Even before we read a single book about Buddhism or Zen Buddhism, we are prepared to form a tacit assumption about Zen based on the smallest familiarity with the material (let’s say that you just read Alan Watts). I have to admit we come by this habit, honestly. It’s all around us. Everyday we are like fish swimming in a world of countless assumptions. These assumptions can also create a particular narrative or representation—like a story. The narrative can grow and become extremely complex. It also has its authors and gatekeepers.
One such narrative I remember is the Indo-Aryan migration narrative. Supposedly, over 3,500 years ago the Indo-Aryans migrated to India from the north in two waves displacing the earlier populations. This theory, by the way, was proposed in mid-19th century by German linguist and Sanskrit scholar Max Muller who, for what it is worth, never set foot in India.
More contemporary narratives include the holocaust narrative, which is always fighting a constant battle with the revisionist historians. Closer to home, there is the American slave narrative and much later, the Critical Race Theory (CRT) narrative. There are numerous others such as how the west was won (the cowboy narrative) or the new world order. There is even a narrative about global warming and climate change, not to mention the oil shortage narrative. Then, of course, there is the all familiar golden age of Zen lineage narrative with its flame transmissions and koans.
The problem that I see with all narratives is they are, firstly, stories that have turned into dogma. With the narrative, we assume that they are true when they are anything but true. In one respect, narratives are not built upon facts but persuasion arguments, assumptions and opinions. Then the narrative turns into a measuring rod or better said, the judge. The facts which come before the judge have to fit with the narrative. The narrative doesn’t need to fit with the facts no matter how many facts refute the narrative. A simple rule for any narrative, the facts should be ignored or thrown out if they don’t fit the narrative.
Looking at the narrative of the golden age of Zen, most of it is born during the Song dynasty (960–1279), not the earlier Tang dynasty. Still, this golden age supposedly took place in the Tang. Scholars pretty much know the features of Zen before it was even coined Chan Zong in the late Tang and early Song by Zen master Zongmi. It certainly doesn’t fit the golden age of Zen narrative which is still popular with beginners new to Zen Buddhism.