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Three Language-Related Methods In Early Chinese Chan Buddhism
Hakuin's Daruma

Desheng Zong
Department of Philosophy and Religion, Central Michigan University
Philosophy East and West 55.4 (Oct 2005): p584 (19)
© 2005 University of Hawaii Press

The primary concern of this essay is the history and philosophical significance of three language-related methods widely used in Chan practice during the golden age of Chinese Chan Buddhism, roughly from the eighth to the twelfth centuries.

Known as a school that does not rely on words and erects no systems in its teaching and practice, Chan more than any other school in the history of philosophy has relied on unconventional ways to convey its message. For convenience of discussion, I will call these unconventional ways "methods." Many of these methods are well known and well discussed. As examples, we may mention the so-called "Five Ranks" of the House of Caoshan and Dongshan, the "Four Ways of Sorting" and "Four Ways of Host and Guest" of the House of Linji, and the fourfold use of two types of symbols (circles) in the House of Guishan and Yangshan. This part of the story is familiar to students of Chan.

The three methods that I discuss here are a different story. Despite their wide use and indisputable importance, there is surprisingly very little discussion of them by Chan scholars. Indeed, if I am correct, one of these methods has never been clearly recognized. As for the other two, although one sees the telling and retelling of some of the stories and anecdotes as instances of the use of these methods, rarely are they brought under appropriate general categories that help expose the meaning and nature of the methods. The present essay is an effort toward remedying this problem. The first three sections are devoted to a general account of the three methods. Where possible, the origin, history of use, and the sectarian source of a method is traced. The fourth section is devoted to deciphering the philosophical meaning of the methods and how they are supposed to work. I end with a few remarks on the relation between the philosophical originality of Chinese Chan Buddhism and its use of language-focused methods such as the ones discussed here.

The Bodhidharma Method

We are all familiar with the following story about Bodhidharma, the founder or first patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism, and his disciple Huike (Jpn: Eka):

HUIKE: My mind is not at peace. I beg the master to pacify it for me.
BODHIDHARMA: Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it for you.
HUIKE: I tried but was unable to find it.
BODHIDHARMA: I'm done pacifying your mind for you.

This story (found in the Wu-deng-hui-yuan, (1) Zu-tang-ji, (2) Jing-de-chuan-deng-lu, (3) and Wu-men-kuan (4)) has always struck readers of early Chan writings as significant and refreshing. Perhaps partly for this reason the story is frequently told in both scholarly as well as popular writings on Chan Buddhism. Despite this, few have taken the trouble to tell us just what it is that is significant and refreshing about the story. (5)
But what many may not be aware of, or may be aware of but have not given it much thought, is that there is another closely related story that is strikingly similar to this one. Only this time the story concerns Huike and another person, not Bodhidharma. (6) It often goes as follows:

   Someone who suffered from paralysis [rheumatism?] came to see the
   second patriarch, Huike, saying: "I beg the master to pardon my
   sin." Huike said: "Bring me your sin and I will pardon it for
   you." The person was silent for a long time. He then said: "I
   tried to look for it but have failed to find it." The master said:
   "I'm done pardoning your sin." (7)

One wonders if Huike's use of "bring me so and so and I will do such and such for you" is not a direct result of having received a similar lesson from his own earlier master.

But there is more. In many Chan writings a similar story is also told about an incident that happened between Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chan, and Daoxin (Jpn: Doshin), the fourth patriarch. The story often goes like this:

   When Daoxin was fourteen, he came to see Sengcan, saying to the
   latter: "I beg the master to have mercy. Please instruct me on how
   to achieve release." The master said: "Is there someone who
   constrains you?" Daoxin said: "There is no such person." The
   master said: "Why then seek release when you are constrained by no
   one?" (8)

The similarity in the way an answer is given to a question in all three stories is striking. The questions invariably take the form "Please do such and such about the so and so," and the answers always take the form "Bring me the so and so and I will do such and such about it." (9) Furthermore, three of the four men involved in the stories stand in the relation of either master to student or predecessor to successor. In view of all this, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that the three instances may somehow be related. For example, it is very possible that they are the result of a consistent application of one and the same method, a method rooted in some shared approach to philosophical issues. Since the first use of this method was associated with Chan's first patriarch, Bodhidharma, let us, for convenience of reference, call it "the Bodhidharma method."

But there is yet another intriguing thing about these three stories. This time it has to do with their sources. A careful examination shows that all the Chan histories in which the stories are recorded are Chan writings that were composed no earlier than the later half of the eighth century. For example, they are all told, in various forms, in the Zu-tang-ji (A.D. 952), the Jing-de-chuan-deng-lu (A.D. 1004), the Wudeng-hui-yuan (thirteenth century), and the Wu-men-kuan (A.D. 1228). On the other hand, if one expects to find any of these stories in Chan writings of the first half of the eighth century or earlier, one is in for a big surprise. For there is virtually no record whatsoever to be found of stories of this kind. For example, there are no traces of these stories in Daoxuan's Xu-gao-seng-chuan (mid-seventh century), (10) nor do we find them in the Chuan-fa-bao-ji (mid-eighth century), (11) nor are they recorded in the Leng jia-shi-zi-ji (early eighth century). How can this be explained?
The early history of Chan Buddhism is still a much-debated subject. It is generally agreed that beginning from around the third decade of the eighth century the once prominent Northern school of Chan experienced a dramatic decline; in less than two decades it had lost not only the political support of the imperial court and the favor of the social elite of its day, but its lines of succession had also become extinct. The so-called "Southern school of Chan" had replaced Northern Chan in prominence and influence, both in the elite circles and among the masses. (12)

If we believe this reconstruction of this part of the early history of Chan Buddhism, in particular the role played by factional figures such as Shenhui (668-760) in the decline of Northern Chan, we have a very simple explanation of why the stories are only found in Chan histories composed after (and including) the late eighth century. To put it bluntly, the Chan writings of the late eighth century and later reflect the effort on the part of the advocates of the more recent Southern Chan to justify their new approach and message. The effort took the form of rewriting the early history of Chan, especially the history of the early patriarchs. (13) Since the stories about the lives of the first four generations of the school are entirely absent from reliable sources and are only found in the writings composed after the Southern school had established its dominance over the Northern school, it is very plausible that the details added to the lives of the early patriarchs are the invention of the followers of the newer school with the purpose of affirming the legitimacy of their new approach. In other words, the stories are better understood as the result of a projection of the methods and thinking of the new school into the early history of Chan. If this is indeed the case, then we must treat the method depicted in the cases, together with whatever philosophical insight that gave rise to it, strictly as the property of the newer school.

