Ch'an Metaphors: waves, water, mirror, lamp
Philosophy East & West;
Vol. 29, no.3, July, 1979, pp245-253
Time and again, philosophy finds that it can express itself best, not in cold and hard concepts, but in intricate metaphors. Plato used the story of the cave to illustrate Being and becoming. Indian philosophers oft used stock metaphors to support their argument. In Chinese Buddhism too, key metaphors have helped to define and even to win important debates. In the evolution of early Ch'an, the metaphors of water and waves, mirror and lamp played significant roles. The present article will examine the meanings of these Ch'an metaphors and their related texts.
The Ch'an tradition is now understood to be a complex tradition involving more than the Platform Suutra.(1) The Platform Suutra tells of the Southern Ch'an version of its history: how Hui-neng, from the south, was awakened by the chanting of the Diamond Suutra, and how he went north to meet Hung-jen, the fifth patriarch, and outwitted Shen-hsiu, the Northern Ch'an representative. Since Hung-jen secretly passed to him the robe and begging bowl, the Suutra sees in Hui-neng the sixth patriarch. In all likelihood, the life and teachings of Hui-neng reported in this Suutra reflected the outlook of Hui-neng's disciple, Shen-hui, and his circle.(2) This Southern tradition eventually triumphed over the Northern branch, such that the Platform Suutra became, for a long time, the source of our knowledge of early Ch'an.
Other early Ch'an traditions have since been discovered. Of these, the Northern group can pride itself now in its own version of the story told in the Leng-chia shih-tzu-chi. It would appear that the Northern school was the earlier school and that it specialized on the La^nkaavataara Suutra. Supposedly, Bodhidharma transmitted the suutra translated by Gunabhadra in four scrolls to Hui-k'o,(3) his disciple and second patriarch. Tao-hsin, the fourth patriarch, received it from Seng-ts'an and passed it on to Hung-jen. We actually cannot be very certain about the figures prior to Tao-hsin, but in the rediscovered writings of Tao-hsin and Hung-jen, the La^nkaavataara Suutra was clearly a key inspiration. Closely associated with this suutra was the Awakening of Faith in Mahaayaana, apparently a Chinese treatise modeled upon the suutra.(4) Tao-hsin seems to be the first Ch'an patriarch to introduce it into Ch'an.(5)
The preceding brief outline shows that early Ch'an was far from being antiscriptural, that an idealization of Hui-neng and his life as suutra developed later, and that Ch'an iconoclasm was yet to emerge. (The iconoclastic style began more with Ma-tsu.(6) A simple codification of the key scriptures in the early tradition would yield this: [missing picture]
The "water-and-waves" metaphor is found in the La^nkaavataara Suutra and is subtly modified by the Awakening of Faith. Shen-hsiu supposedly composed a poem using the metaphor of "mirror and dust," and the Platform Suutra mentioned "lamp and light.'' Behind these changing metaphors is a progressively radical understanding of the mind and its functions.
