Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Master Nan-ch'uan spoke of the death anniversary memorial
service for Ma-tsu: "When we serve food for Master Ma-tsu
tomorrow, I wonder whether he will come for it."

The monks remained silent, save for Tung-shan, who said,
"As soon as he has companions, he will come."

Hearing this. Nan-ch'uan praised him, saying, "Although
this man is young, he is worthy of being trained."

"Master," Tung-shan responded, "you should not make a
slave out of an honourable person."

Transmission of the Lamp


Even as Lin-chi taught the idea of the man of no rank and exemplified it in ways that gave full lustre to the Ch'an teaching of Hui-neng, the famous sixth patriarch of the Southern school, he also founded the Ch'an tradition that passed into Japan as Rinzai Zen, one of the two schools that have dominated Japanese Zen until the present day. Contemporaneous with his work was the labour of another monk, Tung-shan, whose methods and teachings would crystallize as the Ts'ao-tung form of Ch'an. Brought to Japan by Dogen, its greatest exponent, as Soto Zen, it became the second principal Japanese school. Between these schools Rinzai and Soto – each impressed with the remarkable features of their Chinese and Japanese founders, there has existed a vigorous rivalry but little animosity. Teachers of both schools often resided in the same temples and monasteries, and disciples sometimes moved between them. Whilst Rinzai emphasizes sudden enlightenment and the dangers of ritualizing and mechanizing any distinct practice, Soto stresses the importance of gradual cultivation and the need for specific exercises. Categorizing these schools in simple ways overlooks their spiritual richness and interwoven complexities.

According to the old Ch'an chronicles, Hui-neng's disciple Huai-jang transmitted his teacher's doctrine and method to Ma-tsu, the grandfather of those modes which Lin-chi skilfully mastered. The same chronicles also report that another, almost legendary, disciple of Hui-neng, Ch'ing-yuan Hsing-ssu, taught these elusive methods to Shih-t'ou, who established a different school. At the time, it was said that "in Kiangsi the Master was Ma-tsu; in Hunan the Master was Shih-t'ou; people went back and forth between them all the time, and those who met neither of them were utterly ignorant". Ma-tsu would wink at his disciples and call Shih-t'ou "slippery", whilst Shih-t'ou nurtured doctrines and modes which preserved the essence of the defunct Northern school of Shen-hsiu, the sixth patriarch. Whilst appreciating the spiritual therapeutics of radical Ch'an techniques, Shih-t'ou understood that administering shocks to the discursive mind through shouts, koans and seemingly irrational behaviour could itself become a game. His disciples learnt that there are no techniques which can in themselves assure that they would not simply become tools of extended discursive mentation. Perhaps this lesson, more than any, saturated Tung-shan's mind and gave later Soto Zen its distinctive character.

Tung-shan was born Liang-chieh in 807 C.E. in what is today known as Chekiang. He was drawn to buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, at an early age and became a novice of a vinaya school which emphasized monastic discipline over meditation. One day Tung-shan was reciting the Heart Sutra and uttered the sentence, "There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind." He stopped, thought for a moment, and asked his teacher, "Since I have eyes and ears, and so on, how can the sutra say there are no such things?" Sensing the depth of Tung-shan's simple question, his teacher suggested that he might find a Ch'an school more resonant to his way of thinking. Taking this advice, Tung-shan journeyed to Mount Sung, where he was ordained at the age of twenty-one. Shortly after his ordination, he followed the custom of travelling from monastery to monastery to assimilate a range of viewpoints and practices. Soon he came to the monastic centre of Nan-ch'uan, chief disciple of Ma-tsu, and won his respect for remarking that Ma-tsu would attend his own memorial feast if there were suitable companions present.

Although he studied assiduously at Nan-ch'uan's monastery, he grew dissatisfied with what he found, and without even so much as hinting that this centre lacked anything, he moved on in search of inward realization. Eventually he arrived at Yun-yen's monastery, where he found a doctrine and method that profoundly stirred him. He studied and practised all these methods Yun-yen offered him and in time emerged as his most accomplished disciple. When he decided that he should again take up his journey, Yun-yen appeared to protest:

"After you leave," Yun-yen said, "it will be very difficult for us to see each other again."

But Tung-shan answered, "It will be difficult for us not to see each other again."

Then Yun-yen said, "You need to be very careful, for you are carrying a great thing."

Tung-shan was puzzled by Yun-yen's enigmatic farewell statement, and he thought about it a great deal while he travelled. Then one day, while crossing a relatively placid body of water, he beheld his image reflected in it. Suddenly he understood his teacher's words.

Many years later, he conducted annual memorial services for Yun-yen. On one of these occasions, a monk asked him, "What teachings did you receive from Yun-yen?"

"Although I was with him," Tung-shan replied, "he offered me no teaching."

"But if he did not teach you," the monk persisted, "why do you conduct these memorial services?"

