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.


Adamek, Wendy. “The lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma Jewel Through the Ages).” Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S, ed. The Zen Canon: Understanding The Classic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press 2004.

Broughton, Jeffrey L. “Early Ch’an Schools in Tibet”. Gimello, Robert M.; Gregory, Peter N., ed. Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Hawai: University of Hawai Press 1983.

__The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press 1999.

Gimello, Robert M.; Gregory, Peter N., ed. Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Hawai: University of Hawai Press 1983.

Gomez, Luis O. “Indian Materials on the Doctrine of Sudden Enlightenment.” Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

__ “The Direct and Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahayana: Fragments of the Teachings of Mo-Ho-Yen.” Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S,ed. The Zen Canon: Understanding The Classic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press 2004.

Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

MCrae, John. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press 2003.

Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press 2000.

Reynolds, John Myrdin. The Golden Letters. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications 1996.

Seizan, Yanagida. “The Li-tai fa-pao chi and the Ch’an Doctrine of Sudden Awakening.” Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

Ueyama, Daishun. “The Study of Tibetan Ch’an Manuscripts Recovered from Tun-huang: A Review o f the field and its prospects.” Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

Van Schaik, Sam. Approaching The Great Perfection: Simaltaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingthig. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications 2004.

Yampolsky,Philip. “New Japanese Studies in Early Ch’an History.” Lai, Whalen, Lancaster, Lewis R.; Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley Buddhist Series 1983.

Gradual Vs. Sudden

Over the next week I plan to post revised versions of academic essays I wrote some time ago when I was studying Song Dynasty Buddhism in China and its neighbour Tibet.

The essays deal with the issues surrounding "sudden" and "gradual" teachings. The first essay, "Immediate Awakening", which I plan to post today, discusses the formation of the so-called "northern" and "southern" schools in China and the little known effect some of the disciples of Hung-jen (Hongren), the Fifth Ancestor of Zen, had in Tibet. My purpose in writing it was to show the close connection between Ch'an and Dzogchen, as well as to explore the interesting way that the whole sudden vs. gradual argument played out in terms of the politics and mythology of early Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

The second essay is about Jigme Lingpa, the great philosopher of Dzogchen, who plays a somewhat comparable role in the Nyingmapa sect to the one that Dogen plays in the Soto Zen tradition. Jigme Lingpa wrote a number of texts taking a radically non-dual and immediate approach to enlightenment, yet he also wrote detailed manuals of ethics, ritual, and meditation technique. My contention is, in the excellent words of Van Schaik:

 "... the criticisms (of gradual practices-ed.) 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)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tian Ti

天地同根      Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
萬物一體      The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.

Sêng-chao/Sojo (僧肇 384-414)

The Moon Viewing Party

The latest in my efforts to clean up old messes, here is a slightly new edit of a piece I wrote 2 or 3 years ago. I wrote it after hearing some Dharma talks by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who I've studied both Zen and Jewish meditation with. I have taught meditation in synagogues for several years.

I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan. It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home:

Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, Xitang Zhizang, and Nanquan Puyuan went out to view the full moon.
“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.
“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.
“It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit]”, said Zhizang.
Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.
Mazu said:
Meditation returns to the ocean
Merit goes into the treasury
Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present beneath our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu's question, in Chan code, is: “At a time when the Buddha mind is evident, what should one do?”

Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit].” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations. Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one's karma and the awakened mind will thus dawn naturally. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Zhizhang suggests willful refinement of one's state of mind. Baizhang suggests making merit to remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan's abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu's poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang, and is a play on his Chinese name, which contains “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but...
“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but...only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d'veykut (union with the Divine).

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvoth (spiritual action). Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the sh`khina upon you (the imminent feminine energy of God) and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan's advice? At first glance his answer doesn't seem to make much Jewish sense. You experience God's presence and you just drop it and move on? You're joking. Equanimity and non-attachment may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but they're not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn't treat an experience of God as no better or worse than any other experience! One doesn't just move on, prioritizing one's freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God's presence is not any particular ecstacy or vision, although these may be  included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one's place in it- from a Jewish point of view a revelation of truth.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan's approach. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment.

Reb Nosson of Breslov points out that one must continuously renew one's service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one's serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, p. 12). Therefore one's service must be new every second. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we must constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan's gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one's life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan's response is equivalent to a level of d'veykut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish)  Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one's travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right then and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Keeping It Real: Chan and the Pursuit of Experience (A Revision)

Below is a revision of an essay I wrote a few years ago (the original appears on the Zen Site), with a few minor improvements. This is one of my favourites from the strange delusional period I considered becoming an academic.

