If you study history or something similiar feel free to look into my argument and see if its coherent, logical and makes enough sense.

The Ch’an Chinese Song Buddhism which was exported overseas was more of a cultural secular tradition than a religious tradition. Discuss

Chinese Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) style Ch’an Buddhism came to Japan and Thailand in the 10th century. Ch’an (or Zen as it is more commonly known) was comprised of the Chinese Song literati tradition aswell as the artistic, political ideological and religious meditative tradition. This essay argues that Song Ch’an Buddhism in Japan and Thailand was more of a cultural secular or political nature rather than of a religious nature. The essay examines the poetry, prose, painting and politics of the Zen missionaries and their converts overseas. It will address the problem of ‘what was China’ in the Song period1? It will also compare Vietnam and Japan in terms of secular and religious aspects.

Zen in Vietnam could been seen s having had more of a religious impact than a secular impact as evidenced by the Thien Uyen (biography of eminent masters). The Thien Uyen is one of the most important religious works which explains the transmission of the lamp religious enlightenment which each master would have undertaken. This book explains the importance of the ‘transmission of the lamp’ (or ‘lamp history’) because it is one of the only religious texts which explains how important religious Thien was in Vietnamese society. It also explains the direct influence of Chinese Masters of Ch’an Song Buddhism into the lineage of Vietnamese Thien Masters. Vietnamese masters included; Khuong Viet, Dinh Khong, Dao Hanh, Giac Hai and Khong Lo. These Masters were religious leaders who were directly influenced by the Song dynasty ‘transmission of the lamp’ Zen idea. The transmission of the lamp was the idea that as each Master passed on his Zen knowledge to his protégé then the protégé would become the next Master. The student would gain enlightenment with this special knowledge. The next Master would pass on this knowledge to the next student. The lamp was supposed to represent the religious lamp of enlightenment (or knowledge). This was a religious concept which was highly important to Vietnamese Buddhism.

However the lamp history seemed to have been invented to legitimise the role of educated Chinese monks in Vietnamese Court, therefore the monks played more of a secular political role rather than religious role. Chinese monks of the Song period were heavily influential in political events of the Vietnamese court. The monks were enlisted into the Vietnamese court and political circles in order that they as educated men could help in government matters. Nguyen dismisses the idea of a religious master-student tradition in Vietnam. He goes on to say that the idea of a ‘transmission history of Ch’an in Vietnam is not credible. He writes that there is no tradition of tangible scriptural schools in Vietnamese Buddhism2. He writes biographies of the masters such as Uyen Khuong Viet, Dinh Khong, Dao Hanh, Giac Hai and Khong Lo monks were not in fact of the Zen style ‘transmission of the lamp’ style3. They were infact fabrications of biographies of much earlier monks in Chinese history. This is further evidenced as indeed the authors of Thien Uyen did not know each other which heavily implies that Vietnamese Buddhism was not what it was implied to be - a coherent unified religious transmission derived from Chinese religious Zen lineages4. T. G. Foulk agrees with Nguyen stating that historical lineages were fabricated to fulfil certain cultural and political purposes5. The Vietnamese authors of Thien Uyen recast Zen lineages and biographies and grafted them onto the genealogical trees of Chinese Zen masters6. In fact there is no homogenous lamp lineage - only a pastiche of famous Zen masters. This has created a ‘pre-determined’ and ‘pre-written’ imagined religious history of the influences of Chinese Zen in Vietnamese Buddhist history7. Indeed we have to question the impact of Ch’an religion in Vietnam aswell as reassessing the secular political role of Ch’an Song monks in court life. It seems as though they had played more of a secular political role than a religious role in Vietnam.

