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Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 1
Introduction to Buddhism
Introduction to India
In this chapter you will learn:
 Buddhism was very different from classical Chinese thought
A split in Buddhism produced Mahayana which was more
acceptable in China.
The Mahayana Boddhisattva ideal was the beginning of the
development of Chan (Zen) Buddhism in China.
Chan (Zen) is a form of Daoist Buddhism.
The “doctrine” of Chan (Zen) Buddhism is usually expressed in
enigmatic stories.
A comprehensive text on world philosophy should include a lot more about Indian
philosophy, but that is impractical here. However, a look at Buddhism is a good compromise
since it originated in India and had is greatest success in China, Japan, Korea and South-East
Indian Philosophy, like Greek and Western European thought, structures itself around a the
familiar metaphysical contrasts. One-many, permanent-changing, knowledge-belief, reasonexperience, and reality-appearance. The world is divided into the elevated intellectual,
etherial, mental, realm and the more mundane physical, emotional, feeling realm. Both IndoEuropean systems are unlike Classical Chinese philosophy in this respect. These idealist
concepts were introduced into China in the second century A.D. during the philosophical
"dark ages" that following the repressive Qin and the superstitiously orthodox Han dynasties.
Buddhism first spread into China sometime around the end of the Han (200-400 AD). In the
meantime, all that survived of China's rich philosophical traditions were 'religious' versions
which treated the ancient texts as venerated scripture and did "philosophy" mainly in the
sense of reading and trying to understand them. They seldom engaged in "creative"
philosophical thinking (the most famous exception being Wang Cong (27-100)). Daoism had
become a cluster of religious, proto-scientific, or politically rebellious movements.
Confucianism was verging on deifying Confucius and lapsing back to its priestly form. The
decline of the Han coincided with a widespread boredom with the insipid and arcane
scholasticism surrounding the Chinese teachings. Intellectuals were looking for something
new. They found Buddhism.
When it was introduced, it had a massive problem making itself intelligible. Buddhist
missionaries found it most useful to borrow forms of discourse from Daoism. In doing so, of
course, it transformed itself gradually into a uniquely Chinese form. Buddhism began to look
more and more like Daoism--particularly the most Chinese and most successful school of
Buddhism: Chan (pronounced Zen in Japanese). This transformation will be the focus of our
study here.
First, to understand why it was necessary, let us look at the stories surrounding the origins of
Buddhism in India. We will focus on the possible conflicts with traditional Chinese moral
attitudes and conceptual structures. These are what require transformation before it can be
acceptable in Chinese intellectual circles. We will see that in good Daoist fashion (or
Nietzschean fashion) Buddhism turned it into its own antithesis. We shall be looking at both
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 2
thesis and antithesis in this chapter. Buddhism the religious thesis, Chan the Daoist inspired
Buddhism is considered a heterodox school from the perspective of the dominant Hindu
tradition because it did not accept the authority of the Hindu scripture. It is clearly linked to
the Hindu and the underlying Upanishadic traditions, however. The major themes of this
tradition are the familiar Greek issues surrounding the identity, reality, and eternality of the
self--the soul or the ego. Buddhism shares orthodox assumptions about karma (moral cause
and effect), transmigration (reincarnation of souls, which presupposes their eternality and thus
a fundamental mind-body distinction), and the incommunicability of certain experiences or
realizations of mystical union with some absolute being or ultimate reality.
As Greek philosophy did, the founders of the Indic religions assumed that reality was
permanent—that anything impermanent was unreal. They also explained this in terms of how
words can "attach" to things. The shared Indo-European view is that words have to refer to
real, i.e., unchanging, things. However, everything available to common sense-knowledge is
changing. Hence, language is inherently misleading and inadequate since it refers to the
unreal. (No Indian counterpart of Plato invented a realm of forms to preserve linguistic
They also concluded, therefore, that the world of common sense was a mere "appearance."
Those who reasoned more deeply (or had a mystical experience of some Parmenidean Being)
know that "this world" is merely an illusion. Without a substitute Parmenidean or Platonic
reality, the Indian view tended toward what Nietzsche called nihilism--though always
presented in obscure, equivocal and esoteric terms. As Nietzsche correctly observes,
Buddhism and Western "Idols" have a good deal in common. Further, as we can already
appreciate, a much wider intellectual and moral gulf looms between the Indian and Chinese
belief systems.
The Story of Buddhism
This conceptual distance is complicated further by deep ethical disagreements. Indian
morality rationalized the Caste system of unequal moral worth and the intellectual "virtues" of
the Brahman class. We can illustrate the moral conflict by telling the story of the Buddha—
with an appropriate emphasis. There are many versions of the story and I have collected here
elements that highlight the kinds of things that would shock a Chinese moralist. The founder
of Buddhism was called Gautama Sakyamuni--the silent sage of the sakya clan. His given
name, Siddharta, meant "He who will accomplish" because it was predicted at his miraculous
"virgin" birth (his mother was impregnated by a white elephant) that he would be the one to
achieve . . . . The question was, "achieve what?"
Two answers were entertained by Gautama's worried father: he might be the one to achieve
Nirvana or achieve being a great ruler. His father set out to make sure the prophecy came
true in the political sense. He attempted to prevent his son from pursuing Nirvana by
shielding him from all deprivation--the classic "little emperor." As part of this strategy,
Gautama was presented with hordes of dancing girls for his sexual pleasure on his 16th
birthday. Otherwise, he was shielded from the world so he would not know about suffering
and never seek relief from it.
Gautama married and had a child and was prepared to carry out his political destiny when a
mysterious charioteer appeared took him on a series of rides outside the castle. These
introduced him to sickness, old age and death! That night he sneaked away from his his wife,
his son, his family, and his political obligations to go in search of liberation from life and its
suffering. (Remember that Nirvana is not everlasting life, but successful death. Samsara--the
wheel of everlasting rebirths --was the normal cruel fate of all souls.) Gautama tried various
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 3
strategies including abusing his body before finally discovering the "middle way" while
sitting in meditation under the Bodhi (enlightenment) tree. The next morning he was Buddha.
As he prepared to enter Nirvana, a more altruistic divinity appeared to plead with him to put
off his descent into Nirvana (Nothingness) long enough to teach "a few others" how to
achieve the same thing. Buddha looked round, sniffed contemptuously and replied that this
filth could never grasp his secret. The divinity urged him repeatedly and finally Buddha
recalled some of those he had encountered on his search for enlightenment. Some of those
might learn something. Buddha thus reluctantly agreed to put off his entry into Nirvana and
returned to the world to found monasteries and teach those select souls pure enough to have
some slight chance of realizing his esoteric insight. He took disciples and formed
communities of celibate monks and nuns and Buddhism was born.
Contemplating this skewed story of Sakyamuni should illustrate how alien this religion could
have appeared to Chinese culture with its Confucian and Daoist egalitarian attitudes. Popular
Buddhism (like Christianity) is acutely selfish! Its preoccupation with the self, the soul and
liberation is the parallel to the Christian's concern with his/her own salvation and eternal life.
Buddhism's goals are defined in negative, but still calculated, individualistic terms--a release
from suffering.
Further, Buddhism came to China laden with mentalist assumptions--the skeptical distinction
between appearance and reality--suffuses most Buddhist discussion of 'enlightenment'. The
unenlightened person is the one who believes the world is out there. It is radically elitist in its
assumption that only a select "caste" can achieve Nirvana in this present life—although others
can achieve it in the long after sufficient reincarnations which move it up the value ladder to a
Brahman. To top it all, Buddhism advocated celibacy--an unnatural elimination of family
oriented "natural" desires. (A popular Chinese anti-Buddhist story suggested that Laozi
traveled to India after he left China. There he taught them Daoism, except that he added
celibacy to his doctrine hoping thereby to lead these beings to breed themselves out of
Basic Buddhist Doctrine
In the context of the traditional focus on the soul, the self, the mentalism, and the doctrine of
Karma and rebirth characteristic of the other Indian religions, Buddhism taught Four Noble
1.Life is suffering.
2.Suffering comes from desire.
3. Suffering can be ended by ending desire.
4. The eightfold path is the way to eliminate desire.
Nietzsche liked the directness of the first noble truth. Where Christianity disguised its hatred
of life behind moral concepts such as "sin," Buddhism formulated its pessimism in stark,
positivist terms. Nietzsche saw the second as the "nihilistic" attitude they shared with
Christians. This opposition to one's natural desires signals a "decadance" morality.
The eightfold path includes right views. right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation. The goal of doing
everything right is Nirvana. The opposite of Nirvana is Samsara--the cycle of life and death-the belief in reincarnation was hardly a source of comfort to Buddhists. It doomed us to
endless cycles of lives of suffering. Suicide is no help! Only Nirvana is escape.
The Split: Mahayana and Theravada (Hinayana)
The historical development of Buddhism in India resembled that of Christianity in Europe. At
first it struggled with little success until it was adopted by an emperor. What the emporer
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 4
liked was how the religion helps him motivate people to die for him. Then, with state
sponsorship, it grew into the dominant religion in India for a time. During that time it was
transferred to China, Japan, Korea, and South-East Asia. Then it declined in its home and
survived mainly in its adopted homes.
In both the Christian and Buddhist cases, the fusion of political power with religion made an
unstable mixture, prone to schisms as the adherents struggled for control of the politically
potent doctrine. In Christianity this produced first the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox and then the
Catholic/Protestant split. In Buddhism, the major schism was between the Mahayana (Great
Vehicle) and the Theravada or Hinayana (Small Vehicle). The Great Vehicle schools
dominated China and the Small Vehicle One issue between them was altruism vs. egoism.
The ideal of the Theravada was the Arhat who, like the historical Buddha, achieved Nirvana
and "drops out." The Mahayana ideal, by contrast was the historical Buddha after being
persuaded to remain in life. The Boddhisattva, on the brink of achieving Nirvana, voluntarily
returns to cycle through Samsara and wait/work until all sentient creatures are enlightened
simultaneously. The Mahayana tended to view Sakyamuni as merely one historical
manifestation of a universal Buddha-nature shared by all. There were many Buddhas before
him, many after and many around at this very moment. Every Boddhisattva who achieved is
still with us--maybe one is sitting next to you.
Philosophical Developments
Clearly, this Mahayana reformation helped make Buddhism morally acceptable in China
where selfishness virtually defined evil. The "Great vehicle" claim that everyone could
achieve Nirvana coincided with Daoist egalitarian views as well as the orthodox Confucian
doctrine that all could become a Yao or a Shun (Sage). It is no accident that the most
successful schools of Buddhism in China were Mahayana sects. The more egalitarian they
were the more successful over time. Many elaborations of Mahayana Buddhism revoved
around the distinction between Nirvana and Samsara. They analyzed many metaphysical and
epistemological doctrines in terms of the status and nature of Nirvana.
One of the more recognizably philosophical schools of Buddhism was the Yogacara, the
idealist school. According to Yogacara, Samsara, the world of appearance, was an illusion
created by the mind. The elements of existence (Dharma) to which we cling when we have
desires are the impermanent, unreal illusions generated by six or seven layers of
consciousness. The cosmic sum of all consciousness was the Buddha-mind. Yogacara denied
the downplayed the individual/whole distinction but emphasized a temporal distinction. The
world of experience is a sequence of infinitesimal time-slices of consciousness. Each slice
creates its successor by "perfuming" (Karma). That we desire the illusion to continue keeps
the succession of conscious states alive and accounts for the continuity of objects and the
coherence of objects of consciousness.
Our belief in the objects of consciousness are a kind of "clinging" that gives them
permanence. If we can fully realize (real-ize or make real) or appreciate this illusory nature of
the world, then it will cease. We will have escaped the grip of desire that stimulates
consciousness and end any further illusions.
No future illusions means no consciousness—individual or cosmic. When conscious illusions
cease, that is Mahayana Nirvana. One of the illusion is of individuality in minds. So
enlightenment is enlightenment of the universal, Buddha-mind. Enlightenment of one is not
enlightenment since it maintains the illusion of an individual.
Yogacara is an intellectual version of Buddhism because Nirvana consists in a kind of
awareness: a philosophical insight or "enlightenment." The Yogacara school survived in
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 5
China under the name "Consciousness Only School" -- still the purest example of a mentalist
idealism in the Chinese tradition.
Madhyamika Buddhism is similarly intellectual and totalistic, but it in neither so mentalist
nor phenomenalist.1 Its focus is more on logic and endless argument. It teaches that while the
dharma, the elements of existence, are impermanent and unreal, they are the production of
something real and unchanging. This something cannot be captured in language and anything
we try to say about it can be rebutted. Even saying "it is" can be rebutted by argument that "it
is not" and "it neither is nor is not" by "it both is and is not." We continue this pattern of
"refutation" until we give up and lapse into silence—then we are enlightened.
Everything is a manifestation of this ultimate, incommunicable one. Sakyamuni himself was a
historical manifestation of this Buddha-nature. Having no word for it, we may call it tathagata
('thus-come -- and instantly gone). Enlightenment comes from realizing or apprehending this
reality without clinging to any of the inherently contradictory beliefs about it. In the Buddha
nature, all individual being dissolves, the individual soul merges with the absolute and
egoistic consciousness ends--Nirvana!
The History of Buddhism in Asia
The first historical evidence of Buddhism in China was near the end of the Han Dynasty-about 200 A.D. Colonies of Buddhist traders, travelers and missionaries introduced it into the
"Central Kingdom." The Han, after 400 years of rule, was beginning to break down. After it
had collapsed and in the "period of disorder" that followed, Confucianism was implicitly
discredited. Daoism, with its more contemplative, detached and ironic character, rose again.
Intellectuals found the tedious moralistic rhetoric of Confucianism disingenuous and
increasingly took refuge in speculative metaphysical discussions and mystical paradox. This
development was called "dark learning" ¥È ¾Ç and the discourse style was called "pure
conversation" ²M ½Í . Daoists "pure conversation" mixed both stupor and euphoria from
abstruse metaphysical discussion with that from good wine, poetry, women and other
intoxicants. The most popular topic was the puzzle of ¦³ µL (being/non-being) which would
prove to fit neatly with Buddhist speculation about the nature of Nirvana.
Buddhists took advantage of this institutionalized form of discussion and joined with Daoists
in their exploration of the mysteries. The Madhymika doctrine particularly suited this style
and had the further advantage of being neither as mentalist nor inherently elitist. If the
Buddha nature is in everything, then everything has/is Buddha nature. Buddha-nature is both
perfectly real and also identical with Nirvana (nothing). The Buddha nature became a handy
counterpart to the metaphysical Dao—which some though was µL and others ¦³ . And, like
popular Daoism, Madhymika had a tendency to reject language--although on quite different
The Yogacara or Consciousness-Only school introduced the exciting notions of
'consciousness', 'sense data', 'experience' and the psychology of inner mental contents, ideas,
beliefs, and desires. These became part of Buddhist terminology in all the later schools, but
the Consciousness-Only school itself did not last long or achieve great influence. The
strongest schools over time in China were those which emphasized the Mahayana doctrine of
universal salvation and metaphysical holism--Tien Tai ¤Ñ ¥x , Hua Yan µØ ÄY , Pure Land
²M ¤g , and Chan/Zen ÁI .
Let us pause for a quick word about the place of Japan in the history of East Asian Buddhism.
Japanese intellectuals had long since adopted Chinese characters as their written language,
although spoken Japanese is as distant from Chinese dialects as from German. They had
Teaching that reality is phenomena, i.e., ideas or mental realities.
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 6
already imported Chinese Confucianism and Daoism but the greatest period of borrowing
from China came at the height of the Buddhist influence in China. They eventually sent
missionaries all the way into India for Buddhist training. However, in Japan's more more
controlled and stratified social system, the schools took on a quite different character. The
most notable contrast is Chan (Zen) which in China was the most egalitarian, most "free" of
the Buddhist schools. In Japan it became the "property" of the ruling Samurai class and
shared its disciplined, esoteric, and authoritarian character.
In China, the dominant schools tended to be those which stressed a natural, practical approach
to religious life and downplayed the metaphysical skepticism and idealism. The mystical
attitude toward religiousity dominated both ritual and doctrinal features. In Tibet, the ritual
form was much stronger, and in the West, the focus (as it is in Christianity) tends to be on
All these schools nominally accepted a collection of Buddhist scriptures (sutras) known as the
Tripitika. However, rival schools "ordered" them differently and disagreed on other sutras.
The most important sutras in Chinese Buddhism included the Prajnaparamitra, the Lotus and
the Diamond Sutras.
The Development of Chan (Zen) in China
The character pronounced "Chan" in Chinese ("Zen" in Japanese) was originally a
transliteration of the Sanskrit term "dyana" meaning meditation. Chan is a school that does
not "believe in" meditation, yet emphasizes and practices meditation. People sit in meditation
pondering the claim that meditation cannot lead to enlightenment.
A story is told of Hui-neng's famous disciple, Huai-rang (677-744), in the record of the
latter's sayings: "Ma-zu lived in the Quan-fa Monastery on the Southern Peak. There he
occupied a solitary hut in which all alone he practiced meditation (chan) paving no
attention to those who came to visit him. . . One day (Huai-rang) kept grinding a brick in
front of the hut, but Ma-zu still paid no attention. This having continued for a long time,
(Ma-zu) finally asked: 'What are you doing?' The Teacher (Huai-rang) replied that he
was grinding to make a mirror. 'How can a mirror be made by grinding bricks? asked
Ma-zu. Replied the Teacher: 'If a mirror cannot be made by grinding bricks, how can a
Buddha be made by practicing meditation?"
Fung History p. 391
Chan comes to understand meditation in a Daoist sense: an attitude of "total absorption" than
can accompany any normal living activity. Sitting meditation is among the normal activities,
but Chan gives us no particular reason to do that in preference to innumerable others.
Enlightenment/meditation can be achieved in any of them. How do the Chanists arrive at this
focus on 'practice.'
Zen Twist on the Paradox of Desire
First, let us draw attention to Buddhism's famous "paradox of desires." Its logic explains the
move to the Boddhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the four noble truths,
desire leads to suffering and overcoming desire is the way to achieve Nirvana. Suppose an
individual seeker gets close to Nirvana--he overcomes his desire for wealth, status, sex, and
then eventually even his desire for food, drink, and finally his desire to breath and live. Now
is he able to enter Nirvana? Not yet. He still has one desire left--the desire to enter Nirvana.
Only when he overcomes that one can he achieve it. He does! Standing on the brink of
extinction, he no longer wants to go there, so he turns around and re-enters the cycle of
Samsara--he is the Boddhisattva who voluntarily returns.
Similar paradoxes lurk behind the Yogacara and Madyamika systems. In the Yogacara
system of illusions, the theory seems to say the minds and their illusions are all that exists. If
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 7
they exist, they are real—real ideas. As such, they are not illusions. The world of appearances
is identical with the Buddha-mind—it is what there is.
In the Madyamika system, we learn that the Buddha-nature is the only reality. If I is the only
reality, then there is nothing that is not Buddha nature. Since there is nothing but Buddha
nature everywhere Buddha nature is pure--there is nothing to be mixed with it. Hence you
and I are pure Buddha nature. We have nothing to do or achieve.
Chan Buddhism can be viewed as pushing the implicit logic of Buddhism to reject the
original goal of Buddhism--the quest for Nirvana. Chan is Buddhist atheism. The gradual
development of this perspective, however, is a complex one in China and is made even more
challenging by a pedagogical practice among Chan masters—"never tell to plainly." Each
person should come to her own realization.
The Inner Story of Zen
There are two stories of the development of Chan in China—an internal (pious) and an
external (historical) story. According to the internal story, in the context of a particularly
profound lecture, the Buddha stopped and sitting in silence, merely twirled a flower. A
wordless doctrine was thus immediately apprehended by one Kashyapa, who smiled. This
began a line of direct mind-to-mind transmission of some doctrine incommensurate with
language. The transmission went through 28 "teacher-student generations" to the famous
Boddhidharma who came to China.
In China it went through 5 more generations still emphasizing orthodox meditation and the
search for enlightenment, when the 5th patriarch announced a competition for who would be
the 6th. Everyone assumed Shen Xiu, acknowledged as the most brilliant student, would win
the competition. But Hui Neng, an illiterate peasant from Guangdong province proved to have
spontaneous and immediate insight and received the coveted transmission. The internal story
is contained in the famous Platform Sutra of the 6th Patriarch.
"My stern father was originally from Fa Yang. He was banished to Xinzhou in Ling
Nan (Guangdong), where we lived as peasants. My father soon died and my aging
mother was left alone. We moved to Nan Hai, poor and in bitter straits, I sold wood in
the market place."
Once a customer bought firewood and ordered it delivered to his shop. When the
delivery was made, and I had received the money, I went outside the gate, where I
noticed a customer reciting a Sutra. Upon once hearing the words of this Sutra: "One
should produce that thought which is nowhere supported," my mind immediately
Thereupon I asked the customer what Sutra he was reciting. The customer replied, "The
Diamond Sutra."
Then I asked, "Where do you come from, and why do you recite this Sutra?"
The customer said, "I come from Tong Chan Monastery in Qi Zhou, Huang Mei
Province. There the Fifth Patriarch, the Great Master Hong Ren dwells, teaching over
one thousand disciples. I went there to bow and heard and received this Sutra. The Great
Master always tells the Sangha and laity only to uphold The Diamond Sutra. Then, they
can see their own nature and straightaway achieve Buddhahood."
I heard this and desired to go and seek the Dharma, but recalled that my mother had no
support. From past lives there were karmic conditions which led another man to give me
a pound of silver, so that I could provide food and clothing for my aging mother. The
man instructed me further to go to Huang Mei to call upon and bow to the Fifth
After I had made arrangements for my mother's welfare, I took my leave. In less than
thirty days I arrived at Huang Mei and made obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch, who asked
me,"Where are you from and what do you seek?"
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 8
I replied, "Your disciple is a commoner from Xin Zhou in Ling Nan and comes from
afar to bow to the Master, seeking only to be a Buddha, and nothing else."
The Patriarch said, "You are from Ling Nan and are therefore a barbarian, so how can
you become a Buddha?"
I said, "Although people are from north south, there is no north or south in the Buddha
nature. The body of the barbarian and that of your holiness are not the same, but what
distinction is there in Buddha nature?"
The Fifth Patriarch intended to argue further, but seeing people gathering around, he
ordered me to go off with them to work. I withdrew to the back courtyard where an
attended ordered me to split firewood and pound rice.
More than eight months had passed when the Patriarch one day suddenly saw Hui Neng
and said, "I think these views of yours can be of use but fear that evil people may harm
you. For that reason I have not spoken to you. Did you understand the situation?"
I replied, "Your disciple knew the High master's intention and has stayed out of the front
hall, so the others might not notice him."
One day the Patriarch summoned his disciples together and said, "I say to you: for
worldly people, life and death are serious matters. All day you make offerings seeking
fields of blessings; you do not try escape the bitter sea of life and death. If you are
confused about your self-nature, how can blessings save you? Each of you return, look
to your own thoughts and use your mind's original wisdom to compose a verse. Give it
to me. After I see it, I will give the robe and Dharma to you if you understand the grand
idea and will designate you as the sixth patriarch. Hurry off! Do not delay!
The serious students (from the North) heard this and withdrew, whispering to one
another, "we normal students hardly need to tap our minds and burden our intellect to
compose a verse to submit. What use could this be? Shen Xiu is our advanced instructor
and transmitter of the teaching. Certainly he will be the one to obtain it. It would both
be wrong of us to write a verse and a waste of effort."
Shen Xiu thought, "The others are not submitting verses because I an their teacher. I
must compose a verse and give it to the High Master. If I do not, how will he know
whether my mind's views and knowledge are sound or silly? If I decide to submit a verse
to seek the Dharma, that is good. However, if I do it to get the recognition as patriarch,
that is bad. How would my mind then be different from that of a commoner seeking a
high position? Still, if I fail to submit a verse, in the end I will not obtain the Dharma.
This is a mess!"
After composing his verse, Shen Xiu tried several times to turn it in but whenever he got
to the front hall, his mind became agitated and distraught, and his entire body broke into
a sweat. He tried thirteen times and finally dare not submit it. Then he thought, "It
would be better to write it on the wall so the High Master will see it suddenly. If he says
it is good, I will come forward, bow, and say, 'Xiu did it.' If not, then I have wasted my
time on this mountain receiving honor from others. And as to further cultivation--what
can I say?"
At midnight, holding a candle, he wrote the verse on the wall of the South corridor
without anyone knowing. This was the verse:
The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a bright mirror stand.
Time and again wipe it clean,
And let no dust alight.
After writing this, Shen Xiu returned to his room. . . .
The Patriarch ordered his disciples to light incense and bow before the verse, and to
recite it. They did and said, "Excellent!"
At the third watch, the Patriarch called Shen Xiu into the hall and asked him, "Did you
write this verse?"
Shen Xiu said, "yes, in fact, Xiu did it. . . .
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 9
The Patriarch said, "The verse which you wrote shows that you are close but have still
not seen your original nature. You are at the front gate. . . . "Go ponder for a day or two
then write another poem and show it to me. If you have entered the gate, I will transfer
the robe and Dharma to you."
Shen Xiu bowed and left. Several days passed, but he was unable to compose another
poem. His mind was agitated and confused and his thoughts and mood were uneasy. He
was as if in a dream; whether walking or sitting down, he could not be happy.
Two days later, a young boy was chanting the poem and passed by the threshing room.
Hearing it only once, I realized the writer had not yet penetrated to his original nature.
Although I had received no teaching, I already understood the poem. I asked, "What
poem is that?"
"You wouldn't know, Barbarian," replied the boy. "The Master has declared that birth
and death are serious matters for people. He wants to transmit the robe and Dharma and
ordered his students to compose poems for him to examine. Whoever has awakened to
the deep insight will inherit the robe and Dharma and title of Sixth Patriarch. Our senior
teacher, Shen Xiu, wrote this 'verse without marks' on the wall of the south corridor.
The Great Master ordered us to recite it. cultivating in accord with that verse, one avoids
falling into the evil and that is the poem's great merit."
I replied, "I would like to recite it and be like it, Oh great one. I have been pounding rice
for eight months or more and have never even been to the front hall. I hope that you,
great one, will take lead me to the verse to bow." The boy did.
I said, "Hui Neng cannot read. Please, Superior One, read it to me." Then an official
from Jiang Zhou, named Zhang Riyong, read it out loud. After hearing it, I said, "I, too,
have a verse. will the official please write it for me?"
The official replied, "You, too, can write a verse? That is strange!"
I said to the official, "If you wish to study the supreme Bodhi, do not slight the beginner.
The lowest people may have the highest wisdom; the highest people may have the least
wisdom. If you slight other, you create limitless,unbounded offenses."
The official said, "Recite your verse and I will write it our for you. If you obtain the
Dharma you must take me across first. Do not forget these words."
Hui Neng's verse reads :
Originally Bodhi has no tree,
Nor the mirror any stand.
Basically nothing can be;
Where can dust land?
When they finished writing this verse, people were surprised. They all exlaimed,
"Strange indeed! We shouldn't judge someone by appearance. How is it that so quickly
he has become a living Bodhisattva?"
The Fifth Patriarch saw the astonished crowd and worried that they might start a riot. So
he erased the verse with his shoe and said, "This one,too, doesn't understand perfectly."
The crowd then agreed.
The next day the patriarch secretly came to the threshing floor where he saw me
treading rice carrying a stone tied to my body. He said, "A seeker of dao would give up
his life for the Dharma, wouldn't he?" Then he asked, "Is the rice ready?"
I replied, "The rice has long been ready. It awaits now only the sieve."
The Patriarch rapped the pestle three times with his staff and left. I knew his intention,
and at midnight went to the Patriarch's room.
The Patriarch covered the text with his sash explained The Diamond Sutra for me down
to the line, "One should produce a thought that is nowhere supported." The moment I
heard that, I had a sudden enlightenment and knew that all entire law was nothing but
our self-nature. I said to the Patriarch:
How strange!
The self-nature is originally pure in itself.
How strange!
The self-nature neither comes nor goes.
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 10
How strange!
The self-nature is originally complete in itself.
How strange!
The self-nature is originally without movement.
How strange!
The self-nature can generate the myriad dharmas.
The Fifth Patriarch knew I was enlightened about my original nature and said to me,
"Studying Dharma without knowing your original mind is useless. If you recognize your
original mind and see your nature, then we call you a great hero, a teacher of gods and
humans, a Buddha."
I received the Dharma at midnight but no one knew about it. The Fifth Patriarch also
transmitted the Sudden enlightenment doctrine with the robe and bowl saying, "Your
are the Sixth Patriarch."
After Hui Neng took leave of the Patriarch, he set out on foot for the South. In two
months he reach the Ta Yu Mountains.
The External Story of Zen
The historian's story treats the Platform Sutra as an important piece of fiction. Its publication
crystallizes a split in the Chan school between Northern (Gradual enlightenment) and
Southern (Sudden enlightenment) trends. The key issue dividing them was whether there was
a path to enlightenment so we could be understood as getting closer or was enlightenment
something that happened totally or not at all. The Southern school represented the view that
enlightenment did not require study. Notice Hui Neng was illiterate and did nothing in the
temple but carry wood pound rice. The villian, by contrast, was a learned Northerner. Hui
Neng's enlightenment came all at once in a flash of insight.
Buddhism had spread in China during the period of cultural disunity following the decline of
the Han. During the long periods of disunity following the Han Dynasty, the North had often
been ruled by "barbarian" dynasties and the south had become the refuge of China's
intellectual culture. The more structured and disciplined Northern schools stressed gradual
enlightenment requiring continual supervision and guidance (more like Japanese Zen). So
Buddhism was more "orthodox" and authoritarian in the North, while in the South it was
almost entirely spread by popular conversion rather than official patronage. Naturally,
Southern Chan had a much more egalitarian outlook.
Now, with the ascendancy of the powerful T'ang dynasty, cultural self-confidence was
returning. Buddhism, with its fondness for accumulating distinctions, endless lists, rules, and
other tedious intellectualizing was beginning to tire intellectuals. The rituals, thousands of
sutras, levels of truth, categories, lists, distinction etc. went on ad nauseam. The antipathy to
this theoretical overkill explains the rise Sudden Enlightenment Chan--the Chinese revenge
on Buddhism.
Historians argue that the story of Hui Neng was actually written by a Daoist poet, who was
inspired by the fabulous story-telling of his close friend, a popular Southern monk named
Shen Hui. Shen Hui had traveled North to the domain of the powerful and famous monk,
Shen Xiu, the villain of the Platform Sutra story. At the time, the Tang officially recognized
Shen Xiu as the 6th Chan Patriarch. Shen Hui was an extremely popular public speaker. He
weaved spellbinding tales and avoided tedious theorizing. He had a large popular following
but was in official trouble because of his attacks on Shen Xiu. Unsuccessful in his attempts to
have Hui Neng recognized as the true successor, he was banished briefly to the hinterland—in
Jiangxi province and subsequently kept on the move so he could not attract a large following.
Over the years, fortunate political events intervened. The Tang government had a serious
budget deficit because of heavy defense expenditures following a six-year war putting down a
military rebellion. One of the ways the Tang had of raising money was to require all those
becoming Buddhist priests or nuns to buy a license—on the theory they were removing
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 11
themselves from productive life (since they lived on donations and by begging). They
decided they needed a "license salesman" and someone remembered that Shen Hui was the
best one around, so they sent for him. He was, of course, successful, and bailed out the
treasury and in gratitude the Tang officially declared him the 7th Patriarch—which by
implication made Hui Neng the 6th as the Platform Sutra claimed.
The other thing that was important about Shen Hui's story was that in it, Hui Neng simply
disappeared into the Southern mountains. That made it tempting and easy for other Southern
monks to claim that they had encountered Hui Neng or his equally reclusive disciples as they
wandered in the mountains and received the instantaneous transmission of the Dharma of
Sudden enlightement. So the school's influence spread quickly throughout China and it
became the dominant school during most of the long Tang dynasty—the Southern dynasty.
(Cantonese speakers still refer to themselves "People of Tang" where Mandarin speakers call
themselves "People of Han.")
The Southern school's position represented an indigenous Chinese cultural rebellion against
the intellectualized, elitist and esoteric elements of this foreign religion. Traces of this
Chinese egalitarianism and naturalism had been evident even during the first transmission of
Buddhism to China. Chinese translators frequently argued that everyone was capable of
enlightement and preferred Buddhist scriptures that endorsed that view. Other popular
schools (Tiantai and Huayan) drew the positive conclusion from the Madyamika paradox—
everything must already be Buddha. However, as we noted, Chan masters never said this too
plainly and mainly stressed practice. Hence, the popular slogan has it "Tiantai and Huayan
for theory and Chan for practice."
As the Chan attitude spread, it became a cultural movement against the hierarchy of
Buddhism. Schools sprang up all over China. There was little "top-down" organization but a
fairly consistent set of shared attitudes toward Buddhist theory.
Chan Doctrine of No-Doctrine
The Southern school implicitly carried the paradoxes in Buddhism to their logical conclusion.
We looked earlier at how Buddhism's paradox of desire entialed the Boddhisattva ideal. The
Boddhisattva is one who at the last moment gives up the desire for Nirvana that has motivated
all the earlier steps—giving up the desire for sex, money, prestige, food, etc. The Chan twist
is this. Why make the desire for Nirvana the last desire you give up? Why not make it the
first and avoid the search at the outset?
The Daoist Twist
Then with classic Daoist logic, they note that to give up the desire for Nirvana is to give up
the distinction between Nirvana and Samsara. To give up that distinction is to accept that we
are already in Nirvana. There is nothing to realize except that we are already enlightened.
Nirvana/samsara is Buddhism's counterpart of Nietzsche's real-world/apparent-world
distinction. When we give it up, we just turn our minds to practical everyday things and to
our natural or ordinary activities.
The logic leading to Chan is implicit in other aspects of Buddhist doctrine, too. Consider
another feature of the goal of Nirvana. If it consists in the realization that in fact the ego or
soul is an illusion and there is no continuing self, then the Boddhisattva ideal is necessary.
Since there is no individual, there is no individual salvation. Salvation must be total--all
consciousness must be obliterated at once or none is. The individual consciousness in an
illusion so its obliteration is not an accomplishment.
