Zen Authorship and Intellectual Property


A challenge the liberal edifice cannot answer.

Zen Authorship and Intellectual Property

A Tibetan ‘dorje‘ resting upon a parchment of Buddhist scripture. Photo: randomix

 Records tell that an early devotee of Zen Buddhism by the name of Huang Po penned a vast set of commentaries on the Buddhist sutras over the course of many generations. How was it, scholars have asked, that one individual could have authored such a vast body of work? The case of Huang Po was initially taken for a hoax. Successive generations of commentators were each merely pretending to be ‘the real’ Huang Po.

This mystery was taken on by one rather colourful character of the post-war years, a wandering scholar by the name of John Blofeld.

Educated at public school but failing to finish a degree at Cambridge, Blofeld would spend the majority of his life traveling around Asian countries, speaking to Taoist sages and Buddhist monks. For some unknown reason, denizens of the Internet have mistaken a picture of Lama Anagarika Govinda for a picture of Blofeld.(1) As far as I am aware, this is the only genuine picture of Blofeld on the internet:

Zen Authorship and Intellectual Property

For all of his Asian wanderings, research and orientalist affectations, Blofeld failed to shed the peculiarly western-centric world-view that his establishment education had instilled in him. His research into the mystery of Haung Po was an attempt to uncover ‘the real’ Haung Po that he believed must lie behind the work of so many impersonators. As such, his study bears all the marks of an intellectual outsider to the Zen way of life. As Dale Wright notes:

Blofeld wanted to get his Haung Po from the original – in so doing he is quintessentially modern, reflecting the scientific urge for accuracy and the romantic urge for authenticity.(2)

For Blofeld, the successive generations of Zen writers calling themselves ‘Huang Po’ were imposters hiding behind a nom de plume. What he failed to understand was that these Zen adepts did not hide behind an assumed name, so much as there was nothing for names to hide. Rather, they assumed the name “Huang Po’ because they saw themselves as part of a way of life that valued the expressive power of a text higher than any one individual’s contribution to it.

Blofeld’s failure to appreciate the true nature of the Zen view these devotes espoused lay in two notions to which his irredeemably western mind was sway: first of all, the romantic notion that an author produces wholly original content from their labour of a unique genius and, second of all, the scientific notion that there can only be a single efficient cause of the texts authored under the name of ‘Huang Po’, and that must be ‘the real’ author.

Generations of scribes assumed the name of ‘Huang Po’ not because they believed they were authoring original and insightful commentaries, but because they saw themselves as contributing the Zen task of ‘upkeeping‘ Buddhist scripture.

Upkeeping is characteristically a Zen task. It involves updating Buddhist sutras according to the needs of each new generation. What was the point in sticking to clumsy and out-moded wording simply for the sake of tradition, these adepts thought, if the average person could not understand them?

Unlike Judeo-Christian religions, the holy texts of Buddhism are not considered the inviolable word of God. Instead, what is esteemed and unalterable in Buddhist sutras is the dharma – the spiritual laws embodied in Buddhist practice. As a concise philosophical message, Buddhist dharma can be expressed in many different verbal forms.(3)

In valuing the universality of the dharma which generations of writers must work to keep continuously relevant, these early Zen Buddhists strove to prevent a cult of personality arising around their individual contributions. They did this because they viewed personality and selfhood as an illusion. Denying any ultimate distinction between one person and the next, the romantic concept of authorship had no place in the Zen world-view:

The question of authorship is a peculiarly modern question. Medieval Zen monks would have been puzzled that we would insist that the project of reading Zen begin here. The heritage of romanticism entices us to seek out Huang Po’s texts only to the extent that we can legitimately consider them an accurate disclosure of the enlightened mind of the individual Huang Po. For us it almost goes without saying that a text of this kind is successful if it genuinely reveals to us the creative personality behind it. Therefore we seek to look through the text to the authorial voice expressed in it. This orientation to texts became so “natural” to us in the twentieth century that only very recently has it been noticed in literary studies that there might be other options.(4)