We have to question the extent of this religious following of the Chinese Zen tradition in Vietnam. Indeed there were no scholarly monasteries and there were no scripture schools in Vietnam. If we follow the arguments that previous Buddhist historians have made in their analyses of Ch’an Buddhism - there were no notable Vietnamese Ch’an Masters in Vietnam. In fact we have to question the idea that Chinese monks in Vietnam served a religious purpose and that they could have served as more as political advisers rather than religious leaders of the community. Indeed we can also so as far to say that there was no religious Ch’an or Thien community in Vietnam8. Indeed Nguyen goes as far as saying that the idea that the monks served as religious part has to be question as they could have served more of a secular occupation. Indeed he emphasises the lay occupation that the monks served. Indeed he goes on to say that the religious Buddhist nature of society in Vietnamese is an imagined construct9. Anderson and Foulk summarised that there had never been a tradition or even a school of Zen in Vietnam. Nguyen sums up this outlook by writing that Zen religion was at most ‘just a rumour from the monasteries10’.

To conclude, drawing on Anderson’s, Foulk’s and Nguyen’s conclusions - the Zen school in Vietnam was an ‘imagined community’11. Although there are traces of Zen from China in Vietnam in the literary and political sense the implication of a widespread numerous and well established community of religious Zen which had been imported from Song China is a falsehood. Zen in Vietnam was less of a religious concept and more of a political / cultural construct which drew on the ideas and popular ideologies of mainland mainstream Chinese Song society.

In Japan there was a large influence of Ch’an Song style Buddhism which materialised into Zen monasteries (which came to be known as gozan monasteries) - these were the bastions of Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism from 960 CE until the kamakura and early Muromachi period in Japan (16th century). Eisai (1141-1215) was the founder of Zen in Japan, he was recognised by Hsu-an as being enlightened and also given the seal of direct transmission authorizing him to spread Ch’an teachings in Japan, he established a school in Kenninji. After Eisai other masters who had come from the continent spread Ch’an or Japanese Zen Buddhism and the setting up of Zen monasteries in japan became the most popluar way of teaching Zen Buddhism. These monasteries held the cultural aswell as religious and literary embodiment of Song Zen Buddhism. They were created as a direct import from Song China. At the height of Zen Song Buddhism there were 300 monasteries ranging up to several thousand inhabitants12. These were protected by powerful ruling classes such as the Hojo Japanese Warrior class and the Ashikaga rulers. Even the Dogen became a convert to Zen returning from the mainland to Japan in 1227 ‘empty handed’ but full of spiritual knowledge as Kodera puts it13. These protectors upheld the ethos of Ch’an Buddhism via accommodating the monasteries and their religious and cultural learnings which included poetry, prose, calligraphy and painting. Indeed, from 960 CE there was constant interaction of Chinese Zen monks and Japanese Zen monks moving between China and Japan. Indeed these Japanese monks had fully embraced Song period Zen Monastic code aswell as regulations texts and practices inherent in Ch’an Chinese Buddhism#. Collect writes that not only did these Japanese Monks embrace Ch’an Buddhism in toot but also they made sure that the latest trends in Sung Ch’an Buddhism were maintained. He writes that, Japanese Zen monks could develop in step with continental Ch’an monasteries by keeping close contact with the continent14. This lust for Ch’an Sung style knowledge was kept up by the lure of Chinese learning and culture. It cumulated eventually after a gradual start towards the development of sectarian institutional Sung-style Zen in medieval Japan15.