CONSCIOUSNESS AS WAVES: THE LA^NKAAVATAARA TRADITION
Concepts of mind are central to the Buddhist tradition from the very beginning. To state the logical options simply and simplistically, the Hiinayaana tradition has long regarded any cittadharma or psychic reality to be polluted. However, among the sectarian Buddhists, the idea of an "innately pure mind" evolved and was attributed to the Buddha himself. The liberal Mahaasa^nghika endorsed this idea. The conservatives had rejected it. Mahaayaana, however, emerged at first with the Praj~naapaaramitaa tradition. There the emphasis is on the emptiness of all realities. Forms are empty, as are the other four skandhas (aggregates): perception, conception, will, and consciousness or mind. The mind is empty like everything else. Discriminative terms like purity and impurity would be ultimately inappropriate. The positive concept of a "pure mind" was, however, later revalidated by the Tathaagatagarbha (Womb of the Buddha, Buddha-nature) tradition. There is indeed in man the spark of this transcendental mind. Distinct from this positive tradition was another stream of Mahaayaana thought that developed into Buddhist idealism or Yogaacaara. There, the core consciousness is called the aalayavij~naana, storehouse consciousness, a depository or all past experiences. In China, there was much debate on whether this core consciousness was or was not the pure mind itself. There was no consensus.(7)
Bodhidharma's teaching and transmission of the La^nkaavataara Suutra to Hui-k'o coincided roughly with a Northern Ch'an interest in this issue of the mind. In the biography of Bodhidharma by Tao-hsuan in the Hsu Kao-seng-ch'uan, the T'ang Lives of Eminent Monks, it is said that Bodhidharma practiced Mahaayaana Ch'an (meditation) when the other leading figure, Seng-ch'ou, practiced Hinayaana meditation.(8) Seng-ch'ou meditated upon the impurities of the body, the painfulness of perception, the impermanence of mind, and the selflessness of all realities, in other words, the "negative" aspects. He could so reproduce death in his meditation that animals and wild beasts were awed by his countenance.(9) Bodhidharma had a more "positive" approach, for his disciple Hui-k'o reported the contents of his enlightenment, which had nothing to do with repulsive realities, hut rather with the Buddha-essence ("Ma.ni pearl") and nonduality ("Sa.msaara is nirvaa.na").
Since the Mani pearl hidden behind rubble was a standard metaphor to describe the tathaagatagarbha, the hidden Buddha-nature, Hui-k'o's meditation was directed at regaining this preexistent essence of enlightenment. The Ma.ni pearl has the power to purify all things. Once discovered by Hui-k'o, it purged even the erroneous distinction between enlightenment and illusion, nirvaa.na and sa.msaara, the one dharmataa and the multiple phenomena. Dualities faded away as Hui-k'o gained his insight. Repeatedly we shall encounter this Buddha-mind in Later Ch'an. This is perhaps the core of Ch'an itself: to see into one's nature and realize one's Buddhahood.
The La^nkaavataara Suutra Hui-k'o received from Bodhidharma would confirm this understanding of the mind. The sutra, however, is long and far from molded by one singular theme. This is the first known suutra that synthesized the tradition of the aalayavij~naana (the core consciousness in Yogaacaara) and the tathaagatagarbha (the transcendental Buddha-nature). What is unclear is whether the two are identical. The suutra supports both positions in different places. However, it is best to consider the work as having more a Yogaacaara interest (11), and that it was appreciated precisely for its more analytical insights into the workings of the mind. By then, the nature of human consciousness had been traced to eight levels. On top (or behind) the traditional five senses and the cognitive mind (these constitute the first six consciousnesses), there are two more elements. Since the sense of the ego or self is not immediately available to the five senses and the cognitive mind--they merely register separate, discrete sensations and integrate them into an "object," there being, however according to the Buddhist philosophy, no real substance to it--it is natural to posit an ego-subconscious which creates that false sense of a self.
The discovery of a deeper egoistic subconscious was made by the Sa.mdhnirmocana Suutra.
The image of the torrential flood depicts the agitations in the mind once it foolishly clings on to discriminations and a false self. The water metaphor is already here, but the La^nkaavataara Suutra gives the apt commentary on the prceeding.
Our core consciousness subsists unbroken from one life to another (though not unchanging). Our senses would not have been active except for the stimuli of the "phenomenal realms," namely, sight, sound, odor, taste, and touch. These "perceptables'' arouse our corresponding senses: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. Once that happens, our cognitive mind ("brain") begins to work ceaselessly. The La^nkaavataara Suutra passage cited earlier says that once the lower consciousnesses became agitated, they "swell out" of the core consciousnesses like undercurrents churning the water into waves. Then the whole mental apparatus is caught up in one storm and there is no way to separate out the seven consciousnesses and the aalayavij~naana. The point of the metaphor is to show the active participation of the aalayavij~naana in the lower consciousnesses; the indissociability of waves and water pertains to the maze of our mind.
