Whereas the Ch’an Patriarchs of earlier times had been, more often than not, fractious teachers ignored by emperors and gentry alike, the T’ang Dynasty saw Ch’an masters rise to official eminence, receiving honors from the highest office in China. The first half of the eighth century witnessed what was to be the greatest battle within the school of Ch’an, but it was also the time when Ch’an was finally recognized by Chinese ruling circles. The name most often associated with this imperial recognition is the famous, or perhaps infamous, Empress Wu.1
Wu was not born to royalty, but in the year 638, when she was thirteen, she was placed in Emperor T’ai-tsung’s harem as a concubine of relatively low rank. Disapproving historians claim that one day she managed to catch the crown prince, the heir apparent to the aging emperor, in what we today might euphemistically call the bathroom, and seduced him at a moment when he was without benefit of trousers. Thus she was already on familiar terms with the next emperor when her official husband, Emperor T’ai-tsung, went to his ancestors in the summer of 649. Although she was only twenty-four years old, custom required that she join all the deceased emperor’s concubines in retirement at a monastery—which ordinarily would have been the last anyone heard of her. As it happened, however, the new emperor’s first wife was childless, with the effect that he began devoting increasing attention to a favorite concubine. Knowing of the emperor’s earlier acquaintance and infatuation with Wu, the barren empress recalled her from the convent, intending to divert the emperor from his current favorite. The cure, however, turned out to be far more deadly than the ailment.
Through an intrigue that apparently included murdering her own child by the emperor and then blaming the empress, Wu soon had both the empress and the competing concubine in prison. Not content with mere imprisonment for her rivals, she went on to have them both boiled alive—after first amputating their hands and feet, eliciting a dying curse from the concubine that she would return as a cat to haunt Wu. To escape this curse, Wu permanently banned cats from the imperial compound, and eventually persuaded the emperor to move the government from
Ch’ang-an to Loyang, where for the next half century she tried to exorcise the memory of her deed. In late 683 Wu’s husband, the emperor, died, and for a time she allowed his son, the true heir, to occupy the throne—until she could find a pretext to take over the government completely.
A couple of years after the emperor’s death, when Wu was aged sixty, she became infatuated with a lusty peddler of cosmetics and aphrodisiacs, a man whose virility had made him a favorite with various serving ladies around the palace. To give him a respectable post, she appointed him abbot of the major Buddhist monastery of Loyang—enabling him to satisfy, as it were, a double office in the service of the state. His antics and those of his followers did the cause of Buddhism little good over the next few years. When in 695 his arrogance finally became too much even for Wu, she had him strangled by the court ladies and his body sent back to the monastery in a cart. Although Wu is remembered today as an ardent Buddhist, some have suggested that her devotions turned as much to the claims of fortune telling by Buddhist nuns (some of whose organizations in Loyang reportedly ran brothels on the side) as to a pious concern with Indian philosophy.
SHEN-HSIU (605-706), THE FIRST “SIXTH PATRIARCH”
It is known that around 701 Empress Wu invited an aging Ch’an monk named Shen-hsiu, follower of the Lankavatara school of Bodhidharma, to come north to the imperial capital from his monastery in central China.2 He was over ninety at the time and had amassed a lifelong reputation for his rigorous practice of dhyana. Shen-hsiu agreed reluctantly, reportedly having to be carried on a pallet into the presence of the empress. It is said that Wu curtsied to him, an unusual act for a head of state, and immediately moved him into the palace, where he seems to have become the priest-in-residence. As for why Empress Wu would have chosen to honor a lineage of Ch’an Buddhism, it has been pointed out that she was at the time attempting to supplant the established T’ang Dynasty of her late husband with one of her own. And since the T’ang emperors had honored a Buddhist lineage, it was essential that she do the same—but one of a different school. Shen-hsiu was both eminent and unclaimed, an ideal candidate to become the court Buddhist for her fledgling dynasty—which, needless to say, was never established.
Nonetheless, Shen-hsiu was given the title of “Lord of the law of Ch’ang-an and Loyang,” and he preached to vast crowds drawn from the entire northern regions. To solidify his eminence, Wu had monasteries built in his honor at his birthplace, at his mountain retreat, and in the capital.
Shen-hsiu, who briefly reigned as the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an, was described in the early chronicles as a sensitive and bright child who, out of despair for the world, early on turned away from Confucianism to become a Buddhist monk. At age forty-six he finally found his way to the East Mountain retreat of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, where he studied under the master until achieving enlightenment. As noted previously he was among the eleven most prominent individuals remembered from the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch. He later left the monastery and traveled for almost two decades, during which time another of the students of Hung-jen, Fa-ju, eclipsed him in fame and followers. However, Shen-hsiu seems to have been the best known Master, eventually becoming the titular head of the Lankavatara faction, also to be known as the Northern school—possibly because Shen-hsiu brought it to the urbanized, sophisticated capitals of North China, Loyang and Ch’ang-an. This was Ch’an’s most imperial moment, and no less than a state minister composed the memorial epitaph for Shen-hsiu’s gravestone. Although his specific teachings are not well known, a verse survives from one of his sermons that seems to suggest that the teachings of Ch’an were really teachings of the mind and owed little to traditional Buddhism.
The teaching of all the Buddhas
In one’s own Mind originally exists:
To seek the Mind without one’s Self,
Is like running away from the father.3
After he died a pupil named P’u-chi (d. 739) carried on his organization in the capital. This was the high point of official Ch’an, signifying the moment of the Lankavatara school’s greatest prestige.
Perhaps most important, the success of Shen-hsiu was also the success of Ch’an, or what appeared to be success. The sect had risen from being the passion of homeless teachers of dhyana to the object of imperial honors in the midst of China’s finest moment, the T’ang Dynasty. The T’ang was an era to be
remembered forever for its poetry, its art, its architecture, its cultural brilliance.4 Unfortunately for Northern Ch’an, this cultural brilliance was beginning to be the province of groups other than the blueblooded gentry that traditionally had controlled China’s culture. The glories of the T’ang were to some degree the creation of the non-gentry, and an outcast warrior would before long bring the government to its knees, even as an obscure Ch’an master from the rural south was soon to erase Shen-hsiu’s seemingly permanent place in history.
SHEN-HUI (670-762), THE “MARTIN LUTHER” OF CH’AN
The David to Shen-hsiu’s Goliath was a master with a similar-sounding name: Shen-hui. This theological street fighter was a native of the province of Hupeh, some distance south of the lavish twin T’ang captials of Ch’ang-an and Loyang.5 He began as a Taoist scholar, but later turned to Buddhism, traveling even farther south around his fortieth year to become the disciple of a priest named Hui-neng, whose temple was Ts’ao-ch’i, just north of the southern port city of Canton in Kuangtung province. It will be remembered that Hui-neng (whose legend we will explore in the next chapter) had also been a disciple of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, studying alongside Shen-hsiu. Shen-hui is thought to have studied under Hui-neng for around five years, until the latter’s death in 713. After this he traveled about China, ending up at Hua-t’ai, slightly northeast of the capital of Loyang. He seems to have been a man of charismatic presence, one who inspired followers easily. Then, in the year 732, at a convocation of Ch’an worthies at the temple, he mounted the platform and, in a historic moment, declared that the great Ch’an organizations of China, heretofore beholden to Shen-hsiu as Sixth Patriarch, were following a false master.6
The historical significance of this convocation and Shen-hui’s attack might be likened to the defiant act of Martin Luther, when he challenged church hierarchy in sixteenth-century Germany. With superb audacity, Shen-hui went on to spell out a new history of Ch’an that supported his claims. His revised chronicle culminated with the name of his old teacher Hui-neng, theretofore an obscure follower of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, whom he declared Sixth Patriarch. He insisted that Shen-hsiu, the man honored by Empress Wu, had posed falsely as the heir of Hung-jen. The Northern school of Shen-hsiu and his heir, P’u-chi, had
perpetrated a historical deceit, said Shen-hui, robbing the true Sixth Patriarch, the southerner Hui-neng, of his due recognition. For Shen-hui to have challenged the hand-picked school of the ruling family was an incredibly courageous act, but perhaps one that was just audacious enough to win public sympathy.
