The Fifth Patriarch,Hung-jen (left)
The master succeeding Hui-k'o was Seng-ts'an (d. 606), who then taught Fa-jung (594-657) and Tao-hsin (580-651), the latter in turn passing the robe of the patriarchy to Hung-jen (601-74). The masters Seng-ts'an, Tao-hsin, and Hung-jen are honored today as the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Patriarchs, respectively, and revered as the torchbearers of Ch'an's formative years. Yet when we look for information about their lives, we find the sources thin and diffuse. One reason probably is that before 700 nobody realized that these men would one day be elevated to founding fathers, and consequently no one bothered recording details of their lives.
During the seventh century the scattered teachers of dhyana seem to have gradually coalesced into a sort of ad hoc movement—with sizable followings growing up around the better-known figures. A certain amount of respectability also emerged, if we can believe the references to imperial notice that start appearing in the chronicles. It would seem that the dhyana or Ch'an movement became a more or less coherent sect, a recognizable if loosely defined school of Buddhism. However, what the movement apparently was striving to become was not so much a branch of Buddhism in China as a Chinese version of Buddhism. The men later remembered as the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Patriarchs have in common a struggle to bend Buddhist thought to Chinese intellectual requirements, to sinicize Buddhism. Whereas they succeeded only in setting the stage for this transformation (whose realization would await other hands), they did establish a personality pattern that would set apart all later masters: a blithe irreverence that owed as much to Chuang Tzu as to Bodhidharma.
When reading the biographies that follow, it is useful to keep in mind that the explicit details may well have been cooked up in later years to satisfy a natural Chinese yearning for anecdotes, with or without supporting information. Yet the fact that the dhyana practitioners eventually became a movement in need of a history is itself proof that these men and their stories were not complete inventions. In any case, they were remembered, honored, and quoted in later years as the legendary founders of Ch'an.
SENG-TSAN, THE THIRD PATRIARCH (d. 606)
The question of the Second Patriarch Hui-k'o's successor was troublesome even for the ancient Ch'an historians. The earliest version of his biography (written in 645, before the sect of Ch'an and its need for a history existed) declares, "Before [Hui-k'o] had established a lineage he died, leaving no worthy heirs." When it later became necessary for Ch'an to have an uninterrupted patriarchy, a revised history was prepared which supplied him an heir named Seng-ts'an, to whom he is said to have transmitted the doctrine.1 The story of their meeting recalls Hui-k'o's first exchange with Bodhidharma, save that the roles are reversed. The text implies that Seng-ts'an was suffering from leprosy when he first encountered Hui-k'o, and that he implored the Master for relief in a most un-Zenlike way, saying: "I am in great suffering from this disease; please take away my sins."
Hui-k'o responded with, "Bring me your sins, and I will take them away."
After a long silence, Seng-ts'an confessed, "I've looked, but I cannot find them."
To which Hui-k'o replied, echoing Bodhidharma's classic rejoinder, "Behold, you have just been cleansed."
Another version of the story says Hui-k'o greeted Seng-ts'an with the words, "You are suffering from leprosy; why should you want to see me?"
To this Seng-ts'an responded, "Although my body is sick, the mind of a sick man and your own mind are no different."
Whatever actually happened, it was enough to convince Hui-k'o that he had found an enlightened being, one who perceived the unity of all things, and he forthwith transmitted to Seng-ts'an the symbols of the patriarchy—the robe and begging bowl of Bodhidharma—telling him that he should take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the universal truth proclaimed by Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist organization or priesthood). Seng-ts'an replied that he knew of the Sangha, but what was meant by the Buddha and the Dharma? The answer was that all three were expressions of Mind.2
This exchange seems to have taken place while Hui-k'o was in the northern Wei capital of Yeh-tu.3 In later years Seng-ts'an found it necessary to feign madness (to escape persecution during the anti-Buddhist movement of 574), and finally he went to hide on Huan-kung mountain for ten years, where his mere presence reportedly was enough to tame the wild tigers who had terrorized the people there. The only surviving work that purportedly relays his teaching is a poem, said to be one of the earliest Ch'an treatises, which is called the Hsin-hsin-ming, or "On the Believing Mind."4 It starts off in a lyrical, almost Taoist, voice worthy of Chuang Tzu, as it celebrates man's original nature and the folly of striving.
