THE DISPUTED PLACE OF "A SPECIAL TRANSMISSION" OUTSIDE THE SCRIPTURES" IN CH'AN
by Albert Welter
Albert Welter is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Winnipeg .
This paper, which will appear in two instalments, is part of the Buddhist studies program of the Ch'an Meditation Center Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture. 1996
T'ang Ch'an and the Myth of Bodhidharma
The figure of Bodhidharma casts a large shadow over Ch'an and Zen studies. The fact that little is known about Bodhidharma is hardly unusual in the history of religions, where historical obscurity often serves as a prerequisite for posthumous claims regarding sectarian identity. Indeed, one learns much about the nature and character of Ch'an through Bodhidharma, around whose image the most successful challenge to Chinese Buddhist scholasticism was mounted.
According to currently accepted views of Ch'an history, the successful assault of Ch'an on Buddhist scholasticism coincided with a period of vibrant dynamism, during which the activities of a core group of Ch'an masters, Ma-tsu Tao-i, Pai-chang Huai-hai, Huang-po Hsi-yun, Lin-chi I-hsüan, and so on, formed the basic components of Ch'an identity. Following this so-called "golden age", Ch'an dynamism was reduced to static formalism, and fell into a state of decline. According to this view, Sung Buddhism represents the "sunset period", the twilight glow of a once strong, vital tradition, reduced to a shadow of its former glory. From this perspective, the golden age of Buddhism in China , including Ch'an, was unequivocally the T'ang dynasty (618-907). The Sung represents the beginning of a period of unremitting decline.
Bodhidharma has a special place in this story. As champion of a "mind to mind transmission," focusing on the enlightenment experience occurring in the context of the master-disciple relationship, Bodhidharma initiated the alternative to the textually-based teachings of the scholastic tradition. Bodhidharma's role in the transformation of Chinese Buddhism was widely acknowledged by the beginning of the Sung. The early Sung Buddhist historian, Tsan-ning (919-1001), spoke positively of Bodhidharma's role in criticizing prevailing exegetical conventions within Chinese Buddhist scholasticism. He acknowledged Bodhidharma as the first to proclaim: "Directly point to the human mind; see one's nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters."
The traditional position of Ch'an and Zen orthodoxy has been that the slogans originated with Bodhidharma and that they represent the implicit message of Ch'an teaching from its outset. Ch'an historians, following contemporary Zen scholarship, regard the slogans as products of the T'ang period, reflecting the rise to prominence of the Ch'an movement in the eighth and ninth centuries during its "golden age." As a result, the slogans are typically regarded as normative statements for a Ch'an identity fully developed by the end of the T'ang. Knowledgeable observers will note, however, that one slogan is missing from Tsan-ning's list. The principles of Ch'an identity are usually expressed through four slogans, not just the three mentioned by Tsan-ning here. The importance of the missing slogan, "A special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'üan/ kyôge betsuden), is highlighted by the fact that it usually heads the list. The purpose of the present investigation is to inquire into the origins of these slogans and the way they came to represent the Ch'an tradition of Bodhidharma, highlighting the disputed position of Ch'an as "A special transmission outside the scriptures" in Sung discourse.
Ch'an Slogans and the Formation of Ch'an Identity
Individually, the four slogans are found in works dating before the Sung, but they do not appear together as a four part series of expressions until well into the period when they are attributed to Bodhidharma in the Tsu-t'ing shih-yüan (Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs) in 1108. Even then, their acceptance was not without controversy. Mu-an, the compiler of the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, remarked contemptuously: "Many people mistake the meaning of 'do not establish words and letters.' They speak frequently of abandoning the scriptures and regard silent sitting as Ch'an. They are truly the dumb sheep of our school." In reality, three of the slogans- "do not establish words and letters"; "directly point to the human mind"; "see one's nature and become a Buddha"- were well established as normative Ch'an teaching by the beginning of the Sung. The status of the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures," as an interpretation of the true meaning of "do not establish words and letters" (pu li wen-tzu, literally "no establish words-letters") was the subject of continued controversy.
"Seeing one's nature" was an old idea in China that was promoted by Tao-sheng (355-434), a disciple of Kumarajiva. Drawing from Mahayana doctrine, Tao-sheng advocated the notion of an inherent Buddha-nature in everyone. The full phrase chien-hsing ch'eng-fo ("see one's nature and become a Buddha") first appeared in a commentary to the Nirvâna sûtra, in a statement attributed to Seng-lang prior to the T'ang dynasty. The slogans "do not establish words and letters" and "directly point to the human mind" became common parlance in Ch'an circles by the end of the T'ang period.
