Book Review of “China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen”

In China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen (Shambhala, 2020), translator/poet David Hinton makes two closely related arguments. The first, his strongest argument, is that English translations of Chán texts obscure, distort, and erase Chán’s significant debt to Daoist thought. The second, and somewhat weaker argument, is that Chán is an offshoot of Daoism that incorporated and subsequently remade Buddhist meditation in its own image, rather than being an authentic form of Buddhism in its own right. There can be no doubt that as Buddhism established itself in East Asia it underwent a significant process of Sinicization as it was 1) initially understood through the lens of Daoism, and then, 2) as it was understood more thoroughly as the vast corpus of Buddhist literature was gradually translated into Chinese. There can be no doubt that the authors of the great works of Chán literature—e.g., the Transmission of the Lamp, the Platform Sūtra, and the kōan collections—were at least as well-versed in Laozi, Zhuangzi, Kongzi, and Mengzi as they were in the Buddha, Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu. The way that Chán practitioners and thinkers negotiated the mutual assimilation and accommodation of Buddhist to Daoist ideas with their simultaneous multiple similarities and incompatibilities is an endlessly fascinating topic. A good deal of Hinton’s argument is philological. In other words, because the Chinese borrowed already existing Chinese characters from the Daoist lexicon to translate novel Sanskrit words, these words continued to mean what they meant for Daoists—no more, no less—even after centuries of use in their new Buddhist context. Hinton may very well be right, but it is also possible that the words developed new and slightly different meanings in their new context even as they continued to retain the penumbra of some of their older connotations.  I suspect this is an issue scholars can (and will) debate endlessly without coming to a final universally agreed upon conclusion.

Having stated this reservation up front, let me say that Hinton presents a fascinating account of how English translations of the Chán literature really do a significant disservice to Chán’s Daoist heritage. He shows how certain characters that have clear Daoist meanings are simply left omitted, untranslated, or mistranslated in well-known English translations—for example, the characters “玄” (xuán) meaning “dark enigma” and  文 (wén) meaning “inner pattern,” referring respectively to the ungraspable nature of the Dao and its intricate inner pattern. Hinton also shows how words that have important double meanings are translated as if they only have one meaning. For example, the Chinese character 無 (, Chinese; mu, Japanese) is usually translated simply as “no” or “not” as in the kōan of Zhaozhou’s dog, or in the long list of negations in the Heart Sutra. Hinton claims that 無 is also the character for the Daoist principle of “absence.” The movement of the Dao is a continuous movement from absence to presence and back again to absence. Absence is thus the fertile void from which the 10,000 things manifest and return, and parallels, in some respects, the Buddhist idea of śūnyatā (emptiness) in its implications of non-dual wholeness. Thus, when Zhāozhōu says ” in answer to the question of whether a dog has Buddha nature, he is not merely denying it, but also pointing to the Dao and its undivided wholeness. In fact, Hinton points out there is a bit of a pun in the original Chinese version of this kōan, because the character 無 occurs twice, first as a particle at the end of the student’s question expressing negation (“A dog has a Buddha-nature, no?” and then as Zhāozhōu’s complete answer, this time as an affirmation of the principle of absence. This double role of 無 as both a negation and as the principal of absence can also be seen in the Chán concept of “no mind” which could be understood as a mind without thoughts, but also as “absence mind,” an awareness of the undivided constantly emerging wholeness of reality, of which mind is just one more emergent phenomenon.