That this must be the case is partly borne out by the wide use of the Bodhidharma method in the decades following the replacement of the Northern school by the Southern school. Unlike the stories about the early patriarchs, most of the stories told about the great masters of the period lasting from the late eighth century to the tenth century stand a better chance of being historical fact. Among them are the well-known Chan masters Nanyang Huizhong (Jpn: Nan'yo Echo), one of the foremost direct disciples of the great sixth patriarch Huineng (d. 775), and Yunmeng Wenyi (Jpn: Hogen Bun'eki) (d. 949), founder of the House of Yunmeng, and many others. The Wu-deng-hui-yuan records one instance of use of the Bodhidharma method by Huizhong and two instances of its use by Wenyi:

   [Someone] asked [the master Nanyang Huizhong]: "What is the
   character of the real [lit., "the filled"] dharma?" The master
   said: "I will show you the real [dharma] if you first bring me the
   unreal [i.e., the unfilled]." The person said: "The unreal is not
   to be had." The master said: "If you can't have the unreal, what
   is the meaning of asking for the real?" (WDHY, p. 101)
   A student asked [the master Yunmeng Wenyi]: "How does one escape
   life and death when they come?" The master said: "Bring me your
   life and death" [or, "You owe me a show of life and death"].
   (WDHY, p. 929)
   The master ascended the lecture hall and said: "... You people are
   hopeless. As soon as you hear someone talk about the patriarchs
   and the masters, you start asking about going beyond the patriarchs
   and masters. What is it that you call patriarchs and masters? ...
   [A]s soon as you hear someone talk about the triple world, you
   start asking how to get out of it. What is it that you call the
   triple world? How about bringing me that which you call 'the triple
   world'...." (WDHY, p. 927)

The same source contains many other instances of use of the same method by Chan masters of this period. They are too numerous to cite here. The one thing we can say at this point is that this method saw continued use far into the tenth century (and perhaps even later). (14)

The Naming Game

The expression "naming game" (variously called "naming test" and "the trial of naming," below) is something I have coined for the purpose of this article. The term is not found in any of the extant ancient Chan literature. There could be little doubt that this is a method of teaching and testing widely used in Chan circles in the golden age of Chan. In terms of frequency of use and effectiveness, few other Chan methods are its equal. The real purpose of the game is the testing of a Chan follower's ability (or the lack thereof) to break a dilemma set up with the help of a name, usually of some ordinary object. Here are some typical examples of the use of this method:

   [The master] held up the shippei [a staff of office carried by an
   abbot] and asked the monk: "If you call this 'shippei' you commit
   to the layman's view; if you do not call it 'shippei' you go
   against it. Without speaking or keeping silent, answer me: How do
   you call it? Quick! Quick!" (WDHY, p. 141)
   The Chan master Huanglong Zuxin would often hold up his fist and
   ask his students: "If you call this a 'fist' you are attached to
   the conventional truth; if you do not call it a 'fist,' you go
   against it. So how do you call it?" (WDHY, p. 1111)
   In the lecture hall the master often used the whisk as a means of
   instructing the congregation. [He would often say:] "To call this
   a whisk is a mistake; but if you do not call it a whisk, I do not
   know how you will call it." (WDHY, p. 1175)
   A monk came to attend the master. The master pointed at the fire
   and asked: "This is fire. But you cannot call it 'fire,' for I
   just did." The monk could not answer. (WDHY, p. 203)
   [The master] held up the staff and said: "Where do you people
   think I got this? If you call this a staff, you are one whose eyes
   do not see. If you say it is not a staff, you must be one with no
   eyes." (WDHY, p. 1063)

The idea, to anticipate a bit, is that he who knows will know how to answer the question without breaking the rule that has been laid down (e.g., one must not speak and yet must not keep silent). So one's ability to find a way out of the dilemma is taken to be a sign of the degree of one's spiritual progress (one's understanding of the Chan teaching, that is). As we will presently see, the answers come in a wide variety, ranging from simple verbal responses to acrobatics.

The first thing to be said about this method is its history. It is not entirely clear what its origin was. The earliest record that I have managed to find that might be an instance of this method is a short passage in the Leng jia-shi-zi ji, where it is attributed to none other than the first patriarch Bodhidharma. The record is as follows:

   The master [Bodhidharma] often used ordinary objects in
   instructing students. He would often point at something and ask:
   "How do you call this?" He would do this using every available
   object, often switching the names in formulating a question. (15)

This particular record is not found in any of the other early Chan writings. It is not found, for example, in Daoxuan's Xu-gao-seng-chuan (early seventh century) or in the Chuan-fa-bao-ji (mid-eighth century). Strangely, it is not found in any of the later Chan writings, either, despite the fact that it is in these writings that we see the full blossoming and virtual explosion in the use of this method.

