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Wandering Saints

Wandering Saints

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Published by: jtvillon on Jun 22, 2011
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The Holy Monk, most likely the unruly saint Pindola, holds a unique place in the
Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery. Part of every major ceremony recorded in the
code and an essential element of daily life in the Chan monastery, the Holy Monk is
consistently worshiped throughout the text, and each time the code provides us with


Yifa 2002: 124.


Yifa 2002: 170.


elaborate descriptions of ritual performances that are acted out in front of him. Chan’s
deep reverence for this anarchic figure does not come as a surprise. Elsewhere in the
Chan canon, there is evidence for an equally strong interest in personalities similar to
that of the Holy Monk. Particularly the wandering saints compare well to the Holy
Monk, with regard to their character traits as well as their reception history in the
Song establishment.

Like the Holy Monk, the saints were itinerant sages who were extraordinary to
the degree that they transgressed all kinds of laws and performed supernatural acts.
Most importantly, the wandering saints were subject to consistent worship in texts and
images in a fashion comparable to the worship of the Holy Monk. The regular
production of paintings of these monks inscribed with encomia that reveal a distinct
approach towards this art, discussed in Chapter Three, is one aspect of this worship.
Inclusion of these encomia in the Chan canon and the depiction of the monks on steles
and in sculptures is another.

In art, the visual representations and concomitant visualities of the Holy Monk
and the wandering saints are varied: while we do not know what representations of the
Holy Monk looked like or whether this was an image at all, images of the wandering
saints were produced in large numbers and different media. I would argue that the
existence of these different types of images testifies to the central role of this type of
personality in Chan, and to its charisma. The establishment developed, viewed and
worshiped a variety of visual forms which all describe the theme of the lawless

While historical Chan patriarchs did not usually transgress laws or perform
supernatural acts, Song Chan literature reveals that most of these masters were held to
be enigmatic personalities, too. In Chapter One, I discussed the four most important
categories of Song Chan texts: flame records, discourse records, test cases and
monastic codes. The first three types of texts are filled with stories of the lives and
words of figures no less eccentric in speech and behaviour than Pindola and the
wandering saints. These include such Tang dynasty monks as Mazu Daoyi who let out
a shout that left his student Baizhang Huaihai deaf for three days, or Puhua, who,
asked to draw his master’s portrait, did a somersault and left. Similarly in the Song
dynasty, masters such as Yangqi Fanghui would strike lecterns and shout at listeners
during convocations. These tales are well known and have often been discussed in
modern scholarship.


Still, I submit that the fact that the Holy Monk is emphatically part of the Chan
codes and, therefore, of everyday Chan practice invites discussion of Chan’s attention
to the unusual from a different angle. I submit that the worship of the Holy Monk
shows that unconventional figures were central to the “Chan myth”, and to the
functioning of the Chan establishment.
In an article on saintly fools, Michel Strickmann argues that “the legend of the
fool who is in fact a hero in disguise is part of a worldwide storycomplex”.404

the fool in disguise, or the lawless and charismatic “other”, represented most
prominently in Chan by the Holy Monk and the wandering saints, is a phenomenon
common to various cultures. Strickmann focuses on the story of Huan Kai 桓闓,

disciple of the Daoist authority Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536), which tells us how
this lowly student becomes enlightened long before his great master. Comparing the
tale of Huan Kai to stories in other traditions, he uses the example of the fool in early
medieval Greek monasticism who acts like an idiot so that no one will recognize their
virtue. This fool

purposefully adopts folly as a cloak and so, rather than being revered, he draws scorn.
Also, he gives himself over into performing indecent acts, because he lacks all sense
of ‘decency’: meaning that he is entirely dead to the world. Finally, although he is
quintessentially a hermit, an anchorite, he has come to live among men so as to
convert them; thus, he comes as an apostle, with a mission.405

In Catholicism, Strickmann continues, the story of the fool culminates when it is acted
out each year during carnival, “a feast of fools, when not only is the conventional fool
made king, but all are, in a sense, shown up as fools, all are out of order, unhinged,

Arguably otherness is a source of power in any belief, but “the other” may be
more central to Chan than to any other religious system. The work of Bernard Faure,
discussed in Chapter One, focuses on “the other” in Chan.406

Based on the absence of
any allusions to magic in early Chan texts, he argues that Chan did not revere magic
and therefore domesticated its otherworldly, occult elements and transformed them
into this-worldly tricksters. Eventually, he continues, the Bodhisattva ideal took
precedence over both wonder-worker and trickster, and the most popular saints were


Strickmann 1994.


