Buddhist Philosophy 8: Zen – Bodhidharma, Huineng & Mazu

japanese rock garden zen

This lecture covers the Zen patriarchs Bodhidharma (~400 CE), Huineng (638 – 718) and Mazu Daoyi (709 – 788), who taught in China before and during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), as well as a few thoughts from the Five Houses of Chan that followed.  Please read and contemplate the first 8 koans (0-7), with commentary, of the Gateless Gate.

Dhyana, Chan & Zen

bodhidharma cave wall sitting

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.

Diamond-Sutra Scroll

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.

patriarchs of zen

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.

mahakasyapa buddha holds up a flower


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.”

Bodhidharma Chinese painting

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

Bodhidharma painting

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.

Bodhidharma Ralph Steadman

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 is a bit intense

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 wall sitting cave

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.

The Lankavatara Sutra


One text says that Bodhidharma brought the Lankavatara Sutra (350 CE) with him from India and gave it to followers in China, telling them it was the essence of his teaching.  Before Mazu used the term Chan, the school was sometimes referred to as the Lankavatara School.  In the text, Buddha goes to visit Ravana, the king of the demons from the Bhagavadgita, in his fortress city in Sri Lanka, which gives the name to the text (the Lanka Fortress Sutra).  Ravana welcomes the Buddha and invites him to teach his kingdom.  Buddha lectures everyone as to the true teaching, and Ravana realizes that the world is his mind, the one mind shared by all conscious beings, experiences enlightenment, and hears a voice from the sky declare, “It must be known by oneself.”  The Buddha laughs out loud (lol), roaring like the king of the lions and then gleaming with fire like the end of the cosmos, smiling silently, radiating light and happiness.

Lankavatara Sutra

Ravana asks the Buddha why he laughs and stays silent.  The Buddha says that he knows Ravana has questions for him, which he will answer, but also knows that the “question-loving ten-headed one” will ask the same questions of buddhas in eras yet to come.  Ravana asks Buddha where duality comes from so that it must be abandoned, and Buddha says that when we look at the world in ignorance we think that things are separate, but just as all jars are mortal and ultimately temporary, all concepts and teachings, even the words and teachings of the Buddha himself, are temporary, and there is no difference between the teaching and what is not the teaching.  Individual things are like paintings on a wall, and clinging to things such as the self is like clinging to a reflection in a mirror or shadow on the water.

Huineng & The Platform Sutra

Huiment cuts wood

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.

Huineng traveling

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.

six chan patriarchs

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.

zen tree painting

Hongren 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?

Huineng tears up sutras

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 nonduality, 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.

Huineng escapes

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.

buddha painting china

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 flag debate

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:


Know that the buddha-nature is fundamentally no different in the ignorant or wise.

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.

Buddhist Monk chases a demon

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.

zen rock garden

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.

Bodhidharma stirring

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?

Linji Rinzai

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.”

zen moon

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 Daoyi Zen Chan master

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.

Mazu lesson

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.

tiger painting B

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.

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.”

tiger painting A

According to critics from other Buddhist schools at the time, Mazu and his followers act like everything is true, anything we can say or do as well as the opposite, an inversion and extension of the idea of perspective found in the story of the blind men and the elephant.  While each blind man imagines the elephant is shaped like the part they perceive, ignorant of their mis-judgements, Mazu and his followers behave as if the elephant is whatever shape they currently say it is, even if this is wildly out of step with what others think, putting the blindness interwoven with human interaction that we usually ignore on display.  It is this radical acceptance of contradiction coupled with a stark austere lifestyle that became the way of Chan in the Song dynasty and still characterizes Zen today.

One of the central problems of Mahayana Buddhism, a puzzle that Huineng, Mazu and others discuss that some have called the paradox of buddha-nature, is that we cannot think about getting out of dualistic thinking without dualistic thinking, and cannot practice without judging that we should practice to change from one thing to another.  How are we to seek something we already have, particularly if seeking things is not the answer?  For Mazu, cultivation is the practice of ceasing defilement, much like plugging with the Jain leaky boat.  If we stop ourselves from much dualistic thinking for a period of time through meditation and contemplation it stops taking root in the mind, and this allows attachments to fall off on their own when the time is ripe.

