Bodhidharma came to China to put Buddhist teaching, especially the practice of dhyana or meditation, upon a new footing. The Chinese Buddhist monastic community had rendered signal service to buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha. Through its assiduous efforts numerous scriptures and texts were translated, preserved and disseminated, many of which would have been irretrievably lost save for their faithful Chinese versions. Nonetheless, Bodhidharma also knew that the monastic community – the sangha in its institutional aspect – was subject to many vicissitudes. Too narrow a focus on translating and preserving texts could diminish their assimilation and use, whilst the politics and social animosities which are always a danger in insular monasticism could only be heightened by government intervention and the instability of warlike regimes. Bodhidharma, emphasizing the pivotal role of meditation in spiritual awakening, sought disciplined followers who were willing to renounce the security and comfort of monastic facilities and routine, forego the distractions of monastic society, and devote themselves to contemplation, reflection and meditation. His method in this sense went beyond the sacred texts – which he had mastered – and beyond the canonical forms of practice. He taught each disciple according to his needs and abilities, and those who followed him did the same in their turn.
Hui-k'o, chosen by Bodhidharma to serve as the second patriarch of the Ch'an tradition, travelled as an itinerant menial labourer and taught wherever he had the chance. Suspected by teachers of more orthodox mien, he once had to flee south from persecution. There he wrote a letter which is the only surviving document recording his views. In it he said:
Returning to Ch'ang-an, he continued to preach and became sufficiently popular to annoy monastic officials. Yet lay people and ordinary monks flocked to him to hear his fresh, unvarnished statements of spiritual truth. Tradition holds that he died when he was one hundred and six years old, perhaps executed by the state in 593 CE. Like Bodhidharma, he made no effort to establish an order or a school, but sought to call people back to their real nature.
The third patriarch, Seng-ts'an, might not have been a direct disciple of the second patriarch, though later biographies contradict earlier ones in making him so. Periodically persecuted like his predecessor, he once had to pretend he was insane and at another time he hid in remote mountains for a decade. There, it is said, he tamed wild animals by his mere presence. Although he was not the erudite scholar that his predecessor was, he was deeply versed in Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and he saw the immense value of combining them to awaken the mind, frequently juxtaposing ideas which settle too comfortably in the mind and requiring the hearer to rethink them.
Even though he is said to have died in 606, he actually passed on the robe and begging bowl of Bodhidharma – the symbols of patriarchy – to Tao-hsin and turned towards the south, where he vanished from history. Before followers of Ch'an tradition had even begun to think about a school or strict Ch'an transmission, Seng-ts'an gave it up for a life more in line with the quintessence of Bodhidharma's teaching.
Tao-hsin was only twenty-six when he received Seng-ts'an's recognition as the fourth patriarch. He lived during the rise of the short-lived Sui Dynasty, which united the whole of China for the first time in three hundred years, and the early decades of the magnificent T'ang Dynasty, which reconstructed Ch'ang-an and elevated Loyang into a second Alexandria as the crossroads of Asia and meeting-point of the hemisphere's worldly and spiritual concerns. Tao-hsin pursued three goals as Ch'an patriarch: he sought to make full use of the radically changing political structure of China to spread buddhavachana; he realized the importance of giving the Ch'an method a home, knowing that Bodhidharma's message could not survive forever through itinerant mendicants; and he remained as staunchly devoted to meditation as had Bodhidharma himself. In a sermon, one of the few fragments of his teachings which survives, he said:
Tao-hsin used the Lankavatara Sutra as the basis for his instruction. Once when a walled town was attacked by bandits, he led the besieged community in such forceful chanting that long dry wells flowed with fresh water and the attackers withdrew. After residing at Mount Lu for a number of years, he established a monastery for five hundred monks on Shuang-feng (Twin Peaks) and dwelt there for thirty years. Though he adhered to begging for food, he stressed its importance in cultivating moral character rather than for mere sustenance, thereby winning support for a social practice the Chinese had never known. Having founded a communal group, he earned the respect of both people and state for the Ch'an tradition. Without leaving Shuang-feng, he became a figure of such national prominence that he once successfully refused the powerful T'ang emperor's summons to come to the capital on pain of death for failing to do so. In accord with his own teaching that "when the mind is quietened in its deepest abode, its entanglements are cut asunder. . . the mind in its purity is like shunyata, the Void itself", he retired into his tomb in 651 and, entering meditation, passed from this world.
The fifth patriarch was Hung-jen, whose first encounter with Tao-hsin marked him for the patriarchy. When Hung-jen was fourteen he met Tao-hsin, who politely asked, "What is your family name?" In Chinese, the word for 'family name' is pronounced in the same way as the word for 'nature'. Deliberately misconstruing the question for "What is your nature?" Hung-jen replied, "My nature is not ordinary; it is the Buddha-nature."
"But," Tao-hsin asked, taking the clue, "don't you have a family name?"
"No," Hung-jen responded, "for the Teachings say that our nature is void."
