Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Just steadily go on with your koan every moment of your life. . . . Whether walking or sitting, let your attention be fixed upon it without interruption. When you begin to find it entirely devoid of flavour, the final moment is approaching: do not let it slip out of your grasp. When all of a sudden something flashes out in your mind, its light will illumine the entire universe, and you will see the spiritual land of the Enlightened Ones.



China's Great Persecution of 845 C.E. virtually destroyed institutional Buddhist traditions, including the orders of monks and nuns centred in recognized monastic communities. Ironically, the destruction of viable Buddhist alternatives to less formal ch'an (meditation) practices also marked the end of the Golden Age of Ch'an. The division of Ch'an into the Northern 'gradual' school and the Southern 'sudden' school did not severely strain an approach to enlightenment which emphasized meditation and fidelity to a particular teacher over institutions and rituals. After the Great Persecution, however, former monks and nuns who evaded imperial efforts to force them back into secular life had no other place to go but to small, usually isolated Ch'an enclaves. Even as the number of Ch'an adherents swelled with this unexpected influx of new devotees, many of whom knew the vinaya or Buddhist monastic rules and the sutras or sacred texts well, the tradition was diluted. The attitudes and excesses tendencies towards ritualism of many kinds and towards scholarship over practice – against which Ch'an had stood firm began to take root within the heterodox tradition itself. Just as teachers found it increasingly difficult to give the individual attention required in Ch'an to ever-increasing numbers of disciples, the literary preoccupations of the Sung dynasty distracted many from assiduous meditation.

During the first centuries of the Ch'an tradition, teachers had emphasized the nature of enlightenment. Without denying that the path to highest illumination doubtless took many lives to traverse, the successors to Bodhidharma firmly held that enlightenment itself represents a transformation of insight so fundamental that one is forever freed of the delusions of samsara, the sea of life pervaded by ignorance. After the sixth patriarchs of the Northern and Southern schools, teachers, believing that the idea of enlightenment was well understood, concentrated increasingly on means of inward transmission of buddhavachana, the quintessential message of Buddha. Since the rational mind attempts to figure out, second-guess and even fathom that which is necessarily beyond itself – infinite illumination and omniscience – ratiocinative processes must be suspended (but not destroyed) if there is to be any chance of insight occurring. To this end, teachers used paradoxes, seemingly absurd answers, shouts, and even apparently random striking with a stick.

Any method for attaining spiritual insight which requires transcendence of discursive consciousness, including mystical means, must face the problem of mistaking various and often elaborate forms of fantasy for transcendence and insight. Ritual worship and practice can mislead the gullible into mistaking unusual and intensely pleasant sensations for attainment; rigorous intellectual study of the sacred texts can dupe the unwary into believing they understand and have even achieved what they have, in fact, only heard about. Ch'an teachers sought, therefore, to transmit not a body of doctrine, however exalted it might be, but a line of spiritual experience which was, for each one who received it correctly, an assimilated metaphysics and ethics transmuted in the crucible of one's consciousness into direct apprehension of truth and reality. But, they well knew, even paradox and the stick could become mere routine and external ritual, and they laboured to find ever more effective ways of helping disciples dispel fantasy and gain release from the tyranny of the discursive mind.

The unique contribution Ch'an teachers made to the long history of spiritual striving in the Buddhist tradition, and the greatest single contribution Ch'an made to Japanese Zen, was the development of the koan. The koan, from the Chinese term kung an, for 'case' or 'problem', arose naturally out of a Ch'an technique. As generations of teachers questioned disciples, a large number of queries and responses were recorded for posterity. The classical Transmission of the Lamp, a 'history' of the Ch'an masters, contains many such exchanges. The Blue Cliff Record, initially compiled in the eleventh century and cherished in Japan as the Hekiganroku, and the Mumonkan, composed in 1228, are catalogues of famous koans. Initially, a Ch'an teacher might respond to a disciple's question by briefly recounting some earlier exchange. For example, the following koan is from the Mumonkan:

When the monks assembled before the noon meal to hear Master Fa-yen's lecture, he pointed at the bamboo shades. Two monks simultaneously went and rolled them up. Fa-yen said, "One gain, one loss."

By observing the disciple's response, the teacher could discern the depth of his insight. At the same time, the use of a koan helped to elicit insights obscured by the restless operation of discursive consciousness. In time, however, the koan emerged as a method in itself, so that a disciple might be given a koan to work on in the mind until ratiocination exhausted itself and insight dawned. More than any other teacher, Ta-hui perfected this method in China, and thereby placed an ineradicable stamp on Zen.