Monkey reflection moon painting

Zen follows Mazu in training the mind to ready it for new states of acceptance and understanding and then shocking it into these states that it can’t seek intentionally for itself by its own conceptual designs.  Much as Wittgenstein said that you can’t command someone to read ancient Greek but you can command them to go learn ancient Greek, you can’t try to gain enlightenment or come to new understandings but you can engage in practices that put you in the position to develop and find yourself making unforeseen breakthroughs.  Much as the Theravada say we are both the monkey and the elephant, both the conceptual mind and the underlying mass of feelings that it rides, Mazu’s school spoke of taming the ox, perhaps referring to the Daoist master Laozi, who rode off into the west on a water buffalo.


The koans are not simply nonsense, as some have said, a sort of verbal gum to chew mentally while meditating, but clues as to what we have been missing that is right in front of our eyes.  The point is not to lose ignorance but rather to see the ignorance that is already part of our conscious experience, much like suddenly becoming aware of our inability to see what is behind us or what is just out of focus.  If we follow our thoughts and mistake them for reality, then reality is our mistaken thoughts insofar as we are trapped in them, and then reality is no longer our mistaken thoughts once our understanding breaks beyond them.  If I am a teacher because we think that I am one, then I am a bank robber insofar as we imagine it before we go back to imagining me as a teacher, much as Zhuangzi the Daoist says he doesn’t know if he’s a butterfly who is now dreaming he is a man.

finger points to moon hotei

While viewing the moon together, Mazu asked his students, “What is this right now?”  Baizhang, teacher of the teacher of Linji, said, “Perfect practice”, but Nanchuan, teacher of Joshu, shook the dust out of his sleeves and walked away, a gesture that meant he was done with the situation, much as we say we are washing our hands of the whole affair following Pontius Pilate.  Mazu said, “A sutra enters the canon, Zen returns to the sea, but only Nanchuan has returned beyond things.  Baizhang said that looking at the static moon is practice, which shows self-awareness, and that it is perfect, which shows compassionate acceptance, but Nanchuan acted as if he did not need to meet Mazu’s expectations or gain his acceptance.  Later, Nanchuan’s own student Zhaozhou similarly walked out on him with a sandal on his head, which became one of the most popular koans in Zen.

zen temple bell

While there are many similar moments in the records when Mazu and the many who followed his example act as if they approve or disapprove of students, sometimes with a surprise attack, when we read over the approval and disapproval of the masters and commentaries on the masters, with each calling wrong what the other calls right, as Zhuangzi says, it increasingly seems that Mazu and others feel free to act as if they approve or disapprove of others and then see how those others react to approval and disapproval, much as Zhuangzi asks, “So is there truth, or isn’t there?” to show us what we do with the question.

Mazu taught that when we make a fist with the hand, the fist is nothing but the hand.  A monk asked, “How can we be in accord with the Way?” Mazu said, “I’ve never been in line with it.”  The monk asked, “Then what is the meaning of Zen?”  Mazu struck him and said, “If I didn’t hit you, I’d be laughed at by everyone.”


A monk asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”  Mazu told him to come closer so he could tell him quietly, and when he did Mazu struck him, saying, “It is not to be discussed in front of others.”  Another monk asked the same question, Mazu told him to bow, and when he did Mazu kicked him.

A monk asked about Huineng’s school directly pointing to the mind, and Mazu said, “Sometimes I teach to raise the eyebrows and blink the eyes, and sometimes I don’t.”

hotei holds up a finger

A traveling monk came to Mazu and told him he seeks the Buddha’s teaching.  Mazu asks why the monk would walk around without looking at his own treasure, and says that here there is not one single thing, let alone the Buddha’s teaching.  When the monk asks what Mazu’s own treasure is, Mazu says, “Whoever is asking me right now is your own treasure, perfectly complete, lacking nothing.  You are free to use it.  Why are you seeking it outside?”  Mazu similarly said, “If you wish to know your mind, this same person talking to you now is your mind.  This is what is called the Buddha, and is also called the Way.”

A monk asked Mazu, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?”  Mazu asked the monk, “What is the meaning of this moment?”