Although Hung-jen was a respected monk and eminent teacher, his life was eclipsed by two of his disciples, both remarkable, whose differing views led to the division of Ch'an into distinctive Northern and Southern schools. The Southern school would in time emerge as the sole voice for Ch'an, but the Northern school flourished for a long period before its obscuration. Whilst Southern Ch'an held to the idea of the teacher who stands outside the generally recognized line of transmission, Northern Ch'an based itself on the realization that, just as institutional monasticism could lead to moral and spiritual corruption, so also the highly individualistic style of roving teachers who ignored the sacred texts could lead to misunderstanding. Although every patriarch instructed in his own way, teaching each disciple in a manner commensurate with his needs and abilities, the Teaching was never altered or abandoned. Those who could not discern the single Truth in manifold guises confused the sublime metaphysical mathematics of individual means of teaching with the variable arithmetic equations of different personalities. To avoid plunging buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, into the welter of likes and dislikes, the Northern school fostered views pointing to the gradual steps required to attain Enlightenment, whilst the Southern school consistently pointed to its instantaneous nature. Shen-hsiu, disciple of Hung-jen, was the founder of Northern Ch'an.
Born in 605, Shen-hsiu was raised in the Confucian tradition. His extraordinary brilliance and sensitivity manifested themselves early in life, and he showed promise of having an excellent career in newly unified China. As a youth, however, he came to despair of the ways of the world, seeing only meaninglessness in the honours and attainments which ordinary men consider precious. This longing for a profounder significance in life led him to become a Buddhist monk. Nothing is known of his early years in this self-chosen life, but somehow he made his way to the monastery of Hung-jen when he was forty-six. He must have been a devoted disciple and conscientious meditator, for he became the chief of the eleven eminent monks who were remembered as followers of Hung-jen. Eventually leaving Hung-jen's retreat, Shen-hsiu travelled for twenty years as a teacher of meditation based on the metapsychology of the Lankavatara Sutra.
Shen-hsiu was not ambitious, and was not disturbed to find other monks gaining fame at the monastery while he wandered from place to place. He would have been satisfied to slip quietly into history had it not been for unusual and unexpected circumstances which brought him recognition as the sixth patriarch. When the emperor died, Empress Wu virtually seized the throne, apparently hoping to replace the illustrious T'ang Dynasty with her own. Ruling from Ch'ang-an and Loyang, she sought a Buddhist lineage to support and settled on Shen-hsiu. Although he was ninety-five years old when summoned to the imperial court, Shen-hsiu acceded to the call and journeyed to the capital. Allowing himself to be titled Dharma Lord of Ch'ang-an and Loyang, he had monasteries built and supervised the training of monks in Ch'an. He found a successor to carry on the work he knew he could only begin, and despite the failure of Empress Wu's attempts to overthrow the ruling house, he secured a firm place for Ch'an teachings in the centre of the empire. Unfortunately, those who followed his own disciples were not able to sustain his heroic efforts, and Northern Ch'an gradually disappeared. When Shen-hsiu died in 706, a state minister composed the epitaph for his memorial.
Little is known of Shen-hsiu's actual teachings, save that they were based on the Lankavatara Sutra and the dhyana tradition of Bodhidharma. A verse which survives from one of his sermons suggests the tone of his approach to the spiritual life:
According to the Southern Ch'an school, he made frequent and telling use of the analogy of the mirror, teaching that mind is like a mirror which must be polished to reflect the light of the Self. As the mirror analogy suggests, he understood Enlightenment to be the result of a cleansing process which permits the original or true nature of the mind to manifest. For him, purification in thought, word and deed is all of a piece with meditation, which carries the same process to higher and more intensive levels of activity. And just as a mirror can be polished to some degree, so there are degrees of realization, even though full Enlightenment is incomparable and incommunicable. The Southern Ch'an school rejected Shen-hsiu's views, because it focussed upon the unique character of Enlightenment and held that any talk of degrees was invidious to the practice of meditation.
This form of the debate about sudden and gradual Enlightenment is rooted in the Lankavatara Sutra, which fully recognizes both perspectives. According to the Sutra, cleansing the mind can be likened to the blossoming of a plant and the ripening of a fruit. The stages of growth and fruition gradually follow one another, no stage can be omitted, and each requires delicate and attentive care. Again, the Sutra teaches, the mind can be likened to a mirror: only when it is clear can all mental images be reflected in it as in alaya, universal consciousness. From the standpoint of progress, one needs to understand the gradual (kramavrittya) process involved; from the standpoint of Enlightenment, one must grasp its abrupt (yugapad) nature. Shen-hsiu chose to emphasize the former aspect, believing that few were capable of the titanic effort and favourable karmic conditions required for sudden realization.
Although very few of his words have been preserved, the standpoint he championed is well known, in part because of Northern Ch'an texts – some attributed to Shen-hsiu – preserved in the Tun-huang Caves and recovered only in modern times. Retaining the exalted goal of Enlightenment, he emphasized Buddha's teaching regarding upaya or skilful means. If it is true that Enlightenment is sui generis and cannot adequately be compared to any lesser state of consciousness or stage of insight, then any teaching or technique which might aid one in attaining the goal is an expedient means to an end. None can be considered true or valid when set against the great end in view. Nonetheless, some means help the disciple and some do not, and those which do are skilful means. For Shen-hsiu and the school he founded, five upaya – fang-pien or skilful means – are fundamental to the path of emancipation. Drawn from various sacred texts, they constitute a general and flexible set of practices by which the disciple may cleanse his nature and transform consciousness into a perfect, shining mirror of truth and reality.
