The mind as the buddha-nature: The concept of the Absolute in Ch'an Buddhism
By Yun-hun Jan
Philosophy East and West
Volume 31, Number 4 October 1981 p. 467-477
© Copyright by University of Hawaii Press
| Although Ch'an Buddhism has a long history, the name of the Ch'an School (ch'an-men) or ch'an-tsung)(1) was a relatively late development. It was Tsung-mi (780-841), (2) the great Master of Kuei-fung who, for the first time, adopted the term in the ninth century A.D. It is interesting to note that it was the same monk-scholar who used the School of Mind (hsin-tsung)(3) as a synonym of the Ch'an school. Tsung-mi was a scholar of buddhist thought who had personal experience in the broad-ranging knowledge of Ch'an traditions. He collected relevant materials and wrote extensively in an effort to analyze the doctrine and practices of the traditon. His identification of the Mind with the Ch'an indicates that, in his opinion, the Mind was the central focus of the school. Although Tsung-mi contributed a good deal to the understanding of Ch'an Buddhism, his contributions remained almost unknown for a thousand years; it is only during the last two decades that scholars have gradually come to recognize his contribution, with considerable astonishment and admiration. This article is an attempt to describe, analyze and assess Tsung-mi's thesis that the doctrine of Mind is the central focus of Ch'an Buddhism and that the Mind itself is the absolute.
Although the early development of Ch'an in China is still not entirely known, its general outline is relatively clear. Initially there were a limited number of practitioners who followed the teachings of Bodhidharma and who often added new elements to the tradition. However, from the early days of the eighth century A.D., the tradition suddenly began to flourish. Various teachers developed a following and achieved some eminence, all of them claiming that they were the true authorities of the Ch'an school. In spite of their identical claims, their doctrines and methods for cultivation were partly in agreement and partly in conflict. Taking the doctrine of Mind as an example, most of these teachers agreed that the Mind in its essence is quiet, pure and absolute, while a few others remained ambiguous on the subject. Apart from this theoretical difference, there was also a controversy with respect to cultivation, namely, if the Mind is pure, all mental functions would be pure and that being the case, control of the mind would be unnecessary. On the other hand, if the mind is not entirely pure, then in spiritual efforts some control becomes essential.
Those who spoke of the mind with a pan-realistic tone can be represented by Ma-tsu or Tao-i (709-788) and his disciples. They were known at the time as the Hung-chou school of Ch'an Buddhism. The teaching of Tao-i is well known for its dictum "This Mind is the Buddha." He advised his disciples: "All of you should realize that your own Mind is Buddha, that is, this mind is Buddha's mind."(4) Monk P'u-yuan (748-834) of Nan-ch'uan stated that the "Tao is nothing but the ordinary mind."(5) Pang Yun, a lay disciple of Matsu also claimed that "with the three times non-existent, Mind is the same as Buddha-mind."(6) Monk Hui-hai, the favorite "great pearl" of this same master often told his audiences: "Your mind is the Buddha, it is unnecessary to use the Buddha to search for another Buddha; your mind is the Law, it is, unnecessary to use the Law to search for another Law."(7)
If this claim that the Mind is the Buddha is difficult for scholars to understand without any explanation, the concept itself is even more difficult. This is inevitable since the Ch'an school as a whole and the Hung-chou school in particular were fond of drastic methods in striving to attain enlightenment. Taking a conversation as an illustration of such difficulties, let us recall the story of Fa-ch'ang (752-839), another member of the school. When this monk became the abbot of a monastery, he was asked by a colleague:
The pan-realistic tone of the school was accurately noted by Tsung-mi when he wrote his typologies of Ch'an Buddhism. He described the school as follows:
In contrast with the aforementioned pan-realistic philosophy, there was another influential but shadowy branch of Ch'an Buddhism which is known as the Ox-head school. It was influential inasmuch as recent research has determined that many basic doctrines as well as documents attributed to Bodhidharma are actually the works of this school.(10) It was shadowy inasmuch as recent research has disproved the claim that the founder of this school was a disciple of the fourth patriarch of Ch'an school.(11) Whatever the history might be, one fact is clear: by the eighth century A.D., Fa-jung (594-657) had already been accepted by Ch'an Buddhists as the founder of the Ox-head school and the school was regarded as a branch of the Ch'an tradition. What was the principal doctrine of the school? The verses attributed to Fa-jung summarizes it as follows:
At the time Tsung-mi composed his treatises on the typology of Ch'an Buddhism, he described the doctrine of the Ox-head school as follows:
Apart from the theoretical difference between the Ox-head and Hung-chou schools, there was also a controversy regarding religious cultivation. According to the pan-realistic school of Hung-chou, since the Mind is the Buddha, thoughts and actions are manifestations of the Mind. One should not restrain the Mind nor cultivate the Mind by the Mind itself. Cultivation means doing nothing and letting the Mind be completely free. The Ox-head School of Negation agrees with the teaching of doing nothing as the way for cultivation, but it supports this teaching on different grounds. Considering that everything is dreamlike and entirely nonexistent, any cultivation is unnecessary. One would be a fool if he wasted time and effort for nothing. In contrast with the teaching of doing nothing, there were other schools of Ch'an which strongly opposed this radical attitude. Of these opponents, the Northern school is representative. According to this school, although the mind is originally pure, it is often polluted by defilement due to ignorance and cravings. One has to control the Mind so that it will not be further polluted; and one has to study and to live a pure life so that the past pollutions will be gradually removed.
