In The Chosen, the novelist Chaim Potok tells a story of the friendship of two gifted young men, both from devout and observant Jewish homes, both the offspring of brilliant fathers. Although the two fathers have never met, they are each familiar with the other, and each regards the other with a mixture of respect and suspicion. One is a scholar of religion who employs the tools of his craft to shed light on Jewish historical experience. The other is a tzaddik, the spiritual leader of a Hasidic community and a man of deep mystical experience. The scholar seeks to bring Jewish tradition into dialogue with the modern world. He is a man of devoted belief, but his faith lacks a certain vitality. The tzaddik seeks to exclude the contemporary world from the purview of religion, for he knows that the fruits of spiritual life flourish best when that life is rooted in a foundation of stable beliefs. His faith is indeed vital, but that vitality is predicated on willfully ignoring much of humankind’s rich store of knowledge about the world.

The Chosen gives dramatic shape to questions that are of signal importance in religious life today—questions that revolve around the possibilities for religious faith in a world left disenchanted by reason. What is the place of faith in a world that has, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, undergone “a housecleaning of belief”? How are we to have faith in a sustaining system of meanings when the bases of such systems are continually being overturned? How, in short, are we to hold the kind of faith that can imbue experience with a sense of the sacred even as it speaks to, and does not reject, the particular challenges and characteristic mood of our age?

These questions first began to take shape for me some twenty years ago, when I attended a conference of Buddhist scholars hosted by the Zen Center of Los Angeles. The intent of the conference was to examine the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) debate between the Southern and Northern schools of Chinese Zen, or Ch’an. That debate, which was a pivotal event in the history of Zen Buddhism, was over differences in perspective on sudden and gradual aspects of enlightenment. The scholars had gathered to revisit that debate, with an eye toward separating historical fact from sectarian legend.

Actually, to say I attended the conference is a bit of an overstatement. As a resident and staff member of the Zen Center, I was, along with the rest of the staff, invited to listen in on the discussion from what were, in effect, the bleacher seats. Not many staffers saw fit to attend; if memory serves, there were just two or three others besides myself. Nevertheless, I found much of the discussion, for all its recondite references and excursions into Buddhological minutiae, fascinating. In particular, I was struck by how strongly Zen Buddhism has, for close to thirteen hundred years, right up to the present day, been shaped by this abstruse and, not incidentally, highly political debate.

Within several generations of the controversy, the Northern, or “gradual,” school died out, and all schools of Zen since then have been descendents of the “suddenists” of the south. Indeed, Zen literature abounds with derisive references to the Northerners. They are the foils—the hypocrites, bumblers, and prevaricators—against whom the true spirit of Zen is measured. But, as in countless other sectarian squabbles in the world’s religions, the tools of modern historical research—archaeology, the comparative study of texts, linguistic analysis—allow us to reexamine the debate, and not surprisingly, a picture emerges that is quite at odds with the one passed down by tradition. We now can see that the differences between the schools, however urgent such differences may have seemed in the context of the times, had more to do with style and emphasis than with substance. The Northern school was not a collection of dualistic drones and spiritual losers bent on purveying lessons of religious mediocrity. Far from it. They were, however, the losers in a sectarian battle for popular acceptance and aristocratic patronage. And history—at least history’s first draft—is not written by that kind of loser.

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