There is nothing difficult about the Great Way
But, avoid choosing!
Only when you neither love nor hate,
Does it appear in all clarity.
Do not be anti- or pro- anything.
The conflict of longing and loathing,
This is the disease of the mind.
Not knowing the profound meaning of things,
We disturb our (original) peace of mind to no purpose.5
Next, the poem turns to an acknowledgment of the Mahayanist concept of the all-encompassing Mind, the greatest single truth of the universe, and of Nagarjuna's Void, the cosmic emptiness of sunyata.
Things are things because of the Mind.
The Mind is the Mind because of things.
If you wish to know what these two are,
They are originally one Emptiness.
In this Void both (Mind and things) are one,
All the myriad phenomena contained in both.6
The poem closes with an affirmation of the Ch'an credo of unity and the absence of duality as a sign of enlightenment.
In the World of Reality
There is no self, no other-than-self.
. . .
All that can be said is "No Duality!"
When there is no duality, all things are one,
There is nothing that is not included.
. . .
The believing mind is not dual;
What is dual is not the believing mind.
Beyond all language,
For it there is no past, no present, no future.7
Since the earliest historical sources maintain that Seng-ts'an left no writings, some have questioned the attribution of this lilting work to the Third Patriarch. Whatever its authorship, the real importance of the poem lies in its subtle merging of Taoism and Buddhism. We can watch as the voices of ancient China and ancient India are blended together into a perfect harmony until the parts are inseparable. It was a noble attempt to reconcile Buddhist metaphysics with Chinese philosophical concepts, and it was successful in a limited way. As for Seng-ts'an, the legends tell that he finally was overcome by his longing for the south and, handing down the symbols of the patriarchy to a priest named Tao-hsin, he vanished.
TAO-HSIN, THE FOURTH PATRIARCH (580-651)
China, whose political turmoil had sent the early Patriarchs scurrying from one small kingdom to another, found unity and the beginnings of stability under a dynasty known as the Sui (581-618), the first in three and a half centuries (since the end of the Han in 220) able to unify the land.8 This brief dynasty (which soon was replaced by the resplendent T'ang) came to be dominated by the Emperor Yang, a crafty politician who maneuvered the throne away from an elder brother—partially, it is said, by demonstrating to his parents his independence of mind by abandoning all the children he begat in the ladies' quarters. Whereas his father had undertaken the renovation of the North Chinese capital of Ch'ang-an—not incidentally creating one of the glories of the ancient world and the site of the finest moments of the later T'ang Dynasty—Emperor Yang decided to reconstruct the city of Loyang, some two hundred miles to the east. The result was a "Western Capital" at Ch'ang-an and an "Eastern Capital" at Loyang, the latter city soon to be the location of some pivotal episodes in Ch'an history.
For the construction of Loyang, a fairyland of palaces and gardens, millions of citizens were conscripted and tens of thousands died under forced labor. Emperor Yang's other monument was a grand canal, linking the Yellow River in the north with the rich agricultural deltas of the Yangtze in the south, near Nanking. The emperor loved to be barged down this vast waterway—journeys that unsympathetic historians have claimed were merely excuses to seek sexual diversions away from the capital. In any case, his extravagances bankrupted the country and brought about his overthrow by the man who would become the founder of the T'ang Dynasty, later to reign under the name of Emperor T'ai-tsung (ruled 626-49).
The T'ang is universally regarded as one of the great ages of man, and it is also considered the Golden Age of Ch'an. The founding emperor, T'ai-tsung, was a wise and beneficent "Son of Heaven," as Chinese rulers were styled.9 Under his influence, the capital city of Ch'ang-an became the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the ancient world, with such widespread influence that when the first visiting Japanese came upon it, they were so dazzled they returned home and built a replica for their own capital city. The city was laid out as a grid, with lavish vermilion imperial palaces and gardens clustered regally at one end. Its inhabitants numbered upward of two million, while its international markets and fleshpots were crowded with traders from the farthest reaches of Asia and Europe, echoing with a truly astounding cacophony of tongues: Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Persian, Roman Latin, and Arabic, not to mention the many dialects of Chinese. Christians moved among the Buddhists, as did Muslims and Jews. Artisans worked with silver, gold, jewels, silks, and porcelains, even as poets gathered in wine shops to nibble fruits and relax with round-eyed foreign serving girls. Such were the worldly attractions of Ch'ang-an during the early seventh century. This new sophistication and urbanization, as well as the political stability that made it all possible, was also reflected in the change in Ch'an—from a concern chiefly of nomadic dhyana teachers hiding in the mountains to the focus of settled agricultural communities centered in monasteries.