Ta-hui was born in Anhwei province in 1089. From an early age, he gained a reputation for natural piety conjoined with a startling precocity, and by the time he was seventeen he had become a monk. He studied the teachings of all the major Ch'an schools, and by the time he was nineteen he had begun to wander from centre to centre in search of enlightenment. He soon met a teacher who had access to an early version of the Blue Cliff Record. Giving Ta-hui the collection of koans, he refused to say a word until Ta-hui understood every one without assistance. For a time Ta-hui also practised the methods of the Ts'ao-tung (Soto) school, but when he found that approach too quietistic. he was told to visit the Lin-chi (Rinzai) teacher Yuan-wu K'o-ch'in, who oversaw a temple in the Sung capital of Pien-liang. Yuan-wu showed him the power of the koan and guided him to his most overwhelming experience:

One day when Yuan-wu had ascended to the high seat in the lecture hail, he said, "A monk asked Yun-men, 'Whence come all the Buddhas?' Yun-men answered, 'The East Mountain walks over the water.' But if I were asked, I would not answer that way. 'Whence come all the Buddhas?' A fragrant breeze comes of itself from the south, and in the palace pavilion a refreshing coolness stirs." At these words, Ta-hui suddenly attained enlightenment.

Ta-hui rapidly grew in experience and his superior wisdom shone for all to see. Eventually, he took over administration of the temple from Yuan-wu and in 1126 was given a title by an imperial minister.

Ta-hui's life-work appeared to be set out before him, a recognized Ch'an adept active in the heart of Sung China. But in 1127 everything suddenly changed. Having made tentative peace with 'barbarian' tribes in the north and west, the Sung emperors felt secure and were caught unawares when a great Manchurian tribe overwhelmed their known enemies and took Pien-liang itself. The emperor, last of those belonging to what would thenceforth be known as the Northern Sung dynasty, was carried off with his entire court to Manchuria. The emperor's son fled south and established himself at Hangchow, which became the coastal capital of the Southern Sung. Ironically, the massive disruption of the imperial government made it rely more on the Ch'an tradition, and in turn Ch'an – entirely of the Southern school or branch – began to take on the coloration of the court-oriented and long- discredited Northern school. Yuan-wu was assigned a monastery in Kiangsi province, to which he migrated with his chief disciples.

Ta-hui accompanied him to Kiangsi as head monk and faithfully carried out these duties for four years. He saw, however, that the political and military disorders, followed by a desperate attempt to save the efflorescence of Sung culture, had merely institutionalized Ch'an thought and practice in exactly those ways Ch'an teachers had traditionally resisted. With sorrow in his heart at these strange events, he bid his revered teacher farewell and journeyed to Szechuan, where he built a remote hermitage. After a few years he moved again, but seclusion was taken away from him as swiftly as the temple in Pien-liang had been. In 1137 a former disciple of Yuan-wu who had become prime minister to the Southern Sung emperor summoned Ta-hui to establish a new temple near Hangchow. Soon after he took up residence under the shadow of the imperial capital, large numbers of monks began to gather around him, and before long their ranks swelled to two thousand.

Ta-hui strove to instruct his many disciples by making new uses of the koans. His uncompromising spiritual commitments, exemplified in his dramatic revitalization of the Lin-chi school, made the government uneasy. In time, the belief spread that he was in fact the reincarnation of Lin-chi himself, and his deft ability to elude imperial control of his school led to his banishment. Assigned to one remote outpost after another, he used the peace and quiet he found to write a great deal. After almost fifteen years of virtual exile, he was again summoned to Hangchow in 1158. There he assumed control of his old temple, and though now an elderly man, he soon found himself guiding seventeen hundred monks. He was left alone to teach as he preferred, and when he retired, the imperial government allowed him to live in his temple at its expense. He was revered in his last years, and when he died in 1163, it is said that ninety-four enlightened disciples owed their spiritual insight to him.

Ta-hui developed a rigorous method of using the koan in contrast to the Ts'ao-tung or Silent Illumination school. In Ts'ao tung, aspirants were taught to sit in quiet meditation, ch'an, gradually bringing the mind to a tranquil state of blissful non attachment, viraga, rooted in shunyata, the Void. Ts'ao-tung teachers who were contemporaries of Ta-hui tended to discourage introducing struggles into the mind because of the distractions they caused. Ta-hui granted that the Silent Illumination approach could produce numerous beneficial results, but he was convinced that it consistently fell short of the highest insights. Unexercised minds could too easily become quiescent without gaining clarity, so disciples could drift into glorious, ethereal states of fantasy, where the quest for Reality ended in an exalted pseudo- enlightenment. Encountering shunyata is, for Ta-hui, an intensely dynamic activity and not a passive condition of any kind. Mere quiescence might lead one to discern the voidness (shunyata) of the seeming full, but it could not help one to encounter the fullness of the seeming void. Without that direct insight, mere tranquillity can lead to a pleasantly indifferent nihilism.

Ta-hui cultivated what came to be known as K'an-hua Ch'an, meditation by scrutinizing the koan. His method took as axiomatic the view that meditation is a means to enlightenment and not an end in itself. In blunt terms, the only ultimate vindication of ch'an or any other practice is the possibility of enlightenment. Anything short of that is something else and lesser, whatever its merits. The tropism of Ts'ao-tung was away from the world of daily affairs, as if the world itself – the field of karma – were a vast, irrelevant distraction. Ta-hui considered this propensity spiritualized selfishness, the result of which was a rejection of Humanity and not an effort to illuminate it.

