This lecture covers the Zen patriarchs Bodhidharma (~400 CE), Huineng (638 – 718), Mazu (709 – 788) and Linji (~810 – 866), who taught in China before and during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). Please read the hundred koan cases of the Blue Cliff Record.
Dhyana, Chan & Zen
Dhyana is the Indian Sanskrit word for meditation, transliterated into Chinese as chan by Chinese Buddhists. In the Tang and Song dynasties, a school of Chinese Buddhism calling itself Chan became the most popular school among educated elites, later spreading to Japan as Zen, Korea as Seon and Vietnam as Thien. America and much of the world uses the Japanese term Zen to refer to the school as an international whole, but use Chan to refer to specific figures and texts in China and likewise with the Korean and Vietnamese terms.
Much as the Tiantai Lotus school was a sect of Chinese Buddhism inspired by the Indian Lotus Sutra, Chan was a Chinese sect inspired by the Lankavatara Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and many other Indian Mahayana texts that taught we all have pure buddha-nature within that our desire and ignorance conceal. While the Lotus school focused on devotional practices to bodhisattvas and scholarly analysis of texts, Chan focused on meditation and philosophical interaction, interviews between master and student that test the student’s insight into Buddhist teaching and practice. Many are familiar with the puzzling and paradoxical questions of the sound of one hand clapping and the tree falling in the woods when no one is around, pieces snipped from the recorded interactions between Chan masters and monks, government officials and commoners.
Chan developed in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE), the period that the great masters Huineng, Joshu, Mazu and Linji lived and taught. During a period of rebellion after the fall of the Tang, outlying schools that trace themselves back to Huineng became increasingly popular in areas controlled by local rulers, and the most popular of these schools was the Hongzhou school of Mazu, the first figure to use the term ‘Chan’ as one title for the school. From his line came Linji, whose school dominated the Song dynasty imperial court, composed the famous collections of koan cases, and who shaped Zen as a whole such that most of the tradition today traces itself back to Bodhidharma by way of Huineng, Mazu and Linji.
According to modern scholarship in the past few years, Chan developed into what it is today in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). As Linji’s house became dominant in Chan and the most powerful sect of Buddhism in the Song imperial court, Linji’s followers wrote the koan collections and other texts that were codified as Chan history and doctrine by blending history and legend together to present a lineage of masters leading from the Buddha himself straight to their own school. In the process, the figures of Bodhidharma, Huineng, Joshu, Mazu and Linji himself were made into legends in line with the purposes of the House of Linji.
According to the Zen tradition which developed in the Song and is shared worldwide still today, their sect is the bearer of a silent and inexpressible teaching of the Buddha outside the Buddhist sutras, a way of life found outside of language, given to his single greatest student, Mahakashapa. According to Chan texts that developed in China, the Buddha once came before the assembly of his followers to lecture, but instead of speaking he silently held up a lotus flower. Everyone was confused, not knowing what to think or say, but Mahakashapa silently smiled. The Buddha said, “I have the eye of the true teaching, not expressible in words, but transmitted beyond teaching. I have given it to Mahakashapa.”
This is considered the first koan, the first case, and serves not only as a historical record of the lineage but as an object of study for students. It appears in many koan collections, including The Gateless Gate, the most popular collection. After Mahakashapa twenty six Indian patriarchs received the inexpressible transmission before the monk Bodhidharma left India around 400 CE and traveled to China to spread the inexpressible there. Though this makes him the twenty eighth Indian patriarch, he is also called the first patriarch of the Chinese tradition. According to Linji’s house and Zen today, the timeline of patriarchs in India and China are:
Buddha > Mahakashapa > (25 India) > Prajnatara > Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma > (4 China) > Huineng > Huairang > Mazu > Baizhang > Huangbo > Linji
Bodhidharma & the Transmission from the West
There is no record of Indian patriarchs or Bodhidharma in India, and there is very little record of Bodhidharma and the first few Chinese patriarchs in China. Bodhidharma is portrayed in Chinese and Japanese art as a bushy-bearded, hoop earring-wearing, dark-skinned foreigner from a far off land, the mysterious West where Buddhism comes from. In Tibet, he is considered a great arhat, a sage who left the community and sought his own personal way. Bodhidharma’s legend is well known, but there is little information outside the legend. Today, the story of Bodhidharma is considered a device that links the Buddha to Huineng, Mazu and Linji. There is only a single text which scholars consider to be an authentic record of Bodhidharma’s teaching, the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, which states that Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk from India who came to China to bring them the essence of Mahayana teachings.
