Ritual authority and the problem of likeness in chan buddhism

Kevin Buckelew*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For decades, scholars have suggested that the rise of the Chan (J. Zen) Buddhist tradition between China’s Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties involved an unprecedentedly bold claim to religious authority. Chan masters were understood to be not just eminent Buddhist monastics but actual living buddhas, whose recorded words were considered equally authoritative to Buddhist scriptures. Central to the formation of Chan identity as a school of buddhas was the ceremony of “ascending the hall,” during which Chan masters serving as abbots of public monasteries preached to and answered questions from members of the monastic assembly and the lay public. This article presents a new interpretation of the ascending the hall ceremony’s role in constituting Chan masters as figures of buddha-like authority, paying particular attention to the problem of likeness itself. According to prevailing scriptural and visual-cultural conventions, buddhas were larger-than-life figures with marvelous bodies and miraculous powers. Chan masters in the Song, by contrast, were typically presented as conspicuously lacking these spectacular features. Drawing on overlooked passages from Song period Chan literature, I analyze how Chan Buddhists managed the question of their likeness to the Buddha—but never categorically resolved it—through an intertwined process of routinely ascending the hall and composing literary representations of ascending the hall. Ultimately, I suggest, they succeeded in translating the concept of buddhahood into a distinctively Chinese cultural idiom. By analyzing accounts of Chan ritual failure in the writings of Song period Chinese literati, however, I also argue that there were limits to Chan masters’ capacities to incorporate their own unlikeness to the Buddha into a new, specifically Chinese, vision of buddhahood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-48
Number of pages48
JournalHistory of Religions
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Religious studies


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