Strickmann 1994: 48.


Faure 1991.


readily perceived as Bodhisattvas. Interestingly, Faure reluctantly admits that a
number of saints were never fully domesticated. For instance, he acknowledges that
Hanshan and Shide have an “eerie, otherworldly aspect to them” and he contends that
these saints remain both marginal and liminal: marginal to the Chan tradition, and
liminal in the sense that they are both uncanny thaumaturges and tricksters of popular
mythology. Of course, Chapter Four of this study also shows that in spite of their
widespread popularity, the wandering saints were never as central to traditional literati
discourse as they were to Chan and Daoist religion and practice. This arguably
indicates that the monks were never entirely this-worldly.
Generally, Faure believes that the Chan veneration of the wonder-worker-
turned-trickster is indicative of the growing institutionalization of the Chan
establishment. A highly visible phenomenon at the end of the Tang, the trickster
figure would “serve as an alibi” within the Chan establishment and be “reflective of a
loss of the experience that it symbolized”. Meir Shahar, also cited in Chapter One,
concurs with this when he writes that the veneration of itinerant and mad monks is the
result of resentment toward the establishment. He compares traditional miracle
workers to shamans and believes that the establishment acknowledged them only

Faure and Shahar do not elaborate on the Holy Monk. Yet, the above
investigation shows that the worship of the Holy Monk is an example of a much
earlier Chan incorporation of the unconventional, and a different kind of incorporation,
too. The Chan establishment adopted with no trouble the Pindola cult of the fifth
century from the codes of Daoxuan as an elementary part of its monastic system.
Moreover, while Pindola may be venerated as a powerful deity, he will always remain,
not a Bodhisattva, but a monk, and one who was punished for transgressing the law at
that. Further, instead of considering the domestication of a single type of
“otherworldly” character and its transformation from thaumaturge to trickster and
Bodhisattva, I would argue that the group of wandering saints consists of a variety of
personalities that retain their unique characteristics in the Song Chan establishment.
All may simultaneously be venerated as thaumaturges, tricksters and Bodhisattvas,
since, while Faure presents the saints as having gradually progressed from
otherworldly figures to this-worldly figures and Bodhisattvas, the evidence for this
does not hold entirely, as has been noted above. Still, Hanshan and Shide remain
eternal recluses, while Budai is a worldly figure who engages in drinking wine and


eating meat ---worldly enough to occupy the position of Holy Monk in modern Chan
practice. Arguably, every saint holds a mirror to his worshipers by showing them that
there are different ways to attain enlightenment. Thus perhaps more than anything else,
the worship of these different personalities in Chan is simply a celebration of different
paths to enlightenment ---a celebration that the establishment actively supported
through its texts, images and the worship of Pindola and the wandering saints.
Faure is right to point out that the hagiographies of the wandering saints are all
relegated to the last chapters of Chan flame records and that this may indicate that
biographers were uncertain as to the actual position of these monks in the Chan
lineage. However, I see no reason to doubt that Pindola or the wandering saints were
an unambiguous part of the structure of the Chan establishment ---and the “Chan
myth” discussed in Chapter One. Coined by Theodore Griffith Foulk, the notion of the
“Chan myth” refers to the belief of Chan adherents in a tradition of enlightenment and
a separate transmission. The above investigation shows that the worship of a variety
of anarchic personalities was an unmistakable part of that belief, and that rather than
“tacitly approve” of it, the Chan establishment supported this belief in art and practice.

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