The Root of Zen: An Interview with David Hinton

Randy Rosenthal interviews the award-winning translator, whose new book, “China Root,” goes deep into the Taoist origins of Chan (Zen).

Randy Rosenthal4 December 2020
David Hinton, author of “China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen.”

For decades, David Hinton has been translating ancient Chinese culture into English. He began with the great poets—such as Li Po and Tu Fu—and then translated the four classics of Chinese philosophy: the Tao te Ching, the Chaung Tzu, Confucius’s Analects, and Mencius. He was the first person to do so in over a century, and for it he earned a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s also won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. That is, he’s recognized as a national treasure.

Reading his recreations of classic poetry and philosophy facilitates a deeply contemplative state of mind—they retain the density of ambiguity in ancient Chinese conceptual thought, and yet feel contemporary. But his more recent prose books, such as Existence and Hunger Mountain, are veritable revelations. Whether he’s focusing on a single Chinese landscape painting or a hike up a mountain near his home in Vermont, Hinton cracks open the cosmos and takes you into the depths of the mind.

As the American Zen tradition ultimately derived from Ch’an, what does this insight mean for a contemporary Zen practitioner?

In his books (all of which can be found at davidhinton.net), Hinton often includes ancient pictographs and ideograms to show how a Chinese character evolved, so that we can understand the word as a concept in context of Chinese thought. For instance, in his most recent book, China Root, he explains that the ideogram for ch’an—the transliteration of the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana—originally meant “altar” and “sacrifice to rivers-and-mountains.” As in, meditation is a place where one honors landscape—the wildness without and within.

A main thematic thread running through Hinton’s books is the Chinese concept of Absence and Presence as the fundamental aspects of our reality. As he writes in his introduction to the Tao te Ching, “Lao Tzu says that Presence and Absence give birth to one another: they are one and the same, but once they arise, they differ in name. And there before they arise, where they remain one and the same tissue, is the Way beyond all differentiation.” For Hinton, meditation is about returning to this undifferentiated level of consciousness, to the “generative existence-tissue” of the universe. Just as mountain ranges arise and disappear, so do thoughts, and a meditator not only observes but participates in this process of constant unfolding. This mental activity, Hinton argues in China Root, is the fundamental practice of Ch’an Buddhism, which went to Japan and developed into Zen.

I first became acquainted with Buddhism through Zen, with books by Shunryu Suzuki and Alan Watts, and visits to the Los Angeles Zen Center. But after years of practicing Vipassana and studying Theravada texts, I came to suspect that Zen has much more in common with Taoism than the Buddhism of the Pali Canon. Hinton’s China Root confirms this view. In it, he argues that when Buddhism came to China in the third to fifth centuries C.E., it was “so transformed by Taoist thought that, aside from a few institutional trappings, it is scarcely recognized as Buddhism at all.” Going further, Hinton writes, “In the end, Buddhism is only a scrim on the surface of Ch’an.”

As the American Zen tradition ultimately derived from Ch’an, what does this insight mean for a contemporary Zen practitioner? During the days of post-election uncertainly, I gave Hinton a call to discuss this question and ask him more about China Root. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. —Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal: You’ve been writing about Taoist concepts and translating classic Chinese texts for decades, but this book seems like a shift—a pivot toward Buddhism in particular. What was your intention in writing China Root?

David Hinton: It’s part of my ongoing exploration of deep Chinese culture and my translation of those cultural insights into English. First, I translated a lot of poetry, and then philosophy. And lately I’ve written a number of prose books. So it was natural that I would move on to Ch’an, because Ch’an is an integral part of Chinese culture. Ch’an, just to explain, is the original Chinese pronunciation of the ideogram that in Japan is pronounced Zen. We call it Zen because it came to America from Japan.

The intent of Ch’an practice was to dwell as integral to the ongoing unfurling of the cosmos. This, with all its implications, is not really spoken of in Zen.

Anyway, Ch’an really shaped the minds of all these people I translated. When I translated them, I inhabited their minds at a deep level, which let me see how Ch’an works from the inside. Finally, I was led into the Ch’an texts. It’s a way of going all the way down into Chinese philosophical insight. It’s the most profound and distilled form of that insight. And it is also the deepest and most accurate account of reality that I know, of consciousness and cosmos and the relationship between them. And important to me: it doesn’t just give us an abstract philosophical system, but a way of living.