Keeping It Real:

Chan and The Pursuit of Experience

What I see, I want all people to know.”
-Linji, quoted by Yuanwu (Cleary; Cleary 1994: 104)

The origins of the Chinese Chan tradition, known in Japan as Zen, are mysterious. There is general agreement that a form of “proto-Chan” arose within the early centuries of Chinese Buddhism. This proto-Chan consisted of a meditation tradition that likely did not conceive of itself as a distinct school or tradition of Buddhism. Rather it was an informal lineage of Buddhist practitioners who focused on experiential realization of Buddhist doctrines through intensive meditation. Other streams of the early Chinese Buddhist tradition focused on translation, scholastic philosophy, devotion, or Tantra. Some practitioners, though, apparently put a strong emphasis on meditative experience and practiced in the mountains and forests much as Buddhist yogis interested in direct realization have done since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, regardless of their country or sect. The primary goal these proto-Chan practitioners were after, it is fair to surmise, is an authentic and experiential realization of the Buddha's teachings. They were not primarily interested in tantric power, spiritual merit, influence in government, rain making, or intellectual comprehension, although the records suggested they sometimes engaged in all of these things.As Peter Hershock has written, “In sharp contrast with the three other major schools of Chinese Buddhism, Chan did not originate in the Chinese adaptation of Indian Buddhist texts. Instead, its origins can be traced to the appropriation of Indian Buddhist practices” (2005:66, italics mine).

This desire to “keep it real”, to avoid the traps of ossification, mere intellectuality, or worldy enchantments, is one of the main driving forces behind the historical development of the Chan tradition. Mahayana Buddhism in India came to view itself as a great Medicine chest, offering tailor-made therapies for the sicknesses of sentient beings. Taking this analogy further, you could say that early Chan was distinguished for its insistence on a simple, direct regiment of healing using only the strongest medicines. As the Chan tradition grew and flourished in the Tang and Song dynasties, it sought to produce medicines not just for worldy sicknesses and Confucian sicknesses and Buddhist sicknesses but for Chan sicknesses too, side effects of its success, or of its quest for success. In this paper I aim to trace this urge towards authenticity as it manifested in Chan. This urge impacted not only Chan but the wider culture of China both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

The Dhyana School: East Mountain

Between 624 and 674 Dayi Daoxin (J. Daii Doshin, 580-651) and Daman Hongren (J. Daiman Konin, 601-674) shepherded a community of practitioners on Mt. Huang-mei in what is now Hubei Province. Later Daoxin would be considered the 4th Ancestor, and Hongren the 5th, in the principal historical lineage of Chan transmission. This community was the locus of the proto-Chan tradition. They sought direct experiential realization of Buddhist doctrines through meditation, and had apparently gained widespread fame and esteem by the time of Empress Wu Zetian (625-705), who invited a disciple of Hongren named Yequan Shenxiu (J. Gyokusen Jinshu, 606?-706) to the Capital in 701, a move which would impact the Chan tradition forever, as we shall see.
The scanty surviving literature of the East Mountain school suggests that their own pursuit of authenticity in Buddhist practice led them to cultivate meditative absorption in seated meditation (tso-chan, Japanese zazen) as a step towards realizing the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena and attaining Awakening. The tradition represented by Shenxiu, although accused of being mired in a gradual approach to awakening, most likely taught something more similar to the Tiantai “complete, or supreme approach#.  The Tiantai tradition recognized both gradual and sudden approaches to Awakening but also advocated a Complete, or Supreme approach which united sudden and gradual modes of practice at once. This approach, which has parallels in other nondual traditions like the Longchen Nyingthig and Mahamudra traditions of Tibet, consists in resting in the ultimate state of the mind while simaltaneously engaging in purification and transformation practices which transform the relative states of the mind. This acts as a kind of safety net. If you can plunge into the ultimate view immediately, wonderful, but if you can't the dualistic practices will help to ready you for it. This view at once has integrity because it does not abandon the ultimate perspective, as well as pragmatism since it concedes that most people cannot wholly embody that perspective immediately. As well as teaching this type of “complete” approach to cultivation, Shenxiu apparently sought to overcome excessive attachment to Buddhist ritual, scripture, and merit making practices by reframing scriptural references so that they all applied to meditation. In this way Shenxiu attempted to present an authentic, experiential teaching that could be practiced by anyone (Mcrae 2004: 50).