In the Transmission of the Lamp (1004), the first of the great Song dynasty koan records, the twenty-seventh Indian patriarch Prajnatara was given a priceless diamond by a southern Indian king, which he held before the king’s three sons, asking if there is anything that surpasses it in clarity. The first two sons say that nothing surpasses it and that only Prajnatara is worthy of it. The youngest son Bodhitara says that the diamond has worldly light but the light of the mind is supreme, that the diamond cannot be a diamond or a priceless treasure without the mind, and that Prajnatara has the way to reveal the true treasure, just as he holds up the diamond (much as Buddha held up a flower). Prajnatara asks what the highest of things is, and Bodhitara says the self. Prajnatara asks what the greatest of all things is, and Bodhitara says buddha-nature. It seems that buddha-nature is as high as we hold ourselves, but far wider. Prajnatara realizes that Prince Bodhitara is his dharma-heir, the one who will continue the silent teaching, and so he renames him Bodhidharma, makes him a monk and tells him to go to China.
Bodhidharma crossed into southern China and went straight to the palace of Emperor Wu, a great patron of Buddhist scholastic and devotional schools such as Tiantai. The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied many books, and supported many monasteries of monks and nuns. What merit have I gained?” Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever. These things are shadows. Real merit is wisdom.” The emperor, taken aback, asked, “What is the principle of the sacred Dharma?” Bodhidharma replied, “Everything is empty. Nothing is holy.” The emperor, enraged, asked, “Who is this who stands before me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know,” and left the palace.
Bodhidharma is said to have practiced wall-sitting, sitting in a cave and staring at a wall while meditating. Long after the legend developed that Bodhidharma lived and taught in the Shaolin monastery where he started kung fu or “Shaolin boxing” as a physical exercise and martial art for the Buddhist monks there. The Shaolin temple was originally a Daoist temple to a god that became a temple to a Buddhist goddess, and it could be that kung fu is derived from earlier Daoist tai chi exercises, which may have been influenced by earlier Indian yogic postures and martial arts. Some favor the theory of an Indian origin, others the Daoist origin, and still others, particularly Shaolin themselves, the Bodhidharma origin story.
Huineng & The Platform Sutra
After Bodhidharma there were four more Chinese patriarchs before the next central figure, the sixth patriarch Huineng (638 – 713), an illiterate woodcutter from the frontier who is still revered as a living buddha. He was the first of the great Tang dynasty masters, followed by Mazu, Joshu and Linji, who all trace their teachings back to him. The Platform Sutra is the record of Huineng’s life and sermons, and an early version of the text found in a cave near Dunhuang confirms that the first few parts of the text are quite authentic. In the text, Huineng is asked to lecture about his life and teaching by the local governor. Long after Bodhidharma enraged and left the emperor, Huineng has the complete devotion of a local ruler.
Huineng says that long ago when he was young he was cutting firewood to support himself and his mother when he heard a Buddhist pilgrim reciting Buddhist teachings and experienced enlightenment. He asked the pilgrim what he was reciting and the pilgrim said it was the Diamond Sutra, which had arrived in China from India around 400 CE, and that he got it from the monastery of the fifth Chan patriarch Hongren. Huineng left home and asked Hongren permission to study Chan. Hongren asked him where he is from and Huineng says he is a peasant who wants to be a buddha. Hongren said, “You are a southern barbarian. How can you possibly become a buddha?” Huineng said that there is no difference in buddha-nature to the north or south, and that the one mind produces wisdom wherever he is. Hongren is deeply impressed, and sets Huineng to work pounding rice outside.
Soon after Hongren announces that he is going to die soon and must pass the role of Grand Master and patriarch on to someone. He asks the monks to compose verses of poetry that display their understanding of Chan Buddhist teaching. Many of the students tell each other that the head monk Shenxiu will compose the best verse, so they will not even bother. Shenxiu says to himself that it is wrong to seek the rank of master rather than the teaching itself, and he must compose a verse that shows a true understanding or he will never get the teaching from Hongren. He is anxious, frets and sweats, and after composing a verse that he is not sure about he tries several times to get up the nerve to present his verse to Hongren but stops out of fear. It is very clear that Shenxiu thinks the teaching is something external to himself that he does not already possess and this causes him great distress, showing he is not wise or worthy. It is good that he values the teaching above the position, but he treats the teaching as something that can be gained or lost, much like the position of master. He is worried about the outer form, which shows he does not see the meaning within.
Meanwhile, Hongren has hired a painter to cover a hallway in a mural that depicts the Lankavatara Sutra and the Chan patriarchs, in a text written to connect Bodhidharma to Huineng via the Chan patriarchs, unknown to Shenxiu, probably for the best. Shenxiu decides to write his verse in the dead of night on the wall that will be painted over anyway, and then if Hongren says it is good he will admit that it is his own. Shenxiu takes his brush and writes:
The body is the Bodhi Tree. The mind is a mirror on a stand.
