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a note on lung qi

"The kidneys receive oxygen from the lungs". This is how one might translate a phrase found in Traditional Chinese medical texts. It describes how the lungs receive qi, or energy, in this case oxygen from the air, and then the kidneys "grasp" it and disseminate it throughout the body. To someone superficially schooled in modern Western physiology this makes no sense. What happens is that the lungs breathe in air, seperate out oxygen, bind it to the blood, and then send it to the heart. The heart pumps it through the body. So what is the TCM description of the relationship between the lungs and kidneys talking about?
One teacher of TCM explained this to me as a description of the way the immune system recognizes oxygen molecules coming in from outside and allows them to enter the body. In TCM the kidney system is responsible for basic immune functioning, amongst other things. This explanation may be true, but didn`t fully click for me. Then I was recently told by my Anatomy and Physiology teacher that the kidneys monitor the oxygen transport capacity of the bood, ie. how many red blood cells are in ciculation to receive oxygen from the lungs. When the number gets too low the kidneys emit a hormone that causes more red blood cells to be produced, and thus allows the oxygen in the lungs to enter the blood. Pretty neat. `The kidneys grasp the lung qi`indeed.

Of Rivals and Ri-Me

The Rise and Fall of Tibetan Sectarianism


Although Tibet was briefly united under a monarchy in the 7th-8th centuries, for most of its history it has been more like a confederation of tribes under local chieftains. These chieftains, as chieftains will, battled each other for power and resources. This political structure was mirrored in the realm of Tibetan religion. For most of its history the schools of Tibetan Buddhism have battled each other for power and resources, sometimes masking these battles in arguments over legitimacy or doctrine but often times not. In the early 19th century an ecumenical, pluralist movement was born, chiefly under the leadership of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899). This movement was not explicitly syncretic, but rather advocated simultaneously for the preservation of each of Tibet's distinct practice lineages and for their equal value. The masters of the Ri-me (Nonsectarian) movement, as it came to be called, traveled Tibet preserving as many teachings and texts as they could from destruction. Partially due to their efforts a greater amount of the Tibetan spiritual literature would ultimately survive the attempted Chinese Communist “reprogramming” of Tibet in the 20th century. In this essay I will examine the structure of sectarian rivalry in Tibet and the birth of the Ri-me movement. I will then discuss its continuing importance today, and the reasons for its apparent triumph as the official perspective of much of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism.


The Origins of Sectarianism (and its negation)


The Buddhism of India left a legacy to its inheritors of a rich feild of competing schools of thought. It also bequeathed philosophical justifications for a pluralistic attitude towards them. Indian Mahayana explained its own developments in doctrine and practice as successive “turnings of the wheel of the Dharma” by the Buddha- a progressive revelation of more and more complete teachings. Some streams of the Mahayana presented a particular doctrine as the highest, and some presented them all as equal parts of one teaching, dispensed by the Buddha according to the various sicknesses of sentient beings. This milieu, in which differing doctrinal standpoints both proliferated and competed on the one hand, and on the other hand were viewed as all being in some way valid, presented the Tibetan inheritors of Mahayana Buddhism with unique challenges. They needed to understand and make their own many differing and sometimes conflicting doctrines. The Mahayana pluralist streak made possible the integration of that plurality due to the view that the different doctrines were different skillful means of the Buddha. Within this general approach, however, there has always been a tendency for different Buddhist schools to rank themselves as the most skillful of the skillful means available, and even at times as the only skillful choice available given the circumstances of the age. In Indian Buddhism Tantra made the claim for itself that it was the most advanced Buddhist vehicle, tailor made for the age in which it was born. Tibet was the inheritor of this late Indian tradition, and it was accepted as axiomatic in all Tibetan schools that Tantra was authoritative. Within the Tantric paradigm, further debate was of course still possible and occurred continuously in Tibet. Different schools held allegiance to different Tantric cycles, to either sudden or gradual practice, or to differing interpretations of the doctrine of emptiness. Some schools adhered to the canon of texts introduced to Tibet in the 8th to 9th centuries, some to the texts introduced in the 10th-13th centuries. Some gave more emphasis to the Nalanda tradition of scholastic Tantricism, others to the direct, experiential teachings of the mahasiddhas.

The resolution of these issues of competition and pluralism took a unique form in Tibet due to its unique adoption of Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism as its dominant paradigm. All of the groups that developed in Tibet posited Tantra as the highest skillful means, and while they taught Hinayana and Mahayana doctrines to differing extents, all of them subordinated those levels of Buddhist teaching to Tantric views and practices.The rivalries that arose between the differing schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose largely out of the politics of Tibet. The Mahayana pluralist heritage was not forgotten, however, and would eventually re-arise in the Ri-Me movement. In order to understand how this happened, we will briefly survey the rise of sects and sectarianism in Tibet.


From The Royal Conversion to the Rise of The Sarmapas


The first rivalries to arise in the Tibetan Buddhist milieu arose as a result of the conversion of the royalty of Tibet to Buddhism begining in the 7th century. It is likely that there some degree of Buddhist presence in Tibet prior to the adoption of it by King Songtsen Gampo (c.618-650), but the royal conversion marked a new era for the priests active at court, who had served those in power for centuries with non-Buddhist rituals imbedded in non-Buddhist worldviews. These bonpos, as the priests were called, contested the adoption of Buddhism by the court. Another rivalry resulted from the presence in Tibet of both Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks. Trisong Detsen (Songten Gampo's grandson- c.740-798) reportedly called a debate between the Indian tradition, represented by Kamalashila, and the Chinese side, represented by the Chan monk Hvashang Mahayana. Detsen decided in favour of adopting Tantric Indian Buddhist doctrines as normative and rejected the Chan approach, a decision which likely reflects the political relationship of the three countries at the time more than it does philosophical considerations. After losing ground to Buddhism initially, a Bon counter attack resulted in a non-Buddhist King seizing power and halting Buddhism's officially backed expansion in Tibet. Thus in the first chapter of Buddhisms introduction into Tibet we can already see a pattern emerging which was to remain consistent: rivalry between different religious factions based on political rather than doctrinal considerations.