So my intent is to make this system of insight available in English for anyone, and also to the culture generally—new ideas that can move Western intellectual history forward. I think especially of artists and thinkers who might use it to move their work into interesting new directions. That’s how cultures move forward, by incorporating ideas from other cultures. It happened with Zen and ancient Chinese culture in a big way in the fifties and sixties—though that was Zen only partially understood. And for Zen practitioners, China Root is meant to open a lot of original Ch’an insight that was somehow lost as Ch’an migrated to Japan and eventually to the West.

I stumbled onto this when I was writing Hunger Mountain, a book about walking up a mountain near here [in Vermont] as a way to describe ancient Chinese insight as immediate experience. Mountain landscape is at the center of Chinese culture: the arts and Ch’an too. Anyway, I started thinking about the most important of koans, the so-called Mu koan: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” In English translations, the answer is always “Mu,” which just leaves it in Japanese. And I realized when I read the Chinese text, that Mu is in fact a huge philosophical concept. Its original Chinese pronunciation is Wu, and I translate it as Absence—but not in any metaphysical sense. There is no metaphysics in Ch’an or ancient Chinese culture. It’s too big to really explain here, but Absence means something like the cosmos seen as a single generative tissue: hence, the cosmos as an “absence” of individual forms. Obviously, that changes the koan completely.

I wrote about this a little bit in Hunger Mountain. But that surprising discovery led me to look at the koan collection that includes the Mu koan: the No-Gate Gateway (Wu-men Kuan; Jpn., Mumonkan). It’s the most widely used koan collection. I discovered it is full of foundational Ch’an concepts, and none of them had been translated. There are at least half a dozen translations, three or four by Zen teachers, and none of them mention those concepts, the whole conceptual structure of Ch’an.

So back to your question, China Root is also intended to lay out that conceptual framework that seems to be missing in contemporary Zen. The framework that shaped the practice of ancient Ch’an: what I call “original Zen” in the title.

Randy Rosenthal: Zen was in Japan for well over a millennium before coming to the US, so what is it that a contemporary Zen practitioner is supposed to do differently with this new understanding of the history of Zen? For example, do you expect Zen centers to change their translations of some of these concepts, or the meditation practice of zazen?

David Hinton: Well, it takes the whole book to really describe how this all works. But simply stated, this book grounds Zen practice in landscape and natural process. This comes from Taoism, China’s native spiritual philosophy that evolved into Ch’an. The intent of Ch’an practice was to dwell as integral to the ongoing unfurling of the cosmos. This, with all its implications, is not really spoken of in Zen.

It involves dismantling our ideas and certainties, the mental machinery that isolates us from the world around us. That’s pretty challenging. And as I write in the beginning of the book, it takes a wild and fearless mind to attempt it.

I’m not an evangelist. I don’t really care what anybody does. For me, it’s the adventure of ideas. It isn’t like this book is going to totally change what happens in Zen centers; it’s just adding these ideas into the mix, all the very deep philosophical grounding underneath meditation and koan practice. And that can change how you understand those things, for sure.

Randy Rosenthal: Your unique translations of terms really resonate with me. For example, after I first read Hunger Mountain, I remember walking around the woods and feeling like I am “the unfurling of existence-tissue,” because that’s the phrase that you use. Similarly, rather than translate the usual Taoist term of “mystery,” you use “dark-enigma.” Can you talk more about these terms and concepts?

David Hinton: Yes, existence-tissue is the term I use for the cosmos seen as a single generative tissue, what Taoism and Ch’an call Tao. And that word dark-enigma—it’s been translated using a lot of vague terms, but it means something very specific in ancient Chinese. It means that existence-tissue cosmos, before we name it or apply concepts to it. Hence “enigma,” and the necessity of the dismantling of ideas, even language itself. As soon as we use words, the world is objectified and separated from us. So the intent is to inhabit that dark-enigma cosmos without the separation. To dwell.