Chinese Painting Mountain Waterfall

Mazu asked a visiting monk how he lectures on the teachings, and the monk said he lectured with his mind.  Mazu said, “The mind is like a leading actor, and consciousness a supporting actor.  How can an actor know how to lecture?”  The monk asked, “Can empty space lecture instead?” and Mazu said it can indeed.  The monk got up to leave confused, but as he walked away he had a great realization, turned and bowed.  Mazu replied, “Stupid monk!  What is the point of bowing like that?”

Mazu said in his sermons that the mind is of the same age as empty space.  Mazu’s student Shihkung asked a monk if he knew how to grasp empty space, and the monk said yes and made several grasping gestures in empty space.  Shihkung put his fingers in the monks nostrils and pulled, causing the monk to cry out, and said, “This is how to grasp empty space.”

Zhuangzi contemplates flock of birds

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.

A monk asked, “What does it mean that water supports ten-ton ships without muscle or bone?”  Mazu replied “How can you speak of muscle and bone when there is neither water nor a boat here?”

tiger painting

When asked by a magistrate whether to eat meat or drink wine, Mazu said that if you do you will prosper and if you don’t you will also prosper.

One day Mazu saw Master Wei-Chen meditating in the back of the hall, so Mazu approached and blew twice in his ear.  Wei-Chen turned, saw it was Mazu, and resumed meditating without a word.

A young monk drew a circle and stood in it silently in front of Mazu, who said, “So you don’t want to become a buddha?”  The monk replied, “I don’t know how to rub my eyes.”  Mazu said, “I’m not as good as you!”  The monk had no reply.

Zen Circle Caligraphy Painting

A monk drew a long line and three short lines in front of Mazu and asked him to describe these lines without using typical descriptions.  Mazu drew a line on the ground and said, “Without speaking of long or short, I’ve answered you.”

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.

Chinese Painting Inquiring about the Dao

The Five Houses of Zen


After Huineng and Mazu, the sects of Chan developed into Five Houses that traced themselves back to Huineng, the Houses of Guiyang, Yunmen, Fayan, Caodong and Linji.  We will spend some time on Linji, as his house became the favored sect of Buddhism in Song China, producing the records of sayings (yulu).  We will also spend time on the House of Caodong, as they became the Soto school of Zen in the hands of Dogen of Japan, the major rival to the Linji school, known as Rinzai in Japan.  Before turning to Mazu’s heir Linji and the koan collections their sect wrote as they rose in the Song dynasty, we will look at a few passages of the Houses of Guiyang and Fayan.


In the House of Guiyang, Baizhang (720 – 814), taught by Mazu and teacher of Linji, Huangbo and Puhua, wrote early Chan monastic rules that he instituted at his own monastery that served as a popular model for other Chan monasteries.  In the records of his lectures, he says:

Be master of mind.  Don’t be mastered by mind.  In the incomplete teaching, there is a teacher and guide.  In the complete teaching, there is no teacher, and doctrine is not the master.

Buddha statue Belum Caves India

The Way of enlightenment cannot be measured.  It is so high that there is nothing above it, so vast that it cannot be limited, so profound that it is bottomless, so deep that it cannot be fathomed.  Even to speak of it is like setting up a target, inviting an arrow.

There has never been such a thing as “Buddha”, so do not understand it as Buddha.  “Buddha” is medicine for emotional people.  If you have no disease, you should not take medicine.  When medicine and disease are both dissolved, it is like pure water.  Buddha-hood is like a sweet herb mixed in the water, or like honey mixed in the water, most sweet and delicious.

Japanese screen pines

When you hear me tell you not to be attached to anything at all, whether good or bad, existent or nonexistent, you immediately take that to be falling into a void.  You don’t realize that abandoning the root to pursue the branches is falling into a void.  Seeking buddhahood, seeking enlightenment, seeking anything at all, whether it exists or not, is abandoning the root to pursue the branches.  For now, eat simple food to sustain life, wear old clothing to keep off the cold, and scoop up water to drink when you’re thirsty.  Beyond this, if you harbor no thought of concern with anything at all, whether it is there or not, then you will in time have your share of ease and clarity.

bodhi dharma

The two masters Guishan and Yangshan were known for their sermons and sayings.  Guishan asked Yangshan, “Of the forty scrolls of the Nirvana Sutra, how many are the words of Buddha, and how many are the words of demons?  Yangshan said, “They’re all demon talk.”  Guishan said, “From here on out no one will be able to do anything with you.