As the waves of the ocean depending on the wind are stirred up and roll on dancing without interruption, so the Alaya-flood constantly stirred up by the wind of individuation rolls on dancing with the waves of the various vij~naanas. As... rays of light are to the sun, neither different nor not different, so too the seven consciousnesses, like waves to the ocean, rise in conjunction with mind....In accordance with the intelligence and discrimination of the ignorant, the AAlaya is compared to the ocean, and the likeness of waves and the (psychic) evolutions is pointed out by a simile.(14)
The implied ideal here is that the mental activities should be ceased so that the mind, as it were, can be turned into a calm sea. The sea (mind) can then passively reflect the waterfront (phenomena) without reflecting upon it discriminatively. In the original metaphor, no mention is made of the "wetness" of the water.
THE INCORRUPTABLE MIND AS WETNESS: THE AWAKENING OF FAITH
The La^nkaavataara teaching was inherited by Tao-hsin (580-651), but Ch'an also took its first turn. Tao-hsin and his disciple, Hung-jen (607-675), taught as many as five hundred disciples at the East Mountain. Whereas the legends depict Bodhidharma and Hui-k'o practicing harsh meditations---ascetic, perpetual wall-gazing and self-immolations in a show of yogic dedication and indifference (15)---East Mountain Ch'an was known for a more relaxed approach. The motto of the school was "Keeping to the True Mind" or "Abiding by the One." The means was the i-hsing san-mei (ekavyuuha or ekacaarya-samaadhi, single-focus or practice meditation), contemplation on the Absolute, suchness, itself. The Awakening of Faith and the La^nkaavataara Suutra were used in the instruction. Terms like "wu-nien" and "li-nien" (without thought, or departing from thought) were taken from the Awakening of Faith to characterize Southern and Northern Ch'an polemics.(16) Although it is extremely difficult to pinpoint where Tao-hsin might have added his touch to the tradition, his use of the Awakening of Faith should be one clue.
The Awakening of Faith proposed the doctrine of the One Suchness Mind that permeates all levels of consciousness and all external realities created by the Mind. It took over the "water-and-waves" metaphor, but changed the identity of the "wind" so that it does not symbolize phenomenal realms (the perceptables) but ultimate ignorance itself. Ignorance as wind stirs up the Suchness Mind into the phenomenal waves. The waves stand now for both phenomena, that is, the form of ignorance (wu-ming chih hsiang) and phenomenal consciousness, that is, the functions of the mind (hsin-shih chih hsiang).
All forms of mind and consciousness, hsin-shih chih hsiang, are none other than ignorance itself. The form of ignorance, however, does not exist apart from the essence of enlightenment, therefore it can not be destroyed and yet [on principle] it cannot not be destroyed. This is comparable to the ocean's water and its waves churned up by the wind. Water and wind are (now) inseparable, but the water is not mobile by nature. If the wind ceases, the movement ceases. But the wetness remains undestroyed. Likewise, man's Mind, pure in itself, is stirred up by the wind of ignorance. Both Mind and ignorance were originally without form, but now they are inseparably [in-form-ed by the waves produced in conjunction]. Yet Mind is not mobile by nature. If ignorance ceases, then the continuity ceases. But the essence of wisdom remains unchanged.(17)
By this subtle twist in reference, the Awakening of Faith changed the whole content of discourse. The "water-and-wave" metaphor no longer describes the inseparable relationship between the agitated aalayavij~naana and the other consciousnesses. It is now descriptive of the intrinsic nonduality of samsaric phenomena and Suchness Mind. The ocean here is not the polluted aalayavij~naana but the active tathaagatagarbha.(18) Because by definition, the tathaagatagarbha or buddha-nature remains uncorruptible even if seemingly it evolves into phenomenal consciousness (the waves and, according to Fa-tsang, the aalayavij~naana itself), (19) therefore we have the additional reference earlier to the indestructible "wetness" or essence of enlightenment. Even an agitated tathaagatagarbha remains unchanged as the womb of enlightenment, that is, even the waves are essentially watery. The wind of ignorance can ultimately little change the incorruptible Mind. In principle, of course, ignorance should be eliminated. However, in fact, the forms of ignorance (sa.msaara) or waves need not be destroyed, because in essence they, too, are the essence of enlightenment (nirvaa.na); they are no less 'wet'.