From here, Hinton goes on to view the quintessential Chán practices of sitting meditation and kōan practice from the perspective of the Daoist concept of wúwéi (無為, non-action or “absence action”). The effortful one-pointed meditation that is so common in early Buddhist practices is thereby replaced by an effortless open attention to the constant arising of presence from absence and the undividedness of being. Solving kōans becomes a performative act in which solutions arise not from thinking, but from the spontaneous action of the universe as if manifests in individual thought and action. Meditation and kōan practice become the practice of oneness with all things here and now, and a way of experiencing/expressing wholeness rather than a means of attaining a transcendent nirvāṇa. When Chán speaks of “seeing one’s original nature,” (見性; jiànxìng, Chinese; kenshō, Japanese) it means discovering one’s already and always present oneness with the Dao. For Hinton, there is no distinction between “Buddha-nature” and this constant emergence of presence from absence and back again. Hinton also addresses the influence of Chinese mountains-and-rivers landscape painting on the Chán sensibility, and how “mountains-and-rivers” are manifestations of the Dao in the same way that the emergence of thoughts and feelings are—inner and outer landscapes that reflect a single unitary process.

            All of this is certainly there in Chán, but much is also left out in Hinton’s analysis. For example, Hinton’s analysis leaves out any mention of the bodhisattva vows, the precepts, karma, the four noble truths, the paramitas and brahmaviharas, dependent origination, and so much more. The Lamp transmission stories and kōan collections highlight Chán’s Daoist-inflected antinomian side, but fail to reflect the Chán masters deep grounding in the broader Buddhist and Confucian traditions—traditions they and their students could take for granted. Theirs was a special transmission beyond letters and words, but that transmission didn’t obviate the need for developing discerning wisdom, character, and  compassion. We see this clearly, for example, in the Japanese Zen of Dōgen who repeatedly said that all one had to do was sit zazen—forget everything else—but who then also went on to prescribe in detail how to read sutras, burn incense, bow, wear one’s robe, make repentance, chant, prepare meals, and wash one’s face.

            This is the place to note some quibbles I have with some of Hinton’s editing decisions.  First, he transliterates Chinese names using the Wade-Giles system rather than the Pinyin system most contemporary scholars use. Second, he refers to Chán masters by the English meaning of the Chinese characters that compose their names, rather than by their Chinese or Japanese transliterations.  For example, he refers to Zhāozhōu as “Master Visitation Land,” and Linjī as “Master Purport Dark Enigma.” This is all right as long as you have the Chinese/Japanese transliteration equivalents in a footnote or appendix so the reader can line up their names with the names he/she is already familiar with, but it’s just plain annoying without them. My final quibble is the absence of footnotes to document research supporting claims he makes about Chinese and Chán history. Without them, it is impossible to know what scholarship he is basing those claims on.  For example, Hinton asserts that the separation of self from Nature resulted from the disruptions to paleolithic culture caused by the development of agriculture and written language, and by an accompanying shift from a gynocentric to androcentric world-view. That sounds good. For all I know, it may be completely true, but I would love to know how he knows this, and whether it is supported by scholarly research.  This problem is compounded by the fact that there are no scholarly references in the works cited section at the end of the book.

Despite these reservations, I strongly recommend this book. I found it interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable, and I learned quite a bit that was new to me about the history and meaning of the Chinese characters used to express Chán ideas. The book helped me to more deeply appreciate the Daoist contributions to modern Zen practice, and better understand the reasons for some of the underlying discontinuities between Zen teachings and those of other Buddhist schools. The book is written at a level the average Zen practitioner will be able to read, understand, and enjoy. My main complaint is that I wish Hinton’s approach had been more scholarly—as a non-scholar who is not fluent in classical Chinese, I was not always sure how fully I could trust Hinton’s interpretations, and alternative translations. When one is writing a book, there is always a tradeoff between making the book accessible to the average reader, but also useful for scholarly types. There is never a perfect way to do this, but I wish Hinton had erred on the more scholarly side.  I also suspect his is a somewhat one-sided account of how the mating of Daoism and Buddhism produced the love child that came to be known as Zen, as it emphasizes the Daoist side of this lineage while underplaying the contributions of its Buddhist partner.