Randy Rosenthal: The term itself seems to push the mind because it’s unfamiliar—it pushes my mind into the state of a dark enigma. Can you clarify for people who haven’t read your book: from the origins of dark-enigma, you then talk about Absence, and then Presence, so is Absence the same as dark-enigma?

David Hinton: Pretty close. These fundamental Taoist/Ch’an terms operate at really deep cosmological and ontological levels. In the end, they start blurring together, but they’re used to emphasize different aspects of the basic nature of things.

The first of those terms is Tao, which is the whole cosmos as a single generative tissue in constant transformation—pretty much the physical cosmos as modern science describes it, though science doesn’t often talk about it this way. Tao is divided into Absence and Presence. Presence is simply the empirical cosmos in all its multiplicity: the ten thousand things, as the Chinese say. And Absence is a pregnant emptiness from which the ten thousand things emerge, and into which they return at death. Not in the sense that there is a pool of emptiness somewhere—there isn’t—but in the sense of this existence-tissue Tao seen as a single generative tissue, while Presence is that same tissue divided up into the ten thousand things. So there, you see Absence is pretty close to dark-enigma. But as Lao Tzu says in the first chapter of Tao Te Ching, dark-enigma is the existence-tissue Tao before concepts like Absence and Presence arise. It’s Tao before it is called Tao.

Randy Rosenthal: How does this conceptual understanding affect how we approach meditation in Zen practice? In China Root, you describe meditation as being in “the hinge of Tao” or to “act as source.” What does it look like to “act as source”? Because you’re talking about this empirical reality, but it sounds metaphysical to “act as source.”

David Hinton: There’s no metaphysics in Ch’an. Radically no metaphysics in the world or in consciousness—as in spirit.

This is true in a quite literal and empirical way, of course. Because as modern science knows, the cosmos burst into being, and it evolved stars. Stars are born and they die, and when they die explosively, they seed the space around them with elements, and then those elements again form stars. Our sun is a third-generation star. Planets evolved, and on planets life forms evolved. And in life forms, the cosmos evolved eyes and perception and minds and homo sapiens and human consciousness. So it’s quite literally true that when we think, we are the cosmos thinking itself. And when we look at something, we are the cosmos looking at itself, mirroring itself.

So it’s not metaphysics. It’s strict empiricism. And for Taoism and Ch’an, spiritual practice is all about returning consciousness into the unfurling of Tao, which is in modern terms the unfurling of the cosmos. Because we tend to think of ourselves as outside it: thinking about it as an outside, looking at it “out there.”

Meditation in Ch’an isn’t about getting to a state of nirvana–tranquility. That, for Ch’an, is to block the ongoing transformation of Tao, to separate yourself from it. Instead, meditation in Ch’an is about reintegrating consciousness with Tao, with the ongoing unfurling of the cosmos. If you watch, you see thoughts appearing out of nothing, evolving, and returning to nothing, exactly like the ten thousand things. So consciousness is in fact part of the same tissue as the empirical world. No separation at all.

And source … Once you see the cosmos as a single generative tissue, an ongoing process of transformation emerging from transformation, things in and of themselves generating new things—you see it’s all source.

Randy Rosenthal:  I love that idea—meditation as consciousness reintegrating with the ongoing unfurling of the cosmos. To clarify, I practice Vipassana and the teaching is basically to observe bodily sensations arising and passing away. To me, that’s very empirical. But when you talk about “generative existence-tissue” or “meditating at the hinge of Tao,” I’m still trying to understand these terms in the same empirical way. If I’m observing my sensations arising and passing away, am I actually observing my generative existence-tissue?

David Hinton: Yes. The existence tissue cosmos is mysteriously, magically, and for no reason, generative. This is the bedrock nature of things. You can’t go any further, can’t ask how or why. It just is that way. And that’s exactly what you see when you observe consciousness during meditation. And once thoughts fall silent, you begin to see the empty source of thoughts, which is the same dark-enigma tissue at the source of the ten thousand things. Source again.

