Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination

Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.

But where does this assumption come from? And is it assumed by anyone before they are told it is right and proper to assume it?

As I have been working on the literature collection mentioned above, I’ve paged through plenty of author biographies, each with details of births, deaths, lives, and great accomplishments. Reading things repeated in so many configurations in the lives of so many people had the effect of making some things more real to me, and one that pushed itself to the forefront was the omnipresent Chinese Imperial Examination.

For over a thousand years, men [generally wealthy] would pour over classical texts to win coveted spots as scholars and civil servants. Many who failed would become tutors, instructing the next generation of hopefuls to memorize and interpret texts. I am not an scholar of Chinese history, but in reading the details of the examination over and over again, I saw the image of the assumed enlightened person.

An intellectual, or someone interested in a life of learning could choose one or the other, but not both. The opposition of the ideal of Buddhist crazy wisdom makes much more sense when standing next to the other attributes of the successful Chinese government official: The enlightened person is a renunciant, while the government official is wealthy. The enlightened person is wild and impulsive, while the government official is disciplined. The enlightened person has an intelligence beyond words, while the government official’s intelligence is specifically measured in written language.

Though I doubt it will shape my own practice or the person who I want to be, I can now feel great comfort in thinking of generations of hermits and Zen masters who strove to differentiate themselves from the squares in the capital.


* It is important to note that I think viewing the Chinese Buddhist aesthetic as an abstraction, distortion, or replacement for the “original” or “true” Buddhist aesthetic to be very misguided. If anything, coming to grips with it should help us think about the how various Buddhism’s aesthetics and orthodoxy inform and differ from one another. Oddly enough, it is not a beauty contest.

3 Replies to “Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination”

  1. Interesting commentary as it’s perhaps especially so for the study of such an esthetically entwined subject as religion. As religion’s understood to be far more than its scriptural teachings but is often found to be regaled or deciphered into something less than what’s intended in its original purpose. It’s the purpose of religion to allow all individual perspectives to be understood as well as kept in natural order. An analysis of the ‘antitheses’ or “Supreme Personality of Godhead” should be looked upon as totally separate from all other indoctrinations of study in the Universe!

  2. Interesting commentary as it’s perhaps especially so for the study of such an esthetically entwined subject as religion. As religion’s understood to be far more than its scriptural teachings but may often be regaled or deciphered into something that’s less than intended in its original purposeful meaning. It’s the purpose of religion to allow all individual perspectives to be understood as well as kept in natural order. An analysis of the ‘antitheses’ or “Supreme Personality of Godhead” should be looked upon as totally separate from all other indoctrinated studies in the Universe!

  3. “I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.”

    I sit with a guy who makes the point–we share an interest in the role of land in practice, as in our relationship to the land on which we practice–that there are all over Asia very specific practices that are part of different Buddhisms as they are practiced in different places. White US Buddhists, using the universalizing logic of Enlightenment rationality, dismiss these as either folklore or superstition, depending on the generosity of the observer. The specific practices are not the point. The point is rather that a specific relationship must be maintained to the land through practice. The land already has its practices, though one could also enter the very dangerous territory of the settler population co-opting what it imagines to be native ceremony for its own illusory edification. That said, a process of specific connection to specific land in North America needs to start for the non-indigenous.

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