Early Ch’an Sources

by tendo zenji

For the last three months or so during the Sunday Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery we have been reading and examining various early Ch’an texts along with supportive material. These are the sources and references used in this series along with some commentary and notes.

Core Indian Buddhist Philosophies


Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. The advent of the Prajnaparamita teaching in the second century B.C. signaled the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism, with its emphasis on the attainment of enlightenment rather than nirvana and its greater inclusion of laity in the pursuit of such a goal. Maha is Sanskrit for “great,” and prajnaparamita can mean “perfection of wisdom” or “transcendent wisdom.” In either case, this refers to the wisdom by means of which we see what is real, the way things really are. The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra is the title of an encyclopedic collection of Perfection of Wisdom texts translated into Chinese by Hsuan-tsang in the middle of the seventh century.  from The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng by Red Pine.


Emptiness oriented, Nagarjuna the principle figure.
from Wikipedia: According to Madhyamaka all phenomena (dharmas) are empty (śūnya) of “nature,” a “substance” or “essence” (svabhāva) which gives them “solid and independent existence,”because they are dependently co-arisen. But this “emptiness” itself is also “empty”: it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.


The ‘Mind Only’ school, Asana one of the principal figures.
From Wikipedia: Yogācāra; literally “yoga practice”; “one whose practice is yoga”) is an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing phenomenology and ontology through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It was associated with Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism in about the 4th century CE, but also included non-Mahayana practitioners of the Dārṣṭāntika school.

Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press 2012

The core Yogacara text used in China. The translation by Guṇabhadra had a “mystery cult” like group in China and in some early linages he is thought of as the first patriarch before Bodhidharma. It has numerous elements that were part of the core character of Ch’an:

Personal realization

“The teaching known and passed down by the sages of the past is that projections are nonexistent and that bodhisattvas should dwell alone in a quiet place and examine their own awareness. By relying on nothing else and avoiding views and projections, they steadily advance to the tathagata stage. This is what characterizes the personal realization of Buddha knowledge. ”  from section LVI, p. 163 pp. 3

One path

“Mahamati, what characterizes the one path? When I speak of the one path, I mean the one path of realization. And what does the one path to realization mean? Projections, such as projections of what grasps or what is grasped, do not arise in suchness. This is what the one path to realization means.”  from section LVI, p. 163 pp. 4

 Beyond Words and Letters

“Thus, Mahamati, you should focus your efforts on true meaning. The true meaning is subtle and silent. It is the cause of nirvana. Words are linked to projections, and projections are tied to birth and death. Mahamati, the true meaning is learned from the learned. Mahamati, those who are learned esteem meaning and not words. Those who esteem meaning don’t accept the scriptures and doctrines of other schools. They don’t accept them for themselves, nor do they cause others to accept them. Thus they are called ‘learned and virtuous’. Hence, those who seek meaning should approach those who are learned, those who esteem meaning. And they should distance themselves from those who do the opposite and who attach themselves to words.” from Section LXXVI, p. 221 pp. 1


The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen
Jeffrey L. Broughton
University of California Press; First edition (September 21, 1999)
ISBN-10: 0520219724

Two Entrances
Most likely written by T’an-Lin references the Madyhamaka favored sutra the Śrīmālā Sūtra which T’an-lin was expert on. “The key to the Two Entrances lies not in Bodhidharma but in the Śrīmālā and Armless Lin’s commentary on it. See page 68-74 for more on this as it’s an extensively developed point.

Letter 1 and 2
Most likely to Hui-k’o (the second patriarch). A longer version of the second letter is part of Hui-k’o’s entry in Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (by Tao Hsüan), the earliest source on these figures.

Record I
Record I is heavily cited in Record of the Mirror of the Thesis by Yen-Shou as Method for Quieting Mind by Bodhidharma.

“What of the teachings of Record I? They are overwhelmingly of the Śūyavāda, the school of sunyata or voidness. Two Śūyavāda texts weave their way through Record I, the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, a sutra, and the Middle Treatise (Chuing-lun), which consists of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Verses (Madhyamaka-kārikā) and a commentary by the Indian Madhyamika Pińgala. Not only are these two texts quoted numerous times; their teachings informalities a good deal of Record I.” page 80-81

Record II
Record II truly constitutes the beginnings of the recorded-sayings genre of Ch’an literature. There is a direct line from this work to the vast literature of Ch’an recorded sayings, and neglect of Record II has led us to place the beginnings of the recorded-sayings genre much too late in the history of Ch’an literature–usually in the ninth century.

“Dharma Master Chih saw Dharma Master Yüan on the street of butchers and asked: “Do you see the butchers slaughtering the sheep?” Dharma Master Yüan said: “My eyes are not blind. How could I not see them? Dharma Master Chih said: “Master Yüan, you are saying you see it!” Master Yüan said: “You are seeing it on top of seeing it!” p. 39

While Record II fell out of general Ch’an usage is at least a model, if not a direct referent for the later A Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions (see below).

