This is the title of a marvelous book by Bill Porter (Red Pine). The subtitle tells you what it’s all about: a pilgrimage to China. Much more than that it is a personal account of a pilgrimage to the places where Chinese Zen got established and grew into the powerful tradition that later influenced Japan so much and through which we in the West have learned about Zen and Buddhism. Buddhism began in India (and that has its own interesting history), but it’s not until Buddhism gets into China and meets Taoism that Zen emerges.
I had commented on an earlier book by Red Pine, the one where he began to search for hermits in China. This was long after the Cultural Revolution which had done so much damage to all the old monasteries, temples and hermitages; and it was after the new government eased up on its anti-religious ideology. In fact now it sees the monastic movement as a valuable cultural and historical artifact, and the monks seem to be getting some government support in rebuilding the temples and monasteries.
So a number of years before this current pilgrimage, Red Pine had gone into China in search of living hermits and the hermit tradition–Road to Heaven. This was a really ground-breaking kind of work because even as many were aware of a great hermit tradition in China, most people, including many Chinese, were thinking that this was a thing of the past. Red Pine’s book was an eye-opener, and apparently it was quite popular when it was translated into Chinese. The Chinese were happy to rediscover this tradition as being alive in their very midst. This book also inspired a documentary film maker to go into China and record some of these hermits and the movie is readily available: “Amongst White Clouds.” Well, on this particiular pilgrimage Red Pine is focused on visiting the key sites associated with the 6 great patriarchs of Chan Buddhism (Zen) and the development of Zen in China. The book is very informative about this period of Zen, but all the Chinese names and place-names can get very confusing if you are not familiar with the terrain. More importantly for a western Christian monk is the pattern of life that these monks engage in–all the similarities and all the differences, and there is much to learn there. Then, finally, there are all the personal vignettes that Red Pine narrates, both from the immediate present of the pilgrimage and from his own past. Sometimes they are funny; sometimes very poignant, moving and illuminating. All in all a superb book.
So, first of all, there are various points that Red Pine makes about the origins of Zen–some of them well-known, some not so well-known. We all have heard the story of the very beginnings of Zen: after the Buddha’s enlightenment and when followers had gathered around him, one day he got the whole group together, and there were hundreds of them, and they were all waiting for instruction from him, a talk, as he was their teacher now. But this time all he did was hold up a flower before them. Most of them just looked puzzled, not knowing what this was all about. All stared dumbly or bewildered–except Kashyapa. He only smiled, but it was a smile that showed total understanding. The Buddha said that Kashyapa had understood the teaching, and he gave him his own robe and bowl as a sign of transmission. It was a wordless transmission, and it is this transmission that later Zen masters look on as the beginning of Zen. Zen was not and could not ever be put into words.
But we have to remember that this was India, and the Indians have a penchant and a talent and a habit of elaborating things! Witness the enormity of the Hindu Vedic literature, and the Indian epics make the western Iliad and Odyssey seem like short stories! So Buddhism in India, over the course of several centuries, developed quite an extensive literature and teaching doctrine and methodologies and various schools. Inevitably Buddhism expanded into other neighboring areas and that included China–this was actually even before Buddhism came into Tibet. In Tibet, the elaborate Indian Buddhism became even more elaborate as it incorporated a lot of the native, shamanistic Bon religion of the Tibetans. In China something different happened.
The Chinese had their own native religion: Taoism. This had its roots in the archaic shamanistic religion of prehistoric China, and it too had its variant developments. One was a kind of pop Taoism which included a lot of magic and paranormal practices and manifestations; and there seems to be a wholly different Taoism in the masterpieces of such figures as Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi. There the emphasis is in this mysterious Tao, in a harmony that transcends all human calculations and conceptualizations. There was also in China the quasi-religion of Confucianism, which was generally the ideal of the ruling class and for much of the populace. When Buddhism came to China, it was pretty much accepted or seemed to most as a variant of Taoism and allowed to co-exist. This first Buddhism in China was not Zen. In Red Pine’s words: “The Buddhists…were into works: ascetic practices, meditation aimed at suppressing the passions, shamanistic incantations, and magic.” When the Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived in China around 475 CE, his Buddhism was a totally different creature. We have no idea how the line of development traveled from Kashyapa to Bodhidharma, which spanned several centuries, but the fact is that Bodhidharma was something very different from the usual Buddhism–and that included India of course. Now there is a dispute among scholars of Buddhism whether Bodhidharma bought a fully realized Zen to China or that in fact he was influenced by the Taoism he found and so Zen emerged as a result. Red Pine is in the minority when he believes that Taoism had nothing to do with the beginnings of Zen in China, and I find his argument convincing, but who knows!?