Take care to wipe it continuously, never letting dust cling.
Honren sees the verse and pays the artist to go home without painting the mural, saying that the Diamond Sutra says all forms are illusions and if they leave the verse up on the wall people can recite it, act in accord with it and avoid falling into evil, bringing them great benefit. Huineng, pounding rice outside, hears a young monk reciting Shenxiu’s verse the next day and asks to be taken to the lecture hall to see it, as he has not been to hear a single lecture yet. He asks a military official standing by the wall to read the verse to him. Huineng chuckles and asks the official to write another verse next to it. The official is surprised that an illiterate wishes to compose a verse, but Huineng tells him a person of the lowliest rank may have the greatest wisdom, while a person of the highest rank may completely lack it. On the wall the officer writes for Huineng:
Enlightenment originally has no tree, and a clear mirror is not a stand.
Originally there isn’t a single thing. Where can dust possibly settle?
Everyone is amazed by Huineng’s verse, marveling that this Cinderella servant could possibly be a bodhisattva incarnate and that you truly can’t tell a person by their appearance. In the Daoist text of Zhuangzi, which is quoted often in the Zen tradition it says, “I’ve heard that if a mirror is bright, no dust settles on it. If dust settles, it isn’t really bright.” While Shenxiu, who would go on to lead the Northern School of Chan, wrote a verse that displays understanding of Buddhist and Daoist metaphors, Huineng, who would go on to lead the Southern School, wrote a verse that shows an understanding of non-duality, of each thing being and not-being together as well as all things being one with a lived awareness of buddha-nature. This plays on stereotypes of the Northern School giving scholarly analysis and the Southern School being brute and to the point, much like Indian Buddhism contrasted with Chinese Daoism. Hongren told the painter that forms are illusions, letting the text stand in the place of the image, but Huineng showed that the text itself is also a form and illusion, as words stand for things but are not the things themselves, and metaphorically the mind is like a mirror but different from a mirror, both a mirror and not a mirror. Later, Huineng tore up sacred sutras to shock his students into realizing that the text is inferior to the meaning.
Hongren realizes that Huineng is his dharma-heir, the sixth patriarch, but keeps this to himself and secretly summons Huineng in the dead of night and explains the Diamond Sutra to him. When Huineng hears, “Activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” he experiences great enlightenment. Hongren gives Huineng the robe and bowl of the patriarch and sends him to the south, fearing that others may hate and harm him. The way that the story is told in the Song by the descendants of Huineng, Shenxiu continued to lead the Northern School but Huineng replanted the true school secretly in the south. Much as scholars say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Isaiah said he would be in the Old Testament, Huineng certainly started a school in the south, but if he met Hongren in the north it was only because Huineng became the sixth patriarch after his death in the Song, which meant he had to be taught by the fifth.
Huiming, a high ranking general turned monk, pursues Huineng along with hundreds of others and finds him hiding at the top of a mountain. Huiming says, “Explain the teaching to me, laborer.” Huineng asks him to focus his mind and says, “When there is no good or bad, what is your original face?” Huiming is enlightened, realizing that he looks out of some skull with the same consciousness of the Buddha. Huiming says that although he had studied the truth for years he had not yet seen his own face, but that now he is like someone who drinks water and knows whether it is hot or cold without a thought. Huiming climbs down the mountain, finds the other hundred pursuers and tells them, “I have just climbed to the heights, but after all that there was no trace of him.”
Huineng finds his way south, and as he is entering the monastery where he will teach and set up his school he hears two monks arguing about a flag on a pole in the courtyard, an incident that finds its way into the Gateless Gate as a popular koan. Huineng asks them what they are arguing about, and the first monk says it is the flag that is moving, not the wind, and the second says that it is the wind that is moving, not the flag. Huineng said, “It is your minds that are moving.” According to both the Lankavatara and Diamond sutras, all things are simply mind, and mind in the first monk is focusing on the flag and dismissing the wind while the same mind in the second monk is focusing on the wind while ignoring the flag. The wind is an invisible force of air, like the mental, while the flag is a visible substance of earth, like the physical, such that the argument between the monks is like asking whether the mind or the world is the cause of things. If mind and world are both mind together, arguing either against the other is pointing to mind with mind rather than other mind both ways, and at the same time all of this together is simply mind that is moving.
