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Keeping It Real:Chan and the Pursuit of Experience

Hakuin's Daruma

by Matthew Gindin 2008

 “What I see, I want all people to know.”
-Linji, quoted by Yuanwu (Cleary; Cleary 1994: 104)           
            The origins of the Chan tradition are mysterious. There is general agreement that a form of “proto-Chan” arose within the early centuries of Chinese Buddhism. This proto-Chan consisted of a meditation tradition that likely did not conceive of itself as a distinct school or tradition of Buddhism. Rather it was an informal lineage of Buddhist practitioners who focused on the realization of Buddhist goals through intensive meditation. Other streams of the early Chinese Buddhist tradition focused on translation, scholastic philosophy, devotion, or Tantra. Some practitioners, though, apparently put a strong emphasis on meditative experience and practiced in the mountains and forests much as Buddhist yogis interested in direct realization have done since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, regardless of their country. What these proto-Chan practitioners were after, it is fair to surmise, is an authentic and experiential realization of the Buddha's teachings. This is not to say they had no interest in other aspects of Buddhist praxis, but they were not primarily interested in tantric power, spiritual merit, influence in government, rain making, or intellectual comprehension. As Peter Hershock has written, “In sharp contrast with the three other major schools of Chinese Buddhism [1] , Chan did not originate in the Chinese adaptation of Indian Buddhist texts. Instead, its origins can be traced to the appropriation of Indian Buddhist practices” (2005:66).

            This desire to “keep it real”, to avoid the traps of ossification, mere intellectuality, or worldly enchantments, is one of the main driving forces behind the historical developments of the Chan tradition. Mahayana Buddhism in India came to view itself as a great medicine chest, offering tailor made therapies for the sicknesses of sentient beings. As the Chan tradition grew and flourished radically in the Tang and Song dynasties, it sought to produce medicines not just for worldy sicknesses and Confucian sicknesses and Buddhist sicknesses but for Chan sicknesses too, side effects of its own success, or of its quest for success. In this paper I aim to trace this urge towards authenticity as it manifested in Chan. This urge impacted not only Chan but the wider culture of China both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

The Dhyana School: East Mountain

            Between 624 and 674 CE Dayi Daoxin (580-651 CE) and Daman Hongren (601-674 CE) shepherded a community of practitioners on  Mt. Huang-mei in what is now Hubei Province. Later Daoxin would be considered the 4th Ancestor, and Hongren the 5th, in the legendary transmission lineage of Chan awakening [2] . This community was the locus of the proto-Chan tradition. They sought direct experiential realization of Buddhist doctrines through meditation, and had apparently gained widespread fame and esteem by the time of Empress Wu Zetian (625-705), who invited a disciple of Hongren named Yequan Shenxiu (606?-706) to the capital Loyang in 701. This move on the part of Empress Wu would impact the Chan tradition forever, as we shall see.
            The scanty surviving literature of the East Mountain school suggests that their own pursuit of authenticity in Buddhist practice led them to cultivate meditative absorption in seated meditation (tso-chan) as a step towards realizing the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena and attaining Awakening.  They appear to have practiced a combination of “sudden” and “gradual” practices. The split into sudden and gradual modes of practice stems from the fact that the realization of the true nature of mind and reality is a realization that can be accessed from any state of consciousness. Nevertheless certain states of consciousness, and in general a state of spiritual/moral meritoriousness, make this realization more likely. Some practitioners therefore focused on gradual cultivation, viewing realization as a future event they were working towards. Some attempted to abandon the gradual view, which could in fact obscure the availability of Awakening in the present; and some attempted to combine both of these views into one praxis, undertaking the “gradual” practices of chanting, merit making and study while attempting to breakthrough to Awakening in the present. As in the Tiantai tradition Shenxiu's school recognized both gradual and sudden approaches to Awakening and advocated a Complete, or Supreme approach which included both sudden and gradual modes of practice at once. The emphasis is recognizably proto-Chan, however. Shenxiu apparently sought to overcome excessive attachment to Buddhist ritual, scripture, and merit making practices by reframing scriptural references so that they all applied to meditation. Washing Buddha statues or offering incense were re-interpreted as metaphors for internal meditative practice. In this way Shenxiu attempted to present an authentic, experiential teaching that could be practiced by anyone anytime (McRae 2004: 50).
            Beginning in 730 a monk named Shenhui (684-758) began publicly criticizing Hongren's students, accusing them of teaching a gradual practice which distorted the true sudden teaching of Hongren, which Shenhui claimed to have received from his master, the obscure but soon to be famous Dajian Huineng (638-712). Scholars have argued that Shenhui was a self-serving polemicist who distorted the teachings of Shenxiu and Hongren's other “Northern School” heirs (Dumoulin 1994:113-114; McRae 2004). Whether that is true or not, his version of Chan history won the day. The question I am concerned with here is why his polemics caught on, and I would argue that it is because his rhetoric and its development by the later tradition caught the imagination of Chan seekers in their pursuit of authenticity and non-reification of the forms of practice. Where the East Mountain School and Shenxiu had made self-cultivation and realization primary, jetisoning other aspects of Buddhist tradition as peripheral at best, Shenhui went one step further and jetisoned self-cultivation entirely. As he put it, “‘sitting’ (tso) is not activating thoughts, and ‘meditation’ (ch’an) is seeing the fundamental nature” (McRae 54). “Seeing the fundamental nature”, akin to later famed Japanese Zen terms kensho or satori, is the realization of the true nature of mind and phenomenon which exhibits the combination of clear seeing and mental non-grasping which results in Awakening. Thus only a direct breakthrough to realization will do; even seated meditation is extraneous.
            The events of Shenxiu's life began the movement of Chan into the mainstream. Shenhui's criticisms led to the triumph of the rhetoric of sudden realization over the rhetoric of gradual cultivation.