The absence of an authorial personality behind a text is a view that horrifies our modern sentiments. It makes a mockery of the romantic ideal of the lone and struggling artists out of whose genius a wholly original work is distilled. Dale Wright suggests that the Buddhist notion of “dependent origination” is a more accurate guide for understanding the actual status of Zen texts than either romantic or scientific notions, a theory which explains how everything can have some form of existence in a complex network of causal and ontological relations, in the absence of an underlying metaphysical substance out of which everything is ultimately comprised or because of which everything exists. As with all Buddhist teachings, the purpose of dependant origination is not simply explanatory. It’s message has a strong moral dimension:

Understanding these texts as arising through dependent ordination allows us to overcome our disappointment at not being able to find out who actually authored them.(5)

When applied to standard notions of personhood, the idea of dependent origination runs entirely contrary to the liberal idea of the rational actor. If reality, including everything we are as human creatures, is the sum-total of a vast network of interrelated causal and ontological relations, suhc that there is no need for some bedrock foundational level of ‘substance’, ‘self’ or ‘soul’, the liberal idea of an autonomous agent who is both separate from all others and wholly responsible for his or her own actions must be a fantasy.

And here I come to my point: any attempt to take the Buddhist view seriously means having to accept a number of radical consequences for the already embittered debates within the sphere of intellectual property rights. How can an individual’s intellectual property be protected if, as persons, they are not metaphysically distinct from anybody else? If we are not the substantial selves of Christian, Kantian or liberal imagination, then why should any judiciary recognize our rights as separate, autonomous and agentive individuals?

For my view, the Buddhist view has the benefit of being truer to experience than either Christian, Kantian and liberal views of the self – views which, I should say, have found their home in the romantic ideal of the author. It is well known that writers are professional plagiarists. In the world of literature, themes very often recur in alarming temporal proximity to one another, and quickly coagulate into tired tropes. Fashions ebb and flow, leaving few authors (even the greats) unaffected. The romantic ideal of the author is thus rarely ever realized, if at all.

T.S. Eliot rightly proclaimed that “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Instead of getting bogged down with interminable debates about which poet or author is the greatest and why, aren’t we better off simply acknowledging that most of the details of what we value in our preferred authors often cannot be attributed to them and them alone in any rigorous manner?

Albert Einstein is reported as saying “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” With no small measure of irony, tracking down a proper source for this quotation has proved rather difficult. Hans Ohanian, Adjunct Professor of Physics at the University of Vermont, notes that this quotation is often included in collections despite there being no paper trail.(6)

That we prefer to attribute a great saying to an anointed one without checking to see if said sage ever really said it speaks volumes about the state we are in. We value personalities over ideas, pure and simple. And make no mistake about it, the cult of personality is the only thing the otherwise groundless edifice of intellectual property rights rest upon.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. A mistake to which an earlier version of this article was subject. My thanks to Larry Keenan for alerting me to this common mistake.
  2. Dale S. Wright (1998) Philosophical Mediations on Zen Buddhism (Cambridge University Press), pp.2.
  3. It is a common idea amongst Indian philosophies that a teaching is more trustworthy if it was author-less (apauruṣeya). Any trace of human authorship was considered a hindrance to the degree of infallible trust sought by the sages of Vedic India. Buddhism inherits this notion when it conceives of dharma as an author-less expression of basic spiritual laws of which the historical Buddha was only the latest in a long line of spokespersons. Judeo-Christian revelation is a strange idea to Buddhist ears.
  4. Dale S. Wright (1998) Philosophical Mediations on Zen Buddhism (Cambridge University Press), pp.16.
  5. Dale S. Wright (1998) Philosophical Mediations on Zen Buddhism (Cambridge University Press), pp.3.
  6. See Hans C. Ohanian Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius (2008, W.W. Norton & Company: New York & London), pp.91 & pp.343, note 9.