However some historians such as Nguyen argue that Ch’an Buddhism was had more a an secular Chinese cultural impetus than a religious one and that the impact of Ch’an religion was diminished by this. Nguyen examined Ch’an poetry which was exported from China during the Song period. Collect agrees with Nguyen in the idea that the poetry did have a secular perspective. He writes that in fact there was more of an interest in Japan in Chinese culture than religion. Ch’an poetry was more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious one. Indeed some aspects of Japanese society such as the artisan class would have been more interested in the literary side to Ch’an which could be seen as non-religious. Collect argues that ‘most provincial warriors and members of the imperial court who patronised Zen’ were drawn to the Chinese culture rather than the religious experience. This argument states that a broad range of class in Japanese society were interested in the secular aspect of Ch’an in Japanese society. Moreover Chinese monks saw Japan as a promising mission field and sought to spread Chinese culture in its secular sense such as (poetry, painting and calligraphy) in the hope that it would ‘arouse enthusiasm for Zen practise16’. Collect writes that Japanese people were more interested in Chinese culture rather than the Zen religion that came with it. He writes that there were very few laymen, warrior or noble who practised Zen… or who fully understood the religious teachings of the Chinese Zen Masters17’. Indeed Collect stresses the important artistic influences in Chinese Ch’an when it was imported overseas. He implies that the artistic secular side of Ch’an was far more important to the Japanese people than the Chinese religious tradition. Indeed from the teachings of Zen monastic life came a strong Chinese literary and cultural imprint which was transmitted into the Japanese provinces. One aspect of this cultural migration was the impact of China on Japan.

Indeed the monks that taught at Zen monasteries also emphasised the teaching of intellectual and literary non-Buddhists. Indeed non Buddhist Chinese canonical literati traditions continued to be taught in Japanese monasteries. Hsu-t’ ang Chih-yu was one monk was also patronized by the Chinese emperor Li-stung and who whose disciples become central to the development of Japanese Zen18. Hsu’s Zen however was characterised by a strong interest in in the composition of poetry19 , indeed, one of the characteristics of secularised Zen20. Parker goes on to say that this degenerate Zen cumulated in literary meetings with secular poets which became itself a subject of poetry and painting21.

Indeed societies were made in which the latest Song style culture could be discussed the Kitayama Five Mountains Society was one of the most famous groups. These sort of meetings regarding Chinese secular culture flourished in the 1260’s and ‘70s. Later however many Japanese monks went to China and after their return in 1310’s and 1320’s wrote prolifically in poetry and prose whilst demonstrating their proficiency in calligraphy. Moreover painting inscriptions were also an important aspect of this ‘degenerate Zen22’ . They were as Su and Huang argue of equal value to that of poetry23. This literati tradition was of a direct influence of Ch’an Buddhism. Infact the secular literati Sung tradition stemmed straight from the teachings of Ch’an Buddhism.

Another argument made for this literati tradition which is controversial is that the intellectual side of the Ch’an Song literati tradition was in fact religious and not secular. If it seemed as though the literati tradition comprising of poetry painting inscriptions calligraphy and art was secular some Buddhist historian would argue that it was not as secular as it seemed. One argument is that literature was like religion in the sense that it would cultivate the write in the spiritual sense. This was the idea that the soul of the writer could be made purer by writing and painting. Indeed this came to be known as Our-yang Hsia’s theory of self cultivation. Liu K’ai’s (947-1000) also advocated this idea that in literature as in morality the inner character and spiritual self cultivation of the writer were the most important elements24. For Ou-yang the Way of the ancients meant the study of the classics which would bring out self cultivation stressing inner state of mind and as a basis for spiritual insight. Ou-yang wrote that,

‘Those who learn ought to make the classics their teacher. To make the classics their teacher they must fist uncover their ideas. When the ideas are apprehended the mind will be settled. When the mind is settled their Way will be pure. When the way is pure then what will fill (them) up inside will be real; when what is filling them up inside is real then what is expressed as wen (literature or culture) will be dazzling.25’

This argument limit’s the idea that literati learning was secular and that puts forward the concept that poetry, painting and calligraphy had religious connotations. As one learnt the classics and understood them then mental quietude can be sought, once this is established then moral judgement will be perfected. As Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-60) Ou’s best friend said from his discussion of poetry with (Ou) that, that what is gleaned from Ou is that what interests him most is the inexhaustible meaning which exists beyond words26’. Indeed perhaps the best Way of showing meaning by intention is through painting which expresses the State of Mind of the painter - which the viewer can understand and therefore seek quietude. It is through appreciation of this Ch’an style art that we can gain knowledge of the spiritual and moral state of mind of the artist and the height of the self cultivation of the minds of the ancients.

