If Hui-neng was the Sixth Patriarch, then who was the seventh? Although several of his followers are mentioned in the Platform Sutra, the only one who seems to have made any difference in Ch'an history was Shen-hui (670-762), who successfully destroyed the Northern school of Shen-hsiu (605-706) and elevated Hui-neng. Although Shen-hui was given the accolade of Seventh Patriarch in some parts of the north, history was to be written elsewhere. Shen-hui's school of "Southern" Ch'an was soon compromising with the remaining Northern Ch'anists—conceding that the study of the sutras could go along hand in hand with sudden enlightenment—and he seems to have enjoyed a little too much his role as imperial socialite. The only member of Shen-hui's school to realize any historical prominence was Tsung-mi (780-841), whose fame attaches not to his original thought but rather to his scholarly writings describing the various sects of Ch'an.1 A litterateur and friend of the famous poet Po Chu-i (772-846), he also tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the followers of the step-by-step sutra-reading Buddhists of the cities and the all-at-once, anti-literary proponents of sudden enlighten¬ment in the country, but he succeeded only in bringing the history of Northern Ch'an to a dignified close.2
The Chinese scholar Hu Shih skillfully pinpoints why the social success of Shen-hui's new "Southern" school in the north actually contributed to its decline. As he saw it: "The explanation is simple. Zennism could not flourish as an officially patronized religion, but only as an attitude of mind, a method of thinking and a mode of living. An officially patronized teacher of Buddhism is obliged to perform all the traditional rituals and ceremonies which the true Zennist despises. Shen-hui succeeded in establishing Zennism as a state religion, but by so doing he almost killed it. All further development of Chinese Zen had to come from those great teachers who valued simple life and intellectual freedom and independence more than worldly recognition."3 And in fact just such teachers had begun springing up like mushrooms. On lonely mountaintops, teachers of sudden enlightenment were experimenting with new ways to transmit wordless insight. They seem to have despised traditional Buddhism, perhaps partly because Buddhism—by which is meant the cultural elitists and aristocrats in the capitals of Ch'ang-an and Loyang—had so long despised them. (Recall the Fifth Patriarch's greeting to Hui-neng: "If you're from the south, you must be a barbarian.") Although traditional Buddhism (including teachers of dhyana) continued to flourish, and the city of Ch'ang-an remained a model for Asian civilization, the political power of the T'ang government in the north gradually withered. And as it declined, so too did the fortunes of the traditional Ch'an establishments that had flourished under imperial patronage.
The new Ch'an teachers of the Southern school may have felt smug in their new prestige and independence, but they still were subject to the ingrained Chinese desire for a lineage. (Perhaps in the land of Confucius, spiritual ancestors were essential to dignity.) The triumph of the legend of Hui-neng in the north had not been lost on the Ch'anists elsewhere, and it effectively meant that for any Ch'an school to have respectability nationwide, it had to be able to trace its lineage back to this illiterate southerner and his temple at Ts'ao-ch'i. Unfortunately this turned out to be difficult, since by the time Hui-neng actually came to be recognized as the Sixth Patriarch, he had been dead for half a century and there were few Chinese who even knew firsthand of his existence—and none besides Shen-hui who ever claimed to have studied under him. How then could he be made the founder of the Ch'an schools blooming all over China?
The scholar Hu Shih has speculated somewhat knavishly on how Hui-neng's "lineage" may have been created after the fact: "By the last quarter of the eighth century, there began to be a great stampede of almost all the Ch'an schools to get on the bandwagon of the school of Hui-neng. . . . Hui-neng died early in the eighth century, and his disciples were mostly unknown ascetics who lived and died in their hilly retreats. One could easily have paid a visit to some of them. So in the last decades of the century, some of those unknown names were remembered or discovered. Two of the names thus exhumed from obscurity were Huai-jang of the Heng Mountains in Hunan, and Hsing-ssu of the Ch'ing-yuan Mountains of Kiangsi. Neither of these names appeared in earlier versions of Hui-neng's life story."4
These two masters, Nan-yueh Huai-jang (677-744) of Hunan and Ch'ing-yuan Hsing-ssu (d. 740) of Kiangsi, were made the missing links between Hui-neng and the two schools of Ch'an that would one day become Japanese Rinzai and Soto, respectively. Since the lineage most important for the early years of Ch'an's Golden Age was that which would one day be the Rinzai school, the tradition of Huai-jang will be examined here first. As noted above, although the legend says that Huai-jang once studied under the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, supporting historical evidence is not readily found. However, he is thought to have studied under another follower of the Fifth Patriarch Hung-jen and to have been a part of the general scene of Southern Ch'an.5 His actual function may have been to supply a direct line of descent between Hui-neng and the man who was to be the creator of Rinzai Zen as we know it today.