From the Tang to the Song

            In the Tang dynasty styles of Chan proliferated and began to define themselves both in terms of differences in doctrine and differences of lineage. Chan became self-conscious of itself as a distinct tradition in the Tang and the struggles to define itself began. Intense debate about how to attain direct realization, and what the content of that realization was, flourished in this period. Zongmi (780-841), himself both a Chan practitioner and Hua Yen Ancestor, compiled a canon of Chan teachings as an attempt to increase the acceptance of the school and to clarify its doctrines. In his preface Zongmi listed all of the Chan traditions extant in his time period. His descriptions show a rich selection of practices, ranging from antinomian rejections of all rules, ritual, and praxis to various styles of cultivating devotion and meditative absorption though mantras, liturgies, and ceremonies (Broughton 2004:11-53). The evidence suggests that despite the Chan emphasis on practice the study of Buddhist scriptures was still generally undertaken amongst Chan practitioners. Records of the sermons of members of the Hongzhou school, which would prove to be particularly influential in the late Tang and early Song, show masters like Mazu Daoyi (709-788) and Huangbo Xiyun (d.850) had a thorough mastery of Mahayana sutras. These same sermons, though, present both masters as relentlessly pushing their disciples to go beyond intellectual knowledge or the rewards of spiritual practices, but rather to seek direct comprehension of the nature of their minds, ie. to seek Awakening. Song Buddhist literature presents these masters as using unconventional shock tactics to inspire a direct breakthrough to Awakening. The famous Linjilu (Record of Linji) presents the famous Hongzhou master Linji (d.866) as using obscenity, shouts, and blows to jump over any and all obstacles to direct, liberating contact with his students minds.
            The Hongzhou tradition began to judge masters on the basis of their spontaneous expression of Awakened mind as opposed to their ability to translate scriptural terms into direct pointers to realization. This latter technique is still very much in use in the Platform Sutra of Huineng and the recorded sermons of the early Hongzhou masters Mazu and Huangbo, but begins to recede in importance. Records of these awakening tactics began to be collected in the denglu (Transmission Records) literature which showed how the Awakened mind was transmitted and what lineages different families of practitioners belonged to. These developed into the important yulu (Encounter Dialogues) literature of the early Song, which showed the way that different Masters manifested spontaneously enlightening speech and gestures. This style came to be associated particularly with the early house of Linji, but arose in all lineages. It is in the early Song that we find the first occurrence of the following famous definition of Chan: A special transmission outside the scriptures; not relying on words and letters, pointing directly at the mind and becoming a Buddha (Welter 2006). The yulu literature showed how this special transmission took place. It also showed how its authenticity was judged: by the disciples ability to spontaneously, fearlessly, and sincerely express his own enlightened understanding in dialogue with a master.
            The yulu lierature became very popular with the Confucian literati at court and helped to gain support for the new style of Chan. With that support the now self-conscious Chan movement, strongly influenced by Hongzhou Chan, attained a dangerous thing: success. Chan now became the new mainstream Buddhism [3].

Confucian Echoes

            Since we have briefly noted the effect of the patronage and preferences of Confucian literati on Chan, it is interesting to note in passing the effect that the Chan pursuit of direct, experiential awakening had on the Confucian tradition of the elite. The classical Confucian tradition was fundamentally an ethical and political tradition whose solution to the challenges of life was learning, ritual, etiquette and interpersonal humaneness and rectitude. By the end of the Han dynasty the Confucian tradition had  become sterile. In the Wei-Jin period it attempted to revivify itself by incorporating Taoist principles in what came to be known as the Mysterious Learning movement. Despite these efforts, as Xinzhong Yao writes, Confucians “were unsuccessful in reviving Confucianism as a philosophy guiding personal and social life” (2000: 96). Confucianism could only maintain “superficial values in the state administration” and had to fight for its place in Chinese life (Ibid.). In the Sui and Tang dynasties Confucians succeeded in holding executive responsibilities for government and administration, and increased their influence through the education system and civil service administration. In the late Tang and early Song dynasties Confucians reacted to the growing Chan tradition in a number of ways. Some argued that Buddhism had no rightful place in China, some tolerated it, and some learned from it. Among the latter were Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), Shao Yong (1011-1077), Zhang Zai (1020-1077), Cheng Hao (1032-1085), Cheng Yi (1033-1107), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Lu Jiuyan (1139-1193). These Confucian philosophers were the architects of a reborn tradition that oversaw a creative new focus on metaphysics, the study of human nature, and self cultivation through meditation. The understanding of the heart (xin), paralleling the same focus in Chan, was shifted to the center (Yao 2000: 96-109). In this way the Chan obsession  with direct experience and creative expression inspired a generation of Confucians to develop methods for translating Confucian principles and intuitions into realization in the body and mind of the individual Confucian. Thus the contemplative systems and fully articulated metaphysics of Song Confucianism were born under the  tutelage of the Chan tradition.

The Birth of The Koan and Kan-hua Chan

            With the recording of the awakening behaviour of the Chan masters, and the compilation of those records, naturally followed the analysis of those records. Hence was born the gong'an (Public Case) tradition, known later in Japanese as the koan. This tradition took the sayings and doings of previous masters as recorded in yulu dialogues and used them as the basis for contemplation and commentary. This mirrored the use of precedents in a legal case, which set a standard for judgment. These koans (gong'ans) were used to test and refine the awareness of seekers, and to showcase the understandings of masters. This led in the Song to literary masterpieces by Chan luminaries like Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), and Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135). These masters presented collections of gong'ans for the contemplation of Chan students accompanied by their own creative and cryptic un-scholastic commentaries. 
            These new developments were not without their problems for the Chan tradition. The Hongzhou    penchant for blows and shouts led to cheap imitation, as the Japanese Zen Master Dogen complained when he visited Chinese monasteries in the early 13th century (Tanahashi 2000: 3-28). The literary study of gonng'ans led to intellectuality and threatened to make Chan into the very scholastic tradition it had critiqued and distanced itself from in its quest for direct realization. The two main houses of the Song responded to these problems in different ways. The Caodong school, as epitomized by its most prominent teacher in the Song, Hongzhi Zhengjue, took one approach. Hongzhi himself wrote a gong'an commentary and was on friendly terms with the author of the most famous gong'an commentary, Yuanwu Keqin. The central practice Hongzhi taught, however, did not rely on contemplation of gong'ans. Hongzhi's central practice, which came to be known as Silent Illumination Chan (mo-chao Chan), was a seated meditation practice where one cultivated a non-grasping, vivid awareness that enacted, and ultimately led to direct realization of, the Buddha nature or mind ground. For controversial reasons Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163), a Linji master contemporaneous to Hongzhi, criticized Silent Illumination Chan as misguided, charaterizing it as self-indulgent quietism that lead nowhere. Dahui advocated an aggressive, goal-oriented practice in its stead, a practice that revolutionized gong'an practice and the future of Chan. Known as k'an-hua Chan , or Gong'an Introspection Chan, this method involved focusing intensely on a hua-t'ou, or critical phrase, from a gong'an. The student was to focus singlemindedly on the hua-t'ou without trying to understand it intellectually, focusing all of one's doubt and psychic energy until a breakthrough into Awakened awareness was achieved. Interestingly, both Hongzhi and Dahui's methods circumvent the “intellectual Chan” that was developing in the Song. Hongzhi's approach is a direct non-conceptual meditation on the mind itself. Dahui's takes the critical phrase out of its literary context and focuses on it nonconceptually as well, in effect de-intellectualizing the hua-t'ou.     
            Interestingly, Hongzhi appears comfortable with the more intellectual approach to koans, perhaps because he saw them as a supplementray tool to refine the understanding of students and not the main practice. Dahui, by comparison, worked directly with material from koans as his central practice, and it was Dahui who ordered his teachers koan commentary to be destroyed by fire. Unlocking the power of the koans could not be done through intellectual contemplation, but only by using them as a tool to disrupt and break through the superficial intellectual mind. Thus Dahui was led to create an approach to koan practice that was designed not only as a tool for meditative breakthrough, but as a cure for the sicknesses created by the koan literature itself. These two approaches became the major streams of Chan practice in both China and Japan up to modern times. The first made mo-chao Chan, or tso-chan, central, and tolerated the refinement of understanding through the use of koans. The second used koans centrally, but contemplated them non-conceptually in the form of hua-t'ou [4.]. Both of these streams of Chan practice can be seen, then, as expressions of the Chan pursuit of transformative experience as opposed to mere practice or intellectual knowledge. The Silent Illumination tradition pursues this through cultivation of seated meditation and direct experience of core Buddhist doctrines, particularly the Buddha-nature and the nature of mind. This approach is in fact an old one in the Chan tradition, and is evidenced as far back as texts ascribed to Shenxiu at least (McRae 2004: 53). Hongzhi is thus not merely responding to sicknesses brought on by the koan. The emphasis in his teachings on silent, non goal oriented contemplation does stand in apparent opposition to the model of sudden awakening in fierce dialogue with a master. Perhaps Hongzhi's emphasis on mo-chao is to some extent a reaction to the yulu model. Although yulu type interactions are ascribed to him as well, perhaps Hongzhi feared they could lead to an egoistic grasping after awakening or simulacra of enlightened behaviour involving many cryptic witticisms and incoherent yelling. We have seen how Dahui strove to work directly with the koans but in a way which removed the intellectually seductive content from them. It is also clear that Dahui's method arose as a reaction to Silent Illumination Chan, which he viewed as encouraging complacency and blurring the distinction between the awakened and unawakened state (Schlutter 2002: 109-148). Both men's Chan were thus attempts to ensure their students did not go astray but arrived directly at actual experience of Awakening.

Concluding Reflections  

            Chan history can be examined from many perspectives. According to the predilections of the scholar it can be examined through the lens of art, language, philosophy, or politics, and a particular set of  forces which shaped its historical developments will be illumined. Above I have examined Chan history from the perspective of its own self-proclaimed central impulse as a spiritual tradition: the ideal of giving primacy to the direct experiential realization of the Buddha's teachings. The struggle to maintain that focus as it became a self-conscious tradition with its own mythical history, institutional structure, distinct literature, practice traditions, and success at the Confucian court, gave rise to the distinct forms of Song Chan, as well as influencing the wider Chinese culture.

1. Hershock is referring, I believe, to the Tiantai, Huayen and Pure Land schools.

2. By “legendary” I don't mean necessarily “untrue”.

3. This was not true at a folk level, but at the Elite level.

4. Although these two streams came to be associated with the Soto and Rinzai traditions respectively, in practice the two Japanese sects did not keep so neatly to the boundaries described.