The Vicissitudes of the Sudden and Gradual Teachings and the Dissemination of Szechuan Chan into Tibet
The origins of the Chinese Buddhist movement which came to be known as Ch’an are shrouded from us in cloud. Our view begins to clear in the early seventh century with a meditation tradition in Hupeh Province known as the East Mountain School. This school was headed by Hung-jen (circa 600-674), who later tradition considers the 5th Patriarch in a lineage descending from the legendary transmitter of the tradition to from India to China, Bodhidharma (early 5th century CE)(Mcrae 2003: 45-53).
Hung-jen had several disciples who came to be important teachers in their own right. Four of these were Shen-hsiu (606?-706), Hui-neng (?-713), Chih-hsien (609-702) and Hui-an (582-709). In 701 Empress Wu invited Shen-hsiu to the capital, Luo-yang, showing him great honour (47). As a result Shen-hsiu quickly became very popular in the capital. Shen-hsiu’s teachings have some features which would be familiar to any student of the later Ch’an tradition. He emphasized “contemplation of the mind” as central to practice. He urged his students to strive for realization in the here and now as opposed to focusing on study or merit making, and he used as his central pedagogical tool the reinterpretation of sutras and Buddhist rituals as metaphors for aspects of meditation practice. An interesting text circulated by the East Mountain school associated with Hung-jen and Shen-hsiu, The Five Skillful Means, reveals something more of their approach:
Question: When viewing, what things do you view?
Answer: Viewing viewing, no thing is viewed.
Question: Who views?
Answer: The enlightened mind views.
Penetratingly viewing the realms of the ten directions, in purity there is not a single thing. Constantly viewing and being in accord with the locus of non-being, this is to be equivalent to a buddha. Viewing with expansive openness, one views without fixation. Peaceful and vast without limit, its untaintedness is the path of bodhi. The mind is serene and enlightenment distinct, the body’s serenity is the bodhi tree. The four tempters have no place of entry, so one’s great enlightenment is perfect and complete, transcending perceptual subject and object. (Mcrae 53)
Here we see elements of tathagatagarbha teachings (the inherent, untainted purity of the ground of the mind), yogacara (the transcendence of subject and object) shunyata (there is not a single thing) and possibly Taoist (the locus of non-being). This possibly represents a mix of standard Indian Mahayana doctrine and Taoist thought, a reflection of the “Buddho-Taoist” phase of early Chinese Buddhism (Robinson/Johnson/Bhikkhu 2005:180-183).
Between 730 and 732 a monk named Shen-hui (670-762) gave public talks where he criticised two students of Shen-hsiu, Chiang-mo-tsang(?) and Pu-chi (675-739) criticising their authenticity and style of practice. According to a report on his criticisms, they taught:
a) to ‘freeze the mind to enter concentration’,
b)’ fix the mind to view purity’,
c) ‘activate the mind to illuminate the external’, and
d) ‘concentrate the mind to realize the internal’ (Mcrae 54).
This approach to practice has the familiar outlines of shamatha (stilling) [a, b, and d] and vipashyana (insight) [c]. These are traditionally the two aspects of Buddhist meditation practice, maintained in the teachings of other Chinese Buddhist schools as well like the T’ien T’ai, as reflected in Chi-I’s Great Calming and Contemplation (Mo-ho Chih-kuan). Shen-hui criticised their focus on sitting meditation (tso-ch’an), saying that properly ‘sitting’ (tso) is not activating thoughts, and ‘meditation’ (ch’an) is seeing the fundamental nature (Mcrae 54). Although Shen-hui’s teachings are often described as instrumental in the creation of the sudden/gradual controversy in Chan (Mcrae 54-56), he must be representative of a trend, or else it is difficult to understand the sudden crop of teachers preaching sudden enlightenment which sprung up so energetically around this time, some of whom knew of Shen-hui but did not know him, as we shall see.
