Zen Buddhism—Quick History & Highlights from its Philosophers

Highlights from the ancient texts of China’s Chán era (禪), popularly known as “Zen Buddhism” in the West — a philosophical revolution which could perhaps alternatively be called “Zen Taoism.”

Historical Context

The Neo-Taoists opened the door for imported Buddhism which went so much further into nihilism and decimation of reality. Philosophers like Sengzhao engaged in lengthy argumentation to “prove” that objects, time, motion and causation were all an illusion. Their motto: “nothing is real.”

“If the present passes on to the past, then there should be the present in the past. If the past reaches to the present, then there should be the past in the present. Since there is no past in the present, we know that it does not come, and since there is no present in the past, we know that it does not go. As neither does the past reach to the present nor does the present reach to the past, everything, according to its nature, remains for only one period of time. What thing is there to come and go?”—Sengzhao (僧肇); 384–414.

What happens next is fascinating. For hundreds of years Chinese Buddhism would continue, but with each new philosopher we see the Sino-mind reasserting itself—Sengzhao 384 ⇨ Jizang 549 ⇨ Zhiyi 538 ⇨ Xuanzang 602 ⇨ Fazang 643—slowly Buddhism becomes more real, organic, practical. Perhaps not coincidently, by 755 during the Tang Dynasty the population had finally recovered to 90M; a dwindling use for a philosophy of escapism?

“Because substance involves facts, therefore principle follows fact and is in complete accord with it. Thus they always exist but are at the same time ever empty, for Emptiness does not destroy existence. They are always empty but at the same time ever existent, for existence does not obstruct Emptiness. The Emptiness that does not obstruct existence can harmo- nize all phenomena, and the existence that does not destroy Emptiness can complete everything. Therefore all phenomena clearly exist before us and one does not obstruct the other.

From the above principles, the tendency of harmonious combination becomes unrestricted because it has no nature, and all phenomena which exist spontaneously can be combined because they rise through causation. As the one and the many totally involve each other, we look at one particle of dust and [everything] suddenly becomes manifest. As the “this” takes in the “other,” we look at a tiny hair and all things appear together. The reason is that, when the mind understands, all dharmas can be free and at ease, and because the principle is clear, great wisdom can be achieved. Among seekers after wisdom, who will examine its source? People talking about it seldom investigate its mystery to the limit. What can match the function of spontaneity?”—Fazang (法藏); 643–712, founder of the Huayan “Flower Garland” School

Then like a lightning bolt from the heavens comes the Zen Movement, and just like that, the traditional sino-mind is back…

“The Chan Movement, better known as Zen, has been described as a movement in which “the Chinese mind completely asserted itself, in a sense, in opposition to the Indian mind. Everything other than the cultivation of the mind, such as reading scriptures, making offerings to the Buddha, reciting His name, joining the monastic order, are regarded as unnecessary. The total effect is to minimize, if not to wipe out, the whole Buddhist organization, creed, and literature and to reduce Buddhism to a concern with one’s mind alone. No matter how one looks at this movement, it was revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”—Wing-tsit Chan (陳榮捷); 1901-1994, Chinese scholar and translator

Chinese Zen “meditation” took on a unique character, quite different from the Indian version…

“In Indian meditation, the mind tries to avoid the external world, ignores outside influence, aims at intellectual understanding, and seeks to unite with the Infinite. Chinese meditation, on the other hand, works with the aid of external influence, operates in this world, emphasizes quick wit and insight, and aims at self-realization.” — Wing-tsit Chan

Contrary to popular belief in the Anglo-Zen space, Zen is not Japanese in origin and is not even necessarily about “mediation” in the sense that Westerners tend to imagine it…

“Literally, the name of the school should be Meditation, for the Sanskrit dhyana, pronounced in Chinese “chan” and in Japanese “zen,” means that. But meditation changed its character in China almost from the very inception of Buddhism, although the typically Indian form of sitting in meditation and concentrating one’s mind to the point of ignoring the external world has continued in Chinese Buddhist schools. When Buddhism first came to China, it was mixed up with the Yellow Emperor-Lao Tzu cult. As a result, meditation was not understood in the Indian sense of concentration but in the Taoist sense of conserving vital energy, breathing, reducing desire, preserving nature, and so forth. In the end, meditation meant neither sitting in meditation nor mental concentration, but simply the direct enlightenment of the mind.

