Poetics of Silence: Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157) and the Practice of Poetry in Song Dynasty Chan Yulu

PhD defended at: 

McGill University, Montreal, Canada


Christopher Byrne



This dissertation fulfills two aims: First, it provides the first comprehensive analysis of the poetic genres written by Chan Buddhist monks as part of their religious vocation and as collected within yulu (recorded sayings) during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Second, it demonstrates how Chan’s claim to an ineffable insight “not dependent on words and letters” (buli wenzi) paradoxically informs the literary character of its monastic poetry. My research focuses on the poetry of master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), who, along with being one of the most prolific poets among Chan masters, is renowned for advocating the meditative practice of “silent illumination” (mozhao) that defines his Caodong sect. I argue that the principle of silence defines the nature of Hongzhi’s poetics as the primary theme and image of his verse.
By organizing my literary analysis of yulu according to genre, I demonstrate how each poetic genre adopts conventions particular to its own literary and religious functions, while engaging with the principle of “beyond words” that characterizes yulu collections as a whole. In Chapter One, I illustrate how poetry has remained an integral and significant component of Chan yulu collections since they began to be published as independent works during the early Song dynasty. I then argue that Hongzhi’s doctrinal verses (Chapter Two) poetically express a philosophical paradigm, in which silent meditation and linguistic expression can be seen as complementary aspects of a single practice. In Chapter Three, I show how songgu—verses written in response to Chan gong’an (J. koan)—formed the literary focal point of Chan gong’an collections and how their composition was a central aspect of monastic training and pedagogy, as also reflected in the poetic character of the dialogical sermons that epitomize yulu. In Chapter Four, I examine how the social-occasional poetry of Chan masters like Hongzhi was collected as, and transformed into, Buddhist gatha (Ch. jisong) during the Song, expressing a non-dualistic doctrinal perspective within poetry (a.) exchanged with monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, (b.) written in the reclusive mode, and (c.) composed for the ritual and economic activities of the monastery. Finally, in Chapter Five, I analyze a sample of the hundreds of portrait encomia (zhenzan) Hongzhi inscribed on his own portrait as a means of promoting the master as an embodiment of total silence in which the distinction between language and silence itself is ultimately dissolved. I conclude that Hongzhi’s poetry represents a distinctively Chan poetics crafted to merge the non-discriminative wisdom of silence with literary expression.

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