The La^nkaavataara Suutra intends the metaphor to depict the illusion of our wavelike, everyday consciousness; the Awakening of Faith underlines instead the unchanging wateriness of the abiding tathaagatagarbha. In one we sense the need of continual vigilance, self-denial and discernment; in the other, the reasons for the singleminded meditation upon the Suchness, or Keeping to the One or Abiding by the True. The La^nkaavataara Suutra is more Indian and more `Yogaacaaric' in having a continuous but ultimately impermanent consciousness; the Awakening of Faith, a Chinese redaction, leans toward a tathaagatagarbha doctrine of a complete, perfect, invariable Mind-monad. In that sense, in the "water-and-waves" metaphor, one sees more the agitated waves, while the other the eternal essence of the water. With Tao-hsin, we may say the changeless water overshadowed the fickle waves.
THE MIRROR MIND AND THE DEFILING DUST: SHEN-HSIU IN THE PLATFORM SUTRA
Shen-hsiu (605-706) was the faithful successor to the Ch'an lineage of Tao-hsin and Hung-jen. The Platform Suutra can hardly do him justice, but even so, its treatment of Shen-hsiu is not totally groundless. The straw man has his say, and in a manner not uncharacteristic of the Northern Ch'an tradition. There, it is said, Hung-jen solicited responses for a successor and a humble Shen-hsiu was pressed by his brethren to compose this poem:
The mirror metaphor was hardly new nor unique to the Buddhist tradition.(21) Here it affirms the original purity and brightness (enlightened nature) of the mind. The term for dust, ch'en(s), is the term for kle`sa, defilements, and the elimination of defilements has long been accepted as a prerequisite to any meditation. The mirror reflects reality as it is, and without superimpositions. What might distort the image of suchness upon the mind is the dust of defiled thoughts. Daily vigilance would keep the latter away and preserve the clear apperception.
Hui-neng (638-713) entered the Ch'an circle up north after a previous encounter with the Diamond Suutra. The Diamond Suutra espouses the Emptiness philosophy that would not put trust in any attribution of 'self' to reality or 'traits' that might evoke dualities:
Compared with the verbose discussion on mind and consciousness in the La^nkaavataara Suutra and even the Awakening of Faith, the Diamond Suutra cuts directly at the knots of all discourses. That spirit of simplicity can be seen in one version of Hui-neng's rejoinder to Shen-hsiu:
The assumption of 'self' in bodhi and mirror (mind) is negated. If indeed there is a Buddha-nature, bright and clear, like the Ma.ni pearl spoken of by Hui-k'o, should not the person see through even the distinction between ignorance and enlightenment, defilements and purity? Chuang-tzu himself had said, "If the mirror is indeed bright, dust cannot on it adhere. If dust can adhere to it, can it be said to be bright? "(24) The daily cleansing of the mirror suggests gradualism; Hui-neng's cutting reply suggests sudden enlightenment. To the Southern Ch'an tradition, Hui-neng's genius was so attested to.
