The Way of Ch'an


The Chinese ideogram for Buddha is 佛, which contains two pictographic elements. The element on the left means “a person,” and is a stylized form of 人, side-view of a person walking. The element on the right portrays a loom, with its warp-threads and woof-threads weaving together: 弗. This loom was a central concept in early Chinese philosophy, where it was a mythological description for an origin-place that weaves out the fabric of reality, a “loom-of-origins.” Chuang Tzu, the seminal Taoist writer (p. 50), describes it like this: “The ten thousand things all emerge from a loom-of-origins, and they all vanish back into it.” Here is Ch’an in a nutshell: Buddha, the awakened one, as a person integral to the loom-of-origins, integral to the source of all existence and its ongoing process of change and transformation. And Ch’an practice is all about cultivating that integration, that dwelling or belonging, which is itself the awakening of Buddha.

    This anthology traces the historical development of Ch’an, its cultivation of awakening as integral to 弗. The entire Ch'an project revolves around the cosmological/ontological source. As we will see, this source is not some kind of metaphysical pool of pregnant emptiness from which things emerge. Understood with empirical clarity, it is instead simply the Cosmos itself recognized as a single generative tissue that is female in nature, and is constantly reconfiguring itself: the ten thousand things in perpetual transformation. Ch’an’s central project is the reintegration of consciousness with that source-tissue, a reintegration that represents a return to our deepest roots in the Paleolithic with its reverence for the generative female nature of reality. This reintegration is also our deepest form of love, a kindred love at primordial levels for the loom’s ten thousand things in their vast transformations. But however ancient, Ch’an’s insight remains open to us in our everyday contemporary experience: Ch’an as both primal and post-modern.

    This collection presents the essential source material for original Ch’an. Although Ch’an insight and awakening is famously “a separate transmission outside all teaching,” the nature of that wordless insight and awakening is determined by the conceptual world within which it operates. This may seem contradictory. But even empty-mind (consciousness emptied of all contents), which would appear to be by definition most radically outside of words and teaching, is defined by its conceptual context. Christian mystics cultivated that same state of consciousness, but they understood it entirely differently based on religious ideology. They imagined that state was a direct experience of God’s overwhelming grace or love, or that it was even nothing less than union with God. In today’s secular context, it’s experienced as a kind of nirvana-tranquility (Zen and other Buddhist practices) or perhaps nothing more than simple stress-reduction. Even though the state of consciousness itself is the same, Ch’an explores deeper through clear observation of empirical facts. And the conceptual framework resulting from that exploration defined the assumptions through which people understood Ch’an experience in ancient China. Importantly, it turns out to be much different than is commonly understood in modern Zen, and we need to understand it as preparation for Ch’an’s direct and wordless insight. 

    That framework is summarized in the Key Terms appendix at the end of this book (p. 410), which can be read straight through as an introductory essay. And a companion book describes it in extensive detail: China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen. In this, China Root serves as the full conceptual introduction to this collection, which in turn presents representative selections from the original texts that illustrate China Root’s argument—that is, the texts in which Ch’an’s conceptual world was articulated. As such, this collection traces the historical development of Ch’an’s foundational concepts from their origins in China’s native Taoist philosophy (12th-6th centuries B.C.E.), through the reformulation of Taoism under the influence of imported Indian Buddhism to form Ch’an (2nd-5th centuries C.E.), and then follows the development of that framework within Ch’an itself (6th-13th centuries). If the texts articulating these concepts sometimes seem difficult, it’s good to remember that the authors/teachers were struggling to speak at the limit of their understanding, and they inevitably often fall short. We should never assume that their explanations are perfect, that if we don’t understand it is our fault.

    This is a revisionary history of Ch’an in a number of ways, a project of recovery. It traces the development of Ch’an’s deepest philosophical levels, the conceptual assumptions that make awakening possible and are largely lost in modern Zen practice and literature (as China Root demonstrates). This history reveals Ch’an to be essentially a refinement and extension of Taoism—again, as China Root demonstrates. (Tao, the central concept of Taoism, translates as “Way,” hence the title of this book: The Way of Chan.)