From Thomas Cleary’s introduction to his translation of Zen Lessons:

In contrast to the relatively plain and straightforward Zen literature of the Tang dynasty, Song dynasty Zen literature is convoluted and artful. This is not regarded, in Zen terms, as a development in Zen, but as a response to a more complex and pressured society and individual. The Zen adepts of Song times did not regard the reality of Zen as any different in its essence from that of classical times, but considered the function of Zen to have become complicated by the complexity of the contemporary mind and the rampant spread of artificial Zen based on imitations of a few Zen practices.

The proliferation of false Zen was stimulated by the enormous impact of real Zen on Asian civilization. After the Tang dynasty, there is hardly anywhere one can turn in Chinese culture without seeing the influence of the Zen charisma.

The ill effects of the resulting influx of insincere followers into public Zen institutions are already noted in the works of great masters of the latter Tang dynasty, and these Zen Lessons contain top-level notices of an even greater decline in quality of Zen institutions and followers in the Song dynasty, in spite of Zen’s unparalleled prestige in cultural terms.

There is even reason to believe that the creation of new Confucian and Taoist schools using Zen methods was especially encouraged by Zen adepts because of their awareness that the original Zen Buddhist order had become seriously enervated through the attachment of worldly feelings to its forms and personalities.

From the point of Buddhist historiography, this sort of involvement is predictable: a period of true teaching is eventually obscured by imitations, and even these break down into remnants with time. The Mahāparinirvānasūtra, or “Scripture of the Great Decrease,” among the classical scriptures traditionally most studied by Zen adepts, outlines these phenomena very clearly.

The false ideas about Zen and Buddhism that scandals at Zen centers have both arisen from and in turn re-created in many minds within and without these centers are also predictable and have existed ever since “Zen” became consciously articulated. Almost the entire literature of Zen, in all of its astonishing variety of forms, deals with nothing but misconceptions about the reality of Zen, which is said to be extremely simple in essence though complex in function or manifestation. The apparent complexity of Zen teaching and function is due to the complexity of the human mentality, as Zen perforce acted in more intricate ways to unify the threads of the contemporary mind.

Replace Zen with your favorite learning that you feel is widely misinterpreted; I’ll go with ‘agile’.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.