That man is the famous Ma-tsu Tao-i (709-788), who even if not a direct spiritual descendant of Hui-neng was certainly a product of the same exciting period of intellectual ferment. According to the more or less contemporary record left by the northern historian Tsung-mi, Ma-tsu (which means "Patriarch Ma") was a native of Szechuan who was ordained a monk at an early age by a Korean master in his home province.6 Young Ma traveled on, as was common with beginning Ch'an monks, and (so say the later legends) finally came to the monastery of Huai-jang, located on Mt. Nan-yueh. The story of their first encounter became a standard among later Ch'an masters, for it is a particularly effective discrediting of that onetime Ch'an mainstay, meditation, which became anathema to the more revolutionary Southern school.
As the story goes, Huai-jang one day came upon Ma-tsu absorbed in meditation and proceeded to question the purpose of his long bouts of dhyana. Ma-tsu immediately replied, "I want to become a Buddha, an enlightened being."
Saying nothing, Huai-jang quietly picked up a brick and started rubbing it on a stone. After a time Ma-tsu's curiosity bested him and he inquired, "Why are you rubbing that brick on a stone?"
Huai-jang replied, "I am polishing it into a mirror."
Ma-tsu probably knew by this time that he had been set up, but he had to follow through: "But how can you make a mirror by polishing a brick on a stone?"
The celebrated answer was: "How can you become enlightened by sitting in meditation?"
The point, driven home time and again throughout the eighth century, was that enlightenment is an active, not a passive, condition. And Ma-tsu himself was to become the foremost exponent of enlightenment as a natural part of life.
Ma-tsu always made a profound impression on his contemporaries, and no small part may be attributable to his peculiar physical traits. As The Transmission of the Lamp describes him:
In appearance and bearing he was most striking. He glared as a tiger does and he ambled like a cow. He could touch his nose with his tongue, and on the soles of his feet were wheel-shaped marks [physical qualities also attributed to the Buddha]. During the period [of 713-41] he studied the dhyana . . . under Master Huai-jang, who then had nine disciples. Of these only [Ma-tsu] received the sacred mind seal.7
However, his real immortality derives from his contribution to the arsenal of methods for shocking novices into enlightenment. It will be recalled that the legendary Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, neglected to explain exactly what a person should do to "see into one's own nature." Ma-tsu apparently was the first master who developed non-meditative tricks for nudging a disciple into the state of "no-thought." He was an experimenter, and he pioneered a number of methods that later were perfected by his followers and the descendants of his followers. He was the first master to ask a novice an unanswerable question, and then while the person struggled for an answer, to shout in his ear (he liked the syllable "Ho!")—hoping to jolt the pupil into a non-dualistic mind state. Another similar technique was to call out someone's name just as the person was leaving the room, a surprise that seemed to bring the person up short and cause him to suddenly experience his original nature. A similar device was to deliver the student a sharp blow as he pondered a point, using violence to focus his attention completely on reality and abort ratiocination. Other tricks included respond¬ing to a question with a seemingly irrelevant answer, causing the student to sense the irrelevancy of his question. He would also sometimes send a pupil on a "goose chase" between himself and some other enlightened individual at the monastery, perhaps in the hope that bouncing the novice from one personality to another would somehow shake his complacency. Whatever the technique, his goal was always to force a novice to uncover his original nature for himself. He did this by never giving a straight answer or a predictable response and therefore never allowing a disciple to lapse into a passive mental mode.