Beginning in 730 a monk named Heze Shenhui (J. Kataku Jinne, 684-758) began publicly criticizing Hongren's students, accusing them of teaching a gradual practice which distorted the true sudden teaching of Hongren, which Shenhui claimed to have received from his master, the obscure but soon to be famous Dajian Huineng (J. Daikan Eno, 638-712). Of late Scholars have argued that Shenhui was a self-serving polemicist who distorted the teachings of Shenxiu and Hongren's other “Northern School” heirs. His version of Chan history won the day, however, even though he himself did not have much success as a teacher or garnish much respect personally in the eyes of the later Chan tradition. The question I am concerned with here is why his polemics caught on, and I would argue that it is because his rhetoric and its development by the later tradition caught the imagination of Chan seekers in their pursuit of authenticity and non-reification of the forms of practice. Where the East Mountain School and Shenxiu had made self-cultivation and realization primary, jettisoning other aspects of Buddhist tradition as peripheral at best, Shenhui went one step further and jettisoned the idea of self-cultivation entirely. As he put it, “‘sitting’ (tso) is not activating thoughts, and ‘meditation’ (ch’an) is seeing the fundamental nature” (Mcrae 54). Thus only a direct breakthrough to realization will do; even seated meditation is extraneous. This amounted to an insistence that gradual cultivation was in fact an obstacle to immediate entry in to the ultimate nature of the mind. This perspective is one which in fact occurs with regularity in nondual traditions to this day. A famous modern example is the late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), and more moderate versions can be found taught by the contemporary German-Canadian mystic Eckhart Tolle, or the late HWL Poonjaji (Papaji, ??- 1997).

Shenxiu's invitation to the court of Empress Wu began the movement of Chan into the mainstream. Shenhui's criticisms led to the triumph of the rhetoric of sudden realization.

From the Tang to the Song

In the Tang dynasty styles of Chan proliferated and began to define themselves both in terms of differences in doctrine and differences of lineage. Chan became self-conscious in the Tang and the struggles to define itself began. Intense debate about how to attain direct realization, and what the content of that realization was, flourished in this period. Zongmi (780-841), himself both a Chan practitioner and Hua Yen Ancestor, compiled a canon of Chan teachings as an attempt to increase the acceptance of the school and to clarify its doctrines. In his preface to the canon Zongmi listed all of the Chan traditions extant in his time period. His descriptions show a rich selection of practices, ranging from antinomian rejections of all rules, ritual, and praxis to various styles of cultivating devotion and meditative absorption though mantras, liturgies, and ceremonies (Broughton 2004:11-53). The evidence suggests that despite the Chan emphasis on practice the study of Buddhist scriptures was still generally undertaken amongst Chan practitioners. Records of the sermons of members of the Hongzhou school, which would prove to be particularly influential in the late Tang and early Song, show masters like Mazu Daoyi (J. Baso Doitsu, 709-788) and Huangbo Xiyun (J. Obaku Kiun, d.850) had a thorough mastery of Mahayana sutras. These developments suggest, as several modern scholars have argued, that the sudden approach to realization which gained prominence in the centuries following Shenhui was more a matter of rhetoric than practice. In practice sutra study, rituals and seated meditation continued to be practiced as students aimed to apply these gradual methods to one day break through to sudden realization. This amounts, of course, to nothing more than the complete approach of Shenxiu, but regarded through a different lense. These same sermons of Mazu and Huangbo present both masters as relentlessly pushing their disciples to not stop satisfied with intellectual knowledge or gradual practices, but rather seek direct comprehension of the nature of their minds, ie. to seek Awakening. Song Buddhist literature presents these masters as using unconventional shock tactics to inspire a direct breakthrough to Awakening. The famous Linjilu (Record of Linji) presents the famous Hongzhou master Linji (J. Rinzai,d.866) as using obscenity, shouts, and blows to jump over any and all obstacles to direct, liberating contact with his students minds.

The Hongzhou tradition began to judge masters on the basis of their spontaneous expression of Awakened mind as opposed to their ability to translate scriptural terms into direct pointers to realization, a technique still very much in use in the Platform Sutra of Huineng and the recorded sermons of Mazu and Huangbo. Records of these awakening tactics began to be collected in the denglu (Transmission Records) literature which showed how the Awakened mind was transmitted and what lineages different families of practitioners belonged to. These developed into the important yulu (Encounter Dialogue) literature of the early Song, which showed the way that different Masters manifested spontaneously enlightening speech and gestures. This style came to be associated particularly with the early house of Linji, but arose in all lineages. It is the early Song that we find the first occurrence of the following famous definition of Chan: A special transmission outside the scriptures; not relying on words and letters, pointing directly at the mind and becoming a Buddha (Welter 2006). The yulu literature showed how this special transmisson took place. It also showed how its authenticity was judged: by the disciples ability to spontaneously, fearlessly, and sincerely express his own enlightened understanding in dialogue with a master.
The yulu literature became very popular with the literati at court and helped to gain support for the new style of Chan. The Confucians of the period were craving a new discourse, one more spontaneous and subversive. While some scholars argue that the the yulu literature was written largely in order to gain the support of the literati, that is putting the cart before the horse. The yulu represent a religious and artistic movement which fomented over centuries, and is obviously based in the intense experiential and intellectual efforts of Chan monastics. In any case, with the support of the literati the now self-conscious Chan movement, strongly influenced by Hongzhou Chan, attained a dangerous thing: success. Chan now became the new Mainstream Buddhism#.

