The Heze School: Guifeng Zongmi

by tendo zenji


Dajian Huineng (Sixth Patriarch)
Heze Shenhui
Cizhou Zhiru
Yizhou Nanyin
Suizhou Daoyuan
Guifeng Zongmi

Zongmi had no dharma heirs and the Heze lineage faded away soon afterwards. However the impact of his theory of Chan was monumental and the form of his critique became canonical.


GUIFENG ZONGMI (780–841) is remembered as the disciple of the Sichuan school Zen master Suizhou Daoyuan. However, Zen history also regards him to belong to the Heze Zen school of Heze Shenhui. He is widely respected as the leading Buddhist scholar of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. He possessed an intimate understanding of various Buddhist schools and doctrines, and made important contributions to the advancement of Buddhism in China. He was also the fifth ancestor of the Buddhist Huayan school, which based its teachings on the Huayan (“Flower Garland”) Sutra.

Andy Ferguson,. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (p. 269).

Zongmi on Chan

Zongmi sought to ground the practice of the myriad Chan schools, in the canonical Buddhist teachings. He surveyed the schools, summarizing them as having both an ‘idea’ (theory) and a praxis. That is the root Buddhist notion that they are rooted in and the form of their practice. He offered a critique of these schools even as he showed how they were all rooted in core Buddhist thought. He was both a transmitted master of the Heze lineage as well as considered a patriarch in the Huayan lineage. He was a scholar and a Chan master a rare combination.

His analysis of practice, derived from the Perfect Enlightenment Sutra, was in terms of awakening and practice. Awakening can be All-At-Once or Step-by-step. Likewise the practice can be All-at-Once or Step-by-Step. As per the Perfect Enlightenment Sutra All-At-Once awakening followed by Step-by-step Practice was the preferred approach. In this approach one comes to awakening all at once and then via continuous practice refine, deepen and mature the practice. In his critique of the seven major Chan Schools of his day he considered where the stood on this approach. It should be noted that this is the form that all Chan and Zen practice came to take where insight is all-at-once but then there is a long period of continued practice. While Zongmi and his Heze lineage may not have lasted long beyond him, his core notions became the defacto standard.

In our examination of Zongmi we read through Jeffery Broughton’s biographical sketch and examined the ideas that drove him. We followed this up by reading what Broughton refers to as the Chan Note which was a brief description of seven Chan Houses that he appended to a commentary on the Total Awakening Sutra. In the Chan Note, Zongmi looks at each houses in terms of theory and practice and summarizes them with a single slogan. We followed up our investigation of the Chan Note by reading through what Broughton terms the Chan Letter. This is a constructed essay taken from correspondence between Zongmi and the Chinese Official and serious lay Buddhist Pei Xiu. In this correspondence Zongmi examines four Chan Houses again in terms of theory and practice. He goes into a lot more detail with potted lineage histories and supported quotes. He utilizes as a metaphor the ‘Wishing Jewel’ which is a pure, bright jewel that absorbs whatever color is shined on it. Each house is described as missing the purity of the jewel in some way except for Zongmi’s own Heze. This piece is the most didactic of Zongmi’s where he hews closer to the the founder of the Heze School, Shenhui, whose relentless attacks defined and undercut what he labeled as the Northern School. Here Zongmi dismisses out of hand the Northern and Oxhead Schools and undercuts the dominate Hongzhou school in order to dissuade Pei Xiu from his interest in that house. There is though much of value in these pieces as they provide descriptions of early Chan thought that died out and Zongmi is an astute, if partisan, critic.

We concluded our survey of Zongmi by considering Broughton’s analysis of his attacks on the Hongzhou school. Broughton sees more in it than partisanship and that his primary concerns are more about forms of practice. In Zongmi’s magnum opus, which Broughton has dubbed the Chan Prolegomenon, Zongmi is much more ecumenical granting the Hongzhou School status with the Heze and noting that these are from Buddhist teachings just with their own angle and emphasis. The Prolegomenon was not thoroughly examined but it contains a wealth of information on the Chan teachings and practice of the day and Zongmi roots them all in traditional Buddhist teachings. We concluded our survey of Zongmi’s writings by considering his influence in China, Korea and Japan. As noted above, this influence is significant and the essence of his notions persists in the Zen, Son and Chan teachings of today.


1)  Zongmi on Chan
Translation and commentary by Jeffery L. Broughton
Columbia University Press, 2009
ASIN: B0092WV78Q

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