When these conflicting views and practical teachings are compared, the controversy is clear and dramatic. Tsung-mi recognized this situation as a problem when he commented that "the doctrines preached by these established sects are contradictory and obstructive to each other."(14) He further pointed out that "some claimed that from morning to evening all actions arising from the views of discrimination are false; some say all discriminate doings are real...."(15) At a practical level, he noted that "Some give free course to their will; some restrain their mind."(16)
How could this confusion be cleared up and those who seek enlightenment from bewilderment be set free? First, Tsung-mi collected all available documents of the Ch'an schools. Then, compared and analyzed them according to Buddhist doctrines. His detachment from personal involvement gave him a degree of independence and objectivity, and his analysis of Ch'an experiences in the light of Buddhist philosophy made his presentation more systematic. As far as the Ch'an concept of the Mind is concerned, he found that the same controversy also existed in Buddhist scriptures. He states: "In some suutras, the Mind has been blamed as a thief, hence it must be cut off; whereas in others, the Mind has been praised as the Buddha, hence it is urged to cultivate it. Some say it is good; while others say it is evil...."(17)
THE FOUR ASPECTS OF MIND
After careful study and deep reflection, Tsung-mi came out with a new interpretation of the Ch'an concept of Mind. His interpretation of the Mind is largely dependent on the framework of a well-known and accepted text, the Awakening of Faith [Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin-lun] attributed to `Asvaghosa. Based on this text, Tsung-mi considers that as a dharma, the Mind has two aspects: the absolute and the phenomenal.(18) The absolute aspect is the substance (t'i); and the phenomenal aspect is the appearance (hsiang). The absolute aspect is universal and unchanging, yet it is capable of adapting itself to particular and changing situations. He further argued that the unchanging substance is the principal and that the changeable adaptations are its meanings. The central problem lies with a dialectic understanding of the relationship between the two seemingly incompatible aspects.
Though Tsung-mi follows the theoretical framework of the Awakening of Faith by dividing the Mind into two aspects, his interpretation is not a mechanical transplantation or a simplistic compromise. Rather, it is a carefully thought out interpretation based on an assimilation of Buddhist philosophy as a whole. First, it involved dividing the Mind into two primary aspects, the absolute and the phenomenal. Second, he further trifurcated the phenomenal into three aspects. Finally, he synthesized all the aspects into a unified system. Tsung-mi states that the Mind should be discussed using four different terms. These four terms originated in different Sanskrit words as well as in their Chinese equivalents. Because of a lack of clear understanding of these terms, confusion and bewilderment have arisen. To remove this confusion and bewilderment, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the different aspects of the Mind. What are these aspects? Tsung-mi states that the Mind can be understood in terms of physical, mental, collective consciousness, and the absolute. The first three aspects are phenomenal, and the last one is entirely absolute. Now let us see how he analyzed the Mind into these four aspects.
