The Trickster's True Face:
A Comparison of Native American and Chinese Chan Buddhist Imps and Heroes
A fundamental paradigm or archetype of the "trickster," an impish hero
reflecting wisdom through his own foolishness or the foolishness of others, can
be found in both the 1984 publication Indian Myths and Legends and the Wudeng
Huiyan (Compendium of Five Lamps), translated into English in 2000 by Andy Ferguson.
Indian Myths and Legends is a complex tapestry of oral traditions from various
tribes, recorded and organized into various subjects including a section on "Trickster
Tales." The Wudeng Huiyan (Compendium of Five Lamps) is a written record
of dialogues between Chinese Buddhist monks of the "Chan" or "meditation"
(Japanese "Zen") school, composed by the monk Dachuan Lingyin Puji in
the early part of the 13th century. One of the most compelling elements of this
cross-cultural literary tradition is that the identity of the trickster changes
according to which moral message or lesson needs to be conveyed. In both texts,
sometimes the trickster tricks someone else, sometimes he himself is tricked,
and sometimes, however subtly, the text itself plays the trickster role. A thorough
analysis of this seemingly malleable literary entity can provide new lessons in
accordance with the morals and teachings both texts exemplify.
The section in Indian Myths and Legends dedicated to the trickster is composed
of short records of oral traditions from tribes such as White River Sioux, Pima,
White Mountain Apache, Algonquian, and Cheyenne, announced with a sort of contextual
disclaimer from the editors: "The trickster is a rebel against authority
and the breaker of all taboos. He is at the same time imp and hero- the great
culture bringer who can also make mischief beyond belief, turning quickly from
clown to creator and back again" (Erdoes and Ortiz 335). This idealized entity
continues to be praised by the editors:
"Shorn of the various surface features from different cultures, Coyote and
his kin represent the sheerly spontaneous in life, the pure creative spark that
is our birthright as human beings and that defies fixed roles or behavior. He
not only represents some primordial creativity from our earlier days, but he reminds
us that such celebration of life goes on today, and he calls us to join him in
the frenzy. In an ordered world of objects and labels, he represents the potency
of nothingness, of chaos, of freedom- a nothingness that makes something of itself"
These statements bear an astonishing resemblance to the Western stereotype of
the Zen master, while it is important to note that neither editor hails from any
of the tribes that serve as the origins of these tales, and their arbitrary representational
meaning of the "trickster" entity comes from their own perspective,
not necessarily that of the Native American.
The claim is well known that the trickster concept in itself can serve as a sort
of Jungian archetype. This seems to be reflected in Western culture, from the
Warner Bros. figure Wile E. Coyote to his friend Bugs, from goats outsmarting
trolls in tales from the Brothers Grimm to the Brer Rabbit character created by
Uncle Remus. The assumption, however, that oral traditions such as those of Native
Americans are somehow static and guaranteed to be reflections of a bygone, ancient
age may be fallacious; many of the trickster tales themselves reflected in Indian
Myths and Legends were retold in the 60's and 70's, and cannot be assumed to be
immune from the influences of American television and media. An example of this
would be the White Mountain Apache tale, "Coyote Fights A Lump of Pitch"
((Erdoes and Ortiz 359-361). This tale is almost identical to Uncle Remus' story
about Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and indeed was retold at a time when the speakers
could have easily been exposed to this other tale. Were the Apache informed by
American media's representation of Uncle Remus? Hard to prove, the point being
that presuming Native American tales are thoroughly independent of the surrounding
American culture or are somehow timeless are two basic assumptions that could
be said to be encouraged by the editors themselves; certainly not addressed.
Andy Ferguson's translation of the Wudeng appears to make these two assumptions
as well, but in different ways. These ancient dialogues, spanning over 700 years
of Chinese Buddhist monastic tradition, were originally recorded by the monk Puji.
The way they were "retold" may have been informed to a significant extent
by which "dharma lineage" he belonged to (a Chinese tradition of passing
secret, mystical Buddhist awareness down in genealogical lines, from master to
student), what he expected the dialogues to represent (perhaps "informed"
too of the Jungian trickster archetype), and even what his own personal interpretation
of the Chinese tradition was. After this author, of course, comes the translator.