The growth in Ch'an toward an established place in Chinese life began to consolidate under the Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin, the man whose life spanned the Sui and the early T'ang dynasties. He is best remembered today for two things: First, he was particularly dedicated to meditation, practicing it more avidly than had any dhyana master since Bodhidharma; and second, he is credited with beginning the true monastic tradition for Ch'an. His formation of a self-supporting monastic community with its own agricultural base undoubtedly brought Ch'an a long way toward respectability in Chinese eyes, since it reduced the dependence on begging. Itinerant mendicants, even if teachers of dhyana, had never elicited the admiration in China they traditionally enjoyed in the Indian homeland of the Buddha. Begging was believed to fashion character, however, and it never disappeared from Ch'an disci¬pline. Indeed, Ch'an is said to have encouraged begging more than did any of the other Chinese Buddhist sects, but as a closely regulated form of moral training.
Tao-hsin, whose family name was Ssu-ma, came from Honan, but he left home at seven to study Buddhism and met the Third Patriarch, Seng-ts'an, while still in his teens. When Seng-ts'an decided to drop out of sight, he asked this brilliant pupil to take up the teaching of dhyana and Bodhidharma's Lankavatara Sutra at a monastery on Mt. Lu. Tao-hsin agreed and remained for a number of years, attracting followers and reportedly performing at least one notable miracle. The story says that he saved a walled city from being starved out by bandits by organizing a program of public sutra chanting among its people. We are told that the robbers retired of their own accord while, as though by magic, previously dry wells in the city flowed again. One day not too long thereafter Tao-hsin noticed an unusual purple cloud hanging over a nearby mountain. Taking this as a sign, he proceeded to settle there (the mountain later became known as Shuang-feng or "Twin Peaks") and found the first Ch'an community, presiding over a virtual army of some five hundred followers for the next thirty years.
He is remembered today as a charismatic teacher who finally stabilized dhyana teaching. In an age of political turmoil, many intellectuals flocked to the new school of Ch'an, with its promise of tranquil meditation in uneasy times. Tao-hsin apparently encouraged his disciples to operate a form of commune, in which agriculture and its administration were merged with the practice of meditation.10 In so doing, he seems not only to have revolutionized the respectability of dhyana practice, but also to have become something of a national figure himself. This, at any rate, is what we may surmise from one of the more durable legends, which has him defying an imperial decree to appear before the emperor, T'ai-tsung.
This legend concerns an episode which allegedly took place around the year 645. As the story goes, an imperial messenger arrived one day at the mountain retreat to summon him to the palace, but Tao-hsin turned him down cold. When the messenger reported this to the emperor, the response was to send back a renewed invitation. Again the messenger was met with a refusal, along with a challenge.
"If you wish my head, cut it off and take it with you. It may go but my mind will never go."
When this reply reached the emperor, he again dispatched the messenger, this time bearing a sealed sword and a summons for the master's head. But he also included a contradictory decree requiring that Tao-hsin not be harmed. When the master refused a third time to come to the palace, the messenger read the decree that his head should be severed. Tao-hsin obligingly bent over, with the command "Cut it off." But the messenger hesitated, admitting that the imperial orders also forbade harming him. On hearing this Tao-hsin reportedly roared with laughter, saying, "You must know that you possess human qualities."11
The Fourth Patriarch's teachings are not well known, other than for the fact that he supposedly devised and promoted new techniques to help novices achieve intensive meditation. The following excerpt of his teaching illustrates his fervor for dhyana.
