Hui-k'o (487-593) first enters the history of Zen as an eager Chinese scholar devoted to meditation. Wishing to become a disciple of the famous Indian monk who had recently installed himself at the Shao-lin monastery, Hui-k'o set up a vigil outside the gate. Time passed and the snows began to fall, but still Bodhidharma ignored him, declaring, "The incomparable doc¬trine of Buddhism can only be comprehended after a long hard discipline, by enduring what is most difficult to endure and by practicing what is most difficult to practice. Men of inferior virtue are not allowed to understand anything about it."1 Finally Hui-k'o despaired and resorted to an extreme measure to demonstrate his sincerity: he cut off his own arm and offered it to the master. (This act reportedly has been repeated since by an occasional overenthusiastic Zen novice.) Even a singleminded master of meditation like Bodhidharma could not ignore such a gesture, and he agreed to accept Hui-k'o as his first Chinese disciple.
Unlike Bodhidharma, Hui-k'o is not a mysterious, legendary figure, but rather is remembered by a detailed history that interacts periodically with known events in Chinese history.2 He came from the Chi family and was originally named Seng-k'o, only later becoming known as Hui-k'o. The most reliable report has him coming from Wu-lao, with a reputation as a scholarly intellectual preceding him. Indeed he seems to have been a Chinese scholar in the finest sense, with a deep appreciation of all three major philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. It was toward the last, however, that he
slowly gravitated, finally abandoning his scholarly secular life and becoming a Buddhist monk. He was around age forty, in the prime of what was to be a very long life, when he first encountered Bodhidharma at the Shao-lin monastery. Whether he lost his arm by self-mutilation, as the later Zen chronicles say, or whether it was severed in a fight with bandits, as the earliest history reports, may never be determined.3 The later story is certainly more pious, but the earlier would seem more plausible.
For six years he studied meditation with Bodhidharma, gradually retreating from the life of the scholar as he turned away from intellectualism and toward pure experience. When Bodhidharma finally decided to depart, he called in all his disciples for the famous testing of their attainment recounted in Chapter l.4 Hui-k'o, by simply bowing in silence when asked what he had attained, proved that his understanding of the master's wordless teaching was superior, and it was he who received the Lankavatara Sutra. The event reportedly was sealed by a short refrain, now universally declared to be spurious, in which Bodhidharma predicted the later division of Ch'an into five schools:
Originally I came to this land
To transmit the Dharma and to save all from error
A flower with five petals opens;
Of itself the fruit will ripen.5
As the story goes, Hui-k'o remained at the Shao-lin for a while longer and then went underground, supporting himself through menial work and learning about Chinese peasant life firsthand. Reportedly, he wanted to tranquilize his mind, to acquire the humility necessary in a great teacher, and not incidentally to absorb the Lankavatara Sutra. When asked why he, an enlightened teacher, chose to live among menial laborers, he would reply tartly that this life was best for his mind and in any case what he did was his own affair. It was a hard existence, but one he believed proper. Perhaps it was in this formative period that the inner strength of Ch'an's first Chinese master was forged.
Hui-k'o's major concern during this period must inevitably have been the study of the Lankavatara Sutra entrusted him by Bodhidharma. The Lankavatara was not written by a Zen master, nor did it come out of the Zen tradition, but it was the primary scripture of the first two hundred years of Ch'an. As
D. T. Suzuki has noted, there were at least three Chinese translations of this Sanskrit sutra by the time Bodhidharma came to China.6 However, he is usually given credit, at least in Zen records, for originating the movement later known as the Lankavatara school. As the sutra was described by a non-Ch'an Chinese scholar in the year 645, "The entire emphasis of its teaching is placed on Prajna (highest intuitive knowledge), which transcends literary expression. Bodhidharma, the Zen master, propagated this doctrine in the south as well as in the north, the gist of which teaching consists in attaining the unattainable, which is to have right insight into the truth itself by forgetting word and thought. Later it grew and flourished in the middle part of the country. Hui-k'o was the first who attained to the essential understanding of it. Those addicted to the literary teaching of Buddhism in Wei were averse to becoming associated with these spiritual seers."7
The Lankavatara purportedly relays the thoughts of the Buddha while ensconced on a mountain peak in Sri Lanka. Although the work is notoriously disorganized, vague, and obscure, it was to be the stone on which Hui-k'o sharpened his penetrating enlightenment. The major concept it advances is that of Mind, characterized by D. T. Suzuki as "absolute mind, to be distinguished from an empirical mind which is the subject of psychological study. When it begins with a capital letter, it is the ultimate reality on which the entire world of individual objects depends for its value."8 On the question of Mind, the Lankavatara has the following to say:
. . . the ignorant and the simple minded, not knowing that the world is what is seen of Mind itself, cling to the multitudinousness of external objects, cling to the notions of being and non-being, oneness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness, existence and non-existence, eternity and non-eternity. . . .9
According to the Lankavatara, the world and our perception of it are both part of a larger conceptual entity. The teachings of the Lankavatara cast the gravest doubt on the actual existence of the things we think we see. Discrimination between oneself and the rest of the world can only be false, since both are merely manifestations of the same encompassing essence, Mind. Our perception is too easily deceived, and this is the reason we must not implicitly trust the images that reach our consciousness.
. . . [I]t is like those water bubbles in a rainfall which have the appearance of crystal gems, and the ignorant taking them for real crystal gems run after them. . . . [T]hey are no more than water bubbles, they are not gems, nor are they not-gems, because of their being so comprehended [by one party] and not being so comprehended [by another].10
Reality lies beyond these petty discriminations. The intellect, too, is powerless to distinguish the real from the illusory, since all things are both and neither at the same time. This conviction of the Lankavatara remained at the core of Zen, even after the sutra itself was supplanted by simpler, more easily approached literary works.
