drafty mountain hut

always at home, forever on the way

Tag: Ch’an

Three Crows

by tendo zenji



Three Crows Dialog on the Paramita of Zeal

Midnight: suddenly forgot moon and finger;
Filing the sky, the solar disk—red!
— Chan Master Jiefeng Yu

The sun sank between the peaks dusk falling like a hood slipped over one’s head. A small, rocky stream flowed down from the north, alongside which there was a trail. It split, one fork running west the other east, a narrow path alongside each.  Where the three roads met there was a shrine to travelers and a small hut for those following the way. In the gloaming the dancing steam, echoed off the valley walls, augmented by the clacking of an occasional crow.  A jingling sound up from the west fork punctuated this soundscape. A moment later it was echoed by a duplicate sound up from the east. For a time there was a jingle from the west, shortly followed by its twin from the west.  When yet another similar jingling began to be heard coming from the north, the pattern was broken.

Around the bend, following the river from the north a conical straw hat bobbed into view, shortly revealing a grey robe on a man carrier a staff with seven rings.  The crows that flew up as he rounded that corner would have seen coming up from the rise to the east a figure that could have been confused for his brother. The hill descends a little sharper to the west, which perhaps accounts for the delay, but shortly thereafter a third monk hove into view again hat first.  The three met at the travelers’ shrine.  They bowed to each other. They bowed to the Bodhisattva of Travelers. They made their way into the small hut, and the soundscape of the valley returned to the chatty creek and the twilight birds.

Inside there was a single room the only feature was a central brazier above which hung a battered kettle. The three men took off their packs and sat cross-legged each in a corner of the tiny space. After some time one of them got up and built a modest fire.  Taking the kettle that hung over the fire pit he exited the hut and made his way to the river. Shortly he reentered the hut and hung the kettle over the fire on a blacked iron hook.  He returned to his seat. When the kettle began to sing he again rose and silently made a pot of tea.  While it steeped he retrieved a bowl from his pack and his companions did likewise.  The three of them placed the bowls in front of them and bowed.  Getting back to his feet the monk picked up the kettle and with a bow filled each bowl with tea. He returned to his seat and with a final bow they picked up their bowls and drank.

Another of the monks rose, retrieved a small pot from his pack and poured water from the kettle and hung it from the hook over the fire.  When it had reached a boil he threw in a handful of rice, raised the hook and covered the pot.  He kneeled by the fire frequently stirring the pot, occasionally adding more water from the kettle. After some time he removed it from the flame and let it stand covered.  When the rice had cooled sufficiently he arose and efficiently distributed it amongst the three bowls in front of each of the monks.  He sat, again the three bowed and deliberately ate every grain of rice in their bowl.  Again the first monk rose and prepared tea. He poured a measure into each bowl which, with a bow, they drank.  They set their bowls down together and made a final bow.

A few minutes later the third monk rose, gathered the bowls and made his way outside to the river.  He washed each bowl, drying it on a cloth he had tucked in his sleeve and returned to the hut placing the bowls and cups behind the monk who had used them.  He returned to his seat.   The monks sat in silence. The fire grew low until it was only a red glow outlining three still forms.

After some time one of the monks stirred and reaching into his sleeve pulled out a small book.  He opened it toward the back and with head bowed over the book read.  Raising his head he began to close the book, paused and read again.  With a slight shake of his head he closed the book and returned it to his sleeve. The monk who had previously cleaned the bowls, stirred and spoke.

“You did not seem to have found much solace in your reading, brother Jisha. What was it that so confounded you?”

With a quick glance at the speaker, the monk sighs and says:

Carry out a detailed investigation of dharma principles, taking awakening as your sole standard.” (1)

“Ahh the Whip. Master Guishan’s words are well worth heeding. What brought you to turn to that specific entry and what difficulty did you encounter?”

“At times during zazen when my mind is assailed by divergent thoughts I will turn to a page by chance. Often the words will give me renewed vigor and allow me to return my mind to a single point. What Master Guishan says is all well and good, but how?”

