Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, by Peter N. Gregory

Reviewed by T. Griffith Foulk

The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Vol.114 No.3

July-Sep 1994


COPYRIGHT American Oriental Society 1994

            This comprehensive, meticulously researched study of the life and 
            thought of the scholar monk Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841) shines a 
            well-deserved spotlight on a multi-faceted thinker who was, by any 
            standard, a major player on the intellectual stage in medieval 
            China. In doing so, the book also illuminates the social, political, 
            and religious contexts in which Tsung-mi's writings were produced 
            and shows how his work represented an adaptation of Buddhist 
            doctrines and practices to the Chinese cultural milieu. 
            Previous research on Tsung-mi, most of it published in Japanese, has 
            focused largely on his role as a historian who chronicled the 
            lineages of early Ch'an (Zen) and championed his own line of 
            filiation (the Ho-tse branch of the "southern lineage" of Ch'an) as 
            the best. Considerable attention has also been paid to Tsung-mi's 
            contribution to the Hua-yen (Kegon) tradition, which subsequently 
            claimed him as its fifth "patriarch." Author Peter Gregory is very 
            well versed in the Japanese scholarship and uses it to good 
            advantage. He is not taken in, however, by its simplistic caricature 
            of Tsung-mi as a "syncretist" who tried to bridge the gap between 
            Ch'an (characterized as a "mind-to-mind transmission" of 
            enlightenment) and the textually based "teachings" of exegetical 
            traditions such as Hua-yen. Gregory's elucidation of the complex 
            philosophical, ethical, and social considerations that influenced 
            Tsung-mi's intellectual project is both broader in scope and more 
            nuanced than the accounts found in most previous studies. 
            The book is divided into four parts. Part one, entitled "Tsung-mi's 
            Life," collates autobiographical data gleaned from Tsung-mi's own 
            writings, references to the monk found in other contemporaneous 
            documents, and formal accounts of his life given in later Chinese 
            biographies. Gregory brackets the hagiographical elements and 
            normative judgments that are found in both the classical Chinese and 
            modern Japanese biographies of Tsung-mi and declines to engage in 
            the gratuitous psychologizing sometimes found in modern Western 
            biographies of religious figures. The result is a thorough and 
            judicious recounting of the historical evidence: a biography of 
            Tsung-mi which, though sparse, comes as close as possible to 
            attaining the ideals of objectivity and reliability. Gregory takes 
            special care to present the evidence for Tsung-mi's classical 
            Confucian education as a youth and to document his subsequent 
            interactions with various Buddhist teachers, scholar-officials, and 
            political figures. He also describes the monastic centers and 
            traditions of Buddhist practice in Tsung-mi's native Szechwan that 
            the monk knew most intimately. Part one thus provides a social and 
            historical context for the interpretation of Tsung-mi's thought in 
            the remainder of the book. 
            Part two comprises four chapters on "Doctrinal Classification" 
            (p'an-chiao), which is widely regarded by scholars today as one of 
            the most distinctive features of medieval Chinese Buddhist thought. 
            Gregory's primary aim is to elucidate Tsung-mi's p'an-chiao scheme, 
            but his treatment of its antecedents is so thoroughgoing that part 
            two could stand alone as a monograph on the background and 
            progressive development of doctrinal classification in the Hua-yen 
            tradition. Gregory carefully details the various ways in which 
            Tsung-mi's p'an-chiao differed from those of his Hua-yen 
            predecessors, most notably Chih-yen (602-68) and Fa-tsang (643-712). 
            His main thesis is that Tsung-mi's formulation was essentially 
            soteriological in intent: it mapped out stages of understanding on 
            the path to Buddhahood. Earlier Hua-yen thinkers, in contrast, were 
            either preoccupied with the hermeneutical problem of how to 
            reconcile the apparent contradictions between different sutras that 
            were all presumed to be the word of the Buddha, or intent on 
            proving, for sectarian purposes, the superiority of the Hua-yen 
            Sutra. Gregory concludes that Tsung-mi's concern with soteriology 
            reflected the influence of Ch'an on Chinese Buddhism in the eighth 
            and early ninth centuries, and that it represented a radical shift 
            in Hua-yen hermeneutics. 
            Part three, entitled "The Ground of Practice," contains the most 
            ambitious and potentially controversial chapters in the book. It 
            begins by outlining what Gregory refers to as Tsung-mi's "cosmogonic 
            map." This is a five-stage diagram of the process of "phenomenal 
            evolution" through which: (1) the ultimate ground of being - 
            identified with the "one mind" of perfect enlightenment, the true 