To say that when one has put things to rest to the point that he is unawares and unknowing, like earth, Wood, tile or stone, this is not unknowing Silence: this is a view that wrongly takes too literally words that were merely expedient means to free bonds.

For Ta-hui, practice in meditation should allow one to be fully active in the world and part of the life of collective Humanity, without being distracted by or caught up in mundane values and concerns.

Ta-hui gave disciples koans not just to test their insights at the moment but as material for practical, if internal, spiritual work. When a monk received a koan, he might exhibit the tendency to attack it as a problem to be solved, developing ratiocinative strategies for mental conquest and experiencing emotions attendant on frustration – annoyance, anger, disappointment, despair. Ta-hui advised his students to refrain from looking for an answer – the central activity of discursive consciousness – simply because a koan has no answer in any sense in which ordinary consciousness understands that idea. Rather, he encouraged a disciple to look at the koan itself. One should keep it in one's mind until it becomes a constant companion, a true yet mysterious friend. In this way, the initial argumentative fascination with the koan fades as it increasingly suffuses one's whole consciousness. In time, the words of the koan "lose their flavour". If the koan is kept in mind even as it becomes devoid of fascination, one knows that real spiritual progress is being made. Eventually, the koan disintegrates, rather as the bottom might suddenly fall out of an old bucket, and one is enlightened. Instead of the koan being solved, it is dissolved into a new vista of its own accord.

Although this use of the koan was a refinement of previous uses, Ta-hui was not content to let the matter stand there. If tranquillity can be insidiously deceptive, the dramatic break-throughs afforded by K'an-hua Ch'an can be falsely absolutized. For all that, a fundamental and irreversible insight is not ultimate enlightenment. Ta-hui would assign a koan, and when it had done its alchemical work on consciousness, he would simply assign another. If one had in fact attained the enlightenment of Buddha, one would instantly see through all koans. If not, the next koan would be another challenge. Hence, even though the teacher's unerring discernment is essential in koan work, in that one's koans are always given by a teacher, they also involve self-testing and self-validation. For a koan to perform its inscrutable work on consciousness, one needs to concentrate on it continuously, so that it becomes the dominant thought when consciousness is free to focus on it and the pervasive resonance of the mind when it attends to other things. Such concentration includes, but is not restricted to, periods of formal meditation. Meditation, according to Ta-hui, should not be sanctimoniously isolated from the rest of life but should constitute a particularly sublime pitch continuous within all activities. The effectiveness of a koan does not depend upon the impulsive intensity of a disciple's interest but on continuity of consciousness as the mind passes through the whole range of mental states.

Ta-hui forcefully expressed his reservations regarding the Silent Illumination school, but he was profoundly aware of vulnerabilities in his own methods. He resisted any proclivity to take koans at a literary level. The cultivated disciple who knew the Chinese classics and could even compose poetry as the occasion demanded, and who yet sought to analyse enlightenment, was wholly unacceptable to ch'an.

Gentlemen of affairs who study the Path often understand rationally without getting to the reality. Without discussion and thought they are at a loss, with no place to put their hands and feet. They will not believe that where there is no place to put one's hands and feet is really a good situation. Rather, they yearn to get there in their minds by thinking and to understand in their mouths by talking. They scarcely realize that they have already gone wrong.

Less erudite disciples, however, could make an equally dangerous mistake. Instead of allowing the koan to seep like water into consciousness – to use a Taoist metaphor – they conscientiously memorized koans, thus blocking the natural awakening of intuition.

For Ta-hui, ch'an is the natural state and activity of conscious ness, for illumination is the root of all sentience and intelligence. When, however, the mind has become fragmented, distracted and inverted through ignorance and desire, various supplemental means and methods are needed to heal and restore it to its natural wholeness. The koan, used as Ta-hui instructed, is the most efficacious means for achieving this end. Because it keeps the disciple fully in the world whilst alchemizing his consciousness, Ta-hui believed that the quest for enlightenment and the Bodhisattva ideal are fused into a single activity that can become as natural as breathing. Although the K'an-hua Ch'an Ta-hui taught did not last very long in China after his death, as Kanna Zen it became the heart of Rinzai Zen which passed to Japan, where it is practised today. The powerful legacy of his deep spiritual insight was attested to by the disciples he left, and perhaps even more by its persistence through centuries and across cultures, undiminished, resilient, and still as valuable a means towards realization as when he taught it to those around him.


That verily is the Light (jyoti) of all lights, declared to be
beyond darkness itself. It is wisdom, the object of wisdom,
and that which is to be gained by wisdom, seated in the
hearts of all.

Bhagavad Gita XIII.17 SHRI KRISHNA