Monday, August 6, 2012

Shila, Samadhi and Prajnya

I recently read about this psychological experiment in Alison Gopnick's excellent book "The Philosophical Baby". In this attention experiment a number of people are told to watch a video of several people throwing a ball back and forth and count the number of times the ball goes from hand to hand. This takes some effort since the people are all weaving around, and as Gopnick says, it is similar to trying to track the movement of the pea in a shell game. At the end of the exercise the viewers are asked if anything strange occured on the field, and they answer no. The video is then played back and they are told, this time, not to count the ball throws. To their amazement they now realize that someone in a gorilla suit walks slowly right through the middle of the field.

The lesson? When we focus our attention on one set of facts we can overlook something very significant happening right before our eyes. This is the case with many of the truths pointed out by the great Yogic religious movements like Vedanta and Buddhism. The truths these religions point to- truths like interbeing, emptiness, impermanence, not-self, the unborn and undying nature of awareness or the featureless plenitude of Being that all phenomena arise from, are right in front of our eyes. We do not notice them because we are too focused on counting ball throws. Sometimes when trying to explain one of these truths to someone I will get the feeling that they think I am playing a mind game or trying to pull a fast one on them. It's kind of like I'm saying, "You didn't see a gorilla just walk through here but one did and you didn't notice." The person will not be impressed until they themselves have seen the gorilla. Nevermind another person, often my own mind reacts that way. "What do you mean I should attend to emptiness or impermanance, can't you see I'm counting ball throws here? Counting ball throws is very important."

That is why both Vedanta and Buddhism have advocated monasticism, of course. It is not out of a morbid fear of sensuality or an obsession with purity, seclusion, or quietness, nor a hatred of women. Normal life consists of an endless sequence of activities which require you to focus on the ball throws. And this counting of ball throws is not a neutral experiment or afternoon's diversion. We feel that everything depends on our counting, and we are driven to track the movements of the ball by fear, greed, ambition, love, envy, anxiety, and anger. But according to the Buddha or Shankara, everything depends on you seeing the gorilla walk by. Once you see it then you will realize that things are not what they seem. Small details of life which seemed peripheral were actually, all the time, containing the secrets of freedom.

The Buddha taught that there are two levels of seclusion: kayaviveka and cittaviveka. Kayaviveka consists in physically withdrawing from involvement in the world, as in monasticism, sesshin, or a retreat. Cittaviveka consists in withdrawing the mind from such involvement. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta is it described as meditating "having put aside greed and distress with regards to the world".

This activity of putting aside greed and distress is shamatha, calming meditation, known in the Chinese cultural sphere as "stopping" (the "zhi" in zhiguan). This is the stopping which precedes "seeing", and is an essential part of our practice. Before we can see the gorilla of impermanence or selflessness we must stop counting the ball throws.

Although in Zazen practice we do not intentionally cultivate "stopping" we are in fact stoppping when we sit down, assume our posture, and begin letting go of "gaining mind".

In Zazen we do not aim at seeing anything in particular, we simply withdraw from counting the ball throws and cultivate a mind which sees everything. Even should we see a man in a gorilla suit we do not exclaim "a-ha!" but rather are simply aware of the gorilla and keep on watching. The reason for this is that Zazen attempts to sit directly on the feild beyond balls and gorillas, beyond anything in particular. The reason for seeing the gorilla of impermanence is to free our mind from attachment; this is the same reason we want to see not-self or interbeing. Perhaps we should add to this, as Mahayana practitioners, that we also wish to cultivate compassion.

In any case, Zazen, being self-confessedly an embodiment of the teaching which does not rely on teachings (or methods) but points directly to the heart and wakes Buddha, starts by immediately dropping into the non-attachment that is supposed to be the result of the insights that other schools of Buddhism cultivate methodically and gradually.

Reflecting on this I think it is important to realize that although in a sense Zazen is the simplest of all practices, it is also a very advanced one. Truth be told most of us are not ready for it. In my Sangha the teacher, Eihei Peter Levitt, does not in fact teach Shikantaza to beginners, but teaches a kind of shikantaza flavored Anapanasmrti, Mindfulness of Breathing. I think this is pretty common in Zen circles, and was also done by Shunryu Suzuki. This is, of course, a stopping technique.

