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.