Ma-tsu also seems to have simplified the idea of what constitutes enlightenment. As he defined it, "seeing into one's own nature" simply meant understanding (intuitively, not rationally) who you are and what you are. This truth could be taught with whatever method seemed appropriate at a given moment. As Hu Shih so eloquently describes his teaching,
". . . any gesture or motion, or even silence, might be used to communicate a truth. [Recall the Buddha once enlightened a follower by holding up a flower.] Ma-tsu developed this idea into a pedagogical method for the new Zen. There is no need to seek any special faculty in the mind for the enlightenment. Every behavior is the mind, the manifestation of the Buddha-nature. Snapping a finger, frowning or stretching the brow, coughing, smiling, anger, sorrow, or desire . . . is the functioning of the Buddhahead: it is the Tao, the Way. There is no need to perform any special act, be it dhyana or worship, in order to achieve the Tao. To be natural is the Way. Walk naturally, sit naturally, sleep naturally, live naturally—that is the Way. Let the mind be free: do not purposely do evil; nor purposely do good. There is no Law to abide, no Buddhahood to attain. Maintain a free mind and cling to nothing: that is Tao."8
Thus it seems that the most preeminent Ch'an master of the eighth century not only repudiated all the apparatus of traditional Buddhism, he also simplified enlightenment down to a quite secular condition of acceptance of the natural state of human affairs. For instance, although he was familiar with the great Mahayana sutras, Ma-tsu never mentions Hui-neng or the Diamond Sutra. His Ch'an, expressed in simple everyday language, seems merely so many ways of finding out who you are and what you are. Furthermore, there seems to be nothing specifically that you can do to accelerate the occurrence of sudden enlightenment, other than use traditional practices to make your psyche as uncomplicated as possible and then wait for the moment to strike (he, of course, experimented to find ways to accelerate the arrival of that moment). But he has nothing encouraging to say about the effectiveness of meditation as an aid to finding the desired non-rational insight, which he sometimes described using the borrowed term "Tao":
Cultivation is of no use for the attainment of Tao. The only
thing that one can do is to be free of defilement. When one's
mind is stained with thoughts of life and death, or deliberate action, that is defilement. The grasping of the Truth is the function of everyday-mindedness. Everyday-mindedness is free from intentional action, free from concepts of right and wrong, taking and giving, the finite or the infinite. . . . All our daily activities—walking, standing, sitting, lying down—all response to situations, our dealings with circumstances as they arise: all this is Tao.9
Ma-tsu eventually left Huai-jang (if, in fact, he ever met him in the first place) and presided over a community of Ch'an disciples at K'ai-yuan temple in Kiangsi. This was to be the incubator for the greatest thinkers of the eighth century, and the setting for some of the finest Ch'an anecdotes. The anecdote, incidentally, is the perfect Ch'an teaching device, since it forces the listener to find its meaning in his own inner experience. The sermon provided the theoretical basis for an idea, but the anecdote showed the theory in action and made the listener share in a real experience, if only vicariously. But first we will begin with a sermon credited to him, in which he summarizes the philosophical position he held. There was nothing particularly new about his understanding; it was his method that was novel. His sermon said, in essence, that reality is merely our mind, and that enlightenment comprised the nonrational recognition of this.
All of you should realize that your own mind is Buddha, that is, this mind is Buddha's Mind. . . . Those who seek for the Truth should realize that there is nothing to seek. There is no Buddha but Mind; there is no Mind but Buddha.10
Again there is the counsel against discriminations between good and evil, since the original Mind transcends these:
Do not choose what is good, nor reject what is evil, but rather be free from purity and defilement. Then you will realize the emptiness of sin.11
This is not a preachment of values; rather it is the insight that there is a reality beyond our puny discriminations. If you can achieve this larger perspective, then good and evil become an inconse¬quential part of the larger flow of life.
His sermon then returns to the theme of the mind as the arbiter of reality, recalling the Void of Nagarjuna and pointing out that even the workings of the mind are ephemeral and possess no self-nature.
Thoughts perpetually change and cannot be grasped because they possess no self-nature. The Triple World [of desire, form, and beyond-form] is nothing more than one's mind. The multitudinous universe is nothing but the testimony of one Dharma [truth]. What are seen as forms are the reflections of the mind. The mind does not exist by itself; its existence is manifested through forms. . . . If you are aware of this mind, you will dress, eat, and act spontaneously in life as it transpires, and thereby cultivate your spiritual nature. There is nothing more that I can teach you.12
The essence of this teaching is that reality is, for us, merely what our mind says it is, and "enlightenment" or "becoming a Buddha" is merely coming to terms with ourselves and with this tricky mind that constantly devises our reality for us.
This credo is remembered most vividly in two anecdotes that were later enshrined in a famous collection of koans called the Wu-men Kuan (or Mumonkan in Japanese). In both of these anecdotes, Ma-tsu is asked, "What is Buddha?"—meaning what is the spirituality that all seek. In one he replied, "Mind is Buddha" (Mumonkan, Case 30), and in the other anecdote he said, "No mind, no Buddha" (Mumonkan, Case 33), which merely affirms that spirituality is in the mind, and for its realization one must realize the mind.13 In either instance he is merely following the earlier idea that there is no reality and thus no enlightenment outside the mind.