12 Replies to “Book Review of “China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen””

  1. My own research persuaded me that Zen was not as directly and exclusively influenced by Daoism as is often claimed. Certainly Buddhism in China was influenced by both Daoism and Confucianism, since that was the background of the Chinese scholars who first took an interest in it. So one can find influences of both Daoism and Confucianism in all the early Chinese Buddhist schools. But I could find no evidence that there was any exclusive connection between Daoism and the Tang and Song dynasty Chan masters, the ancestors of today’s Zen, which marked the time Chan emerged as a distinctive school. I also found an interview with Red Pine saying he saw no influence of Daoism in Zen whatsoever, and while I don’t agree with that, if anybody would know, he would. I personally think the Zen-Daoist connection is something early western Zen aficionados such as Alan Watts assumed that doesn’t entirely stand up to scrutiny.

    1. Barbara, thanks for contributing to this conversation as I have enormous respect for your scholarship in this area.I really can’t evaluate the accuracy of Hinton’s claims. I suspect that the boundaries between Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism were very fluid throughout Chinese history. Alan Cole has written about how the Song Dynasty Chan authors re-wrote Tang Dynasty accounts to make the masters look and sound more like Daoist sages, and there is little reason to doubt that some Daoist influences were there all along, both before and after that. I am reminded of that fact every time I recite “butso do” in our four great vows, or I come across references to “li” (sometimes translated as “principle”) in the Sandokai. I was discussing with a friend this morning, for example, how a Daoist would understand sunyata, how a Buddhist would understand Daoist “absence,” and how a modern Westerner would sort through the similarities and differences between the two concepts from a Western philosophical perspective. It makes the head spin. Hinton is, at a number of points, critical of Red Pine’s translations, by the way. On the other hand, a Buddhist colleague of mine who has written quite a bit about the Daodejing is critical of some of Hinton’s translations. I suspect that Hinton’s view is both partially true and partially false, but I don’t know enough to say anything more beyond that. I too flashed on Alan Watts’s conflation of Zen and Daoism as I read Hinton’s book. We children of the ’60s have long memories. Thanks again!

    2. Odd…you can see Taoism all over Zen. Cha’n came from Taoism as did the Inari (known as Hu Li Jing in China) which is an integral part of Shintoism. Hinton seems to have a belief that the yang (hun) and po (yin) aspects of the soul/spirit dissipate after death. One to heaven the other to earth. Actually Taoist cosmology has the yin aspect descending to the “Yellow Source” in the earth for testing, much as the heart was tested in Egyptian religion. The Hun then goes to the “Bardo” awaiting the test results and then the soul proceeds through the Bardo. If it survives the trip, it goes either to a reincarnation or incarnation. This is covered extensively in the Tao of Celestial Foxes trilogy by Alex Anatole published by the Center of Traditional Taoist Studies.

  2. I enjoyed your review and agree! I’ve read a little over a chapter into the book and I think it might be a bit too bold in its claims. I am also a little suspicious of Hinton’s claim that so many well researched academic translations of the Daodejing (such as Red Pine, John Minford, Addis and Lombardo, etc) all get basic terms wrong.

    That being said, I enjoy both Zen Buddhism and philosophical Taoism a great deal and am always eager to read any work integrating them. To me, Hinton shines brightest as an original interpreter of different eastern traditions. I almost feel like the historical arguments are pointless when Hinton has such interesting and elegant interprstations of both traditions to offer!

  3. Rather late to this discussion, but I’m just in the middle of reading China Root. Unfortunately, I have become so infuriated with Hinton’s distortion of the Heart Sutra that it is hard to assess how much of the rest of his work is similarly distorted. My understanding of the Heart Sutra is that it was produced by Xuanzang as a short version of the Prajna Paramita sutras for general use in Buddhist meditation centers, and was not, as Hinton assumes, a quintessential Chan text. So when HInton forces a Daoist interpretation of the text and ignores its true roots, it makes me wonder how much of the rest of this book is similarly fanciful. I wish I had the background to evaluate the book, but I am very suspicious.

