The Bright Field of Spirit: The Life and Teachings of Chan Master Hongzhi Zhengjue
Matthew Gindin 2008
Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157) was one of the most accomplished Chan masters of the Song dynasty. He belonged to the house of Caodong. In the Song dynasty this house underwent a revival led by the students of Furong Daokai (1043-1118). They came to be characterized, following Daokai, by a “family wind” (lineage style) involving an emphasis on seated meditation and the realization of the already present Buddha-nature through the cultivation of a non-attached, non-reifying, open and luminous state of mind (Leighton 2000: 116-126, 131). Hongzhi was an elegant, poetic writer and a very popular teacher who became the pre-eminent figure in the Song revival of the Caodong house. This revival coincided with attacks on the Caodong family wind, including Hongzhi's teachings, from a leading Linji master, Dahui Zonggao. These attacks helped to create an atmosphere of sectarianism which had a great influence on Japanese Buddhism, although its effects in China appear to have been short-lived. Whether Hongzhi knew of Dahui's criticisms, and if he did know, what his response was, cannot be known with certainty. However by re-examining what we know due to recent scholarship and clarifying the nature of Hongzhi's life and teachings, I hope to shed more light on the life and legacy of this great master and propose an explanation of his relationship with Dahui Zonggao.
Chan Master Vast Wisdom
After studying with Kumu for a few years Hongzhi travelled to Xiangshan, where he experienced a breakthrough:
According to my reading, Hongzhi's initial realization is based on a glimpse of the tathagatagarbha, or Buddha-nature, the mind essence which contains all appearances and is what exists “before your parents”, that is, the unchanging substratum of the phenomenal world. Facheng asks him what is inside the incense box, ie. what is inside what he has come to offer to the Buddha (Facheng). Hongzhi apparently doesn't grasp Facheng's meaning, and Facheng clarifies that he is asking what Hongzhi's awakening experience is based on. Hongzhi's reponse is to draw a circle in the air and then discard it. The circle is a symbol of the awakened mind known in Japanese Buddhism as the enso. The point seems to be that Hongzhi had an awakening and then let go of it. This is the traditional movement of Awakening in Buddhism (Robinson/Johnson/Bhikkhu 2005: 31) from the Pali Canon to Nagarjuna to countless Zen dialogues, where the moment of discernment leading to Awakening must itself be transcended. The rest of the dialogue is beyond my knowledge of koan literature motifs, although there does seems to be a suggestion that Hongzhi needs to completely remove clinging to subject/object distinctions from his mind (“you've attained it when you don't see others”). Hongzhi then went to study with Danxia Zichun (1054-1119). He was then 23.
Zichun asked Hongzhi:
This question, “what is the self before the empty kalpa” is particularly associated with the Caodong school (174). It refers to the Buddha nature within all sentient beings, which transcends all particulars. This question seems aimed at deepening Hongzhi's understanding of the Buddha-nature. The occurence of it in Hongzhi's enlightenment record, as well as Danxia's silencing of Hongxhi just before he tries to elaborate on his understanding, echoes motifs within the Caodong lineage, as Schlutter has pointed out (172). In fact both Hongzhi and Ch'ing-liao's enlightenment stories contain these elements, and both are similiar in turn to the enlightenment stories of Furong Dokai and Touzi Yiqing. All four enlightenment stories contain the motif of the student being asked to explain his understanding of the inherently enlightened nature of beings and then being suddenly interrupted by the master (Ibid.). Of course this motif occurs in the records of other lineages as well. The Caodong lineage does tend to emphasize it more, however, and it maybe that this reflects an emphasis on a nonconceptual, or silent, awareness of the Buddha-nature. Combined with the predilection for kumu Chan, this family spirit may be the seed for the mo-chao (Silent Illumination) Chan that Hongzhi gave such elegant expression to in his writings.
Once when Hongzhi's Dharma brother Zhenxie Qingliao assumed the abbacy of Changlu monastery, Hongzhi made the long trip to the opening ceremonies on foot. As he approached the temple, Zhenxie's attendants noticed that his clothes and shoes were ragged and worn. Quickly they obtained a new pair of sandals for him, and when he arrived they welcomed him by presenting them as a gift.The Jingde temple flourished under Hongzhi's care, and he apparently converted some Taoist temples which had fallen into disuse into parts of his expanding establishment, an act which inspired Dogen Zenji, in his Shobogenzo Gyoji, to warn his disciples not to view such expansion as a victory of some kind and go longing to do the same type of thing to the neglect of their practice(Tanahashi 1999:126-127). Hongzhi became a very popular teacher, the “most prominent representative of the revived Song dynasty Caodong” (Schlutter 2000:184). Hongzhi generally refused invitations to leave Jingde. Uncharacteristically stationary for a master of his time he remained there until shortly before his death in 1157, when he left the monastery to visit his patrons and thank them for their support (Leighton 2000: 6). On the day of his death he composed a death poem (see below) and made the curious request that his affairs be handled by Dahui Zonggao, a gesture which we will return to below. Six months after his death the Southern Song Emperor Gaocong gave him the posthumous title HongzhiChanshi, Chan Master Vast Wisdom. His legacy was carried on by his numerous descendants, eight of whom merited the inclusion of their records in the Wudeng Huiyan, “Five Lamps Merged in The Source”, the important 13th century compilation of five Chan histories (2000:7).