Ultimately China in the Song period was not a clear cut entity. Geographically, philosophically, ethnically, culturally and politically there was not one ‘single’ China. However the ‘China’ that was exported overseas was what defined China against its ‘other’. Japan and Vietnam say Chinese Ch’an as a literary, religious, political, ideological, and administrative entity - and that was what defined China - Zen.

In conclusion, in Vietnam the impact of Zen monks in royal court cannot diminish the idea that there was less of a religious Zen background in Vietnam than in Japan. Indeed, there were not any monasteries in Vietnam nor religious scripture schools. Moreover, the main historical primary record of Vietnamese Zen religious masters is a fabrication. Certainly there is the concept of Zen Buddhism in Vietnam, however historians have distanced themselves away from the idea of actual Zen communities in Vietnam aswell as becoming more interested in the idea of a secular ‘construct’ of Zen. There seems to be a fabrication or ‘framework’ if you may around the idea of Zen religion in Vietnam. Zen however played a wider role in the secular court. Indeed, in order (greatest first) Zen was foremost a secular political concept then secular literary and finally a religious ‘construct’. Indeed ultimately it was significantly more secular than religious in Vietnam. In Japan there is certainly a tradition of literary and artistic tradition which this essay argues is a religious experience in itself. Together with the meditation and religious activities which Zen monks and monasteries carried out there was almost in toto a Zen tradition which was religious and not secular. This tradition would continue well into the 18th century Tokugawa world27 Even if the monks had tea parties with secular associates intimately this was a religious experience of purifying the soul in itself. In comparison to Vietnam there was far less of a political imprint on Japanese society than in Vietnamese society. Japanese society was more religiously literati and religiously artistic and monastic than the more secular Zen that was in Vietnam.

1 Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History p. 128
2 Nguyen, Zen in medieval Vietnam p.28
3 Ibid., p. 35
4 Ibid., p. 30
5 Ibid., p.28
6 Ibid., p. 35
7 Ibid., p. 36
8 Ibid., p. 99
9 Ibid., p. 99
10 Ibid., 99
11 Ibid., p. 99
12 Collcut M., Five Mountains p. 291
13 Kodera Dogens Formative Years in China
14 Collcutt Five Mountains p. 292
15 Ibid., 292
16 Ibid., p. 294
17 Ibid., p. 88
18 Ibid., p.87
19 Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 29
20 Iriya ‘Yoshitaka Kido no geju o yoma tame ni’Daitoku-ji boku seki zenshu ed Maruoka Muneo (Mainichi Shinbunsha, 1984) 1:249-51 and passim in Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 29
21 Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 29
22 Ebine Toshio brought this type of literary meeting to Parkers attention (sic) Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 29
23 Hsu-t’ang’s Zen is described by Ogisu in Mujun 35-40. The importance of Hsu-Tsung literary activates for the Japanese Zen tradition is discussed in Tamamura’s Nihonso no gunsanshita 782-85 Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 29
24 Ibid., p. 35
25 Ibid., p. 32
26 Ou-yang Hsiu ch’uan-chi (Taipei: Shih-chieh Shu-chu, 1961), 1:499; translation from Bol, ‘Culture and the Way’ 72; s.a ‘This Culture of Ours’ 184 in Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 33
27 Discussed by Egan Ou-yang Hsiu, p. 98 Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan p. 33


Biran The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History (Cambridge) 2005

Collcutt M., Five Mountains (Harvard) 1981

Kodera Dogens Formative Years in China (Harvard) 1980

Jansen China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard) 1992

Nguyen Zen In Medieval Vietnam (Hawaii Press) 1997

Parker. J., Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan (New York Press) 1999

Wilson., Genealogy of the Way (Stanford) 1995

Word count: 2750.

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