Since the chief concern of the school is the Buddha-mind in everything, various methods were developed to realize it. Shen-hui himself taught “the absence of thought” so that the mind will return to its original state of tranquillity. Another Zen Master emphasized “forgetting our feelings” so as to remove selfish clingings and evil desires. Still another Zen Master advocated “letting the mind take its own course” so it can be at ease and not be disturbed either by its own differentiated characters or by the phenomenal world. From the ninth century to the eleventh novel and unconventional techniques were developed, and vigorously, if only occasionally, applied. One was travel, which was calculated to broaden one’s perspective and deepen one’s insight. When one’s experience is enriched, one day he will suddenly intuit truth. Another method was “never to tell too plainly,” for the obvious reason that the student must discover truth himself. The more interesting, more radical, and perhaps most misunderstood technique is the koan. Literally koan means official document on the desk, connoting a sense of important decision and the final determination of truth and falsehood. To this end Zen Masters made use of any story, problem, or situation, the more shocking the better. But the most puzzling technique is that of shouting and beating. Even these are not madness or dramatics but an unorthodox way of shocking the pupil out of his outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions so that his mind will be pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened.

In short, the whole philosophy of the various methods is to broaden a person’s vision, sharpen his imagination, and sensitize his mind so that he can see and grasp truth instantly any time and anywhere. This type of mental training is utterly Chinese. Nothing like it can be found in the tradition of Indian meditation.” — Wing-tsit Chan

The Zen Philosophers

The Platform Sutra

“Good and learned friends, calmness (samadhi) and wisdom (prajña) are the foundations of my method. First of all, do not be deceived into thinking that the two are different. They are one substance and not two. Calmness is the substance of wisdom and wisdom is the function of calmness. Whenever wisdom is at work, calmness is within it. Whenever calmness is at work, wisdom is within it.”—The Platform Sutra

Comment. This spirit of synthesis is characteristic of the Southern School. In fact, this goes back to early Taoism and Neo-Taoism, and it is no wonder that Zen writers employed many Taoist and Neo-Taoist terms, such as “substance” and “function” and “original substance.”Wing-tsit Chan

There’s so much “non-being” and “uncarved block” and “the middle way” Taoist type stuff floating around here; it’s difficult to pinpoint and put into words. There’s still Indian roots, but Taoism is reinterpreting and repurposing the foreign philosophy.

“Good and learned friends, in this method of mine, from the very beginning, whether in the sudden-enlightenment or gradual-enlightenment tradition, absence-of-thought has been instituted as the main doctrine, absence-of-characters as the substance, and nonattachment as the foundation. What is meant by absence-of-characters? Absence-of- characters means to be free from characters while in the midst of them. Absence-of-thought means not to be carried away by thought in the process of thought. Nonattachment is man’s original nature. Thought after thought goes on without remaining. Past, present, and future thoughts continue without termination. But if we cut off and terminate thought one instant, the dharma-body (Law-body or spiritual body) is freed from the physical body. At no time should a single instant of thought be attached to any dharma. If one single instant of thought is attached to anything, then every thought will be attached. That is bondage. But if in regard to dharmas no thought is attached to anything, that is freedom. This is the meaning of having nonattachment as the foundation.” — The Platform Sutra

The premise is that human nature is “originally pure.” Note that this is compatible with Mencius and opposite of Christianity’s “original sin.” To pursue purity, as being outside, is thus counterproductive and not “The Way” (obvious Taoist concepts here).

Man’s nature is originally pure. It is by false thoughts that True Thusness is obscured. Our original nature is pure as long as it is free from false thoughts. If one does not realize that his own nature is originally pure and makes up his mind to look at purity, he is creating a false purity. Such purity has no objective existence. Hence we know that what is looked at is false. Purity has neither physical form nor character, but some people set up characters of purity and say that this is the object of our task. People who take this view hinder their own original nature and become bound by purity. If those who cultivate im- perturbability would ignore people’s mistakes and defects, their nature would not be perturbed. Deluded people may not be perturbed physical- ly themselves, but whenever they speak, they criticize others and thus violate the Way. Thus looking at the mind or at purity causes a hindrance to the Way.” — The Platform Sutra

And so logically, if our original nature is “pure,” the function of mediation is to remove the obstructions to reveal the original self (although, what if that self is pure-evil?)…

“Self-nature is always pure, just as the sun and moon are always shining. It is only when they are obscured by clouds that there is brightness above but darkness below and the sun, the moon, and the stars cannot be seen. But when suddenly a gentle wind blows and scatters all clouds and fog, all phenomena are abundantly spread out before us, all appearing together. The purity of people’s nature is comparable to the clear sky, their wisdom comparable to the sun, and sagacity comparable to the moon. Their sagacity and wisdom are always shining. It is only because externally people are attached to spheres of objects that erroneous thoughts, like floating clouds, cover the self-nature so that it is not clear. Therefore when they meet a good and learned friend who reveals to them the true method and scatters delusions and falsehood, then they are thoroughly illumined both internally and externally, and all dharmas reveal the free and easy character in their own nature.” — The Platform Sutra

As far as meditation, this school seems to be about attaining an awareness of the external world while not being perturbed by it. This seems Taoist to me, but now they have meditation as a tool to achieve sageliness. Practical use!