By the 11th century Buddhism had gained wide spread folk popularity and with the introduction of new translation efforts and a revivified monastic community, it began to flourish again and regain political power. The old Buddhism had lived on in Tibet in the form of folk traditions and lay Tantric practice. The new, reformed Buddhism of the 11th century would come to be dominated by scholars, translators and monastic orders. This led to the third major source of sectarian rivalry in Tibet, the rivalry between the Sarmapas (followers of the new translations) and Nyingmapas (followers of the old translations).


Sarmapas and Nyingmapas


In 978 surviving monks from Amdo and Kham far from the centres of power began returning to Central Tibet bringing Vinaya lineages with them. Others from Western Tibet saught and brought back new texts from India and Nepal (Laird 2006: 73). The prominent Indian pandita Atisha (982-1054) also visited Tibet at this time, and his Tibetan followers became known as the Kadampas. They were renowned for their asceticism, monastic discipline, and dedication to bodhicitta ( the altruistic mind). The Tibetan siddha Marpa (1012-1097) studied with Naropa (1016-1100), an Indian Tantric master who had left Nalanda to pursue a more radical lifestyle. His student, the yogin Milarepa (1040-1123), would in turn teach Gampopa (1079-1153), a monk who systematized the siddha Mahamudra teachings and founded the Kagyu school. The Sakya school can be dated to the founding of the Sakya (“Grey Earth”) Monastery in Tsang, an area of South-Central Tibet. The monastery was founded by Gonchok Gyelpo (1034-1102), a member of the powerful Khon family. The Khon had roots in the old aristocracy of Tibet but were Nyingmapas. Reportedly they became Sarmapas due to the degeneration of the Tantric practices of the Nyingmapas into public ritual drama devoid of proper Buddhist motivations. Gonchok Gyelpo took monastic ordination and became a student of Drogmi, a prestigious member of the new translators. Gyelpo`s son, Gunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) the “Great Sakya” and his sons Lonbon Sonam Tsemo (1141-1182) and Jetsun Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147-1216) were scholars and practitioners who consolidated Sakya as a school. In 1249 Koden Khan, the rising Mongolian chieftain, summoned Gunga Gyeltsen sel Bangpo (1182-1251), known to posterity as Sakya Pandita, or “Sapan” to his court. Sapan, who was widely hailed as a miracle worker and genius scholar, convinced Tibet to submit peacefully to Koden and initiated a priest-patron relationship between Tibet and the Mongolians. In Tibet the Sakyapas created the model of a lama with regional temporal power as well as spiritual authority, a model which logically increased the likelihood of combative sectarianism.

By the end of the 13th century we thus see a situation where the two major Sarmapa schools have been founded, the Sakyapa and Kagyupa, and have gained widespread authority, popularity, and power. The Kadampa tradition, the first of the successful Sarmapa sects, was largely absorbed into the Sakyapa and Kagyupa schools. Starting from the 11th century, the followers of the old translations came to be known as Nyingmapas, and gained in vitality through stressing their allegiance to Padmasambhava and a tradition of rediscovered textual treasures (termas) from his time period, which gave them an ever expanding canon of works to draw from in response to the translation and scholastic works of the Sarmapas. The Nyingmapa treasure texts were criticized as spurious, and their highest practice, Dzogchen, a nondual meditative practice, criticized as being “chinese dharma” a la Hva Shang Mahayana (Reynolds 1996: 215-227). It is reasonable to imagine that these criticisms were based to some extent in an authentic concern to define and defend the true Dharma being brought in from India. It's not surprising that the Nyingmapa treasure texts would be regarded with suspicion, or that the Nyingmapas themselves, Tantric yogis who were generally neither scholars nor monks, would be regarded with suspicion by scholar monks. Previous to the spread of the Kadampas, Sakyapas, and Kagyupas, however, the people of Tibet would generally have given their support to the proto- Nyingmapas. The criticism of Nyingmapa in the 11th-13th centuries was likely a combination of concern for authentic Dharma and a competition over the limited and essential resource of public support. This was the case throughout much of Tibetan history.


Sakyapas and Kagyupas; Kagyupas and Gelugpas


In 1352 the Sakyapas were ousted from power by Gunchub Gyaltsen (d.1364), a local chieftain who declared himself the new viceroy of the Mongols and began re-establishing indigenous Tibetan political and legal customs.Sakyapas and Kagyupas struggled for power with the Sakyapas losing ground as China pushed back the Mongols and Tibet moved towards independence from Mongol rule. Meanwhile a new figure arrived on the scene. In 1357 Je Tsongkhapa (d.1419) was born, a figure whose life work would ultimately have a great impact on intersectarian politics in Tibet. Tsongkhapa was a monk inspired by the early Kadampas who reportedly studied with 45 masters of different lineages and after engaging in deep solitary practice set about clarifying the nature of the true Dharma through his teaching activities and in a series of brilliant philosophical treatises. Tsongkhapa's apolitical nature, charisma, and brilliance brought him many students, including one Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474/5). Drubpa would later be known as the first Dalai Lama. Tsongkhapa and his students quickly became very popular, founding several monasteries including the famous Ganden monastery. Genden Drubpa founded Tashi Lhunpo, which in later times became the seat of the Panchen Lamas. The rising popularity of the reformist Gelugpa (Virtuous Ones) order founded by Tsongkhapa's students caused a backlash and the Karma Kagyupas initiated a violent repression of the Gelugpas. Genden Drubpa wrote a poem where he sang,


These days in our remote mountains

There are many people who uphold their own lineages

While looking down upon other doctrine holders

Verily as their deepest enemies.