The master of the monastery, hearing of this, summons Huineng and asks him if he is the sixth patriarch who fled south. Huineng says he would not dare presume to be him. The master bows, and asks about the transmission of the teaching. Huineng says, “There is no demonstration or transmission, as it is simply seeing nature, not a matter of meditation or liberation.” Huineng famously taught: No permanence, no impermanence, no arrival, no departure, no exterior, no interior, no origination, no extinction. The master asks how Buddhism can not be a matter of meditation or liberation, and Huineng says Buddhism is about non-duality, realizing that the self and the world are one. The master says that his own lectures are like gravel, but Huineng’s teaching is gold, and turns over the monastery to him. Huineng concludes his life story for the local governor, and begins a series of lectures on wisdom and buddha-nature, including:
All wisdom comes from our own essential nature. It does not enter from outside.
Those who realize on their own do not need to seek outside. If you insist that a teacher is necessary to obtain liberation, you are wrong. Why? Because there is a teacher within your own mind that understands spontaneously.
The extent of mind is vast as space, without bounds. It has no squareness or roundness, no largeness or smallness, no blueness, yellowness, redness or whiteness. It has no up or down, no long or short. It has no anger and no joy, no right and no wrong, no good and no bad. It has no head or tail. The lands of all buddhas are the same as space. The subtle nature of people in the world is originally empty, with nothing that can be grasped. The true emptiness of our inherent nature is also like this.
Good friends, don’t cling to emptiness when you hear me speak of emptiness. Above all, do not stick to emptiness. If you sit quietly with an empty mind, you are fixated on indifferent voidness. Good friends, the emptiness of physical space contains the colors and forms of all things, the sun, moon and stars, the grass, trees and forests, bad people and good people, bad things and good things, heaven and hell, the oceans and mountains, all within space. The emptiness of the essential nature of people in the world is like this. Good friends, our inherent nature contains all things, and this is greatness. All things are in your essential nature. If you see everyone’s bad and good but do not grasp or reject any of it, and do not become affected by it, your mind is like space, and this is greatness.
When it rains on the land all homes are flooded, but when it rains on the ocean nothing increases or decreases… Rain doesn’t come from heaven, but from all sources of moisture, refreshing all living beings, plants and animals. The hundred rivers and countless streams feed into the ocean, merging into one body. Wise insight into our original nature is like this. Good friends, when people of small ability hear this teaching, they are like plants with small roots that collapse in heavy rain and can’t grow… The barriers of their false views are heavy and the roots of their passions are deep. They are like huge clouds covering the sun.
Deluded, a Buddha is a sentient being. Awakened, a sentient being is a Buddha. Ignorant, a Buddha is a sentient being. With wisdom, a sentient being is a Buddha. If the mind is warped, a Buddha is a sentient being. If the mind is impartial, a sentient being is a Buddha. When once a warped mind is produced, Buddha is concealed within the sentient being. If for one instant of thought we become impartial, the sentient beings are themselves Buddha. In our mind itself a Buddha exists. Our own Buddha is the true Buddha. If we do not have in ourselves the Buddha mind, then where are we to seek the Buddha?
Huineng goes on to tell the governor and everyone assembled that the Pure Lands are not thousands of miles away but within ourselves, the ground we walk on, and that the bodhisattvas are nothing other than human virtues such as compassion and wisdom. Like many historical moments when tradition is radically questioned, this can be interpreted as a simple denial of the existence of heavens, hells, saints and demons, but it would be understood by many then and now as an affirmation of the involvement of the spiritual and transcendent in everyday existence. Hakunin, the Japanese master of the Rinzai (Linji) school, was asked by a samurai if heaven and hell exist, and Hakunin laughed at him. The samurai drew his sword, and Hakunin said, “Here open the gates of hell.” The samurai sheathed his sword, and Hakunin said, “Here open the gates of paradise.”
The nun and revered Chan master Wujin asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra that she still couldn’t understand after long years of study. Huineng asked Wujin to read the passages to him, as he never learned to read. Wujin asked him how he understands the sutra without reading it, and Huineng famously replied that we can use a finger to point to the moon in the sky but don’t need a finger to see it. Bruce Lee uses this to teach his student in the beginning of Enter the Dragon, telling his student to feel, not think, as if he focuses on the finger he will miss the moon and all its glory. For Huineng, the sutra points to the experience, and for Lee the thought points to the action. In both cases, experience in action is the point, not pointing to them.
Mazu & the Unexpected
Mazu is the first to call his school of Buddhism ‘Chan’, using the term borrowed from India. Huineng shocked his students by tearing up sutras and saying that the fundamentals of Buddhism don’t exist, but we can find the ideas that texts are inferior to their meaning and that things do and don’t exist long before Huineng in Buddhist and Indian thought, all the way back in the Vedas and primary Upanishads. Mazu became famous for his “strange words and extraordinary actions”, and it is with him that Zen became associated with the unexpected and absurd, with strange, silly and sometimes brutal responses that shock students into direct awareness and open new understandings of reality, the mind and Buddhist teachings.