Hongzhi's distinctive teachings are well illustrated in the poetic practice instructions he left behind in his Tiantong Jue heshang fayu (Dharma lectures by the venerable Tiantong Jue), maintained in the Hongzhi Lu (Record of Hongzhi).These contain, as Schlutter writes, “lyrical celebrations of the Buddhanature of all existence” (2004:193). They are not merely celebrations, however, but practice instructions and descriptions of meditative experience. Hongzhi writes:
With the depths clear, utterly silent, thoroughly illuminate the source, empty and spirited, vast and bright...Then you must take the backward step and directly reach the middle of the circle from where the light issues forth (Leighton 2000: 40).This poetically describes the meditation technique of turning awareness back on itself. One then attends only to the process of awareness itself, detaching from its particular contents. In later Japanese Soto Zen tradition this came to be known as eko hensho, and the technique has analogues in other Buddhist nondual traditions such as Mahamudra and Dzogchen ( Leighton 2000: xii). Hongzhi's basic approach is to dwell on the naturally free and luminous quality of awareness. When the practitioner's attention is throughly grounded there, then phenomena come and go without causing suffering. This samadhi has a relaxed and playful quality. All phenomena are experienced as arising as the activity of the “mind ground”. Hongzhi writes: The field of bright spirit is an ancient wilderness that does not change. With boundless eagerness wander around this immaculate wide plain. The drifting clouds embrace the mountain; the family wind is relaxed and simple. The autumn waters display the moon in its pure brightness. Directly arriving here you will be able to recognize the mind ground dharma field that is the root source of the ten thousand forms germinating with unwithered fertility. (42)
Vast and far-reaching without boundary, secluded and pure, manifesting light, this spirit is without obstruction. Its brightness does not shine out but can be called empty and inherently radiant. Its brightness, inherently purifying, transcends causal conditions beyond subject and object. Subtle but preserved, illumined and vast, also it cannot be spoken of as being or nonbeing, or discussed with images and calculations. Right here the central pivot turns, the gateway opens. You accord and respond without hindrance. Everywhere turn around freely, not following conditions, not falling into classifications. Facing everything, let go and attain stability. Stay with that just as that. Stay with this just as this (31).
The practice of true reality is simply to sit serenely in silent introspection. When you have fathomed this you cannot be turned around by external causes and conditions. This empty, wide open mind is subtly and correctly illuminating. Spacious and content, without confusion from inner thoughts of grasping, effectively overcome habitual behaviour and realize the self that is not possessed by emotions (30).
This form of meditation requires a balance between silence and illumination, in harmony with the classical Buddhist relationship between shamatha (calm) and vipashyana (insight):
But if in illumination silence is lost,
As Schlutter has argued, these passages show clearly both the neccessity to balance both calm and awareness, and the suggestion that at some point in this process of dwelling in objectless meditation an awakening experience will occur (Ibid). The process advocated by Hongzhi is one of continual refining clarity of awareness and non-attachment. As he writes in another poetic sermon: Silently dwell in the self, in true suchness abandon conditioning. Open-minded and bright without defilement, simply penetrate and drop off everything (34). This is not a process of attaining something new, but rather recognizing what is already there: Today is not your first arrival here. Since the ancient home before the empty kalpa, clearly nothing has been obscured. Still, practice is needed: Although you are inherently spirited and splendid, still you must go ahead and enact it. When doing so, immediately display every atom without hiding a speck of dirt. Dry and cool in deep repose, profoundly understand. An aggresive desire to attain enlightenment, however, is an obstacle: If your rest is not satisfying and you yearn to go beyond birth and death, there can be no such place. Just burst through and you will discern without thought-dusts, pure without reasons for anxiety. Stepping back with open hands, [giving up everything], is thoroughly comprehending life and death. This freedom does not lead to a quietistic self-absorption. Here, as elsewhere, Hongzhi stresses how clear awareness and non-attachment lead to perfect accord with all conditions and to the service of others: Immediately you can sparkle and respond to the world. Merge together with all things. Everywhere is just right (34-35). As Hongzhi writes elsewhere: Transforming according to circumstances, meet all beings as your ancestors...Essentially you exist inside emptiness and have the capacity to respond outwardly without being annoyed, like spring blossoming, like a mirror reflecting forms. Amid all the noise spontaneously emerge transcendent (43).