The first use of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'uan) that can be documented with historical certainty is in the Tsu-t'ang chi (Collection of the Patriarch's Hall), compiled in 952. The phrase is also included in a "tomb-inscription" of Lin-chi I-hsüan (?-866), attributed to Lin-chi's disciple, Yen-chao, appended to the end of the Lin-chi lu, the record of Lin-chi's teachings. The historical authenticity of this inscription as the work of Lin-chi's disciple is highly dubious, as the Rinzai scholar Yanagida Seizan has pointed out. The connection of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" with the Lin-chi lu (Record of Lin-chi) is highly suggestive, however, of a Ch'an identity that developed in the Lin-chi lineage during the Sung.
While the Lin-chi lu professes to be the record of Lin-chi's words and deeds as recorded by his disciples, the current form of the text dates from an edition issued in 1120. The beginning of the twelfth century is also the time when the slogan "a special teaching outside the scriptures" was mentioned in the list of Ch'an slogans attributed to the Ch'an patriarch Bodhidharma in the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, mentioned above. The association of this slogan with Lin-chi and Bodhidharma was the culmination of a process through which the identity of Ch'an was transformed by members of the Lin-chi lineage.
Ch'an Orthodoxy at the Outset of the Sung: Ch'an as "A Special Transmission Within the Scriptures"
In the tenth century, the period of the so-called "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms," China was without effective central control and the country was politically and geographically divided into several autonomous regions. The fate of Buddhism fell into the hands of warlords who controlled these regions. Given the recent experience of dynastic collapse and the perception of Buddhist culpability for T'ang failings, most warlords continued policies established in the late T'ang designed to restrict Buddhist influence over Chinese society. As a result, support for Buddhism during this period was geographically isolated to a few regions. Ch'an lineages emerged as the principal beneficiaries of this regionally-based support.
The Buddhist revival in tenth century China was dominated by supporters of the Fa-yen lineage. Fa-yen's teachings attracted numerous students, many of whom achieved considerable fame. The normative definition of Ch'an in Fa-yen circles envisioned Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Chinese Buddhism, and the basis for the revival of Chinese Buddhist civilization. It was rooted in a T'ang vision of Buddhism as an indispensable force in the creation of a civilized society. As a result, the Wu-yüeh kingdom depended on the re-establishment of Buddhist institutions as central features of Wu-yüeh society and culture. To this end, Wu-yüeh rulers made a concentrated effort to rebuild temples and pilgrimage sites, and to restore the numerous Buddhist monuments and institutions that had suffered from neglect and the ravages of war. Historically important centers in the region, such as Mt. T'ien-t'ai, were rebuilt. New Buddhist centers, like the Yung-ming Temple in Lin-an (Hang-chou), were established. Ambassadors were sent abroad, to Japan and Korea , to collect copies of important scriptures no longer available in China . After several decades of constant dedication to these activities, the monks and monasteries of Wu-yüeh acquired considerable reputations. Monks throughout China fled to Wu-yüeh monasteries.
In addition to embracing Ch'an innovations, Wu-yüeh Ch'an identified with old T'ang traditions, and this identification with the larger Buddhist tradition became a standard feature in the collective memory of Wu-yüeh Ch'an. The distinguishing character of the Fa-yen lineage within Ch'an is typically recalled through the syncretic proclivities of its patriarchs, normally reduced to the harmony between Ch'an and Hua-yen in Wen-i's teachings, between Ch'an and T'ien-t'ai in Te-shao's teachings, and between Ch'an and Pure Land in Yen-shou's teachings.
The Wu-yüeh view of Ch'an was officially represented at the Sung court by Tsan-ning, a scholar-monk who served as a leading official in Wu-yüeh, and in turn, at the Sung court. The "official" view of Wu-yüeh Ch'an presented to the Sung court by Tsan-ning accepted three slogans attributed to Bodhidharma as defining normative Ch'an teaching, and a characterization of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism ("the ch'an of the Supreme Vehicle"). The fact that the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures", was missing from this normative definition is closely connected to the view of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism, which presupposes harmony between Ch'an and Buddhist teaching. Rather than "a special transmission outside the scriptures," Tsan-ning considered Bodhidharma's teaching as a branch of the larger tradition of Buddhism stemming from Shakyamuni. According to Tsan-ning, those who conceive of a Ch'an identity independent of Buddhist teaching do not understand that "the scriptures (ching) are the words of the Buddha, and meditation (ch'an) is the thought of the Buddha; there is no discrepancy whatsoever between what the Buddha conceives in his mind and what he utters with his mouth."