Bodhidharma > (Chinese 4) > Huineng > Huairang > Mazu > Baizhang > Huangbo > Linji
Huineng taught Huairang, who taught Mazu according to Linji’s followers, such that Mazu, the most popular and radical Chan master of his day, was placed in the line of Huineng just as Huineng was placed in the line of Bodhidharma. Mazu taught Baizhang, who taught Huangbo, who taught Linji, and Linji’s house created the koan records featuring Mazu, Linji and Zhaozhou doing and saying strange things that defy common sense. Zen has followed their example for a thousand years, with master after master presenting their students with the unexpected, counter-intuitive and absurd. This is where pondering the sound of one hand clapping or a tree falling in the forest when no one is around comes from. The recorded sayings, the collections of koan encounters and interviews between masters and students, became a new source of Chan practice, serving not only as historical records of the schools and their lineages but as philosophical puzzles for contemplation, often done in seated meditation.
By Mazu’s time there was mounting criticism of sitting practices becoming the goal rather than the means of enlightenment and self-development, diverting the focus of Chan Buddhism, just as in Huineng’s time there was mounting criticism of studying and reciting the sutras. This criticism is found in the story of Mazu’s breakthrough into enlightenment, a koan itself found in the Transmission of the Lamp, Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Gate. One day Mazu was sitting in meditation when master Huairang walked by and noticed that Mazu was having trouble concentrating, so Huairang sat down facing him and began rubbing a tile with his sleeve. Mazu asked what he was doing, and he replied that he was making a mirror. Mazu asked him, “How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?” and Huairang asked Mazu, “How can you become a buddha by sitting in meditation?” Mazu asked, “Then what should I do?” Huairang said, “When the carriage stops moving, do you strike the carriage or the ox? Are you practicing meditation, or practicing sitting like a Buddha? If you try to sit like a buddha, you kill the buddha. If you are attached to the form of meditation, you do not realize the meaning.” Mazu experienced a great breakthrough in enlightenment.
Just as Buddha was critical of the Jains for trying to get rid of the self, Huairang was critical of Mazu for trying to get rid of what he was through meditation, which was causing him visible anxiety, when meditation is a way of accepting, perceiving and understanding what we and everything else already is. Mazu may have indeed prepared the way for his enlightenment by training himself with meditation, but it was Huairang’s words that pushed him to a breakthrough. Sitting is useful as a tool, just as Bodhidharma stared at the walls of caves, but it is through interactions between master and student that the student is taught and tested.
When Mazu was master of his own monastery the monks said he strode around like a bull and glared about himself like a tiger. He was also said to have tamed the demons who lived in the mountain underneath the temple. These sayings may have been inspired partly by fear, as Mazu would shout at his students, strike them and confuse them in other ways, such as calling out someone’s name as they were leaving a room and then acting like he had no idea why they came back. Mazu is the innovator of the sudden shout as an element of Zen practice, what the Japanese call katsu, which confusingly they also use to refer to a fried pork cutlet. The katsu shout is also used in martial arts, taking inspiration from Buddhism in China, Japan and Korea. Mazu also innovated the sudden strike, what the Japanese call keisaku, blows with a stick, hand, foot, and even pulling someone by the nose (got your nose!). Today in the Japanese Rinzai (Chinese: Linji) tradition, the master will sometimes walk down the row of meditating students holding the Stick of Compassion, which is used to strike any who look ripe for enlightenment or dozing off. In honor of using bizarre violence to teach people lasting peace and happiness, here is Monty Python’s fish slapping dance:
Mazu quoted the Lankavatara Sutra frequently, saying “Wisdom does not allow for either existence or nonexistence.” Mazu liked the koan, “The mind is the Buddha”, the teaching that Ravana realizes in the Lankavatara Sutra, which Mazu would give to his students to contemplate. When a monk asked why he says that the mind is the Buddha, Mazu replied that he wanted to stop babies from crying. When the monk asked him what happens when the crying stops, Mazu said, “No mind, no Buddha.”
A monk asked Mazu, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?” Mazu asked the monk, “What is the meaning of this moment?”
Mazu said in his sermons that the mind is of the same age as empty space. Mazu’s student Shih-kung asked a monk if he knew how to grasp empty space, and the monk said yes and made several grasping gestures in empty space. Shih-kung put his fingers in the monks nostrils and pulled, causing the monk to cry out, and said, “This is how to grasp empty space.”
Mazu was walking with Baizhang when they heard the cry of a wild duck. Mazu asked where the sound went, and Baizhang said, “It has flown away.” Mazu grabbed Baizhang’s nose and gave it a twist, making Baizhang cry out. Mazu said, “And you said it had flown away!” This is the fifty third case of the Blue Cliff Record gong-an collection.