He touted this new proposition more or less full-time between the years 732 and 745, as he traveled about North China and got to know the officials of the T’ang regime. His political standing gradually improved and he was eventually invited (in 745, at age seventy-seven) to Loyang to assume leadership of the great Hotse temple. Although the particular object of his criticism, Shen-hsiu’s disciple P’u-chi, had died in 739, Shen-hui’s attacks on the lineage continued undiminished. Politics finally caught up with him, however, when a follower of Shen-hsiu’s “Northern” Ch’an named Lu I, who just happened to be chief of imperial censors, accused him of plotting against the government (citing as evidence the large crowds he routinely attracted). Finally, Emperor Hsuan-tsung (grandson of Empress Wu) himself summoned Shen-hui from Loyang to Ch’ang-an, where he questioned the master and finally sent him into exile in the deep south. This was about 753. It was at this point that Chinese political history and Ch’an collide, for the throne was soon to need Shen-hui’s help.
Emperor Hsuan-tsung (reigned 712-756) has been credited by many with the wreck of the T’ang Dynasty. At the beginning of his reign the capital had been in the east at Loyang (where Empress Wu had moved it. to escape her memories), but the aristocracy in the west successfully pressured him to bring it back to Ch’ang-an. In his declining years Hsuan-tsung became infatuated with the wife of his son, a lady now infamous in Chinese history as Yang Kuei-fei. She subsequently was divorced by her husband and became a member of the emperor’s harem in 738, coming to enjoy enormous influence in affairs of state. She had first been brought to the emperor’s attention by one of her relatives, and in typical Chinese style she procured government posts for all available members of her family. As the poet Tu Fu (712-770) described her machinations:
So many courtiers now throng around the court
That honest men must tremble;
And it’s said that the gold plate from the treasury
Has gone to the kinsmen of Lady Yang.7
Although none of these blood relatives ever rose to the rich opportunities the situation afforded, another of her favorites compensated abundantly for their political ineptitude.
His name was An Lu-shan, a “barbarian” of Turkish extraction, born in 703, who first entered China as a slave to an officer in a northern garrison of the empire. After distinguishing himself as a soldier, he came to the attention of Yang Kuei-fei, who was so charmed by the man that she adopted him as her son. Before long he was a familiar figure at the court, reportedly very fat and possessing a flair for entertaining the bored aristocracy by his flippancy. Eventually he was made governor of a frontier province, where under pretense of a foreign threat he proceeded to recruit an army of alarming proportions and questionable allegiance.
Meanwhile, back in the capital, Lady Yang and her relatives had taken over the government, whereupon they unwisely decided that An Lu-shan should be brought under firmer control. With their hostility providing him just the pretext needed, he marched his new army toward Ch’ang-an, pausing only long enough to conquer Loyang and proclaim himself emperor. This was in January 756. By July he had also taken Ch’ang-an, from which the royal family had already fled. Conditions deteriorated sufficiently that the troops supporting the throne demanded, and got, the head of Lady Yang Kuei-fei as the price for continued support. (On imperial orders she was strangled by a eunuch.) In the meantime, the imperial T’ang forces found reinforcements, including some Arab mercenaries. After a battle outside Ch’ang-an which left An Lu-shan’s forces in disarray, the rebel was murdered, some say by his own son. Soon thereafter the victorious mercenaries sacked and looted Loyang, ending forever its prominence in Chinese history. The government of the T’ang survived, but it was penniless after the many war years in which it could not enforce taxation.8
The time was now 757, some four years after Shen-hui’s banishment. The destitute government, desperate for money, decided to set up ordination platforms in the major cities across China and raise cash by selling certificates of investiture for Buddhist monks. (Since entry into the priesthood removed an individual from the tax rolls, it was accepted practice for the Chinese government to require an advance compensation.) Shen-hui’s oratorical gifts were suddenly remembered by some of his
former followers, and the old heretic was recalled to assist in the fundraising. He was such an effective fundraiser in the ruined city of Loyang that the government commissioned special quarters to be built for him on the grounds of his old temple, the Ho-tse. (He was later to be remembered as the Master of Ho-tse.)
The price for his cooperation seems to have been the official acceptance of his version of Ch’an’s history. In his battle with the Northern school of Ch’an he had outlived his opponents and through a bizarre turn of events had finally won the day. Solely through his persistence, the obscure Southern Ch’an monk Hui-neng was installed as Sixth Patriarch in Ch’an histories (replacing Shen-hsiu), and one history went so far as to declare Shen-hui himself the Seventh Patriarch.