“Just a few entries beyond the one you stumbled upon, is it not written:

“Redouble the whip to practice zeal. Diligently seek without stopping. This is called the faculty of zeal.” (2)

Brother Monks, these are all the words we truly need. Those who have roused the aspiration for awakening, must hold on to that spark that lit the fire within. Our task is merely to rekindle that fire time and time again until we are entirely consumed. When you find yourselves distracted, unable to concentrate, that is when you bear down, doubling your efforts. This is the water that feeds all of your practices. Recall that

“The first three of the six perfections are contained within morality training. Dhyāna is contained within mind training; and prajñā is contained within wisdom training. Only zeal pervades all six perfections.” (3)

The monk bows, pauses a moment, and then asks, “How is it though that we maintain such zeal? I remember well when my head was first shaved you couldn’t keep me off my cushion. I sat and sat, and sometimes my mind would settle; I’d calm down and seem to merge into my surroundings. But then the thoughts creep in, the distractions slipped past my breath and rarely would I lose myself.”

“Dear Brother Jisha it sounds as if you have not heeded Master Puyan Duan’an instructions to the sangha. Let me refresh your memory:

“Do not do “dead” cross-legged sitting where you fail to keep your eye on the cue (4), where you maintain a “solitary stillness.” And do not do cross-legged sitting where you are minding the cue but have no sensation of indecision-and-apprehension (5). If you have torpor and distraction, no need to give a thought to thrusting them away. Quickly lift the cue to full awareness, shake off the defilements of body and mind—and be ferociously tenacious.” (6)

“Brother monk it is not a matter of “merging with our surroundings” or “settling our minds” or forgetting our feelings in silence and illumination! We are involved in the investigation of this great matter.   In order to see into this matter you must relentlessly pursue this investigation. Great Master Daihui makes quite clear how to undertake this great endeavor:

“Just keep on at all times pulling the cue into full awareness. Even when conceptualization arises, it is not necessary to employ the mind to stop it—just keep your eye on the cue. When walking, pull the cue into full awareness; when sitting, pull the cue into full awareness. Continuously keep pulling the cue into full awareness. When the cue no longer has any tastiness for you at all, you’ve hit the good spot. You must never release the cue.” (7)

“This my brothers is the paramita of zeal: never releasing the cue. When stray thoughts arise, it isn’t a matter of squashing them down, it is a matter of returning to the cue. When you are distracted by pain, feelings, sense objects and so on, you return to the cue. As you become more mindful you will notice these wanderings before they have gone too far afield and without mental commentary return to the cue. This requires a deliberate effort for quite some time and this effort both depends upon and cultivates zeal. I am reminded of Master Guzhuo admonishing his sangha:

Great Worthies! Why is it that you don’t produce the great zeal, and deeply generate the solemn vow before the three treasures? If birth-and-death is not clear to you, and you have not yet passed through the barrier checkpoints of the patriarchs, make a vow not to come down from the mountain. Face your seven-foot sitting portion on the long platform, hang up your bowl and bag, and assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high. For the whole of this single birth, practice the Way until you penetrate. If you do your utmost with this mind-set, you’ll never get taken in.” (8)

Silence descended over the room. The fire burned low suffusing the room with a low red glow. The only sounds are the ever-present babbling of the stream beyond the hut, and occasional pop or hiss from the fire. The monks are just shadows in the room, indistinguishable from sacks abandoned in three corners of the room. With a start one of the monks jerks his head and blinks rapidly.

“Brother Tenzo, what is the matter?”

With a hangdog expression the monk replies, “I have become overwhelmed by drowsiness and am unable to maintain focus. I’ve pushed myself for years, never slacking off, but for all my efforts I still succumb.”

For a spell the monk said nothing. He scratched the back of his head. “Hmmm”, he finally said. “Hmmmmmm.” Looking toward the sky, he continues, “Your statement brings to mind the tale of Master Xueyan Qin and his long struggle for awakening. Like you he spent years and years devoted to his practice, engaging in myriad austerities:

“…for two years I hadn’t slept with my body in a horizontal position, and I was suffering from being dazed and fatigued. Thereupon in one fell swoop I gave up all of these painful practices. Two months later my prior state of health was restored due to this giving up—I was in full vigor.”

