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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 5.1 (2022): 440–443;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Text and Image & Buddhist Biography)

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Eric M. Greene. Chan Before Chan: Meditation, Repentance, and Visionary Experience in Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2021.

Christoph ANDERL
Ghent University

Eric M. Greene’s Chan Before Chan: Meditation, Repentance, and Visionary Experience in Chinese Buddhism is among the most intellectually stimulating books on Chinese Buddhism published in the last decades. While many scholars moved forward in time during this period, from the Tang Dynasty to studies of Song and—since recently—also Ming Buddhism, Greene moved backward, investigating the roots of the Chan School which emerged roughly in the beginning of the eighth century. This study has been long overdue, since the early Chan School was excessively studied based on Dunhuang (and other) materials during the second part of the twentieth century, first by Japanese scholars, and eventually also by Western and Chinese scholars. However, the period before ca. 700 and the religious and sociocultural factors which eventually made Chan possible have largely remained a dark corner in scholarship, despite various studies on the corpus of so-called ‘meditation sūtras’. Fortunately, Greene has ventured to shed light on many of the issues involved in the complex processes which finally led to formation of entities which we can refer to as ‘Chan schools’ and which over the course of time matured into powerful religious and cultural institutions, eventually impacting allregions of East Asia.

Greene’s approach is multi-faceted, including meticulous philological studies of key texts from various genres and types, in addition to applying
up-to-date theoretical frameworks to contextualize the insights gained from the close study of primary sources.

In the Introduction, Greene elaborates on the theoretical aspects and the structure of the book, and informs the reader that he will approach the topic as a social event, with a focus on the term semiotic ideology (14),1 and he states the ‘[t]his book therefore approaches the practice of Buddhist meditation in medieval Chinese as a matter of sign reading’ (16). What this concretely means is demonstrated in the following chapters.


About the Author: Christoph Anderl is a professor in the Centre for Buddhist Studies. His main research interest is the study of Medieval Chinese, as reflected in Buddhist texts (Buddhist Hybrid Chinese), including syntax, semantics, and rhetorical devices. The focus is currently on semi-vernacular texts among the Dūnhuáng manuscript material. During recent years, research has also focused on Buddhist iconography in Central Asia and China, studying mechanisms of text-image relations in Buddhist narratives. Other interests include: Chan/Zen Buddhism; Classical/Literary Chinese (syntax); Asian history of religion; Buddhist medieval lexicography; Digital Humanities; palaeography (Dūnhuáng manuscripts); Chinese historical phonology.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.