Heinrich Dumoulin’s book, A History of Zen Buddhism (1963) might well need to be updated given that we know much more about Zen from the hoard of manuscripts found in a sealed cave at Dunhuang. But this doesn’t change the overarching context of Zen Buddhism that he gives the reader.
On the other hand, history, in many examples, can be nothing more than a collection of discrete primary documents such as dairies or manuscripts. This is not yet with a context. The task of a historian like Dumoulin is to contextualize these documents. In the case of Zen, its context is an association that takes place between certain ideas found in various documents. These ideas must in some way cohere thus forming a context.
Based on all the historical material thus far discovered, Dumoulin has captured the context of Zen when he said, “Zen is the school of enlightenment born from the mystical stream in Buddhism” (A History of Zen Buddhism, p. 52). Even before Zen became a “school” or “tradition” (ch’an-tsung) in the ninth-century, going as far back as the Lanka School in which Zen is rooted, enlightenment was central. And it was central because the mystical stream of Buddhism was still flowing. It had never stopped despite China’s political ups and downs.
One can hardly read translations of the sermons of Zen masters, in the example of Thomas Cleary’s fine little book, Teachings of Zen, and not find the enlightenment theme expounded in various ways. But this doesn’t mean that Zen is free of being de-contextualized and re-contextualized in which Zen is about sitting or learning to live in the moment. Zen, in this form, is no longer a school of enlightenment or kensho. We are not trying to see ultimate reality and become Buddha. Dumoulin’s context no longer applies in many circles of Zen. The new, revised context, it seems to me, is Zen has to help people who have no real interest in enlightenment but still want to pretend that they are seekers of the Way so they can feel ‘as if’ they are enlightened or at least getting close to enlightenment. But this will never be Zen.