The first aspect of Mind in his analysis is the physical heart. He states it is originally known in India as h.rdaya, which is one of the five viscera. Tsung-mi noted that the heart had been discussed in a Taoist text, the Huang-t'ing ching [Yellow Court Canon(19)]. This may lead some scholars to suspect that this concept may be a form borrowed wholesale from the Taoist theory of the physical body. This suspicion seems more plausible when one reads from Reverend Nyanatiloka's statement on hadayavatthu. "In the canonical texts, however, even in the Abhidhamma-pi.taka, no such (physical) base is ever localized, a fact which seems to have first been discovered by Shwe Zan Oung."(20) As far as Chinese Buddhist tradition is concerned, the physical base of consciousness had already been mentioned in a commentary to the Yogacaryaabhuumi-`saastra, Yu-chia-lun chi by Tun-lun of the T'ang dynasty (618-906).(21) This is not to suggest that Tsung-mi's statement on the physical mind or heart owed nothing to the Taoist text, which is fact Tsung-mi himself had openly acknowledged in delineating this aspect of mind.
The second aspect of mind named by Tsung-mi was Yuan-lu hsin,(22) which may be rendered as "the Thinking Mind." The word yuan is understood as an abbreviation of p'an-yuan which means "to cling on to conditional objects"; and lu means "to consider." The term indicates that the two important functions of this mind are its grasp and its discrimination of objects. Tsung-mi himself identified this aspect with the eight kinds of consciousness found in Yogaacaarin philosophy. This includes both the consciousness and the mental properties (cetasikas). He further pointed out that some of them are determinable and others are not; some are good and some are evil. This aspect of Mind has been discussed at length in various scriptures.
The third aspect of Mind as listed by Tsung-mi is citta. In Chinese this is called chi-ch'i hsin, literally meaning the "accumulative and ensuing mind."(23) This is identical with aalayavij~naana, the eighth consciousness in the Yogaacaara system. The descriptive term 'accumulative and ensuing' denotes the principal functions of consciousness, that is, the cosmic process of consciousness as the Alaya "is the receptum of the impressions of past vij~naanas, while in its own turn it gives rise to further vij~naanas by maturing those impressions."(24) Tsung-mi also contends that this aspect of mind is what the Taoist school calls the `spirit' (shen) and what other religions in India call the `Self' (aatman). His interpretation of AAlayavij~naana as the spirit or the Self certainly seems biased, as it implies that the Taoist and Vedaantic concepts of absolute are, in his judgment, really not the absolute at all. Rather, they are only equal to the higher consciousness in the Buddhist scheme. However, as this is only of marginal interest here, we must leave the development of this observation to some later discussion.
The most important aspect of the Mind is the fourth, which Tsung-mi calls h.rdaya or Chien-shih hsin , literally meaning the "firm and solid Mind."(25) Tsung-mi claims that this actually "is the real Mind." He further urges that "because the eighth consciousness has no separate entity of its own apart from the Real Mind,"(26) it is easy for scholars to misunderstand the two as being the same. The Real Mind has two functions: associability and dissociability with false thoughts. The associability is determined by ignorance; when ignorance is removed by wisdom, the associability will be transformed into dissociability. Tsung-mi explains that "the word ‘associability’ refers to the inclusive power of Mind in its relation to purity or Impurity. This is why the mind has been termed as the Storehouse of consciousness. The word dissociability refers to the exclusive power of Mind in its relation to phenomena, i.e., the unchanging Substance. This is why the Mind is also termed as Suchness. Both of them are jointly known as the Womb of Tathaagata."(27)
Tsung-mi quotes from three scriptures to support his theory of absolute Mind and its phenomenal aspects. The first quotation is from the La^nkaavataara Suutra, which states that "The name of nirvaa.na is One-mind. One-mind is the Womb of Tathaagata."(28) On the basis of this quotation, he justifies his identification of the One-mind with the other two terms, nirvaa.na and Tathaagatagarbha. The second quotation comes from the `Sriimaalaadevii-suutra, which declares that "This Dharmakaaya... when not free from the Store of defilement is referred to as the Tathaagatagarbha."(29) This justifies Tsung-mi's contention that the four aspects of Mind, both pure and impure are originally of the same substance. The third quotation is from the Ghanavyuuha-suutra, which is translated as follows:
With the support of the aforementioned scriptural sources, Tsung-mi states that the "True Nature (bhuutatathataa) of the original Enlightenment in all sentient beings is also known as the Buddha-nature (Buddlataa) or the Mind (hsin-ti)."(31) In his opinion, this True Nature "is the Source of all dharmas; this is why it has also been termed as the dharmataa. It is the Source of both the deluded and the enlighted; this is the reason why it is known as the Storehouse Consciousness or the Tathaagatagarbha."(32)
Although the four aspects of the Mind do not differ in substance, this does not mean that they are identical. In that event, there would be no dispute between our author and the pan-realistic school of Hung-chou. Tsung-mi explains that in substance there is no difference between the deluded and the enlightened, as all of them have the Mind or Buddha-nature innately. Hence they are capable of enlightenment. However, the absolute Mind is subject to momentary delusion if it is obscured by ignorance, thus differentiating itself into various views. Once the Mind is differentiated and involved with views and responds to worldly affairs, then "there are differences between real and false, root and branches."(33) When this difference is expressed in terms of Mind, "the first three aspects of the Mind are appearances (lak.sa.na) while the fourth is the True Nature (tattva) ."(34) Because of cause and conditions, appearances arise from the Nature, and are differentiated as appearances. When the manifold appearances are examined carefully, one finds that they are seemingly real but are actually unreal. Although the characteristic appearance is unreal, it is not completely empty, because the momentary appearances are the manifestations of the Mind itself, which is absolute.