Nobody rolled out the red carpet for Bodhidharma in China when he arrived. He moved north to an already established Buddhist monastery, the now-famous Shaolin monastery. Today this place is mostly a tourist trap. It is famous for its Kung Fu adherents, and over a million tourists visit this place every year–imagine thousands coming to a monastery on a daily basis. But there is very little spiritual seeking here, but the government loves this place for the tourist money it brings and supports it. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, the recent abbot of Shaolin was involved in some kind of scandal a few years ago, and I am not sure how that turned out. The only reason Red Pine wanted to visit here was something that the general public does not pay any attention to: a small cave high up a mountain above Shaolin. This is where Bodhidharma meditated for over 9 years facing a wall. That was his only practice. From that small seed emerged that great and beautiful flower of Zen.
So Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen. This was no easy or simple thing. Bodhidharma developed plenty of enemies: other Buddhist monks, some Taoists and Confucians, and plenty of government officials. Here is Red Pine: “Zen was crazy, if not dangerous, for it called into question the understanding of those who considered themselves the purveyors of the means to liberation. It was said that when Bodhidharma died in 536, it was the result of the sixth attempt on his life–all by poison. Assassinations were common, even in religious circles.” Bodhidharma seemed like a threat, at least to some, in that he minimized acts of piety and learning and hierarchies. When the Emperor asked him how much merit the Emperor had accrued in building many Buddhist temples, Bodhidharma told him, “None!” He taught that every person was a buddha; that the only way to liberation was to look into one’s mind; you are only one thought away from Buddhahood, and meditation was “the gate.”
Now we come to the Second Patriarch of Zen, Hui-k’o. Here is Red Pine again: “Hui-k’o…was born in 487…his parents were Taoists, but he studied the Confucian classics in his youth with a view to becoming a government official. And he seemed destined to become one until his parents died and he lost heart in a worldly career and turned to Buddhism. In 519, at the age of thirty-two, he became a monk and studied with Master Pao-ching at Hsiangshan Temple near Loyang. The kind of Buddhism practiced in North China at that time was not Zen but a mixture of Hinayana and early Mahayana practices aimed at eliminating the passions. [my interjection: this kind of thing took place also in Christian monasticism with a wrong-headed application of Desert Fathers and also various Orthodox ascetic writers. That’s why Merton was so intrigued by Zen, because it is so much more liberating to simply see what is really going on in your mind when your passions are roused.] What Hui-k’o first studied was what later Zen masters would call Dead Tree Zen, as opposed to Living Zen…. After eight years with Pao-ching, Hui-k’o decided to look elsewhere for instruction. He didn’t have to look far. The sacred mountain of Sungshan was a two-day walk southeast of Loyang, and at Sungshan’s Shaolin Temple Hui-k’o heard about this Indian monk named Bodhidharma. The most popular version of what happened next has…Hui-k’o hiking up the trail behind the temple to a cave where Bodhidharma was meditating and asking the First Patriarch for instruction. When Bodhidharma paid no attention to his visitor, Hui-k’o continued to stand outside the cave and wait. He stood there for several days. Even when it started snowing, he continued to stand there. Finally, in an act of desperation, Hui-k’o cut off his left forearm and put it before Bodhidharma as an offering. This got Bodhidharma’s attention, and he asked the Chinese monk what he wanted. Hui-k’o said he couldn’t still his mind, and he asked for Bodhidharma’s help. When Bodhidharma asked him to show him this mind he couldn’t still, Hui-k’o said he had tried everything but he couldn’t get hold of it. Bodhidharma said if that was true, then he had already stilled his mind. Hui-k’o suddenly realized the true nature of mind and became Bodhidharma’s disciple. Hui-k’o stayed with Bodhidharma for six years. Finally, in 534, the Indian Zen master gave Hui-k’o his robe and bowl as symbols of authority to teach in his place, and the two monks parted company.”
Now whether this story is literally true or a sort of parable is not important. What it points to is a certain kind of determination and commitment that Zen calls for. This is no New Age meditation workshop/ retreat kind of thing–it calls for “all of you,” not just some aspect of you–in a way this reminds us of the call of the Gospel. In any case, Hui-k’o began teaching this new thing called Zen (Chan) and he attracted many disciples. He “aroused the anger of other monks who found the Zen teaching of Bodhidharma anathema, if not absurd. How could we all be buddhas? And how could Enlightenment be less than a thought away, since everyone knew it took a lifetime to achieve? They were also annoyed to see their students flocking to hear another teacher whose teaching they themselves didn’t understand and couldn’t compete with.” It appears that Hui-k’o was physically attacked on one occasion at least, and then due to civil unrest and a real persecution of all Buddhists in the north, Hui-k’o fled to the south.”