The Wu-yüeh perspective on the harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures was not unprecedented, but represented the "official" view in the T'ang. A century earlier, Tsung-mi (780-841), an influential interpreter of Buddhism recognized as a patriarch in both the Ch'an and Hua-yen traditions, promoted harmony or correspondence between Ch'an and Buddhist teachings, arguing that Ch'an teachings are in accord with the Buddhist canon, on the one hand, and the doctrinal positions of Chinese Buddhist schools, on the other. Tsung-mi's views provided the model for Wu-yüeh Ch'an, both for Tsan-ning and for Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975), Wu-yüeh Ch'an's greatest spokesperson.
Yen-shou recommended pluralism as the guiding principle governing Buddhist teaching and practice. For Yen-shou, Ch'an suggested the principle of inclusion in which the entire Buddhist tradition culminated in a grand epiphany. Doctrinally, this meant that the entire scriptural canon became united in a great, all encompassing harmony. From the perspective of practice, all actions, without exception, became Buddha deeds. Yen-shou clearly advocated a Ch'an practice based in the Buddhist traditions of the past, opposing those who "have become attached to emptiness, and [whose practice] is not compatible with the scriptures."
In the end, much was at stake over the two competing interpretations of Ch'an. The two conceptions of Ch'an as "harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures," or "a special transmission outside the scriptures," reflect different religious epistemologies. In essence, the distinction here is between a form of rationalism, a view that reasoned explanation is capable of communicating the truth coupled with the belief that the vehicle of this reasoned explanation is Buddhist scripture, and a type of mysticism, a view that the experience of enlightenment is beyond reification, verbal explanation, or rational categories, and that Buddhist scripture is incapable of conveying that experience. The debate in early Sung Ch'an was whether Ch'an is acquiescent with the tradition of Buddhist rationalism or belongs to an independent mystical tradition.
The history of Ch'an and Zen is generally presented as denying Buddhist rationalism in favor of a mysticism that in principle transcends every context, including even the Buddhist one. The "orthodox" Ch'an position maintains that the phrase "do not establish words and letters" is consistent with "a special transmission outside the scriptures," treating the two slogans as a pair. In this interpretation, both phrases are said to point to the common principle that true enlightenment, as experienced by the Buddha and transmitted through the patriarchs, is independent of verbal explanations, including the record of the Buddha's teachings (i.e., scriptures) and later doctrinal elaborations. This interpretation was not acknowledged in Wu-yüeh Ch'an, which distinguished the phrase "do not establish words and letters" from the principle of an independent transmission apart from the scriptures, and treated the two as opposing ideas. Wu-yüeh Ch'an acknowledged the validity of Bodhidharma's warning against attachment to scriptures and doctrines, but did not accept that this warning amounted to a categorical denial. As Ch'an became established in the Sung, monks and officials rose to challenge the Wu-yüeh interpretation, and insist on an independent tradition apart from the scriptures.
In the next issue, we will look at how monks associated with the Lin-chi lineage, along with the highly placed officials that supported them, argued for official recognition of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures." The vehicle for their claims came with the compilation of new "transmission records", the Ch'an lineage histories that came to typify Sung dynasty Ch'an as a movement in search of a new identity, disinguishing it as the most vibrant form of Chinese Buddhism.
CH'AN SLOGANS AND THE CREATION OF CH'AN IDEOLOGY: THE DISPUTED PLACE OF "A SPECIAL TRANSMISSION OUTSIDE THE SCRIPTURES" IN CH'AN (Part II)
The first half of this paper appeared in the summer 1996 issue of the Ch'an Magazine, as part of the Buddhist Studies program of the Ch'an Meditation Center Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture.
In the previous issue, we witnessed how the prevailing image of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" was not the dominant understanding of Ch'an during the T'ang period, contrary to the way the Ch'an and Zen tradition is typically represented in contemporary writings. Instead, we saw how the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" was a post-T'ang innovation, and that the most representative view of Ch'an, the officially recognized interpretation of the Fa-yen lineage in the Wu-yüeh region, was of Ch'an teaching as "a special transmission within the scriptures," the exact opposite of the typical image most people have today. This issue traces the way in which monks associated with the Lin-chi lineage, along with the highly placed officials who supported them, successfully argued for official recognition of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" at the Sung court with the compilation of innovative "transmission records" that served to substantiate Ch'an claims to uniqueness against the wider background of the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
The Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu and the Fo-tzu t'ung-tsan chi: A Tale of Two Prefaces
The view of harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures exhibited in the writings of Yen-shou and Tsan-ning is oddly inconsistent with the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu (The Transmission of the Lamp in the Ching-te Era, compiled by Tao Yuan in 1004), the influential transmission record promoting the Fa-yen lineage compiled by fellow Wu-yüeh monk Tao-yüan. The Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu was innovative in ways that signalled a departure from Wu-yüeh Ch'an. It became the model for the new style of Buddhist biography that became prevalent in Sung Ch'an, emphasizing lineage as the basis for sectarian identity. Moreover, through the prominence it gave to transmission verses and "encounter dialogues," it represented a style of Ch'an that seemed at odds with conventional Buddhism and "harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures."