There is a lesson here that has come down all the way from the World Honored One to the present day. To penetrate this great matter requires dedication, zeal, forbearance and letting go of many things. But we must always stay on the middle path between austerity and excess. Too far in either direction and you will not see into this great matter. Each monk must find the middle path for himself; some will require greater austerity, some less. After recovering his health Master Qin recounts an encounter with Head Monk Xiu:

“Xiu said, “The true practitioner of the Way doesn’t even bother cutting his fingernails. So why would I find time for a useless conversation with you!” At that I raised an issue: “Right now I’m trying to clear up my torpor and distraction, but with no results.” Xiu said, “It’s because you’re still not fierce enough. Make you sitting cushion high, straighten up your backbone, and merge your whole body into oneness with a single cue—what torpor and distraction will there be to make into a problem?” (9)

“Heed well these words Brother Tenzo! You need to be fierce, you need to not be led astray by externalities. Start with ‘Straighten your backbone’—recall Master Guzhuo instructs us thusly: ‘…assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high’. If you feel yourself nodding off sit even straighter! Sit wide eyed if need be and when torpor fades into the background raise your cue. “

“Is there not also a comment in the Whip that a certain monk stabbed his leg with an awl to keep himself awake?”

“Thus so! Some may need to go to such extremes, yet many have not had to resort to such methods. In our investigation into this great matter we must do what is required. Both of you now take heed: Your struggles are not just your own; Followers of the Way in every land throughout every time have faced the same issues, have faced the very same problems and have surmounted them.   The records of the Masters of old have addressed these issues time and again. Consider well their words. Your efforts fortify your zeal and it should always be increasing. This then is how you practice: fully engaged, entirely immersed in your inquiry. This is how you shake off torpor and distraction: rouse all your zeal, put in all of your effort, be fiercely tenacious. Master Puyan Duan’an describes the fruits of such unrelenting, uncompromised practice:

“If you practice in this tenacious manner, suddenly, where before the cue was not raised without your effort, not it is raised of its own accord; where before the indecision-and-apprehension did not arise without your effort, now indecision-and-apprehension arises of its own accord. When walking, you won’t know you are walking; when sitting, you won’t know you are sitting. There will only be the probing of the sensation of indecision-and-apprehension—solitary and distant, clear and bright. This is called “the locus of cutting off the defilements.” It is also called “the locus of the loss of self.” (10)

He clapped his hands once and with that the three of them bowed and resumed sitting with no further interruptions.

The sky was a slate grey, matching the weathered wood of the travelers’ hut. Slowly the grey lightened and edges became more defined. A beam of light from the sun broke between two hills touching color to the scene. Atop the hut three crows roused themselves, spread their wings and flew off, each following a different path into the mountains.


The Chan Whip Anthology: A companion to Zen Practice
Jeffery L. Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press 2015 New York, NY
ISBN: 0190200723

  1. p. 166, Guishan’s Warning Whip
  2. p. 167, Sequence of the Boundaries of the Dharma [Gates: First Gate]
  3. p. 163, Yogacārabhūmiśāstra

  4. Cue is a translation of huatau, or the critical phrase usually from a gong’an (koan). In Gongfu, or Zen Practice, the dominant form became cue practice. The core of the practice is to relentlessly focus solely on the cue. Daihui first explicated this practice, see note 7 for further explanation.
  5. Indecision-and-Apprehension is the translators rendering of the third of Gaofeng’s Three Essentials of Chan: the “faculty of great confidence,” the “determination of great fury,” and the “sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension” (p. 7). This is often rendered as “Great Doubt” The word in Chinese is yiwhich can be translated as doubt, puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty and so on.  This word would have these meanings in an overlapping sense.  Gaofeng’s describes it thus: “it is as if you have in secret committed an atrocious act, and it is the very moment when you are about to be exposed but you are not yet exposed.”  That sort of state is far beyond doubt, though doubt would certainly be part of what you are feeling.  One writer on Dahui’s use of yi said that if you consider doubt in the Christian tradition where it lies in opposition of faith, specifically in times of deep existential crisis and anxiety (think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), would convey a similar meaning.
  6. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha
  7. p. 78 Chan Master Dahui Gao of Jingshan Answers Questions
  8. p. 120, Chan Master Guzhuo Instructs the Sangha
  9. p. 89, General sermon of Chan Master Xueyan Qin of Yuanzhou
  10. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha



by tendo zenji

two komuso

When Ch’an was transmitted to Japan the major school (Lin-ji) arrived first and evolved into the Rinzai school.  Dōgen brought the Caodong school to Japan which through his genius became a new school known as Sōtō.  In China Ch’an continued on and took on many of the the elements of Pure Land Buddhism.  Eventually there was another transmission of Ch’an to Japan based on this later Ch’an which in Japan became the Ōbaku school.  These would be the three largest zen sects in Japan all derived from Ch’an schools.  But there is a fourth school, the Fuke sect, that all mythology aside, was developed in Japan.

There is a lot of mythology around the Fuke sect, which the sect itself promoted from it’s earliest records. But details around the founding aside, it does seem that the basic outlines of the sect can be pretty easily determined.  The core feature of the Fuke-Shu is that their practice revolves around the playing of the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo end blown flute.  The instrument itself seemed to have come to Japan from China, but in a somewhat different form. Over the years it was developed in Japan into it’s own instrument, primarily by the Komuso, who were the “monks” of the Fuke sect.

There has been a tradition of wandering musicians in Japan and they often could be religiously affiliated. One group of these were known as the Komoso or “mat monks” who played a proto-shakuhachi and carried a rolled up mat with them to sleep on.  It was this group who started the basis of the religious aspects adopting Fuke (Puhua) from the Rinzai-roku (Lin-ji Yulu) as their patron.  I personally find this rather striking as Fuke is probably amongst the wildest and most idiosyncratic individuals in the Ch’an literature.  It seems very much like musicians to adopt such a figure.

Figures of Edo Japan sm

During the Edo period in Japan, the samurai went into decline and there were increasing numbers of masterless samurai (ronin) attempting to survive in an increasingly peaceful culture.  Becoming wandering mendicant musicians appealed to a number of them and thus the Fuke-Shu developed into a genuine religious sect. At this time it affiliated itself with the Rinzai sect and developed a set of structures for it’s adherents.  Ronin were required to turn in their swords and they would wander playing shakuhachi with their identities obscured by a basket they wore over their heads.  Alone in Japan they were granted the right to travel freely throughout the country.

The combination of anonymity and the ability to travel freely was rife for abuse and there are many legends of spies, assassins and corruption of myriad kinds.  However the Fuke-Shu seemed to become increasingly religious from it’s more spurious roots and they really developed into a serious practice. And this practice is very interesting and unique.  The sect was eventually disbanded by the government during the Meiji Restoration but in less than a decade the government was convinced to allow the shakuhachi to become a secular musical practice and much of the komuso repertoire was preserved.

It is this repertoire of music that is of primary interest to myself.  These pieces have come to be known as honkyoku which means original music.  That is the music originally composed for the instrument.  These pieces, though their origin is lost and there is much mythology surrounded them, served the same purpose as different chants in traditional zen practice. That is that there are pieces that you would use for various ceremonial purposes, that a zen monk would undertake.  Furthermore numerous pieces were played as zazen that is for the purposes of cultivating samadhi.  The breathing techniques, the singleminded concentration required and the unstructured flow of these pieces really facilitates this.  They may sound “meditative” to the listener at times (but some of these pieces, definitely do not!) but they functioned as meditation for the performer.  There were ceremonial pieces used for mendicancy or ceremonies, which could be thought of as a performance repertoire, but the pieces used for meditation were, like zazen, an individual practice.

Komuso Schematics

The komuso, in their formal, monk like attire and with the striking basket on their heads became a figure of popular legend in Japan. Sometimes thought of as scary, usually as mysterious, often with the veneration that clergy can be granted.  Their name translates as “monks of nothingness” and there is I think a very appealing romanticism to their striking anonymous images. There are many pictorial representations of the komuso in the Japanese arts, including photographs once that technology arrived on the island.

As I explore the honkyoku repertoire and the aspects of practice therein, it will be interesting to investigate it in terms of traditional Rinzai practice.  This will be an occasional focus of this blog over the upcoming years.  But learning these pieces is slow going — they are complicated and intricate and the shakuhachi has a very demanding technique, especially in the honkyoku tradition — so occasionally we will look at what we can find on the Fuke-shu and it’s traditions as well as publish images that I have collected of the komuso in Japanese artist representation.

A very good and succinct overview of what seems historically accurate about the komuso can be read on Jon Kypros Shakuhachi site here: Komuso shakuhachi monks of Japan.

The best text that I have encountered on a general history of the shakuhachi and it’s performances practices is:
Shakuhachi: Roots and Routes
by Henry Johnson
Brill Academic Pub; Lam edition, 2014
ISBN-10: 9004243399


some sand

by layman k

Unfortunately, my dwelling has become known by the world.
I will move my hut again deeper into seclusion

from Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice
by Victor Sōgen Hori
University of Hawaii Press; Bilingual edition (July 30, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0824835077 | ISBN-13: 978-0824835071

this breath

by layman k

“Ten thousand things, all in this breath…” why are people in this world so busy? just for this one breath. They say, “busy, busy, mine mine…”, busy a whole lifetime for “Me”. When this breath is cut off you let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?

from Amongst White Clouds
(which you can get on DVDor stream on YouTube)

Sunday Joshu

by layman k

Once, while the master was out walking with Wan-yuan (Ban’en), he pointed to a pile of earth and said, “That would be a good place for a patrol-box.”
    Wen-yuan then went over to the place, stood there, and said, “Give me your passport.”
    The master punched him.
    Wen-yuan said, “Your passport is in order. Pass on.”

from The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu

Early Ch’an – The Lankavatara Sutra

by layman k

When one looks back the earliest roots of Ch’an the primary question is “what is it?”  What was it that distinguished Ch’an from other forms of Buddhism that had already taken hold in China and just what was it’s nature and practices. There doesn’t really seem to be a definitive answer on just what Ch’an was at the very beginning as the documentary record is particularly sparse and the founding is shrouded in myth and legend.  The founding of Ch’an of course is attributed to Bodhidharma and there are a number of references to him using the Lankavatara Sutra as his primary or only text.  There was enough of these references along with others in the early historical record that I felt I needed to devote some time to this sutra. Happily Bill Porter (Red Pine) has just published a new translation of The Lankavatara Sutra based explicitly on the Chinese translation often referenced in these early sources.

The first two translations of the Lankavatara Sutra into Chinese occurred prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival in China the earliest surviving text by Gunabadhra. This is the text supposedly handed down by Bodhidharma and is the primary source for the translation by Red Pine. The only other complete english translation is by D. T. Suzuki and can be found online though as Red Pine notes in his entry it was made from rather dubious sources.  There has not been a version of the sutra found that is earlier than the Chinese translations and Suzuki used a Sanskrit translation that had been made from these older Chinese sources and are apparently rather error prone.  For the english speaker Red Pine’s translation is certainly quite welcome especially as it has extensive commentary as well as notes on how each translation handled certain sections. Additionally he also took advantage of both ancient and modern Chinese commentary on the sutra as aids to understanding (for much more on the translations of this sutra see Red Pines introduction).

“The meaning of the Lankavatara is so subtle and illusive and its language so unadorned and antiquated that the reader is often unable to read it, much less get past the words to the meaning or get past the meaning to its heart.”
— Su Tung-p’o quoted in Red Pine’s introduction (1, p. 12, pp. 3).

It is far beyond the scope of this post and the authors abilities to fully delve into the Lankavatara Sutra. It is a long, dense, convoluted and deep work, one that is said to require a teacher to fully engage with. While I found this sutra to be very powerful and challenging I alas only had Red Pines invaluable commentary and was not working with a teacher on this material.  However since my purpose here is to consider this sutra in light of early Ch’an this should not present too much difficulties. Of course one should excuse my glosses, incomplete explanations and outright ignoring of vast amounts of the sutra’s contents due to this focus. I should note that this is certainly a sutra that I’ll return to again and would hope to work with a teacher on some day.