Empty flowers of an illusory dream
Here white bird disappears in the mist and autumn waters touch the sky refer to two barely distinct entities merging. This expresses the disappearance of the last vestiges of individuality. Hongzhi's teachings do not only stress the inherent freedom of the Buddha nature and his technique of silent illumination. His teachings also touch on the discernment of emptiness and the Hua-yen teachings of interdependence of the relative and the absolute. Together these teachings on the Buddha-nature, emptiness, and interdependence, make up standard Chan fare. What distinguishes Hongzhi, aside from his brilliant use of nature imagery and indirect meditation instructions, is his emphasis on a natural, non-aggressive, objectless meditation practice as the way to realization. This approach could be misperceived or abused as a form of mere quietism or complacent spacing out. One of Hongzhi's most serious critics, Dahui Zonggao, accused mo-chao Chan, and Hongzhi and his students by implication, of doing just that- teaching a self-indulgent, quietistic distortion of Chan that misunderstood the truth about awakening and that lead nowhere.
Schlutter has shown at length that Dahui's criticisms of mo-chao Chan are based on a distortion of its nature. Schlutter argues that Dahui was likely motivated by a desire to stem the growing popularity of Caodong, which threatened the dominance of the house of the Linji (Schlutter 1999: 109-147). Chan had become more dependent on the patronage of literati as government support had lessened. Schlutter points out that Dahui's criticisms of Silent Illumination Chan occur mostly in letters to literati, and extrapolates that his motivations were to draw the support of these literati away from the burgeoning Caodong movement. It is certainly possible that Schlutter's analysis is correct, although his evidence is purely circumstantial. Dahui's approach to meditation practice was in fact diametrically opposed to Hongzhi's in its attitude and its rhetoric. Dahui viewed the essence of Chan as consisting of attaining a breakthrough to a transformative and dramatic experience of Awakening: “you must break your mind of birth and death” (112). The practice Dahui advocates has come to be known as Kung-an Introspection Chan (kan-hua Chan ). This consisted of intense concentration on the critical phrase (hua t'ou) of a kung-an, free of intellection or any conscious attempt to understand it, until a breakthrough to an Awakening experience was attained. As Dahui taught:
A monk asked Chao-chou: Does even a dog have Buddha-nature?” Chao-chou answered: “No!” (wu). Whether you are walking or standing, sitting or lying down, you must not for a moment cease [to hold this no/wu in your mind]. When deluded thought arise, you must also not suppress them with your mind. Only just hold up this hua-t'ou [ie., no/wu]. When you want to meditate and you feel dull and muddled, you must muster up all of your energies to hold up this word. Then suddenly you will be like the old blind woman who blows [so diligently] at the fire that her eyebrows and lashes are burnt right off (115).
Dahui instructs his students to focus all of their doubts in this one place, energizing their practice until they have a breakthrough:
“Great doubt will neccessarily be followed by great enlightenment.” (ibid.)
Hongzhi emphasized innate awakening, silence, and a refined and receptive attention which would let “habitual behaviours” and “conditioning” fall away, unveiling the luminous and free ground of the mind. Dahui portrayed Honzhi's teachings as a self-indulgent and confused approach which did not recognize there was any enlightenement to attain and confused the merely silent mind with the awakened mind. In contrast Dahui emphasized a dynamic, goal oriented approach; a guerilla attack to Hongzhi's gentle diplomacy. Dahui seems to be concerned, as Schlutter argues, that mo-chao Chan blurs the distinction between the awakened and unawakened mind in a dangerous way which could undermine the whole of Chan practice (115-116). Although it is conceivable that Dahui's motivations for criticizing Hongzhi were practical rather than ideological, Schlutter offers little evidence for his contention. Schlutter admits that Dahui appears to have been ideologically motivated. As recent world events surely demonstrate, ideological commitments can motivate as strongly or more strongly than pragmatic concerns, and we have no reason to definitively conclude that Dahui was not chiefly or even solely motivated by such ideological commitments as opposed to concern over patronage for his sect.
More mysterious than Dahui's virulent attacks on Hongzhi are Hongzhi's apparent lack of self-defense and even apparent embrace of his critic Dahui. In the massive corpus of surviving writings we possess for Hongzhi there are no rejoinders to Dahui's criticisms, and no criticisms of Dahui's approach. It is of course possible that Hongzhi was not aware of Dahui's criticisms, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Some of Dahui's critical letters were addressed to students of Hongzhi or other Caodong masters (134) and it is hard to believe these criticisms and the questions they provoked would not have been taken to the master. Hongzhi must have been aware of Dahui's criticisms, and aware that they were both strongly worded and finding some receptive ears. What would lead Hongzhi, then, to turn his affairs over to Dahui at his death?
