The Masters, Part I

Recently I have been reflecting on Zen (Chan in China). I want to continue in this vein here and next time, and then another posting where I hope to discuss some of the problems and controversies afflicting Zen. Now I would just like to ponder the giants of early Chan in China and Zen in Japan. These folks are among the most interesting and most important figures in human religious history.


Let’s start with the greatest of them all, Hui-neng, a giant among giants, the Master of all masters, and the Sixth and final Patriarch of Chan. His emergence is an incredible story in itself. Coming from a poor family in the south of China(638) and almost illiterate, he enters one of the early Chan monasteries, and there he is only a poor lay brother, as what we would call him today, who did nothing more than pound rice for the monastery kitchen. At a certain point he had heard someone chanting the Diamond Sutra and immediately it clicked with him–he immediately understood its real meaning, what it was pointing to, and his inner illumination broke open on his awareness. I won’t go into the longer story except to say that the Fifth Patriarch of Chan, who was the head of this monastery, eventually discovered the depths of this humble monk and recognized his true potential. He had Hui-neng come to him by night so that no one else would know. As he told Hui-neng, the other monks, the Master’s top students and disciples, would have a hard time accepting Hui-neng as a master considering his lowly status. But the Fifth Patriarch conferred on him the symbols of the transmission and sent him out to cultivate and deepen his already profound grasp of Chan. Hui-neng lived in the wilderness for over a decade, at times with ruffians and hunters, gently trying to persuade them from killing animals. Talk about the “hidden life!” Somehow he also learned to read and write. Eventually, like Jesus, he began his “public life” in South China.

Here is an important story about Hui-neng with a commentary by Merton:

One day Hui-neng was asked a leading question by a disciple: “Who has inherited the spirit of the Fifth Patriarch?” (i.e. who is patriarch now?)

Hui-neng replied: “One who understands Buddhism.”

The monk pressed his point: “Have you then inherited it?”

Hui-neng said: “No.”

“Why not?” asked the monk.

“Because I do not understand Buddhism.”


Merton: “The story is meant precisely to illustrate the fact that Hui-neng had inherited the role of Patriarch, or the charism of teaching the purest Zen. He was qualified to transmit the enlightenment of the Buddha himself to disciples. If he had laid claim to an authoritative teaching that made this enlightenment understandable to those who did not possess it, then he would have been teaching something else, that is to say a doctrine about enlightenment. He would be disseminating the message of his own understanding of Zen, and in that case he would not be awakening others to Zen in themselves, but imposing the imprint of his own understanding and teaching. Zen does not tolerate this kind of thing, since this would be incompatible with the true purpose of Zen: awakening a deep ontological awareness, a wisdom-intuition (Prajna) in the ground of the being of the one awakened.”

Hui-neng’s Chan is very sharply focused, and at some future time became formulated in this famous gatha:

“Special transmission outside the Scriptures.

No setting up of words and letters.

Point directly at man’s mind.

See self-nature and attain Buddahood.”

Commentary on the first line by John C. H. Wu:

“By a ‘special transmission outside the scriptures,’ is meant that the Dharma or Reality and Truth can only be ‘transmitted’ from mind to mind, that the scriptures are only a means of evoking or rousing our true insights, that besides the scriptures there are other means which may serve as an occasion to awake us to Reality, that this waking is a strictly personal experience…. All external things are but a reflection of our ‘Original Face,’ and all external teachings are but an echo of the true music of our self-nature. Let no one identify himself with his mere reflection or echo ; it is only by seeing one’s self-nature that he becomes actually what he is in essence.”

Hui-neng is not “against” scriptures; after all he learned how to read and he quoted from many sutras when he was teaching. What he is against is the notion that “reading, studying, or praying the scriptures” will lead to enlightenment. This kind of thing was prevalent in the Buddhism of his time and in popular Buddhism today. Hui-neng’s Chan moves intensely in another direction, which pooh-poohs the repetition of Scriptural language. All words, all language, are, in Merton’s term, only an “alarm clock”–and whatever words the Zen master uses, scriptural, koans, talks, everyday situations, etc., are only there to wake us up. Hui-neng’s Zen is not about “messages” in words that you then try to understand. (What this does to Christianity is very interesting, but we will tackle that in another posting.) And this now leads us to the second line.


