Most varieties of Chan and Zen Buddhism around today trace their roots back to Mazu Daoyi and his Hongzhou School. Which, as usual, means that layer upon layer of hagiographical distortion has--with intents both pious and polemical--obscured his and their specific historical reality beyond all recognition. And this process continues today in countless introductory and scholarly books on Chan/Zen in English. If we've read any of these, we more or less know the story. We've all come across Mazu the eccentric and iconoclastic monk with crazy wisdom spurning official honors on the margins of China's southern frontier. We've also come across Baizhang, his equally oddball disciple and original formulator of Chan's institutional independence. These depictions are vastly fascinating, deeply inspiring, and immensely entertaining--and pretty much false, as Mario Poceski shows in this excellent study.
Which makes him seem like just another debunker, but actually the bulk of "Ordinary Mind as the Way" is rather devoted to a careful reconstruction of just who Mazu and his Hongzhou Schoolers were and what they were like, based on a meticulous and judicious analysis of select textual sources actually dating to the Tang Dynasty (around the time Mazu and company were alive or soon after)--some recently discovered, some long extant but ignored since they didn't jive with the standard narrative, and others otherwise consistently misread in light of what we thought we knew. Poceski's arguments are careful, nuanced, and convincing, demonstrating that overall Mazu's Hongzhou Chan was in a way simply one variant of Tang Buddhism in general. Very much based in official monasteries and involved with social elites both in South China AND in the northern capitals (i.e. hardly marginal), very much observant of formal monastic disciplines and hierarchies and highly conversant with the Buddhist scriptural canon. And yet possessed of a distinct sense of religious identity with their own particular spin on the mainstays of traditional Tang Buddhism--that is, Poceski doesn't fall into the opposite extreme of utterly collapsing them into their context and unfairly deconstructing them into undeserved oblivion. Indeed, the balance he brings to his discussion is exemplary and downright refreshing.
Another strong point of the book is the manner in which it tackles the issues from both historical and Buddhological angles. In the first half, Poceski traces what can more or less be known for certain about the life of Mazu, his disciples, and the Hongzhou School's early development. In the second half, he focuses more on the particular religious teachings and practices of Mazu and company, ingeniously relating them to the wider Tang Buddhist context in sensible though surprising ways. Perhaps my own favorite example can be found on pages 142 to 143, where he takes a passage from one of Mazu's recorded sermons that sounds like the usual freewheeling rambling Zen discourse and then shows it to be an incredibly erudite patchwork of sutra quotations peppered with Mazu's own comments elucidating and linking them. According to the usual Zen stereotypes this is startling stuff, but there it is, it all makes sense. And it's every bit a fascinating form of Buddhism in its own right, making Poceski's discussion throughout something of an exciting recovery operation.
In short, despite its title, this is an extraordinary book, bound to be pivotal in the study of Chan and Zen Buddhism and extremely important as well for the study of Chinese religious history in general. And a joy to read, a plus never to be taken for granted when it comes to academic titles. Highly recommended.