“Now, this being the case, in this method, what is meant by sitting in meditation? In this method, to sit means to be free from all obstacles, and externally not to allow thoughts to rise from the mind over any sphere of objects. To meditate means to realize the imperturbability of one’s original nature. What is meant by meditation and calmness? Meditation means to be free from all characters externally; calmness means to be unperturbed internally. If there are characters outside and the inner mind is not disturbed, one’s original nature is naturally pure and calm. It is only because of the spheres of objects that there is contact, and contact leads to perturbation. There is calmness when one is free from characters and is not perturbed. There is meditation when one is externally free from characters, and there is calmness when one is internally undisturbed. Meditation and calmness mean that external meditation is attained and internal calmness is achieved.” — The Platform Sutra

Comment. “The doctrine of the absence of thought is no cult of unconsciousness. Nor is it a Zen invention. It goes back to Taoism, Neo-Taoism, and the Early Seven Schools of Buddhism, all of which taught “having no mind of one’s own,” that is, having no mental attachment which would keep the mind in bondage. “—Wing-tsit Chan

Notice that facts and reason (理?) are not excluded from the Zen philosophy, actually they are your “true and learned friend.” This seems a dramatic shift from the earlier anti-reality schools of Chinese Buddhism…

“But if one’s own mind is perverse and deluded, full of erroneous thoughts and perversions, even if good and learned friends from the outside offer instructions, no salvation can be attained. If you have not been able to enlighten yourselves, you should arouse your wisdom illuminatingly to examine facts and principles. Then in an instant all erroneous thoughts will vanish. This is your true and really good and learned friend, who as soon as he is enlightened immediately realizes Buddhahood.” — The Platform Sutra

It’s interesting to see Chinese hierarchy and meritocracy so blatantly present. There are inferior, there are superior, but the prior can self-improve by consulting the latter. Once enlightened, they are no longer different…

“The reason is that among men some are wise and others are stupid. The stupid are inferior, whereas the wise are superior. The deluded consult the wise and the wise explain the Law to the stupid and enable them to understand and to open up their minds. When deluded people understand and open up their minds, they are no longer different from the superior and the wise. Why not seek in one’s own mind the sudden realization of the original nature of True Thusness? If we understand our minds and see our nature, we shall achieve Buddhahood ourselves.” — The Platform Sutra

Was this next idea borrowed by the current American self-improvement and positivity culture? This “you can change your reality by changing your mind” has been a fad for decades in the Anglosphere. While true, it has gone to extremes (e.g. biology denialism).

“What is meant by the Perfect Reward-body? One light can illuminate the darkness of a thousand years, and one bit of wisdom can destroy the ignorance of ten thousand years. Never mind looking back to the past; always consider the future, and always make future thoughts good. This is called the Reward-body. The reward of one evil thought will remove the good of a thousand years, and the reward of one good thought will destroy the evil of a thousand years. At all times make the next thought a good one.” — The Platform Sutra

The Recorded Conversations of Shenhui

“The principle of sudden enlightenmentmeans to understand without going through gradual steps, for understanding is natural. Sudden enlightenment means that one’s own mind is empty and void from the very beginning. Therefore the scripture says, ‘Living beings have spontaneous wisdom and wisdom without teacher.’ He who issues from natural principles approaches the Way rapidly, whereas he who cultivates externally approaches slowly. — Shenhui

“The spontaneity of the monks is the self-nature of living beings. Moreover, the scripture says, “Living beings have spontaneous wisdom and wisdom without teacher.’ This is called spontaneity. But in the case of causation of the Taoists, Tao can produce the One, the One can produce the two, the two can produce the three, and the three produce all things. All are produced because of Tao. If there were no Tao, nothing will be produced. Thus all things belong to causation.” — Shenhui

As Chan’s commentary points out, Shenhui, like Huineng, was not opposed to reason and intellectual understanding. In the great tradition of Sino-thought, they are synthesizing—reason and intuition are our tools—not limited “either/or” thinking…

Comment:Note the equal emphasis on wisdom and principle. The rational element of principle, which occupies an important place in Hua-yen and later in Neo-Confucianism, also has an important role in Zen. Intuition does not preclude intellectual understanding.”Wing-tsit Chan

Ignorance and enlightenment are related, yet when we encounter them we all naturally know them as different. Ignorance can be affliction or enlightenment. Perhaps there is something here of Kongzi’s “allowing what you don’t know;” enlightened ignorance?