In my own practice I have found again and again that just sitting Zazen is not enough. I must also cultivate both stopping and seeing, Shen-hui be damned. As well as mindfulness of breathing, mantra, qigong, I must use kayagatasati- mindfulness of the body and its movements throughout the day, mindfulness of eating and drinking, of walking and laying down. I also need to pay attention to and think about my experiences in the light of the Buddha's teachings. I need to attend to dependent origination, to karma and its results, to interbeing, not-self, impermanence, and emptiness.


I need to because withdrawing my attention from my obsessions and their objects, calming my mind and body, and seeing into those obvious aspects of reality that I relentlesly overlook, reduces my siffering and that of those around me. They are Bodhisattva activities, and they actualize the Buddha's compassionate project here and now.

I have to confess that I occasionally find uncompromisingly suddenist teachings like that of the Linji Lu tiresome, no matter how brilliant or intense a manifestation of awakened insight. The reason is that if I cannot be less iriitable with my wife, if I do not view the people around me with the eyes of compassion; if I do not follow the precepts and consume and act mindfully; then of what concrete, visible here and now (ehipassiko) use is the Buddhadharma?

I have met too many non-dualists who let their bodyminds roll on unconfronted, focused on recognizing the immanent presence of the absolute, on being one with their activities, or on developing the mind beyond right and wrong. These seem to me to be legitimate points in our practice, but where is the caring heart of the Bodhisattva? Where are Dogen Zenji's "three minds" of kindness, parental love, and expansiveness? Where is it for real, here and now, visible to all, rolling the wheel of the Dharma? Where is the cool breeze for the sentient beings sweating in the burning house of samsara?

In making the above argument I realize I am also arguing for the importance of the third factor in the traditional Buddhist triad that includes Stopping and Seeing. In the traditional teaching stopping equates to samadhi, seeing equates to prajnya, and the third factor is shila, or good conduct. The Buddha argued that without good conduct the mind would be too much of a mess to be able to stop, and he also argued that good conduct benefitted other beings, increasing both their long term happiness and wellbeing and our own. He also said it was the greatest of worldy gifts: that of abhayadana, the gift of having nothing to fear from you.

All around us people crave for examples of integrity, of non-hypocricy, or some degree of purity and what one might call "rectitude". I am not suggesting that we abandon cultivating the mind beyond gain, or lose our flexibility and non-dogmatism. The Diamond Sutra should always be in the back of our minds. I am suggesting though that we need to take a hard look at whether we are walking our talk as practitioners of Mahayana Dharma in every detail of our daily lives. The fact that we will constantly fail to a greater or lesser degree is not the issue. As Dogen Zenji famously said. "Practice is one continuous mistake." To whatever degree we succeed we will have reduced our own suffering and the suffering of beings everywhere, and we will have repaid our debt to the Buddha by embodying his teaching in the world.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On shikantaza: who does this sound like?

"Do not misconstrue the past, the present, or the future. The past has not gone, the present does not stay, the future has not come. Tranquilly sitting erect, accepting things as they come, but not being bound, this is indeed what is called emancipation."

Dogen Zenji, right? The wordplay, the bewildering subversion of normal ideas of time, and the equation of zazen (shikantaza) with emancipation. But it is Mazu Daoyi ( Baso Do'itsu), godfather of the Hongzhou Chan school and grandfather teacher of Linji Xiyun (Rinzai Gigen).