If we look through the writings now thought to be Shen-hsiu's, we would find there the Emptiness philosophy also. Where then is the real difference between North and South? Or was it just polemics and politics? Perhaps here the message alone cannot be the criterion; the media, the ways in which the same truth is expressed, count as much. Compared with most Northern treatises, the Platform Suutra is almost unsystematic in its free use of aphorisms. That might be its contribution, for in the Southern opposition to verbose analysis, there was offered a new standard of truth---the subtle interaction between mind and mind and the glorification of the individual personality as the carrier of enlightenment. Hui-neng's real life remains little known, but the legend preserved in the Platform Suutra stands out as a perfect paradigm. The South would in time produce many more such personalities, each unique and inimitable. The rather sudden flowering of such spiritual individuality remains forever a mystery, but it may be related to a new metaphor, the Lamp, expressed in this Chinese suutra, as a symbol for self-enlightenment.(25)
THE LAMP AND ITS LIGHT: CH'AN AS WISDOM IN THE PLATFORM SUUTRA
According to the Southern Ch'an tradition, the line that awoke the boy Hui-neng when he heard the Diamond Suutra was from Kumaarajiiva's translation. The line is "Responding to the Nonabiding/Arouse the Mind."(26) This is taken by Shen-hui to mean the indissociable link between meditation and wisdom. "Responding to the Nonabiding" pertains to meditation, ch'an, while "Arouse the Mind" means wisdom, hui. Together, they spell out the unity of ch'an and enlightenment. Ch'an is enlightenment, ting chi hui. The word "Ch'an" henceforth means the truth itself. (When a student asks "What is Ch'an?" he is asking, in fact, what is Truth, Reality or Absolute.) It is not that ch'an leads to wisdom, as it was in the classic scheme taught by the Buddha: 'sila, samaadhi, and praj~naa (precepts -> meditation -> wisdom). Ch'an is a proper title to a school because ch'an is now both means and end.(27)
In the Platform Suutra, this relationship between ch'an and wisdom is explained in terms of the "lamp-and-light" metaphor:
The substance-function, t'i-yung, logic was present already in the "water-and-wave" metaphor in the Awakening of Faith. The nonduality of the rays of the sun from the sun has been spoken of by the La^nkaavataara Suutra. Here, however, the "lamp-and-light" imagery is used to show Ch'an as both the means and the end. The mind is luminous and all illuminating. Enlightenment is only the mind (lamp) allowed to shine forth by itself (light). The mind is none other than its own enlightenment.(29)
The mirror and the lamp tell of correspondingly an objective and a subjective approach. The mind as mirror is passive, a receptacle of external data. It is vulnerable to the distortion by defilements (dust) . The mirroring mind describes best the philosophy of Vij~naptimaatrataa or Representations-Only.
The mind as lamp is active, the source of light that reveals external realities. As fire, it is also self-and other-purifying, burning off any dust or defilements and chasing away the gloom of ignorance, wu-ming (the absence of light, illumination). The mirror recognizes implicitly the existence of objects "out there"; it is not so much an idealist metaphor as a metaphor describing the re-presentation of reality by the mind and the dangers of our mental constructs used in this very representation. The mind as lamp affirms the Chinese preference for a strict Idealism, based on a liberal reading of the line in the Avata.msaka Suutra: The Three Realms are created by the Mind.(31) "As the Mind is pure, the realm is pure."(32) As the mind is a lamp, its every activity is enlightenment. Substance and function are one. Permanence (of Buddha-nature) and the dynamics of daily work are like lamp and light,(33) never the one without the other. Southern Ch'an indeed realized this activistic Ch'an. It went beyond the still relatively passive style of the Northern scholars. In southern Ch'an, every day became a holy (literally, good) day. As Ma-tsu said, the everyday mind itself is none other than the Tao.
The relative emphasis on one metaphor over another or one aspect of a metaphor over another tells of subtle changes in the understanding of the mind. The mind is ultimately the same Buddha-nature at the heart of the Ch'an tradition. Shades of waves, water, mirror, and lamp can be found in all the individual treatises or representative spokesmen.(34) Some of these metaphors are as ancient as the traditions themselves. All these qualifications notwith-standing, metaphors can and do show differences in nuance otherwise inexpressible by concepts. The analysis of such metaphors is neither self-defeating nor hairsplitting.(35) It is only an attempt to relive the historical changes and controversies.
1. See Carl Bielefeldt and Lewis Lancaster, "T'an Ching (Platform Suutra)," review article of latest scholarship, Philosophy East and West 25, no. 2 (1975) : 197-222; and introduction to Philip Yampolsky, trans., The Platform Sutra of the Six Patriarch (New York: Columbia University, 1967).