Watching how they think and act,

My heart fills with sadness (Mullin 2001: 62).


Thus we see a Ri-Me thought in line with pluralist Mahayana. Ironically, the Ri-Me movement itself would be largely inspired by the doctrinal triumphalism and political repression weilded by later Gelugpas.


The Rise of The Gelugpas

From this period on sectarian violence in Tibet appears to have intensified, as different rulers favoured one school over another. By 1565 the princes of Tsang province were ruling central Tibet, and since they supported the Kagyupas, the Gelugpas were “under constant attack(Laird 138). The second Dalai Lama, who established the process for recognizing the tulkus in his lineage (Laird 139), moved his base of operations to south and central Tibet. The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, was born in 1543 near Lhasa. He grew rapidly in power and influence. In 1577, in a replay of history, Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso to his court. The resulting relationship between them lead to an increased adoption of Buddhism among the Mongols and an increase in the power of the Gelug tulkus, now known as Dalai Lamas after their Mongol title. In 1589, the fourth Dalai Lama incarnated into the body of the great-grandson of Altan Khan, Yonten Gyatso. He survived only until 1617, dying at the age of 28 from unknown causes. His reincarnation, known to the Tibetans as the Great Fifth, was the true architect of Gelug supremacy in Tibet. Ngawang Lozsang Gyatso (1617-1682) became ruler of the Tibetan nation, sitting on a thrown beside the Manchu emperor and welcomed in Beijing as an equal (Laird 152).

The Fifths relationship with other Buddhist orders is a matter of some controversy. Some contend that he was on friendly terms with the other schools, particularly the Nyingmapa (his father was a Nyingmapa yogin). Although he ordered some monasteries of the other orders to join the Gelugpas, this view argues that this was part of a plan aimed at fostering unity and quelling sectarian rivalries and political instability, and not motivated by sectarian chauvinism or hunger for power. Others contend that under his rule Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, and Sakyapa orders were forcibly converted to become Gelugpas, fostering longstanding resentments which still exist today. Some Gelugpas, Sakyapas, and Nyingmapas do in fact judge the Fifth as being a precursor of the Ri-Me in terms of his spiritual beliefs, but apparently this view is rejected by some Kagyupas (Laird 2006: 165-168). It is interesting to note, as Mullin points out, that it is the Karma Kagyus, the sect that the supported the 5th's rival the King of Tsang who were the Kagyus that were suppressed. The Drikung Kagyupas, on the other hand, were supported by the Fifth and speak kindly of him in their annals. The Fifth also kept a Bonpo lama in his entourage to advise him on Bon interests, protected the rights of Muslims in Tibet, and passed laws outlawing sectarianism. It would thus seem that the Fifth was indeed acting from political rather than religious motivations in his suppression of the Karma Kagyupas (Mullin 2001: 70-77). This also appears to be the case with his suppression of the Jonangpa sect, which we will have to examine in order to understand the background that would determine the shape of the Ri-Me movement.




The now little known Jonang school of Tibet originated with Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b.1027), a Tibetan student of the Kasmiri pandit Somanatha, who taught him the traditions of the Kalacakra Tantra. Dorje was also one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of the approach to Madhyamaka known as shentong, or “emptiness of other”. This view, in brief, holds that the primordial mind of clear light can be established as truly existing, but not any of its contents. In other words, all phenomena are empty of self except the most primordial basis of the mind, which is fundamentally “empty of other”, yet possesses its own nature (Tulku 2006: 193-236). Kunpang Tukje Tsondro (1243-1313), a lineal descendant of Dorje, founded a monastery in South-Central Tibet in the Jomonang area, from which his tradition came to be known as Jonangpa. The Jonangpas continued to grow in popularity and importance, peaking with the Jonangpa scholar Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1635). The Jonangpas, like the Karma Kagyupas, were connected to the King of Tsang, and when the Fifth Dalai Lama came to power he converted their monasteries to the Geluk sect, banned their writings, and sealed their libraries. Some believe the reason for not only disempowering but silencing the Jonangpa sect was their teaching of shentong. The Gelukpas believed this to be a heretical doctrine, and were proponents of rangtong, “empty of self”, by which they held that even the fundamental mind of clear light is empty of self-nature. Many scholars have questioned whether the Fifth's motivations were doctrinal or political. It is hard to believe his motivations were solely based on an aversion to shentong, since explicitly shentong and analogously shentong views occur in the Nyingmapa school, with which the Fifth was on good terms. Thus the facts remin unclear. In any case, the Jonangpa school never regained its prominence in Tibet.



