The First Language of Zen is Cantonese

01 Sep 2013 // books

My first tongue is Cantonese. It is not the prettiest of languages: it is the language of Chinese restaurants and business deals and Kung-Fu movies. Cantonese was spread through the waves of Cantonese immigrants pouring out of the squeegee hole of Hong Kong, long before the rest of China opened up in the 20th century. Growing up as an immigrant Cantonese in rural Australia, I had little affection for the language and would instead travel half-way across the world to learng languages of European colonialism.

I ended up learning a bunch of different languages, and as my linguistic skills developed, I got fascinated in particular with the way languages affect religious traditions, from the muscular beauty of arabic in Rumi's verse, to the heroic iambic hexameter of the Iliad. But the tradition that has fascinated most is Zen Buddhism. Despite it's po-faced self-declared pronouncement that Zen is beyond language, the Zen tradition is utterly obsessed with language, through word-plays, poetry, and especially those intensely verbal theological puzzles known as koans.

Our current treasury of Zen literature comes mostly from Japan, although strictly speaking, I should say it's American Zen as most of the Zen that I have read are either American-translated Japanese texts, or texts written by Japanese-trained American Zen masters. Still the Japanese influence of Zen is obvious. And so, it was somewhat a surprise to me to discover that Zen did not in fact originate in Japan, but in China. It turned out the most famous set of Zen Koans, the Mumokan, translated as the Gateless Gate, was not Japanese at all. The author of the Mumonkan is known as Mumon, who was a Chinese teacher, and "Mumon" is a Japanese transliteration of the Chinese name, which in Mandarin, is Wumen. The Mumonkan itself was copied and transcribed in China by brilliant Japanese Zen students, who would later return to Japan to flower into great masters in their own right. And as the flame of Zen died in China, it would continue to burn in Japan right into the 20th century until it got transferred to the fertile soil of the United States in the 60s, and inaugurate the American chapter of Zen Buddhism.

Historical Linguistics

One of the delightful things about studying languages is when you start to percieve the influences of one language on another, especially in the sounds of borrowed words. These cadences often reflect the history of the people who use to speak the language, and is at the heart of a field of study known as historical linguistics. Historical linguistics attempt to deduce an accurate historical relationship between languages by studying the detailed ways to that words and grammatical structures resemble each other across different languages. One example is the search for cognates - words that sound the same in different languages echo some kind of common origin. By constructing networks of such relationships across languages, a evolutionary tree of languages can be constructed, and these can be compared to both historical and geographical diferences.

Recently, I got my hands on my third translation of the Gateless Gate. This particular edition was an English translation of the Japanese master Roshi Yamada's translation of this ancient 13th century Chinese text. It's a beautifully edited edition, and most importantly, it provided a comprehensive glossary of terms in Mandarin (Pinyin romanization), Japanese, and English. This allowed me to leisurely play an amateur's game of historical linguistics.

And then something rather peculiar struck me. The Mandarin names were not partiular close to the Japanese names. Given the history of Zen flowing from China to Japna, you would expect to see some close phonetic overlap. Not here. Let's start with the most important word:

 Zen in Japanese
 Chang in Mandarin

This was exceedingly puzzling to me, as in historical linguistics, important borrowed concepts normally kept the phonemes of the word in the original language. There is one other possibility where the translated concept take on enjambements in the new language. One example is the Pali term 'metta' that is often translated into, the cumbersome term 'loving-kindness'. This does not appear to be the case here.

Here's another, which matches slightly better in the second syllable.

 Mumon in Japanese
 Wumen in Chinese

I was much puzzled about this until, many months later, in the middle of family reunion, I asked my uncle what the Cantonese word for meditation was. He answered, 'Sin'.

Sin - Zen

A light bulb went off.

The author of the Gateless Gate was Wumen, in Mandarin. In Chinese, this translates as No Door.

  No Door - Wu Men

But in Cantonese, it's:

  No Door - Mou Mun

So the author of the Gateless Gate is the great Chinese master No Door (Gateless), which is:

Mumon in Japanese
Wumen is Mandarin
Moumun in Cantonese

Moumon. Mumon. Cantonese. Japanese.

To sit in meditation:

Zo Chan in Mandarin
Zo Sin in Cantonese
Za Zen in Japanese

I rembering laughing out loud when I realized that the Japanese Zen word for sitting in meditation, Zazen, is practically the same word in Cantonese.

When people speak of Chinese, they usually mean Mandarin, the dominant dialect of China. The Cantonese word for Mandarin means national language, and written Chinese takes the form of Mandarin. My Cantonese relatives, growing up in Hong Kong, had to learn to write Chinese in Mandarin even as they spoke and thought in Cantonese.

Mandarin is considered stately and poetic, Cantonese more prosaic. The director Ang Lee insisted on filming "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" in Mandarin for the poetry of the language despite the overwhelmingly Cantonese nature of the production. It would thus seem logical that Mandarin would be the language of Zen.

But it's not. The sound of Zen is grounded in Cantonese, the Chinese of the south.

The Historical Origin of Zen

What then, is Zen? Zen is the branch of Buddhism that sees Enlightenment as something that is always immanent, enlightenment is always there if only we could just realize that we already enlightened. This is unlike other branches of Buddhism that conceive of Enlightenment as something otherworldly or that is attained at the end of a long and arduous process. Zen is what happens when you graft a bunch of wandering Chinese itinerants steeped in Taoist philosophy onto the otherworldly aesceticism of Buddhism, imported from the Indian subcontinent.

But where and when did this collision of spiritual traditions occur? Tradition places the birth of Zen at the feet of Boddhidharma, a red-bearded barbarian noble from India who supposedly brought the true teachings of Guatama Buddha into China. Many legends are attributed to Boddhidharma including the foundation of the famed Kung Fu monastery of Shaolin monastery. But after reading BIll Porter's "Zen Baggage" and Thomas Hoover's "The Zen Experience", I discovered that the first historically significant Zen teacher was Shen Hui, the seventh patriarch of Zen. The patriarchs between Boddhidharma and Shen Hui left no trace of their lives in official court records or other historical documents and survive mainly through Zen Buddhist scriptures.

The seventh patriarch Shen Hui is remembered mainly for his testy arguments against other Buddhist teachers, and it seems plausible that it was Shen Hui who elevated his own teacher Hui Neng to become the saintly Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Shen Hui's brand of Zen was known as the "Southern School", which emphasized the role of instananeous enlightenment, as the only pure form of Buddhism. Shen Hui accused the "Northern School", which taught a more gradual form of enlightenment, of having corrupted the Buddhism, and was probably a political play for official patronage.

What Bill Porter points out is that the theology of Zen, which originated in the 8th century in the Southern School, is a natural consequence of the radical restructuring of Buddhist monasteries in the outer regions of the Chinese empire of the time. Previous monasteries were probably organized more like government-sponsored universities where monks lived like scholars and priests. Instead the monasteries of the South School were established at the edge of Imperial China where there was little government support but also little interference from authories. In order to survive, these Buddhist monks designed monasteries that were self-sufficient in that the monks organized their lives around farming and manual labor as much as traditional spiritual practices such as meditation. It is arguably this that drove the development of the Zen conceptualizatin of Enlightment, not as a rarefied state to attain but as an immanent state that is always there, everywhere, as much in the washing a bowl as at the feet of a holy stupa.

Given the geopolitical landscape at the time, these monasteries became the successful template of Buddhist monasteries throughout China, and ushered in a golden age of Zen in China. And as Shen Hui gained influence as a nationally recognized teacher of Buddhism, he could not resist the very human urge of sacrializing his own brand of Buddhism by attempting to deify his teacher, Hui Neng, into a buddhist saint that could trace his lineage through the mystical Boddhidharma, and thus all the way back to the Mauryan princeling Guatama Buddha. There are few historical records of Hui Neng, the beloved sixth patriarch of Zen, and ironically, it is this illiterate master who is claimed to have written the most famous of Chinese sutras "The Platform Sutra". In all likelihood, Hui Neng, was a modest self-taught teacher of Buddhism, who happened to teach the man who would lead the next religious revival of Buddhism in China.

The body of Hui Neng, the holy Sixth Patriarch of Zen, has been mummified, and can even today, be visited at the temple of Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan Prefecture, just a few hours north of Canton, the home of the Cantonese. Whether Hui Neng could trace his origin to the Buddha matters little. Modern lineages of the Dharmic heirs to the Zen masters have historical gaps that are magically papered over.

What is of real importance is the Cantonese origin of Zen. The body of the first historically reliable figure of Zen, Hui Neng, lies in Canton. The development of the Zen style monasteries, base on work and self-sufficiency, can be traced to the "Southern School" dotted all over southern China, but many to be found in Guangdong. But more importantly, the sounds of Cantonese have been preserved in the words of Japanese Zen, and can today, be heard in the temples of American Zen.

I can see now that the revolutionary aspect of Zen Buddhism is not just in the claim that Enlightenment is immanent but that spritiuality is entirely entwined in mundane work, in growing vegetables, in washing bowls, and can as easily be found in the marketplace as a monastery. And if there is any culture that could find spirituality in the practicalities of the everyday, that, I would venture, would be the Cantonese.