-from The Record of Linji, tr./ed. Sasaki and Kirchner, p. 172. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism, Women, and the Culture of Awakening

Women and The Culture of Awakening

The Buddha did not just teach Dharma- the theory and practice of Awakening-or establish a sangha- a community of awakened disciples and specialized renunciant community- the Buddha established a parisad- a culture of awakening (see Pasadika Sutta DN 29). When the Buddha spoke of the culture of awakening he intended to establish, he spoke of it as having four parts- bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas, ie. monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. It’s important to understand that when teachers spoke in ancient India- as in ancient Greece or Israel- they usually used the male pronoun to refer to “everyone”. The fact the Buddha did not do this- that every time he discusses the make-up of his culture of awakening he specifically mentions both men and women in both monastic and lay roles- is of great importance. The Buddha emphatically states that if any of these groups are missing from the culture of awakening it is incomplete, and his gift to the world would not last long. Further the Buddha said that creating a fourfold culture of awakening was not an innovation of his but was a distinctive feature of the teachings of all Buddhas past and future. In other words, establishing a fourfold culture of awakening is an inherent part of the very definition of “Buddha”. A Buddha establishes a culture of awakening, that is his gift to the world (sasanam). This culture must be, on all levels, inclusive of both men and women for it to fulfill the Buddha’s compassionate intention.

This position of the Buddha’s has been at times overlooked or, worse, covered up and hidden by those who aspired to make men as dominant in the culture of awakening as they were outside of it, or who believed, against the Buddha’s explicit statements to the contrary, that women were incapable of the higher levels of spiritual practice. One story in the Canon is a culprit in this regard: the story in the Vinaya of the fonding of the Nuns order. It presents the Buddha as having established it grudgingly and warning of the grave dangers associated with it. Recently several scholars have critically examined this narrative and different rescensions of it in the surviving Vinayas of differing schools. The consensus is that it is a late, polemical addition to the Vinaya. 

Recently Ven Analayo, a Theravadin monk-scholar, after examining the different rescensions of the story and other evidence from the canon, proposed a reconstruction of what was likely to have really happened in the founding of the nuns sangha: I retell the story below based on Analayo’s research. For more details on why the garudhammas (rules subjugating bhikkhunis) cannot date from the foundation of the bhikkhuni sangha by the Buddha:

The Story

Thus have I heard: At one time the Buddha was dwelling in Kapilavatthu, in the Nigrodha park, in the territory of his own clan, the Shakyas. At that time his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, visited the Buddha. After bowing to him with her head at his feet she sat down and asked him if women could attain the four stages of awakening as men could. The Buddha affirmed that they could, as he had on other occasions. Mahapajapati then made a bold request which would be the first step in completing the Buddha’s vision for his culture of awakening. She requested that women be allowed to go forward as homeless wanderers like men were, leaving behind home and family and living a contemplative life in the jungles and forests.

Gotami must have been very disappointed with the Buddha’s answer. The Buddha told her not to make that request. “Shave your head like the bhikkhus, wear ochre robes, and live at home as a celibate renunciant.”, he told her according to one version of the story. Home was a more protected environment. The jungle was a dangerous place for women wandererers. The Jains would also come to accept women as homeless sadhus in their community. In their rules of discipline, the famously nonviolent Jains state that whenever women stay in an overnight dwelling without lockable doors they are to station their stoutest member by the entrance with a big stick to fend off intruders with sexual assault on their minds. The women of the jungle were not protected by association with the male holders of power- and were therefore easy prey for predators.

Mahapajapati returned home and did as the Buddha asked. A few weeks later she returned again to where he was dwelling for the rains retreat, this time with shaven head and ochre robes as the Buddha had suggested, and repeated her request, but was again turned away. Mahapajapati returned home and began to gather around her like-minded women, who she instructed to shave their hair and don monastic robes like hers.

After the end of the rains retreat when the Buddha once again took to the road Gotami followed with her band of holy women. They caught up to the sangha in Nadika (or perhaps Vesali). The Buddha, seeing the number of women who had taken up the renunciant life with Gotami and braved the hardships of the road, was put at ease about their readiness to enter the homeless life and complete the parisad. The women had shown that despite mostly being ladies of the Shakyan royal court, they could handle the rigours of the homeless life, and that they now had enough numbers to assure eachothers safety. This time the Buddha granted Gotami`s request.

The Buddha`s decision was not without risk and controversy. Early records show that some of the monks worried that the laity upon whom they depended for their survival would lose faith in the holiness of a sangha that included women. Some laypeople distrusted supposed renunciant communities which were inclusive of women, suspecting the community of licentiousness and perversity. Some monks believed that admitting women would corrupt the purity of the community and shorten the lifespan of the Buddha`s teachings in the world. The Buddha must have known of these fears, yet he acted to create a community of female monastics anyway.  