At the turn of the 17th century Lhazang Khan, grandson of the Fifth's political ally and King of Central Tibet Gushri Khan, killed the 6th Dalai Lama and made Tibet a protectorate of the Manchus (Laird 191). The Dzungar Mongols invaded to “liberate” Tibet shortly after, but unleashed such a reign of terror that when the Manchus made a counter-move in 1717 the Tibetans welcomed them. This was facilitated by the Manchus support of the young 7th Dalai Lama. Over the next couple of centuries the Manchus ruled Tibet as a “loose protectorate” and buffer between them and the Mongols while Tibet was rife with internal battles.The institution of the Dalai Lamas was weakened, and a kind of shaky status quo seems to have developed among the different schools. The Jonangpa Kalacakra teachings were absorbed in to the Gelug school through the monasteries they took over, while the Jonangpa contemplative tradition fled to the edges of Gelug influence in Kham and Amdo, where they mixed with Nyingmapas, Kagyupas and Bonpos, influencing their outlooks. According to Ringu Tulku, a modern proponent of Ri-Me, by the time of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the four schools had very little contact with eachother and ignorance of eachother's doctrines flourished. Although individual lamas may have had nonsectarian orientations, the schools in general had became insular and triumphalist. Against this background Khyentse and his student, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), launched the Ri-Me movement. As Kongtrul wrote,


These days even the well-known lamas and geshes concentrate on their own traditions. Other than knowing a few texts, their pure perception of the impartial teachings of the Buddha is very small...They talk a lot about whether a particular tradition is good or bad, or a particular lineage is pure or impure. Many of them denigrate others' traditions in favor of their own school. Like a one-eyed yak who startles himself, they become unsteady, and without any reason they are full of doubts and lack pure vision, even of their own tradition.

When I was younger, although I had a deep longing for the dharma, I lacked strength in my convictions and was too timid to accomplish my wishes. But gradually the lotus of devotion has opened in me toward all the doctrines and the doctrine holders of the unbiased teachings of the Buddha, and my understanding of dharma has increased. It is due to the kindness of my precious guru, Khyentse Rinpoche, that I have not accumulated the serious karmic consequence of rejecting the dharma (2006: 23).


As Kongtrul writes here, it was his guru Khyentse Rinpoche who transmitted to him traditions from eight practice lineages including all the major schools and repeatedly encouraged him to compile his nonsectarian encyclopaedic collections of Buddhist teachings. These became the basis of the Ri-Me movement. Khyentse was a Sakya lama and Kongtrul a Kagyu, but both of them had a strong base in the Nyingmapa traditions, and discovered, compiled and practiced many Treasure teachings (45). Interestingly Kongtrul also collected Bon teachings and was himself an initiate in Bon lineages. As he wrote,

For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the Buddhas compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor form of virtous spiritual paths (Zangpo 2002: 189).


Jamgon Kongtrul completely rejected sectarianism, equating it with partiality, blindness and cognitive limitation. He wrote: Just as a king overpowered by self-interest/Is not worthy of being the protector of the kingdom,/A sectarian person is not worthy of being a holder of the dharma./ Not only that, he is unworthy of upholding even his own tradition (Tulku 4). One of the most interesting features of the Ri-Me tradition is that it is not syncretic, but rather pluralist (Tulku 2006: 3). The Ri-Me masters took care to accurately preserve the tenets and practices of differing traditions, and set out to show the different practice traditions as free of contradictions, but not equivalent. Kongtrul wrote:


Some people are very fussy about the refutations and affirmations of various tenets, becoming particularly attached to their own versions, such as Shentong or Rangtong Madhyamaka. There are many who try to pull others over to their own side, to the point of practically breaking their necks. When Jamyang Khyentse teaches the different tenet sytems, he does not mix up their terminology or ideas, yet he makes them easy to understand and suitable for the students.


Kongtrul then makes a point key to the Ri-Me view:


In general, the main point to be established by all the tenets is the ultimate nature of phenomena. As the Prajnaparamita Sutra states:


The Dharmata is not an object of knowledge;

It cannot be understood by the conceptual mind.

Kongtrul concludes:


So, the ultimate nature cannot be established by the samsaric mind, no matter how deep that mind may be.

The scholars and siddhas of the various schools make their own individual presentations of the dharma. Each one is full of strong points and supported by valid reasoning...In summary, one must see all the teachings as without contradiction, and consider all scriptures as instructions. This will cause the root of sectarianism to dry up, and give you the firm foundation in the Buddha's teachings. At that point, hundreds of doors to the eighty-four thousand teachings of the dharma will simultaneously be open up to you. (4)


Kongtrul argued that shentong and rangtong differed only over how to best describe the ultimate nature of phenomena (10). He also argued that Nyingmapas texts were as authentic as Sarmapa, and that the four major schools all converged in their description of the ultimate stages of attainment (11-13). Kongtrul's approach proved remarkably appealing, and the literature he created spread widely. Ringu Tulku writes that the compilation and transmission of his Five Great Treasuries as well as the Compendium of Tantras and Compendium of Sadhanas, “broke the isolation of single lineage teachings in the majority of Tibetan schools”(12).


