The role of “words and letters” in Zen has often been misunderstood. For some students, reading and studying the sutras and the writings of the old masters is seen as anathema in Zen practice. However, even a cursory reading of Zen history reveals the important role that sutra study (and “words and letters”) has had in Zen practice. Reading the “words and letters” of the old masters such as Ma-tsu Kiangsi Tao-I (709-788)(P: Mazu Daoyi; J: Baso Do-itsu), Huang-po Hsi-yun (d. 849) (P: Huangbo Xiyun; J: Obaku Ki-un) and even that most iconoclastic master Lin-chi I-hsuan (d. 866) (P: Linji Yixuan; J: Rinzai Gigen) shows their deep and profound understanding of the sutras. Similarly, in later years Japanese masters such as D?gen Kigen (1200-1253) and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) were well-versed in not only the Buddhist sutras but also the writings of the early masters.
So the question arises, is there such a thing as a “Zen canon”? Given that Zen masters have traditionally disdained depending on “words and letters”, preferring in many cases to teach via bizarre methods such as hitting, silence, non sequiturs, paradox, or shouting, what role do the writings play in Zen practice? As Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright point out in the Introduction to The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts, Zen Buddhism has produced “by far the most voluminous and important canon of sacred texts in East Asia…The variety [of which] is also extraordinary.” (p 4) Zen literature began in the late T’ang dynasty (618-907) and continues to modern times (note the voluminous writings of modern Zen teachers such as Robert Aitken and John Daido Loori). It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is largely due to all these “words and letters” that Zen Buddhism has had such success, both in ancient times and in the modern era.