Before the Buddha’s passing away he famously refused to appoint a succesor or to freeze the Sangha in the form he created, disavowing any sense of ownership of the parisad or the monastic sangha. Since the Buddha’s time the men of the parisad have had a mixed track record with regards to maintaining the Buddha’s inclusivity of women and affirmation of their potential. Within a few centuries of the Buddha’s death the female monastics had been put under eight “grave decrees” subjugating them to the Bhikkhu sangha, and their inclusion within the community of the homeless was seen as a danger to the Buddhist mission which needed to be guarded against and kept under male monastic control. A sutta was composed stating that although women could attain arahantship, they could not be samma-sambuddhas, or awakened religious founders- they could not be creators of a culture of awakening- a future goal some practitioners aspired to (to be reborn at a time when the Dhamma had disappeared and rediscover and re-establish it). This was solely a male perogative. This strange assertion, largely dealing with the realm of theory- since Buddhism had been founded on earth at that time, as now, there will be no need for another samma-sambuddha until it dies out again- this assertion seems to serve no purpose but revenge.

More reassuringly, some great Buddhist masters did not fail to attain a Buddha’s vision of women’s potential and rights. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote that those monks who refuse to pay homage to a nun even if she has aquired the Dharma “do not understand the dharma” and “are like animals far removed from the Buddhas and ancestors”. “What is there about a male intrinsically to esteem?”, he asked. “The female is no different from the male, so both female and male aquire the dharma without distinction.” Furthermore he argued, “If you detest women because they are objects of sexual desire, should you not also detest men, who are likewise objects of sexual desire?”

Bankei Kotaku (1622-1693), the great Rinzai Zen master, was once asked by a woman disciple how she could attain realization, obstructed as she was by her female body. Bankei replied:  "I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become Buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body, and women are the Buddha Body too.” (Haskell, Peter. Unborn Zen)

In our time some Mahayana lineages have preserved the lineage of bhikkhunis and some haven't, or never even received it, as in the case of Tibet. In the Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese worlds there are full female monastics. In the Theravadin world the lineage was lost, and since the rules stipulate that only a bhikkuni can ordain a bhikkuni, there had been no movements to re-instate it until recently, when a number of women who wanted to be bhikkunis and bhikkus who support them conspired to restart the lineage by having Mahayana bhikshunis ordain them. This move has proven to be controversial, but is coming to be more and more accepted. A number of major Buddhist teachers support the principle, including HH the Dalai Lama, HH the Karmapa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The new Bhikkunis have gained significant support in the West and in Sri Lanka and India, and so far less so in Burma and Thailand. 

Most recently a renegade bhikkhu in the western Thai Forest Sangha, Ajahn Brahmavamso, broke with his fellows, who had created an interim type of Nun (shiladhara) in their monasteries and were awaiting the go ahead from the Thai Hierarchy to ordain full bhikkunis. His fellows included Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Passano. He ordained some bhikkunis, but unfortunately his behaviour around the incident, which was apparently both hostile and deceptive to his former monastic comrades, as well as sensationalistic, has probably set back the general acceptance of ordaining bhikkunis in Thailand by a few more years. Nevertheless the over-all historical movement is clear, and it is only a matter of time before there are full bhikkunis throughout the Theravadin world again. Then there will be the issue of new rules for our day and age to sort out......

Sunday, July 8, 2012


"To be alive, that is a practice."

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Talk in Ireland (Online) 2012.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sekito's Grass Thatch Hut

Sekito Kisen (700-790)

      A Song About My Grass-Thatch Hut

      Here, where nothing is worth anything,
      I've set up a grass-thatched hut.

      After eating,
      I just stretch out for a nap.

      As soon as it was built,
      weeds were already growing back.

      Now I've been here awhile
      its covered in vines.

      So the one in this hut just lives on,
      not inside, out, in between.

      The places where usual folk live,
      I don't.
      What they want,
      I don't.