Mazu was asked how he was feeling just before death, and he replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha” as his final words. According to Buddhist cosmology, this essentially means, “10,000 years, a single month,” or “Large cycle, small cycle”. He is saying, “Long time, short time,” just before his time is over. This is the third case of the Blue Cliff Record.
Linji & The Silent Transmission
Linji (~810 – 866) is the central grand master of Zen as his teachings and followers created the texts and practices that have been core to the Zen tradition for the last thousand years. The House of Linji made “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around, does it make a sound?” the paradoxical objects of contemplation they remain today. Huairang told Mazu, “If you try to sit like the Buddha, you kill the Buddha,” as if it’s a bad thing. Linji infamously said, “When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” as if it’s the thing to do. Linji said in a sermon to monks:
Followers of the Way, don’t take the Buddha to be some sort of ultimate goal. In my view, he’s more like the hole in a toilet. Bodhisattvas and arhats are all so many collars and chains, things for tying people up.
The way I see it, we should cut off the heads of the buddhas. Those who have completed all stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired fieldhands. Those who have obtained high stages of enlightenment are prisoners, shackled and bound. Sages and arhats are just so much crap in the toilet. Enlightenment and freedom are hitching posts for donkeys.
Mahayana Buddhists believe in nonduality and identifying with all conscious beings. Huineng tore up sacred texts and said that the Buddha is and isn’t. Huairang said that trying to be Buddha is killing the Buddha. Mazu pulled noses, kicked people and said “mind is Buddha” and “no mind no Buddha”, acting as if everything as well as its opposite is true. Out of this line comes Linji who said we need to have greater faith in ourselves, so let’s kill the Buddha while basely insulting everything that is holy. Why would a revered Zen master who takes Mahayana vows of compassion for all living beings tell us to kill, and the Buddha of all people?
Chan (Japanese: Zen) had some support in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), the time when the revered masters Huineng, Mazu, Linji and Zhaozhou taught, but the imperial court supported other Buddhist sects such as Tiantai and Huayan far more. Some intellectuals and artists turned from these and the northern schools of Chan to the southern protest of Huineng, who tore up sutras and taught that the lowliest born could be the greatest master. After the imperial support for Tiantai and Huayan ended with the fall of the Tang, the legend of the incomprehensible and unconquerable Chan master took hold in the Five Dynasties period between the Tang and Song (907 – 960), a new incarnation of the zany Daoist sage beyond all borders and boundaries popularized in the Han. By the time of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), a century after Linji’s death, Linji’s followers had collected and created texts that connected Bodhidharma and Huineng, popular with all Five Houses, to Mazu, Huangbo and Linji himself.
The Song dynasty supported many Buddhist sects, including southern-style Chan. Some scholars have claimed that the Song was the first modern society. A new gentry class replaced the old aristocracy, the urban middle classes expanded and printing, invented in the Tang and improved with movable type in the Song, spread literacy and Buddhist texts such as the traditional Mahayana sutras and a new type of Chan text, the records of sayings (yulu), compilations of exchanges between masters and others that display enlightenment and individual freedom, also known as koan (Chinese: gong-an), cases for judgement. The Transmission of the Lamp, the primary source of koan material, was compiled in 1004 by Daoyuan of the House of Fayan but published by Yang Yi, a Linji supporter and major scholar in the Song royal court, as the Fayan school was being absorbed into the House of Linji.
After Mazu shouted and struck as wordless responses, Linji spoke of the “silent transmission outside the scriptures” which Bodhidharma brought to China, Huineng brought south and Mazu maintained. Linji was not regarded as the heir of Mazu’s tradition before the Song, but his followers worked to establish him as the “True Man” of their true House of Chan. By 1029 the House of Linji had risen above the other four Chan houses and all other sects of Buddhism in China to become the favored spiritual and intellectual tradition of the Song imperial court. The story of the Buddha silently holding up a flower was added with many others to the stories from the Transmission of the Lamp, which already had the Song imperial seal of approval, such that a complete record of Linji’s “silent transmission” lineage was established as Zen canon with the Blue Cliff Record (1125), 250 years after Linji’s death. This was followed by the Gateless Gate (1228) and official records of the life and teachings of Huineng, Mazu, Linji, Zhaozhou and others.
According to the legendary record, Linji studied with Huangbo for three years but feared requesting a private meeting as he did not know what question to ask the master. After the head monk encouraged him, Linji met and asked Huangbo three times, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” and each time Huangbo struck him and said nothing. Linji told the head monk he was too stupid to understand Huangbo’s wisdom and was leaving. Hearing this, Huangbo told Linji to visit master Dayu. When Linji arrived at Dayu’s place, Dayu asked Linji how Huangbo teaches Chan, and Linji told him about being struck three times. “What a kindly old grandmother Huangbo is!” said Dayu. “He wears himself out trying to help you, and you still think of yourself and look for your own faults.”
