How to Think with Chan Gong'an

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How to Think with Chan Gong'an
Citation: Sharf, Robert H. "How to Think with Chan Gong'an." In Thinking with Cases: Specialized Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, edited by Charlotte Furth, Judith Zeitlin, and Hsiung Ping-chen, 205–43. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007.


No abstract given. Below are the first relevant paragraphs:

A monk asked Zhaozhou: ‘‘Does a dog have buddha-nature?’’ Zhaozhou replied: ‘‘No.’’

This pithy exchange between an unidentified Buddhist monk and the Tang dynasty Chan master Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897) is perhaps the best-known example of a Chan gong’an, or ‘"public case." Although the passage occurs in a collection of Zhaozhou's sayings supposedly compiled by his disciples, its notoriety is due to a Song dynasty master, Wumen Huikai (1183–1260), who placed this exchange at the beginning of his famous gong’an collection, Gateless Barrier of the Chan Tradition (Chanzong wumen guan, 1228).[1] Wumen’s compilation, consisting of forty-four such exchanges and anecdotes accompanied by Wumen’s comments, is one of the most important works of Chan literature. And as the first case in Wumen’s collection, "Zhaozhou’s dog" became the single most influential gong’an in the Chinese Chan, Korean Son, and Japanese Zen traditions. It is often the first and sometimes the only gong’an assigned to monks, and many traditional commentators claim, following Wumen’s lead, that this single gong’an holds the key to all others.
      Wumen’s work was neither the earliest nor the most comprehensive compilation of Chan cases. Indeed, the Gateless Barrier is relatively short and straightforward in comparison to two earlier collections, the Blue Cliff Record of Chan Master Foguo Yuanwu (Foguo Yuanwu Chanshi Biyan lu), published in 1128, and the Congrong Hermitage Record of the Commentaries by Old Wansong on the Case and Verse [Collection] by Reverend Jue of Tiantong [Mountain] (Wansong laoren pingzhang Tiantong Jue heshang songgu Congrongan lu), published in 1224. The cases that make up these texts are each based on an individual anecdote, verbal exchange, or quandary known as the benze (original edict), to which has been added comments in prose and verse brushed by later masters. Whereas the Gateless Barrier contains forty-four such anecdotes accompanied by a brief comment and verse by Wumen, the Blue Cliff Record and Congrong Hermitage Record each contain one hundred cases including several layers of appended judgments, verses, and interlinear glosses. (The same "original edict" may appear in two or more collections, but the exegesis will invariably differ. More will be said about the structure of these collections below.) Many more gong’an collections gained currency in China, and the Chan tradition would come to speak of seventeen hundred authoritative cases (although this number was probably not meant to be taken literally). By the end of the Song the gong’an had assumed a central role in the ideological, literary, and institutional identity of the Chan school.
      Popular books on Chan and Zen Buddhism present gong’an as intentionally incoherent or meaningless. They are, it is claimed, illogical paradoxes or unsolvable riddles intended to frustrate and short-circuit the intellect in order to quell thought and bring the practitioner to enlightenment. This understanding of gong’an is allied with a view of Chan as an iconoclastic and anti-intellectual tradition that rejects scripture, doctrine, philosophy, and indeed all forms of conceptual understanding in favor of unmediated or "pure" experience. Gong’an are intended, according to this view, not to communicate ideas so much as to induce a transformative experience. To grasp at the literal meaning of a Chan case is to miss its point.
      Recently scholars have begun to question the instrumental view of Chan that underlies this approach to Chan cases, arguing that it is based on a misreading of the historical and ethnographic record.[2] Chan ranks among the most ritualistic forms of Buddhist monasticism, and a master’s enlightenment is constituted within a prescribed set of institutional and ritual forms.[3] Moreover, the notion that Chan is designed to induce a nonconceptual or pure experience can be traced in part to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japanese intellectuals such as D. T. Suzuki and Nishida Kitarō, who were culling from Western sources, notably William James.[4] The notion that Chan is anti-intellectual and repudiates "words and letters" is belied by the fact that the Chan tradition produced the largest literary corpus of any Buddhist school in East Asia.[5] This corpus consists in large part of "recorded sayings" (yulu) and "records of the transmission of the flame" (chuandenglu) texts—texts recounting the careers and teachings of past patriarchs from which the original edicts were drawn.
      Scholars now appreciate that Chan is more complex than early apologists and enthusiasts cared to admit; it is no longer possible to reduce Chan practice and Chan literature to a mere means intended to engender a singular and ineffable spiritual experience. Accordingly, scholars of Chan gong’an have begun to attend to the institutional context and literary history of the genre,[6] and one scholar has devoted an entire monograph to the folkloric themes that appear in a single case.[7] Be that as it may, little progress has been made in deciphering the doctrinal and exegetical intent of Chan gong’an; it would appear that scholars remain reluctant to treat gong’an as a form of exegesis at all. This reluctance may be due to the enduring legacy of an earlier apologetic mystification of the gong’an literature. The primary objective of this chapter is to demonstrate that such reluctance is misguided and that it is indeed possible to recover the original meaning and doctrinal purport of at least some of the cases. The task is not easy, however, as the cases are philosophically subtle and hermeneutically sophisticated, and the authors of the collections delighted in obscure allusions, clever puns, and deft wordplay. (Sharf, "How to Think with Chan Gong’an," 205–7)


My thanks to Charlotte Furth and Elizabeth Horton Sharf for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this chapter and to Ling Hon Lam for his meticulous editorial attention.

  1. T 2005:48.292c20–24. The exchange is also featured in case no. 18 of the Wansong Laoren pingzhang Tiantong Jue heshang songgu Congrongan lu, T 2004:48.238b21–39a28. Textual details concerning Zhaozhou’s recorded sayings (Zhaozhou Zhenji Chanshi yulu) will be found below.
  2. Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy and Chan Insights and Oversights; Foulk, "Myth, Ritual, and Monastic Practice"; Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," "Whose Zen?" and "Experience."
  3. Foulk and Sharf, "On the Ritual Use"; Sharf, "Ritual."
  4. Sharf, "Whose Zen?"
  5. On the sometimes controversial place of literary endeavors in the Song monastic institution, see esp. Gimello, "Mārga and Culture"; and Keyworth, "Transmitting the Lamp," 281–324.
  6. See esp. Heine and Wright, eds., The Kōan.
  7. Heine, Shifting Shape.