            dharmadhatu, and the tathagatagarbha (2) divided against itself and 
            produced an aspect of mind that is subject to birth-and-death as 
            well as one that is unconditioned and unchanging, (3) allowed a 
            differentiation in the mind of birth-and-death between the (relative 
            and conditioned) states of enlightenment and delusion, (4) produced 
            in the deluded mind a false sense of separation between a perceiving 
            subject and perceived objects, and (5) gave rise in that framework 
            to (a) mental discrimination, (b) awareness of pleasure and pain, 
            (c) attachment, (d) conceptual elaboration, (e) activity (karma) 
            based on such attachments and concepts, and finally (f) the 
            suffering of karmic bondage in which ordinary beings find 
            themselves. Gregory calls this schematic diagram of the etiology of 
            deluded sentient existence a "cosmogony" because it is a theory 
            "regarding the birth or creation of the universe" or a "description 
            of the original order of the universe" (p. 175, n. 5). In Tsung-mi's 
            view, each of the stages in the process of phenomenal evolution 
            could be countered and undone by bringing to bear a particular set 
            of Buddhist doctrines and practices, thus reversing the process in a 
            systematic manner and enabling one eventually to move from the state 
            of suffering in karmic bondage (stage 5) "backwards" to a 
            realization of the original state of perfect enlightenment (stage 
            1). Gregory holds that Tsung-mi's five-stage diagram, when viewed 
            from the perspective of a practitioner, thus appears as a "map" of 
            the path to liberation. 
            The central thesis of part three is that Tsung-mi devised his 
            five-stage "cosmogonic map" (as well as a similar "etiology of 
            delusion" formulated in ten reciprocal stages) in order to "provide 
            an ontological ground for Buddhist practice." In particular, Gregory 
            argues, Tsung-mi valued the doctrines of the tathagatagarbha and 
            "one mind" because, by positing an ultimately real ground of all 
            phenomena (including both deluded and enlightened states), it 
            allowed him to counter the antinomian and negative conative 
            implications of the San-lun (Madhyamaka) doctrine of emptiness and 
            to subordinate the radically apophatic rhetoric of emptiness to a 
            kataphatic (positive) mode of discourse. As Gregory demonstrates, 
            Tsung-mi's Confucian training and native conservatism put him in 
            opposition to the more radical tendencies in certain Ch'an movements 
            (especially the Pao-t'ang and Hung-chou schools), which seemed to 
            reject traditional Buddhist forms of cultivating morality, 
            meditation, and wisdom. By portraying those modes of cultivation as 
            tools that were indispensable for the progressive dismantling or 
            reversing of the cosmogonic process, Gregory argues, Tsung-mi was 
            able to provide them with a firm "ontological" underpinning that had 
            great appeal to native Chinese sensibilities. 
            Gregory does an excellent job of laying out the contents of 
            Tsung-mi's theoretical formulations, but his interpretation of them 
            as a "cosmogonic map" and his thesis that they provided an 
            ontological basis for practice are open to debate. The process 
            described by Tsung-mi in his five-stage and ten-stage diagrams was 
            indeed an "etiology of delusion" (Gregory's term), but not an 
            account of any quasi-substantive "evolution" (again Gregory's term) 
            of the phenomena of sentient existence. The diagrams, in other 
            words, represent a type of speculation which, if we want to use 
            Western philosophical terms, is more "epistemological" than 
            "ontological." Insofar as Tsung-mi presents an ontology, it is to 
            claim that only the "one mind" is ultimately existent: all other, 
            conditioned phenomena are "merely the ever-changing images reflected 
            on the surface of the mind, nothing more than the epiphenomena (mo) 
            of the intrinsically enlightened true mind" (p. 252). Thus, the 
            reversal of the five-stage (or ten stage) process that Tsung-mi 
            envisioned was essentially a question of successively lifting the 
            overlaid veils of delusion by cultivating insight into the 
            appropriate, countervailing Buddhist doctrines. It was not a matter 
            of systematically suppressing or undoing, say through transic 
            meditation (dhyana) or ascetic practices, any psychophysiological 
            processes or entities that might be understood to have evolved in 
            some substantive way. Viewed in this light, one could question the 
            interpretation of Tsung-mi's formulas as "maps" in the sense of an 
            aid to movement or a plan of action, although the metaphor of a map 
            as something that conveys knowledge of a territory in and of itself 
            (thereby obviating the need to go anywhere or do anything other than 
            read and understand it) may be apt. As with the Indian Buddhist 
            doctrine of the twelve-link chain of conditioned origination 