The philosophical significance of what Shen-hui’s “Southern” doctrine brought to Ch’an has been described as nothing less than a revolution. A modern Zen scholar has claimed that Shen-hui’s revolution produced a complete replacement of Indian Buddhism with Chinese philosophy, keeping only the name. Shen-hui, he claims, swept aside all forms of meditation ordhyana and replaced it with a concept called no-mind: the doctrines of “absence of thought” and “seeing into one’s original nature.”9
Perhaps this philosophical coup d’etat may best be understood by comparing the Northern and Southern teachings. The discredited Northern school of Shen-hsiu had preached that the road to enlightenment must be traversed “step by step,” that there were in fact two stages of the mind—the first being a “false mind” which perceives the world erroneously in dualities, and the second a “true mind” which is pure and transcends all discriminations and dualities, perceiving the world simply as a unity. One proceeds from the “false mind” to the “true mind” step by step, through the suppression of erroneous thought processes by the practice of dhyana or meditation, in which the mind and the senses slowly reach a state of absolute quietude.
The Southern school took issue with this theory of the mind on a number of points. To begin, they said that if there really is no duality in the world, then how can the mind be divided into “false” and “true”? They argued that the answer quite simply is that there is only one mind, whose many functions are all merely expressions of single true reality. The unity of all things is the true reality; our minds are also part of this reality; and upon realizing this, you have achieved the same enlightenment experience once
realized by the Buddha. There is no “false mind” and “true mind,” nor is there any need for a long program of dhyana to slowly suppress false thoughts. All that is needed is to practice “absence of thought” and thereby intuitively to realize a simple truth: One unity pervades everything. This realization they called Buddha-mind, and it could only happen “all at once” (not “step by step”), at any time and without warning. This moment of primal realization they called “seeing into one’s original nature.”
Although Shen-hui is somewhat vague about exactly what practice should replace meditation, the scholar Walter Liebenthal has inferred the following about Shen-hui’s attitude toward “sudden enlightenment” as a replacement for meditation: “He seems to have rejected meditation in the technical sense of the word. Instead of methodical endeavors designed to promote religious progress he recommends a change of point of view leading to non-attachment. . . . Non-attachment in this case means that external objects are not allowed to catch our fancy.. . .
[A] thing recollected is isolated, it is singled out of the whole, and is thus an illusion; for all short of the undifferentiated continuum is illusive. The senses work as usual . . . but ‘no desire is aroused.’ . . . This change happens suddenly, that is, it is not dependent upon preceding exertions; it can be brought about without first passing through the stages of a career. That is why it is called ‘sudden awakening.’”10
Liebenthal interprets Shen-hui as saying that whereas the purpose of meditation should be merely to erase our attachment to physical things, it also removes our cognizance of them, which is not necessarily a requirement for nonattachment. It should be possible for us to be aware of the world without being attached to it and enslaved by it. According to Shen-hui’s sermon:
When thus my friends are told to discard as useless all they have learned before, then those who have spent fifty or more, or only twenty years practicing meditation, hearing this, might be very much puzzled. . . . Friends, listen attentively, I speak to you of self-deception. What does self-deception mean? You, who have assembled in this place today, are craving for riches and pleasures of intercourse with males and females; you are thinking of gardens and houses. . . . The Nirvana Sutra says, “To get rid of
your passions is not Nirvana; to look upon them as no matter of yours, that is Nirvana.”11
So far so good; but how do we reach this state of recognition without attachment? Apparently the way is to somehow find our original state, in which we were naturally unattached to the surrounding world. The way is to mentally disassociate ourselves from the turmoil of society that surrounds us and look inward, touching our original nature. In this way, both prajnaand samadhi, awareness and noninvolvement, which have been described as the active and passive sides of meditation, are achieved simultaneously.
Now, let us penetrate to that state in which we are not attached. What do we get to know? Not being attached we are tranquil and guileless. This state underlying all motions and passions is called samadhi. Penetrating to this fundamental state we encounter a natural wisdom that is conscious of this original tranquility and guilelessness. This wisdom is called prajna. The intimate relation between samadhi and prajna is thus defined.