"It is neither for his moral character nor for his teaching of dharma that I honour him. What I consider important is that he never told me anything openly."

Arcane wisdom and method fused in the life of Tung-shan, who found a middle course between the radical modes of Lin-chi and the explanatory methods of the traditional Chinese commentators. Tung-shan established his own monastic centre, and by 860 he was surrounded by an enormous number of disciples. He moved to Kiangsi province and permanently settled on Mount Tung (Tung-shan), whence he received the name by which he is known in history. Here he developed his methodology, which was fundamentally dialectical in its denial of the value of formal meditation practices and yet insisted that enlightenment did not happen simply because the discursive mind was shocked or paralysed by some seemingly absurd or utterly unconventional word or action. When an official of the government enquired into Tung-shan's teachings and practices, he asked if anyone was taking up Ch'an through cultivation. Tung-shan answered, "When you become a labourer, then there will be someone to do cultivation."

Tung-shan evolved a mode of oblique responses which kept his hearers alert and sufficiently off-balance to prevent spiritual complacency. His chief disciple, Ts'ao-shan, had become a monk at the age of twenty-five, and spent much time at the feet of Tung-shan. Nonetheless, he found little encouragement until one day Tung-shan asked, "What is your name?"

"My name is Ts'ao-shan."

"Say something", Tung-shan continued, "towards ultimate reality."

"I will not say anything", Ts'ao-shan replied.

"And why don't you speak of it?"

"Because it is not called Ts'ao-shan."

From this moment onward Tung-shan taught Ts'ao-shan privately, and the disciple proved himself worthy by giving coherent literary expression to his teacher's most fundamental doctrines. Ts'ao-shan's eventual departure from Tung-shan's monastery mirrored Tung-shan's own farewell to Yun-yen:

"Where are you going?" Tung-shan asked.

"I go where it is changeless", was Ts'ao-shan's response.

"How can you go where it is changeless?"

"My going is no change."

In 869 Tung-shan announced to his disciples that he had resolved to pass out of mortal existence. He shaved his head and put on his formal robes and, gathering his disciples about himself, seated himself in meditation. His disciples could not contain their feelings, however, and sobbed so loudly that he gave up the hope of dying in stately peace. Opening his eyes, he rebuked them by reminding them that followers of buddhadharma are not attached to externals. Self-cultivation, he said, consists in this: "In living they work hard; in death they are at rest. Why should there be any grief?" He then ordered an offering of food to ignorance as a last meal, in order to shame the monks. Even so, they took a full week to prepare this last repast, and when it came he ate, bade his disciples farewell, took a ceremonial bath and died. His dialectical approach, which preserved the Northern Ch'an emphasis on meditation whilst resisting every tendency to institutionalize this or that specific practice, sustained the idea of stages of enlightenment for more than three hundred years, until Dogen was struck by its depth and force and brought it to Japan as Soto Zen.

Tung-shan's persistent indirection in his responses to the questions of disciples arose from a fusion of transcendental metaphysics and practical experience. He sought to dislodge discursive and ratiocinative consciousness from its propensity to think in terms of redundant grooves and familiar patterns, but he also wanted to avoid stirring up psychic matrices and processes which disturb, distract and subvert meditation. Mind, he held, needs to witness its own inherent nature, because mind is at root nothing other than Reality. Just as shunyata, the Void, abides behind the phenomenal phantasmagoria ignorantly mistaken for reality at one or another level, so pure mind simply abides behind all mental changes ignorantly taken for it. Meditation requires progressive inward calmness and a strict avoidance of recursive movement. Tung-shan took as the basis for this standpoint a principle expressed in the Vajrachchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra. first rendered into Chinese by Kumarajiva:

Rupam shunyata shunyataiva rupam. Rupan na
prithak shunyata shunyataya na prithag rupam.

Form is Void, Void is form. Form is nothing but
Void, Void is nothing but form.

Tung-shan expressed the same principle in poetic language:

Snow heaped up in a silver bowl,
A white heron hidden in the full moon's light;
The two are alike, yet not the same:
Interfused, though having each its place.

The dependent multiplicity of phenomenal events and mental states can be nothing but the transcendental Unity, but that Unity is equally multiplicity. Enlightenment is not a miraculous change of nature; it is a radical change of perspective, where the change is so fundamental that it is a change of life itself.

In order to prevent the mind from sullenly settling down into outworn patterns, even when the disciple asks sincere questions, Tung-shan preferred to respond metaphorically and in indirect speech. For example, a monk who had heard Lin-chi's advice to kill everything one encounters – to negate all impressions – even if they are one's parents, asked, "Whom do you want to kill?"

Tung-shan answered, "All who are alive will die."

"When you happen to meet your parents, what should you do?"

"Why should you have any choice?"

"How about yourself?"

"Who can do anything to me?"

"Why should you not kill yourself too?" the monk persisted.

