Polishing a brick to make a mirror: Buddha-nature, rhetoric and literary strategies in early Chán "Records of the Transmission of the Lamp".

01 October 2017 → 31 July 2023
Regional and community funding: Special Research Fund
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • Asian history
    • Chinese language
    • Discourse analysis
    • Historical linguistics
    • Literatures in Chinese
    • Study of Buddhism
Chán 10th century China 11th century Rhetorical strategies Hermeneutics Buddhism Zen
Project description

This research project investigates the development of early “Records of the Transmission of the Lamp” (ch. chuándēnglù傳燈錄) and how Chán Buddhist circles of the 10th and 11th centuries “thought and wrote" (cf. McRae 2000: 53) about the concept of buddha-nature. The texts under examination are:

  • The Zǔtáng jí 祖堂集 (The Collection from the Hall of Patriarchs, c. 952, B25n0144),
  • The Jǐngdé chuándēng lù 景德傳燈錄 (The Jǐngdé Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, 1004, T51n2076),
  • The Tiānshèng guǎng dēnglù 天聖廣燈錄 (The Tiānshèng Era Expanded Record of the Lamp, 1036, X78n1553).

Through a cross-analysis of selected passages from the above listed chuándēnglù, my main objectives are (1) to investigate and evaluate the shift in rhetoric of the Chán tradition across the 10th and 11th centuries, presumably marked by a gradual detachment from the scholastic tradition of earlier Chinese Buddhist traditions, (2) to assess how this evolution in rhetoric, self-representation and identity-making of Chán Buddhist circles of the time impacted the transmission of doctrinal tenets such as buddha-nature, and, more generally, (3) to enhance our understanding of chuándēnglù as a literary genre. through a diachronic analysis of selected entries. 

I am particularly interested in how the evolution in Chán rhetoric and discourse relates to the complex interplay between historical developments, regional/local aspects, as well as socio-religious factors and sectarian considerations regarding the Chán circles of Mǐn 閩, Nán Táng 南唐, and Wúyuè 吳越 kingdoms during the late Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 五代十國 period (907-960) and early Sòng 宋 (960-1279).

The arguments developed in the thesis are based on a comparative analysis of:

  • The prefaces of the Zǔtáng jí, the Jǐngdé Chuándēng lù, and the Tiānshèng guǎng dēnglù.
  • Selected passages related to buddha-nature (search terms: 佛性, 如來藏, 如來藏性).
  • Passages containing the following four-characters phrases: 即心是佛, 即心即佛, 見性成佛, 汝心是佛, 自心是佛, 是心是佛.
  • Entries: Niútóu Fǎróng 牛頭法融, Hézé Shénhuì 荷澤神會, Nányuè Huáiràng 南嶽懷讓, Shítóu Xīqiān 石頭希遷, Línjì Yìxuán 臨濟義玄, etc.