Commentary by John C. H. Wu:

“This phrase has often been rendered as ‘no dependence on words and letters’(pu li wen tze). The word ‘li’ means to set up as a pattern. The idea is that, just as we must not cling to the letter of the Scriptures, so we should not expect others to be enslaved by our own words. A typical instance of this is where after he had spoken of the ‘true void of the self-nature,’ Hui-neng immediately warned his audience against clinging to the word ‘void.’ ‘Learned friends,’ he said, ‘when you hear me speaking of the void, please do not cling to the void. It is of first importance not to cling to the void. If you sit in meditation with a vacant mind, you will fall into a spiritless apathy.’ In fact, the true void is the same as infinite Reality. ‘The self-nature of man is so great that all things and laws are contained in it.’”


So again, the problem is not so much with words and language in itself, but in our relationship to words and what we make of them. The goal of goals is not simply to clarify or “spiritualize” our language–I have seen people who take up Zen take up a whole new language–they start speaking a “spiritual jargon,” dress differently, even trying to “look spiritual,” and people entering Christian monasteries tend to do the same thing–it’s not until much later that we discover what our real goal is and all this other stuff is, most of the time, harmless playing at spirituality. And our real goal, in Hui-neng’s terms and in the Zen that comes from him, is the actualization of our real self-nature in all our activity. And Hui-neng’s Zen accomplishes that by: “Pointing directly at the mind of man.”

Now here it is important to recognize that the word “mind” in this context does not refer to our thoughts, our rational ongoing thinking and willing, etc.–our usual use of this word. No, “mind” here is that deep ground of all this so-called thinking and willing. It is that which we cannot turn into “object” for our thinking because it is the very ground and foundation of our thoughts, feelings, vision, etc. And it is this which is the key to our self-nature and our enlightenment. This “mind” is never and can never be the object of our thinking, our analysis, our willing, etc.; we can never “find it” this way. It is not graspable in language or concept; yet it is always there at our fingertips, so to speak, in everything we do, feel, think, see, say, etc. It is by awakening to this “mind” that we recognize the essential nonduality of Reality and our being.

It is not at all clear how Hui-neng did this “pointing directly at the mind.” Monks did read scriptures and did meditate, and for Hui-neng this was ok but that could easily become a “numbing” instead of an “awakening.” So for him anything at all could serve this essential purpose of awakening: scriptures, meditation, work, everyday encounters, paradoxical language, even outlandish behavior. Mostly and amazingly he believed in “ordinary life” as the best “alarm clock.” All this gets very formalized in later Japanese Zen in the famous koans of the Rinzai school and that’s a whole story in itself. But for Hui-neng anything at all and everything could be an instrument in his hands to help a person “awaken”–primarily because what was important and significant was within the person–or rather THE person standing right there, not some message that Hui-neng was trying to communicate, not some teaching–he was really down on that. The awakening is to one’s own self, the true self that is complete and lacking in nothing. Any system or approach that places one’s goal, one’s “happiness,” one’s “perfection,” somewhere out there is hopelessly wrong–you will never “get there”–this is the essence of dualism. Here is Merton: “In the relation between Zen master and disciple, the most usually encountered ‘fact’ is the disciple’s frustration, his inability to get somewhere by the use of his own will and his own reasoning. Most sayings of the Zen masters deal with this situation, and try to convey to the disciple that he has a fundamentally misleading experience of himself and of his capacities.”


Someone asks Pai-chang: “Who is the Buddha?”

Pai-chang answers: “Who are you?”


Let us conclude Hui-neng’s story with some more comments by John C. H. Wu:

“When Hui-neng learned how Shen-hsiu taught his disciples to ‘keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet, and to keep up the sitting posture without lying down,’ he remarked that ‘to keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet is a disease rather than Zen,’ and that ‘to keep sitting for a long time only shackles the body with no profit to the mind.’ He composed a gatha:

‘When alive, one keeps sitting without lying down:

When dead, one lies down without sitting up.