This fact is itself significant, perhaps in more than one way. I will focus on only one aspect of it here. A discussion of the teachings of Bodhidharma usually focuses on meditational techniques (such as the so-called "wall-gazing dhyana"), the doctrine of "two entrances and four practices," and the role of the Lankavatara Sutra in his teaching. But if we believe this record of the Leng jia-shi-zi-ji, and if we believe that what the book is referring to here is the same method of naming that is under discussion in this section, then we have reason to believe that we have just unearthed a missing piece in the puzzle about the role of Bodhidharma in the rise of Chan Buddhism. The puzzle, roughly, is this. Numerous researches conducted since Stein's discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts have drilled into our minds an image of Bodhidharma as a practitioner of wall-gazing meditation and the above-mentioned "two entrances and four practices." Yet there is very little that is "Chan-like" in these things. (16) No matter what degree of significance scholars want to attach to this aspect of Bodhidharma' teachings, it just does not add up to what would amount to the legacy of a man credited with the founding of the Chan movement. There is, you might say, a missing link. The naming game, on the other hand, is authentically Chan. If the invention of this method can indeed be attributed to him, this will at least partly explain the prominent place given to him in Chan literature."

A second item of note about the naming test is that it is a method used by nearly all schools of Chan Buddhism. A perusal of the Wu-deng-hui-yuan, for example, readily reveals that this is a method used by all five houses of Chinese Chan. In this sense, the naming test is truly the royal road to Chan, for while methods such as the Five Ranks of the House of Cao Dong or the Four Ways of Subject and Object of the House of Linji are used only by members of these particular houses, respectively, this one is embraced by all schools.

A third item of note concerning the naming test has to do with the names of the objects that are used in setting up the dilemma. These consist largely of names of simple objects that a Chan monk would have around him. Chan literature contains stories of playing the naming game using the names of household objects such as a chair, pillow, water jar, whisk, tea cup; the names of the four compass directions; the names of animals; and the names of fruits such as a water chestnut. There are also cases of using abstract terms such as "dream" in these trials. It has often been pointed out that Chan practice in the golden age had a distinctive modern flavor to it, in that philosophical issues were tackled in a way that entirely bypassed doctrines and systems and dealt directly with ordinary things and situations.

Another thing that the Chan records have made clear is that the naming trial is not the exclusive prerogative of a master. Although, as the stories above illustrate, the master is usually the one who uses the method on his students, it is not uncommon to see students try the same thing on their own masters. For example:

   When the Chan master [Jingging Daofu] first became a master
   himself, there arrived a traveling monk who, walking in slowly and
   seizing the fly whisk, held it up and said: "I call this a 'fly
   whisk.' How does the master call it?" (WDHY, p. 414)

A fourth notable feature is the informal nature of the method. The naming test is not an item on a fixed schedule of instruction; there are no rules about how and when it is to be used. One can have such a test put to one at almost any time of the day under all sorts of circumstances. For example, it can be put to one as one is doing something as routine as receiving a water jar from someone:

   [Master Guishan] tried to pass the water jar to Yangshan. As
   Yangshan was reaching out to receive it the master suddenly drew
   back his hand and asked: "What is it?" (WDHY, p. 520)

If one lets one's guard down, or if one is not one of those who have reached a level of spiritual progress that allows them to respond flawlessly to unexpected tests, one can flunk the test when it is put to one at a time when one is least expecting it:

   The Prime Minister Pei came to visit the master [Shishang
   Qingzhu]. Qingzhu seized and held up the Minister's hu [a short
   staff carried by state officials as a symbol of office] and asked:
   "This object is called gui when it is in the hand of an emperor,
   [and] it is called hu when in the hand of a state official. I
   wonder what one calls it when it is in the hand of an old monk?"
   Minister Pei could not answer the question. The master kept the hu
   himself. (WDHY, p. 287)

But the method is also frequently used on serious occasions, such as in scheduled lectures given by a Chan master:
The master [Huanglong Huinan] ascended the lecture hall ... [;] holding up the whisk, he said: "People! If you call this a whisk, you are a dead man lying on the ground; if you do not call it a whisk, you have no understanding of Chan." The master then hit the couch with the whisk and descended the lecture hall. (The Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Huanglong Huinan, in Taisho Tripitaka, no. 1993)

Finally, the method is sometimes used to help make decisions as serious as the appointment of the head of a new sect (or congregation). The story of Yangshan Huiji (Jpn: Kyozan Ejaku) nicely illustrates this. It is recorded in the Wu-deng-hui-yuan that when Guishan Lingyou (Jpn: Isan Reiyu) was still a student of the great master Baizhang (Jpn: Hyakujo Ekai), a monk named Sima Toutuo came to see Baizhang. Sima reported his discovery of a great mountain in Hunan and suggested that Baizhang establish a new monastery there by appointing one of his high disciples as the head of the new place. Baizhang was inclined to appoint Guishan Lingyou. But the head monk was not happy, and he contested the decision. Thereupon Baizhang suggested the following solution, and the issue was resolved to everybody's satisfaction:

   [H]e [Baizhang] pointed at the water jar and said to both Guishan
   and the head monk: "If one of you can provide a satisfactory
   answer to my question, the mountain will be his." He pointed at
   the water jar and asked the head monk: "If you cannot call it a
   'water jar,' how else might you call it?" The head monk said:
   "Whatever you call it, you cannot call it a 'wooden peg!"' When
   Baizhang put to Guishan the same question, Guishan kicked over the
   jar and walked out. "You have just lost the mountain to Guishan,"
   Master Baizhang said to the head monk. (WDHY, p. 520-521)

The Four Ways of Ju  and Yi

In the biography of the Zen master Yexian Guisheng in the Wu-deng-hui-yuan we find the following:

The master ascended the lecture hall. He first paused for a long time, then spoke thus: "You traveling Chan monks! Here is   something you all need to be aware of: if you want to get closer and not to be led astray by what's going on around you, then you must have the right eye in your study and your understanding. How shall one go about this? [There are four kinds of situations you need to know:] There is the case of ju arriving but yi failing to show up. This refers to a situation where imagined things are taken to be real and false distinctions are made on that very ground. There is the case where yi is there but ju fails to arrive. This refers to a situation where what is being talked about is not unreal, but different people are focusing on different aspects of the thing [so they end up talking past each other]. There is the case where both ju and yi arrive. When this happens, great illumination is produced, breaking the vast empty space. Finally there is the case where both ju and yi fail to arrive. We may liken this to the case of a blind man striding haphazardly ahead and falling in a deep pit. (18) (WDHY, p. 689)

What is intriguing about this passage is that it contains a discussion of two terms, ju and yi, (19) which are apparently used here as terms of art, four possible situations involving the two concepts, and an explanation of the meaning of each of the four combinations. Nothing like this has been mentioned in the Wu-deng-hui-yuan up until this point. The exact interpretation of the passage need not concern us here. All we need to keep in mind at this juncture is that the man who is discussing the issue, the Chan master Yexian Guisheng, was a direct disciple of Shoushan Shengnian (Jpn: Shuzan Shonen) (d. 993), who was himself one of the foremost disciples of the great master Linji (Jpn: Rinzai Gigen) (d. 866), founder of the famed House of Linji (Jpn: Rinzai).