However when we focus on "all" consciousness we talk about all there is. All there is, is
Buddha-nature. Once we are aware that the sum of illusions is Buddha-nature, we see that
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 12
there is nothing to change. We have an awareness that is synonymous with enlightenment.
We no longer see illusions; we see only the Buddha nature—which is identical with our selfnature. This leaves us in ordinary activity, which we do with the fulfilling and tranquil
attitude that Zhuangzi's Butcher Ding exemplified—a total absorption in our "art" where the
distinction between ego and activity disappears.
A New Definition of Medition
The meditation school had always conceived of enlightenment as a kind of emptiness in
which all learning and concepts were set aside. This ideal was close to that of Laozi who
taught that in pursuit of Dao one "subtracts" every day. In principle, enlightenment relied on
no scriptural learning. Even the gradual enlightenment school saw the attainment of prajnawisdom as an uncommunicable insight--but saw it as requiring long preparation via sitting in
silent meditation. The Sudden Enlightenment school, in Daoist fashion, expressed its doctrine
by also denying the distinction between praja-wisdom (or satori, enlightenment, or any other
term for the goal of meditation) and ordinary consciousness. Since there was nothing to
achieve, meditation could not be a means to it. Thus they reinterpreted meditation to be the
practical attitudes one takes when one has abandoned the distinction. Meditation became the
ongoing awareness that one is already Buddha, not as a step toward getting there. Where
Mahayana had first made us imagine that our neighbor might be Buddha, Chan teaches that
we ourselves are.
Hu Shi cites an ancient summary of Chan doctrines which includes all the following sayings:
There is neither Truth [Dharma] to bind us, nor Buddhahood to attain.
Even if there be a life better than Nirvana, I say that that too is as unreal as a dream.
There is neither cultivation, nor no-cultivation; there is neither Buddha, nor no-Buddha.
The Tao is everywhere and in everything. Every idea, every movement of the body--a
cough, a sigh, a snapping of the fingers, or raising of the eyebrows is the functioning of
the Buddha-nature in man. Even love, anger, covetousness and hate are all functionings
of the Buddha-nature.
Let the mind be free. Never seek to do good, nor seek to do evil, nor seek to cultivate the
Tao. Follow the course of Nature, and move freely. Forbid nothing, and do nothing. That
is the way of the 'free man,' who is also called the 'super-man.'
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method."
You are Already Buddha!
If all true existence is Buddha nature, then everything truly already is Buddha nature. Hence
there is nothing to change, nothing to achieve, nothing to do. Chan is the antithesis of
Buddhism set right within the religion itself. One familiar feature of Buddhism is its
opposition to eating meat and its consequent classification of butchers as the lowest
profession. Chinese Chan is replete with stories of the enlightenment of Butchers (no doubt
reflecting the popularity of Zhuangzi's story of Cook Ting). A proverb has it "He puts down
his butcher's cleaver and he is Buddha."
It may seem puzzling that Chan, which we think of as a model of Chinese Buddhist doctrine
would be anti-Buddhist, but let us look at the description given by a contemporary opponent
of the Chan movement in China.
Nowadays, few men have the true faith. Those who travel the path of Ch'an go so far as
to teach the people that there is neither Buddha, nor Law (dharma) and that neither sin
nor goodness has any significance. When they preach these doctrines to the average men
or men below the average, they are believed by all those who live their lives of worldly
desires. Such ideas are accepted as great truths which sound so pleasing to the ear. And
the people are attracted by them just as the moths in the night are drawn to their burning
death by the candle light. . . Such doctrines are as injurious and dangerous as the devil
(Mara) and the ancient heretics.
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 13
Liang Su (753-793) quoted by Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and
Of course, the paradoxical location of Chan within Buddhism is sound. Its fueled its rejection
of Buddhist orthodoxy by its internal contradictions and paradoxes. They are indeed
following Buddhist doctrine in abandoning it.
Feng Yu-lan, a modern historian of Chinese philosophy, agrees that Chan is not a single
school but a widespread social phenomenon with common "popular" traits. He lists five
views shared by nearly all the various original Chan schools in Tang China:
1.The Highest Truth is inexpressible.
Spiritual cultivation cannot be cultivated.
In the last resort, nothing is gained.
There is nothing much in Buddhist teaching.
In carrying water and chopping wood, therein lies the wonderful Dao.
These "doctrines" however, are expressed in the numerous stories that circulated as Chan
worked its Daoist revolution on orthodox Buddhism. Let us look at some:
22. Happy Chinaman
Hotei, the laughing Buddha, is usually portrayed as a fat fellow carrying a linen sack.
This Hotei lived in the Tang dynasty. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to
gather many disciples about him. Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into
which he would put gifts of candy fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to children
who gathered around him in play. He established a kindergarten of the streets.
Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: "Give me one
penny." And if anyone asked him to return to a temple to teach others, again he would
reply: "Give me one penny."
Once as he was about his play-work another Zen master happened along and inquired:
"What is the significance of Zen?"
Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.
"Then," asked the other, "what is the actualization of Zen?"
At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his
3. Gutei's Finger
Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant
began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had
preached about, the boy would raise his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried
and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei,
Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
When Gutei was about to pass from this world he gathered his monks around him. "I
attained my finger-Zen" he said, "from my teacher Tenryu, and in my whole life I could
not exhaust it"' Then he passed away.
8. Tozan'sThree Pound.
A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: "What is Buddha?"
Tozan said: "This flax weighs three pounds."
22. Kashapa's Preaching Sign
Ananda asked Kashapa: "Buddha gave you the golden-woven robe of successorship.
What else did he give you?"
Kashapa said:"Ananda."
Arlanda answered: "Yes, brother."
Said Kashapa: "Now you can take down my preaching sign and put up your own."
24. Without Words, Without Silence
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 14
A monk asked Fuketsu: "Without speaking without silence, how can you express the
Fuketsu observed: "I always remember springtime in southern China. The birds sing
among innumerable kinds of fragrant flowers."
Selected from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps.
Here in my place, I have not a single truth to give you. My work is only to free men
from their bondage, to heal their illness, and to beat the ghosts out of them.
Inwardly and outwardly, do try to kill everything that comes in your way. If the Buddha
be in your way, kill the Buddha. If the Patriarchs be in your way, kill the Patriarchs. If
the Arahats be in your way, kill them. If your father and mother be in your way, kill
them too.... That is the only path to your liberation, your freedom.
"Be independent, and cling to nothing.... Even though Heaven and Earth are turned
upside down, I doubt not. Even though all the Buddhas appear before my eyes, I have
not the slightest gladness at heart. Even though the hellfire of all the three underworlds
burst open before me, I have not the slightest fear."
"Recognize yourself! Wherefore do you seek here and seek there for your Buddhas and
your Bodhisattvas? Wherefore do you seek to get out of the three worlds? O ye fools,
where do you want to go?"
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method." Attributed to Yixuan (died
These stories illustrate the first maxim. When asked for some content of Chan teaching or the
point of Chan, the master instead gives some perfectly mundane ordinary truth—or says
nothing at all.
The following illustrate the second maxim: Spiritual cultivation cannot be cultivated.
34. Learning Is Not the Path
Nansen said: "Mind is not Buddha. Learning is not the path."
41. Bodhidharma Pacifies the Mind
Bodhidharma sits facing the wall. His future successor stands in the snow and presents
his severed arm to Bodhidharma. He cries: "My mind is not pacified. Master, pacify my
Bodhidharma says: "If you bring me that mind, I will pacify it for you."
The successor says: "When I search my mind I cannot hold it."
Bodhidharma says: "Then your mind is pacified already."
Mumon's comment: That broken-toothed old Hindu, Bodhidharma, came thousands of
miles over the sea from India to China as if he had something wonderful. He is like
raising waves without wind. After he remained years in China he had only one disciple
and that one lost his arrn and was deformed. Alas, ever since he has had brainless
Selected from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
The key to this second maxim already lay in Hui Neng's poem expressing his
understanding—there cannot be any dust (illusions) to be wiped away. The mind is already
clean and pure. Beyond accepting our self-nature, there is nothing to do. Of course, accepting
our self nature means doing all kinds of ordinary things. We do them with focused
concentration and calmness we saw illustrated in the Zhuangzi. In Japan, Zen became integral
to a wide range of cultivated arts, most famously the martial arts, flower arranging and teamaking. However, any action can be a theatre for the expression of Chan/Zen meditation.
19. "Now, this being the case, in this method,what is meant by sitting in meditation? In
this method, to sit means to be free from all obstacles, and externally not to allow
thought to rise from the mind over any sphere of objects. To meditate means to realize
the imperturbability of one's original nature. What is meant by meditation and calmness?
