The Power of Patriarchs: Qisong and Lineage in Chinese Buddhism

The Power of PatriarchsThe Chan monk Qisong (1007-1072), an important figure in Northern Song religious and intellectual history, has garnered relatively little scholarly attention. This book provides a detailed biography with a focus on the influential historical writings he composed to defend Chan claims of a “mind-to-mind transmission” tracing back to the historical Buddha. It places his defence of lineage in the context not only of attacks by the rival Tiantai school but also of the larger backdrop of the development of lineage and patriarchs as sources of authority in Chinese Buddhism. It advances new arguments about these Chinese Buddhist innovations, challenges common assumptions about Chan masters, and offers insights into the interactions of Buddhists, Confucians, and the imperial court during the Song.


Also of great interest in this brief passage is the suggestion that the school is in decline. What does Qisong mean by this? It seems that he saw the true lineage as untouched by time and change, governed by its own principle, but unfolding in response to the surrounding community, which is subject to a cyclical pattern of improvement and decline. In this case, the Meditation Sutra had little impact on China but still subtly prepared the ground for Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma’s arrival in China led to the popular success of Hui neng and his dharma heirs, but soon afterwards superficial scholarship set in. This pattern accommodates the common Song notion of the Tang as a golden age of Chan — a view that scholars have argued convincingly was created retroactively by Song texts without sacrificing the legitimacy and own time potency of the true lineage in Qisong’s own time. Hence, Qisong and his dharma-brothers are heir to an undiminished transmission but live in a world less able to recognize their authenticity and absorb their teachings.

Oisong’s understanding of secrecy also turns on such changes in the world. As noted earlier in connection to textual references the transmission, the transmission is neither discussed openly nor hidden entirely. But in the case of living, breathing patriarchs as opposed to texts, oscillations in receptivity of the surrounding society affect not only the degree to which the lineage is understood but the degree to which it is concealed or disclosed. One might think that the obtuseness of ordinary people is sufficient to shield the lineage from unwanted attention, but in fact Qisong describes deliberate secrecy on the part of members of the lineage.

Biographical note

The Power of Patriarchs: Qisong and Lineage in Chinese Buddhism, by Elizabeth Morrison.

Elizabeth Morrison, Ph.D. (2004) in Religious Studies, Stanford University, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Middlebury College.

ISBN13: 9789004183018, E-ISBN: 9789004190221
Publication Date: March 2010, Hardback, 306 pp. Brill.

You can buy The Power of Patriarchs: Qisong and Lineage in Chinese Buddhism from:

BRILL: The Power of Patriarchs  €125,00 $154.00

Book Depository: The Power of Patriarchs £118.00

Categories: Biography, Book reviews, Books, Buddhism, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, History, Mahayana

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