These two exchanges are part of a single anecdote of Ma-tsu recorded in the chronicles.
A monk asked why the Master maintained, "The Mind is the Buddha." The Master answered, "Because I want to stop the crying of a baby." The monk persisted, "When the crying has stopped, what is it then?" "Not Mind, not Buddha," was the answer. "How do you teach a man who does not uphold either of these?" The Master said, "I would tell him, 'Not things.' " The monk again questioned, "If you met a man free from attachment to all things, what would you tell him?" The Master replied, "I would let him experience the Great Tao."14
As the scholar John Wu has pointed out, "This dialogue reveals an important secret about Ma-tsu's art of teaching. Sometimes he used a positive formula, sometimes he used a negative formula. On the surface they are contradictory to each other. But when we remember that he was using them in answering persons of different grades of attainments and intelligence, the contradiction disap¬pears at once in the light of a higher unity of purpose, which was in all cases to lead the questioner to transcend his present state."15 Another example of a seemingly contradictory position is recorded as a koan in another famous collection, the Blue Cliff Record (Case 3). In this anecdote, Ma-tsu is asked one day about his health, and he responded with, "Sun-faced Buddhas, Moon-faced Buddhas."16 According to a Buddhist tradition, a Sun-faced Buddha lives for eighteen hundred years, a Moon-faced Buddha lives only a day and a night. Perhaps he was proposing these two contradictory cases to demonstrate the irrelevance of an inquiry after his physical state. It would have been far better if the question had concerned his mind.
A story describing how Ma-tsu handled other teachers who wandered by depicts very well the way that he could undermine logic and categorization. In a particularly famous anecdote, a visiting teacher proposed a condition of duality, a condition equivalent to that of a switch that can be either off or on. Having permitted the teacher to adopt this very un-Zen position, Ma-tsu proceeds to demolish him. The story goes as follows:
A monk who lectured on Buddhism came to the Master and asked, "What is the teaching advocated by the Ch'an masters?" Ma-tsu posed a counterquestion: "What teachings do you maintain?" The monk replied that he had lectured on more than twenty sutras and sastras. The Master exclaimed, "Are you not a lion?" The monk said, "I do not venture to say that." The Master puffed twice and the monk commented, "This is the way to teach Ch'an." Ma-tsu retorted, "What way do you mean?" and the monk said, "The way the lion leaves the den." The Master became silent. Immediately the monk remarked, "This is also the way of Ch'an teaching." At this the Master again asked, "What way do you mean?" "The lion remains in his den." "When there is neither going out nor remaining in, what way would you say this was?" The monk made no answer. . . .17
Ma-tsu had posed a seemingly unanswerable question, at least a question that logic could not answer. This provocative exchange, later to be known as a mondo, was a new teaching technique that departed significantly from the earlier methods of Hui-neng and Shen-hui, who mounted a platform, gave a sermon, and then politely received questions from the audience.
But how did Ma-tsu handle this question when it was presented to him? He fell back on the fact that reality is what we make it, and all things return to the mind. He once handled essentially the same question that he put to the visiting monk, showing how it can be done. His response is the essence of Zen.
A monk once drew four lines in front of Ma-tsu. The top line was long and the remaining three were short. He then demanded of the Master, "Besides saying that one line is long and the other three are short, what else could you say?" Ma-tsu drew one line on the ground and said, "This could be called either long or short. That is my answer."18
Language is deceptive. But if it is used to construct an anti-logical question, it can equally be used to construct an anti-logical reply.
Ma-tsu discovered and refined what seems to have eluded the earlier teachers such as Hui-neng and Huai-jang: namely, the trigger mechanism for sudden enlightenment. As noted earlier, he originated the use of shouting and blows to precipitate enlighten-ment, techniques to become celebrated in later decades in the hands of men such as Huang-po and Lin-chi, masters who shaped the Rinzai sect. As a typical example, there is the story of a monk coming to him to ask, "What was the purpose of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" which is Ch'an parlance for "What is the basic principle of Zen?" As the monk bowed reverently before the old master waiting for the reply that would bring it all together, Ma-tsu knocked him to the ground, saying, "If I do not strike you, people all over the country will laugh at me." The hapless monk picked himself up off the ground and—suddenly realizing he had just tasted the only reality there is—was enlightened on the spot.19 Obviously, every boxer does not experience enlightenment when he receives a knockout punch. The blow of enlightenment is meant to rattle the questioning mind and to disrupt, if only for an instant, its clinging to abstractions and logic. It seems almost as though enlightenment were a physical phenomenon that some¬times can best be achieved by a physical process—such as a blow or a shout.