Meditation means to be free from all characters externally, calmness means to be
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 15
unpeturbed internally. If there are characters outside and the inner mind is not
disturbed, one's original nature is naturally pure and calm. It is only because of the
spheres of objects that there is contact, and contact leads to perturbation. There is
calmness when one is free from characters and is not perturbed. There is meditation
when one is externally free from characters, and there is calmness when one is internally
undisturbed. Meditation and calmness mean that external meditation is attained and
internal calmness is achieved. The Wei-mo-chieh [so-shuo] ching says, 'Immediately we
become completely clear and recover our original mind.' The P'u-sa chieh ching
(Scripture of Disciplines for Bodhisattvahood) says, 'We are originally pure in our selfnature.' Good and learned friends, realize that your self nature is naturally pure. cultivate
and achieve for yourselves the Law-body of your self-nature. Follow the way of the
Buddha yourselves. Act and achieve Buddhahood for yourselves."
Chan, Sourcebook p. 436
"What is meant by the Pure [Law] of the Buddha? Good and learned friends, our nature
is originally pure. All dharmas lie in this self-nature. If we think of all kinds of evil
deeds, we will practice evil. If we think of all kinds of good deeds, we will do good.
Thus we know that all dharmas lie in one's self-nature. Self-nature is always pure, just
as the sun and moon are always shining. It is only when they are obscured by clouds
that there is brightness above but darkness below and the sun, the moon, and the stars
cannot be seen. But when suddenly a gentle wind blows and scatters all clouds and fog,
all phenomena are abundantly spread out before us, all appearing together.
Chan, Sourcebook p. 437
17. Stingy in Teaching
A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda me a college friend who had been studying
Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.
"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, abut one thing is certain. If you
understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."
That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"
"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.
So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to
determine whether or not the teacher himself was afraid to die.
When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello friend. How are you? We haven't seen
each other for a long time!"
This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: 'We have never met before."
"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving
instruction here."
With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked
if he might receive Zen instruction.
Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with
kindness. That is Zen."
Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A
physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients."
It was not yet clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death. So on
his fourth visit he complained: "My friend told me that when one learns Zen one loses
his fear of death. Each time I come here all you tell me is to take care of my patients. I
know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more."
Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. 'I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a
koan." He presented Kusuda with Joshu's Mu to work over, which is the first
mind-enlightening problem in the book called The Gateless Gate.
Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (NoThing) for two years. At length he thought he
had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: "You are not in yet."
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 16
Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid.
Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and,
without even knowing it, he was free from concern over life and death.
Then when he visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled.
35. Every-Minute Zen
Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach
others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become
a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an
umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: "'I suppose you left your wooden clogs in
the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs."
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen
every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish
his every-minute Zen.
80. The Real Miracle
When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in
salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his
large audience and wanted to debate with him.
Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a
disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.
"The founder of our sect," boasted the priest, "had such miraculous powers that he held
a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other
bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a
wonderful thing?"
Bankei replied lightly: "Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the
manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I
Selected from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
Fung's third precept is most famously expressed by the quasi-paradoxical Buddhist saying
about the transformation of mountains during enlightenment. Before one hears about
Buddhism, the mountains appear as mountains. When one begins to study Buddhism
(especially the doctrine of illusion) the Mountains seem to disappear. After enlightenment,
the mountains again appear as mountains. In the last resort, nothing is gained.
"The Teacher said 'formerly . . . there was a certain disciple who stayed at the Square
Pool Chan Monastery at Shi-fang in Han-zhou There he made a poem which he
displayed widely and which read: "In the square pool there is a turtle-nosed serpent.
Ridiculous indeed when you come to think of it! Who pulled out the serpent's head?"' . .
. . "The Emperor said: 'Another line is needed.' 'It was only made with three lines,'
replied the Teacher. 'Why only three lines?' asked the Emperor. The Teacher replied:
'His idea was to wait (for someone else to finish the poem). For two hundred years no
one was able to add anything, but later an old monk of the Ta Sui (Monastery), named
Yuan-qing after reading over the first three lines, made a statement of his own which
said: "In the square pool there is a turtle-nosed serpent" ' " (28.663).
Fung p. 401
18. A Parable
Buddha told a parable in a sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming
to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over
the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to
where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The
man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked
the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 17
34. A Smile in His Lifetime
Mokugen was never known to smile until his last day on earth. When his time came to
pass away he said to his faithful ones: "You have studied under me for more than ten
years. Show me your real interpretation of Zen. whoever expresses this most clearly
shall be my successor and receive my robe and bowl."
Everyone watched Mokugen's severe face, but no one answered.
Encho, a disciple who had been with his teacher for a long time, moved near the bedside.
He pushed forward the. medicine cup a few inches. This was his answer to the
The teacher's face became even more severe. "Is that all you understand?" he asked.
Encho reached out and moved the cup back again.
A beautiful smile broke over the features of Mokugen. "You rascal," he told Encho.
"You worked with me ten years and have not yet seen my whole body. Take the robe
and bowl. They belong to you."
70. The Most Valuable Thing in the World
Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: "What is the most valuable thing
in the world?"
The master replied: "The head of a dead cat."
"Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?" inquired the
Sozan replied: "Because no one can name its price.
1. Joshu's Dog
A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen master: "Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?"
Joshu answered: "µL wulack."
Selections from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
As we saw, the Chan "theory" mainly takes Buddhist paradoxes to their logical conclusion—
thus becoming Buddhism's own antithesis. The effect of eliminating the distinction between
Nirvana and Samsara, between meditation and ordinary consciousness, is to abandon both
the traditional Buddhist goal and the means to that goal, is that one rejects Buddhism. There
is nothing much in Buddhist teaching. The best place to be is not to take it up at all! The
next best is, having heard it, to ignore it. Chan affirmed ordinary consciousness in action.
This rejection in China included rejecting a lot of Buddhist morality and deliberately flouting
precepts in ways that would shock pious Buddhists.
More Zen Stories. . . .
The following are from "Recorded conversations of I-Hsüan"
9. When the Master was among Huang-po's congregation, his conduct was very pure.
The senior monk said with a sigh, Although he is young, he is different from the rest!"
He then asked, "Sir, how long have you been here?"
The Master said, "Three years."
The senior monk said, "Have you ever gone to the head monk (Huangpo) and asked him
The Master said, "I have not. I wouldn't know what to ask."
The senior monk said, "Why don't you go and ask the head monk what the basic idea of
the Law preached by the Buddha clearly is?"
The Master went and asked the question. But before he finished, Huang-po beat him.
When he came back, the senior monk asked him how the conversation went. The Master
said, "Before I finished my question, he already had beaten me. I don't understand The
senior monk told him to go and ask again.
The Master did and Huang-po beat him again. In this way he asked three times and got
beaten three times.... Huang-po said, "If you go to Ta-yu's place, he will tell you why."
The Master went to Ta-yu, who asked him, "Where have you come from?"
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 18
The Master said, "I am from Huang-po's place."
Ta-yu said, "What did Huang-po have to say?"
The Master said, "I asked three times about the basic idea of the Law preached by the
Buddha and I was beaten three times. I don't know if I was mistaken."
Ta-yu said, "Old kindly Huang-po has been so earnest with you and you still came here
to ask if you were mistaken!"
As soon as the Master heard this, he understood and said, "After all, there is not much in
Huang-po's Buddhism." (TSD, 47:504)
6. Question: "What is meant by the mind's not being different at different times?"
The Master answered, "As you deliberated to ask the question, your mind has already
become different. Therefore the nature and character of dharmas have become
differentiated. Seekers of the Way, do not make any mistake. All mundane and
supramundane dharmas have no nature of their own. Nor have they the nature to be
produced [by causes]. They have only the name Emptiness, but even the name is empty.
Why do you take this useless name as real? You are greatly mistaken! . . . If you seek
after the Buddha, you will be taken over by the devil of the Buddha, and if you seek
after the patriarch, you will be taken over by the devil of the patriarch. If you seek after
anything, you will always suffer. It is better not to do anything. Some unworthy priests
tell their disciples that the Buddha is the ultimate, and that he went through three
infinitely long periods, fulfilled his practice, and then achieved Buddhahood. Seekers of
the Way, if you say that the Buddha is the ultimate, why did he die lying down sidewise
in the forest in Kusinagara after having lived for eighty years? Where is he now?. . .
Those who truly seek after the Law will have no use for the Buddha. They will have no
use for the bodhisattvas or arhats. And they will have no use for any excellence in the
Three Worlds (of desires, matter, and pure spirit). They will be distinctly free and not
bound by material things. Heaven and earth may turn upside down but I shall have no
more uncertainty. The Buddhas of the ten cardinal directions may appear before me and
I shall not feel happy for a single moment. The three paths (of fire, blood, and swords) to
hell may suddenly appear, but I shall not be afraid for a single moment. Why? Because I
know that all dharmas are devoid of characters. They exist when there is transformation
[in the mind] and cease to exist when there is no transformation. The Three Worlds are
but the mind, and all dharmas are consciousness only. Therefore [they are all] dreams,
illusions, and flowers in the air. What is the use of grasping and seizing them?. . .
