The Golden Age of Ch’an – Nanyue and Mazu Daoyi

by tendo zenji


Dajian Huineng (Sixth Patriarch)
Nanyue Huairang
Mazu Daoyi

From Mazu the Lin-chi, Kuei-Yang and Yunmen schools descended (Yunmen also has connections to Shi’tou Xiquan).


I. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (p. 56)

NANYUE HUAIRANG (677–744) was the senior student of the Sixth Ancestor, Dajian Huineng. He came from ancient Jinzhou. Two of the five traditional “houses” of Chinese Zen traced their origin to the Sixth Ancestor through Nanyue Huairang and his famous student, Mazu Daoyi. Nanyue left home at the age of fifteen to study under a Vinaya master named Hongjing.38 After his ordination he studied the Vinayapitaka, but he became dissatisfied, and then traveled to see a teacher named Hui An on Mt. Song.  Although Nanyue made some spiritual progress with Hui An, he soon continued on to Cao Xi in Shaozhou, where he met and studied under the great teacher and Sixth Ancestor of Zen, Dajian Huineng. Their first encounter is described in the Wudeng Huiyuan.

Huineng said to Nanyue, “Where did you come from?”
Nanyue said, “From Mt. Song.”
Huineng said, “What is it that thus comes?”
Nanyue couldn’t answer. After eight years, Nanyue suddenly attained enlightenment. He informed the Sixth Ancestor of this, saying, “I have an understanding.”
The Sixth Ancestor said, “What is it?”
Nanyue said, “To say it’s a thing misses the mark.”
The Sixth Ancestor said, “Then can it be made evident or not?”
Nanyue said, “I don’t say it can’t be made evident, but it can’t be defiled.”
The Sixth Ancestor said, “Just this that is undefiled is what is upheld and sustained by all buddhas. You are thus. I also am thus. “Prajnadhara has foretold that from beneath your feet will come a horse which will trample to death everyone in the world.40 Bear this in mind but don’t soon repeat it.” 

Nanyue then served the Sixth Ancestor for fifteen years.

Nanyue also said, “All dharmas are born of mind. Mind is unborn. Dharmas are nonabiding. When one reaches the mind-ground, one’s actions are unobstructed. Be careful when using this teaching with those not of superior understanding.” A great worthy once asked Nanyue, “If an image is reflected in a mirror, where does the light [of the image] go [when it’s no longer observed]?” Nanyue said, “It’s similar to remembering when Your Worthiness was a child. Where has your childlike appearance gone [now]?” (Later Fayan said, “What is the image that the worthy one cast in the mirror?”) The worthy one asked, “But afterward, why does the image not remain?” Nanyue said, “Although it is no longer reflected, it can’t be reproved even slightly.”

Six disciples entered Huairang’s room [to receive Dharma transmission]. He commended each of them, saying, “The six of you together will represent my body, each in accord with one part of it. One of you (the monk Chang Hao) inherits my eyebrows and their dignified appearance. One of you (Zhida) inherits my eyes and their stern glare. One of you (Danran) inherits my ears and their ability to hear true principle. One of you (Shenzhao) inherits my nose and its ability to perceive qi.41 One of you (Yanxuan) inherits my tongue and its ability for articulate speaking. One of you (Daoyi) inherits my mind and its knowledge of past and present.”

On the eleventh day of the eighth month in [the year 744] the master died on Mt. Heng. He received the posthumous name “Zen Master of Great Wisdom.” His stupa was named “Most Victorious Wheel.”

Mazu Daoyi

II. Sun-Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-Tsu and the Hung-Chou School of Ch’an (pp. 59-61):

This is a translation of the Chiang-His ma-tsu tao-i ch’an-shih ÿu-lu (Record of Ch’an Master Ma-tsu Tao-i of khans)

I. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (pp. 73-75):