The second time the Wu-deng-hui-yuan mentions the four ways of ju and yi is in volume 19, which records two more cases of the ju-yi quartet, one in the biography of the Zen master Zhaojue Keqin (Jpn: Engo Kokugon) (d. 1135) and one in the biography of the Zen master Kaifu Daoning (Jpn: Kaifuku D6nei) (d. 1152):

   The master [Kegin] gave a speech to the congregation: "... There
   are times when ju arrives but yi fails to follow up, and there are
   times when yi arrives but ju fails to follow up. Ju can eradicate
   yi, and yi can also eradicate ju. When yi and ju run past each
   other, that's when you know a Chan monk is clueless." (WDHY,
   p. 1257)
   Someone asked: "What is meant by ju arriving but yi not following
   up?" The master answered: "An auspicious herb that has no root is
   used carelessly." "What is meant by yi arriving but ju not
   following up?" The master said: "The buyer has his attention
   focused on the goods on the scales rather than on the readings."
   "What is meant by yi and ju both arriving?" The master said: "The
   Bodhisattva of Great Compassion [Avalokiteshvara] does not reach
   out, though he has eyes all over." "What is meant by yi and ju
   both failing to arrive?" The master said: "You and I go in
   different directions." (WDHY, p. 1264)

Both Keqin and Daoning were disciples of the well-known master Wuzu Fayan (Jpn: Goso Hoen) (d. 1104). The three men played an important role in reviving the Chan movement, which was rapidly declining amid the strong trend toward secularization in the society of the time. Again, all three are masters belonging to the House of Linji.

The last record of the four ways of ju-yi in the Wu-deng-hui-yuan is found in volume 20. The discussion occurs in a lecture given by the Chan master Wuju Daoxing on a visit to the famed Guoqing Temple on Mount Tientai. Tientai was one of the sacred Buddhist centers of the time; it was once the headquarters of the doctrinal Tientai school. The lecture goes as follows:

   There are times when one needs to extirpate both the yi and the
   ju. On these occasions, one just has to be determined and
   steadfast and must not let anything pass. There are times when one
   will approve both the ju and the yi. Though one still needs to be
   firm and steadfast in holding on to what is right, it does not
   hurt to leave the ju and the yi as they are. There are also times
   when one must both approve the ju and the yi and not approve them.
   There are also times when one must extirpate the ju and the yi as
   well as not extirpate them.... (WDHY, p. 1314)

Wuju Daoxing was a fifth-generation master after the great Yangqi Fenghui (Jpn: Yogi Hoe) (d. 1049). That makes him another authentic master in the House of Linji.

What shall we make of all this? There seems to be little doubt that what we are dealing with here is a self-consciously employed philosophical method of some sort. The way in which the two terms ju and yi are used in these cases, in particular in the careful spelling out of the four possible logical combinations of the two terms, is all too neat to be an accident. Furthermore, the four records quoted earlier suggest that this is not a one-time throw-together but is rather a well-crafted method supported by certain assumptions. This has to be so because, even if we just focus on the records we have here, we are talking about a time span of five generations at the least (that is, assuming Yexian Guisheng was the first to employ the method and Wuju Daoxing the last). Without the assumption that this method is a tradition handed down from one generation to the next in the House of Linji, it would be difficult to explain the continuity here.
There is another important fact. As far as I know, there is no mention of the four ways of ju and yi in any other schools of Chan in the Chan literature. (20) This suggests that it might very well be a method used by no other schools of Chan but the House of Linji. For convenience of discussion, let us call it "the four ways of ju and yi."

The name of the founder of the House of Linji is often associated with the use of shouting in teaching. Thus the saying "the cane of De Shan and the shouts of Linji" (De Shan was a master who used caning in instructing students). The House of Linji is also known for the use of other famous methods, such as the "Four Ways of Sorting", the "Four Ways of Host and Guest" the "Four Ways of zhao (understanding) and yong" (practice), the so-called "Three Mysteries and Three Keys", and the "Four Ways of the Subjective and the Objective". All this is familiar stuff to students of Chan. However, if I am right, to this familiar line of Chan methods of the House of Linji we must now add another, heretofore forgotten, method: the four ways of ju and yi.

Making Sense of the Methods

Our concern up until now has been mainly historical. I have not said much, if anything, about the meaning and philosophical significance of these methods. That is the subject of this section.

The Bodhidharma Method

All cases involving the use of this method share the following feature: the student asks a question about some property P of a certain object O, and instead of answering the student's question about P, the master demands of the student that he bring (or show) him the O first, to which the student would answer that he had tried but had found nothing. Thereupon he is told that that is the answer.
Clearly, the working of the method depends partly on the following assumption: that in order for a concern about some property P of some object O to be possible, there has to be an O in the first place; if it cannot be shown that there are such things as O, then a concern about P is a concern about nothing. In other words, it is a false issue. In the case of Huike, for example, the issue that he brought to the master was the restlessness of his mind (the sinfulness of the mind in the second case mentioned in the second section above). But in order for there to be such an issue as the restlessness of mind, there has to be a mind in the first place.

