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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Origins of the Two Main Schools of Chan

The Sixth Patriarch, noticing that a certain young monk spent all of his spare time sitting alone in the meditation hall, approached the monk and asked why he was so zealous in his practice. "Because I want to become a Buddha," the monk replied. "You can make a mirror polishing a brick," said Hui Neng, "sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion."

During the years of interstate warfare and the tyranny of the Qin Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, Daoism had continued to flourish in the idyllic mountains of South China. The religion's spiritual requirements, however, could hardly be met by the multitudes of people who came not for eternal salvation but for temporal refuge. As is the habit of the spiritually unconfirmed, short cuts were sought. "Circulating one's semen in the bloodstream" is not a practice one learns between successive Tuesdays nor between months of successive Tuesdays. The quest for soma, aphrodisiacs, elixirs of longevity, and chemical agents to quicken the Immortal Foetus became, in the popular mind, the great Dao obsession. Bareboned chemical formulae soon began to replace the voluptuous phrases of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. Everyone wanted to be an instant Immortal.

The Emperor could easily have followed the Daoists into the mountains, flushed them out and finished them off. He did not. Instead he brought several adepts to his court and provided them with the latest technology for developing the divine elixer. Not wishing to waste his time on fools or neophytes, he tested the adepts. According to some rather quaint history, each candidate was required to insert his penis into a glass of wine and then to draw the beverage up into his bladder. Thus were the men were separated from the boys.

That the masters actually submitted to the test and then stayed on to try to concoct the sacred elixer, tells us something about the directions the Dao was taking.

Daoist metallurgy and chemistry had, however progressed sufficiently to produce such astonishingly "magical" results as would induce wild optimism amaong those who wanted immortality. Without any understanding of the operative laws of nature, people truly believed that it was possible to brew if not a fountian of youth then at least a phial of it. The Emperor had tolerated Daoism for no other reason than that he intended to live forever.

He came to a curious end. He had a dream in which he battled a makara - an amphibious creature associated with the Svadhisthana Chakra. The dream inspired him to participate in the killing of a whale or some other large sea animal. For reasons no one understood, he immediately grew sick and was dead within a few weeks.

A peasant rebellion quickly toppled what was left of Qin Shihuangdi's dynasty, and a more civilized chain of rulers, the Han, (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) came to power. Chinese life returned to normal, and in the more relaxed atmosphere, the pressure was taken off the Daoist ashrams. As persons unsuited to the spirituality and simplicity of Dao existence returned to ordinary life, monastic Dao- ism returned to its pristine Way.

It was then, during the Han, that Buddhism made its entry into China. It treked into the north by way of the trans-asiatic Silk Road and into south via the sea ports, particu- larly Guangzhou (Canton). Two entirely different receptions were accorded it.

In the northern cities of power and learning, the Confucian ruling class, having reasserted its political dominance after the overthrow of the Qin dynasty, dismissed with patrician hauteur the various Buddhist scriptures that were slowly being circulated. They found the new teachings to be little more than a collection of barbarian superstitions, alien and antithetic to their sophisticated beliefs.

In the south, where people already were barbarians, the scriptures were greeted as an agreeable variation on existing themes of Daoist philosophy.

Northern Confucianism preached the virtues of collective identity, of the need for an individual to subordinate his own interests to those of his family and clan. A man served the past and present members of his family and they, in turn, served him. There was collective responsibility and collective compensation. In such a team-oriented system, Buddhist notions of self-reliance were decidedly subversive. Not even the Son of Heaven functioned as an individual.

From any Confucian point of view, the new religion was objectionable. Intellectuals, whose leisurely scholarship was familially financed, regarded the Buddha model with considerable alarm. The thought that an educated nobleman would abandon his birthright in order to pursue - as a vagrant! - some far-fetched, independent salvation was worse than contemptible. Further, reincarnation and karma were clearly bizarre blasphemies. A man's ancestral ghosts were fully accounted for. There were no unclaimed spirits hanging about waiting to inhabit new bodies; and, thanks to the very thorough ghosts, nobody required additional hardships or favors for karmic retribution to supply. Magistrates, their pincers at the ready, blanched at the prospect that a man's punishment could await him in a life beyond their reach. They scoffed at the suggestion that any suffering they imposed upon a defendant might stand not only to his credit but to their own discredit in that other-worldly judgment. Warlords found not the slightest merit in the code of non- violence; and landowners, whose fortunes depended upon the sweat of serfs, took no comfort in the vision of thousands of ecstatic beggars ambling through their estates. All of these reactions were predictable: To any upper class, a classless society has little to commend it.