Ri-Me Today


During Kongtrul's life, he transmitted his complete teachings many times to many people, including both yogins and important lamas. He also managed to have them printed on wooden blocks and published during his lifetime. Because of his efforts a large amount of Tibetan teachings from all schools were compiled in one place. In 1959, when Tibetans began fleeing the Chinese invasion, Kongtrul's teachings were available. HH The Karmapa (the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage) and HH Dudjom Rinpoche (the head of the Nyingmapas) gave transmissions of these teachings in India. When Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche came to England in the early 60's, the only Tibetan books he bought were the volumes of Jamgon Kongtrul's Treasury of Knowledge (Tulku 13). Perhaps most interestingly, and most portentiously for the development of modern Tibetan Buddhism, has been the influence of Ri-Me on HH The 14th Dalai Lama. His Holiness has been strongly influenced by several great Ri-Me teachers, including Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, the great Nyingmapa yogin. Due to the efforts of these teachers and the support of His Holiness, there has been more interchange between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism than ever before. The Dalai Lama has adopted the Ri-Me model and has been receiving and giving the teachings of all schools in their respective traditions and lineages. He has gone on record with the view that the highest Gelug teaching is identical in import to the view of Dzogchen, which is in turn in harmony with the highest realizations of all Tibetan schools. Further, in recent years it has come to light that, much to the surprise of many, Jonangpa traditions had survived intact in eastern Tibet. His Holiness has officially recognized the Jonang as a legitimate school and composed a prayer for the long life of the Jonang school. His Holiness also stresses the legitimacy of the Bon tradition and has come out in support of its teachers and institutions. Clearly then The Dalai Lama should be accounted a great modern Ri-Me.


Closing Reflections


The historical circumstances surrounding the birth of the Ri-Me movement need more study. Khyentse and Kongtrul appear to have acted out of a sense of Buddhist idealism and a love for the traditions which fell outside the net of Gelug dogmatics. Their own unique focus combined shentong, Jonang, Bon, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. This list is conspicuous for its championing of traditions which were endangered by the historical momentum of Buddhism in general, and in particular by Gelug orthodoxy. After many great lamas fled Tibet in the 1950's and 60's they found themselves living in refugee camps in India where all facets of daily life were a struggle. Unity would have been a paramount concern, and it is to their credit that the leading teachers of all the schools, including HH The Dalai Lama (Gelug), HH Sakya Trizin (Sakya), HH Dudjom Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH Penor Rinpoche (Nyingma), HH the Karmapa (Kagyu), HH Khalka Jetsun Dhampa (Jonang) and HH Lungtok Tenpai Nyima (Bon) have adopted a Ri-Me perspective. In the early years of the Tibetan diaspora, it was apparently largely due to the leadership of these lamas that sectarian rivalry did not tear apart the impoverished and traumatised refugee communities (Tulku 1992: 162-189). It is understandable then why the groundwork laid by Khyentse and Kongtrul has blossomed in the work of the 14th Dalai Lama and other contemporary Tibetan exiles as a unifying ideology.

Throughout Tibetan history, as shown above, the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have competed with words and sometimes with weapons for resources and power. This appears to have ocurred largely at the institutional level. It is ironic, for instance, that Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpas, lived like a Ri-Me master, seeking teachings from every lineage. Nevertheless, at an institutional level, the ideology of competition and dominance has held sway. The Ri-Me movement provided a counter ideology of pluralism and ecumenicism, an “all for one and one for all” approach. This proved to be exactly what is needed in the Tibetan diaspora, and so has become the prevailing ideology of modern, global Tibetan Buddhism.



Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance. NY: Columbia University Press 2005.


Gyatso, H.H. The Dalai Lama Tenzin. Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of The Great Perfection. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2004.


Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. NY: Grove Press 2006.


Mullin, Glenn H. The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers 2001.



Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2007.



Rinpoche, Chagdud Tulku. Lord of The Dance: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 1992.


Sheehy, Michael R. A Brief History of The Jonang. http://www.jonangfoundation.org/essays Accessed April 3 2008.



Tulku, Ringu. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Boston: Shambhala Publications 2006.


Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. Great Britain: Routledge 2007.


Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications 2002.














Tibet's Other Religion

Tibet's Other Religion: The Curious Case of Bon, The Everlasting Truth


Bon was the second most important religious tradition of Tibet prior to Tibet's invasion by China in 1949. In many popular texts on Tibetan Buddhism it is referred to as the indigenous religion of Tibet which was superseded by Buddhism after Buddhism's arrival in Tibet in the 8th century. The true story of Bon is more complex and ambiguous however, and is an interesting case study in the formation of religious identities.


Views of Bon

The identity of Bon is contested and controversial. Superficial introductions to Tibetan culture often refer to it as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” and it is sometimes referred to as animistic or shamanistic in a way that conveys images of a “typical” “primitive” indigenous tradition consisting of superstitious rites and folk beliefs. Buddhism is commonly presented as having battled Bon for supremacy in the 8th century and ultimately won despite a setback in the 9th and 10th centuries due to a Bon counter-attack. Stories of this process have been immortalized in the life story of Padmasambhava, who reportedly engaged in magic battle with the Bon-connected spirits of Tibet and either subdued them or converted them to Buddhism. Bon is viewed as living on in Tibet in the form of folk religions who have adapted to Buddhist cultural and political dominance.

It might come as quite a surprise to someone who had received this superficial understanding of Bon to discover that Bon is a complex, highly systematized religious tradition with its own seminaries, monasteries, and religious canon, and that its view of itself is quite at odds with the picture in the paragraph above. They might be further surprised to find that Bon, in common with the Nyingmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, holds the highest spiritual practice to be the Great Perfection (dzogchen), a sophisticated nondual Zen-like sudden enlightenment teaching now popular in the West. A look into references to Bon in the works of Tibetan lamas might lead to further confusion.

