The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue

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Jeffrey L. Broughton
Elise Yoko Watanabe
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Broughton and Watanabe’s The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue (hereafter “Broughton” and Letters) is the first complete English rendition of a collection of Chinese letters that circulated across East Asia. The epistles by Dahui (1089-1163) are one of the world’s richest religious documents, containing profound discussions on faith, the importance of doubt, paradoxes of spiritual effort, and messages of transformation. The translators’ sophisticated textual apparatus, including footnotes that selectively translate from historical Korean and Japanese commentaries, makes this book indispensable for future studies of Dahui’s letters.

Dahui was heralded by later traditions as the genius innovator of the kanhua meditative technique (Jap. kanna zen; K. kanhwa Sŏn) of examining the “head word” of a gong’an (“public case,” Jap. kōan). This kanhua practice as taught in the Letters is the root of modern popular understanding of “Zen koans” as riddles to disrupt discursive thought. Dahui, kanhua, and gong’an have each been frequent topics of scholarship. As Miriam Levering noted in her PhD dissertation (Harvard, 1978), Dahui’s epistolary teachings have an enduring allure because they were addressed to the concerns of lay people.

Excerpts from Dahui’s epistles were previously translated by Christopher Cleary in Swampland Flowers (Grove Press, 1977). Cleary worked from the text of Zhi yue lu 指月 (“A Record of Fingers Pointing at the Moon”), a late 16th century anthology whose compiler abridged Dahui’s letters to their pith. One of the strengths of the Broughton translation was the choice to follow a complete early Gozan edition. Cleary’s translation, despite the lack of a scholarly apparatus and the interesting choice of using an abridged Ming recension, is accessible, fluent, and generally accurate. By comparison, Broughton’s style is terse and closely follows Chinese idioms.

The most original and likely enduring contributions of this book are its robust footnotes emphasizing historical exegeses of the epistles. The exegetical tradition is indispensable for interpreting thorny passages of epistolary Late Middle Chinese. The translators closely engage two Korean commentaries used in Sŏn seminaries since the 18th century—one by Chin’gak Hyesim (1178-1234) and an anonymous lexicon—in addition to one pre-modern Japanese commentary, two early modern Japanese commentaries, and several contemporary Japanese translations. Foremost in significance for the translators is perhaps Daie Fukaku zenji sho kōrōju 大慧普覚禅師書栲栳珠 (hereafter Kōrōju) produced by Japanese monk Mujaku Dōchū 無著道忠 (1653-1745), an erudite Zen monk and an expert on Song and Yuan era Chan. The translators present persuasive arguments when choosing to deviate from Mujaku’s interpretations. Araki Kengo’s authoritative 1969 annotated modern Japanese translation also relied on Kōrōju. The translators document their divergences from Araki as well. The result is an original work of interpretation that is profoundly informed by the Korean and Japanese traditions of exegesis and practice. This is a great achievement.

Broughton’s emphasis on Korean and Japanese receptions situates the Letters more within the field of Zen Studies than within the study of Chinese religions. As a result, there is more work to be done to study how Chan epistles participated in the broader culture of Chinese letters. Natasha Heller has already provided a foundational essay on monastic letters during the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties, “Halves and Holes: Collections, Networks, and Epistolary Practices of Chan Monks” (in A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture, Brill, 2015). Also related is Huang Qijiang’s Bei Song Huanglong Huinan Chanshi sanyao 北宋黃龍慧南禪師三鑰 (Taibei: Taiwan xuesheng shuju, 2015), which meticulously analyzes another set of Song era epistles with transnational circulation.

Dahui often crafted new ways of speaking while simultaneously engaging the expressions of earlier Chan masters. Perhaps it is fitting then that Broughton has experimented with English expressions, and at times deviated from well-tried translations. Some neologisms are clever. For example, an explanation of Dahui’s idiosyncratic use of the verb guandai 管帶 is developed based on a gloss from Mujaku’s Kōrōju. This yields the unusual “to continuously ‘engird mind’ ” (18) as a description of wrong-headed effortful concentration of the mind. This mental girdle plays with the etymology of the second character in guandai: dai is literally to fasten or to belt on. (Rather than “engirding mind” I might have preferred “girding the mind,” which would resonate with the dated but idiomatic “gird the soul.”) Elsewhere, rendering mozhao 默照 as “silence-as-illumination,” well known to both scholarly and practitioner communities as “silent illumination,” recasts the term in the pejorative way Dahui himself treated mozhao. Other neologisms may distract. The genre of texts known as yulu is familiar as “recorded sayings.” The authors’ preferred “sayings record” seems to introduce a distinction without a difference.

Letters begins with an introductory essay by Broughton that foregrounds compelling speculation about the centrality of the layman Huang Wenchang as “editor-in-chief.” (6) The authors also contend that Dahui may have taught huatou meditation practice to lay people exclusively. With negligible exceptions, they claim, there is no evidence that Dahui recommended huatou to his monastic disciples. (10-12) If correct, the implications would be that later traditions adapted a lay practice into a monastic one—contra Dahui’s own praxis.

One brief correction. It is misleading to assert that Dahui was abbot of “the foremost of the official ‘Five-Mountains’ Chan monasteries” (5-6) because the Five Mountains patronage system was only established in the first decades of the 13th century, after Dahui’s life.

Despite such minor quibbles and stylistic preferences, this book is a wonderful resource to all who would read Dahui’s epistles. The inclusion of lucid translations from multiple historical commentaries—a rich exegetical apparatus—is a great contribution. We are all indebted to the translators’ work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Protass is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey L. Broughton is professor emeritus of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach.


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