"I have no trick to give people. I merely cure disease and set people free.... My views are
few. I merely put on clothing and eat meals as usual, and pass my time without doing
anything. You people coming from the various directions have all made up your minds
to seek the Buddha, seek the Law, seek emancipation, and seek to leave the Three
Worlds. Crazy people! If you want to leave the Three Worlds, where can you go?
'Buddha' and 'patriarchs' are terms of praise and also bondage. Do you want to know
where the Three Worlds are? They are right in your mind which is now listening to the
Law." (TSD, 47:499-500)
5. The Master told the congregation: "Seekers of the Way. In Buddhism no effort is
necessary. All one has to do is to do nothing, except to move his bowels, urinate, put on
his clothing, eat his meals, and lie down if he is tired. The stupid will laugh at him, but
the wise one will understand. An ancient person said, 'One who makes effort externally
is surely a fool.'" (TSD, 47:498)
2. The Master ascended the hall and said, "Over a lump of reddish flesh there sits a pure
man who transcends and is no longer attached to any class of Buddhas or sentient
beings. He comes in and out of your sense organs all the time. If you are not yet clear
about it, look, look!"
At that point a monk came forward and asked, "What is a pure man who does not belong
to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings?" The Master came right down from his chair
and, taking hold of the monk, exclaimed, "Speak! Speak!" As the monk deliberated what
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 19
to say, the Master let him go, saying, "What dried human excrement-removing stick is
the pure man who does not belong to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings!"
Thereupon he returned to his room. (TSD, 47:496)
Chan Sourcebook
My advice to you is take a rest and have nothing to do. Even if that little blue-eyed
barbarian, Bodhidharma, should come back here and now, he could only teach you to do
nothing. Put on your clothes, eat your food, and move your bowels. That's all. No
life-and-death [cycle] to fear. No transmigration to dread. No nirvana to achieve, and no
bodhi to acquire. Just try to be an ordinary human being, having nothing to do.
Here, there is neither Buddha, nor Patriarchs.... The bodhisattvas are only dung-heap
coolies. Nirvana and bodhi are dead stumps to tie your donkeys to. The twelve divisions
of the Sacred Teaching are only lists of ghosts, sheets of paper fit only for wiping the
pus from your boils. And all the 'four fruitions' and 'ten stages' are mere ghosts lingering
in their decayed graves. Have these anything to do faith your salvation?"
The wise seek not the Buddha. The Buddha is the great murderer who has seduced so
many people into the pitfalls of the prostituting Devil." "That old barbarian rascal
{Buddha] claimed that he had survived the destruction of three worlds. Where is he
now? Did he not die after eighty years of life? Was he in any way different from you?"
"O ye wise men, disengage your bodies and your minds! Free yourselves from all
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method." (attributed to Xuan-qien d.
14. Muddy Road
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was
still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a sink kimono and sash, unable to cross
the intersection.
"Come on, girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he
no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan,
"especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?'
76. The Stone Mind
Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four
traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm
While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and
objectivity. He joined them and said: "There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be
inside or outside your mind?"
One of the monks replied: "From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification
of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."
"Your head must feel very heavy," observed Hogen, "if you are carrying around a stone
like that in your mind."
4. A Beardless Foreigner
Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma: "Why hasn't that
fellow a beard?'
14. Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two
Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the
cat and told the monks: "If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat."
No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.
That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals
and, placing them on his head, walked out.
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 20
Nansen said: "If you had been there, you could have saved the cat."
Selections from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
One of Ma-tsu's famous disciples, T'ien-jan (died 824) of Tanhsia (Tanka in Japanese),
was spending a night at a ruined temple with a few traveling companions. The night was
bitterly cold and there was no firewood. He went to the Hall of Worship, took down the
wooden image of the Buddha, and made a comfortable fire. When he was reproached by
his comrades for this act of sacrilege, he said: "I was only looking for the sarira (sacred
relic) of the Buddha." "How can you expect to find sarira in a piece of wood?" said his
fellow travelers. "Well," said T'ien-jan, "then, I am only burning a piece of wood after
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method."
The final common precept we have seen scattered through all the stories. It alludes to Hui
Neng's profession and is expressed in Daoist rather than Buddhist terms. Chan can be be
practiced in any activity. Hui Neng reached his enlightenment chopping and carrying wood
and pounding rice. As we noted above, the Chan meditative state is a state that accompanies
any purposive activity when we are totally engaged in it for its own sake, and not seeking
some metaphysical goal. In that kind of calm absorption in what we are doing, even the ego
dissolves so that we are, as it were, one with the activity. While the most famous examples of
such action tend to be arts—martial arts to painting and flower arranging, ritual acts are
natural expressions (as in the Japanese Tea Ceremony or Confucian rituals). Confucianism
frowned on buying and selling, money handling etc. as occupations so the Chan school
supplied the mercantile class in China.
What’s a Zen Master to Do?
Another occupation a person may have is "Buddhist master." And Chan masters had no more
reason to abandon doing that than Zhuangzi had to abandon language. People still came to
them having heard about Buddhism and trying to achieve something and the master still has
to find a way to heal their affliction—their desire to achieve some Buddhist goal. In doing
this, they found the best thing was to force the student to think things through the self-healing
conclusion on their own.
The iconoclastic stories and sayings they used to stimulate the student's own reflection have
become strongly associated with Chan/Zen. The most famous is the activity of meditating on
a Koan (a riddle with no solution). The point of the iconoclasm and the koan is to force the
student to abandon the attempt to get "ultimate" answers and get on with life. A Zen
"meditation" session invariably includes a "walking Zen" component. A master would often
"teach" a disciple by throwing him out of the temple and sending him to walk about in the
world. There, in a chance meeting with a small child by a well who gives him a gift or a
farmer behind his ox, he may get the point that he would never see while in the Temple.
Chan Buddhism thus developed a characteristic pedagogy (teaching style). It included,
besides shocking statements and Koans, shouting, spitting, and beating the student when they
asked too persistently for answers to metaphysical of Buddhist questions.
The following are from "Recorded conversations of I-Hsüan"
A monk asked, "What is the basic idea of the Law preached by the Buddha?" Thereupon
the Master shouted at him. The monk paid reverence.
The Master said, "The Master and the monk can argue all right."
Question: "Master, whose tune are you singing? Whose tradition are you perpetuating?"
The Master said, "When I was a disciple of Huang-po, I asked him three times and I was
beaten three times."
As the monk hesitated about what to say, the Master shouted at him and then beat him,
saying, "Don't nail a stick into empty space.''
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 21
3. The Master ascended the hall. A monk asked, "What is the basic idea of the Law
preached by the Buddha?" The Master lifted up his swatter. The monk shouted, and the
Master beat him.
[The monk asked again], "What is the basic idea of the Law preached by the Buddha?"
The Master again lifted up his swatter. The monk shouted, and the Master shouted also.
As the monk hesitated about what to say, the Master beat him.
Thereupon the Master said, "Listen, men. Those who pursue after the Law will not
escape from death. I was in my late Master Huang-po's place for twenty years. Three
times I asked him about the basic idea of the Law preached by the Buddha and three
times he bestowed upon me the staff. I felt I was struck only by a dried stalk. Now I wish
to have a real beating. Who can do it to me?"
One monk came out of the group and said, "I can do it."
The Master picked up the staff to give him. As he was about to take it over, the Master
beat him. (TSD, 47:496-497)
7. Ma-ku came to participate in a session. As he arranged his seating cushion, he asked,
"Which face of the twelve-face Kuan-yin faces the proper direction?"
The Master got down from the rope chair. With one hand he took away Ma-ku's cushion
and with the other he held Ma-ku, saying, Which direction does the twelve-face
Kuan-yin face?"
Ma-ku turned around and was about to sit in the rope chair. The Master picked up the
staff and beat him. Ma-ku having grasped the staff, the two dragged each other into the
8. The Master asked a monk: "Sometimes a shout is like the sacred sword of the
Diamond King. Sometimes a shout is like a golden-haired lion squatting on the ground.
Sometimes a shout is like a rod or a piece of grass [used to attract fish]. And sometimes
a shout is like one which does not function as a shout at all. How do you know which
one to use?"
As the monk was deliberating what to say, the Master shouted. (TSD, 47:504)
Chan Sourcebook
Warring Interpretations of Zen Stories
Pious Japanese Zen popularizes, especially those who make their living writing pretentious
books about Zen's irrationalism, treat all these perfectly clear statements of Buddhist atheism
as evidence of its elevated and incomprehensible character. Here is Hu Shi's description of
the choice facing an adherent of Buddhism.