Ferguson himself is a longtime lay practitioner of Japanese Soto Zen at the San
Francisco Zen Center in California. In the Translator's Preface of the Wudeng,
he cites contributions to his scholarship that are either totally Japanese or
translated by members of Japanese lineage. He also claims that Zen and Chan Buddhism
are interchangeable traditions. While the former emerged claiming to be the inheritor
of the latter, Chan was also reconstructed in its Japanese environment to become
a tradition with different approaches, different styles, and different priorities.
The extent to which the English translation of the Wudeng was influenced and transformed
by American eyes looking through Japanese lenses can only be a matter of speculation.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that in both texts studied here the original
recorded oral traditions were informed to a great extent by the editors and translators,
and even by the original speakers themselves.
Just as the true, separate, independent nature of these stories and dialogues
is hard to ascertain, so is the true, separate, and independent nature of the
"trickster" himself. In both texts the trickster, whether the Coyote,
Rabbit, or Spider or an enlightened Buddhist master, sometimes conveys his lessons
and teachings as a direct and playful trick on someone else. Other times, however,
the "trickster" himself is tricked in order to convey the lesson or
teaching at hand. Finally, the text itself may serve as the "trickster,"
teaching the reader a lesson or teaching involving interpretation, assumptions,
or taking anything at face value as true, separate, and independent.
The most obvious lessons are taught when the identity of the "trickster"
is apparent and clear, such as the Brule Sioux tale "Coyote and Wasichu"
(Erdoes and Ortiz 342). In this story, Coyote tricks a white man out of his clothes
and his horse by boasting and feeding on the white man's pride, the inherent lesson
being that tendencies such as cheating and pride eventually turn against you (ibid.).
The roles here are well defined; the Coyote is the teacher, and his "straight
man" or student, the Wasichu (A Sioux word for "white man"). Similar
traditional "trickster" roles are exemplified in the Athapascan tale
"The Raven" (Erdoes and Ortiz 344-345), the Algonquian tale "Adventures
of Great Rabbit" (Erdoes and Ortiz 347-352), the Kalapuya story "Coyote
Takes Water From the Frog People," the Brule Sioux story "Iktome and
the Ignorant Girl" (Erdoes and Ortiz 358-359), and the White Mountain Apache
story "Coyote Gets Rich Off the White Men" (Erdoes and Ortiz 369-371).
In all of these stories, the "trickster" in question tricks someone
else, either conveying a moral lesson such as the wickedness of pride or greed
or the heavy price paid for gullibility, or simply conveying how fun it is to
outsmart an apparent enemy.
In the Wudeng, the traditional role of "trickster" is reflected in the
recorded dialogues (yu-lu) between teacher and student, head monk and novice,
in which again various lessons are implied. It is important to note that the "Five
Lamps" which inspired the title of the book are in fact five separate sects
of Chinese Chan Buddhism, with different approaches and emphases taking place
and different ways of shattering the dualistic preconceptions of the student (Puji
7). These "Five Lamps" consisted of the esoteric symbols and hand motions
of the Guiyang school, the alarming shouts and blows of the Linji (Japanese "Rinzai")
school, the emphasis on silent, unfocused meditation of the Caodong (Japanese
"Soto") school, the "huatou" or "one-word barriers"
chanted repeatedly by the Yunmen school, and the extensive examination of sutras
and yulu of the Fayan school (ibid.).
