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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #12 (March 16, 2004), page 15.
The Charm of Chan
Hoofprint of the Ox
By Master Sheng-Yen
with Dan Stevenson
Oxford University Press, 2002
Paperback, 236 Pages $15.95
By Douglas Spangle
Since the days of the whale ships and the China Trade, America has had an infatuation for Asian religion. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernest Fenollosa imported Eastern spiritual ideas; likewise, occultism appropriated pseudo-orientalist motifs.
By the turn of the last century, Japanese Zen Buddhist monks were in residence in the States — and by mid-century, books on Zen by D.T. Suzuki, partly through the conduit of Alan Watts, were influencing a whole generation of young Americans unsatisfied by traditional Western forms. Zen became inextricably associated with the Beat and Hippie Generations, and, eventually, its success became nearly synonymous with the triumph of West Coast Woo-Woo Culture in the ’70s and ’80s.
The Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma arrived from India in sixth-century China. His doctrine, eventually known as Dhyana, spread across the land, changing with the centuries, and there it is called Chan. Chan crossed over to Japan around the 12th century, where it became known as Zen.
Suzuki, who was himself much influenced by Emerson as well as by the Swedish metaphysician Emmanuel Swedenborg, dismissed Chan Buddhism as a fossil. The American and European practitioners followed suit, and for many years here Chan was dismissed as irrelevant.
Master Sheng-Yen, adept in three disciplines of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, begs to differ.
He was trained by the priests who revitalized Chan in mainland China, and during the Cultural Revolution moved to Taiwan — he now divides his time between that island and New York. Hoofprint of the Ox is doubtless meant as an introduction for beginners in Chan. All the same, the beginner who takes up this book had better be a serious beginner — Master Sheng-Yen makes no concessions to grooviness. Following a biography of him written by Dan Stevenson, he gives a capsule account of the development of Chan through some of its most noteworthy masters; he then outlines his method of theory and practice. Chan shares with its sibling discipline Zen a concern with banishing the ravages of the Self and uncovering successive layers of Nothingness — if I understand correctly, Chan insists on an additional stratum of Nothingness.
Concentrating a great deal of information into a modest length, Master Sheng-Yen is a no-nonsense explicator, and the reader must concentrate carefully or miss important points. There’s not a lot of room here for warm fuzzies.
The title of the book, Hoofprint of the Ox, refers to the Oxherding Pictures, a series of ten images that in an almost comic-book fashion follows metaphorically the practice of Chan. These pictures are so well-known in the West that they have appeared both as the cover of an LP, Catch Bull at Four, by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and a book of poetry, Searching for the Ox, by Louis Simpson.
As I look over the Internet for treatments of Buddhism, it boggles my mind how many Buddhist groups for study and practice there are, and how much simplification and distortion must be taking place as Mass Culture demands its payback in substance for all the popularity. Amid all the cyber-clutter, Master Sheng-Yen’s strict attitude stands out like a glass of water in a soda pop factory. It’s clear and plain, but it’s good for you.