But what is equally clear is that, for the method to work, there has to be another assumption, one that is far more substantial than the first one. Suppose I ask you about some property P of O, and you tell me to forget the whole thing, because for there to be an issue of P, there has to be O in the first place, and there is no such thing as O, you say. But suppose instead of just giving up, I ask you why you think there is no such thing as O. Obviously, you must go beyond the early assumption, mentioned above, if your answer to this question is to satisfy me. Moreover, even if you can come up with an answer (say a theory about O to which you are committed), it is still possible for me to reject it.

This leads us to a third feature about the Bodhidharma method. That is, for the method to work, both the party that uses it and the party on whom it is used must already be committed to the truth of the underlying ontological theory or principle. That this must be the case is borne out by the way students respond to their masters' answer in most cases involving the use of this method: they typically do not go on to ask why it is that not being able to bring the things to their master the way they could regarding, say, a water jug is a reason for rejecting the reality of the concept or entity in question. They do not, for example, go on to ask why one's inability to point out mind (sin, life and death, the triple world, and so forth) in the same way that one points out a rotten apple in a barrel is a reason for rejecting the reality of mind (sin, life and death, and so forth). We can bring out the point better in yet another way: imagine trying the Bodhidharma method on someone who embraces a Platonic ontology; any attempt to use the method on such a person can only lead to further disputes and arguments. (21)

So far we have identified three key things that seem to characterize all cases of use of the Bodhidharma method: an assumed conceptual truth, a supporting metaphysical doctrine, and a shared belief by both parties in the metaphysical doctrine or doctrines. This result, however, leads to a puzzle: what could the point of such a method be if both parties in a situation where the method finds its use already share, or are already committed to, the same view or principle? The purpose cannot be that of inducing in the student a belief about the conceptual truth, for that trivializes the method. Nor can it be to get the student to believe the metaphysical principle, for the student already believes it. Thus the question: why the Bodhidharma method?

The key to answering this question, I believe, lies in the third feature of these cases. Let us examine this point more carefully. If the teacher knows that his student believes what he himself believes, and yet feels the need to instruct him further, that may well be because the teacher sees some problem with the way the beliefs are held by the student. But what can possibly go wrong when a person believes in some thesis or proposition? There are all sorts of possibilities, but let us here focus on just two of them. Speaking of believing something, a person may be related to what she believes in one of two ways: the notional way and the direct way. Let us say that a person's belief in some proposition is notional if the person is only capable of answering semantic questions relating to the linguistic (and mental) symbols that express the proposition. On the other hand, a person who understands a proposition in the direct sense is someone who is capable of answering semantic questions relating to the proposition as well as other types of questions. To illustrate: suppose you overhear a person in the next room say "You are to blame!" Assuming that you understand the language, then, in the notional sense, you understand what the remark says here: it says that the addressee is to blame for something that happened earlier. But unless you also happen to know who the addressee in this particular case is, you do not have direct understanding of what is said here. Your belief is merely notional.

I want to suggest that an appreciation of something similar to the difference between the notional and direct understanding of what one believes might very well be what motivated the invention of the Bodhidharma method. This does not mean that the inventor of this method must have conceived the difference between the two the way we have formulated it. A person does not need to possess the concept of notional understanding in order to appreciate the difference between, say, a person who knows in a direct way the referent of "you" in "you are to blame" and someone who does not. But this is all it takes for the invention of a method such as the one under discussion here. If we accept this, we have a very simple explanation of the Bodhidharma method: it is designed to force upon the student an awareness of the two ways a person may hold a belief in a proposition. The use of the method is simple and straightforward: just as you can forcefully make someone realize the notional nature of their belief in "you are to blame" by forcefully asking the question "Bring me (describe to me, point out to me, and so forth) the person you hear called 'you' and I will do such and such about him/her," you can force someone to realize the notional nature of their belief in some proposition (say the proposition "Mind is empty") by forcefully asking the person: "Bring me (point it out to me) what you here call 'mind' and I will do such and such about it for you."

That a realization of the distinction between object of belief and ways of believing must be what informed the Bodhidharma method gains support from another Chan method to which we now turn.

The Four Ways of Ju and Yi

Although not much detail is given in the four texts cited in the third section above about the purposes and underlying principle of this method, with the help of what is contained in these passages and comparison with the other types of "four ways" (some of these are relatively well understood), an illuminating picture can be pieced together about the method, a picture that provides further support for the claim I made at the end of the last subsection.

Of the four passages on the four ways of ju and yi, the one found in the biography of the master Kaifu Daoning is the most accessible. According to Daoning, a man of Chan must be aware of four types of situations when the use of language is involved: (1) the use of sentences without accompanying understanding; (2) understanding unaccompanied by the use of sentences; (3) the use of sentences and a corresponding understanding going hand in hand; and (4) no use of sentences nor an appearance of understanding. Daoning also makes it clear that case 3 is the only case of which he approves. (22)

What are we to make of all this? The answer would seem to lie in the key word "understanding." Unlike the concept of meaning, which is a semantic concept, the concept of understanding has more to do with psychology than with metaphysics/ semantics. So, at least on the face of it, the four ways of ju and yi looks like another Chan method whose purpose is to enable Chan followers to better evaluate their own situations (if one is a student) or those of others (if one is a teacher) when it comes to the understanding of Buddhist teachings (recall the distinction made earlier about the difference between the direct versus the notional way of believing a proposition). If this is indeed what the four ways of ju and yi are about, we have a straightforward explanation of Kaifu Daoning's assertion that case 3 is the only commendable case. The reason is simple: while case 3 is the only case in which notional and direct understanding go hand in hand, the other cases all fail to pass this test.