As Hui-k'o studied the Lankavatara and preached, he gradual¬ly acquired a reputation for insight that transcended his deliberately unpretentious appearance. Throughout it all, he led an itinerant life, traveling about North China. It is reported that he found his way to the capital of the eastern half of the Wei kingdom after its division in the year 534. Here, in the city of Yeh-tu, he taught his version of dhyana and opened the way to enlightenment for many people. Though unassuming in manner and dress, he nonetheless aroused antagonism from established Buddhist circles because of his success, encountering particular opposition from a conventional dhyana teacher named Tao-huan. According to Further Biographies of the Eminent Priests (645), Tao-huan was a jealous teacher who had his own following of as many as a thousand, and who resented deeply the nonscriptural approach Hui-k'o advocated. This spiteful priest sent various of his followers to monitor Hui-k'o's teaching, perhaps with an eye to accusing him of heresy, but all those sent were so impressed that none ever returned. Then one day the antagonistic dhyana master met one of those former pupils who had been won over by Hui-k'o's teachings. D. T. Suzuki translates the encounter as follows:
When Tao-huan happened to meet his first messenger, he asked: "How was it that I had to send for you so many times? Did I not open your eye after taking pains so much on my part?" The former disciple, however, mystically answered: "My eye has been right from the first, and it was through you that it came to squint."11
The message would seem to be that Hui-k'o taught a return to
one's original nature, to the primal man without artificial learning or doctrinal pretense. Out of resentment the jealous dhyana master reportedly caused Hui-k'o to undergo official persecution.
In later years, beginning around 574, there was a temporary but thorough persecution of Buddhism in the capital city of Ch'ang-an. Sometime earlier, an ambitious sorcerer and apostate Buddhist named Wei had decided to gain a bit of notoriety for himself by attacking Buddhism, then a powerful force in Ch'ang-an. In the year 567 he presented a document to the emperor claiming that Buddhism had allowed unsavory social types to enter the monasteries. He also attacked worship of the Buddha image on the ground that it was un-Chinese idolatry. Instead, he proposed a secularized church that would include all citizens, with the gullible emperor suggested for the role of "pope." The emperor was taken with the idea and after several years of complex political maneuvering, he proscribed Bud¬dhism in North China.
As a result, Hui-k'o was forced to flee to the south, where he took up temporary residence in the mountainous regions of the Yangtze River. The persecution was short-lived, since the emperor responsible died soon after his decree, whereupon Hui-k'o returned to Ch'ang-an. However, these persecutions may have actually contributed to the spread of his teaching, by forcing him to travel into the countryside.
The only authentic fragment of Hui-k'o's thought that has survived records his answer to an inquiry sent by a lay devotee named Hsiang, who reportedly was seeking spiritual attainment alone in the jungle. The inquiry, which seems more a statement than a question, went as follows:
. . . he who aspires to Buddhahood thinking it to be independent of the nature of sentient beings is to be likened to one who tries to listen to an echo by deadening its original sound. Therefore the ignorant and the enlightened are walking in one passageway; the vulgar and the wise are not to be differentiated from each other. Where there are no names, we create names, and because of these names, judgments are formed. Where there is no theorizing, we theorize, and because of this theorizing, disputes arise. They are all phantom creations and not realities, and who knows who is right and who is wrong? They are all empty, no substantialities have they, and who knows what is and
what is not? So we realize that our gain is not real gain and our loss not real loss. This is my view and may I be enlightened if I am at fault?12
This "question," if such it is, sounds suspiciously like a sermon and stands, in fact, as an eloquent statement of Zen concerns. Hui-k'o reportedly answered as follows, in a fragment of a letter that is his only known extant work.
You have truly comprehended the Dharma as it is; the deepest truth lies in the principle of identity. It is due to one's ignorance that the mani-jewel is taken for a piece of brick, but lo! when one is suddenly awakened to self-enlightenment it is realized that one is in possession of the real jewel. The ignorant and the enlightened are of one essence, they are not really to be separated. We should know that all things are such as they are. Those who entertain a dualistic view of the world are to be pitied, and I write this letter for them. When we know that between this body and the Buddha, there is nothing to separate one from the other, what is the use of seeking after Nirvana [as something external to ourselves]?13
Hui-k'o insists that all things spring from the one Mind, and consequently the ideas of duality, of attachment to this or that phenomenon, or even the possibility of choice, are equally absurd. Although he knew all too well that enlightenment could not be obtained from teaching, he still did not advocate a radical break with the traditional methods of the Buddhist dhyana masters. His style was unorthodox, but his teaching methods were still confined to lectures and meditation. This low-key approach was still closer to the tradition of the Buddha than to the jarring techniques of "sudden enlightenment" destined to erupt out of Chinese Ch'an.
Toward the end of his life, Hui-k'o was back in Ch'ang-an, living and teaching in the same unassuming manner. His free-lance style seems to have continued to outrage the more conventional teachers, and a later story records a martyr's death for him.14 One day, while a learned master was preaching inside the K'uang-chou Temple, Hui-k'o chanced by and started to chat with the passersby outside. Gradually a crowd started to collect, until eventually the lecture hall of the revered priest was emptied. This famous priest, remembered as Pien-ho, accused the ragged Hui-k'o to the magistrate Che Ch'ung-j'an as a teacher of false doctrine. As a result he was arrested and subsequently executed, an impious 106-year-old revolutionary.