Linji was greatly enlightened and said, “Huangbo’s teaching is no big deal after all!” Dayu picked up his staff and threatened Linji, saying, “You bed-wetting devil! You just finished saying you don’t understand Huangbo, and now you say it’s no big deal! Which is it? Speak! Speak!” Linji grabbed the end of Dayu’s staff and punched him in the ribs. Linji didn’t answer master Dayu’s demanding question, but rather ribbed his superior playfully as if he was a familiar friend and equal. Dayu pushed him away, saying, “You’re Huangbo’s student, not my problem,” as if Linji remained a failure, but the insult seems to be a sign of Dayu’s approval before sending him back. Linji returned to Huangbo, who said, “You’ve come back so soon?” Linji said, “Because you’re so kind to me, Grandma!” and told him what happened. “The next time I see that old rascal Dayu, I’ll give him such a wallop!” said Huangbo. “Why wait?” Linji said, “I’ll give you a taste right now!” and slapped Huangbo, who laughed out loud and said, “This fool has come here to pluck the tiger’s whiskers!”
Later Linji was master of his own monastery, and he told his monks that when he was at Huangbo’s place he asked about Buddhism three times and Huangbo was nice enough to hit him three times. Linji said it was like being brushed with a branch of fine herbs, and thinking of it makes him wish he could be hit like that once more. He asked if anyone could give him such a beating, and when one monk stood and offered, Linji offered him his staff, then struck the monk with it as the monk reached out to take it from him. Much like Mazu, who called out to monks as they left the room, Linji enjoys interrupting people.
Linji taught his radical Mazu-style of Chan as the Tang dynasty was collapsing, and he suggests many times in his sermons that students do not need to be concerned with conventional Buddhist teachings, rules or practices. Just as Zhuangzi spoke of the “true sage of ancient times” who did not fear death or worry about life and Huineng taught that lowest in rank might be the wisest, Linji spoke of the “true sage of no rank”, neither above nor beneath anyone. This is often translated as “true man”, but the word ‘man’ is used to mean general person, and it does keep somewhat in the spirit of egalitarianism to be gender-neutral, assuming that wise sages of the Daoist variety do not hold themselves in distinction above others.
Linji said to the assembly, “This mountain monk is telling you that within that lump of red flesh of yours is a true sage of no rank, constantly entering and exiting the openings of your face. Any of you who haven’t figured this out yet, look! Look!” A monk in the assembly asked Linji, “Who is the true sage of no rank?” Linji stood up from the lecture seat, walked over to the monk, grabbed him by his robe and said, “Speak! Speak!” The monk opened his mouth to speak again, but Linji let go of him and said, “The true sage with no rank! What a dried up piece of shit!” and left the hall. Some translate the last phrase as “dried up asswipe”, a stick used to wipe one’s ass. Song dynasty nobles were some of the first in the world to enjoy the luxury of toilet paper. Either way, Linji first says the sage is true, then treats the sage as a subordinate and says the sage is some shitty thing to be excluded and ignored. In the same way, Linji mocks monks who revere the great Buddhist teachers as their superiors rather than insult them as they would a close, trusted friend.
Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares to insult the Buddha, insult the patriarchs, pass judgement on anyone in the world, throw away the scriptures, despise those little children, and in the midst of disagreement and agreement seek out the real sage.
Linji repeatedly calls monks thieves. Thieves are known for taking things, but a thief, unlike a law abiding friend or customer, doesn’t just take but fails to give, borrows things without returning them or offering compensation in exchange. The crazy monk Puhua, whose life is found in Linji’s record, was chewing raw vegetables in front of the hall one day when Linji saw him and said, “Just like a donkey!” Puhua brayed like a donkey. Linji said, “This thief!” Puhua cried out, “Thief! Thief!” and left. Puhua does not resist taking the role of a donkey, but acts as if he either doesn’t know that Linji is talking about him or that Linji himself is the thief, and he is calling for others to come help as a shopkeeper does when catching a thief in the act. It is common in Zen practice for masters to seize monks who ask questions and cry thief twice as if asking a common Buddhist question is a crime that requires the local police.
Later, just as a monk was saying that Puhua wanders the streets each day behaving like an idiot or a madman and it is impossible to tell whether he is a common fool or a sage, Puhua strolled in. Linji asked him, “Are you a common fool or a sage?” Puhua said, “You tell me. Am I a common fool or a sage?” Linji gave a shout. Puhua pointed to one monk and called him a new bride, pointed to another monk and called him an old Chan granny, then pointed to Linji and said, “Linji is a little brat, but he’s got an eye!” It could be that Linji is a little brat who can’t stand others getting attention, but it could also be Puhua insulting a fellow friend and master in a way that would shake someone with an inferior understanding. Linji said, “This thief!”, as if it is Puhua himself who is stealing the spotlight. Puhua cried out, “Thief! Thief!” and left.