Sit earnestly in meditation! The sitting in meditation is basic to all else. By the time you have done this for three to five years, you will be able to ward off starvation with a bit of meal. Close the door and sit! Do not read the sutras, and speak to no man! If you will so exercise yourself and persist in it for a long time, the fruit will be sweet like the meat which a monkey takes from the nutshell. But such people are very rare.12
The de-emphasis on the sutras points the way to later Ch'an. Interestingly, however, the usefulness of sitting in meditation would also come under review in only a few short years, when the new style of Ch'an appeared.
The reports of Tao-hsin say that Hung-jen, who was to become the Fifth Patriarch, was one of his followers and grasped the inner meaning of his teaching. It was Hung-jen whom he asked to construct a mausoleum in the mountainside, the site of his final repose, and when it was finished he retired there for his last meditation. After he passed away, his body was wrapped in
lacquered cloth, presenting a vision so magnificent that no one could bear to close the mausoleum.
Aside from his historical place as the founder of the first real community for Ch'an, there is little that can be said with assurance about Tao-hsin. However, a manuscript discovered early in this century in the Buddhist caves at Tun-huang purportedly contains a sermon by the Fourth Patriarch entitled "Abandoning the Body."
The method of abandoning the body consists first in meditating on Emptiness, whereby the [conscious] mind is emptied. Let the mind together with its world be quieted down to a perfect state of tranquility; let thought be cast in the mystery of quietude, so that the mind is kept from wandering from one thing to another. When the mind is tranquilized in its deepest abode, its entanglements are cut asunder. . . . The mind in its absolute purity is like the Void itself.13
The text goes on to quote both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, as well as some of the older sutras, and there is a considerable reference to Nagarjuna's Emptiness. This text, real or spurious, is one more element in the merging of Taoism and Buddhism that was early Ch'an, even as its analysis of the mind state achieved in meditation anticipates later Ch'an teachings.
FA-JUNG, THE ST. FRANCIS OF ZEN (594-657)
In the parade of Patriarchs, we should not overlook the maverick Fa-jung, a master who was never officially crowned a Patriarch, but whose humanity made him a legend.14 Fa-jung (594-657), whose family name was Wei, was born in a province on the south bank of the Yangtze River and in his early years was a student of Confucian thought. But before long his yearning for spiritual challenge led him to Buddhism. He finally settled in a rock cave in the side of a cliff near a famous monastery on Mt. Niu-t'ou, where his sanctity reportedly caused birds to appear with offerings of flowers.
According to the Zen chronicle Transmission of the Lamp (1004), sometime between 627 and 649 the Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin, sensed that a famous Buddhist was living on Mt. Niu-t'ou and went there to search out the man. After many days of seeking, he finally came upon a holy figure seated atop a rock. As the two meditation masters were becoming acquainted, there suddenly came the roar of a tiger from the bramble farther up the mountain. Tao-hsin was visibly startled, causing Fa-jung—friend of the animals—to observe wryly, "I see it is still with you." His meaning, of course, was that Tao-hsin was still enslaved by the phenomenal world, was not yet wholly detached from his fears and perceptions.
After they had chatted a while longer, Fa-jung found occasion to leave his seat and attend nature at a detached location. During his absence Tao-hsin wrote the Chinese character for the Buddha's name on the very rock where he had been sitting. When Fa-jung returned to resume his place, he was momentarily brought up short by the prospect of sitting on the Buddha's name. Expecting this, Tao-hsin smiled and said, "I see it is still with you."
He had shown that Fa-jung was still intimidated by the trappings of classical Buddhism and had not yet become a completely detached master of the pure Mind. The story says that Fa-jung failed to understand his comment and implored Tao-hsin to teach him Ch'an, which the Fourth Patriarch proceeded to do.
Tao-hsin's message, once again, was to counsel nondistinction, nonattachment, nondiscrimination; he said to abjure emotions, values, striving. Just be natural and be what you are, for that is the part of you that is closest to the Buddhist ideal of mental freedom.