. . . If now you penetrate to that state in which your mind is not attached, and yet remains open to impressions, and thus are conscious of the fact that your mind is not attached, then you have reached the state of original blankness and tranquility. From that state of blankness and tranquility there arises an inner knowledge through which blue, yellow, red, and white things in this world are well distinguished. That is prajna. Yet no desires arise from these distinctions. That is samadhi.
. . . It follows that freedom from attachment (to external things, which replaces meditation in Ch’an Buddhism), enables you to look into the heart of all the Buddhas of the past, and yet it is nothing else than what you yourselves experience today.12
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about this approach was that it seemed to eliminate the need for all the traditional apparatus of Buddhism. It had little or nothing to do with organized religion, and even less connection with the mountains of Indian philosophy that had gone before. A thousand years of Indian thought had been distilled down to a single truth: The realization of our original nature comprises enlightenment. If this were taken at face value, then there was no longer any need for the Buddhist community, the sutras, the chanting, even
meditation. There was, in fact, no longer any need for Buddhism. It had been reduced, as the Chinese scholar Wing-tsit Chan has observed, to a concern for the mind alone.
By redefining meditation, Shen-hui had “laid the foundations of Chinese Zen which was no Zen at all.”13 As Shen-hui now described meditation ordhyana: Sitting motionless is no dhyana; introspection into your own mind is no dhyana; and looking inward at your own calmness is no dhyana.14. . . Here in my school, to have no thoughts is sitting, and to see one’s original nature is dhyana (Ch’an).15
What happened to Indian meditation? No wonder the scholar Hu Shih has described this new teaching as a Chinese revolt against Buddhism.
The political triumph of Shen-hui made Southern Ch’an the official sect, but it also meant that he, now one of the leading religious figures in China, had necessarily become a part of the ruling establishment. Little wonder that the actual future of Ch’an soon reverted back to rural teachers, men who could more convincingly claim to despise the ways of the world, as they meditated in their secluded mountain retreats far from imperial patronage. Shen-hui’s school of “Southern” Ch’an of Ho-tse temple, which had established dominance in the north, was soon to be eclipsed by these new vigorous but unlettered rural Ch’anists.16 Interestingly, the official recognition of the court seemed to quickly extinguish any school of Ch’an that received it. Shen-hsiu was honored by Empress Wu, and his school was then supplanted by that of Shen-hui, whose own imperial recognition and honors were soon to be dust in the history of Ch’an, as the new rural school burst on the scene and effectively took over.17
The disorders surrounding and following the rebellion of An Lu-shan are commonly considered today as signaling the decline of the great age of the T’ang Dynasty. They certainly signified the atrophy of the war-torn North Chinese capitals as the political power in China. Loyang and Ch’ang-an came to be replaced in economic influence by the south, a region relatively untouched by the constant struggles North China had to mount against barbarian invaders. Northern scholars retired to the pastoral south, where they lazed in peaceful gardens and recalled the great poets of the early T’ang. Thus Northern urban Ch’an followed the general demise of North Chinese political strength.
Was Shen-hui really the father of the new “meditationless” Ch’an of the mind? Some traditional scholars claim it was not
really Shen-hui who revolutionized Ch’an, but rather his master, the Southern teacher Hui-neng. For example, D. T. Suzuki believed that whereas Shen-hui was correct in equating meditation with the primal knowledge of self called prajna, he actually taught that this knowledge came about through rational understanding rather than intuition.18 It was Hui-neng, said Suzuki, who correctly understood that prajna was intuition and who knew that it could be realized only through the “sudden” path rather than through the “step-by-step” path. This may well have been true. Just as the Apostle Paul interpreted the teachings of an obscure provincial teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, and popularized them among the urban centers of the Roman Empire, so Shen-hui dispensed the ideas of Hui-neng in northern cities, possibly tempering them where necessary to gain acceptance from the more rationally inclined urban Ch’anists. To continue the analogy, Shen-hui (like Paul) never quotes his mentor directly in his writings—something he certainly would have done if there had been anything to quote—but in a few decades there would be a full autobiography of Hui-neng complete with a “sermon.” Shen-hui’s own contribution was to open the way for the anti-meditation rural school to take over Ch’an. We may now turn to the legendary Hui-neng, remembered as the “Sixth Patriarch.”