Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism

Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism

Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism

Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism

Synopsis

The Chan (Zen in Japanese) school began when, in seventh-century China, a small religious community gathered around a Buddhist monk named Hongren. Over the centuries, Chan Buddhism grew from an obscure movement to an officially recognized and eventually dominant form of Buddhism in China and throughout East Asia. It has reached international popularity, its teachings disseminated across cultures far and wide. In Monks, Rulers, and Literati, Albert Welter presents, for the first time in a comprehensive fashion in a Western work, the story of the rise of Chan, a story which has been obscured by myths about Zen. Zen apologists in the twentieth century, Welter argues, sold the world on the story of Zen as a transcendental spiritualism untainted by political and institutional involvements. In fact, Welter shows that the opposite is true: relationships between Chan monks and political rulers were crucial to Chan's success. The book concentrates on an important but neglected period of Chan history, the 10th and 11th centuries, when monks and rulers created the so-called Chan "golden age" and the classic principles of Chan identity. Placing Chan's ascendancy into historical context, Welter analyzes the social and political factors that facilitated Chan's success as a movement. He then examines how this success was represented in the Chan narrative and the aims of those who shaped it. Monks, Rulers, and Literati recovers a critical period of Zen's past, deepening our understanding of how the movement came to flourish. Welter's groundbreaking work is not only the most comprehensive history of the dominant strand of East Asian Buddhism, but also an important corrective to many of the stereotypes about Zen.

Excerpt

When people first learn of my subject area, they often ask how I became interested in that. Much like the question, “Where are you from?” I am at a loss for the answer. I, of course, know the answers to these questions, but struggle to find a palatable formula, an explanation that does justice to my own experience and meets the understanding of others. People in my line of work often live very hybrid lives and form transnational identities. We live and work in cultures other than our own, trying to adapt to the circumstances we encounter. Although we share our experiences with many expatriates, we have interests in the cultures we study beyond what are considered usual ones. As a consequence, our experiences often diverge. I remember, for example, changing trains at Akasakamitsuke, one of Tokyo’s notoriously busy subway stations, during evening rush hour. As I crossed the platform in a mad rush to catch my connection, my glance met that of two visiting businessmen, probably staying at one of the posh hotels in the area. At first, they smiled in recognition, but quickly turned aghast as they observed me squeeze myself forcefully into my train, as most natives have long been accustomed to doing, as the station master’s whistle blew its warning of imminent departure. Eccentricities dissolve into the commonplace, and become part of normal experience. Having lived in a number of places, the notion of where we are from becomes a blur of these experiences from different places. Many nomads cling, understandably, to their place of origin, but after awhile this, too, may become a faint memory of a time past. As I embarked on the present study, I was often reminded of the disjuncture that occurs between one’s experience and the struggle to represent it.

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