MAZU DAOYI, “DAJI”(709–88) was a student of Nanyue Huairang. After Huineng, Mazu is the most famous of the ancient Chinese Zen masters. Two of the traditionally acknowledged major schools of Zen trace their lineage through this renowned Zen ancient. From his home in Sichuan Province, Mazu made his way to Zhongqing, where he initially studied under a second-generation teacher of Daman Hongren (the Fifth Ancestor). There he received ordination as a Buddhist monk. Later, he settled on Mt. Heng, where he met Nanyue Huairang. After ten years of study with Nanyue, he received Dharma transmission, then proceeded to travel as a yunshui the length and breadth of China, perfecting his understanding of the Buddha way. Eventually he settled at Zhongling (now Nanchang City), where students from every quarter came to study with him. Mazu’s Zen lineage is remembered as the Hongzhou Zen school. Located in what is now Jiangxi Province, it was the dominant Zen school of the later Tang dynasty (late ninth and early tenth centuries). Mazu was the first Zen teacher acknowledged to use the staff to jolt his students into awakening. The strident style of his Hongzhou school foreshadowed the uncompromising training methods of his famous Zen descendant, Linji Yixuan. Unlike some other Zen masters of his time, Mazu did not leave an extensive written record of his teachings. Instead, we know of him largely from imaginative legends that reflect the awesome sense of presence that he conveyed. Like the great Zen masters of all ages, Mazu emphasized the immediacy of Zen enlightenment. He emphasized the teaching that “mind is Buddha” and “This place is itself true thusness.” Mazu’s “sudden” approach moved the Chinese spiritual scales back toward “pointing directly at mind,” the essential teaching of Bodhidharma’s Zen.

The Wudeng Huiyuan provides the following account of Mazu’s life and teaching.

Zen master Mazu Daoyi of Jiangxi was from Shifang in Hanzhou [about forty kilometers north of the modern city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province]. His surname was Ma. He entered Luohan Temple in his home district. His appearance was most unusual. He strode like an ox and glared like a tiger. His extended tongue covered his nose. On the soles of his feet his veins formed two circles. As a youth he received tonsure under a monk named Tang in Zizhou. He was fully ordained under Vinaya master Yuan in Yu Province. During the Kai Yuan era [713–41] Mazu met Master Nanyue Huairang while practicing Zen meditation on Mt. Heng. Six others also studied with Nanyue but only Mazu received the secret mind seal. Nanyue Huairang and his student Mazu Daoyi can be compared with Qingyuan Xingsi and his student Shitou Xiqian. Though they came from the same source, they diverged into two branches. The brilliance of ancient Zen arose through these two masters. Liu Ke said, “In Jiangxi is Master Daji. In Hunan is Master Shitou. Anyone traversing the country seeking a teacher who doesn’t see these two will remain ignorant.” The record of Prajnadhara of India made a prediction about Bodhidharma, saying, “Although the great land of China is vast, there are no roads where my descendants won’t travel. The phoenix, with a single grain, nourishes the saints and monks in the ten directions.” The Sixth Ancestor [also citing an ancient prediction by Prajnadhara] said to Nanyue, “Hereafter, from the area to which you will go, a horse will come forth and trample everyone in the world to death.” Later, the Dharma of Nanyue’s spiritual heir was spread across the world. People of that time called him Master Ma. From Buddha Trace Mountain in Jianyang, Mazu moved to Linchuan. He then moved to Nankang at Gonggong Mountain. In the middle of the Dali era [766–79], Mazu lived at the Kaiyuan Temple in Zhongling. During that time the high official Lu Sigong heard of Mazu’s reputation, and personally came to receive instruction. Because of this, students from the four quarters gathered like clouds beneath Mazu’s seat.


Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings
Andy Ferguson.
Wisdom Publications. Expanded edition (February 22, 2011)
ISBN-10: 9780861716173

Sun-Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-Tsu and the Hung-Chou School of Ch’an
by Mario Pocesk
Jain Pub Co (April 1, 2001)
ISBN-10: 0875730221

Master Ma’s Ordinary Mind: The Sayings of Zen Master Mazu Daoyi
by Fumio Yamada (Author), Nick Bellando (Translator), Andy Ferguson (contributor)
Wisdom Publications (April 11, 2017)
ISBN-10: 1614292817

The Records of Mazu and the Making of Classical Chan Literature
Mario Poceski
Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 13, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0190225750