(1) Case 1 is problematic because the mere ability to utter a (grammatically correct) sentence only indicates the appearance of a notional way of believing something; it does not necessarily entail the appearance of a direct understanding of the thing said by the uttering of the sentence. A story recorded in the life of Yunmen Wenyan may serve as an illustration: when Wenyan was on his way to see the great master Xuefeng Yicun he met a monk who was also traveling for the same purpose. "Please deliver a word to the master on my behalf," said Wenyan to the monk, who was leaving early. "But do not tell him it's my word." The monk arrived in Yicun's lecture hall and made the following remark: "You are in shackles; why don't you shake them off!"-which was what Wenyan had told him to say. Upon hearing the monk's remark, Yicun came down and grabbed him by the chest, saying: "Say something, quick!" The monk could not say a word. Yicun pushed him to the side, saying: "That's not your word." When the monk insisted that the remark was indeed his own, Yicun called out: "Aide, bring me the rope and the cane!" Frightened, the monk immediately revealed the truth (WDHY, p. 922). In this story, although the monk had transmitted the word correctly ("You are in shackles"), he had little idea of what it meant.

(2) Case 2 is problematic because, without some kind of notional representation, which comes only with the use of language, the issue of direct understanding in many cases does not even arise. A sentence such as "Mind is empty of self-nature" is an example: if I had never heard such a sentence uttered (perhaps by a Buddhist monk), the idea that it might be a good thing to gain a true (direct) understanding of it would not occur to me; if it never did, I would never stand a chance of acquiring a direct understanding of such a thing as the emptiness of mind.
(4) Case 4 is probably the worst of the four, for there is not only a lack of any notional way of believing something, but no direct understanding of whatever kind is involved. Yexian Guisheng used the example of "a blind man striding haphazardly ahead and falling into a deep pit," but a modified version of this example illustrates the point more clearly: suppose a person is both deaf and blind from birth, and has never heard of the word "snow" or come into contact with any sample of it. It would follow that the person would lack a notional ("the stuff that is fluffy, flaky, cold and damp") as well as a direct understanding of snow (the stuff itself).

Clearly, the realization that what one believes and how one believes it are two entirely different things is the fundamental insight that informs the Bodhidharma method and the four ways of ju and yi. Equally important is the fact that the insight was not used in erecting theoretical edifices but was rather employed in addressing actual utterances of sentences and instances of beliefs in individual language users. Chinese Buddhist philosophy, and Chinese philosophy in general, had not seen anything like it. The rise of Chan Buddhism is, of course, a complicated social and cultural phenomenon having multiple causes, but the great vigor and excitement that so characterized this new religious movement must have had a lot to do with the methods that formed the intellectual cornerstone of Chan's daily practices.

The Naming Game

Despite its wide use and long history, no clear explanation of this method is available to us. The Chan writings of the ancients are silent on this; no ancient masters have been recorded explaining the meaning of the method. We can only examine the cases and try to make reasonable conjectures.

There is little doubt that names (natural-kind terms, mass terms, and names of artifacts) are the central concern in all these cases. It is natural to think, given the role that names play here, that this must be a method that is designed to teach the student the appropriate way to handle the issue of reference within the context of Buddhist practice. The larger concern, of course, is the appropriate understanding of the Mahayana notion of emptiness. This assumption will guide my discussion here.
If things are empty of that which makes a real thing real, then names do not refer. If they do not refer, then you violate the Buddhist teaching of emptiness when, following the person in the street, you call a spade a spade. This seems to be a natural conclusion to draw. And Chan masters sometimes encourage this type of thinking. This would explain stories such as the one cited above, where the master clearly tells the student that to call the fist a "fist" or a staff a "staff" or fire "fire" is committing to the layman's view and is a violation of the Buddha's teaching. In view of cases like this, one is tempted to draw the lesson that perhaps the proper way is to not use language the way it is used by the person in the street. But Chan masters have made it clear that this is also wrongheaded. The following story shows this:

   On one occasion the zazen was led by a lay disciple. The master
   asked: "What does a man who understands the meaning of zazen call
   east?" The lay disciple said: "Whatever he may call it, he doesn't
   call it 'east.'" The master blasted out: "You stinky donkey! How
   else are you going to call it if you don't call it east?!" (WDHY,
   p. 238)

To add to the student's confusion, masters would often approve of the "calling a spade a spade" type of answer to the naming test. Consider the well-known story about the founders of the House of Gui and Yang:

   While walking with Yangshan on one occasion, the Chan master
   Guishan asked, pointing to a cypress tree: "What's that ahead?"
   Yangshan said: "A cypress tree." Master Guishan then turned to a
   nearby farmer plowing and put to him the same question. "A cypress
   tree," answered the farmer. Master Guishan exclaimed: "Here is
   another future master of a congregation of five hundred!" (WDHY,
   p. 523)

So what is the appropriate way to handle the relation between a name and the named? Based on the cases considered so far, it seems that the only proper conclusion to draw is that an all-or-nothing attitude is not the right approach. Instead, whether one has acted appropriately in using (not using) some bits of language is an issue to be decided on the basis of whether certain conditions are satisfied. What conditions? Answering this question, no doubt, is a daunting job. But there are clues. Consider the following cases:

   [The master] held up the shippei and asked the monk: "If you call
   this 'shippei' you commit yourself to the layman's view; if you do
   not call it 'shippei' you go against it. Without speaking nor
   keeping silent, answer me: How do you call it? Quick! Quick!" The
   monk said: "I shall answer the master's question if he would
   please first put down the shippei." Just as the master was putting
   down the shippei the monk shook out his sleeves and walked out of
   the lecture hall. The master said to the attending monk: "Take
   good notice of this monk!" (WDHY, p. 1278)
   Once the master [Joshu] folded his fingers and said to the
   students: "I call this a 'fist.' What about you people? How do you
   call it?" A monk replied: "How can the master direct we students'
   attention to external things!" The master said: "I do not direct
   your attention to external things. If that was my intention, I
   would be misleading you." The monk said: "But still, what should
   one do regarding this [the fist that is]?" Holding his hands in
   the way a Buddhist monk does when he takes leave, the master got
   up and left. (Gu-zun-su-yu-lu, vol. 14)
   [Master Guishan] was passing the water jar to Yangshan. As
   Yangshan was reaching out to receive it the master suddenly drew
   back his hand and asked: "What is it?" Yangshan said: "What is it
   that Master still sees?" Guishan said: "If that's how you see the
   matter, why did you bother reaching out to me for it just now?"
   Yangshan said: "That being the case, still it's a disciple's duty
   to carry the water jar for his master." Guishan then passed the
   water jar to Yangshan. (WDHY, p. 520)

These are all approved cases. If we can find out why they are approved, we will have discovered the message, or at least something very close to it. Is there some common thread that runs through all these cases? I believe there is, and I think the following saying nicely summarizes it: "Where it doesn't itch, don't scratch." Put another way, the lesson is that the correct way to handle the issue of reference is the way that does not make an issue out of the issue of reference. All three cases allow an easy interpretation along this line.