Record III
A collection of sayings as opposed to the dialogs of Record I and II. It contains quite a few sections devoted to Hui-k’o which Broughton describes thusly: “Given that the content of those sayings is in fact Madhyamaka in flavor, Record III might be called, at least in its first portion, a repository of the Madhyamaka legacy of Hui-k’o.

Hsin Hsin Ming

Attributed to Chien-chih Seng-ts’an (Third Patriarch) though scholarship has determined that to be unlikely. There are a number of translations of this text. The one I read was from the Dai Bai Zan Chobo Bo Zen Ji Sutra book which can be downloaded here: Chobo-Ji Sutra Book (pdf). However there are better translations including this one: Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind. That translation as well as D.T. Suzuki’s, the original Chinese and a literally translation plus historical information and commentary can be found on this essential site: Faith Mind Inscription.

A Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions

A good website on this early text can be found here: Jue Guan Lun. During the series we used two different translation.

The Ceasing of Notions: An Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments
by Martin Collcutt (Introduction), Myokyo-ni (Translator), Michelle Bromley (Translator)
Wisdom Publications (December 17, 2012)

A Dialogue on the Contemplation-Extinguished,
translated by Gishin Tokiwa
The Institute for Zen Studies, 1973.

The first translation includes embedded commentary and is a bit more difficult to just read the text.  It can also be ready on the Jue Guan Lun. website along with some selected commentary and additional information.  The second translation was the text primarily used. It is more academic and is a bit stiff, but is more readable and contains the Chinese as well.

This text is a dialog between a teacher (Master Nyuri/Attainment, whose name means “Entrance into the Principle”) and his disciple Emmon/Gateway (“Gate of Affinities”) and follows more in the Madhyamaka tradition. Especially note the way that emptiness is discussed in this text. It is though a late enough Ch’an text that it has elements of Yogacara as well as Chinese Taoist thought in it as well.

Buddhist scholar, John McRae, attributes this text to the Ox-head School of early Chan.
Circa 750. More of McRae’s scholarship on early Ch’an can be found here: The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism.

On Emptiness


Codependent arising / Dependent Origination

The Buddhist notion of emptiness is that there is nothing that exists independently of anything else. When you examine anything, thoughts, objects, emotions, you can always find conditions and causes that preceded it. If you eliminate all of those what remains? Nothing. There isn’t anything that exists intrinsically of its own accord. This is emptiness and this emptiness is the only thing that has no causes or conditions. This emptiness is ultimate reality.

Nagarjuna from Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way Ch. 24

24.18: Whatever is dependently originated
is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
is itself the Middle Way.

24.19 There does not exist anything
that is not dependently originated.
Therefore, there does not exist
anything that is not empty.

Nothing exists that is not dependent on others. “Emptiness means absence of intrinsic or independent existence.”

Barry Kerzin, Nagarjuna’s Wisdom
excerpted in The Wisdom Journal, p;. 5 Wisdom Publications Spring 2019

While sitting in a cross-legged position on a comfortable seate, contemplate for a while as follows: There are two kinds of entities, material and nonmaterial. In this regard, material entities are collections of minute particles. When these are closely examine and broken up according to their directional parts, not even the most subtle part remains and they are completely without appearance. Nonmaterial is the mind. In regard to this, the past mind has eased and perished. The mind of the future has not yet arisen or occurred. Even the mind of the present is extremely difficult to examine: it has no color and is devoid of shape; since it is similar to space, it is not established; and since it is free of unity and multiplicity, unproduced, and having a luminous nature and so forth, when it is analyzed and examine with the weapon of reasoning, one realizes that it is not established.

In this way, when those two are not established as having any nature at all and do not exist, the very wisdom that individually discriminates in not established either. … “… when all specific and generally characterized things are established as nonexistent, wisdom itself, without appearance and luminous, is not established with any nature at all. All faults such as laxity and excitement and so forth are eliminated. In this interval of meditation, consciousness does not conceptualize, does not apprehend anything at all. All recollection and mental engagement are eliminated. Consciousness would reside in this way for as long as the enemies or thieves of phenomenal marks and conceptual thoughts do not arise.

Jewels of the Middle Way by James Apple. p. 277-278
excerpted in The Wisdom Journal, p;. 29 Wisdom Publications Spring 2019

The Ceasing of Notions: An Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments
An Instructive Talk between Master Nyuri and Disciple Emmon
Translated by Myokyo-ni (Irmgard Schloegl) and Michelle Bromley

Master Nyuri (whose name means “Entrance into the Principle”) Attainment
Emmon (“Gate of Affinities”) are discussing the truth. Gateway


1 Emmon asks, “As for the principle of ultimate emptiness, how can it be proven and verified?”
Master Nyuri answers, “Seek it in all forms, confirm it in your own words.”