Red Pine again: “When Hui-k’o led his disciples to Ssukungshan to escape the religious persecution in North China, there were no temples on the mountain. But Ssukungchan had a reputation as a good place to hide out, which is why he chose it. In fact that was how it got its name, which was an odd one. Ssu-k’ung meant ‘Minister of Works.’ It was the title of an official who hid there around the time of Confucius, and the mountain had been called Ssukungshan ever since. It was also one of Li Pai’s favorite haunts. In 758, shortly before he reportedly tried to embrace the moon in the Yangtze and drowned, China’s Poetry Immortal wrote a poem entitled ‘Thinking of My Hideout on Ssukungshan.’ There were lots of places to hide, and Hui-k’o and his disciples disappeared into the mountain. It was not until Pen-ching (667-761) settled there that a monastery was built. Pen-ching was a dharma heir of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. When Emperor Hsuan-tsung heard about him, he invited the monk to lecture at court in 743 and was so impressed that he elevated Pen-ching to the status of National Master and bestowed on him enough funds to build the biggest monastic complex in China. That was the origin of Wuhsiang Temple, which nowadays wasn’t even a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of its T’ang-dynasty incarnation, when records say seven thousand monks lived there. No one knows how long Hui-k’o stayed on the mountain before he headed back north. He didn’t leave any records. But just behind the present shrine hall, there was a stone platform where he lectured. And further up the trail, there was a large gourd-shaped boulder where he was said to have transmitted his robe and bowl to Seng-ts’an, making him Zen’s Third Patriarch.”
Red Pine: “As with his teacher and his teacher’s teacher, Seng-ts’an left few traces…. Seng-ts’an followed Hui-k’o in his wanderings across North China, until the religious persecution of 574-580 sent them fleeing south. During the brief period that it lasted, monasteries throughout North China were destroyed, and five million Buddhists and Taoists had to return to lay life–but not in the South.”
That kind of number shows you how religious that culture tended to be and how popular monastic life was. In any case the persecutions and civil unrest came to an end under the Sui Dynasty, and Hui-k’o transmitted the patriarchship to Seng-ts’an and headed back North where he died. Seng-ts’an stayed in the South and it was here , at a monastic center and pilgrimage place called Tienchushan, that he met the future Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin (He Who Trusts the Way), who when they first met was only 12 years old but already inquiring into the nature of his mind. It is with Tao-hsin that Zen makes an important shift in its mode of presence among the people. First of all, Zen changed the practice and meaning of Buddhism in China; then, Chinese culture changed the style of Zen within China. Here is Red Pine: “Until the advent of Zen, the Chinese considered Buddhism a religion for the spiritual elite. Attaining nirvana was hard, really hard. And those magic powers that practitioners acquired along the way didn’t just fall from the sky. Buddhism’s inner sanctum was not for everyone; it was for the few, the proud, the ascetic. Even the first Zen patriarchs were presented in that light: tough as nails, able to look at a rock wall for nine years, or to stand in the snow for days and cut off their own arm. That was what Buddhist masters did; not your average monk…. Then Zen went south. No more rock walls, no more amputations. Beginning with Seng-ts’an, attaining the Way was presented as something within anyone’s reach. Of course, the teaching of not choosing, of nonduality, of nondiscrimination, the teaching that one’s very mind was all a person needed to be a buddha, the teaching that the only difference between a deluded person and a buddha was the delusions of the deluded person, this had been taught by Bodhidharma and Hui-k’o. And someone must have understood their message–both had other disciples. But the teaching of Zen didn’t make much of an impact until it traveled south, until Seng-ts’an passed it on to Tao-hsin.”
Tao-hsin then made a radical change in the lifestyle of Zen monks; in effect he was the St. Benedict of Chinese Zen. Here is Red Pine again: “When people think about Zen, they usually think of it in external terms: nonsensical talk, spontaneous behavior, or minimalist art forms. But that would be to look at it from the outside. If you look at it from the inside, from your mind, Zen is just a way of living. And that way of living is far easier to realize in a communal setting with the support of others than it is alone. Seclusion has its place, especially once a person has practiced in a community, but it was its communal approach to spiritual cultivation that was the strength of Zen. That was why it overwhelmed all other Buddhist sects in China, both in terms of numbers and in terms of influence. Its success was Darwinian. It produced a better-trained monk and more of them…. Zen was life-driven. It’s motto was ‘No work, no food.’ Zen monasteries in China are slowly getting back to this approach….”