Even less visible in the translation, but vital to any attempt to decipher the
context of the dialogue at hand, is information about where the teacher and the
student were trained. In other words, to say that there were only five schools
or "houses" is simplistic; many of the masters and novices involved
here studied beforehand in different sects of Buddhism altogether, such as the
Vinaya sect of Chinese Buddhism, with a strict emphasis on the original Theravada
precepts for monks, the Wei-shi (consciousness-only) sect based on the illusions
and powers of the mind exemplified in the Shurangama Sutra, or the San Lun (Three
Treatise) sect with a total devotion to the first century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna,
who proposed that nirvana and reality are not separate, and are both sunyata (total
void or emptiness) (Chan 337). All of these schools were identified in a geographic
context for generations; that is, certain mountains or provinces were home to
certain sects, and the early careers of many of the Chan masters revealed study
and membership in one or even several of these other sects. For example, there
is the following brief exchange between Shitou Xiqian (700-790 AD), Mazu Daoyi
(709-788 AD), and an unlucky student:
"The master (Shitou Xiqian) asked a monk who had just arrived, 'Where have
you come from?' The monk said, 'From Jiangxi.' Shitou said, 'Did you see Great
Teacher Ma, or not?' The monk said, 'I saw him.' Shitou pointed to a pile of firewood
and asked, 'Was he like this?' The monk didn't answer. He then returned to Mazu's
place and told him about this encounter with Shitou. Mazu said, 'Did you see how
big the stack of wood was?' The monk said, 'It was immeasurably big.' Mazu said,
'You're really strong." The monk said, 'Why do you say that?' Mazu said,
'You carried a pile of wood all the way here from Mt. Nanyue. Doesn't that take
a lot of strength?'" (Puji 73)
Shitou's initial interrogation of the hapless monk seems intentionally absurd,
even simply the bullying of a smart aleck, but through looking at his history
of practice one can see hints at much deeper currents; before Shitou became a
Chan monk, he was practicing in a province (present-day Sichuan) known for its
focus on the Wei-shi (consciousness-only) sect (Chan 338). This sect was thoroughly
immersed in the Shurangama Sutra, in which the historical Buddha shows his cousin
Ananda that perceivable reality is a product of consciousness only, and that what
is perceived is not separate from the mind that perceives it (Goddard 108-275).
Mazu, though staying at Jiangxi at the time, also earlier in his life practiced
in the same Wei-shi related province (Puji 65).
Both teachers reflected this Sutra in their trick on the monk. Through Shitou's
trick question "Was he like this?" the monk was supposedly led to question
whether or not all sensory perception hailed from the same essence (consciousness,
or the mind), and through Mazu's comment about the weight of the pile of wood,
the monk was reminded that concepts inspired by sensory perception were top-heavy
and suspect, a matter of extra baggage to remain aware, or wary, of. In fact,
Shitou's dialogues in the Wudeng are saturated with such warnings about the acceptance
of the separate or independent nature of concepts and the mind that produces them:
"A monk asked, 'What is liberation?' Shitou said, 'Who has bound you?' Another
monk asked, 'What is the Pure Land?' Shitou said, 'Who has polluted you?' Another
monk asked, 'What is nirvana?' Shitou said, 'Who has given you birth and death?'
These trick answers to the monk's questions serve to jar the student, much as
the Buddha jarred Ananda, to see that the line between presumably objective concepts
and the subjective mind is an arbitrary one, a trick of the consciousness that
can lead to delusion, and therefore perpetuates suffering.
However, the trick of jarring or startling the student is not always simply through
words; the members of the Linji "Lamp," one of the Five Lamps of the
Wudeng, were notorious for wielding staffs, yelling and striking their students,
in a fashion seemingly departing from the traditional model of a calm and nonviolent
religion. One of the founders of the Linji school, Baizhang Huaihai (720-814 AD)
once played the role of "trickster" against his whole congregation:
"Master Baizhang entered the hall to give a lecture. When the monks had assembled,
he suddenly leaped off the Dharma seat and drove them from the hall with his staff.
Just as they were running out of the hall, he called to them. When they turned
around, he said, 'What is it?'" (Puji 81)
At first impression, it may seem to the reader that perhaps the rigors of monastic
life had affected Baizhang's sanity, but the very fact that the event was recorded
suggests that these actions were a purposeful trick played on the monks to shock
them into an awakening, a basic tenet of the Linji school. It is important to
note, however, that this sort of rebellion or rebuttal against the monastic rituals
serves as a fertile field for awakening only for participants in the rituals.
Refusal to take part in any ritual or organization is not the point; a fact that
many Westerners overlook in their idealization of the Zen "trickster."
The overall message conveyed through the antics of the "trickster" archetype
is sometimes conveyed more eloquently, however, when the "trickster"
himself is tricked. In situations such as the White River Sioux tale "Coyote,
Iktome, and the Rock" (Erdoes and Ortiz 337-339), the Pima tale "The
Bluebird and Coyote" (Erdoes and Ortiz 346-347), the White Mountain Apache
story "Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch" (Erdoes and Ortiz 359-361), and
the Cheyenne story "Coyote Dances With a Star" (Erdoes and Ortiz 385-386),
the "trickster" takes the shape of a court jester or holy fool, conveying
lessons of excessive pride or greed through his own foolish actions. The Coyote
was a brilliant shade of blue until he fell in the dirt while distractedly gazing
at his own beauty; he was free until he decided to struggle with a lump of pitch
so that he could steal grain. Through fables such as these, a certain moral standard
is conveyed; he learns for the reader, through his own trails and mishaps.