The first upaya is taken from the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana by Ashvaghosha. Awakening, as used in this text, is said by the followers of Northern Ch'an to have three meanings: awakening oneself, so that one is not misled by what one receives from the senses; awakening others, which manifests as viraga, detachment from forms and qualities; and perfect awakening, which is total non-attachment in respect to externals and complete freedom from the internal activities of the mind. This condition is Buddha's dharmakaya. So long as the mind engages in dichotomies – the most fundamental being that between internal and external – and becomes attached, and so long as the mind remains a victim of its previous conditioning, one sees the world as defiled dharmas or elements of existence. To be unattached to all dharmas, which is the same as being free from all mental conditioning, is to dwell in dharmadhatu, the pure Buddha-realm of Reality. In this state the mind is not subject to desires, and so is not oppressed by past conditioning and does not see the world as fragmented. It is to be li-nien, free from thinking, a phrase borrowed from the Awakening of Faith and representing the Buddha-mind.
In metaphysical terms, being free from thinking has to do with separating out t'i, essence, from yung, function. The dichotomizing mind invariably fixes on functions, however subtle, and misses the essence, which is one. The senses are involved with function, but the mind which is free from thinking is t'i. Becoming essence, it is at once single, one-pointed, universal and beyond discursive thoughts. Mind free from thinking is like pure space, whilst mind involved Cm thinking is like space filled with objects. When mind is li-nien, it is in a state of undistracted, unconditioned, pure awareness, alert amidst the activities of the world and utterly unaffected by them.
The second upaya was inspired by the Saddharma Pundarika or Lotus Sutra, which emphasizes prajna, transcendental wisdom. In Chinese, the single term prajna was rendered by two characters, chih-hui, and where the sutra speaks of the gateway of wisdom, Northern Ch'an teachers discerned two gateways. Chih was thought to refer to internal wisdom, wherein the mind abides in undisturbed tranquillity, and hui was seen to deal with external wisdom, in which the activities of the senses do not disturb the mind. When both chili and hui have been attained, one has attained prajna, which is bodhi, the enlightened mind. The idea of saving sentient beings is given an original interpretation in this view, for sentient beings are the result of erroneous thinking. The undisturbed mind saves sentient beings, since it entertains no erroneous thoughts. The wish for personal Enlightenment can at best nurture chih, and that alone will make one fear to be involved in the world. The Bodhisattva Path cultivates both chih and hui, so the Bodhisattva can move freely in the world without being disturbed, free of discursive thinking processes and grasping at objects.
The third upaya was drawn from the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, upon which numerous sweeping commentaries were composed. Emphasizing wu-tung, being disturbed, the causes of disturbance are discussed in detail. Insofar as the mind conceptualizes, dichotomizes and analyses, it is disturbed. Because the mind is disturbed, Reality is inconceivable, whereas Reality presents no puzzle or problem to the undisturbed mind. In the veridical perception of Reality nothing is inconceivable, but of course the undisturbed mind does not then behold Reality through ordinary acts of conceptualization. In the words of one text:
The fourth upaya, based on ideas found in the Visheshacinti-brahma-paripriccha Sutra, focusses on tathata, suchness.
The concern to distinguish the real nature (svabhava) of a thing from its manifestation led to specifying a variety of polarities, each of which is resolved through attaining the condition of the undisturbed mind. By stating some polarity in a way which suggests a paradox, the disciple was expected to use it as an aid in meditation.
The fifth upaya, drawn from the great Avatansaka Sutra, holds that once the mind ceases to be disturbed and discovers that all things in their real nature are undisturbed, emancipation is assured because the mind enters the truth of non-differentiation. In the language of the sutra, the mind discerns the ultimate identity of all dharmas and hence their mutual interpenetration. The importance of this doctrine for meditation is that, if in concentration one penetrated the reality of any element of existence, one would know all Reality. Since the mind dichotomizes, even dharmas are falsely seen to be different from one another, but when the quiet mind realizes there are no differences outside those falsely generated by the mind, one witnesses Reality directly, without discursive thinking. Then one who practises meditation will realize that there is no difference between Mount Sumeru and the mustard seed. The mind in this condition has freed itself of all self-imposed constraints.
For Shen-hsiu, neither the individual nor consciousness nor mind need become anything other than what it originally and ever is. Ignorance produced by discursive thought, desire arising from thinking of oneself and the world as other than what they are, and suffering caused by unnecessarily imposing contradictory conditions on oneself and the world are all dispelled when mind takes a stand in svabhava, its original nature. Enlightenment is, therefore, natural, whilst the conditions in which unenlightened beings find themselves are not. Shen-hsiu affirmed: