THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ZEN: The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the Tang Dynasty

The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the Tang Dynasty

By John C. H. Wu
IN: World Wisdom, 2004.Soltcover, 280 pages.

This reprint of The Golden Age of Zen, a modern classic of Zen studies originally published in 1967, will be welcomed by many on the spiritual path. John C. H. Wu (1899-1986) was one of the most extraordinary Chinese of his generation. Statesman, academic, translator, interpreter of Chinese culture, and above all a pilgrim on the path, he experienced both inner and outer worlds. both past and present, to a remarkable degree. In China he served as judge and law school dean and was principal writer of the Nationalist Chinese constitution, all during China's terrible years of war and revolution. Later, dividing his time between Taiwan and the United States, he taught at Seton Hall University and wrote extensively on Chinese culture. He became a Roman Catholic shortly before the age of forty and served as Chinese minister to the Vatican in 1947-48.

His Christianity, however, was not mere dogmatism. Rather, it served as a vehicle for the generous and mutually enriching exchange between Eastern and Western spirituality that was his most influential vocation of all. He translated the Psalms and New Testament into Chinese (using Tao for Logos, or Word, in John's gospel) and the Tao Te Ching into English. He was a great friend of the no less ecumenical Trappist Thomas Merton, and of that supreme apostle of Zen to the West, D. T. Suzuki. The present volume is enhanced with a preface by Merton and the correspondence between Wu and Suzuki.

The Golden Age of Zen concerns the Zen masters of the Tang period (618-906 C.E.). Then Zen, or Chan, was fresh, exciting, and innovative. It was both countercultural and cultural, the former in its spiritually iconoclastic mood and in the willingness of its monks to work with their hands and endure relative poverty, unlike others content to live very well from endowments; and it was culturally assimilative because of its radical commingling of Taoism and Buddhism to create a remarkably new, but very Chinese, kind of Buddhism.

Wu's golden age was the era of the celebrated stories of students suddenly enlightened when told to wash their dishes after eating or upon a teacher's unexpected shout or blow. At the same time, Zen thinkers like Huineng and Huang-po developed subtle philosophical positions based on the One Mind or original unstained nature, the Buddha-nature, in all beings-though always with the caveat that it is not through words and concepts that it is known, but when it is seen as, say, the cypress tree in the front yard, or in the pain of one's nose after a master has twisted it.

This world is wonderfully captured in John Wu’s book, which is at the same time a tribute to a splendid modern master who entered, among other gates, the gateless gate of Zen. Highly recommended.


January/February 2005