"There is no place", Tung-shan replied, "on which I can lay my hands."

On another occasion, Tung-shan asked a disciple what his name was, and the monk gave it. Then Tung-shan asked, "What one is your real self?"

"The one who is facing you", the monk said.

"What a pity", Tung-shan lamented. "The men of the present day are all like this. They take what is in the front of an ass or at the back of a horse and call it themselves. This illustrates the downfall of the buddhadharma. If you cannot recognize your real self objectively, how can you see your real self subjectively?"

Because of his conviction that language traps the user more often than it frees him, Tung-shan did not believe that discourses or even philosophical conversation in itself could be very helpful in efforts to draw closer to enlightenment. When the monk who had been asked about his real self raised a question on how one could see one's subjectivity without making it objective, Tung-shan answered, "To talk about it in this way is easy, but to continue our talking makes it impossible to reach the truth." As his enigmatic answers and poetic responses suggest, Tung-shan freely used the language of the Taoist philosophers, often quoting from Chuang-tzu to make a point. He never uttered a plain absurdity, however, nor was he known to have ever used the shout or the stick. He preferred to unsettle and dislodge consciousness from its inertia rather than to shock or shatter it. Because he thought of enlightenment in terms of gradual stages of dawning insight, he was more concerned with what was transmitted from mind to mind than with the totalistic process of transmission itself. If Lin-chi could be thought of as focussing on the instantaneous nature of a complete transmission, Tung-shan carefully considered its content. Like Chuang-tzu, he believed that language is the net whereby one catches the fish, but once caught, the fisherman of meditation has to haul in the catch.

Mind, for Tung-shan, is a unity in itself and in relation to the world. Although it is frequently convenient to speak of states or levels of consciousness, mind is one, and though distinctions between internal and external can be useful, especially for nurturing a sense of moral agency, there is only Mind-Reality. Meditation aims to discover experientially the metaphysical truth that unity and multiplicity themselves are resolved in a coincidentia oppositorum, a transcendental Oneness which can be called Enlightenment or shunyata, the Void. When one thinks, "The sky is blue", one has produced neither an objective description of Nature nor a subjective impression of some psychological state. Rather, it is an instantaneous expression of Reality in the context of multiplicity. As such, "The sky is blue" is not a proposition which means something: it just is itself, not different from Reality, yet not Reality as a whole.

Meditation is not an attempt to escape from one consciousness into another, for consciousness is one. More accurately, it is movement along a continuum from the end which exhibits a high degree of multiplicity towards the end which exhibits greater unity. Soto Zen came to prefer the analogy of the ocean: tempest-tossed on its surface, where wind and temperature produce ceaseless movement and agitation; calmer in its depths, where persistent currents steadily circulate; and still in its deepest parts, where change has no locus. Although meditation is a way the mind can be used all the time, sitting in meditation, zazen, is useful in cultivating the ability to move the focus of consciousness into the depths. When that focalization is deep enough, there is no object of focus, and mind comes to behold itself as it really is, the Unity which is Reality. In spirit, Tung-shan's teachings on meditation are closer to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras than to the melodrama of popular Zen.

Since the Unity manifests in multiplicity, the Absolute appears in the relative, or the Real is one with the phenomenal. Tung-shan grounded his teachings on the doctrine that there are five distinguishable relations between universal and particular, which represent five progressive stages of enlightenment. As outlined by his disciple Ts'ao-shan, Tung-shan called the first state "the universal within the particular", where Unity or the Absolute is obscured by the ignorant preoccupation of human beings with appearances. Yet because the universal is within the particular, it is possible to become aware that the world of appearances has no intrinsic reality as a multiplicity, but is only as real as the senses make it. Discovering this, an individual can pass on to the second stage, called "the particular within the universal". Here the meditator comes to see that objective reality is necessarily perceived through his subjective apparatus, and that the Absolute is approached through the relative, for particulars exemplify the universal. This stage permits the realization – invariably misunderstood at the first stage – that good and evil are part of the same unity. In one sense, this can be called enlightenment.

The third stage is reached when the individual can approach the Absolute through universality, focussing consciousness with out any props at all – neither image nor language nor specific thought. The fourth stage is achieved when one can experience total unity in the experience of particulars, so that any particular reveals the Absolute. In this stage one can meaningfully say, "After Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers." The fifth stage is the supreme discovery of shunyata, wherein no approach is possible since it is beyond speech and silence. Neither object nor concept is helpful, for the Void contains all concepts and objects whilst transcending them. This stage of "wordless insight" is the experience of consciousness abiding in its own nature as the Mind-Reality. Here, where naught else exists – much less avails – one can say that action and inaction are the same. In his typically enigmatic way, Tung-shan pointed to this supreme Enlightenment in a verse:

The man of wood sings,
The stone maiden rises and dances;
This cannot be done by passion or learning,
It cannot be done by discursive reasoning.