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Series: Zen Lessons


Calamity can produce fortune,  fortune can produce calamity.1

In this series, I’ll be talking about a book called Zen Lessons, translated by Thomas Cleary.  I think Cleary’s translation of the title is pretty boring, and also a little misleading.  Although synonymous, Zen is a Japanization of the Chinese Ch’an (which in turn is an adaptation of the Sanskrit dhyāna, meaning ‘meditation’).  All of the lessons in this anthology originate from China, so I think that Ch’an Lessons would be more appropriate.  However, it’s probably the case that nobody would recognize Ch’an, whereas Zen is a commonly seen phrase in Dwell magazine and the towel section of Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and so is pretty well assimilated into the American vernacular.  And to further illustrate how cool this book’s title could have been, have a look at the Chinese pronunciations: Chanlin baoxun or Chanmen baoxun.  Beat that, you slimy ad-mongers!

Rather than lamenting the soulless re-appropriation of profound spiritual lineages by multinational toilet corporations, we’ll start off this series talking about the history and goals of this volume and then we’ll explore how the content relates to both of them.


Dahui and Zhu-an, two exemplary Ch’an masters, anthologized Zen Lessons in the early part of the 12th century.  It was later enriched by Jingshan, about one hundred years before it was published in Japan in 1279. What makes this volume so unique and interesting is the rarity of its content, much of which is lost to time everywhere but in this book.  The editors seemed to have gleaned from wherever they could: personal letters, diaries, wall inscriptions, and oral tradition.  Most of the anthologies referenced in Zen Lessons don’t exist anymore, and we find here lore not easily gathered, if it still exists at all.2

Within these rare lessons, the failings of the lay and monastic communities, and the remedies suggested for them, reflect the events of the time in which Dahui and Zhu-an were compiling Zen Lessons. Such a statement seems rather obvious, but the details of it shall do a great deal in exposing the effects of the broader culture in relation to this particular religious community, which is a topic to be multiply revisited, as I think it of great relevance to society today.

What were these events that created the ambiance of Zen Lessons?  Those of you familiar with Chinese history (which would exclude me) will recognize the beginning of the 12th century as basically the mid-point in the Song dynasty, which lasted from the late tenth to late thirteenth century.  At around the time Dahui and Zhu-an were whippin’ up their dope-ass tome, the Song dynasty occupied a significantly smaller portion of China than they had in past generations, thanks to the conquest of the northern region of their empire by the Jin dynasty.  This turn of affairs was a symbolic blow and upset to the Song, as their former capitol of Kaifeng and the traditional cradle of Chinese society, the Yellow River, now belonged to the Jin.  Fortunately, the advancements that unified the Song under its founder, Emperor Taizu, allowed them to thrive even after such a defeat, preserving and advancing already significant innovations.3

Emperor Taizu expanded the reach of civil service exams, creating a stable leadership based on skill rather than social merit.  He founded academies that launched artistic, philosophical, and scientific explosion.4 By the time the Jin conquered the northern lands of the Song, there existed within the Southern dynasty an effective government with a large population, thriving agriculture, and a strong focus on intellectual, artistic, and social pursuits.5 This was a prosperous time for China, so why is it that Dahui and Zhu-an seemed compelled to create Zen Lessons?

Goals: The Zen Remedy to Change and Prosperity

If you refer to the quote at the beginning of this post, written by Lingyuan, you’ll see a clear exposition of an oft cited theme in Zen Lessons: the degradation of Buddhist practice with the increase of wealth and excess.  The growing affluence and growing numbers in the Song dynasty caused a flourishing of Ch’an and spread its influence, but this growth became harder to regulate.  Many people were coming to Ch’an with incorrect motives and goals that were not aligned with the aims of Ch’an teaching. So while authentic Ch’an was widespread, so were misleading and corrupt teachings.6

Of course,  Zen Lessons is not merely a descriptive volume whose aim it is to point out the failings of Ch’an teachers and adherents.  It is also prescriptive, proffering ways in which the present corruption might be overcome and the mental transformation of true Ch’an might be realized.  The goal of Zen Lessons is not different from that of most of Zen literature, which criticizes the false views of Zen and attempts to mark a way toward enlightenment, without ever touching it. In this way,  the masters aim to unveil the true realization of Zen, which is seen to be ineffable7(this apophatic theology, or negative theology, which finds expressions in many faiths, is essential to Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a part.  I will go into further detail on this point in a later series).  So while the Song dynasty presented particular challenges to the Ch’an community, it could be said that they are merely of a different degree, rather than of a different type.  The modern reader then can see that the content of Zen Lessons could apply to any society amidst change.

In the next post, I will attempt to discuss the lessons by themes to illustrate the melioristic nature of this volume.

1Zen Lessons, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala Publications 1993), 78.
2Ibid., xxv-xxvii.
3Wikipedia, Song Dynasty, (Aug.30,2010).
6Zen Lessons, viii, xiv.
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