Thus, when the master Wen-yen (died 949), founder of the Yunmen School, was asked
"What is the Buddha like?" he answered: "A dried stick of dung." (This is so profanely
iconoclastic that Suzuki probably deliberately mistranslates it as "A dried-up
dirt-cleaner," which, of course, is incorrect and meaningless.) Such an answer is not
nonsensical at all; it harks back to the iconoclastic teachings of his spiritual grandfather,
Hsuan-chien, who had actually said: "The Buddha is a dried piece of dung of the
barbarians, and sainthood is only an empty name."
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method."
The actions and statements are only incomprehensible mysteries if you cling religiously to
Buddhism. If you believed in God and someone you accepted as his spokesman, as a
religious leader said "God is a pile of Dung," you would either have to: cease to regard him as
a spokesman, cease to believe in God, or treat his statement as having some profoundly
mysterious meaning.
The final pedagogical technique is the one where the master kicks the disciple out of the
temple. Sends him out into the world to xing-jiao—learn from walking around. It fits in with
the fifth precept of Chan—Dao can be found in any activity. Here is Hu Shi's description:
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 22
But the novice in all probability would not understand. So, he retires to the kitchen and
washes the dishes. He is puzzled and feels ashamed of his failure to understand. After
some time, he is told to leave the place and try his luck elsewhere. Here he begins the
third stage of his education— the third and most important phase of the pedagogical
method, which was called hsing-chiao "traveling on foot."
Those critics who call the Ch'an method irrational and mystical and, therefore,
"absolutely beyond the ken of human understanding," are men who fail to appreciate the
great educational value of this third phase, which consists of sending the learner
traveling from one hill to another, from one school to another, studying under one
master and then another. Many of the famous Ch'an masters spent fifteen or twenty or
thirty years in traveling and studying under many well-known masters.
Let me cite what Chu Hsi said in deep appreciation of the value of "traveling on foot" in
the Ch'an schools. The great leader of the Neo-Confucianist movement was sick in bed
and was approaching his death, which came only a few months later. One of his favorite
mature disciples, Ch'en Ch'un had come to visit him and spend a few days at his school.
One evening, Chu Hsi in his sickbed said to the visitor: "Now you must emulate the
monk's method of hsing-chiao (traveling on foot). That will enable you to meet the best
minds of the empire, to observe the affairs and conditions of the country, to see the
scenery and topography of the mountains and rivers, and to study the historical traces of
the rise and fall, peace and war, right and wrong, of the past and present governments.
Only in that way may you see the truth in all its varied respects.... There was never a
sage who knew nothing of the affairs of the world. There was never a sage who could
not deal with novel and changing situations. There was never a sage who sat alone in
meditation behind closed doors...."
Let us return to our traveling novice, who, as a monk, travels always on foot, carrying
only a stick, a bowl, and a pair of straw sandals. He begs all the way for his food and
lodging, often having to seek shelter in ruined temples, caves, or deserted houses by the
roadside. He suffers the severities of nature and sometimes has to bear the unkindness of
He sees the world and meets all kinds of people. He studies under the great minds of the
age and learns to ask better questions and have real doubts of his own. He befriends
kindred souls with whom he discusses problems and exchanges views. In this way, his
experience is widened and deepened, and his understanding grows. Then, one day, he
hears a chance remark of a charwoman, or a frivolous song of a dancing girl, or smells
the quiet fragrance of a nameless flower—and he suddenly understands! How true, "the
Buddha was like a piece of dung"! And how true, "he is also like three pounds of hemp"!
All is so evident now. "The bottom has dropped out of the bucket": the miracle has
And he travels long distances back to his old master, and, with tears and with gladness at
heart, he gives thanks and worships at the feet of his good ; teacher, who never made
things easy for him.
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method."
The History of Chan and the Decline of Buddhism
Most sects of Buddhism in China survived on lavish imperial patronage. The cost of their
temples and paraphernalia necessary for elaborate ritual was considerable. When the revival
of Confucianism led to persecutions of Buddhism during the T'ang dynasty, sutras were
destroyed, priests laicized, dwellings converted to "human" use, slaves freed. Here is Hu
Shi's description of the great persecution.
But this reformation within Buddhism itself, this internal revolution within a section of
Buddhism, had not gone far enough or long enough to save Buddhism from a
catastrophic external revolution. This external revolution came in August, 845, in the
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 23
form of the greatest persecution of Buddhism in the entire history of its two thousand
years in China
The Great Persecution was ordered by Emperor Wu-tsung (841-846), who was
undoubtedly under the strong influence of a few leading Taoist priests. But the
persecution of 845-846, like those of 446, 574, and 955, also represented the
deep-rooted centuries-long, Chinese nationalistic resentment against Buddhism as a
foreign and un-Chinese religion. Early in the ninth century, Han Yu (768-824), one of
the greatest classical writers of China, published a famous essay in which he openly
denounced Buddhism as un-Chinese, as a way of life of the barbarians. He frankly
advocated a ruthless suppression: "Restore its people to human living! Burn its books!
And convert its buildings to human dwellings!" Twenty-one years after his death, those
savage slogans were carried out in every detail.
The Great Persecution lasted only two years, but long enough to destroy 4,600 big
temples and monasteries and over 40,000 minor places of worship and Ch'an retreat,
confiscate millions of acres of landed property of the Church, free 150,000 male and
female slaves or retainers of the temples and monasteries, and force 265,000 monks and
nuns to return to secular life. Only two temples with thirty monks each were permitted to
stand in each of the two capitals, Changan and Loyang. Of the 228 prefectures in the
Empire, only the capital cities of the "first-grade" prefectures were permitted to retain
one temple each with ten monks. Buddhist scriptures and images and stone monuments
were destroyed wherever they were found. At the end of one of the persecution decrees,
after enumerating what had already been accomplished in the policy of Buddhist
persecution, the Emperor said: "Henceforth the affairs of monks and nuns shall be
governed by the Bureau of Affairs of Foreigners, thereby to show clearly that they
belong to the religion of the barbarians."
The persecution, disastrous and barbaric as it was, probably had the effect of enhancing
the prestige of the Ch'an monks, who never had to rely upon the great wealth or the
architectural splendor and extravagance of the great temples and monasteries. Indeed,
they did not have to rely even upon the scriptures. And at least some of them had been
theoretically or even overtly iconoclastic.
In one of the unusually frank biographical monuments of the post- persecution period,
the biographer of the monk Ling-yu (died 853), a descendant of Ma-tsu and founder of
the Kwei-shan and Yang-shan Schools of Ch'an, tells us that at the time of the Great
Persecution, Ling-yu simply put on the cap and dress of the layman when he was
ordered to return to secular life. "He did not want to be in any way different from the
people," said the biographer. And when the persecution was over and the Buddhist
religion was permitted to revive, the Governor of Hunan, who was a Buddhist and a
friend of many leading Ch'an masters including Tsung-mi, invited Ling-yu to come out
of his retirement and suggested that he should shave off his beard and hair. He refused to
shave, saying with a smile: "Do you think that Buddhism has anything to do with my
hair and beard?" But when he was repeatedly urged to shave, he yielded, again with a
smile. That was the way a great Ch'an master looked at the Great Persecution. He did
not seem to have been much disturbed.
Hu Shi: "Chan Buddhism in China: Its History and Method."
All these actions weakened establishment Buddhism relative to Chan Buddhism which had no
need for temples, rituals, robes, shaving the head. The Chan masters could continue to
perform rituals when the persecution was over, but were still trying to convey their
iconoclastic, revolutionary views. This strengthened their interest in indirect pedagogy-shocking the student into an awareness that nothing needed to be done, that there was no
serious implication of Buddhist teaching.
Chan Buddhism is the spirit of Daoism in revolt against Buddhism instead of Confucianism.
It's language is different, but its thrust is the same.
Important points to remember:
Comparative Introduction to PhilosophyPage 24
The four noble truths generate a paradox—the paradox of desire.
The ultimate resolution of the paradox is the Chan (Zen)
conclusion that we are already Buddha.
This insight is not merely an extreme Mahayana view, but an
expression of Daoism in Buddhist form.
The Daoist key contributions are the view that we can eliminate
the desire for nirvana by “forgetting” the distinction and
Zhuangzi’s focus on the ecstatic performance of skill.
Chan (Zen) stories seem to illustrate Fung’s 5 common beliefs of
Chinese Southern Chan Sects.
Much of the spirit of Chan changed when it was transported to
Questions for Review and Discussion
Explain the paradox of desire. How does Chan Buddhism push the logic of the Mahayana
answer further?
Does Chan Buddhism discover contradictions in reason or rationality or does it discover only
contradiction in Buddhism?
How could a Chan Buddhism justify going back into the temple and working as a Buddhist