One of the Three Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism

The Ch'an (or Ching’T’u) Sect has been described as a religion of “wisdom or intuitive insight” and is the inspiration for the Zen school of Buddhism in Japan. Ch'an means mediation. Its key elements are summed up by the four phrases: 1) “A special transmission outside of doctrines”; 2) “Not setting up the written word as an authority”; 3) “Pointing directly at the heart of man”; 4) ‘seeing one's nature and becoming a Buddha."

The Ch'an sect's origins are obscure. It is it not clear whether its early patriarchs were legendary or real. Under the leadership of its sixth patriarch Hui-neng (A.D. 637-723) it grew from a cult with around 500 members to a distinct sect after Hui-neng spent 15 years meditating in the hills.

Zen Buddhism in Japan evolved out of the Ch'an School, which was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Sung Dynasty in the 10th century by a Chinese monk named Huineng. Zen initially had a relatively small following and didn't take hold and flourish in Japan until the 12th century.

Ch’an aesthetics had a great impact on Chinese and Japanese art. Ch’an artists rejected the symmetry and iconography of the Sino-Indian tradition. They aimed for extreme economy and means by trying to get the most meaning possible out of each line and shade to suggest a maximum of intensity, rhythm, special counterpoint and tonal harmony. For artists painting became a contemplative exercise; for viewers it became a form of meditation.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia Robert Eno, Indiana University; Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; Mahayana Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ;
The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ; Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Development of the Chan School of Buddhism

Portrait of the Great Korean Chan Monk Pyeongweondang

Dr. Eno wrote: “Beginning about the seventh century, a highly sophisticated school formed in reaction to both the trends represented by Tiantai and Pure Land Buddhism. This was the Chan School, which is usually referred to by its Japanese name, Zen. Zen Buddhism rejected the value of any textual approach to Buddhist enlightenment, and equally rejected any doctrine that promised salvation without the self-cultivation of meditation, after the manner of the Buddha himself. The word chan ( zen) means “trance,” and the Zen School reoriented the focus of Buddhist teachings entirely towards the cultivation of perfect meditational techniques, known as “ zazen.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“For these practitioners, the Buddha's radically different insight into the nature of the world as an impermanent realm of suffering could be grasped directly through the simple practice of quiet sitting, unadulterated by any doctrine whatever. This rejection of all doctrine was itself a doctrine of some sophistication, as it involved the refutation of all ordinary ways of describing what was real – any description of reality in language constituted a doctrine, and was thus intrinsically erroneous. Zen disciples tried to wean themselves of any dependence on language or its categories of understanding, an impulse that Chinese Zen clearly derived from the writings of Zhuangzi as much as from Buddhist sources. /+/

“Zen is today the most influential Buddhist school in East Asia. Its dominant wings, which divided long ago on the issue of whether enlightenment comes gradually or suddenly, have spread worldwide, and Zen schools can be found in many countries and in many states in America. Many of the most important missionaries of Buddhism in the West have been Japanese Zen monks.” /+/


right The Ch’an school is said to have been founded by Bodhidharma, a south-Indian prince who became a monk and traveled to China around A.D. 520. It is not clear whether he was a real person or not.

According to legend, when Bodhidharma arrived in the Chinese capital of Nanking, the devout Chinese Emperor asked him how much merit he had earned building temples and copying scripture. Bodhidharma replied: “No merit at all...All these are inferior deeds, which would cause the doer to be born in heaven or earth again. They will show the traces of worldliness. They are like shadows following objects. A deed of true merit is full of pure wisdom and is beyond the grasp of conceptual thought. This sort of merit is not found in any worldly works." The Emperor then asked what is the holy truth” Bodhidharma replied: “Great Emptiness, and there is nothing in it to be called holy." The emperor then asked him who was. Bodhidharma said; “I do not know."

After this sharp condemnation of the pursuit of merit as basically selfish and self-indulgent, Bodhidharma left for northern China and meditated for nine years by staring at the wall of a cave. He sat there so long in meditation it is said that his legs fell off. To battle his occasional bouts of drowsiness he cut off his eyelids so his eyes wouldn't close.

While Bodhidharma was meditating a monk named Hui Ko came to visit him and seek the answer to troubling questions and calm his mind. Initially Bodhidharma was so absorbed in mediation that he did not notice the monk. Hui Ko waited in snowdrifts for some time but received no response. Finally he cut off his arm and gave it to Bodhidharma who at that point gave his attention to the monk. Hui Ko received the advise he sought and later became the second patriarch.

