The early so called, Dunhuang manuscripts, and traditional Chan records include an amazing variety of different formulations starting with its earliest phase, and it seems evident that a great deal of experimentation was taking place.
The tow leading teachers of that period Daoxin and Hongren spent exactly a half-century, from 624 to 674, in the same monastic complex in Huangmei ("Yellow Plum," Hubei Province) and it is not unreasonable to include the following, Shenxiu's quarter century, from 675 to 701, at the not-too-distant Jade Spring Temple (Yuquansi, in Jingzhou, which overlaps both Hubei and Hunan Provinces) in this phase as well. Matters become more complex with the explosion of Chan into the two imperial capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang during the eighth century.
The hagiographical nature of the Bodhidharma who was thought to have arrived from India in south China by sea sometime in or before 479; and brought the first Chan teachings to north China before 495, perhaps by 480 or so, remains very unclear. Indeed, his hagiography is a particularly good example of the fluidity of legendary Chan imagery. This can be seen on most, if not all, reference listed in chronological order. Not only does the image of Bodhidharma as Chan patriarch become increasingly detailed over time, but new motifs effectively substitute for earlier ones, changing the very quality of the image as religious icon.
547 Said to have been from Persia and was 150 years old when he arrived in Luoyang sometime during the years 516-26.
645 Described as a Brahman monk from south India who arrived in south China during the Liang dynasty (420-79); Huike's arm is said to have been cut off by bandits/rebels.
667 Depicted transmitting the Lankavatdra Sûtra to Huike.
689 Listing of the succession from Bodhidharma to Huike, Sengcan, Daoxin, and Hongren.
ca. 710 Identified with Shaolin Temple on Mt. Song; story of Huike cutting off his own arm; Bodhidharma described as dying voluntarily by poison, then as seen at the Chinese border on his way back to India, leaving an empty grave.
ca. 715 Described as the third son of a Brahman king of south India; identified as second patriarch after Gunabhadra, translator of the Latikävatâra Sûtra.
730 Story of meeting with Emperor Wu; said to transmit robe to Huike after the latter cut off his own arm.
758 or shortly after Specifically labeled "first patriarch"; transmitted the Diamond Sûtra to Huike.
801 Described reciting a "transmission verse" before death.
952 Occurrence of the "pacification of the mind" dialogue with Huike.
988 Said to have "faced the wall" in meditation.
ca. 1200 "Relics" (sartra, from a cremated body…, venerated by the "Daruma school" in Japan.
1224 Reference to how he "faced the wall for nine years.."
Thirteenth century Association of Shaolin Temple with martial arts.
1642 Attribution of a martial arts book to Bodhidharma.
Presentations of Bodhidharma's biography that are unreasonably detailed-such as the Encyclopedia Britannica's entry for him (written by Heinrich Dumoulin) that identifies him as a "native of Conjeeveram, near Madras"-exemplify the third rule of Zen studies: "Precision implies inaccuracy." Rather than the stark contrast of true/false, of course, it is the overall fabric of creativity within which the hagiography developed that is most impressive.
In fact, if we looked at the matter more closely, we would see that the evolution of Bodhidharma's image functions as a veritable index to the evolution of Chan itself. That is, if we could do analytical cross-sections at different points in time, we would see that the members of the Chan school were reformulating Bodhidharma's identity to fit their own conceptions of religious sagehood in each particular age; each substantive reconfiguration thus implies a qualitative change in the religious identity of Chinese Chan.
This is a dynamic process that continues into the present, of course: A 1992 Taiwanese movie account of Bodhidharma's life shows him not only sitting rock-solid in meditation-a full nine years without moving a muscle! -but also as a miraculously gifted martial artist catching arrows in his teeth and flying through the air, his legs churning in the manner of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon! The modem martial arts cinema tradition has remade the image of Bodhidharma according to its own needs, just as the medieval Chan tradition did. The results are different, but the process is basically unchanged.
In other words, both medieval Chinese Chan factions and modem martial arts schools have created images of Bodhidharma to fit their own conceptions of enlightened sagehood. These imagined sages serve the need felt by each faction or school for a primal figurehead to personify and thus legitimate its particular style of spiritual and athletic training. To accept any one of the various hagiographical images of Bodhidharma as accurate would be to choose only one legendary image out of a series of continuous change. On the one hand, to tell any version of Bodhidharma's hagiography is to present a Sunday-school image of Chan. Doing so is of course acceptable for participants within the tradition itself, but to present such simplistic stories as historically accurate in works of historical narration is an indefensible commission of the "string of pearls" fallacy. On the other hand, it would be even more egregious to deny the religious and cultural significance of the hagiographical process as a whole, to fixate on the technical accuracy of the images of Bodhidharma produced by generation after generation of Chinese practitioners.