In 745 he took up campaign in Luoyang. In one report of a public talk of his (Mcrae 54) Shen-hui presented Shen-hsui as being of the ‘Northern School’ of Ch’an, a label he apparently invented, and his own master, Hui-neng, as being of the Southern School. Shen –hui appropriated the concept of a lineage of transmission of the Ch'an teachings from the East Mountain “Northern School” but stressed the unilineal nature of that transmission in a new way. Hui-neng was the only true successor of Hung-jen, and Shen-hui of Hui-neng. Shen-hui attacked the “Northern School” teachings as dualistic and gradualist, and presented his own as the true teachings, constituting a sudden penetration to the nature of mind and reality through dropping all conceptual thought. Shen-hui insisted that mental impurities were ultimately non-existent, and emphasizing antidotes to them was a distracting hindrance, not a help (Robinson/Johnson/Bhikkhu 202).
Shen-hui’s attack successfully helped to stigmatize explicitly “gradualist” approaches and created a Northern/Southern Shen-hsiu/Hui-neng dichotomy familiar to many from the later narrative of the Platform Sutra (circa 780). By the time of the famous poet Liu Zongyuan (773-819), some viewed the battle for authentic “Ch’an” as onerous and bemoaned the Northern/Southern dichotomy, as revealed by the epitaph Liu wrote for the Oxhead school master Ru-hai:
The greatest aberration in the diminution of the Buddhist teaching is the term “Chan”: Grasping, it defiles things; misleading, it becomes separate from the truth…[Master Ruhai] has said…[After the transmission had reached] Shenhsiu and Huineng, north and south reviled eachother like fighting tigers, shoulder-to- shoulder, and the Way became hidden. (Mcrae 58)
In 753 Shen-hui was banished from Luoyang after members of the Imperial Court turned against him. In 756, however, when the government was in exile due to the An lu-shan Rebellion (755), Shen-hui was enlisted to help raise money for the beleaguered government by selling ordination tickets (which allowed one to become a monastic).
Tibet and Szechuan Ch’an
In the meantime Tibet was conquering and moving into western China. In 780 this resulted in Tibet gaining control of Tun-huang in Szechuan Province, which they would occupy until 848 (Broughton 1). This initiated a period of intensified cultural interaction between Tibet and China.
It was in this period that two students of Hui-an, another disciple of Hung-jen, became prominent in Szechuan Province. These were a Korean monk, Wu-hsiang, also known as Reverend Kim (?-761), and P’ao T’ang Wu-chu (714-774). Also active in this area was a monk of the Northern School, a disciple of Chiang-mo-tsang (above) and I-fu (658-736), both students of Shen-hsiu. His name was Mo-ho-yen, or Hwa-shang Mahayana. Reverend Kim, Mo-ho-yen, and Wu-chu would all play a significant role in the introduction of Ch’an into Tibet. It is interesting to note that whether these Ch'an monks were students of Hung-Jen through Hui-an or through Shen-hsiu, they taught radically non-dual and immediate approaches to awakening.
One of the most valuable documents in the Tun-huang corpus for understanding early Ch’an is the Li tai fa pao chi, the Record of the Dharma Treasure Down Through the Generations. The text belongs to the P’ao T’ang school of Wu-chu. Previous to the Tun-huang discoveries, The P’ao T’ang school was chiefly known to us from the writings of Tsung-mi, the 3rd Hua-yen Patriarch and scholar of the Chan tradition, but recent scholarship on the Pao Chi has provided much more information about this interesting Chan lineage hitherto buried in the cave of Tun-huang.