In the Wudeng, occasionally there is a framework when the traditional tables are
turned in a similar way. The teacher is taught, by either a student or the world
around him. A story of one of Mazu Daoyi's pupils, Panshan Benji (720-814 AD),
is a classic example:
"One day as Panshan walked through the market, he overheard a customer speaking
to a butcher.
The customer said, 'Give me a catty of the best quality.'
The butcher put down his chopper, folded his hands before himself and said, 'Sir,
where is there any that is not of the best quality?'
Upon hearing these words Panshan had an awakening" (Puji 99)
In this dialogue, there is no assertion of authority that Panshan has over anyone
else, though by that time he was already a recognized master. Two messages seem
to be conveyed here, the first being that a true master is perpetually open to
learn new things, and gain new awareness. The second message harkens back to Mazu's
Wei-shi roots: that judgment based on sense perception or artificial interpretive
concepts is by its very nature suspect.
Another classic and notorious example in the Wudeng of a head teacher learning
a lesson from another figure is in the following story:
"At one time, Danxia Tianran (739-824 AD) stayed at Wisdom Woods Temple.
During some extremely cold weather, he took a wooden statue of Buddha and burned
it in the fire to get warm. The Temple Director got extremely upset with Tainran
and yelled, 'Why are you burning my wooden Buddha?' Tianran pulled some burning
embers from the fire and said, 'I'm burning the buddha to get the sacred relics
from it.' The Temple Director said, 'How can a wooden buddha have sacred relics?'
Tianran said, 'Well, if it doesn't have sacred relics, let's burn a couple more
of them.' The Temple Director was so upset that his eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard
all fell out." (Puji 111)
At that time, Danxia was a disciple of Shitou Xiqian, and was simply traveling
around from Temple to Temple. His was a lower rank than that of the Temple Director,
who fulfilled the role of the foolish "straight man." The Temple in
question was a Vinaya Temple, practicing a form of Chinese Theravada ("Way
of the Elders") Buddhism which adhered strictly to the oldest written doctrines
of the Buddha, while Danxia seemed to inherit from Shitou the typical Wei-shi
disdain for the "phantoms, bubbles, and dreams" of the phenomenal world,
including even objects that paid homage to the Buddha such as statues. As for
the line about "sacred relics," these traditionally were the remains
of a master that survived cremation after death, to later be housed in "stupas,"
cone-shaped structures that served as symbols of the lifelong dedication of the
teacher (Puji 495). The "trickster," in this case the unenlightened
traveler as opposed to the settled and enlightened master, seems to be echoing
the Buddha's teachings on the importance of moderation and avoidance of self-mortification;
homage is all well and good, but if you're freezing to death, your Buddhist practice
becomes simply a matter of getting warm.
Whether the Coyote or the Buddhist master is the "trickster" or the
tricked, whether the Native American tales in Indian Myths and Legends are timeless
or influenced by Walt Disney or Warner Bros., and whether the English translation
of the Wudeng is as close to the original Chinese as one would hope, the fact
still remains that these tales provide important lessons for their potential audience.
Being records of oral traditions, they provide a snapshot view of one static set
of folkways, attempting to be independent of the circumstances brought about by
time and change. Oral traditions are difficult to render in such a way. Often,
the "snapshot" of the written record can contain blurs, inconsistent
with the dynamic nature of immediate and spoken wisdom. As the audience and its
environment, its needs and conditions, inevitably change over time, the structure
and nature of the stories themselves follow suit. In this way, the texts themselves
are the ultimate "tricksters."
Chan, Wing-Tsit, trans. and comp. A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy. Priceton:
Princeton UP, 1963.
Erdoes, Richard and Alfonzo Ortiz, eds. American Indian Myths and Legends. New
York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Goddard, Dwight, ed. A Buddhist Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
Puji, Dachuan Lingyin. Wudeng Huiyan (Compendium of Five Lamps). Trans. Andy Ferguson.
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
© Daniel Trent Dillon, 3 December 2001