Bodhidharma is associated with ascetic discipline, serious mediation, yoga, psychic power and the Shaolin school of martial arts. He said: “A special tradition exists outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters; pointing directly into the mind, seeing into one's own nature and the attainment of Buddhahood."

Ch'an Sect Beliefs

Zi Fu Chan Monastery

Ch'an Buddhism teaches that salvation comes from inner enlightenment, something that happens in a brief instant, often through meditation. It also emphasizes concrete thought over metaphysical speculation, often with lofty, paradoxical statements, and views teaching as something beyond the written and spoken word that is best transmitted directly from master to disciple. The use of images and sacred texts is frowned upon by the Ch'an School.

Ch’an gets most of its ideas directly from Mahayana sutras but is regarded as unique with it sharp, unwavering positions and emphasis on realization through insight. It has its own monastic system, which requires monks to do manual labor, and emphasizes the use of special training exercises in which disciples are peppered with questions and given metaphysical riddles or questions’such as whether dogs can become Buddhas or bricks can be polished into mirrors’by the their masters who attempt to develop the disciple's reasoning, insight and wisdom.

Summing up the philosophy of the sect the third Ch’an patriarch Seng-tsan said: “The more words, the more reflection, the less you understand the way; Cut off words, cut off reflection, and you penetrate everywhere. Events in the void before you all spring from mistaken notions; It's useless to seek for the true — you must just quiet your notions."

Zen-Style Meditation

Chan Master Feiyin Tongrong

Shunryu Suzuki (1905-1971) wrote in “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind”: “People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a cross.legged position, or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense. The Zen school developed in many ways after it was established in China, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Chinese Zen or the history of Zen. I am interested in helping you keep your practice from becoming impure. [Source: “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind” by Suzuki Shunryu (1905-1971). This is regarded as one of the clearest introductions to the nature of Buddhist meditation. =]

“In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin”, which means “beginner's mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. Suppose you recite the “Prajna Paramita”12 “Sutra”only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner's mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind. =

“For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. =

“Now I would like to talk to you about our “zazen”posture. When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two “and”one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent. =

“After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding. So when we take this posture it symbolizes this truth. When I have the left foot on the right side of my body, and the right foot on the left side of my body, I do not know which is which. So either may be the left or the right side. =

Chen Master Shoushan Xingnian

“You should not be tilted sideways, backwards, or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as though you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism. It is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture you have the right state of mind, 13 so there is not need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here. A Zen master would say, “Kill the Buddha!” Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha because you should resume your own Buddha nature. =

“When we practice “zazen”our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air goes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind or body; just a swinging door. =

“So when we practice “zazen”, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature. This kind of awareness is very important, because we are usually so one-sided. Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence. “You” means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and “I” means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors. This kind of understanding is necessary. This should not even be called understanding; it is actually the true experience of life through Zen practice.” =

Gong’an: Zen Verbal Play

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the most outstanding features of Zen practice was a form of verbal play through which Zen masters tried to destroy their disciples' reliance on linguistic formulations of knowledge. This device was called the “gong’an”, or “koan”in Japanese. It involved meditation upon certain questions that defied any rational response. Among the most famous are: “Where was your face before your mother's birth?” and “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The absurdist implications of such “koans” was extended in Chinese Zen practice into types of weird and spontaneous interplay between masters and disciples that were often understood as revealing levels of enlightenment. For example, here is a record of an incident that took place between two famous Zen monks, the ninth century master Huangbo and his disciple Linji (whose name is attached to the most famous school of Japanese Buddhism, Rinzai). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“One day Huangbo ordered all of the monks of the temple to work in the tea garden. He himself was the last to arrive. Linji greeted him, but simply stood with his hands resting on the hoe. “Are you tired?” asked Huangbo. “I just started working! How can you say I'm tired?” Huangbo suddenly lifted his stick and struck Linji, who seized the stick and with a push threw his master to the ground. Huangbo called the supervisor to help him up. After doing so, the supervisor asked, “Master, how can you let such a madman insult you like that?” Huangbo picked up the stick and beat the supervisor. Meanwhile, Linji began to dig in the ground. “Let them use cremation in other places,” he said. “Here, I will bury you alive!” /+/

Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch

Chan Master Fengxue Yanzhao

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Huineng (638-713) was the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism. Like all schools of Buddhism, the Chan school taught that all sentient beings have the Buddha nature within them and that Enlightenment is achieved by truly recognizing one’s own true nature, i.e. the Buddha nature of being enlightened. The Chan school taught that enlightenment comes suddenly, in a flash of spiritual insight. The “Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch” purports to be a record of the teachings of Huineng, as transcribed by an obscure disciple, Fahai. Given the fragmentary and disputed nature of texts from this period, it cannot be regarded as an accurate statement of actual events. It is, however, an excellent representative statement of the Chan school of Buddhism.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The “Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch” reads: “The monk Hongren asked me, ‘Where are you from that you come to this mountain to make obeisance to me? Just what is it that you are looking for from me?’ “I replied, ‘I am from Lingnan, a commoner from Xinzhou. I have come this long distance only to make obeisance to you. I am seeking no particular thing, but only the Buddhadharma.’ “The Master then reproved me, saying, ‘If you’re from Lingnan, then you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?’ [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 495-498; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“I replied, ‘Although people from the south and people from the north differ, there is no north and south in Buddha nature. Although my barbarian’s body and your body are not the same what difference is there in our Buddha nature?’ “The Master wished to continue the discussion with me; however, seeing that there were other people nearby, he said no more. Then he sent me to work together with the assembly. Later a lay disciple had me go to the threshing room, where I spent over eight months treading the pestle.” [These two sentences are out of context and represent a later interpolation.] “Unexpectedly one day the Fifth Patriarch called all his disciples to come, and when they had assembled, he said, ‘Let me preach to you. For people in this world birth and death are vital matters. You disciples make offering all day long and seek only the field of blessings, but you do not seek to escape from the bitter sea of birth and death. Your own self-nature obscures the gateway to blessings; how can you be saved? All of you return to your rooms and look into yourselves. Men of wisdom will of themselves grasp the original nature of their “prajnā”intuition.

Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch on the Bodhi Tree, Mirror and Clear Mind

Huineng tears up the sutras

The “Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch” reads: “The head monk, Shenxiu, at midnight, holding a candle, wrote a verse on the wall of the central section of the south corridor, without anyone else knowing about it. The verse read: The body is the “bodhi”tree The mind is like a clear mirror. At all times we must strive to polish it And must not let the dust collect.” 7. “After he had finished writing this verse, the head monk, Shenxiu, returned to his room and lay down. No one had seen him. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 495-498; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“At dawn the Fifth Patriarch called the painter Lu to draw illustrations from the “Lankāvatāra Sūtra”on the south corridor. The Fifth Patriarch suddenly saw this verse and, having read it, said to the painter, ‘I will give you thirty thousand cash. You have come a long distance to do this arduous work, but I have decided not to have the pictures painted after all. It is said in the “Diamond Sūtra”, “All forms everywhere are unreal and false.” It would be best to leave this verse here and to have the deluded ones recite it. If they practice in accordance with it, they will not fall into the three evil ways. Those who practice by it will gain great benefit.’ “The Master then called all his disciples to come, and burned incense before the verse. The disciples came in to see and were all filled with admiration.

“Buddha-nature is always clean and pure; Where is there room for dust? Another verse said: The mind is the “bodhi”tree The body is the mirror stand. The mirror is originally clean and pure; Where can it be stained by dust? “The followers in the temple were all amazed when they saw my verse. Then I returned to the threshing room. The Fifth Patriarch realized that I had a splendid understanding of the cardinal meaning. Being afraid lest the assembly know this, he said to them, ‘This is still not complete attainment.’”

“Seeing Into One’s Own Nature” by Linji Yixuan

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Linji Yixuan (d. 867) was a Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk of the late Tang dynasty (618-907). Like all schools of Buddhism, the Chan school taught that all sentient beings have the Buddha nature within them and that Enlightenment is achieved by truly recognizing one’s own true nature, i.e. the Buddha nature of being enlightened. The Chan school taught that enlightenment comes suddenly, in a flash of spiritual insight. The monk Yixuan, better known as Linji after the small temple in Hebei province where he moved in 851, was the founder of what became the Linji (Rinzai) school of Buddhism. Linji’s teaching of his disciples was characterized by shouting and beatings administered suddenly and in such a way as to shock the student out of his everyday consciousness and thus precipitate the sudden flash of insight in which the student would realize his own true nature. In the sermon below, delivered before an assembly of monks and laymen, Linji explains this concept of “seeing into one’s own nature.” [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

statue of Linji Yixuan

In “Seeing Into One’s Own Nature”, Linji Yixuan wrote: “The Master addressed the assembly: “Followers of the Way, the Law of the Buddha has no room for elaborate activity; it is only everyday life with nothing to do. Evacuate, pass your water, put on your clothes, eat your food; if you are tired, lie down. The fool will laugh, but the wise man will understand. A man of old has said, ‘Those who practice meditation seeking things on the outside are all imbeciles.’ If you make yourself master in all circumstances, any place you stand will be the true one. In whatever environment you find yourself you cannot be changed. You encounter evil influences; yet even the five violations [killing father, mother, or “arhat”; doing harm to the body of the Buddha; introducing disharmony into the monastic community] that lead to the nethermost hell will of themselves form the great sea of deliverance. Students today do not know the Law; they are like half.blind sheep who gobble up anything that comes close to their noses. They cannot distinguish between slave and master, guest and host. People such as these enter the Way with deluded minds and become involved in confused and crowded places. One cannot call them true monks who have left their homes; they are really nothing but laymen. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 504-509; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Monks who have left their homes must be aware of what true understanding is. They must distinguish buddha and demon, true and false, sacred and profane. If they are aware in this way, then they can be called true monks who have left their homes. If they cannot distinguish buddha and demon, it is as if they had left one ordinary home only to enter another. Such people are called common karma.creating beings; they cannot yet be called true monks who have left their homes. Suppose one had a single buddha-demon, indistinguishable in one body like milk and water mixed together. It is only the King of Geese who can drink the milk and leave the water. Followers of the Way, with a clear eye destroy both buddha and demon. If you love the sacred and hate the profane you will continue floating and sinking in the sea of birth and death.” Someone asked, “What is this buddha-demon?” The Master said, “A single moment of doubt on your part is the buddha-demon. Once you realize that all things are not produced, the mind, too, is like an illusion, and without a single speck of dust, it is at all times pure. This is the Buddha. Moreover, buddha and demon are the two states, purity and impurity. In my view there is no Buddha, no sentient being, no past, no present; whatever you gain you gain, and there is no need to spend time. There is nothing to practice, nothing to prove, nothing to obtain, nothing to lose; at all times there is no other thing.

Linji Yixuan’s Advise to on Followers of the Way

In “Seeing Into One’s Own Nature”, Linji Yixuan wrote: “The Master addressed the assembly: “Students today must have faith in themselves and must not seek things on the outside. Don’t take what someone else had said and on the basis of it make judgments on what is false and what is true. Even if they be [the sayings of] patriarchs and buddhas, they are no more than written traces. Some people fasten on to some phrase of the past or, fixing on something with both an obvious and a hidden meaning, allow doubts to arise and, then, staggering in surprise, rush madly about asking questions, and end up completely confused.

““Resolute fellows, do not spend your days in idle talk, arguing with a one.track mind about landowner and thief, good and bad, sundry pleasures and Here I make no distinction between monk and layman. Just let anyone at all come and I will discern him at once. No matter from where he comes, any words he may have to say will be nothing but a dream and an illusion.

““On the other hand, when I see a person who has reached a state of understanding, I see the mysterious principle of the many buddhas, the state of the buddhas cannot of itself proclaim: ‘I am the state of the buddhas.’ The follower of the Way, dependent on nothing, comes forth himself, resplendent in the state of his understanding. If someone comes forward and asks me about seeking the Buddha, I meet him on the basis of the state of purity. If someone comes forward and asks me about the bodhisattva, I meet him on the basis of the state of compassion.

Three Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism

“If someone comes forward and asks me about “bodhi”, I meet him on the basis of the state of purity and mystery. If someone comes forward and asks me about “nirvā.a”, I meet him on the basis of the state of calmness and quiet. Although there are countless differentiations in the states, men themselves are not different. Therefore it is said: ‘The form appears in accordance with the thing, just as the moon in the water.’

Image Sources: Bodhidharma, Brooklyn College; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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