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Tag: Early Ch’an

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

Mahayana

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.

Madhyamaka

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.

Yogācāra

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

Bodhidharma

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)
ASIN: B00APDASHC

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

VII

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.”

 

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