There is nothing lacking in you, and you yourself are no different from the Buddha. There is no way of achieving Buddhahood other than letting your mind be free to be itself. You should not contemplate nor should you purify your mind. Let there be no craving and hatred, and have no anxiety or fear. Be boundless and absolutely free from all conditions. Be free to go in any direction you like. Do not act to do good, nor to pursue evil. Whether you walk or stay, sit or lie down, and whatever you see happen to you, all are the wonderful activity of the Great Enlightened One. It is all joy, free from anxiety—it is called Buddha.15
After Tao-hsin's visit, the birds offering flowers no longer appeared: evidence, said the later Ch'an teachers, that Fa-jung's physical being had entirely vanished. His school on Mt. Niu-t'ou flourished for a time, teaching that the goals of Ch'an practice could be realized by contemplating the Void of Nagarjuna. As Fa-jung interpreted the teachings of the Middle Path:
All talk has nothing to do with one's Original Nature, which can only be reached through sunyata. No-thought is the Absolute Reality, in which the mind ceases to act. When one's mind is free from thoughts, one's nature has reached the Absolute.16
Although Fa-jung's teachings happened to be transmitted to Japan in later years, through the accident of a passing Japanese pilgrim, his school did not endure in either country beyond the eighth century. His was the first splinter group of Zen, and perhaps it lacked the innovation necessary to survive, because it clung too much to traditional Buddhism.
As Fa-jung's years advanced, he was encouraged to come down from his mountain and live in a monastery, which his better judgment eventually compelled him to do. It is reported that after his final farewell to his disciples he was followed down the mountain by the laments of all its birds and animals. A more ordinary teacher would have been forgotten, but this beloved St. Francis of Zen became the topic of lectures and a master remembered with reverence ever after.
HUNG-JEN, THE FIFTH PATRIARCH (601-74)
The other well-known disciple of the Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin, was the man history has given the title of Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen (601-74). The chronicles say that he came from Tao-hsin's own province and impressed the master deeply when, at age fourteen, he held his own with the Fourth Patriarch in an introductory interview. As the exchange has been described, Tao-hsin asked the young would-be disciple his family name, but since the word for "family name" is pronounced the same as that for "nature," Hung-jen answered the question as though it had been, "What is your 'nature'?"—deliberately misinterpreting it in order to say, "My 'nature' is not ordinary; it is the Buddha-nature."
Tao-hsin reportedly inquired, "But don't you have a 'family name'?"
To which Hung-jen cleverly replied, "No, for the teachings say that our 'nature' is empty."17
Hung-jen went on to become the successor to the Fourth Patriarch, with an establishment where several hundred followers gathered. The chronicles have little to say about the actual life and teachings of the Fifth Patriarch, but no matter. His place in history is secured not so much for what he said—there is actually very little that can reliably be attributed to him—but rather for his accidental appearance at the great crossroads of Zen. Hung-jen and his monastery became the symbol of a great philosophical debate that occupied the first half of the eighth century, a conflict to be examined in detail in the two chapters to follow. Suffice it to say here that the chronicles at least agree that he was an eminent priest and well respected, a man to whom an early-eighth-century document attributes eleven disciples of note.18 Among those listed who are particularly important to the events that follow are a monk named Shen-hsiu and another named Hui-neng, the men whose names would one day be associated with a celebrated midnight poetry contest in Hung-jen's monastery.
This contest eventually came to symbolize the conflict between the teachings of gradual enlightenment and sudden enlightenment, between intellectual and intuitive knowledge, between sophisti¬cated urban Buddhism and unlettered rural teachers, and between promoters of the abstruse but challenging Lankavatara Sutra sanctioned by Bodhidharma and the cryptic Diamond Sutra. Quite simply, it was a battle between what would eventually be known as the Northern and Southern schools of Ch'an, and it concerned two fundamentally opposing views of the functions of the human mind. As things turned out, the gradual, Northern, Lankavatara Sutra faction went on for years thinking it had won—or perhaps not really aware that there was a battle in progress—while the anti-intellectual, Southern, Diamond Sutra faction was gathering its strength in the hinterlands for a final surge to victory. When the Southern school did strike, it won the war handily and then proceeded to recast the history of what had gone before, even going so far as to put posthumous words of praise for itself into the mouths of the once-haughty Northern masters. Thus the mighty were eventually brought low and the humble lifted up in the annals of Ch'an. It is to the two masters whose names are associated with this battle that we must turn next.