Confucian Echoes

Since we have noted the effect of the patronage and preferences of Confucian literati on Chan, it is interesting to note in passing the effect that the Chan pursuit of direct, experiential awakening had on the Confucian tradition of the elite. The classical Confucian tradition was fundamentally an ethical and political tradition whose solution to the challenges of life was learning, ritual, etiquette and interpersonal humaneness and rectitude. By the end of the Han dynasty the Confucian tradition had become sterile. In the Wei-Jin period it attempted to revivify itself by incorporating Taoist principles in what came to be known as the Mysterious Learning movement. Despite these efforts, as Xinzhong Yao writes, Confucians “were unsuccessful in reviving Confucianism as a philosophy guiding persoinal and social life” (2000: 96). Confucianism could only maintain “superficial values in the state administration” and had to fight for its place in Chinese life (Ibid.). In the Sui and Tang dynasties Confucians succeeded in holding executive responsibilities for government and administration, and increased their influence through the education system and civil service administration. In the late Tang and early Song dynasties Confucians reacted to the growing Chan tradition in a number of ways. Some argued that Buddhism had no rightful place in China, some tolerated it, and some learned from it. Among the latter were Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), Shao Yong (1011-1077), Zhang Zai (1020-1077), Cheng Hao (1032-1085), Cheng Yi (1033-1107), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Lu Jiuyan (1139-1193). These Confucian philosophers were the architects of a reborn tradition that oversaw a creative new focus on metaphysics, the study of human nature, and self cultivation through meditation. The understanding of the heart (xin), paralleling the same focus in Chan, was shifted to the center of the new Confucianism(2000: 96-109). In this way the Chan obsession with direct experience and creative expression inspired a generation of Confucians to develop methods for translating Confucian principles and intuitions into realization in the body and mind of the individual Confucian.Thus the contemplative systems and fully articulated metaphysics of Song Confucianism were born under the tutelage of the Chan tradition.

The Birth of The Koan and Kan-hua Chan

With the recording of the awakening behaviour of the Chan masters, and the compilation of those records naturally followed the analysis of those records. Hence was born the gong’an, or kung'an (Public Case) tradition. This tradition took the sayings and doings of previous masters as recorded in yulu dialogues and used them as the basis for contemplation and commentary. This mirrored the use of precedents in a legal case, which set a standard for judgement. These koans (in their more famous Japanese pronunciation) were used to test and refine the awareness of seekers, and to showcase the understandings of masters. This led in the Song to literary masterpieces by Chan luminaries like Hongzhi Zhengjue (J. Wanshi Shogaku, 1091-1157), and Yuanwu Keqin (Engo Kokugon, 1063-1135). These masters presented collections of koans for the contemplation of Chan students accompanied by their own creative, and often cryptic commentaries.

These new developments were not without their problems for the Chan tradition. The Hongzhou penchant for blows and shouts led to cheap imitation, as the Japanese Zen master Dogen complained when he visited Chinese monasteries in the early 13th century (Tanahashi 2000: 3-28). The literary study of koans led to intellectuality and threatened to make Chan into the very scholastic tradition it had critiqued and distanced itself from in its quest for direct realization. The two main houses of the Song responded to these problems in different ways. The Caodong school, as epitomized by its most prominent teacher in the Song, Hongzhi Zhengjue, took one approach. Hongzhi himself wrote a koan commentary and was on friendly terms with the author of the most famous kung'an commentary, Yuanwu Keqin. The central practice Hongzhi taught, however, did not rely on contemplation of koans. Hongzhi's central practice, which came to be known as Silent Illumination Chan (mo-chao Chan, J. soto zen), was a seated meditation practice where one cultivated a non-grasping, vivid awareness that enacted, and ultimately led to, direct realization of the Buddha nature or mind ground. For controversial reasons Dahui Zonggao (J. Daie Soko, 1089-1163), a Linji master contemporaneous to Hongzhi, criticized Silent Illumination Chan as misguided, characterizing it as self-indulgent quietism that lead nowhere. Dahui advocated an aggressive, goal-oriented practice in its stead, a practice that revolutized koan practice and the future of Chan. Known as k'an-hua Chan , or Koan Introspection Chan, this method involved focusing intensely on a hua-t'ou, or critical phrase, from a koan. The student was to focus singlemindedly on the hua-t'ou without trying to understand it intellectually, focusing all of one's doubt and psychic energy until a breakthrough into Awakened awareness was achieved. Interestingly, both Hongzhi and Dahui's methods circumvent the “intellectual Chan” that was developing in the Song. Hongzhi's approach is a direct non-conceptual meditation on the mind itself. Dahui's approach takes the critical phrase out of its literary context and focuses on it nonconceptually as well, in effect de-intellectualizing the hua-t'ou.