In both cases, a set of stinking bones!

What has it to do with the great lesson of life?’


Not that he rejected categorically the practice of Zazen any more than he rejected the use of words and letters. But he was careful to remind his disciples of the one thing necessary to realize the ever-abiding mind and to see one’s self-nature to attain Buddahood. All other things must be subordinated to the supreme end of Satori or enlightenment…. Hui-neng was one of the most thoroughgoing teachers of non-attachment. To him it makes no difference whether you are a monk or a layman, but it makes a world of difference whether you are attached or non-attached in spirit to the externals.”


The above is interesting in that today Zen is almost totally associated with meditation, and so is also all of Buddhism to a large extent. In Hui-neng’s circle meditation was a practice but only an auxiliary practice if you will. For him meditation, like study, can become an obstacle like any other obstacles to this “direct pointing to the mind.” Koans, which are the central element of the Rinzai school of Zen today, are also still in the future here. But its “seed” is beginning to be seen here in the give and take of “monkish encounters” and the use of paradoxical language. And speaking of this language, there is to be great caution in how we understand Hui-neng’s use of certain terms–like “emptiness” and “void.” Here he is in complete harmony with the whole Mahayana tradition. Listen to Burton Watson, the great translator of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts:

“This is the concept of shunyata–emptiness, or nondualism. Mahayana Buddhism in its writings manifests a profound distrust of words, insisting that the highest truth or reality can never be formulated or conveyed through verbal teachings, and Ch’an masters will be found repeatedly harping on this theme. When Mahayana texts designate the absolute, or highest truth, as emptiness, they mean that it is empty of any characteristics by which we might describe it. This is because it is a single, undifferentiated whole, and the moment we begin to applying terms to it, we create dualisms that immediately do violence to that unity. Hence even the term ‘emptiness’ itself must in the end be rejected, since it implies that there is something outside of emptiness that is not empty. If reality is a single, all-embracing oneness with nothing whatsoever outside it, then the entire phenomenal world as we know and perceive it, all time and all space, must be included within that unity. In the end, then, the absolute must be synonymous with the relative or phenomenal world; or, as the Heart Sutra puts it: ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’”


And finally Wu: “When Hui-neng speaks in terms of ‘within’ and ‘without,’ he is referring only to the effects of the self-nature’s functioning. In itself, the self-nature is identical with the non-dual Real, which is beyond space and time and above all attributes that human language can offer. Human language is at home dealing with the things of the phenomenal world, the field of relativity where all things seem to go in endless pairs of opposites. For Hui-neng as for Shankara, the Non-dual is that ‘before whom all words recoil.’ Whenever a mystic tries to express himself, his words are like so many thirsty blinded lions running in all directions in search of a hidden spring of water. In this sense alone can we see eye-to-eye with Hui-neng when he asserts that there is no difference between the enlightened and the unenlightened, or between Bodhi and klesha, and that self-nature is neither good nor evil. In his answer to a special envoy of the Emperor, he expounds the non-duality of the real nature in these terms: ‘Light and darkness are two different things in the eyes of the ordinary people. But the wise and understanding ones possess a penetrating insight that there can be no duality in the self-nature. The non-dual nature is the real nature. The real nature does not decrease in the fool nor increase in the sage; it is unperturbed in the midst of trials, nor does it stay still in the depths of meditation and Samadhi, it is neither impermanent nor permanent; it neither comes nor goes; it is neither in the middle, nor in the interior, nor in the exterior; it is not born and does not die; both its essence and its manifestations are in the absolute state of suchness.’”


After Hui-neng’s death a number of his disciples establish various schools of Zen, emphasizing this or that aspect of Hui-neng’s teaching. But all Zen lineages today trace their origins to Hui-neng. To be continued…..


(Caution: there is a lot of hokey stuff about Hui-neng on the Internet. Even the Chinese government is into it–they have named a power plant after him. Also, they have his embalmed body up in some kind of shrine. Also, there is this horrid little movie about him in Chinese with horrid English subtitles on You Tube.) All this, of course, is the very antithesis of what Hui-neng stood for.)