      This tiny hut holds the total world,
      an old man and 
      the radiance of forms and their nature,
      all in ten feet square.

      Bodhisattvas of the Vast Path
      know about this but
      the mediocre and marginal wonder,
      "Isn't such a place too fragile to live in?"

      Fragile or not,
      the true master dwells here
      where there is no 
      south or north, east or west.

      Just sitting here,
      it can't be surpassed:

      below the green pines
      a lit window.

      Palaces and towers 
      of jade and vermillion
      can't compare.

      Just sitting,
      my head covered,
      all things rest.

      So this mountain monk
      has no understanding at all,
      just lives on
      without struggling to get loose.

      Not going to
      set out seats
      and wait for guests.

      Turning the light
      to shine within,
      turn it around again.

      you can't face it
      or turn away from it.

      The root of it.

      Meet the Awakened Ancestors,
      become intimate with the teachings,
      lash grass into thatch for a hut
      and don't tire so easily.

      Let it go,
      and your life of a hundred years 

      Open your hands.

      Walk around.


      The swarm of words,
      and little stories
      are just to loosen you
      from where you are stuck.

      If you want to know
      the one in the hermitage
      who never dies,

      you can't avoid this skin-bag
      right here. 

-translation by Anzan Hosshin

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thich Nhat Hanh: Non-action

"My Dharma is to take up the action of non-action, to practice the practice of non-practice, to attain the attainment of non-attainment." This line from the Sutra in 42 Chapters communicates to us that we should not be caught in the outer form, we should not discriminate between non-action and action, being and acting. Many of us try to do many things, yet the more we act the more troubled our family, society, and world become, because the foundation of our being is not yet stable enough. Try practicing the opposite: don't do anything, don't take any action right away, but improve your quality of being through meditation and mindfulness practice. To be in the here and now, fully alive, fully present, is a very positive contribution to any situation. In creasing our insight, compassion, and understanding through the practice of mindfulness is the best thing we can offer to the world. This is the practice of non-practice, the attainment of non-attainment, the action of non-action. We improve the quality of our being so that we have peace and joy, and then we can offer it to our families and communities, and to the world.

-Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons From The Lotus Sutra

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ah, Abraham

A morsel from the late great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972):

“The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook; day after day, hour after hour. To them things are bereft of triteness; to them being does not mate with nonsense. They hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of our noise, in spite of our greed. Slight and simple as things may be- a piece of paper, a morsel of bread, a word, a sigh- they hide and guard a never-ending secret....”

“Part company with preconcieved notions, suppress your leaning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the things that surround you- trees, birds, chairs- are like parallel lines that run close and never meet. Your pretense of being aquainted with the world is quickly abandoned.”

"How do we seek to apprehend the world? Intelligence inquires into the nature of reality, and, since it cannot work without its tools, takes those phenomena that appear to fit its categories as answers to its inquiry. Yet, when trying to hold an interview with reality face to face, without the aid of either words or concepts, we realize that what is intelligible to our mind is but a thin surface of the profoundly undisclosed, a ripple of inveterate silence that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dark."

"The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an awareness of that which is."

- Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), p.5-11

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sky and Ground

Please look up and see the sky
far and wide and without tracks
turn your body around a bit
everything is right before you

= Tao-ch'uan (Ch'an monk of the Linchi lineage, 1100-1170)
From his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Ch.20, quoted by Red Pine in "The Diamond Sutra: Text and Commentaries Translated from The Sanskrit and Chinese"

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eihei Peter Levitt: Miyazawa Kenji and Memmitsu Nokafu

This is a wonderful post from back in January that I missed then, from Eihei Peter Levitt, the sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle. It discusses a poem of the great Japanese Buddhist poet Miyazawa Kenji and the Zen of the concept of memmitsu nokafu:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Immediate Awakening (Revised)

This is the first of two revised academic essays I plan to post on the sudden and gradual debate in Ch'an and Dzogchen.

Sudden and Gradual Teachings and the Dissemination of Szechuan Chan into Tibet

Early Ch’an

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 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.

Chinese echoes

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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