Interestingly Hongzhi appears comfortable with the more intellectual approach to koans, perhaps because he saw them as a supplementray tool to refine the understanding of students and not the main practice. Dahui, by comparison, worked directly with material from koans as his central practice, and it was Dahui who ordered his teachers koan commentary to be destroyed by fire. Unlocking the power of the koans could not be done through intellectual contemplation, but only by using them as a tool to disrupt and break through the superficial intellectual mind. Thus Dahui was led to create an approach to koan practice that was designed not only as a tool for meditative breakthrough, but as a cure for the sicknesses created by the koan literature itself. These two approaches became the major streams of Chan practice in both China and Japan up to modern times. The first made mo-chao Chan central, identified as tso-chan itself (J. zazen), and tolerated the refinement of understanding through the use of koans. The second used koans centrally, but contemplated them non-conceptually in the form of hua-t'ou2. Both of these streams of Chan practice can be seen, then, as expressions of the Chan pursuit of transformative experience as opposed to mere practice or intellectual knowledge. The Silent Illumination tradition pursues this through cultivation of seated meditation and direct experience of core Buddhist doctrines, particularly the Buddha-nature and the nature of mind. This approach is in fact an old one in the Chan tradition, and is evidenced as far back as texts ascribed to Shenxiu at least (Mcrae 2004: 53). Hongzhi is thus not responding explicitly to sicknesses brought on by the koan. The emphasis in his teachings on silent, non goal oriented contemplation does, however, stand in apparent opposition to the model of sudden awakening in fierce dialogue with a master. Perhaps Hongzhi's emphasis on mo-chao is to come extent a reaction to the yulu model. Although yulu type interactions are ascribed to him as well, perhaps Hongzhi feared they could lead to an egoistic grasping after awakening or simulacra of enlightened behaviour involving lots of cryptic witticisms and incoherent yelling. We have seen how Dahui strove to work directly with the koans but in a way which removed the intellectually seductive content from them. It is also clear that Dahui's method arose as a reaction to Silent Illumination Chan, which he viewed as encouraging complacency and blurring the distinction between the awakened and unawakened state (Schlutter 2002: 109-148). Both men's Chan were thus attempts to ensure their students did not go astray but arrived directly at experiential awakening.

Concluding Reflections

Chan history can be examined from many perspectives. According to the predilections of the scholar it can be examined through the lens of art, language, philosophy, or politics, and a particular set of forces which shaped its historical developments will be illumined. Above I have examined Chan history up into the Song dynasty from the perspective of its own self-proclaimed central impulse as a spiritual tradition: the ideal of giving primacy to the direct experiential realization of the Buddha's teachings. The struggle to maintain that focus as it became a self-conscious tradition with its own mythical history, institutional structure, distinct literature, practice traditions, and success at the Confucian court, gave rise to the distinct forms of Song Chan, as well as influencing the wider Chinese culture.

Works Cited

Broughton, Jeff. “Tsung-mi's Zen Prolegemenon: Introduction to an Exemplary Zen Canon”, in The Zen Canon: Understanding The Classic Texts. NY: Oxford University Press 2004.

Cleary, J.C.: Zen Dawn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001.

Cleary, J.C.; Cleary, Thomas. Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu. Boston: Shambhala Publications 1994.

Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S. The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. USA: Oxford University Press 2000.

Hershock, Peter D. Chan Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai Press 2005.

Mcrae, John R. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. University of California Press 2004.

Schlutter, Morten. “Silent Illumination, Kung'an Introspection, and the competition for Lay Patronage in Song Dynasty Chan”. Gregory, Peter N.; Getz Jr., Daniel, ed. Buddhism In The Sung. Honolulu: University of Hawai Press 2002.

Welter, Albert. Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism. NY:Oxford University Press 2006.

Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. NY: Cambridge Uinversity Press 2000.