Linji’s favorite tool was the shout, which he would do often as a reply that stands out without clear signification, a thief that steals everyone’s attention without leaving meaning behind. A monk asked about the meaning of Buddhism, and Linji gave a shout. The monk bowed, and Linji asked if he thought it was a shout of approval. The monk replied, “The robbers in the countryside have been completely defeated!” Linji asked, “What was their crime?” The monk said, “A second offense is not permitted!” Linji gave a shout, possibly of approval. Linji asks the monk to be more specific about the crime of the thieves, and the monk suggests that this is the thieves’ crime itself. Linji said in a sermon:
You who come from here and there, you all have a mind to do something. You search for Buddha, search for the Dharma, search for emancipation, search for a way to get out of the threefold world. Idiots, trying to get out of the world! Where will you go? The Buddha and the patriarchs are just praiseful words and phrases. Do you want to know what the threefold world is? It is nothing other than the mind, the ground that you who are no listening to the Dharma are standing on. When you have a moment of greed in your mind, that is the world of desire. When you have a moment of anger in your mind, that is the world of form. When you have a moment of ignorance in your mind, that is the world of formlessness. These are the pieces of furniture in your house.
Teaching consists of two things: instructing and testing. Linji and other Zen masters who follow his line give confusing lectures to instruct and inform students, and then interact with students to interview and test them. Linji said, “I have no teaching to give to people. All I do is untie knots.” Buddhists are concerned with desire and fear, attachment and avoidance, and Linji is concerned with the ways we enter into situations with preconceptions and expectations, with interests that we feel we share or do not share with others, causing us to try to please them or oppose them rather than act with greater freedom. In order to untie knots, you must first look at how people are bound up, and then strike through the knots to show them that they can move beyond them.
There’s never been one of these students of the Way who come from all over who didn’t appear before me depending on something, so I start right out by hitting them there. If they come with a raised hand, I hit the raised hand, if they come mouthing something, I hit them in the mouth, and if they come making motions with their eyes, I hit them in the eye. I have yet to find one who comes alone and free. They’re all caught up in silly devices of old men.
Whoever comes here, I never let them slip by me, always seeing where they come from. If you come in a certain way, you’ll just lose track of yourself, and if you don’t come in that way, you’ll tie yourself up without rope. Whatever hour of day or night, don’t wander around recklessly passing judgements! Whether you know what you’re doing or not, you’ll be wrong in every case. This much I state clearly. The world is perfectly free to criticize or condemn me all it likes!
Followers of the Way, when students come here from various regions and we have finished greeting one another as host and guest, the student will make some remark to test the teacher. The student comes out with these tricky words and thrusts them into the teacher’s face, as if to say, ‘See if you can understand this!’ If you were the teacher and realized that this was just a situation, and you grabbed it and threw it down a hole, then the student would act normal again and after that would ask for the teacher’s instruction. The teacher would then snatch that up too and treat it as he did the earlier remark. The student then says, ‘Very wise! A truly great teacher!’ The teacher says, ‘You certainly can’t tell good from bad!’
Again suppose the teacher comes out with a certain chunk of environment and dangles it in front of the student’s face. The student sees through this and at every step acts the master, refusing to be misled by the situation. The teacher then reveals half of his body, and the student gives a shout. The teacher now enters the place where there are all kinds of differences and distinctions, battering the student around with words. The student says, ‘This old bald-headed fool who can’t tell good from bad!’ The teacher exclaims in admiration, ‘A true and proper follower of the Way!’
The way I do things now is to go about truly and properly creating and destroying, toying and playing with supernatural transformations, entering every kind of situation but doing nothing wherever I am, not permitting the environment to lead me astray. Whoever comes to me seeking something, I immediately come out to size them up, but they don’t recognize me. Then I put on various different robes. The student forms an understanding on that basis and begins to be drawn into my words. Hopeless, this blind bald fool without any eyes! They concentrate on the robe I’m wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red or white. If I strip off the robe and enter a clean, pure place, the student takes one look and is filled with delight and longing. If I throw that away too, the student becomes muddled in mind, racing around wildly in a distracted manner, exclaiming that now I have no robe at all! Then I turn to him and say, ‘Do you know the person who wears this robe of mine?’ Suddenly he turns his head, and then he knows me at last. Don’t get so taken up with the robe! The robe can’t move of itself.