One popular lamrim text translated into English, Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand, by the early 20th century Gelugpa lama Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941), paints a dark picture of Bon. Pabongka Rinpoche warns Buddhists to have nothing to do with Bon teachings, saying they cannot lead to liberation or even reduce delusions. They plagiarize Buddhist teachings but are corrupted by non-Buddhist view and borrowings from the “tirthikas” (Hindu yogis) . It is an “evil system” of “false dharmas” (372). Pabongka Rinpoche quotes a verse ascribed to the great Kagyupa Yogin Je Milarepa (c.1052-1135):

The source of Boen is perverted Dharma.

A creation of nagas and powerful elementals.

It does not take one to the ultimate path.

Boen is a most inferior lineage (373).


Pabongka further considers a view that he says some people entertain: that Bon gods are compassionate emanations of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva for beings benefit, and therefore following Bon is not harmful but even beneficial (374). Pabongka disagrees, arguing that by this logic one could justify “imitating the actions of dogs and pigs” since these too might be Buddha-emanations. Rather one should “completely abandon such nauseating and evil sytems as they would discard the stones they use to wipe their arses” (374).

Such views of Bon are not universal in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, however. Jamyong Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), the great Sakyapa scholar-practitioner, honoured Bon teachings and even himself wrote down for posterity a Bon biography of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. This is even more remarkable considering that this version depicts Padmasambhava as being born in Tibet of two Bon masters! His disciple Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899), a Kagyupa lama important in the Ri-me (No Boundaries) Pluralist movement, included Bon works in the collection of sacred texts he compiled, The Treasury of Rediscovered Teachings, thus insuring they would be officially transmitted along with Buddhist texts when the Treasury was ritually transmitted in the traditional manner. Kongtrul was aware this might be controversial, and defends it with the exact argument Pabongka rejects above:


For the benefit of ordinary persons who harbor conceptual partiality toward specific schools of spiritual philosophy, such as theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Bon, the buddhas' compassion is impartial and immeasurable. For example, [buddhas] manifest to guide theists as gods with forms and attributes that correspond to their religions. In fact, in the three worlds, the victors enlightened activity is present in even the most minor forms of virtous spiritual paths (189).


He further cites to back himself up several great Buddhist lamas of the past who engaged in Bon practices (Ibid.), founders of Nyingma lineages that are important to this day. In Contemporary times most Tibetan lamas of importance follow Wangpo, not Pabongka, and speak of Bon in friendly terms. The Nyingmapa lama Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has criticized fellow Tibetan Buddhists who reject Bon teachings (1984:14-17) and HH the Dalai Lama (a Gelugpa) recently wrote a supportive foreword to a book of Bon Dzogchen teachings (Rinpoche 2000). The question of the identity of the Bon tradition, and its relationship to Buddhism, becomes even more interesting when one turns to read how Bon masters themselves describe their tradition.

According to Tenzin Wangyal, the most well-known Bon teacher active in the West, Bon is an ancient pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet which was first taught “in the human world” by Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (2000:41). Tonpa Shenrab manifested in this world, at the foot of Mt Meru, in 1857 BCE. He married and had children, then renounced the world at age 31 to practice austerities and teach Bon. He originally taught in the land of Taksig, which some scholars speculate might be Persia or Tazhikistan. He entered southern Tibet through Zhangzhung and taught widely there according to people's capacities, emphasizing the lower teachings of “cause” since people were unready for the teachings of “fruition”. These teachings emphasized “reinforcing relationships with the guardian spirits and natural environment, exorcising demons and eliminating negativities” as well as “practices of purification” for “reinforcing fortune and positive energy.” He prophecied that in time the full scope of his teachings would flourish in Tibet (2000:42). The higher teachings of Bon, those of “fruition”, closely resemble the Nyingmapa yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga teachings (Powers 2007: 508-511). These comprise Tantric sadhanas very similar to Buddhist tantras, and hold the Great Perfection to be the ultimate teaching and view of spiritual practice. Although the deities, mantras and symbols are similar in function to Buddhist versions, they reflect Bon religious culture and differ linguistically and iconographically.

Wangyal goes on to explain that Bon was the dominant tradition in Tibet until Buddhism entered in the 8th century, when King Trisong Detsen instigated a “harsh repression of Bon”. The great 8th century Bon Master Dranpa Namkha, the father of Padmasambhava (believed by Buddhists to be Padmasambhava's disciple), embraced Buddhism publicly but secretly continued to practice Bon. He confronted the King Trisong Detsen, asking him, “Why do you make a dinstinction between bon and chos (dharma)?” To save them from destruction, many Bon texts were hidden to be discovered later as Treasures. In the 11th century there was a Bon revival precipitated by the rediscovery of Bon Treasure Texts, and Bon monasteries were established shortly afterwards. Wangyal views Buddhist teachings as legitimate. This is because Shakyamuni Buddha was in fact a disciple of Tonpa Shenrab. Thus “all Buddhist teachings, whether arising in India or elsewhere, are in fact teachings of everlasting Bon” (54).

Our imaginary explorer of the truth of Bon might at this point find themselves bewildered. Is Bon indigenous to Tibet, or did it enter from Tajik in prehistoric times? Did Bonpos plagiarize Buddhist teachings, or are Buddhist teachings derived from the Bon teachings of Tonpa Shenrab?