Just as the Diamond Sutra teaches detachment from dharmas, and the Heart Sutra teach the emptiness of dharmas, the Lankavatara teaches the non-projection of dharmas, that there would be no dharmas to be empty or to be detached from if we did no project them as existing or not existing in the first place.” — Red Pine (1, p. 4, pp. 3)

The Lankavatara has two main teachings “nothing but mind” which is the basis of Yogacara but then moves beyond that to emphasize “self-realization” which is the most explicit connection to Ch’an. Much of the content of this long sutra is increasingly refined applications of these principles to various facets of Buddhist philosophy with considerable time devoted to pointing out the shortcomings of various other schools and paths toward understanding this. There is much in this sutra that you can find in the sayings and metaphors of the Ch’an teachers and a few sections that as Red Pine puts it “If there ever was a sutra that presented the underlying teaching of Zen, this is it.”  The following  quotations from Section LVI (p. 161-3) are an example of this. The sutra, as is typically the case, is presented as a dialog between the historical Buddha and in this case a bodhisattva named Mahamati.

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. ” (1, p. 163, pp. 3)
“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.” (1, p. 163, pp. 4)

The cultivation of “personal realization” is of course the practice of Ch’an and here too we see some hints for how this was practiced at this time. As this is the primary theme to this series we shall return to that at greater detail in subsequent entries.  That the nature of reality is illusion is a core tenant throughout Buddhism but the Lankavatara goes beyond this with this notion that all objects are  projections of our minds and our attachments to these objects form “habit-energy” from which all reality springs.  This “mind-only” teaching is also at the core of Ch’an though the emphasis is placed more on attaining this realization as opposed to considering all of the ramifications of this teaching on the conceptual categories of Mahayana thought.

“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.” (1, Section LXXVI, p. 221 pp. 1)

The above quote also gets at another of the canonical features of Ch’an which is the notion that it is “beyond words” and the emphasis is on direct transmission from a teacher. Thus in the Lankavatara we find the “mind only” teachings, the notions of direct experience, the primacy of realization and the importance of working with a realized master. Thus much of core teachings of Ch’an that have existed from the earliest days but continue to this day can be found in this sutra. Certainly it seems believable that monks bringing this sutra from India could spark that which would become Ch’an. It is certainly understandable why this text is still valued in Zen circles today.  Red Pine makes the argument that this sutra probably represented the teachings of a particular region in India was then brought to China. This bolsters the argument that Ch’an or something like it began in India and was developed in China. Furthermore he proposes that as Ch’an became more mainstream that the influence of the Lankavatara waned, supplanted by the Diamond Sutra. In the next entry in this series we shall examine what the historical record has to say of the Lankavatara and of it’s the influence in early Ch’an writings.

1) The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
Translated and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
Published by Counterpoint, February 12, 2013
ISBN-10: 1619020998 | ISBN-13: 978-1619020993

2)  The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text
Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Original Edition Published in London in 1932.
Based upon the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo (1923).
Published in Internet by © do1@yandex.ru,  May 2004, 2005. (Rev. 2)
For free distribution only.

3) Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra
by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Published by Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd (January 1, 1998)
ISBN-10: 8121508339 | ISBN-13: 978-8121508339

Early Ch’an – foundations of investigation

by layman k

Almost the entire basis of the current understanding of the development of Ch’an comes from an early twentieth century find of documents in northwest China. This has been bolstered via more recent scholarship into early Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts in which early Ch’an was apparently a contender for how Buddhism was to develop in Tibet.  These early texts were hand copied documents that varying degrees of fidelity (documents copied for “merit” have particularly egregious amounts of errors). Modern scholarship with it’s analysis of such factors as the type of paper it is written on, the period use of language, references and the like as well as tracing quotations and references from one document to the has created a picture of the validity and importance of these texts. Some of these early figures, ideas, concepts and practices rose and then declined in emphasis until Ch’an became what we know it today.