As Schlutter points out, in his later years Dahui publically praised Hongzhi, and Hongzhi recommended Dahui for a post at the most prestigious monastery in the Empire (109). This apparently cordial relationship between Hongzhi and Dahui may indicate that Dahui respected Hongzhi as a Master and his criticisms were directed instead at Hongzhi's style of Chan and what he saw as its misuse by other teachers. Dahui claimed to have met mo-chao Chan practitioners who did not believe in enlightenment at all and to have “saved” them (Levering 1999: 195-196). Admittedly another interpretation, following on an acceptance of Schlutter's thesis, would be that Dahui's public treatment of Hongzhi did not match what he said about him in the private letters that have survived. In any event, the fact remains that Hongzhi supported Dahui as a teacher while most likely aware that Dahui was critical of the style of Chan Hongzhi and his lineage practiced.
Some clues to Hongzhi's motivations might be found in his writings and in his relationship to Yuanwu Keqin, Dahui's teacher. Hongzhi was one of the primary contributors to a new Chan literary form of the Song dynasty. This form consisted of collections of koans with introductory verses, capping phrases, and/or prose commentaries. Hongzhi's collection would eventually, after being added to by Wonsu, become the Book of Serenity. The author of perhaps the most important collection of this sort in the history of Chan, the Blue Cliff Record (Biyen lu) was, however, Yuanwu Keqin. Hongzhi visited Yuanwu in the year preceding the publication of Hongzhi's first koancommentaries. It seems plausible that Hongzhi's visit to Yuanwu had something to do with the fact of their common interest in creating this kind of literature. Hongzhi had already completed his training and was firmly ensconced in the Caodong lineage, so it is hard to imagine any other motivation. He is not recorded as having made friendly visits to any other Chan masters. The relevance of Hongzhi's visit is twofold: first it suggests the nonsectarian nature of Hongzhi's thinking. If he went to visit Yuanwu to learn from him, or perhaps to view his koan collections, that is demonstrative of a certain openness. This is further supported by the contents of Hongzhi's koan collection. Interestingly the koans featured in the collection are from the full spectrum of Chan schools and show no sectarian bias. By comparison the collection of Danxia Zichun, Hongzhi's master, feature only Caodong lineage koans or those lineages descended from the ancestor the Caodong lineage shared with other houses,Qingyuan Xingsi (2004:191). It is also relevant that Hongzhi and Yuanwu apparently got along well, as Hongzhi stayed for some months. It is also hard to imagine that any conflict between these two would have failed to be recorded by someone for posterity. Thus it is likely that Hongzhi respected Yuanwu in particular, and this may help us to understand Hongzhi's support of Yuanwu's star pupil Dahui.
It does not, however, seem enough. I think that Hongzhi's assignment of his affairs to Dahui's keeping was in fact a direct reponse to Dahui's criticisms. One might view this as a demonstration of magnanimity, a form of moral one-upmanship. That may be so, but another possibility is that Hongzhi was aware of the danger that Dahui's vociferous criticism of mo-chao Chan along with advocacy of a distinct counter method might very well help foster sectarianism, as it in fact did. Hongzhi knew Dahui came “from good stock” and likely respected him as a sincere Chan teacher. The split between “Northern” and “Southern” schools of Chan in the 7th century had arguably caused an obscuration of true Chan, as many masters had argued, including the legendary founder of the Caodong lineage, Shitou Xiqian (700-790). Hongzhi's support of Dahui and assignment of his affairs to him may then have been a way of attempting to diffuse sectarian rivalry between his followers and the followers of Dahui.
Hongzhi was a Chan master of considerable talents. Due to his skill as a teacher, abbot, and writer, the Caodong lineage and its mo-chao Chan practice were empowered in Song culture. Hongzhi's writings beautifully expressed this approach to Chan, in which the practitioner refines their awareness and non-attachment in choiceless awareness, allowing the Buddha-nature to reveal itself. This did not preclude an involvement in active contemplation of koans, but in Hongzhi's case, as in the Soto school in Japan, koan contemplation tended to be more of an intellectual way to refine one's understanding of Buddhist practice, as in Hongzhi's koan commentaries which became the Book of Serenity. In contrast Dahui's approach to koan practice is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It is ironic that whereas Hongzhi appears to have visited Yuanwu to learn from him about intellectual koan contemplation, Dahui attempted to destroy Yuanwu's Blue Cliff Record in order to prevent his students from engaging with koans this way (Wright 2000: 200-209). Thus Hongzhi turns out to be the one in the intellectual lineage of Yuanwu, not Dahui.
Cleary, J.C.C, tr. Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang. Boston: Shambhala Publications 1986.