Early Ch’an – foundations of investigation

by layman k

Almost the entire basis of the current understanding of the development of Ch’an comes from an early twentieth century find of documents in northwest China. This has been bolstered via more recent scholarship into early Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts in which early Ch’an was apparently a contender for how Buddhism was to develop in Tibet.  These early texts were hand copied documents that varying degrees of fidelity (documents copied for “merit” have particularly egregious amounts of errors). Modern scholarship with it’s analysis of such factors as the type of paper it is written on, the period use of language, references and the like as well as tracing quotations and references from one document to the has created a picture of the validity and importance of these texts. Some of these early figures, ideas, concepts and practices rose and then declined in emphasis until Ch’an became what we know it today.

Some of the more recent scholarship has been on considering the earliest texts that have been found in that cache of documents in northwest China (and corroborating it with what has been found in the Tibetan archives as well). Thus it is worth noting the providence of this find.

The discovery in the early part of this century of a small, walled-up cave within the Mo-Kao Grottoes located outside the oasis town of Tun-huang in Northwest China has led to the retrieval of a lost early Ch’an literature of T’ang Dynasty times (618-907). This hidden sub cave, usually known as cave no. 17, was found to be stuffed to the ceiling with Buddhist manuscripts and art. It had been sealed up around 1000 C.E., but no one knows for certain why. Some have suggested that pious Buddhists wished to save the contents from the destructive fury of invaders

The most likely reason, however, is connected to technological advance. In China proper the new technology of printing was quickly embraced by the Buddhists to spread their message and reached the backwater Tun-huang about the year 1000. Once printed canons  replaced the old manuscript copies in the libraries of the Tun-huang monasteries, something had to be done with the manuscripts. They could not simply be discarded, since, paper being at a premium, that might lead to the profane use of sacred materials. The answer was to protect them by placing them in small, subsidiary cave and walling it up. (1, p. 96-7 pp. 2 & 3)

Once this cave was found with it’s treasure trove of of twenty to thirty thousand documents around 1900 international scholars immediately displayed interest, but not so much within Chinese circles. So these documents became distributed primarily among Japanese, French and British libraries.  This material was studied separately and various bits and pieces of it were translated and published. The more recent scholarship has attempted to examine the related documents between the various collections and establish context. This process has continued to the present day and there have continued to be new finds of documents that has added to these studies. The bulk of the documents found are not Ch’an documents but there is a good amount of them, including those that had fallen out of the canon.

About three hundred Chinese manuscripts relating to Ch’an have so far been discovered in the Tun-huang collections. Many are fragments of scrolls, and we have a number of scrolls bearing the same works. The total number of separate works included in these manuscripts is roughly one hundred, and it is from these one hundred titles that a list of the earliest works must be extracted.  (1, p. 97 pp.2)

Tun-huang was occupied by the Tibetans from 780 to ~860 and there was much translation of Chinese Buddhist texts into Tibetan during this period which accounts for a certain amount of Tibetan documents to have been found in the cache. There have been around “forty fragmentary [Tibetan] manuscripts”  (1, p. 98 pp.2 but also 2 ch. IIa) relating to Ch’an as well as in central Tibetan documents relating to Rdzog-chen. These Tibetan documents serve to corroborate the Chinese texts and to allow for attempts to work out the source text from fragmentary texts as well as various copying and/or translation errors.

The analysis of these documents has both an academic component focused on chronology, authorship and cultural, historical and political context and development as well as a religious one focusing on practice and beliefs. The focus of this series of posts is on the latter utilizing the former as a tool. That is the scholarship allows one to trace the development of practices and to see which ideas and beliefs held sway during different periods. Why practices, ideas and beliefs shifted is of primary interest and hints of that can be found particularly in the culture, historical and political contexts. While only a certain amount of time will be devoted to these areas of analysis, based on utility, a summary of some of these investigations is worth while.

Chronology has been established by considering the paper, the source, and the context.  Many of the documents came from known Tun-huang monasteries and the historical records of these establishments allow one to determine when the document would have been copied. Some of the documents were written on the reverse side of government documentations which were dated and thus allows for some of the material to be at least roughly dated. Additionally the phases of Tun-huang from the pre-Tibetan occupation (750 to 780), during the occupation (780 to ~860) and post-occupation (900s) all have distinct hallmarks to them that allow them to be placed within these rough time periods. The paper and binding styles shifted during these three periods and especially during the earliest period they are the most distinct. Thus the earliest documents are able to be determined with the highest degree of confidence (1, p. 98- 100).

With some confidence we can say that these are among the oldest Ch’an books available to us. Some of these texts continued to be copied at Tun-Huang in the subsequent two periods, but others did not. This means that the copying of certain very early texts went on at Tun-huan long after it had ceased in China proper, so here lies part of the secret of the value of Tun-huang manuscripts for early Ch’an studies.  (1, p. 100-101)

The above quote quite well gets at the value of examining the chronological and dissemination of these texts.  It should be understood that Tun-Huang was not the forefront of Ch’an development. Texts that reached Tun-Huang and then were copied can thus be granted to be of value. The more a text was copied the more likely it was a more major text. However of course Ch’an could take on a “local flavor” as it were and texts that had fallen out of the more central Ch’an development could be in use here. However after the period of Tibetan occupation ended and Chinese influence reasserted itself the latest developments would displace these.  This historical accident has allowed for the Tun-huang archive to be a preserve of the earliest state of Ch’an frozen in time until it’s rediscovery.

1) The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, by Jeffrey L. Broughton

2) Early Ch’an in China and Tibet (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series 5) , Edited by Lewis R. Lancaster and Whalen Lai

For complete bibliographical information see Early Ch’an Sources.