But Ch’an takes it further. As I said, Ch’an wants us to live our everyday lives at origins, to act as that source. This functions in meditation, but it’s more clearly present in koan practice. The point of koan practice in early Ch’an is learning to act as the cosmos unfurling from the source. The student is given puzzles or questions and needs to learn how to respond, not through abstract thinking and analysis but out of no-mind, out of empty-mind, acting directly from that source. So koan practice is about returning consciousness to inhabit, to dwell as part of that unfurling of the cosmos, or the ongoing process of Tao.

Returning to meditation: when thoughts completely stop and you’re dwelling as that generative emptiness, that generative source, then you can act as cosmos. Because there you’re at the source, and whatever happens comes right out of the source. That’s when meditation transforms into a distinctively Ch’an form, and that’s where koan practice can happen.

Randy Rosenthal: I’m trying to see what that looks like in the world. So before I would think, Okay, I’m acting spontaneously—or as tzu-jan, a term usually translated as “naturalness,” but which you translate as “occurrence appearing of itself.” Is that what you’re talking about—you’re just walking around through the woods or the grocery store as occurrence appearing of itself?

David Hinton: Yeah. That’s what it would be. And you do that when you’ve gotten rid of the seemingly transcendental identity-center self that we walk around with all the time, that keeps us separated from things. That separation is largely the result of language, especially written language, which makes us feel like there’s this inner realm that’s timeless and transcendent, utterly outside the world of change. So that’s part of why meditation is about getting past language and thoughts. From there, we can move through the day as “occurrence appearing of itself.” And it feels quite different—a sense not of isolation and distance from the world around us, but of belonging, of dwelling as integral to it.

Randy Rosenthal: I’ve always understood Taoism to be one thing, and Buddhism another, keeping them parallel. But at one point in China Root, you write that Tao is Dharma. And that Buddha is Tao. Should a Zen practitioner understand these Taoist concepts to be the same as their Buddhist concepts?

At its origins in China, Ch’an was essentially Taoism enriched by the Buddhism that had arrived from India. In the end, it was anti-Buddhism.

David Hinton: This is one of the primary points in China Root. American Zen generally sees its tradition as a stream of Buddhism that began in India, passed through China (with some significant developments), then through Japan (where it developed further), and finally many centuries later passed on to America, where the tradition is primarily shaped by its Japanese antecedent. But at its origins in China, Ch’an was essentially Taoism enriched by the Buddhism that had arrived from India. In the end, it was anti-Buddhism.

Taoism is the native spiritual philosophy of China, and it begins in the sixth century B.C.E. with Tao Te Ching, but really with the much earlier I Ching. Around the time Buddhism first began to take root in China, there was a neo-Taoist movement called—as it happens—Dark-Enigma Learning. Dark-Enigma Learning focuses on the deep cosmological and ontological dimensions of Taoism. Like the concepts we talked about before—Tao as the cosmos, this generative tissue in constant transformation. When Buddhism appeared, it was understood in terms of Dark-Enigma Learning; influential intellectuals and scholars combined them. That’s the beginning of Ch’an—of Zen—around 400 C. E.

As we saw before, at those Dark-Enigma Learning depths, fundamental concepts blurred together. And the same thing happened with Buddhist concepts as they were absorbed into the Taoist framework. They blurred together. Buddha as the great original sage, and dharma as the essential body of insight—they become Tao.

That is, they’re completely absorbed into this Taoist conceptual system, which wants to dismantle concepts. So Ch’an sages are not interested in Buddha as this historical figure or this teacher or anything. They just want to tear it apart—kill the Buddha. And the same with dharma, this sacred body of insight. They don’t care about that. That’s exactly what you want to dismantle and get past.

That’s part of Ch’an’s radical individualism. What I call core Ch’an is anti-institutional, anti-methodology, anti-concept, anti-answers, anti-certainty. I almost called this book something like “the wrecking crew.” That’s what I call the old Ch’an masters, because that’s really what they’re about. They only built up ideas to dismantle them. Take the conventional idea of meditation—in the end, they wanted to dismantle that, because you’re trying to stop the movement of thought, and that opposes the movement of Tao. And Tao is the absolute wordless teaching—the great wordless teacher.

Read an excerpt from China Root: “The Tao of Buddha”

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he focused on Buddhist Studies, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.