Sunday, July 03, 2011

John R. McRae, Seeing through Zen


I recently read a book about the early history of Zen Buddhism called Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Geneaology in Chinese Chan Buddhism, by John R. McRae, a professor of East Asian Buddhism at Indiana University.

McRae's book presents a summary of the early history of Chan, from its origins in China during the Tang Dynasty, through its mature development during the Song. McRae criticizes a lot of the previous histories of Chan, for naively treating legendary stories as factual, and for adopting both an overly-romanticized view of Chan during the Tang Dynasty on the one hand, and an overly-cynical view of Chan during the Song Dynasty on the other. There has been a tendency to regard Tang-Dynasty Chan as uniquely authentic and rigorous, and to regard Song-Dynasty Chan as having degenerated from its original state of rigor and sincerity. Interestingly, this conceit seems to have originated in part as a literary device among Chan texts from the Song Dynasty itself.

McRae's book is formed from a collection of essays which were edited together to form a single continuous narrative. While his history of early Chan is not comprehensive, the resulting text does not feel too broken-up, and it works well as a general introduction to recent work on the history of early Chan.

I will probably have more to say about Seeing through Zen in a later blog post, as it is a text rich with implications both for historians and practitioners of Zen, and at some point I would also like to write about another book by McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism. Until then, I would just like to highly recommend both of these works to anyone interested in the history of Zen.
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