            (pratityasamutpada), which Gregory (following the dubious lead of 
            Frank Reynolds) holds up as another example of a "cosmogony," 
            Tsung-mi's schemata might better be compared to the diagnosis, 
            etiological study, and prescription for the treatment of a disease. 
            The "disease" in this case is the suffering of karmic conditioning; 
            the root and ongoing "cause" of its development is delusion; and the 
            "treatment" is the study and understanding of Buddhist doctrines. 
            It is not clear from the data presented in part three how Tsung-mi, 
            simply by positing the existence of the originally awakened "one 
            mind" or tathagatagarbha, could thereby have resisted the antinomian 
            tendencies in the Ch'an of his day or strengthened his case for the 
            traditional Buddhist practices of morality and meditation (dhyana). 
            To establish a truly "ontological" basis for those practices, one 
            would think, it would be necessary to hold that the delusions and 
            passions that cloud the mind are just as real as the mind-ground 
            itself. Such a position was in fact taken by the Northern school of 
            Ch'an, or at least imputed to it by Shen-hui and Tsung-mi, for it 
            was said to have regarded the impurities that obscure the 
            intrinsically pure mind (like dust on a mirror) as substantially 
            existent phenomena that needed to be removed by a vigorous 
            "polishing" of the mind in meditation. Tsung-mi himself, however, 
            rejected that standpoint on the grounds that the impurities are 
            empty (k'ung): "they lack any independent reality of their own 
            because they are nothing but a manifestation of the intrinsically 
            pure mind as it accords with conditions" (p. 233). It was precisely 
            such an understanding of the emptiness of delusion and its essential 
            identity with the Buddha-nature, moreover, that informed the 
            apparently radical, antinomian position taken by the Hung-chou 
            school. The question that arises, then, is how Tsung-mi could have 
            embraced essentially the same ontology as the Hung-chou school as a 
            means of refuting that school's laissez-faire approach to Buddhist 
            practice. The answer is suggested by Gregory's own account: it was 
            not the Hung-chou school's ontology that Tsung-mi found 
            objectionable, but rather its lack of concern with enlightenment as 
            an epistemological phenomenon. Tsung-mi charged that the Hung-chou 
            school, in its acceptance of the fundamental ontological identity of 
            the one mind and its deluded thoughts, lost sight of the fact that 
            cognitively (or experientially) it is still necessary to see through 
            the mind's conditioned functioning, actually to realize or attest to 
            the underlying essence, and to integrate that realization of innate 
            Buddhahood into one's experience of the phenomenal world. For 
            Tsung-mi, then, practice was necessary, not to effect any real 
            change at the deepest ontological level (which is immutable) but to 
            know the structure of being and to effect positive changes in the 
            makeup of the conditioned mind: to transform the "mind subject to 
            birth-and-death" from that of an ordinary suffering being into that 
            of a Buddha. 
            Part four, entitled "The Broader Intellectual Tradition," deals with 
            Confucianism and Taoism in Tsung-mi's thought and compares 
            Tsung-mi's attempt to provide an ontological basis for the 
            affirmation of traditional Buddhist practices with a similar turn of 
            thought taken, in opposition to Buddhist antinomianism, by the 
            seminal Neo-Confucian thinker Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Gregory does a 
            good job of explaining Tsung-mi's critiques of Confucianism and 
            Taoism and his incorporation of those two "teachings" into a 
            p'an-chiao scheme alongside, but subordinate to, Buddhism. The 
            comparison that Gregory draws between Tsung-mi and Chu Hsi is a 
            fruitful one, noting as it does a "common problematic" and certain 
            "structural parallels" in their respective metaphysical positions. 
            If, however, one views Tsung-mi's defense of moral principles and 
            practices as an argument couched more in epistemological than 
            ontological terms, then the similarities between his position and 
            that of Chu Hsi, while still striking in many respects, may be in 
            need of some further qualifications. 
            In conclusion, it is a measure of the excellence of this book that 
            it lays out the philosophical positions of Tsung-mi and many of his 
            contemporaries with such clarity and thoroughness that the reader is 
            able, without recourse to any outside materials, to formulate 
            interpretations of Tsung-mi's thought that may differ in some 
            particulars with that given by the author. With its careful, 
            in-depth discussion of many of the key moral and metaphysical issues 
            that engendered debate in medieval Chinese Buddhism, the book is an 
            invaluable resource not only for students of East Asian Buddhism but 
            of Chinese intellectual history in general.