Take the second case first. Is it a fist, or do you call it something else, the student wants to know, when you hold up your hand like that. But what the student fails to realize is that, without a fixed context, there can be no fixed answer. For why should one refuse to call it a fist, since it is a fist? But on the other, why call it a fist, since it can be something else as well? A hand with fingers folded that way is a fist, but it is also a hand with fingers folded (and therefore to be called "hand with fingers folded"). It could also be, say, a bunny's head, a hammer, or a grenade to be thrown out (when acting on stage, for example). So there are dozens of things a folded hand can be, depending on the circumstances. So, is a folded hand a fist, or is it not a fist? Now master Joshu did not give a direct answer to that question. Instead, he did something with his folded hands in a situation where that act is most appropriate: he felt it was time that he left, so he held up his hands, folding them the way an ancient Chinese monk would when he takes leave of someone, and took his leave. In doing this, not only did he answer the student's question and show the student the proper way to handle the issue, he did so without creating a disturbing ripple in the flow of one's daily life.

Similar things can be said about the other two cases. Take the case about shippei. The master wants to test a visitor's understanding of Chan. A challenge is issued: "You can't call this a shippei, and you can't keep silent, either. So what do you call it?" What the visitor did next is most remarkable: he used the very word which he is told not to use; but the word is used to make a remark the effect of which results in the arousing of an expectation in the audience for something yet to come. Because of the heightened expectation to see the imagined drama to follow, the visitor is able to get away with the use of the forbidden word, since everyone's attention now is on the drama to come. But there is no drama to come. To the visitor, the use of the very name-by himself a second before-was the real magic itself, a magic that repeats itself every day in our lives: one utters it, an understanding takes place in someone, an act is performed and something gets done. An instance of a miracle, but not through the conscious effort of any of the parties involved! In essence, this is a drama that is over before it even begins. The visitor's walking out after he made the remark is a silent answer to the audience's false expectation: "The real show is over. What else are you expecting?" The depth of the visitor's understanding impressed the master so much that he immediately ordered his attending monk to "make sure this good monk gets taken care of!"

In all of these cases, not making an issue out of an issue is achieved by putting the use of language back in its ordinary context, in the natural flow of one's daily activity. In that context, there are no names that do not have their proper job, including the job of referring. In contrast, the condemned cases all involve using words out of context, involving creating an issue where there is none. Take the lay disciple who says that the enlightened one will not call east "east." Why would the enlightened refuse to call east "east"? What reason would he have for refusing to do that? The lay disciple's answer suggests that our ordinary practices are doubly at fault: they are at fault when they employ a name that does not fit the case; second, they are also at fault for failure to acknowledge a property that the compass direction "east" is said to possess: that is, the property of being unnamable. In the view of Chan, this is much ado about nothing at its worst. (23)


It is an assertion routinely made by many who study Chan Buddhism that the rise of Chan represents a new stage in the development of Chinese Buddhism, that Chan is highly original and refreshing. But there can be no philosophical breakthrough without the discovery of new conceptual tools or perspectives. So what are the conceptual breakthroughs that brought about Chan as a philosophy? Or, put another way, wherein lies Chan's originality? A great number of suggestions have been made, and yet there is always something unsatisfactory about these answers. (24)

If what I have said here is correct, part of the originality must be sought in methods of the type explored here. These methods are vital to our understanding of Chan Buddhism, not only in the sense that their applications constituted a ma jor part of a Chan person's daily life in the golden age of Chan, but also because the ideas and approaches that made these methods possible are so drastically different from anything Chinese philosophy had seen up until that point. If we are to have a better understanding of this philosophical legacy, more meticulous attention must be paid to the analysis of language-related methods, of the type discussed here.


This essay makes heavy use of original sources in the Chinese language. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. Some of the material used here is taken from a related paper that I presented to the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University in April 2002. I wish to thank Professor Guy Newland for some very helpful comments he made on that occasion. I am also greatly indebted to an anonymous reader for this journal whose comments greatly helped me in improving this essay.