Other evidence suggests that Tao-yüan supported the Wu-yüeh view of a harmonious relationship between Ch'an and the scriptures in a manner similar to Yen-shou and Tsan-ning. The evidence is based on a comparison of the two prefaces to the work that became known as the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu: the preface by Yang I (974-1020), a prominent Sung official who re-edited the text and provided it with the title by which it became known, and the preface by the original compiler of the text, Tao-yüan. Yang I's preface became attached to the text in all later editions, achieving the status of the "standard" preface associated with the work. Tao-yüan's preface became largely unknown; it was not attached to the work itself, but was recorded separately.
Yang I's preface reveals that Tao-yüan's original compilation was subjected to an editing process by leading Sung officials, headed by Yang I himself. Since Tao-yüan's original compilation is no longer extant, it is difficult to assess the extent to which editorial changes were made to the text during this process. The two prefaces indicate that, at the very least, the conception of the work was significantly altered under Yang I's supervision. Tao-yüan's original title for the work, Fo-tzu t'ung-tsan chi (Collection of the Common Ch'an Practice of the Buddhas and Patriarchs), suggests harmony between Ch'an and the Buddhist tradition. The disparity between Tao-yüan's conception for the work he called the Fo-tzu t'ung-tsan chi and Yang I's conception of the revised work, the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu, is further reflected in the content of their respective prefaces.
Tao-yüan conceived of Ch'an practice in a way that was consistent with Wu-yüeh Ch'an, especially following the promotion of myriad good deeds (wan-shan) advocated in the writings of Yen-shou. Tao-yüan's conception of Ch'an teaching where "myriad practices are employed according to differences among practitioners", stands in stark contrast to the conception of Ch'an in Yang I's preface. According to Tao-yüan, Ch'an teaching employed wan-hsing, the "myriad practices," while to Yang I Ch'an represented a "special practice outside the scriptures." Not only did Yang I's phrase promote Ch'an exclusivity and implicitly undermine Ch'an pluralism, it paralleled the expression "a special transmission outside the scriptures" coming into vogue around the same time.
Yang I's presence in the reinterpretation of Ch'an is an indication of the importance Ch'an had in the Sung and the role played by Sung literati in determining the shape of Ch'an ideology. Yang I, more than any other figure, was responsible for establishing Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" in official circles.
The T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu and Ch'an Identity as "A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures"
According to the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu, the interpretation of Ch'an as a "special transmission outside the scriptures" was not the innovation of Bodhidharma or Lin-chi, as later tradition would suggest. The first mention of "a special transmission outside the scriptures" in the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu is in the biography of Ch'an master Kuei-sheng, recipient of a Purple Robe, from the Kuang-chiao Temple in Ju-chou. The dates of Kuei-sheng's life are unknown, but the dates of contemporaries whose biographies are before and after his indicate that he was active in the last decades of the tenth century and the first decades of the eleventh. Kuei-sheng uses the phrase in connection with a sermon in which he attempts to explain the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west: "When Bodhidharma came from the west and transmitted the Dharma in the lands of the east (i.e., China), he directly pointed to the human mind, to see one's nature and become a Buddha.... What is the meaning of his coming from the west? A special transmission outside the scriptures." In this way, Kuei-sheng's reference to "a special transmission outside the scriptures" was directly connected to established slogans of the collective Ch'an identity, the image of Bodhidharma and the implicit meaning of his message. This same link between Bodhidharma's message and the interpretation of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" is also established in the biography of Ch'an master Shih-shuang Ch'u-yüan (987-1040) of Mt. Nan-yüan in Yüan-chou, active in the early decades of the eleventh century. As the teacher of both Yang-ch'i Fang-hui (992-1049) and Huang-lung Hui-nan (1002-1069), heads of the two branches that have dominated the Lin-chi lineage since the Sung, the influence of Ch'u-yüan's interpretation was of great significance for the future of Sung Ch'an. Although the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu did not associate the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" with the biography of Bodhidharma himself, it did incorporate significant innovations in that direction. This involves the story recounting how the "special transmission" was first conceived in the interchange between Shakyamuni and Kashyapa, in which Kashyapa responds with a smile when Shakyamuni holds up a flower to the assembly. This became one of the most famous stories in the Ch'an repertoire, a cardinal event for advocates of a silent transmission of the truth independent of words and letters.