According to Yanagida Seizan, the Pao chi has two particularly interesting characteristics. The first is a radical development of the wu-nien (no thought) teaching shared with Shen-hui which strongly emphasized personal spontaneity and no reliance on practices and scriptures (1983: 20). The second is its configuration of lineage, in which we see a familiar pattern of reconstructing lineage to assert authenticity by forging defining connections to the past. According to the Pao chi it is Wu-chu who possesses the true transmission from the 6th Patriarch. It claims Hui-neng gave the robe, the symbol of the transmission, to Empress Wu to caretake, who passed it on Chih-shen (609-702), from whence it went to Ch’u Chi (665-732) and thus to Wu-chu (1983: 23). It configures the lineage of teachers and disciples as Hung-jen- Chih-Hsien- Ch’u Chi - Wu-hsiang - Wu-chu. According to Seizan, Wu-chu was in fact not a direct disciple of Wu-hsiang, but of Ch’en Ch’u-chang , himself a lay follower of Lao-an (582-709) (ibid). Interestingly, the Pao chi also presents Wu-chu as being a student of Tzu-tsai (?), who it presents as a student of Hui-neng. According to Tsung-mi, however, Tzu-tsai was a disciple of Lao-an (Ibid). All of this seems to suggest an attempt on the part of the author(s) of the Pao chi to identify Wu-chu with the Southern School and Hui-neng when to all appearances his lineage descended from the Northern School through Lao-an or Chih-Shen or both. This may have been because his teachings had more affinity to Shen-hui than Shen-hsui.
One quote from the Tun-huang Great Perfection (Dzogchen) literature ascribes the following teaching to Wu-chu: “No-mind (wu-i) is morality; no-thought (wu-nien) is concentration; and non-production of the illusion mind is insight.” Another states:
To follow after arising is the defilement of sentient beings. To depend upon quiescence is movement in nirvana. Do not follow after arising nor depend upon quiescence, do not enter concentration; have no arising; do not enter Ch’an; have no practice. (Broughton 15)
The Pao chi contains an interesting biography of Wu-chu, a relevant condensed excerpt of which I will include here:
The Ho-shang [Wu-chu] was a man of Mei-Hsien, Feng-hsiang….he unexpectedly met the white robed layman Ch’en Ch’u-chang, whose origins are unknown. People of the time called him a magical apparition body of Vimalakirti. He spoke the all-at-once-teaching. On the very day the Ho-shang met him, they intimately co-incided and knew eachother, and Ch’en silently transmitted the mind-dharma…During the T’ien-pao years [742-756] he unexpectedly heard of Reverend Ming of Tao-tz’u Shan in Fan-yang, Reverend Shen-hui of the eastern capital [Lo-yang], and Reverend Tzu-tsai of the superior prefecture of T’ai-yuan, all disciples of the 6th Patriarch [Hui-neng] who spoke the all-at-once teaching… He subsequently went to T’ai-yuan and paid obeisance to Tzu-tsai…He heard lectures on the deportment of Reverend Ming of T’ao-tz’u Shan and the idea behind Reverend Shen-hui’s sayings. Since he already understood their meanings, he did not visit them and pay obeisance. (Broughton 20)
Notable here is the reference to Shen-hui. Shen-hui also appears later in the Pao-chi, where he gives a series of discourses, some of which include improbable comments on various Szechuan Chan figures (Adamek 2004: 88). Thus we see the text both establishes a spiritual affinity with Shen-hui, whose teachings Wu-chu “already understood”, and furthermore enlists him to criticize other Szechuan teachers aside from Wu-chu!
The text goes on to recount Wu-chu’s continuing spiritual development and his receiving of the seal of approval from Reverend Kim. Wu-chu’s style of practice is described as: “In the mountains Ch’an master Wu-chu does not allow obeisance, confession, mindfulness, and chanting, but merely sits in voidness and quietude” (Broughton 23). When this is reported to Rev. Kim by shocked students, who ask, “Can this be Buddhadharma?“ (ibid), Rev. Kim is presented as approving. This presentation of Wu-chu’s style is in harmony with Tsung-mi’s presentation as well (Broughton 38).