(1) -- Wu-deng-hui-yuan (composed ca. 1252), p. 44. English translation, "A Compendium of the Five Lamps"; Japanese, "Goto Egen." I rely heavily on this particular source in this essay. For convenience of reference, the abbreviation WDHY is used throughout. Unless indicated otherwise, all page numbers and quotes are based on the original Chinese-language edition of this work (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1984).
(2) -- Zu-tang-ji, by Shijing and Shiying (late tenth century) (Loyan, Henan Province: Zhong Zhou Publishing House, 2001), vol. 2.
(3) -- Jing-de-chuan-deng-lu or Jing-de-lu, vol. 3, in Taisho Tripitaka, vol. 51, no. 2076, pp. 196-467.
(4) -- Wu-men-kuan, Case 41, in Taisho Tripitaka, vol. 48, no. 2005.
(5) -- H. Dumoulin's handling of the story is typical. See his well-known work Zen Buddhism: A History, chap. 6, where he says that the story has Bodhidharma and Huike "set up as models for the transmission of the Buddha mind" (p. 92), but gives no explanation of what he means by this.
(6) -- According to the Tian-sheng-guang-deng-lu, one of the five sources of the Wudeng-hui-yuan, this person was Sengcan (Jpn: Sosan), who was to become the third patriarch.
(7) -- WDHY, p. 47; Zu-tang-ji, vol. 2; Jing-de-lu, vol. 3. There is a nice discussion of the doctrine about and practice of repentance in Chan Buddhism in an article by Zhan Ru that also makes a brief reference to this case. But the author's concern there is quite different from what I am pursuing here. See Dharma Sound 3, no. 151 (1997): 13.
(8) -- WDHY, pp. 48-49; Zu-tang-ji, vol. 2; Jing-de-lu, vol. 3.
(9) -- The last story does not exhibit this form as clearly as the first two, but the general structural similarity of the stories is undeniable; they all share the pattern of someone begging another person to relieve a certain problem.
(10) -- Tao-xuan, Xu-gao-seng-chuan, in Taisho Tripitaka, vol. 50, no. 2050, pp. 425-707.
(11) -- Tufei, Chuan-fa-bao-ji, in Taisho Tripitaka, vol. 85, no. 2838, p. 1291.
(12) -- For an account of these changes, including the role of Shenhui in all this, see the various influential writings on the early history of Zen Buddhism by Hu Shih. See in particular Pu-ti-da-muo-kao, in Hu Shih wen-can-san-ji (Shanghai, 1930), pp. 449-465; Leng-jia-zhi-zi-ji-xu, in Hu Shih lun-xue-jin-zhu (Shanghai, 1935), vol. 1, pp. 239-247; He-ze-da-shi-sheng-hui-chuan, in ibid., 1:248-290.
(13) -- For the claim that such a reconstruction (or invention) of the early history of Zen (up to the sixth patriarch Huineng) did take place, see Hu Shih's important study concerning the Lankavatara school. But see in particular his Leng-jiazong-kao, in Hu Shih lun-xue-jin-zhu, 1:198-238.
(14) -- Here are a few more examples, all found in WDHY: "bring me life and death" (p. 419), "bring me the triple world" (p. 517), "bring me your illness" (p. 821), and "bring me your illness" (p. 826). The appeal of the Bodhidharma method proved so powerful that even the anti-Buddhist Neo-Confucians found it hard to resist. When, for example, a student of Wang Yangming complained to the latter that selfishness is hard to uproot, Wang is reported to have given the man the following answer: "Bring me your selfishness, and I will uproot it for you!" (Chuan-xi-lu, vol. 1). The connection here is too obvious to miss.
(15) -- Huiran (d. 746), Leng-jia-shi-zi-ji, in Taisho Tripitaka, vol. 85, no. 2837, pp. 1283-1291.
(16) -- Qisong (d. 1007), the author of the Chuan-fa-zheng-zong-ji, is the earliest to raise this issue. He questioned the authenticity of the alleged legacy of Bodhidharma, for example the "two entrances and four practices" and wall gazing. In his view, even if these can be attributed to Bodhidharma, they cannot be "the final teaching" of the patriarch. See Chuan-fa-zheng-zong-ji, vol. 5.
(17) -- The Japanese Chan scholar Sekiguchi takes this record as a precursor of koans of later Chan, and John McRae has also offered a cautious endorsement of Sekiguchi's interpretation. See John R. McRae, "Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Ch'an Buddhism," in Steven Heine and Dale Wright, eds., The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 58. Certainly, whether "koan" or McRae's own term "encounter dialogue" is the correct way to characterize the method in question is a debatable issue, but there can be little doubt that these two authors have touched on something significant here: a link between this record and a certain type of later Chan practice. However, McRae has expressed doubts about the plausibility of attributing the method to Bodhidharma.
(18) -- This lecture is not found in the Tian-sheng-guang-deng-lu (composed ca. 1029), one of the five sources on which the Wu-deng-hui-yuan is based.
(19) -- A few words about the translation of the two words ju and yi. I think we probably would not be too far off the mark if we interpreted the former to mean, roughly, "uses of language at the level of sentences." In other words, the making, issuing, or expressing of thoughts, statements, claims, reports, questions, and orders. As for yi, although this Chinese word allows two readings, "meaning" and "understanding" (or believing), I believe "understanding" is the better translation, since it is the use of language, not language itself, that is the concern here.
(20) -- Besides what is cited here, I was also able to find one record of the four ways in the Ren-tian-yan-mu (written in A.D. 1188 in the Northern Song dynasty by a man of the House of Linji).
(21) -- A few words need to be said here about the exact content of the principle. That is, what is it that the two parties share in a typical instance of the use of the method? Here we have two options. We can identify this principle with the most general Mahayana thesis that all dharmas are empty (empty of what makes a real thing real), or we can identify it with some specific ontological doctrine of some sub-school in the Mahayana tradition, such as the ontological view of the Cittamatra school, whose metaphysical views informed the Lankavatara Sutra, which Bodhidharma is believed to have made the core of his teaching. My belief is that the former is the better choice. This allows us to say that the method's intended audiences are those who believe in the Mahayana idea of emptiness, regardless of their commitment to specific sectarian views on that notion. On the other hand, if we take the latter option, we get the result that the method is only applicable to followers of Cittamatra. The first option definitely sounds better.
(22) -- That Daoning would approve of only case 3 is not surprising. The other types of "four ways" that the House of Linji and other schools employ also identify one and only one case as the correct one.
(23) -- The originality of this new approach to names and reference can hardly be overemphasized. To see this, one need only compare the use of proper names in the doctrinal schools of Buddhism of the time. An excellent example is Tu Shun's (557-640) use of the name "pillow" in the Hua-yen-wu-jiao-zhi-guan (Tu Shun is the founder of the Hua-yen school of Chinese Buddhism). The reader is urged to consult that text.
(24) -- The suggested explanations range from "discovery of the ineffability of truth" (Fung Yu-Ian) to "agrarian mentality of the Chinese" (D. T. Suzuki). Most of these suggestions suffer from two problems: either the suggested originality is not at all that original, or the suggested key factor turns out to be too general to play the role of the catalyst or mechanism in a philosophical revolution. I address this issue in a separate paper.