This was literally a monastic revolution in the Buddhist world and elsewhere. Nothing like this developed in any extensive way in India or in the other Buddhist countries of Asia. Work was not considered a spiritual practice for monks; renunciants were to live by begging. With Tao-hsin that radically changed. Red Pine again: “Up until then, Zen masters such as Bodhidharma, Hui-k’o, and Seng-ts’an wandered from place to place and occasionally gave lectures on the Dharma. But whenever they settled in one place for long, they either lived in hermitages with a handful of students or they stayed in monasteries at the pleasure of others. Tao-hsin changed this. He created the first self-supporting monastery where life revolved around meditation and manual work…. By the time he died there were more than 500 monks living at his monastery.”
So at this time, in the great T’ang Dynasty, Zen Buddhism explodes across China, and the other schools of Buddhism recede in numbers and importance. It is mostly communal monasticism and there is this revolutionary element of “working for your livelihood.” The hermit tradition was always strong in China, and it can be found in the Zen tradition quite a lot, but that is not the foundation of Zen. Solitude of this kind is usually seen as something temporary, as appropriate at some points in your spiritual development but not as a lifetime thing except for some very rare birds. Even with the Taoist hermits, and that’s where the hermit tradition was the strongest and most prevalent, in Taoism, there was still an appreciation for a certain fluidity where people could move in and out of solitude easily. Very often the Emperor called some Taoist hermit to civil service, and this was seen as quite normal and honorable to do. Today both kinds of monasticism are being revived–but with all kinds of complications. (By the way, I wish Catholic monasticism showed the same kind of fluidity with regard to hermits and communal monks. We keep insisting that one has to be one thing or another but not both! Lots of reasons for that, but we won’t go into that here.)
Tao-hsin next transmitted the patriarchship to Hung-jen. Here also Tso-hsin was an innovator: he stayed with Hung-jen for a number of years until he died. Usually, before this, the other patriarchs would depart from the master who had transmitted the bowl and robe to them–the new patriarch would strike out on his own. Not here; not this time. Hung-jen became the Fifth Patriarch of Zen, and he established quite a reputation for himself in time. When Hung-jen died there were over a thousand monks at the monastery that he had established. Hung-jen carried on Tao-hsin’s teaching both in spiritual matters and in practical, material matters. They built monasteries up and down China but always selecting sites that were far from cities and good for farming. Red Pine: “It was the selection of such sites that made communal practices possible, and it was communal practice that enabled practitioners to extend their spiritual awareness beyond the meditation hall to their daily lives. This was what Tao-hsin and Hung-jen taught their disciples, teaching them to practice everywhere, regardless of what they were doing. Tao-hsin explained it as ‘guarding the one.’ Hung-jen called it ‘guarding the mind.’ They told their disciples to be mindful in all that they did or said or thought to the point where the distinctions between doing and saying and thinking disappeared.”
Red Pine again: “It is hard to overestimate the impact Hung-jen had on Zen. His disciples founded both its Northern and its Southern schools and lectured before emperors and court officials. They were the first harvest of the Zen grove, and they were responsible for spreading Zen throughout China…. Hung-jen’s stature and the communal practice he fostered attracted people from all over the country. What attracted them wasn’t an ideology or a set of ascetic practices or something magical or mysterious. What attracted people was simply a way of life.”
But it may be that Hung-jen’s greatest contribution to Zen was the finding of the Sixth and last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism: Hui-neng. It is an amazing story how Hui-neng goes from being a peasant monk who worked in a huge monastery pounding rice — what we would call a laybrother in Catholic monasticism–how he went from that to becoming the Sixth and greatest Zen Patriarch is a story that never ceases to amaze. This is a story that does not get extensively treated in this book because it deserves a whole treatment in itself. Suffice it to say that Hui-neng is not only one of the giants of Zen but also the real foundation of Japanese Rinzai Zen, and one of the greatest spiritual figures in world history–and for me he is more interesting than Milarepa in many ways. Merton wrote about him; he was one of his favorites, and if you want to get a handle on what Zen is about you will need to confront Hui-neng yourself. We will deal with Hui-neng in another posting at another time.
Well, we have gone long enough on this topic, but we have only scratched the surface of the riches of this book. I focused on the historical material, but the book is full of personal anecdotes and encounters with Zen masters and nuns and laypeople and hermits. There are some very interesting observations about modern China and also the rebirth of Buddhism and Taoism in the new China. And also some very touching self-revelation by Red Pine about his own past. It was a trip worth taking, and I am glad he took us along.