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Working Title: Ineffability: The Liminality of Language in Daoism and Chan Buddhism
1. Introduction and thesis statement
1.1. Thesis: The roots of the concept of liminality in Chinese schools of Buddhism can be
linked to indigenous religious ideas within early religious Daoism.
2. Concept of liminality in early sources
2.1. Indigenous Chinese roots for such a core concept may be found in the first line of
Laozi’s Daodejing: “Dao that can be spoken of is not the Dao”
2.2. Even earlier, diviners believed oracle bones prepared in a proper religious ritual may
provide insights into the future.
2.3. Inward Training, the first text advocating a specifically Daoist religious ritual practice,
develops indigenous Chinese notions of ultimate reality as the undifferentiated
oneness of all things in the Dao: qi, ‘vital essence of all.’
2.4. The seemingly contradictory descriptions of qi in Inward Training contributes to
Chinese discourse on ultimate reality as vast, timeless, and well beyond normal human
convention or comprehension.
2.5. Zhuangzi, dreaming he was a butterfly, takes notion of ineffable ultimate reality to the
extreme, questioning the reality of mundane, everyday life. The illusory nature of
physical reality now, then, sets the stage for the adoption and adaptation of Indian
Buddhist doctrine in a Chinese context.
3. Dependent origination
3.1. Dependent origination, a fundamental Buddhist doctrine, finds its way into Chinese
religious discourses via religious pilgrims and travelers along the Silk Road, eventually
finding common ground with Daoism with regards to the undifferentiated oneness of
all phenomena. Correlative cosmology may be seen as a direct synthesis between early
Chinese mystical folk Daoism and the introduction of Buddhist notions of oneness and
3.2. The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, translated from the Sanskrit word sunyata, shown
to intersect with Zhuangzi’s concept of everyday life as illusory, and ultimate reality as
transcendently incomprehensible, though seemingly deviating from the far more
material practices of correlative cosmology, makes a grand introduction to China via
early translations of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, advocating: ‘Form is emptiness,
and emptiness is form.’
3.3. The seeming contradictory nature of this widely popularized saying of the Buddha
struck a chord in China, with its history of complicating word play and superficially
meaningless rhetorical circles, especially in the Zhuangzi.
4. Meditation and the development of Zen
4.1. Also taking root in China, with origins in the same Sutra, the practice of meditation
upon devotional recitation of the name of the Buddha, inspired by ancestral worship
practices from ancient China, came to eventually define another Buddhist school in
China: Pure Land.
4.2. Though this school developed more fully and popularly in China than Chan, which really
flourished in Japan as Zen, the legacy of early Chan doctrine, especially as transmitted
via the Diamond Sutra, is central to it.
5. The importance of liminality in early China
5.1. In modern philosophical terms, the liminality of language of, or the ineffability of,
ultimate, transcendent reality is complicated to say the least. That ancient Chinese and
Indian sages were able to transmit these complex notions orally for dozens of centuries
must say something for their value.
5.2. Though value is a subjective evaluation, and a concepts mere perpetuation over a long
period of time says nothing about its veracity, the insights gained through the doctrines
espoused by these mystical, esoteric traditions go beyond usefulness.
5.3. Ultimately, it is clear that the skill with which ideas are presented is more important
than the actual idea, and the Buddhist elevation of such a universal notion speaks
wonders to the reality that the success of a religion has more to do with the social
environment in which it exists than the ideas actually presented.
6. Buddhist Adaptations in Pure Land and Chan
6.1. As Buddhism spread to China, though it had a long and complicated history of Indian
origin, only the ideas that were already valued in a strongly Daoist culture were
adopted, and then adapted to the times.
6.2. Such adaptations, though superficially subtle, developed into distinctly Chinese schools
of Buddhism, known as Pure Land and Chan.