    1. Meredith, you are right that the Heart Sutra was introduced by Xuanzang. It is not clear for what purpose he introduced it——he didn’t claim authorship, although its authorship is almost certainly Chinese. It takes a passage translated and redacted from one of the Sanskrit Prajnaparamita sutras and tacks on an introduction with Avalokiteshvara instead of Subhuti, the usual Prajnaparamita interlocutor, and a dharani at the end. It was probably always intended as a chanting text. It is a quintessential Zen text to the extent that it is popularly chanted in all Zen lineages I am aware of. Hinton is claiming that early Chinese Taoist and Xuanxue thought influenced the way that Chinese Buddhists understood Mahayana concepts, and this seems undoubtedly true. Jayarava Attwood is making the same claim about how Nagarjuna’s thinking influenced later interpretations of the Prajnaparamita texts as well. Each successive generation has their own somewhat new understanding of the texts influenced by the general culture they have grown up in. I am aware of three different possible readings of the Heart Sutra based on the early Prajnaparamita thought, later Madhyamaka thought, and even later Xuanxue thought. What’s the correct way to read the Heart Sutra? Is there one correct way to read it? I agree that Hinton’s argument that the text should mostly be read in the context of Xuanxue is not a strong argument, but it is one other perspective on the text that is worth our consideration. I will probably write a blog post on this topic by and by as I sort out more of my thinking.

      1. Many thanks for your comments. As for the authorship of the Heart Sutra, we certainly don’t know, but Xuanzang’s account of learning it from an ailing monk for whom he cared, and who later turned out to be an embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, has always struck me as a literary conceit. Similarly, he also produced a synthesis of Yogacara teachings, his main interest, which he put forth as a “sutra.”
        If Hinton was just emphasizing one interpretation, I could accept that, but his interpretation totally dismisses the Prajna Paramita roots of the Heart Sutra, and he castigates those who don’t follow along. As I was reading the book, what kept coming to mind was the old joke about the proud mother watching her son in the marching band and remarking how her son was the only one in step.
        I would love to see more on the alternate interpretations of the Heart Sutra, so will be looking forward to that!

  4. I was very glad to come across this review of Hinton’s book. I have tried a couple of times to read it – but every time I become so frustrated that I have to give up. Personally I think you are much too gentle with him – but still manage to get the point across. How can one claim that Zen is really Taoist and not Buddhist – and then proceed to make no mention whatsoever of such basic Buddhist concepts (that are fundamental to Zen) as “bodhisattva vows, the precepts, karma, the four noble truths, the paramitas and brahmaviharas, dependent origination, and so much more”?

    1. Thanks, Curtis for your comments. You may be right——I may have been too gentle, but I am not a scholar in this area, my rudimentary knowledge of Chinese is mostly modern Mandarin and not classical Chinese, and I really had no way of adequately judging the strength of his philological arguments other than to say I found them interesting but not necessarily convincing. I will leave a rougher critique to those who are more familiar with classical Chinese and how its usage evolved. Hinton doesn’t seem to adequately recognize in his book how much word meanings change over time. For example, I recently heard a talk by Edward Slingerland about how the meaning of the word xin changed from the time the Odes were written to the end of the Warring States period. He said that while “heart” is a good translation for its use at the time of the Odes, and heart/mind at the time of the Analects, by the end of the Warring State period xin had changed to mean almost exculsively “mind”. He was able to track this change through a very sophisticated computer analysis of all the existing texts of the period. It would not be surprising if many of the words used in the xuanxue texts also changed their meaning by the time they were being used in Zen texts. It would take a Slingerland-type sophisticated analysis to resolve these sorts of questions——something Hinton has clearly not done.

  5. Diving into “China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen,” I was reminded of my trip to the sacred Mount Wudang, where a monk spoke of the delicate balance between Daoism and Buddhism. Hinton’s exploration of Chán’s Daoist underpinnings resonates deeply, echoing that mountaintop epiphany. Yet, his bias towards Daoism somewhat overshadows the harmonious dance of both traditions.

    1. Ah, five peaks mountain! So many koans mention it. I hope to go there some day too. It’s an especially important historical site for both Pure Land Buddhists and Confucians, and I understand it’s now a national park.

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