Some of the more recent scholarship has been on considering the earliest texts that have been found in that cache of documents in northwest China (and corroborating it with what has been found in the Tibetan archives as well). Thus it is worth noting the providence of this find.

The discovery in the early part of this century of a small, walled-up cave within the Mo-Kao Grottoes located outside the oasis town of Tun-huang in Northwest China has led to the retrieval of a lost early Ch’an literature of T’ang Dynasty times (618-907). This hidden sub cave, usually known as cave no. 17, was found to be stuffed to the ceiling with Buddhist manuscripts and art. It had been sealed up around 1000 C.E., but no one knows for certain why. Some have suggested that pious Buddhists wished to save the contents from the destructive fury of invaders

The most likely reason, however, is connected to technological advance. In China proper the new technology of printing was quickly embraced by the Buddhists to spread their message and reached the backwater Tun-huang about the year 1000. Once printed canons  replaced the old manuscript copies in the libraries of the Tun-huang monasteries, something had to be done with the manuscripts. They could not simply be discarded, since, paper being at a premium, that might lead to the profane use of sacred materials. The answer was to protect them by placing them in small, subsidiary cave and walling it up. (1, p. 96-7 pp. 2 & 3)

Once this cave was found with it’s treasure trove of of twenty to thirty thousand documents around 1900 international scholars immediately displayed interest, but not so much within Chinese circles. So these documents became distributed primarily among Japanese, French and British libraries.  This material was studied separately and various bits and pieces of it were translated and published. The more recent scholarship has attempted to examine the related documents between the various collections and establish context. This process has continued to the present day and there have continued to be new finds of documents that has added to these studies. The bulk of the documents found are not Ch’an documents but there is a good amount of them, including those that had fallen out of the canon.

About three hundred Chinese manuscripts relating to Ch’an have so far been discovered in the Tun-huang collections. Many are fragments of scrolls, and we have a number of scrolls bearing the same works. The total number of separate works included in these manuscripts is roughly one hundred, and it is from these one hundred titles that a list of the earliest works must be extracted.  (1, p. 97 pp.2)

Tun-huang was occupied by the Tibetans from 780 to ~860 and there was much translation of Chinese Buddhist texts into Tibetan during this period which accounts for a certain amount of Tibetan documents to have been found in the cache. There have been around “forty fragmentary [Tibetan] manuscripts”  (1, p. 98 pp.2 but also 2 ch. IIa) relating to Ch’an as well as in central Tibetan documents relating to Rdzog-chen. These Tibetan documents serve to corroborate the Chinese texts and to allow for attempts to work out the source text from fragmentary texts as well as various copying and/or translation errors.

The analysis of these documents has both an academic component focused on chronology, authorship and cultural, historical and political context and development as well as a religious one focusing on practice and beliefs. The focus of this series of posts is on the latter utilizing the former as a tool. That is the scholarship allows one to trace the development of practices and to see which ideas and beliefs held sway during different periods. Why practices, ideas and beliefs shifted is of primary interest and hints of that can be found particularly in the culture, historical and political contexts. While only a certain amount of time will be devoted to these areas of analysis, based on utility, a summary of some of these investigations is worth while.

Chronology has been established by considering the paper, the source, and the context.  Many of the documents came from known Tun-huang monasteries and the historical records of these establishments allow one to determine when the document would have been copied. Some of the documents were written on the reverse side of government documentations which were dated and thus allows for some of the material to be at least roughly dated. Additionally the phases of Tun-huang from the pre-Tibetan occupation (750 to 780), during the occupation (780 to ~860) and post-occupation (900s) all have distinct hallmarks to them that allow them to be placed within these rough time periods. The paper and binding styles shifted during these three periods and especially during the earliest period they are the most distinct. Thus the earliest documents are able to be determined with the highest degree of confidence (1, p. 98- 100).