In inland, heavily populated northern cities, where long and bitter winters were the scrims and scrolls of so much tragedy, those who controlled the granary controlled the destinies of both gods and men. Buddhism could not get very far for so long as the ruling class ruled against it.

But in the rural south, food was abundant all year round and markets were not monopolized. Salvation through individual effort, aceticism and filial divorcement was already legitimatized by Daoism's (and all yoga's) ideal of disciplined retreat. Although a lack of cash for weaponry and a need to be self-reliant had conspired to create Daoist/ Indian martial arts, a non-violent nature was still an indispensible characteristic of the man of Dao; and reincarnation could hardly pose a threat to any man who believed he could obtain immortality in his present life. Begging was not regarded as a fit occupation for anyone; but since the man of Dao was not, by definition, a Confucian aristocrat, he was quite used to working. Being of such humble station, he did not require those additional self-effacements obtainable through begging's spiritual exercize. Besides, in the sparcely populated south, the remoteness of most Dao retreats served to moot the issue. There weren't too many people around to beg from.

But when the Han dynasty fell in A.D. 220 as northern barbarians invaded and seized power, the old Confucian guard became an enemy of the new state. The spectacular success of Buddhism in the lands from which it had emigrated did not go unnoticed by the new elite. Orthodox Buddhism found immediate favor at the Imperial court. Everyone welcomed the tons of scripture that were being carried in on the backs of camel, horse, pilgrim.

Buddhism had entered North China through a commercial network. In natural tandem with this commerce had grown a continuously enlarging class of merchants and urban artisans who operated outside the feudal system and the niceties of Confucian privilege. Since serfs create no markets, lest it be in serfs themselves, merchants were happy to support any institution which promoted social freedom - thereby increasing customer volume - and which also advocated easy pardon for transgressions. (Recall the harsh punishments imposed for giving short measure.)

When northern, non-Chinese dynasties converted to Buddhism they took with them this host of eager merchants and a small army of unemployed theologians who, to their everlasting delight, quickly discovered in the diversity and inconsistency of this mountain of imported scriptures, a treasure trove, a glory hole, a motherlode of argumentation.

Several scriptures emerged as favorites among the northern clergy: the Vinaya (rules governing monastic life), which relieved them of work, taxes, military service and the onerous hazards of civilian law; the Lotus Sutra, an exposition of Mahayana truth; and the Lankavatara, the 'consciousness doctrine' sutra. The Canon, as translated, was not endearing. The foreign language was more philosophically subtle than the native language! Local interpreters despaired of trying to capture butterflies of Sanskrit nuance with the clumsy chains of practical Chinese. Their renderings were often mangled, unlovely, and difficult to comprehend.

Southern scholars, on the other hand, had their customary easier time of it. Through the yogic grapevine, Indian metaphysical concepts were already incorporated into Dao metaphysics.

Northern scholars, adhering to traditions inherited from Confucian culture, were cold-climate gentlemen of leisure. They enjoyed sitting in their libraries demonstrating and remonstrating for hours on end. Southern monks, independently poor, did not use such leisure time as they had for idle discussions. They pursued salvation through focussed attention on work (Karma Yoga), through disciplined meditation, or through renunciation, the vaunted Indian method of retreating to "the forest".

Also, Buddhism of the North was born a child of politics and population. When the rulers converted, the masses converted. Organization was required to manage the numbers, and orthodox Buddhism best fuctioned as a mass-transit vehicle of salvation or at least as a means of crowd control for both clergy and laymen. Northern Buddhism, then, saw salvation consisting in scholarship and in merit acquired by the good work of providing the public with temples, shrines, statuary and such. Southern Buddhism was and remained a vehicle for more relaxed and solitary spiritual travel.