In 751 Mesag-tsom the Tibetan Emperor (r. 704-751) sent Sang-si, young Chinese son of a commissioner living in Tibet, to accompany a team of four young Tibetans into China in search of the Dharma. The Statements of the Ba Family says that they received teachings and three texts from a master in I-chou (Ch’eng-tu) named Reverend Kim (Chin ho-shang) also known as Wu-hsiang. When the pilgrims returned in 759 they found Mesag-tsom dead and his son, Trisong Detsen (c.742-797) not yet old enough to ascend the throne. In the meantime forces at the court sympathetic to Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet, were suppressing Buddhism and the pilgrims decided to hide away their treasures for the time being. In 761 it was safe to reveal them and Sang-si removed them from hiding and “distributed the teachings of Reverend Kim” (Broughton 6). In time Sang-si became abbot of Samye monastery, the first monastery in Tibet.
In the 760’s another member of the Ba family, Gsal-nan, a minister of Trisong Detsen, went to China to receive teachings. Although Tibetan records claim he studied with Reverend Kim, Kim died in 762. It is now believed that he studied with Wu-chu, who was teaching in I-chou. The Pao Chi was influential in Tibet, particularly in materials preserved by the Nying-ma-pas, the Tibetan school most sympathetic to doctrines of sudden enlightenment. For example the sayings of Wu-chu appear in Nying-ma-pa texts; Tibetan texts name Bodhidharma Bodhidharmatrata, which echoes the name for Bodhidharma found in the Pao chi; and Tibetan literature uses it’s formula of 29 Patriarchs (Amadek 2004:). Thus we see that the Wu-chu school, although fading in China, had a significant influence in Tibet.
Szechuan Chan Two: Mo-ho-yen
The third lineage to arrive in Tibet was that of another Northern School master, Mo-ho-yen. The Chinese text Settling the Correct Principle of Suddenly Awakening to the Great Vehicle (Tun-mun ta-ch’eng cheng-li chueh) says that the Northern School Master Mo-ho-yen came to Tibet in 781 or 787 at the invitation of the Tibetan Emperor and returned to Tunhuang in the next decade, where he continued to teach. His distinctive teachings were “gazing-at-mind” (k’an-hsin) and “no-examing-no-thought” (pu-ssu pu-kuan) (Broughton 9). Mo-ho-yen, like Wu-chu, took “one of the most radical positions on the side of sudden enlightenment in the sudden vs. gradual enlightenment controversy” Gomez (SHC 69). Note again his belonging to the Northern School lineage.
According to Chinese and Tibetan records of the debate, the reason the Emperor requested Mo-ho-yen to come to Tibet was to debate Kamalashila, an Indian scholar monk of the Nalanda tradition who taught a gradualist path. Tibetan historians regard the debate as being a turning point in Tibetan history. It was the moment when it was to be decided which stream of Buddhism would be promoted by the Tibetan monarchy: the Chinese all-at-once way or the Indian gradualist path.
The debate at Samye
According to the Tibetan scholar Buston’s 14th century account of the debate, Mo-ho-yen taught:
As long as one carries out good or evil acts, one is not free from transmigration as (these acts) lead to heaven or hell (respectively). It is like clouds which cover the empty sky irrespective of their being white or black…Whoever does not think of anything, whoever does not reflect, will be totally free from transmigration. Not thinking, not pondering, non-examination, non-apprehension of an object- this is the immediate access (to liberation)” (Gomez 70-71).
Gomez has shown that Mo-ho-yen is not, in fact, entirely consistent in his stance on sudden and gradual practices, generally asserting their uselessness but sometimes acknowledging their value for lesser practitioners (96-101).
Mainstream Tibetan versions of the debate say Kamalashila won, although a Chinese source and a Nyingma-pa source give the victory to Mo-ho-yen. Whatever the details of the debate, from a historical point of view Kamalashila’s perspective was indeed accepted as the dominant view in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism to this day identifies itself strongly with Indian traditions, not Chinese. When one factors in the greater value, from a government perspective, of Kamalashila’s position, which stressed the importance of morality and Buddhist cultural forms; the greater proximity and economic connection to Nepal and India; the prestige of India as the original source of Budhdism; and the state of conflict between Tibet and China, there is no need to search far for reasons for Kamalashila’s victory, whether the legend represents an actual debate or simply a victory that came to be established by history.