With some confidence we can say that these are among the oldest Ch’an books available to us. Some of these texts continued to be copied at Tun-Huang in the subsequent two periods, but others did not. This means that the copying of certain very early texts went on at Tun-huan long after it had ceased in China proper, so here lies part of the secret of the value of Tun-huang manuscripts for early Ch’an studies.  (1, p. 100-101)

The above quote quite well gets at the value of examining the chronological and dissemination of these texts.  It should be understood that Tun-Huang was not the forefront of Ch’an development. Texts that reached Tun-Huang and then were copied can thus be granted to be of value. The more a text was copied the more likely it was a more major text. However of course Ch’an could take on a “local flavor” as it were and texts that had fallen out of the more central Ch’an development could be in use here. However after the period of Tibetan occupation ended and Chinese influence reasserted itself the latest developments would displace these.  This historical accident has allowed for the Tun-huang archive to be a preserve of the earliest state of Ch’an frozen in time until it’s rediscovery.

1) The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, by Jeffrey L. Broughton

2) Early Ch’an in China and Tibet (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series 5) , Edited by Lewis R. Lancaster and Whalen Lai

For complete bibliographical information see Early Ch’an Sources.

Practice of Early Ch’an – Sources

by layman k

This year I have began a study of the early practice of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China. My interest in this is not in revealing any sort of lost “true” practice or any notions of “purity” but in understanding the core of Ch’an. In the cases where there is a historical record it seems that religions often arise around a fairly simple core set of notions and practices and over the years accrue additional ritual and practices. This is probably essential for any belief system to thrive as it generalizes it’s practice to appeal to a wider audience.  In some cases these additional practices can become the primary focus and the core of the system is sidelined. This has not been the case with Ch’an – as Zen is practiced today meditation remains at the center as it did from the beginning – but it has indeed accreted a wide variety of practices from other traditions. Just what was the set of practices that were used in the beginning and what were the important ideas and texts in early Ch’an is what I wish to explore in these posts.

Most of the sources that really explore early Ch’an are more on the scholarly end of the spectrum.  There is a lot of fascinating information in this material but it definitely is different from a practitioners perspective. My goal here is to try to tease out of these more scholarly examinations actual practice and thought.  Since I am unable to go to the original sources and am not a scholar myself this can be thought of as a meta-study of these scholarly sources. But my eye is always that of one engaged in practice within the Rinzai Zen tradition. This post is my bibliography of the material that  I am currently engaged with. This post will be updated with further sources as the study continues.

Note: The titles are affiliate links to the books on Amazon excerpt where noted.

1) Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings
by Andrew Ferguson
Published by Wisdom Publications; Expanded edition (March 9, 2011)
ISBN-10:0861716175 | ISBN-13: 978-086171617

2) The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen (Philip E. Lilienthal Book)
by Jeffrey L. Broughton
Published by University of California Press, September 21, 1999
ISBN-10: 0520219724 | ISBN-13: 978-0520219724

3) The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (Studies in East Asian Buddhism)
by John McRae
Published by University of Hawaii Press, February 28, 1987
ISBN-10: 0824810562 | ISBN-13: 978-0824810566

4) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (Philip E. Lilienthal Book in Asian Studies)
by John McRae
Published by University of California Press, January 19, 2004
ISBN-10: 0520237986 | ISBN-13: 978-0520237988

5) Early Ch’an in China and Tibet (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series 5)
Edited by Lewis R. Lancaster and Whalen Lai
Published by  U C Regents March 1, 1983
ISBN-10: 0895811529 | ISBN-13: 978-0895811523

6) Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism (Studies in East Asian Buddhism, No 4)
Edited by Peter N. Gregory
Published University of Hawaii Press, May 1, 1987
ISBN-10: 0824810880 | ISBN-13: 978-0824810887

7) The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
Translated and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
Published by Counterpoint, February 12, 2013
ISBN-10: 1619020998 | ISBN-13: 978-1619020993

 8)  The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text
Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Original Edition Published in London in 1932.
Based upon the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo (1923).
Published in Internet by © do1@yandex.ru,  May 2004, 2005. (Rev. 2)
For free distribution only.

 9) Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra
by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Published by Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd (January 1, 1998)
ISBN-10: 8121508339 | ISBN-13: 978-8121508339