Chinese Philosophy – Linji

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.

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