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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: November 2009

6 - HISTORY: the genealogy of mind


Long ago, Zen master Pai-chang, who was Huang Po's teacher, was scolded by his teacher Ma-tsu with such a loud voice that it almost shattered his eardrums. Huang Po heard this story from Pai-chang and was enlightened. This is what we mean by saying the old masters are still living.


A truly historical thinking must also think its own historicity.

H. G. Gadamer

Although John Blofeld assumed that, since Huang Po spoke “from a direct perception of truth” he would therefore take no interest in history, the texts he translated show just the opposite. Huang Po lived in an era in which a new history was beginning to be composed, the history of the “Zen school,” a new “school” of Chinese Buddhism which was being created precisely in this act of writing. The framework for this new history was the “transmission of mind,” which consisted of stories about how “enlightened mind” had been transmitted from the Buddhas down through “Patriarchs” to the present. These historical narratives function in the texts to bring the Zen issues of “mind” and “enlightenment” to the fore, to make them intelligible and attractive. These stories provide rationale for the whole monastic enterprise and feature the particular style of practice structured into Hung-chou Zen monasteries.

These “Zen” stories continued to develop and to “circulate” throughout China, becoming very influential over the next few centuries after Huang Po. As their influence grew, new authors and editors appeared within the Zen monastic world, interested in systematizing the narratives by bringing the individual stories together into a holistic view of Buddhist and human history.