Question: “Why is ignorance72 the same as spontaneity?” Answer: “Because ignorance and Buddha-nature come into existence spontaneously. Ignorance had Buddha-nature as the basis and Buddha- nature has ignorance as the basis. Since one is basis for the other, when one exists, the other exists also. With enlightenment, it is Buddha-nature. Without enlightenment, it is ignorance. The Nieh-pan ching (Nirvana Scripture) says, ‘It is like gold and mineral. They come into existence at the same time. After a master founder has smelted and refined the material, gold and the mineral will presently be differentiated. The more refined, the purer the gold will become, and with further smelting, the residual mineral will become dust.’73 The gold is analogous to Buddha- nature, whereas mineral is analogous to afflictions resulting from passions. Afflictions and Buddha-nature exist simultaneously. If the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and truly good friends teach us so we may resolve to cultivate perfect wisdom, we shall immediately achieve emancipation.” — Shenhui

The Recorded Conversations of Zen Master Yixuan

“The Master ascended the hall and said, “Over a lump of reddish flesh there sits a pure man who transcends and is no longer attached to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings. He comes in and out of your sense organs all the time. If you are not yet clear about it, look, look!” At that point a monk came forward and asked, “What is a pure man who does not belong to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings?” The Master came right down from his chair and, taking hold of the monk, exclaimed, “Speak! Speak!” As the monk deliberated what to say, the Master let him go, saying, “What dried human excrement-removing stick is the pure man who does not belong to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings!” Thereupon he returned to his room.”—Linji Yixuan

Comment:This is one of the most famous koans. The nonsensical answer in the koan is a new Zen device, but witty and shocking conversations have their precedents in Taoism and Neo-Taoism. One can find many in the Chuang Tzu and the Shih-shuo hsin-yü (New Discourse on the Talk of the Times), to mention only two well-known examples.” — Wing-tsit Chan

On Zen “koans,” commenters have interpreted them as a “shock technique” to get the target into sudden enlightenment and also to ward off oppressive wordiness or abstract concepts which hold back enlightenment. There’s an anti-intellectualism in them.

Comment:. “The swatter was originally used to hit mosquitoes but in Zen it is used to needle the mind. Hu Shih and Suzuki are diametrically opposed in their interpretations of such a technique. For Hu Shih, the apparently nonsensical Zen gestures are calculated to force the student to think for himself, “a method of education by the hard way.” For Suzuki, the swatter and various forms of gestures represent Zen’s “persistent and often violent opposition to words and then to the intellect which deals exclusively in words.” Suzuki added that Zen has no prescribed methods. We may add that in the typical Buddhist fashion of the Four Points of Argumentation, the swatter may mean this, it may mean that, it may mean both this and that, and it may mean neither this nor that.”Wing-tsit Chan

Comment: “It expresses not only a spirit of revolt, but also the determination to wipe out anything in the way of the mind’s direct and immediate intuition of truth, including Buddhism itself.”Wing-tsit Chan

Linji Yixuan also warned of the “searching for” obsession, just as Huineng and his Platform Sutra had warned of searching externally for purity. It’s counterproductive…

“Seekers of the Way, do not make any mistake. If you seek after the Buddha, you will be taken over by the devil of the Buddha, and if you seek after the patriarch, you will be taken over by the devil of the patriarch. If you seek after anything, you will always suffer. It is better not to do anything. Seekers of the Way, if you say that the Buddha is the ultimate, why did he die lying down sidewise in the forest in Kusinagara after having lived for eighty years? Where is he now?. . . Those who truly seek after the Law will have no use for the Buddha.”—Linji Yixuan

You people coming from the various directions have all made up your minds to seek the Buddha, seek the Law, seek emancipation, and seek to leave the Three Worlds. Crazy people! If you want to leave the Three Worlds, where can you go? ‘Buddha’ and ‘patriarchs’ are terms of praise and also bondage. Do you want to know where the Three Worlds are? They are right in your mind which is now listening to the Law.” — Linji Yixuan

Comment:This ‘doing nothing’ philosophy means more than the Taoist philosophy of leaving things alone and being absolutely spontaneous. It assumes that Ultimate Reality is everywhere and can be discovered without any special searching. Eating, sweeping the floor, simply walking, or anything will do.”Wing-tsit Chan

In summary

“It was inevitable that such a philosophy would exercise a profound influence. Its impact on Chinese philosophy was great. The new doctrine of seriousness (ching)16 in Neo-Confucianism was one of its direct products, and the whole idealistic Neo-Confucian movement of several hundred years, initiated by Lu Hsiang-shan (Lu Chiu-yüan, 1139–1193) and culminating in Wang Yang-ming (Wang Shou-jen, 1472–1529), was so much influenced by it that it has often been called Zen in Confucian disguise.” — Wing-tsit Chan

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Sol 太阳 쏠

Sino-philosophy: Confucianism, Dao De Jing, and Legalism. Comparative philosophy: Anglo vs Sino thought-lineages—we can use both!