2 Emmon: “How does one seek it in all forms and confirm it in one’s own words?”
Nyuri: “Emptiness and forms are one. Words and confirmation are not two.”

3 Emmon: “If all existing things are empty, why can only buddhas see this and not ordinary people?”
Nyuri: “It is obscured by the working of error but becomes clear in the stillness of truth.”
Value judgments give rise to arbitrary notions motivated by self-centeredness, and so they are contrary to the natural harmony.

4 Emmon: “If all forms are really empty, how can they get perfumed? Conversely, if they do get perfumed, how can they be empty? Or realize emptiness?”
Nyuri: “Speaking of what is false at once gives rise to the ordinary delusion and its workings. In true emptiness there is nothing that can attract perfumes.”

5 Emmon: “If all forms are really empty, then surely there is no need to train in the Way. Is this because sentient beings are already by nature empty?”
Nyuri: “Once the principle of emptiness is realized, there is indeed no need for training. Delusions about existence arise only because emptiness has not been penetrated completely.”

6 Emmon: “In that case, to drop all delusions is to unite with the Way. Do you mean that all have gone astray?”
Nyuri: “By no means. Delusions are not the Way, but neither is letting go of delusions the Way. Why? For example, one who is drunk is not sober. And, if sober, he is not drunk. Though the state of being drunk and being sober do not exist without each other, yet being drunk is not, at the same time, being sober.”

7 Emmon: “Where is the drunkenness after one has become sober?”
Nyuri: “It is like turning over the palm of one’s hand. After having turned it over, why ask where it is?”


Taoist Emptiness

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
by David Hinton
New Directions; May 30, 2005
ISBN-10: 0811216241

No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan,
by David Hinton
Shambhala (February 27, 2018)
ISBN-10: 161180437X

“Tao originally meant “way,” as in “pathway” or “roadway,” a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu redefined it as a spiritual concept by using it to describe the process (hence, a “Way”) through which all things arise and pass away. We might approach their Way be speaking of it at its deep ontological level, where the distinction between presence (yu) and absence (wu) arises. Presence can be understood in a fairly straightforward way as the empirical universe, the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation; and absence as the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of being perpetually arises.” (p.  xiv)

“The mechanism by which being burgeons forth out of nonbeing is tzu-jan. The literal meaning of tzu-jan is “self-ablaze.” From this comes “self-so” or “the of-itself,” hence “spontaneous” or “natural.” But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan might be “occurrence appearing of itself,” for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things emerging spontaneously from the generative source, each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient, each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form.”  (p.  xiv)

“The vision of  tzu-jan recognizes earth to be a boundless generative organism, and this vision gives rise to a very different experience of the world. Rather than the metaphysics of time and space, it knows the world as an all-encompassing present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future. It also allows no fundamental distinction between subjective and objective realms, for it includes all that we call mental, all that appears in the mind. And here lies the awesome sense of the sacred in this generative world: for each of the ten thousand

The Platform Sutra

The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng
by Red Pine
Counterpoint; November 6, 2006
ISBN-10: 1593760868

Direct and indirect
And what is the origin of “direct” and “indirect”? Although there is only one kind of Dharma, understanding can be fast or slow. When understanding is slow, we say it’s “indirect.” And when understanding is fast, we say it’s “direct.” The Dharma isn’t direct or indirect, it’s people who are sharp or dull. This is why we have the terms “direct” and “indirect.”

Pine, Red. The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng . Counterpoint. Kindle Edition.

The Master told Chih-ch’eng, “I’ve heard that when your Zen master teaches people, he only gives instruction in morality, meditation, and wisdom. Tell me, what does your master teach people about morality, meditation, and wisdom?” Chih-ch’eng said, “Concerning morality, meditation, and wisdom, Master Shen-hsiu says not committing evil is morality, doing good is wisdom, and purifying one’s thoughts is meditation. This is what he means by ‘morality, meditation, and wisdom.’ This is his explanation. What is the Master’s view?”

Hui-neng replied, “This explanation is wonderful, but my view is different.” Chih-ch’eng asked, “How is it different?” Hui-neng replied, “Understanding can be fast or slow.” Chih-ch’eng then asked the Master to explain his view of morality, meditation, and wisdom. The Master said, “Listen to my explanation, and you’ll see how I view them. When the land of your mind is free of error, this is the morality of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of confusion, this is the meditation of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of ignorance, this is the wisdom of your own nature.” The Master continued, “The morality, meditation, and wisdom of your master are intended for small-minded people. My morality, meditation, and wisdom are intended for people of bigger minds. Once people realize their own nature, they don’t differentiate between morality, meditation, and wisdom.” Chih-ch’eng said, “Could the Master please explain why they aren’t differentiated?” The Master said, “Our nature is free of error, free of confusion, and free of ignorance. Prajna shines in every thought and is forever free of attributes. What is there to differentiate? Our nature is something we cultivate directly. It doesn’t have any intervening stages, so we don’t differentiate any.”