Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review of "Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity"

Review of Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity, translated with commentary by Peter N. Gregory.

Peter Gregory’s book, Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity, has a wealth of information about the Buddhist and Chinese cultural context in which Guifeng Zongmi (Gregory uses the Wade-Giles form Kuei-feng Tsung-mi)(780-841) wrote his famous treatise. As truth in advertising, Gregory informs the reader that the book is intended for college students already acquainted with Buddhism or Chinese thought and for scholars of other fields. His goal is to use the framework of Zongmi’s treatise to construct a general introduction to Chinese Buddhist thought. As such, Gregory generally succeeds in his aim of presenting explanatory material to the academically minded who are interested in Buddhism. Though not intended for those with no background in either Buddhism or Chinese thought, I think Gregory’s commentary gives even those unacquainted with Buddhism enough context to feel moderately oriented.

Gregory’s forte is in providing references and quotes from other texts, especially those by Zongmi and the classics of Confucian and Taoist schools, which relate to Zongmi’s text. Yet, however well Gregory meets his aim of providing a contextual introduction to Chinese Buddhism, the reader should be aware that Gregory is, after all, an academic scholar whose frame of reference appears confined to the academy. For all of Gregory’s many and insightful connections between texts, Gregory’s overall result is that he misses the forest for focusing on the trees. His greatest error is that he fails to see that the essence and purpose of Zongmi’s work is to present a manifesto of One Vehicle (Ekayana) Buddhism.

Gregory recognizes that Zongmi’s treatise is in the framework of Buddhist doctrinal classification and that Zongmi’s use of that framework is uniquely practice-centered, but Gregory misses the point that the center and content of Zongmi’s practice is the Ekayana. Gregory views Zongmi’s practice orientation as being “based on Tsung-mi’s cosmogonic vision,” but for Zen master Zongmi it is the other way around: Zongmi’s cosmogonic vision is based on his practice experience. Gregory, as a philosopher, sees philosophy in Zongmi that isn’t there.

Zongmi too was a scholar, but he epitomizes the practitioner scholar rather than the academic scholar, and his aim is to present the One Vehicle of Buddhism so that people may know to “return to the root, and turn your light back upon the mind source” and recognize for themselves that the mind is the One Buddha Mind. Gregory consistently misinterprets Zongmi’s One Vehicle in terms of Tathagatagarbha doctrine. Gregory’s near obsession with Tathagatagarbha doctrine colors his discussion of Zongmi’s message throughout Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity. What Gregory misses, is that just because Zongmi’s One Vehicle includes Tathagatagarbha doctrine doesn’t mean that Zongmi’s One Vehicle is any more determined by or informed by Tathagatagarbha doctrine than by the other Buddhists doctrines, such as emptiness or karma, that are also included within the One Vehicle. So the reader must be warned that whenever Gregory mentions “tathagatagarbha doctrine” that it must be taken with liberal doses of salt, revealing more about Gregory’s biased view than about Zongmi’s actual message.

For example, the term “tathagatagarbha” is only mentioned three times in Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity, and each time is it only mentioned in passing as another label for the particular aspect of true nature that is being discussed, and it is not raised on its own as the content of Zongmi’s central teaching. What is Zongmi’s central content? In his own words it is “The Teaching of the One Vehicle That Reveals the Nature holds that all sentient beings without exception have the intrinsically enlightened, true mind.”

Zongmi’s position as both a Zen (Chan) master and Huayen master provided him with a unique perspective to appreciate the One Vehicle. however, Gregory misses the importance of Zongmi’s Zen context. The founder of the various Zen lineages in China was the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who was said to have taught the Lankavatara Sutra according to "the One Vehicle Lineage of Southern India." This is an important connection for understanding Zongmi’s treatise and is three-fold: first, the Lankavatara Sutra is one of the core scriptures upon which the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana is based and Zongmi based his treatise largely within the context of the Awakening of Faith; second, the One Vehicle perspective of Bodhidharma, the Lankavatara, and the Awakening of Faith is the perspective that Zongmi used to release the One Vehicle teaching from the confines of those schools that associated the One Vehicle with a single sutra such as the Huayen or Lotus sutras. and third, Zongmi’s doctrinal classification of five stages is directly derived from Bodhidharma’s famous treatise called Outline For Discerning the Mahayana and Entering the Way By Four Practices and Contemplation.

Bodhidharma’s Outline presents Buddhist practice in the context of five categories that directly correspond to the five levels of Buddhist teaching outlined by Zongmi. Bodhidharma says that one enters the Way by two kinds of cultivation, that is, one enters by principle or by practice, entering by practice means entering by one of the four practices. The first four levels of Buddhist teaching in Zongmi’s outline correspond to the four practices described in Bodhidharma’s Outline, and the most profound teaching of the One Vehicle presented in Zongmi’s outline corresponds to what Bodhidharma calls “entering by principle” and says means “to rely on the lineage of awakening and to bear profound faith that the one true nature of beings is the same.” Thus Bodhidharma’s teaching of “One True Nature” is precisely what Zongmi is describes as “The Teaching of the One Vehicle That Reveals the Nature.”

Thus Zongmi’s innovation in the Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity is not in creating from whole cloth the five categories of the teaching that he presents there, but in adapting the five teachings of Bodhidharma’s Zen that he inherited in his Zen training to the systematizing practices of doctrinal classification that were accepted in his day in the other Buddhist schools, and in showing how the five teachings are related to the creative process of consciousness which is, in fact, the creation of the universe itself as far as our awareness is concerned. Gregory fully appreciates the importance of Zongmi’s Buddhist “Genesis story” as being related to the importance of practice, but Gregory over emphasizes the question of the origin of humanity in the literal sense and thus sees Zongmi’s practice orientation to be “grounded on his cosmogony” when it is the cosmogony that is secondary and grounded in the practice.

As for the technical aspects of the translation, in my view, Gregory’s frequent use of brackets to insert words he feels should be implied is overdone to the point of distraction. The translator has a responsibility not to insert such material without brackets, so I am grateful when he uses them, but the overuse of brackets to insert the translator’s words just becomes evidence of the translator’s failure to translate the author’s words adequately. I also find fault in Gregory’s propensity to use different English words when translating the same Chinese word, as well as his using the same English word for translating different Chinese words. I feel an accurate translation should not mix and match the Chinese words with English words. The author must be presumed to be picking his words carefully, and as such the English words used to translate them should be used in correspondence to the Chinese so the reader of the English will know which words are used. If the same English word appears in two different paragraphs, the English reader should be able to know that the Chinese author used the same Chinese word in each paragraph, in this way the reader comes to learn how the author intended the words, not how the translator intends them.

Lastly, and least, I would quibble with Gregory on the translation of the title. I read the title as speaking about the “original person” not the “origin of humanity” and would translate the title as “The Original Person Debate” or “Treatise on the Original Person.” I accept that Gregory’s translation of the title is within the range of validity, however, it focuses on what Gregory sees as Zongmi’s emphasis on cosmogony, while I read Zongmi as being focused on directing each of us to realize our original person rather than our deluded person and that each of the deepening levels of the teaching is bringing us closer to the original person that is our true nature. .

In conclusion, while I am very critical of certain aspects of Gregory’s academic biases and his infatuation with Tathagatagarbha doctrine along with some of his translation techniques, I still recommend the book for its wealth of Chinese sources, with the caveat that the reader needs to read critically and not take Gregory’s interpretations of Zongmi as gospel. Zongmi’s sole goal is to bring us to the realization of the Teaching of the One Vehicle that Reveals the Nature and if the reader can keep this in mind while reading Zongmi, then the reading will be most beneficial.