The transmission between Shakyamuni and Kashyapa is acknowledged in the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu as a transmission of "the pure Dharma-eye, the wondrous mind of nirvâna," but there is no mention of the famous episode of the flower and Kashyapa's smile. The first mention of this story in Ch'an transmission records is in the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu, which comes as no surprise in light of our previous discussion highlighting the role of this text in establishing Sung Ch'an identity in terms of "a special transmission outside the scriptures." Shakyamuni, acknowledging Kashyapa's smile upon presenting the flower to the assembly, announces: "I possess the treasury of the true Dharma-eye, the wondrous mind of nirvâna. I entrust it to MahâKashyapa." The content of the treasury of the true Dharma-eye (cheng fa-yen tsang), the essence of Buddhist teaching that Shakyamuni was said to possess, was not yet explicitly connected to the expression chiao-wai pieh-ch'uan (a special transmission outside the scriptures), but the basis for identifying the two was clearly drawn. The appearance in the same transmission record, the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu, of an interpretation of Ch'an as a tradition independent of Buddhist scriptural teaching and a story about how that independent tradition began shows how actively Ch'an advocates worked to reconstruct their image in the early Sung.
The first version of the story to make explicit what was only implicitly drawn in the T'ien-sheng kuang-teng lu was the Ta-fan t'ien-wang wen-fo chüeh-i ching (The Scripture in which Brahman Asks Buddha to Resolve his Doubts). Ostensibly part of the Buddhist canon of works translated into Chinese from Indian or Central Asian originals, there is no evidence that this "scripture" existed prior to the Sung. It is widely regarded as apocryphal, all the more so for the scriptural support it conveniently provided for the story involving Shakyamuni and Kashyapa. According to the Ta-fan t'ien-wang wen-fo chüeh-i ching version of the story, as Shakyamuni sat before the assembly holding the lotus-blossom given him by Brahman, Kashyapa, speechless and without uttering a word, broke into a smile. The Buddha proclaimed, "I possess the treasury of the true Dharma-eye, the wondrous mind of nirvâna, miraculous Dharma-methods born of the formlessness of true form, not established on words and letters, a special transmission outside the scriptures, etc." and went on to entrust it to Kashyapa. This proclamation established the origins of the Ch'an tradition in terms that directly linked the content of the Buddha's teaching, "the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the wondrous mind of nirvâna," etc., to the Ch'an identity as "a special transmission outside the scriptures." It did so, ironically, under the pretext of scriptural authorization.
The new acceptance of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" was broadened through the uniquely Sung literary form, the collections of kung-an case studies. The Wu-men kuan (Gateless Barrier), compiled at the end of the Sung in 1229, includes the story of the interaction between Shakyamuni and Kashyapa as one of its case studies, following the version established in the apocryphal Ta-fan t'ien-wang wen-fo chüeh-i ching. Through the inclusion of the story in the Wu-men kuan, the interpretation of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures" reached countless numbers of Ch'an and Zen students, continuing down to the present day.
What does the above suggest about the nature of the Ch'an tradition? Rather than the "standard" view of Ch'an as intrinsically representative of specific norms and values, I see the Ch'an tradition as the struggle between contending forces and interpretations. This process reveals Ch'an practitioners manufacturing their identities by forging their own histories, deciding what is important, what to include and exclude. There was no one uniform consensus regarding what Ch'an teaching represented. Even basic principles were disputed. Rather, there were contending views promoted by recognized leaders. As power shifted from one branch to another, the "orthodox" interpretation of Ch'an also changed, reflecting the views of masters representing different lineages. The study also suggests that the dynamic forces shaping Ch'an interpretation were not exclusive to Ch'an, or even Buddhist, participants. Ch'an developed in a larger secular world, where connections to powerful warlords and officials, not to mention members of the imperial family, played a decisive role in determining what "orthodox" view of Ch'an received official acceptance. Finally, these forces shaping the interpretation of Ch'an are not historically isolated to one particular period. They have functioned, in some form, throughout Ch'an history, and continue to shape our understanding and interpretation of Ch'an teaching today.