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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.