A visitor seeking wisdom asked Guishan, “What is the Way?”  Guishan replied, “No mind is the Way.”  The visitor said, “I don’t understand.”  Guishan said, “You should get an understanding of what doesn’t understand.”

Guishan asked Yunyen, “What is the seat of enlightenment?”  Yunyen said, “Freedom from artificiality.”  He then asked Guishan, “What is the seat of enlightenment?”  Guishan said “The vanity of all things.”

streams mountain china painting

Yangshan said to the assembly, “If I spoke of the source of Zen I wouldn’t find a single friend, let alone an assembly of five hundred followers.  If I talk of one thing and another, monks struggle forward to take it in.  It’s like fooling children with an empty fist.  There’s nothing really there… Just get the root.  Don’t worry about the branches.  They’ll naturally be there someday.”

Zhaozhou peeking

In the House of Yunmen, Xuefeng was asked by a monk, “How is it when the ancient stream is cold from the source?”  Xuefeng said, “When you look directly into it, you don’t see the bottom.”  The monk asked, “How about one who drinks of it?”  Xuefeng said, “It doesn’t go in by way of the mouth.”  The monk told this to Zhaozhou, the zany master we will consider at length in the next lecture, and he said, “It can’t go in by way of the nostrils.”  The monk asked, “How is it when the ancient stream is cold from the source?”  Zhaozhou said, “Painful.”  The monk asked, “What about those who drink it?”  Zhaozhou said, “They die.”  Xuefeng heard about this and said, “Zhaozhou is an ancient Buddha.  From now on, I won’t answer any more questions.

Fayan Chan master

Fayan, founder of the House of Fayan, wrote in his Ten Guidelines for Zen Schools:

The teaching methods of the schools have many techniques, of course, but insofar as they are for dealing with people for their own good, the ultimate aim is the same.  If, however, people have no experience of the doctrines of the teachings, it is hard to break through discrimination and subjectivity.  Galloping right views over wrong roads, mixing inconsistencies into important meanings, they delude people of the following generations and foolishly enter into vicious circles.

zen rock garden

The teaching of the mind ground is the basis of Zen study.  What is the mind ground?  It is the great awareness of those who arrive at suchness.  From no beginning, a moment of confusion mistaking things for oneself, craving and desire flare up, and you flow in the waves of birth and death.  The radiance of awareness is dimmed, covered up by ignorance.  Routines of behavior push you on, so you cannot be free… If you get stuck on expressions and pursue words, you will fall back into eternalism or nihilism.

Xuansha of the House of Fayan said in his lectures:

Xuansha chan

Everything is always so.  Every essence is as such.  Just do not seek outside.  If you have a great root of faith, then the buddhas are nothing but your own inner experience.  Whether you are walking, standing still, sitting or reclining, never is it not so.  But now that I’ve told you this directly, already I am oppressing your freedom, making you slaves.  Would you agree to say so?  Whether you agree or not, how do you understand?

The first axiom of Zen is to personally accept the completeness of present actuality.  There is no other in the whole universe.  It is just you.  Who else would you have see?  Who would you have hear?  All of it is the doing of your mind emperor, completing indestructible understanding.  All you lack is acceptance.  There is a flow of true eternity that pervades all of time.  The second axiom is returning to causality and attending to effects, not sticking to the principle of constant oneness.  This is conveniently called turning from present to potential, giving life and taking life freely, giving and taking away as needed, sprouting out of life and plunging into death, bringing good to all.  Free above desires and schemes, this is conveniently called buddha-nature that goes beyond the whole world all at once… Unmoved by dualistic extremes, subtle workings are revealed.

guichen chan fayan

Guichen of the House of Fayan is recorded as saying:

Is there anything that can get you nearer?  Is there anything that can get you farther?  Is there anything that can make you the same?  Is there anything that can make you different?  Then why do you deliberately go to so much trouble?  It is because you are weak and lack character, fretfully guarding your conceptions, afraid that people will question you.

Rinzai monk with skeleton 1692

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