The violence seemed to work both ways, for the monks often gave him a dose of his own medicine. An example is reported in the following story:
It happened once that his disciple Yin-feng was pushing along a cart, while Ma-tsu was sitting on the road with his feet stretched out. Yin-feng requested him to draw back his feet, but Ma-tsu said, "What is stretched out is not to be drawn back again!" Yin-feng retorted, "Once advanced, there is no turning backward!'' Disregarding the master, he kept pushing the cart until it ran over and injured his feet. Ma-tsu returned to the hall with an axe in his hand, saying, "Let the one who a few moments ago injured my feet with his cart come forward!" Yin-feng, not to be daunted, came forward stretching his neck in front of the master. The master [peacefully] put down his axe.20
The significance of this story, if it has any significance, is that it conveys the atmosphere of Ch'an monasteries around 750. It demonstrates that the leader of a monastery had to win his spurs. He had to be tougher, more audacious, and faster than anybody else.
During the T'ang it was common to use the ox as a metaphor for all that is uncontrollable in human nature. The ox was not necessarily bad; it just had to be governed. The rigor with which this control was applied at Ma-tsu's monastery is illustrated in the story concerning one of the disciples, a former hunter who Ma-tsu encountered one day working in the monastery kitchen.
"What are you doing?" asked the master—a question that never got a straight answer from an enlightened Ch'an monk.
"I am herding an ox," the man replied, a metaphorical way of saying he was trying to discipline himself. "And how," shot back Ma-tsu, "do you go about tending it?" The monk replied, "Whenever it starts to go to grass [i.e., self-indulgence], I yank it back by the nostrils [the tender part of the great animal]."
To which Ma-tsu admiringly replied, "If you really can do that by yourself, then I may as well retire."21
This story illustrates the emphasis on self-control that was a part of the Ch'an monasteries. Yet self-control was only to be practiced for what it gave in return. There were no value judgments or rules that had to be followed. The point was to do what seemed the most rewarding. For example, there is a story that a local governor asked Ma-tsu, "Master, should I eat meat and drink wine?" The master did not give him a reply that implied a value judgment, but rather outlined the rewards of the two possible paths: "To eat and drink is your natural right, to abstain from meat and wine is your chance for greater blessedness."22
Ma-tsu often used the structure of language, with its natural capacity for parallels, as a teaching tool in itself.
Another time a monk asked, what is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?" "What is the meaning [of your asking] at this moment?" replied the Master.23
The monk was interested in abstract issues (using the Ch'an metaphor for enlightenment's meaning); Ma-tsu reminded him that the only reality that mattered was his own being, his own needs. And he did it using almost identical language.
Ma-tsu was constantly testing his disciples, keeping them on their toes and reinforcing their enlightenment. There is the story that one evening while enjoying the moonlight with three of his disciples (including the two most famous, Huai-hai and Nan- ch'uan), he asked them the question "what should we do right now, this very moment?"—a typical Zen challenge. One of the monks said, "It would be best to be studying the sutras of the ancients who have achieved enlightenment." The monk Huai-hai, who was later to receive Ma-tsu's mantle, countered, "It would be good to practice meditation."
At that point Nan-ch'uan, the third monk, simply rose, shook the sleeves of his robe, and silently walked away. Ma-tsu acknowl¬edged this as the right answer and declared, "The sutra scriptures are returnable to the Buddhist canon, and meditation to the undifferentiated ocean, but Nan-ch'uan alone leaps over and transcends these."24 Nan-ch'uan's response was a triumph of physical action and simplicity over religiosity and abstraction.
Ma-tsu is reported in the chronicles to have had 139 enlightened disciples, many of whom went on to become Ch'an leaders in their own districts. The most outstanding were the monks Huai-hai and Nan-ch'uan and a layman named P'ang—all three of whom are today remembered in anecdotes that have become Ch'an scrip¬tures. But others were probably just as active and enlightened. Southern Ch'an was expanding, with mountaintop retreats blossoming everywhere. Many teachers probably have been forgotten only because they had no disciples who took the pains to transcribe and preserve their teachings. Ma-tsu himself also apparently wrote nothing, but he was more fortunate in his disciples. In any case, he reportedly died in the typical Ch'an way. He predicted his death a month in advance, and when the time came, he bathed, assumed the meditation posture, and silently passed on.