Soon after it had embraced the new religion, the North's new ruling class had cause to regret lavishing so much affection upon it. According to the imported rules, monasteries were tax-free havens and monks were exempt from any activity which might remotely be construed as work. Further, fund raising was not seen as work and, in consideration of native disgust with beggars, a genteel solicitation of donations was held to be an acceptable substitute for food-begging. Money that might have been spent in more secular pursuits poured into Buddhist coffers. The monks, it seems, offered much in return for the donations they received. Aside from being lauded publicly for their generosity, men who wanted to be favorably reincarnated could purchase their way to that goal through performing meritorious deeds, i.e., giving land and money to the Buddhist sangha. The purchasing power of the clergy usually surpassed that of civilian authorities. Therefore, without having to contribute their coin to the costs of government or their bodies to the national defense, the sangha was able to live quite high on the establishment hog (literally, since at the time most were not vegetarians.) Within a few hundred years, thousands of Buddhist monasteries, stuffed with tens of thousands of monks and nuns, covering hundreds of thousands of acres, appeared throughout China. By the time that Bodhidharma came to China, the country could boast or despair of an estimated thirty thousand monasteries inhabited by some two million monks and nuns.

As monasteries and shrines competed with each other in opulence, fortunes in metals were invested in statuary and religious objects. Buildings were palatial and the priests and nuns who inhabited them were fed and attired in a manner guaranteed to make them feel at home in such luxurious surroundings. Since the soiling of hands was forbidden, somebody had to be brought in to do the work. And though a simple soul might suppose that slavery would violate a Precept or two, such was held not to be the case. Thousands of temple slaves were purchased or received as donations.

To the chagrin of merchants, Buddhist monasteries became centers of banking, pawnbroking, marketing and that other adjunct of commercial investment, fortune telling. To the consternation of kings and treasury ministers, more and more wealth, though under their noses, was out of their reach. And so, whenever Buddhist monaster- ies got too greedy or were too obviously created as tax shelters owned, built, and administered by rich families for purposes that had nothing beyond appearance to do with religion, the threshold of official tolerance would be crossed. Periodically Buddhist lands and property were confiscated and the ranks of this resplendent Sangha thinned considerably. Ultimately, such priests as remained were forced to tolerate more spartan accommodations. The priestly menu was drastically revised: meat dishes, plain or fancy, were permanently stricken from the carte du jour.

While monastic centers occasionally suffered, village Buddhism managed always to prosper. Local churches did what local churches have to do in order to survive: they adopted orphaned gods and ceremonies and traded scriptural veracity for the pronouncements of fortune-tellers and the incantations of magicians and quacks. The village temple was the focal point of village culture; and people didn't usually come to it in order to work, physically or mentally, for the attainment of wisdom. Most came for gos- sip, laughs, cures, sympathy, food, excitement, and to get their futures predicted. Most came, in short, to be entertained.

Aside from official criticism of monastic centers, northern Buddhism also encountered opposition from its growing rival, Daoism.

The Han Dynasty which succeeded Qin Shihuangdi deliberately declined to renew his flirtation with Daoism, a slight which served to keep Daoism free of "Old Guard" taint when the Han Dynasty was itself toppled by invading, northern barbarians in A.D. 220.

With Confucianism effectively sidelined, Buddhists and Daoists pros- pered. Devotees came in three varieties: the spiritual who sought monastic isolation; the scholarly who preferred the more sophisticated diversions of urban or courtly life, and the ordinary village faithful who delighted in magic, superstition, and the dubious benefits of medical science and divination.

Since only Daoist philosophers had been able to get any kind of grip on the new Buddhist metaphysics, sutra translations were increasingly expressed in Daoist terminology, a fact which northern Buddhist intellectuals found demeaning. Instead of completing the blending process and developing a Chinese hybrid (as did Southern Chan), they sought instead to purify the Buddhist strain by instituting a massive rewriting project. Orthodox Buddhism did not rest until it possessed a new canon, one which was happily uncontaminated by Daoism. Unfortunately, their desire for purity did not extend to Tantric Buddhist scriptures; and these latter works immediately became wildly popular.

The affront to Daoist philosophers could hardly serve to stifle Daoist criticism of Buddhist extravagance. Daoists were therefore pleased to add their voices to the chorus of civilian authorities who clamored for action against the increasingly reckless Buddhist hierarchy.

Into this confused mass of theories and practices came a new variant: a Buddhist/Daoist synthesis called Chan.

By the year 519, the Aryan Prince Bodhidharma had grown so disgusted with scriptural anarchy that he decided to leave India (or Iran - nobody is really sure which) to sail to China to teach a new spiritual regimen, one that was mercifully "outside the scriptures."