Everlasting Bon

In contrast to Mainstream Buddhist and Bon views, the eminent Tibetanist John Powers has recently argued in agreement with most Western scholars that Bon is neither the indigenous pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet, nor is it the ancient mother tradition from which Buddhism sprang. Records of pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet do not appear to resemble post-Buddhist Bon traditions. Further, there is no evidence of many aspects of the fully developed Bon tradition prior to the 11th century, suggesting that these traditions, which closely resemble Nyingmapa Buddhist traditions, are in fact derived from Buddhist sources. Bon would then be best considered a post-Buddhist phenomenon created by non-Buddhist Tibetans interested in an alternative to Buddhist practices.

As Powers notes, David Snellgrove has argued that Bon narratives of origin still may not be without a grain of truth. Snellgrove argues that it is unlikely that Buddhist traditions did not penetrate the Tibetan cultural sphere previous to the adoption of Buddhism by the royal family in the 8th century, and it is quite possible that an older Buddhist tradition had found its way into Tibetan folk traditions centuries before that. Reynolds has argued that the fact that Dzogchen can be found in both Nyingmapa and Bon sources may be connected to the presence of wandering siddhas in the Himalayan regions centuries before Tibet`s official adoption of Buddhism, or in the close connections between ancient pre-Empire western Tibet and the Ìndo-Iranian borderlands, where Tantric traditions are known to have existed. These siddhas may have brought over a meditation tradition based in the nondual sahaja or “natural” yoga of India (226-227). Thus it is conceivable that Bon tradition as we know it is a hybrid of Tibetan, Hindu Buddhist, and perhaps Zoroastrian traditions that may indeed predate the official adoption of Buddhism in Tibet. Although Bon as it exists now does not resemble records of pre-Buddhist Bon, it should be remembered that those records reflect the rituals of the royal family and its ministers, and cannot be taken as representative of folk traditions far from the centers of power. If Snellgrove`s theory is true the simple classification of Bon as “the indigenous tradition of Tibet” will not hold. It is in fact a blend of Tibetan and South and Central Asian religious traditions with a counter-Buddhist narrative formed defensively against the overwhelming success of the Indian Buddhist traditions introduced in the 8th century. As Per Kvearne wrote:

Both Buddhists and Bon-pos agree that when Buddhism succeeded in gaining royal patronage in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, Bon suffered a serious setback. By the eleventh century, however, an organized religious tradition, styling itself Bon and claiming continuity with the earlier, pre-Buddhist religion, appeared in central Tibet. It is this religion of Bon that has persisted to our own times, absorbing doctrines from the dominant Buddhist religion but always adapting what it learned to its own needs and perspectives. This is ...not just plagiarism, but a dynamic and flexible strategy that has ensured the survival, indeed the vitality, of a religious minority (quoted in Powers 2007: 504).


The Nyingma Connection


An important aspect of the history of Bon is illuminated by considering the history of the Nyingmapas, with whom they have much in common. The Nyingma school became a self-conscious movement in the 11th century as did Bon. The Nyingmapas consisted of the surviving traditions of Buddhism that were introduced in the 8th century, before a resurgence of anti-Buddhist forces at court (usually considered to be Bon adherents) disenfranchised them and forced them away from the centers of power. When new Buddhist movements came to the fore in the 11th century and began amassing political power and popular acclaim the Nyingmapas articulated a self understanding which stressed their connection to Padmasambhava, a then little known Tantric teacher connected to Trisong Detsen, the greatest of the Buddhist Kings of the early Tibetan Imperium. They said that Padmasambhava had hallowed all of Tibet for Buddhism, and had buried Treasure Texts to be found by later reincarnations of his disciples. The Nyingmapas thus stressed the non-localized nature of spiritual power in Tibet and were able to continually “rediscover” new texts of practices and doctrines which had full canonical authority. This allowed them to maintain their vitality and authority in the face of the growing power of the Sakyapa and Kagyupa sects in the 11th through 13th centuries. These sects were strongly localized in monastic establishments and drew their authority from new translations of the Indian Buddhist canon. Thus the way the Nyingmapas understood themselves, their sources of authority, and Tibetan history, allowed them to develop an alternative source of authority and both spiritual and charismatic power.

This closely parallels Bon practices of the same time period, which also included discovering treasure texts and claiming descent from from an ancient lineage closely tied to the whole of Tibet. In light of the above it is tempting to view Bon as simply imitating Nyingma practices, but the situation is not so simple. The Bon treasure tradition, for instance, appears to be older than the Nyingmapa treasure tradition1. If we assume that one tradition borrowed the idea from the other, than the evidence suggests that the Nyingmapas may have gotten the idea from the Bonpos, and not the other way around. It is also the case that the Bonpos have a strong debating tradition, something the Nyingmapas do not have but the Gelugpas do. Like the Gelugpas, the Bonpos train their monastics to become Geshes, an advanced attainment that is scholastically very rigorous and is based on scholarship and debating skills. This suggests that the Bonpos are not merely Nyingmapas under another name, but have had a more complex genesis. Another interesting fact is that in some matters the Bonpo monastic rules are more stringent than the Buddhist code, and contain rules one might expect the Buddhist code to have although it doesn't. One example is that the Bon monastic code requires vegetarianism, which is not true of the Buddhist monastic code in Tibet. This shows that the Bonpos are not merely artful emulators of their Buddhist sibling, but an independent tradition that has drawn its own moral conclusions.





When HH The Dalai Lama speaks of the traditions of Tibet, he now lists five: Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu, Nyingma and Bon. This seems to suggest that Bon is a form of Tibetan Buddhim. That is not what is intended by His Holiness, but it may contain some degree of truth. It is no doubt fair to say that the ultimate definers of a religion should be its adherents however, and Bonpos do not generally identify as Buddhists. They view themselves as a seperate tradition, older in Tibet than Buddhism but likewise an import from outside. They view Bon as an expression of the “Everlasting Bon”, or eternal truth, revealed into this world over 30,000 years ago by Tonpa Shenrab out of his great compassion.


