PZI Teacher Archives

Zen Luminaries: A Conversation with Peter Hershock hosted by Jon Joseph


As recorded Monday, November 1st, 2021, as part of a series of conversations with important Zen (Chan) voices: translators, writers, scholars, and practitioners.


In his historical narrative, Hershock finds relevant parallels between the social currents of medieval China and those in the West today. Many of Chan’s distinctive practices emerged during a period of warfare and privation that resulted in the dislocation or death of vast numbers of Chinese. In this context, Chan can be viewed as a counter-cultural movement.

Chan’s description of itself as being “outside the scriptures” signaled a turn away from interpreting and assimilating the dharma coming out of India and Central Asia. Instead, there was an increasing focus on “home-grown Buddhas:” native Chan masters who had wide support among Chinese monastics and laypeople, including women.

Hershock sees four great teachers as crucial to this formative period of Chan history.

Bodhidharma preached individual acceptance of apparent injustices (no victimization), seeking no-thing (the self lacking nothing), and the need to express the Bodhisattva way (self and other compassion).

Huineng, six generations later, was poor and illiterate. His life story demonstrated the teachings inclusive of and beyond social justice: When his teacher called him a “southern barbarian,” Huineng responded that while family origins may be different, there is no difference in Buddha Nature. He later went on to teach “sudden enlightenment” as the readiness, here and now, to awaken to that nature.

Mazu lived and traveled in a time of unprecedented social turmoil, and was perhaps the first ancestor to stress practice in all aspects of life rather than just the meditation hall, proclaiming that Buddha is “ordinary mind.” He used shock tactics like shouting, hitting, and illogical conversations with students, and sought radical immediacy in relationships forged in crisis and emergency. Practice was to be found in all of life, not just the quietism of the temple. “If you’re training to sit Chan, know that it is not a matter of either sitting or reclining,” advised his teacher Huairang.

Linji was the master of innovation and creativity, demanding that we “face the world and go cross-wise,” and that “true persons of no rank” refrain from taking any fixed position. According to Hershock, “Breaking down old habits and obstructions takes great energy.” Linji’s practice of improvisation, in accord with any situation, contributed to the emergence of enlightening relational dynamics.

In a free and easy conversation with Jon Joseph, he talks about his early life in zen, his interests in information technology, the guiding influences behind Artificial Intelligence and the meaning of consciousness, the subject of his most recent book.

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