A number of later Tibetan texts discuss Mo-ho-yen and his teachings, and they include a record of the sayings of his teacher Hsiang-mo Tsang, a student of Shen-hsiu. Interestingly in the Lamp of the Ch’an Eye and Five Classes of Orders, two Tibetan Tun-huang texts, Mo-ho-yen’s teachings are presented alongside P’ao T’ang teachings in a way which blurs the boundaries between his perspective and Wu-chu’s. This is probably a result of Mo-ho-yen teaching in Tibet in a context where the P’ao T’ang teachings were already established. Considering an abbot of Samye was a student of Reverend Kim’s, the presence of Szechuan Ch’an was indeed strong in Tibet, and the different streams seem to have converged in Tibetan memory.
According to the Statements of the Ba Family, subsequent to the debate Mo-ho-yen was dramatically banished from Tibet and Chinese suddenism vanished with him. In fact it is clear, as Kapstein has argued, that a tamed syncretic Chan incorporating mainstream teachings lived on in northeastern Tibet for sometime (2000: 75). It was once assumed that Chan had lived on in Tibetan Great Perfection traditions, which stress a sudden intuition of the innate freedom of the awareness at the base of the mind (Van Schaik 2004: 51-70). This has been discounted as a complete explanation in recent years (ibid). While Ch’an likely had influence on early Dzogchen and the similar Mahamudra practice lineage of the Kagyupas, Dzogchen and Mahamudra are complex and multi-sourced phenomena in which the degree of Chan’s influence is mysterious. Some scholars have argued compellingly that they arose from an Indo-Tibetan tantric matrix and may have incorporated Chan materials later (Reynolds 1996: 215-227). Both the Nyingmapa Dzogchen and the Kagyupa Mahamudra tradition did in fact borrow material from the Chan corpus, however, a fact not lost on their Tibetan critics. It was for this reason that Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), the great Tibetan scholar and founder of the Sakyapa school, disparagingly called Mahamudra “a Chinese doctrine” (ibid).
The Great Perfection tradition in Tibet continued to stuggle with how to formulate its Sudden path in consistent language in a similar way to the struggles of the Chan tradition in China, although Great Perfection literature seems to have contained less of a taboo on gradualist teachings than in Chinese Chan. “Although there is criticism of conceptually constructed practices, there is also a great deal of discussion of how to engage in those practices. Thus it is clear that the criticisms are not to be taken as an injunction against engaging in the practices at all; rather the practices are contextualized within the higher perspective of nonconceptuality and nonduality” (Van Schaik 2004:5) This approach reaches its consummation in the works of Jigme Lingpa (c.1729-1798) the teacher of the Longchen Nyingtig (Heart Essence) cycle of Great Perfection literature which remains the most popular approach to this day. With poetic karma, Jigme Lingpa is said to be a reincarnation of Trisong Detsen, the King who staged the debate at Samye in the 8th Century.
In China the teachings of Wu-chu were all but forgotten, although the memory of Wu-hsiang/Reverend Kim, who influenced both the Chan and Pure Land schools, lingered longer (Amadek 2004: 96-97). As Amadek points out, there are also intriguing traces of influence on the Hongchou lineage of Ma-tsu (709-788). Ma-tsu was a native of Szechuan, and the mid-10th century Zutang ji shows evidence that Korean monks believed Ma-tsu’s true lineage stemmed from Wu-hsiang, not Huai-rang (677-744) (ibid). Amadek writes that the literary innovations of the Pao chi influenced the literary genres of Song Chan, and its version of the Indian line of the Patriarchs was the one accepted as official (98).
Nevertheless, the Pao Chi was “repudiated and forgotten” (ibid) in China. The P’ao T’ang lineage itself shows no traces of being successfully passed on very far beyond Wu-chu’s students, perhaps because of its rejection of praxis, in the end indeed a radically anti-practical stance. Wu’chu’s uncompromising rejection of any conditional approach to the unconditioned could not be integrated into Orthodox Chan (Amadek 2004: 91-97), despite it’s suddenist rhetoric.
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