Works Cited


Berzin, Alexander. Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/comparison_buddhist_traditions/tibetan_traditions/bon_tibetan_buddhism.html. Accessed March 25 2008.


Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2007.


Reynolds, John Myrdhin. The Golden Letters. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 1996.


Rinpoche, Pabongka. Liberation In The Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse On The Path To Enlightenment. ed. Rinpoche, Trijang; tr. Mathieu Ricard. Boston: Wisdom 2006.


Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. Wonders of The Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2000.

Zangpo, Ngawang. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion 2002.

Keeping It Real

Chan and The Pursuit of Experience



What I see, I want all people to know.”

-Linji, quoted by Yuanwu (Cleary; Cleary 1994: 104)

The origins of the Chinese Chan tradition, known in Japan as Zen, 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 experiential realization of Buddhist doctrines 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. The primary goal these proto-Chan practitioners were after, it is fair to surmise, is an authentic and experiential realization of the Buddha's teachings. 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, 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, italics mine).

This desire to “keep it real”, to avoid the traps of ossification, mere intellectuality, or worldy 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. Taking this analogy further, you could say that early Chan was distinguished for its insistence on a simple, direct regiment of healing using only the strongest medicines. As the Chan tradition grew and flourished 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 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 Dayi Daoxin (580-651) and Daman Hongren (601-674) 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 transmission lineage of Chan awakening. 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 in 701, a move which 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, Japanese zazen) as a step towards realizing the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena and attaining Awakening. As in the Tiantai tradition this 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. This approach, which has parallels in other nondual traditions like the Longchen Nyingthig and Mahamudra traditions of Tibet, consists in attempting to rest in the ultimate state of the mind while simaltaneously engaging in purification and transformation practices which transform the relative states of the mind. This acts as a kind of safety net. If you can plunge into the ultimate view immediately, wonderful, but if you can't the dualistic practices will help to ready you for it. This view at once has integrity because it does not abandon the ultimate perspective, as well as pragmatism since it concedes that most people cannot wholly embody that perspective immediately. As well as teaching this type of “complete” approach to cultivation, 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. In this way Shenxiu attempted to present an authentic, experiential teaching that could be practiced by anyone (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). Of late Scholars have argued that Shenhui was a self-serving polemicist who distorted the teachings of Shenxiu and Hongren's other “Northern School” heirs. His version of Chan history won the day, however, even though he himself did not have much success as a teacher or garnish much respect personally in the eyes of the later Chan tradition. 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 (chan) is seeing the fundamental nature” (Mcrae 54). Thus only a direct breakthrough to realization will do; even seated meditation is extraneous. This amounted to an insistence that gradual cultivation was in fact an obstacle to immediate entry in to the ultimate nature of the mind. This perspective is one which in fact occurs with regularity in nondual traditions to this day. A famous modern example is the late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (dates), and a more moderate version can be found taught by the contemporary German-Canadian mystic Eckhart Tolle.

Shenxiu's invitation to the court of Empress Wu began the movement of Chan into the mainstream. Shenhui's criticisms led to the triumph of the rhetoric of sudden realization.


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 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 debvelopments suggest, as several modern scholars have argued, that the sudden approach to realization which gained prominence in the centuries following She hui, was more a matter of rhetoric than practice. In practice sutra study, rituals and seated meditation continued to be practiced as students aimed to apply these gradual methods to one day break through to sudden realization. This amounts, of course, top nothing more than the complete approach of Shenxiu described with a different rhetoric. These same sermons, though, present both masters as relentlessly pushing their disciples to not stop satisfied with intellectual knowledge or gradual practices, but rather 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, a technique still very much in use in the Platform Sutra of Huineng and the recorded sermons of Mazu and Huangbo. 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 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 transmisson 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 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 Buddhism1.


Confucian Echoes

Since we have 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 persoinal 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 (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 kung'an (Public Case) tradition. 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 judgement. 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 kung'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 kung'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 kung'an commentary and was on friendly terms with the author of the most famous kung'an commentary, Yuanwu Keqin. The central practice Hongzhi taught, however, did not rely on contemplation of kung'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 revolutized kung'an practice and the future of Chan. Known as k'an-hua Chan , or Kung'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 breakthrough 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'ou2. 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 responding explicitly 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 come 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 lots of 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 up into the Song dynasty 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.





Works Cited


Broughton, Jeff. “Tsung-mi's Zen Prolegemenon: Introduction to an Exemplary Zen Canon”, in The Zen Canon: Understanding The Classic Texts. NY: Oxford University Press 2004.


Cleary, J.C.; Cleary, Thomas. Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu. Boston: Shambhala Publications 1994.


Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S. The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. USA: Oxford University Press 2000.


Hershock, Peter D. Chan Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai Press 2005.


Mcrae, John R. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. University of California Press 2004.


Schlutter, Morten. “Silent Illumination, Kung'an Introspection, and the competition for Lay Patronage in Song Dynasty Chan”. Gregory, Peter N.; Getz Jr., Daniel, ed. Buddhism In The Sung. Honolulu: University of Hawai Press 2002.


Welter, Albert. Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism. NY:Oxford University Press 2006.


Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. NY: Cambridge Uinversity Press 2000.



1This was not true at a folk level, but at the Elite level.

2Although 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.