The Golden Age of Ch’an: Heze Shenhui

by tendo zenji


Dajian Huineng (Sixth Patriarch)
Heze Shenhui

Heze Shenhui

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (p. 66):

HEZE SHENHUI (670–762) was an eminent disciple of the Sixth Ancestor. He strongly supported and promoted Huineng’s place in Chinese Zen history. Shenhui championed the Southern school of Zen, and vociferously attacked what became widely known as the Northern school, the school associated with Yuquan Shenxiu. Shenhui put forward two reasons for his attack on the Northern school. The first was, “The (ancestral) succession is spurious.” Attacking Shenxiu’s legitimacy as the Dharma heir of Hongren was an extension of Shenhui’s proposition that that honor belonged exclusively to Huineng. Obviously, the argument was self-serving as well, since Shenhui could thus make a claim to be the true Seventh Ancestor of the Bodhidharma line. The second reason for attacking Shenxiu was, “(His) Dharma gate is gradual.” By this, Shenhui meant that the various “gradual” spiritual practices employed by Shenxiu, as well as other disciples of Hongren, were fundamentally at odds with what Shenhui regarded as the genuine Zen of his teacher, Huineng.

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teaching (p. 66-68):

Zen master Heze Shenhui of the Western Capital came from Xiangyang. His surname was Gao, and he became a novice monk at the age of fourteen. At their first meeting the Sixth Ancestor asked Shenhui, “You have come on an arduous journey from afar. Did you bring what is fundamental? If you have what is fundamental then you can see the host. Let’s see what you have to say.” Shenhui said, “I take no abode as the fundamental. What is seen is the host.” The Sixth Ancestor said, “This novice is talking nonsense!” He then took his staff and struck Shenhui. As he was being beaten, Shenhui thought, “[This master] is such a great and wise sage. It is difficult to meet such a person even after many kalpas of time. Having met him today how can I lament my life?” From this time forward Shenhui served as Huineng’s attendant. Once, the Sixth Ancestor addressed the congregation, saying, “I have something which has no head or tail. It is nameless and can’t be described. It has no back and no front. Do any of you know what it is?” Shenhui came forward and said, “It is the source of all things. It is the buddha nature of Shenhui.” The Sixth Ancestor said, “I said that it has no name and no description. How can you say it is the source of buddha nature?” Shenhui bowed and retreated. The Sixth Ancestor said, “In the future if this youngster heads a monastery, it will certainly bring forth fully realized disciples of our school.” ([Later,] Fayan said, “The record of that time was indeed excellent. Today, if we point to a greatly awakened school, it is the Heze school.”) Before long, Shenhui traveled to the Western Capital [Changan], where he received ordination.

Shenhui is a particularly problematic figure in Ch’an, who could be regarded as more a polemicist than a serious teacher.  In The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism John McCrae considers Shenhui’s attacks on the so-called Northern School (which was Shenhui’s designation for it) and finds most of his criticisms specious.

The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism (p,3):

“On critically important omission [in the Platform Sutra], however, indicates that the Platform Sutra, was not merely echoing history, but rewriting it. This is the complete absence of any reference to the role played by Shen-hui who carried the banner of Hui-neng during an extended, energetic campaign against Shen-hsiu’s [the founder of the so-called Northern School] disciples and the Northern School in general. The whole point of the narrative , in fact, is to validate Shen-hui’s claims about Hui-neng without reference to Shen-hui himself.  That is the Platform Sutra wished to adopt and build upon Shen-hui’s  teachings without identifying itself with his sometime acrimonious and self-serving campaign” 

Indeed if you look at the writings of Zongmi (780-841) who wrote several critical essays on the approaches the various Ch’an schools he both refers to Shen-hui as the “Seventh Patriarch” and completely dismisses the Northern School out of hand.

The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism (p. 5):

“Zongmi’s works contain a comprehensive systematization of the various interpretations of Ch’an, within which the teachings of the Northern School are regulated to the very lowest position. According to Zongmi, Shen-hsiu’s verse [in the Platform Sutra] and the supposed teachings of the Northern School fail to recognize the ultimate identity of enlightenment and the affiliations and illusions by which it is apparently obscured. As a result the long years, or liftimes of religious cultivation required to clean  away those illusions were all in vain.”

For more on Shenhui’s propaganda efforts and a more historically accurate view of the Northern School see McCrae’s The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism. For more on the Heze school and classical period Ch’an’s assessment of the various branches of Ch’an see Broughton’s Zongmni on Chan.


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

The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism
John R. McCrae
University of Hawaii Press (February 1, 1987)
ISBN-10: 0824810562

Zongmni on Chan
Jeffery Broughton
Columbia University Press (May 14, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0231143923