“China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen” by David Hinton


Buddhism would undergo profound changes as it was transmitted from its origins in India east into China, in the first century CE. Terminology had to be assimilated, for one thing. And when one language is translated and assimilated into another, it is inevitable that some conceptual connections will be lost and the meaning of ideas altered. Take Zen Buddhism. In his latest book, David Hinton says that we in the West are not just once-removed from the original Zen—but twice removed. This is because the Zen we know from Japan had already lost much of the original Daoist underpinnings of  Chinese Zen—known as Chan—even before the religion traveled across the Pacific to America.

As it is generally understood, as early thinkers in China grappled with the new philosophy from India and struggled to work out issues of localization, it was only natural that things would be reinterpreted through the lens of the native belief system—in this case, Daoism. While Hinton is not the first thinker to posit a strong influence of Daoism on Zen, he argues that in addition to the issues of translation, there were elements of the new religion from India that resonated strongly with the native Daoist belief system. It was, in other words, a match made in heaven.


China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen, David Hinton (Shambhala, September 2020)
China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen, David Hinton (Shambhala, September 2020)

Hinton, who began his career as a translator, was notably the first person in over a hundred years to create new versions in English of the four classics of Chinese philosophy. In addition, his innovative translations of Chinese poetry—including in-depth treatments of Li Po and Du Fu—have earned him numerous awards. Differing worldviews make translations particularly tricky, which is why it is crucial that translations of the Chinese classics be informed by a firm understanding of ancient philosophical notions and practices.

Hinton has more recently been recognized for his books in prose. Re-interpreting fundamental concepts in Chinese landscape painting, poetry, and philosophy, his books aim to serve as a more authentic guide to Chinese thinking. This issue of translation is at the core of China Root, which discusses the ways in which Zen Buddhism has been mistranslated into English and therefore misunderstood. The original nexus of meaning and practice of Chinese Zen or Chan is, he argues, almost entirely missing from the Anglophone tradition.

His methodology in uncovering the original understanding of Zen—continued here from his previous books Hunger Mountain and the Awakened Cosmos—is not unlike that of Heidegger in seeking to illuminate our preconceived notions vis-à-vis an analysis of language and etymology. Hinton examines the Chinese characters in their historical context—from modern writing to ancient scripts, like the Oracle Bone script. Each of the book’s chapters completely re-interprets one fundamental concept, such as meditation 禅, breath 気, absence 無, emptiness 空, rivers-and-mountains 山川, dark enigma 玄.

The book—to give fair warning—book is filled with unique translations of common terminology. Because all transliteration of Chinese words appears in the Wades-Giles system, it can be very slow-going for those more familiar with pinyin. He further refers to various Chan masters by the English rendering of their Chinese names, such that Linji Yixuan becomes “Master Purport Dark Enigma”. In a book filled with Chinese characters, it is a strange omission that he neglects to provide the Chinese characters, much less the usual Chinese version of names. I have yet to work out who “Master Visitation Land” and “Prajna-Able” are.


Because Hinton’s main thesis is that the current English translations of Chan texts do not reflect the profound influence of Daoism, new translations are required. But at the very least, a glossary in the back would have helped him to establish not just the Daoist influence, but perhaps even help support his more tentative argument that Chan Buddhism developed as Daoist thinkers grappled with the new religion—making Chan more of an offshoot of Daoism than a new school of Buddhism.

This all might at first seem like word-play: Buddhist-influenced Daoism versus Daoist-influenced Buddhism—does it really matter? According to Hinton, it does. That is because in ignoring the Daoist worldview, American Zen “leaves out just about everything that matters to Chan.”

There are endless fascinating new interpretations of Zen terminology in the book. For example, what is the best way to translate the Sanskrit term sunyata (emptiness, void, zero)? Early Chinese translators had to proceed with great caution. Avoiding the immediate choice conveying negativity in Chinese: no/not/nothing 無, instead ancient translators employed the Chinese word for “sky” 空, for this is suggestive of the “ethers”—like yin and yang—of mist and water, and of energy. Looking out your window, you immediately realize the sky is not “nothing” or “void.” Rather, it is a boundless and boundary-less sphere. The perfect place for birds to fly and clouds to form. A generative space. As the Heart Sutra tells us: It is “emptiness depending on matter” and “matter depending on emptiness.”

Inseparable. Indivisible. Non-duality.

This is a concept readily found in Daoism and one that Hinton notes was incorporated directly into Chan Buddhism in its early days in China.

To bring this idea home, Hinton describes a wonderful synonym for emptiness/sky 空 in the Daoist/Chan syllabary: xu 虚. Sometimes translated as void; emptiness; unpreparedness; crack; fissure; untruth, etc., the character was originally a pictographically-constructed representation of a sky whose life-energy is made especially dramatic with a tiger 虎 above a pair of mountain peaks 山.

This included a sense of “mountain tiger-sky—and hence the “empty-mind” 空心 goal of Zazen, becomes “mountain tiger-sky mind.”

His point in all this is to show the way in which originally Chan meditation was not about getting oneself into a Zen-like state of detached tranquility or emptiness (often involving metaphysical notions of rebirth and the end of rebirth). To a Daoist, this inward-focus would only cut a person off from the world. In removing all boundaries between self and nature, the mind of the Daoist sage, Hinton explains, is in a state of perfect wuwei idleness 無為

In this way, Chan enlightenment is an awakening 見性 to a new way of being in the world. One that views things without the old concepts of life and death, young and old, being and not-being. This is the here-and-now empirical being-in-the-world exemplified by the Daoist sage’s deep identification with mountains and nature and going with the flow.

Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film. Her book reviews have appeared in Kyoto Journal, the Dublin Review of Books, the New Rambler, and 3 Quarks Daily.