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The Trickster's True Face

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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."

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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.

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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:

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"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" (ibid.).


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).

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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?' (Puji 73)

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."

Works Cited

  • 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.


by Daniel Trent Dillon