The Records of Mazu and the Making of Classical Chan Literature

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Mario Poceski
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Records of Mazu and the Making of Classical Chan Literature, Mario Poceski builds upon his previous work on Chinese Chan (Zen) master Mazu Daoyi (709–788) and Mazu’s Hongzhou school of Chan Buddhism, offering readers a closer examination of the body of extant textual sources concerning Mazu’s life and teachings.

Mazu has long been viewed by scholars as a transitional figure in the history of Chan. Traditionally, Mazu was seen as a radical iconoclast who inaugurated the Chan tradition’s mature and enduring identity—as a lineage of eccentrics who taught their disciples through pithy (and sometimes apparently nonsensical) sermons and dialogues. However, the sources for this traditional view of Mazu date to several centuries after his death. In his earlier book, Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism (Oxford, 2007), Poceski reevaluated the traditional view of Mazu as a radical iconoclast in light of previously overlooked sources in addition to new readings of known sources. According to the revisionist view proposed by Poceski, Mazu’s identity as an iconoclast was an invention of later generations of his descendants as well as other interested monastics and laypeople, who Poceski suggests constitute a “community of memory” (24–28).

In contrast with this image, Mazu’s actual teachings seem to have been comprised of straightforward (if elegant) exegeses of mainstream Chinese Buddhist doctrine. However, this does not mean that Mazu was only a minor figure in the history of Chan. As Poceski observes, “Mazu arguably attracted more disciples than any other Chan teacher from the Tang era. A number of his disciples … became the most prominent Chan teachers of their generation. The same trend also continued with the subsequent generation of disciples” (20). Therefore, Mazu remains best understood as a transitional figure—just a different kind of transitional figure than scholars used to think.

The transformation of Mazu’s image participated in a broader trend in Chan history. For much of the 20th century, scholars considered the Tang dynasty (618–907) to be the “golden age” of Chan. This is the period when many of the great iconoclastic masters, such as Mazu, depicted in classical Chan literature—beloved by East Asian Buddhists and western enthusiasts of Zen such as Alan Watts—lived and taught. However, in recent decades scholars have shown that these representations of Tang-era Chan masters as eccentric iconoclasts were actually literary reinventions written during the Song dynasty (960–1279), typically by the master’s own descendants. Most scholars now agree that these records illustrate more about Song-era Chan Buddhists than those of the Tang era. Poceski’s work contributes to this reorientation of Chan historiography by examining the way Mazu’s image was reworked into the mold of a radical iconoclast over several centuries.

Although Poceski acknowledges the important role Song-era Chan Buddhists played in rewriting the Chan tradition’s past, he disagrees with scholars who conclude that Tang-era Chan is simply a black box, or that Chan as such did not exist until the Song. Poceski writes: “Within that kind of restrictive perspective prevalent ideas about the Tang era as the Chan School’s classical or central period—and more broadly the highpoint of Buddhism in China—are offhandedly dismissed as mere byproducts of Song-era myth-making, side effects of the intellectual creativity and religious dynamism of Song Chan. But surely we can do both: carefully study Tang- and Song-era Chan in a balanced manner, in terms of their specific contexts and distinctive features, as well as in relation to each other” (35).

Later in the book, however, Poceski does a disservice to this cause when he disparages Song-era Chan literature as consisting of “nonessential ramblings, a peculiar type of religious gibberish” (170), calling it “highly formulaic, numbingly repetitive, and ostensibly pointless” (171), and concluding that Song-era Chan discourse records are “literary artifacts of a tradition that has run out of any good and compelling ideas, whose ascendancy, along with other related factors, marked the long-term decline of Chinese Buddhism” (171). Poceski’s insistence that earlier generations of scholars were correct to view post-Tang Buddhism as “in decline” (34) will provoke controversy in a field that has largely rejected this view. Perhaps more importantly, this insistence also hinders Poceski from fully realizing his own stated goal of a balanced approach to Chan historiography. Rather than dismissing Chan literature from any era on the grounds of normative aesthetic judgments, the sources and the field would be better served by seeking to understand why so many Chinese Buddhists found this literature compelling and how Chan fit into the broader cultural history of the period.

Whereas Poceski’s Ordinary Mind as the Way focused on reconstructing the history of Mazu’s Hongzhou school and examining his teachings in light of contemporaneous doctrinal trends, The Records of Mazu offers readers access to key primary sources attesting to the historical processes by which Mazu was reimagined by later generations of Chan Buddhists. The book is divided into two parts. Part I provides an introduction to Mazu, to recent trends in the study of Chan, and to the various textual genres in which records of Mazu are found. Part 2 offers chronological, annotated translations of selections from these sources concerning Mazu’s life and teachings. The translations begin with a stele inscription written about Mazu shortly after the master’s death, and conclude several centuries later with his entry in the first imperially-sponsored collection of records of Chan masters’s lives and teachings—a time when his mature image as an iconoclast was more or less fully formed. Taken together, these translations—accompanied by copious notes and the full Chinese text of all translated passages—offer scholars a wonderful opportunity to peel back the layers of Chan history through the case study of a single Chan master. Part 2 will also be a great resource for those learning to read Chan literature in its original Chinese as well as graduate students and advanced undergraduates studying Chinese Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Buckelew is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mario Poceski, an associate professor of Buddhist studies and Chinese religions at the Religion Department, University of Florida, received a PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures, with specialization in Buddhist studies, from the University of California, Los Angeles (2000). He has spent extended periods as a visiting researcher at Komazawa University (Japan), Stanford University, the National University of Singapore, and the University of Hamburg (Germany), and has received several prestigious fellowships, including an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship.



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