Alan Cole's Talk on Chan Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Join the University of Arizona Center for Buddhist Studies for our Pu Yin Lecture Series Fall 2021 No. 2

Dr. Alan Cole, Independent scholar

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021 at 4:00 PM Arizona Standard Time
Other time zones include:
4:00 PM (PST) (Los Angeles)
7:00 PM (EST) (New York)
11:00 PM (GMT) (London)
7:00 AM (Thurs. Sept. 30) (CST) (Beijing)
8:00 AM (Thurs. Sept. 30) (JST) (Tokyo)

Please verify the time in your area via a time zone calculator as Arizona does not
observe Daylight Savings Time.

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This talk reconsiders the origins of Chan (Zen) Buddhism through a critical
reading of surviving textual evidence. Most modern historians of Chan assume
that Chan Buddhism emerged in China in the 5 th or 6 th century after the “semi-
legendary” Bodhidharma and his disciples began sharing their wisdom and
meditation styles with a select set of “practitioners,” out in China’s hinterland.
Modern historians also assume that these proto-Chan groups subsequently
came to the capitals Luoyang and Chang’an where they promoted a whole new
style of practicing Chinese Buddhism that came to be known as the “Chan
school” (禪宗).

The surviving textual evidence, when read critically, suggests a much more
complicated historical process behind the emergence of Chan Buddhism. This
talk briefly explores four early Chan texts to reveal how they work as seductive
literary gambits, designed to win public support for the claim that this or that
master was really a descendent of the Buddha. In this view, it was the Chan
historians who invented Chan, and not the various masters who are celebrated
within these various Chan genealogies. The final section of the talk will briefly
explore parallels between early Chan genealogies and the oldest gospel, the
Gospel of Mark, to show how, in both cases, images of patriarchy were woven
into seductive historical narratives to make it seem as though perfect truth and
tradition were fully available in the present, provided one properly engages the
designated authorities.

Alan Cole received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Michigan
with a dissertation titled “Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism,” which was
later published by Stanford University Press (1998) under the same title. Dr. Cole
has taught at Lewis & Clark College, the University of Illinois
(Champaign/Urbana), the University of Oregon, and Harvard University.  His
most recent book is Patriarchs on Paper: A Critical History of Chan Literature
(University of California Press, 2016).