The two-stage structure of Song-dynasty Chin genealogies resembles that of domestic family genealogies during the same period, which also tend to begin with monolineal successions followed by a cascade of subdivisions. See Johanna M. Meskill, "The Chinese Genealogy as a Research Source," esp. 14.3-47; and Patricia Ebrey, "The Early Stages in the Development of Descent Group Organization."
Early-twentieth-century studies of Chan had a major impact in shaping how most English-language writings interpret the cultural and intellectual transitions from the North/South Dynasties period (220-589) to the Song dynasty, that is, from the third through the thirteenth centuries. Conversely, those standard interpretations of the contours of Chinese intellectual history for the same lengthy period have profoundly influenced how writers describe the Chan tradition. There has been a palpable circularity at work, with historians of China building comprehensive theories based in part on a romanticized image of Chan, and apologists for Chan buying into those theories because they served the missionary agenda. Our understandings of Chinese Buddhism, Chinese intellectual and religious history, and Chan itself have been impoverished as a result.
The fallacies and contradictions deriving from this circularity are starkly apparent in the writing of Heinrich Dumoulin. His work is an extreme but representative example, which has become the sourcebook for countless popular and semischolarly accounts.
In fact since Chan also differs from Indian Buddhism in fundamental ways, would it also be the case that the Chan "enlightenment experience" differed from the Indian one?
Even without assuming that we could access the actual experiences of real individuals, it would be useful to compare for example the descriptions of bodhi in Indian philosophical texts with those of enlightenment experiences in Chan texts. Where the former describe the ultimate goal in terms of wisdom and transcendence, Chinese texts tend to a greater emphasis on realizations of the interdependence of all things.
Or one might examine whether the rhetoric ofsanyata is used differently in Indian and Chinese texts, with the former being used to obliterate worldly distinctions, and the latter being used in effect to reify them. (The "originary enlightenment" theories of medieval Japanese Buddhism seem to fit this latter case.)
if there was something approximating a climax paradigm to Song-dynasty Chan, this could only be known by looking at how Chan evolves in later periods and in other contexts. To change metaphors, my claim is that Song-dynasty Chan represents the primary lens through which subsequent developments in Chan were understood, whether those developments took place in China, Korea, Japan, or even the modern, non-Asian world. Therefore, in order to appreciate the true dimensions of the "Song-dynasty climax paradigm" we would have to evaluate the dynamics of evolution and transmission that govern Chan in later times and other places. To the extent that the study of Chan/Sôn/Zen/ Thien as a whole has been based on the mistaken romanticism and simplistic thinking manifested so clearly in writing about Chinese Chan, we will have to rework our most cherished theories about these later times and other places as well. What were the constraints -and possibilitiesplaced on the tradition as it developed in post-Song China, or in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam? If participants in the tradition in those cultures looked through the lens of Song-dynasty Chan, what exactly did they see? In answering this question we will have to consider how the participants in those cultures saw themselves, their own pasts, and the role of Buddhism in their lives. The avenues of inquiry are virtually endless-such exciting possibilities for future research, so many different ways of seeing through Zen.
Mostly scholars have worked on one or the other, the non-Hàn peoples from the first millennium B.C.E. onward and the introduction and evolution of Buddhism from the first century B.C.E. onward. But to date no one has systematically considered the interrelationship between them. A common pattern has been to invoke the rhetoric of sinification without applying any significant analysis of its historical realities. This statement applies to Peter Gregory's excellent study of Zôngmi and Tang-dynasty Buddhism, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, which, in spite of the title, never addresses the conceptual issues or broader processes involved. Robert Sharf, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism (esp.p. 77-132), provides some very provocative comments regarding the "process that logically precedes the intentional adaptation and domestication of Buddhism by Chinese apologists" (p.98), which he refers to as the "hermeneutics of sinification" (p.132), but he does not consider the actual historical dynamics involved. However participants in East Asian Buddhism were also active contributors to the dynamics of sinification.
But Song-dynasty Chan represents the primary lens through which subsequent developments in Chan were understood, whether those developments took place in China, Korea, Japan, or even the modem, non-Asian world. And to the extent that the study of Chan/Sön/Zen/ Thien as a whole has been based on the mistaken romanticism and simplistic thinking manifested so clearly in writing about Chinese Chan, one would have to rework most previous theories about these later times and other places as well. What were the constraints-and possibilities placed on the tradition as it developed in post Song China, or in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam? If participants in the tradition in those cultures looked through the lens of Song-dynasty Chan, what exactly did they see? In answering this question we will have to consider how the participants in those cultures saw themselves, their own pasts, and the role of Buddhism in their lives.