advanced by Ch’an. It advocated a purely experiential approach to religious realization, “with its dismantling of all religious dimensions of Buddhism.” (Hinton 50) In other words, for Hinton, Ch’an is diametrically opposed to Buddhism.
The next major claim is that as Buddhism began growing in Han China in the first Century CE, the Dark-Enigma Learning school (xuanxue) began to germinate, with Hinton arguing that “Dark-Enigma Learning is the source of Ch’an, not as a religious project but as a philosophical one.” (Hinton 50) He argues that writers such as Wang Bi and Guo Xiang talked about the Laozi/Daode Jing and the I Ching, and how they discuss self-cultivation “in ways that would come to define Ch’an practice.” (Hinton 52)
When Buddhist scholars began infusing the Taoism of Dark-Enigma Learning with Buddhist practices . . . the possibility of transformation inherent in Taoism and Dark-Enigma Learning was dramatically augmented by those practices—primarily meditation, and later sangha-case practice. . . .
Still, it never functioned as Buddhism, but as an enhanced form of Taoism. Indeed, virtually all fundamental aspects of Ch’an awakening, already present in the original Taoist texts, are broadly developed in Dark-Enigma Learning. Focusing on the deep cosmological/ontological dimensions of consciousness and Cosmos, Dark-Enigma Learning opens the depths that allow Ch’an to invest immediate experience with such profundity.(Hinton 51)
The true meat of the book lies in the succeeding sections, from chapters 3–6. From the outset, when introducing the legendary first patriarch of Ch’an, Bodhidharma, Hinton argues that the Ch’an tradition from the outset might deploy some Buddhist lingo, but in fact is not only anti-Buddhist (122–23) but also intends to configure the philosophical system of Daoism into a spiritual method of practice (Ch’an). (Hinton 123)
It should be made clear that the strength of the book lies in its translations and in the poetic erudition of its author. The poems, gathas, and other passages selected from a slew of Daoist, xuanxue, and Buddhist texts are a joy to read and Hinton has a way of deploying the specificities of the English language in a way that captures the mystique of Chinese characters—or at least those used in Chinese religious texts.
However, I do not believe that the narrative of Ch’an as advocating a uniquely experiential approach to religion—despite its charismatic deconstructive instincts and self-understanding—is accurate. The Buddha’s own insight as detailed in the Kalama Sutta, and indeed all the way back to the earliest, what we might call “pre-sectarian,” tradition, emphasize a schema for practice that reflects what Hinton upholds as the Ch’an refutation of conventional Buddhism:
For Ch’an insists on the obvious: cultivating empty-mind and seeing one’s original-nature can only be an immediate and personal experience. It has nothing to do with teachers or teachings, as in the famous Ch’an/Zen claim that it is “a separate transmission outside all teaching” . . .
Hence, another of Ch’an’s central insistences: you are yourself always already Buddha, the awakened one—another radical departure from the conventional Indian understanding of Buddha.(Hinton 7)
Needless to say, I disagree strongly with his last assertion. Mahayana Buddhology, and fundamentally recognizing oneself as a future buddha (vyakarana), is “made in India,” so to speak—even with the temporal consideration: that one is already a buddha. And Ch’an is not an expression of a different tradition within Buddhism, like a doctrinal Manchurian Candidate or theological sleeper agent. It is simply a different kind of Buddhism—one that the overarching Mahayana tradition has long embraced as a legitimate and orthodox stream of the Dharma back in India.
Fundamentally, I am not sure that Hinton’s interpretation of Buddhism has adequately assessed Mahayana’s intellectual genealogy. At least in regard to post-prajnaparamita literature, establishing an intellectual “line” was a project accomplished to a near-perfect degree by Joseph Walser’s Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Emptiness, Power and the question of Origin (2018). The Chinese expression of “Absence,” as Hinton puts it, “that empty and generative cosmological/ontological tissue,” the “original-nature” that is the “generative emptiness at the heart of the Cosmos” is certainly unique. But Walser’s book directly took on this question of origins, providing a superior genealogy of how Buddhism engaged with primordial, luminescent “mind before mind” (acitam) directly from its Indian sources: “The original substance/nature (prakrti) of thought is clear light” (prakrtis cittasya prabhasvara). (Walser 2018)
It is certainly clear that the Ch’an teachings echo Daoism, and we can identify how Ch’an is perhaps even a Buddhist expression of Daoism—much like how Thomas Merton (1915–68) was particularly drawn to how the Christian message might be enhanced by the “going beyond” message of Zen—but the story of Ch’an itself is deeply embedded in “religious Buddhism,” or even institutional Buddhism. This entailed arguing over what it meant to enjoy canonicity for sutras and commentarial literature, the preoccupation with establishing lineage, and how various Ch’an temples and monastics sought imperial and/or government favor.
A final example: the existence of the Platform Sutra, which Hinton upholds as the first Buddhist-prajna text, was a seminal text among several competing Ch’an streams, purported to legitimize the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. It has been demonstrated by many Sinologists, historians, and Buddhist studies experts to have been a hardheaded, strategic project to place a specific, scriptural understanding of the nature of bodhi and enlightenment ahead of competing visions.
I would advise that to fully appreciate this book, we should enter into a mindset or sense of mythic time, even though The Way of Ch’an also stakes a claim to temporal time and human history—one of its weaker aspects. The rest is a literary love letter to the profundity of Daoist philosophy packaged in Ch’an practice. Nevertheless, it reminds Ch’an and Zen readers about the philosophical ideas and principles of practice that made this school of Buddhism so powerful and beloved to begin with.
Hinton, David. 2023. The Way of Ch’an. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.
Walser, Joseph. 2018. Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Emptiness, Power and the question of Origin. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Related features from BDG
Book Review: Jhana Consciousness: Buddhist Meditation in the Age of Neuroscience
Book Review: The Making of American Buddhism
“Compassion Is How to Begin, Wisdom Is How to Develop, and Dignity Is How to Be”
Book Review – China Root: Taoism, Chan, and Original Zen