An enigmatic priest with formidible powers to attain profound states of samadhi but not much in the way of conversational skills, Bodhidharma seems to have arrived in Guangzhou like the white knight Lohengrin: the Chinese depict him as being transported there by a swan. In Guangzhou, where he disembarked, or de-swanned, there can be seen monastery murals which commemorate his arrival. We can also see, given his curly golden-brown beard and aqua eyes, why the Chinese gave him the sobriquet, "The Blue-eyed Barbarian".

As legend has it, Bodhidharma went north and presented himself to the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty who, as a dedicated Buddhist, had furthered the cause of his religion by building many temples and monasteries. The record of their brief encoutner would become the core of Chan belief.

    Wu: I have performed many good deeds. How much merit have I earned towards my admittance into Nirvana?

    Bodhidharma: None whatsoever.

    Wu: What, then, as a Buddhist, should have been my aim?

    Bodhidharma: To be empty of yourself.

    Wu: Just who do you think you are?

    Bodhidharma: I have no idea.

In this startling exchange we learn that there is no such thing as meritorious or unmeritorious action (good and evil being fictions in the conjured world of the phantom ego), that kenosis (egolessness) is the aim of Buddhist practice, and that the Buddha Nature cannot be apprehended intellectually. To be enlightened in Chan is to experience enlightenment.

For nine years, Bodhidharma stayed at Shao Lin Monastery, silently absorbed in the universe that unfolded in the plane surface of a whitewashed wall.

Though he could see Infinity in a speck of calcium, he couldn't see the jealousy and resentment he was causing in the Imperial Throne and in the seats of Buddhist power. Who would approve of an educated priest who didn't like to debate the sutras? Or an aristocrat who lived more humbly than a peasant? This was subversion, pure and simple! Without intellectuality and a little luxury, what was the point in being religious at all? The barbarian who studied a wall needed watching.

Bodhidharma persisted in trying to teach without words. A scholar named Huiko approached him repeatedly, begging for instruction. But the Blue-Eyed Barbarian ignored him until, in an effort to demonstrate his sincerity and to get the teacher's attention, Huiko cut off his own arm - or so the legend has it. He wanted to see what Bodhidharma saw in the white wall; and eventually he succeeded. With his vision of reality perfected, Huiko went to live among the poor. His vision of illusion was not so good. Jealous priests and bureaucrats were already planning his execution.

When Bodhidharma left China and Huiko inherited the "Patriarchal" Mantle, the humble scholar found himself blamed for all of Buddhism's tantric excesses.

Chan History is understandably hazy at this sad nadir. Bodhidharma's Mantle passed from Huiko's hands successively into the hands of three men about whom little is known. Using their old style romanized names, they are Seng Ts'an, Tao Hsin, and Hung Jen.

Third Patriarch Seng Ts'an, it is said, suffered from leprosy. When Huiko was arrested and killed, Seng Ts'an went to live in the mountains, even an untouchable leper couldn't risk falling into the hands of the reformers.

Seng Ts'an was succeeded by Tao Hsin who is best remembered as the man who really started Chan's monastic movement. He made the monks both stationery and self-sufficient. Between meditation and work they gained enlightenment and avoided persecution. Fourth Patriarch Tao Hsin was succeeded by Hung Jen, who ignored the Lotus and Lankavatara Sutras and devoted himself to the Prajna Paramita's Diamond Sutra. Hung Jen inadvertently made Chan what it is today. It all had to do with picking his successor.

Hung Jen had become Fifth Patriarch just as the Tang Dynasty was ushering in China's Golden Age. It was during this 7th Century period that three characters in particular would set the course that the Buddha's religion would follow in China: Hui Neng, Sixth Patriarch according to Southern Chan; Shen Xiu, Sixth Patriarch according to Northern Chan; and the redoubtable Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty.

In the phylum of devotees, Wu was in a class by herself. (What a gal!) The Empress, ruling from 690 to 705, could claim, at the very least, to be one of Buddhism's most ardent supporters. In fact, she offered herself not only as a model of mercy but as an actual reincarnation of Guan Yin. Northern Orthodox Bud- dhism would not long survive Her Grace.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 4: Origins of the Two Main Schools of Chan, Page 1 of 2

Last modified: November 26, 2011
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)