In this argument Tsung-mi contends that though the appearances and the substance are seemingly contradictory, they are actually neither in conflict nor mutually obstructive. It is like a luminous pearl which has no fixed color of its own, but is capable of reflecting all colors that is encounters.(35) The colors may be different and contradictory and the luminosity of the pearl may seem to be incompatible with the colors, yet they exist harmoniously among themselves, with no conflict or obstacle. It is only the viewer who might be correct or mistaken, and misunderstand the situation. When deluded, one would see these two categories as entirely different and think it impossible for them to penetrate each other. When enlightened, one would see that all these aspects are related, without any difficulty.
Tsung-mi points out that enlightenment is a religious experience, and harmony is one aspect of this experience. It would be impossible for one to achieve a higher and dialectical understanding of the One Mind and its manifold aspects if he is interested aimlessly in bookish research, or trusts only to his personal experience, which is limited in scope and individual in character.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE INTERPRETATION
Tsung-mi's interpretation of Mind is a very interesting and significant contribution to the history of Ch'an Buddhism. Philosophically, this represents a new Mahaayaana absolutism which has since dominated Chinese Buddhist thought. Soteriologically, it brings each man directly into confrontation with religious reality which is innately within man himself. The buddhahood or nirvaa.na is no longer a remote theory but an imminent possibility, and may be attainable by every man if he works at it. With respect to Buddhist institutions, this philosophy has given qualified recognition to monastic institutions, book learning, and meditation. These institutions may not insure one the attainment of the highest religious goal, yet they are necessary is cultivation, especially at the initial stages.
As far as philosophy is concerned, we may recall the intellectual background of Tsung-mi. There were two contending schools in Ch'an Buddhism, the first held that the Mind and its manifestations are all real, no cultivation is necessary and everyday life is religious in itself. In other words, there is no difference between sacred and profane whatsoever. In saying this, one may misunderstand this philosophy as following Naagaarjuna's precept that there is not the slightest difference whatsoever between nirvaa.na and sa^msaara.(36) It is true that the sayings of these two schools are very similar in tone but they have actually started from two different points. For Naagaarjuna the absolute and the phenomenal are not different because both of them are empty (suunya); for the Hung-chou school of Ch'an the Absolute and the phenomenal are the same, because both of them are the Absolute. Once this position is accepted, difficulties arise. Taking the concept of evil as an example, it has to be maintained because evil does not exist by itself, but as a presentation of the Mind. As an ultimate, consequence, all religious prescriptions become meaningless and unnecessary. From its absolute point of view, it may argue for the nonexistence of evil and the manifestation of the Mind without much difficulty. Yet one has to remember that in Buddhist philosophy, absolute knowledge has to begin with phenomena. The main difficulty for the Hung-chou school is that it holds to an absolute theory and applies it to phenomena indiscriminately. So doing, it no longer remains within the Middle Path. To follow this doctrine is to be led into three consequent errors, namely, confusing the sacred and the profane at an empirical level, taking wrong as right, and disputing with other schools of thought that may hold a perfect view of truth, or simply view the absolute truth from a different angle.
The second Ch'an doctrine of Mind represented by the Ox-head school claims that nothing is existent, neither the absolute nor the phenomenal. This also has its difficulties. Although such as negative dialectic may be an effective tool for determining the truth, at the same time it often misleads readers to regard its doctrine as nihilism. While it skillfully demonstrates the fallacies of positive philosophy, it is unable to provide a substitute. One may claim that the absolute can only be known through negative dialectic, and there is no other possible substitute. But it should be remembered that Buddhism has never existed simply as an academic philosophy but as a complete religion. Philosophy is useful only when it serves religious purposes, and it is, therefore, only one of the various aspects of religion, but not the whole of it.
When Tsung-mi's interpretation is placed in context, his significant contribution is seen. His analysis of Mind into four aspects is a creative interpretation. It may be viewed as a new synthesis as it includes both the absolute and the phenomenal aspects of Mind. In this way, Tsung-mi also clearly points out that though these aspects belong to one scheme, they are not identical. It is this dialectical relation between the nondifferentiation at the absolute level and the differentiation at the phenomenal level that enables him to overcome the difficulties created by the positive and the negative understanding of Buddhism represented by the Hung-chou and Ox-head schools respectively. It is also through his interpretation of absolute Mind that Tsung-mi is able to reunify Buddhism as one.
To view this philosophy in terms of its Indian background, the scheme is largely influenced both by Yogaacaara and Maadhyamika. The concept of storehouse consciousness is accepted, but it is augmented with the concept of absolute Mind. Some Maadhyamika ideas of absolute are accepted, but the process and negations are not followed with any conviction. Apart from these theoretical differences the Ch'an Buddhist never loses sight of practices. Unlike the Indian Buddhists, the Ch'an Buddhist has never been interested in purely logical arguments, but has focused more on religious experiences.
The identification of the Mind as the absolute is very important to Ch'an soteriology. Throughout the history of Buddhism, mind has consistently surfaced as one of the principal problems. With the exception of the Yogaacaarins, no other Buddhist school ever argued, as forcefully as did Tsung-mi, that the Mind itself was the absolute. What was the reason for him doing so? The answer is that according to Ch'an tradition, the Mind is the key in religious life. A Ch'an text states that according to Fo-ming ching ("The scripture of buddhas' names"), "Evils arise from the Mind, so they have to be eliminated by the Mind."(37) Since all evil and good begins from the mind, most of the Ch'an Buddhists consider "the Mind as the Foundation." If this is the case, "One has to know the Foundation first in the search for the liberation."(38) Another Ch'an text quotes a verse attributed to Hui-ssu (515-557), the founder of the T'ien-t'ai school and an expert in meditation: "In the discussion of learning, it is necessary to penetrate the Mind first. If the Mind is penetrated, all laws are penetrated simultaneously."(39) Tsung-mi agrees with this view. He states, "The Mind is the Source of all dharmas. What dharmas are not included in this Source?"(40) This Mind becomes "impure when deluded; pure when enlightened, sacred when cultivated and profane when uncultivated, capable of producing all the dharmas, both conditioned as well as unconditioned."(41) The cultivation of Ch'an Buddhism in this doctrine, therefore, is the cultivation of Mind. Once the Mind is illuminated, the teachings contained in the scriptures and the experience from meditation and the moral life all become meaningful and beneficial. Otherwise, these efforts are not only fruitless but could even become obstacles to enlightenment. The focus of Mind as the absolute makes the salvation no longer an academic or remote goal, but a personal and immediate one with each of us. This is the soteriology of Ch'an Buddhism, and this is the significance of Tsung-mi's contribution to the tradition.
CYC Ch'an-yuan chu-ch'uan-chi Tu-hsu. Chinese text and Japanese translation by Shigeo Kamata under the title of Zen no goroku 9: Zengen shosenshutojo (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1971) . Tsung-mi's other work, Ch'an-men shih-tzu ch'eng-hsi t'u, is also included in this volume.
1. CYC pp. 13 and 17 for the term of ch'an-men; pp. 57, 86, 210 and 320 for ch'an-tsung. Compare Sekiguchi Shindai, "Zenshuu no hassei," Fukui sensei shoju ki'nen Toyo shiso ronshuu (Tokyo, 1960), pp. 321-338.