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The Founding of Zen Buddhism

Updated on January 14, 2014

The Founding of Zen Buddhism

At the beginning of grand movements such as the spread of Christianity or the American Revolution texts are often created, chronicling the doctrine and origin of these movements. As time goes by, the meaning of texts is lost and the substance is often corrupted by editors. One finds that, to read these texts, things like the Bible or the Constitution, a certain level of interpretation must be applied, some reading between the lines; not only to better understand the movement but to help it apply to modern times. Ch’an Buddhism is no different from these Western movements. While the Platform sutra lays out Ch’an Buddhism’s philosophies and origin, it, like the Constitution, has been and still is being interpreted. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Platform Sutra comes in the first chapter with the story of the search for the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan lineage. As the sutra tells, the Fifth Patriarch Hongren creates a sort of contest, his disciple monks are meant to come up with a stanza to best demonstrate their level of attainment, their familiarity with Buddha-nature. The two stanzas which the only monks willing to compete put forth define schools of thought in Ch’an Buddhism. The first monk, Shenxiu, creates a stanza describing constant and gradual practice of the way of the Buddha, diligent work and meditation to attain enlightenment. The second monk, Huineng, devises a stanza that seems in direct opposition to Shenxiu’s, claiming there is no body, mind, or self to diligently look after and that enlightenment need only be realized and it comes suddenly. While on the surface the monks’ verses contradict each other, the two stanzas can be seen to create three messages. Shenxiu’s stanza depicts one school, known as the Northern School of Ch’an Buddhism and gives a message that emphasizes continuous practice of Buddhist teachings and incremental attainment of Buddhahood. Huineng's stanza, on the other hand, depicts a school, the Southern School, positing that Buddhahood can come at an instant and that this sudden enlightenment is superior. The two pieces, when put together, create a message that has been seen by some as universal and applying to both schools. (McRae 65) Separately the two stanzas can be seen definitively as descriptions and the messages of two different schools of Ch’an Buddhism; a third universal message may interpreted to be revealed upon the combination of the two that applies to both schools of Ch’an.

The first line of Shenxiu’s poem reads ‘The body is the bodhi tree’. We can take Bodhi in Chinese Buddhism to translate to great awakening and so we interpret Shenxiu to mean that in us all is the awakening and that this Bodhi only needs to be tended to and grown as the bodhi tree grows, incrementally(Wardner 92). This analogy, in one line, gives a strong impression of the philosophy of the Northern School. Huineng’s corresponding first line reads ‘Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree’ and can be interpreted to mean that enlightenment is present without the body, the bodhi tree is significant but only because of the Buddha-nature it represents. In claiming this, Huineng depicts the Southern School of Ch’an’s philosophy of sudden enlightenment, that one only need the bodhi that is always there, waiting to be recognized, and that the tree or body, or rather the illusion of the body or the tree, merely gets in the way of the Bodhi’s purity.(Schlutter 80) If we put the two lines together however we get a message, ‘The body is the bodhi tree, Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree’. Therefore, students of the Northern and Southern schools alike are given the message that, on the path to Buddhahood, the body is a hindrance and a source of suffering, a common theme in Buddhist teachings. To the Southern, the idea that the body is like the bodhi tree and that there are no bodhi trees fit together to mean that neither the tree nor the body truly exist. To the Northern the message relayed tells them that routine and constant practice of the Buddhist teachings concerning the body must become so constant that the body is no longer an issue, so accustomed to its practices it is like it is not even there.

Shenxiu’s second line goes ‘The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.’ One must note that the mind is like the stand, not the mirror itself. In Shenxiu’s verse the bright mirror is the soul, pure in Buddhahood, the mind’s purpose is to hold up this Buddhahood, it is something tangible to better see the mirror, to experience enlightenment. (Lai 248) This idea that there be something tangible to help judge progress agrees with the Northern school’s idea of gradual attainment. In Huineng’s second line he continues the theme of his first, sudden enlightenment through realization of the nature of all things. He claims ‘The bright mirror is also not a stand.‘ meaning there is no stand, and in reality, one needs no mind to attain Buddhahood and that the preoccupation with the mind hinders progress toward sudden enlightenment, through temptation and suffering. Again Huineng posits that, like the body, our idea of the mind only gets in the way of what is our true nature, pure enlightenment. If only one could disregard these things Buddhahood would come instantly. A combination of the lines reads ‘The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.The bright mirror is also not a stand.’ One notices that although Huineng’s line seems to completely go against Shenxiu’s, it is the mirror’s stand that Huineng puts into question, not the mirror itself. If the bright mirror is interpreted as Buddhahood then the two lines together claim that whether the mind exists or not, enlightenment is absolute. Whether the person listening accepts Northern School’s gradual attainment or the Southern School’s sudden attainment, it is the act and notion of enlightenment that is highlighted to show its supreme importance.

‘Be always diligent in rubbing it’ Shenxiu's third line refers to the mirror stand brought up in the previous line. It also refers to a constant practice in the way of the Northern School. The act of always cleaning informs Buddhists that it is diligent work that will allow one to attain enlightenment. For Shenxiu’s Northern School line, to always to be cleaning would mean to occupy all time with Buddhist practice, to a point where remembering to practice the way of the Buddha is not an issue, it is all that one does, it is everything. Huineng's line ‘Fundamentally there is not a single thing’ refers to there being no body or mind to practice with, only Buddhahood (Yampolsky 115). For Huineng’s Southern School, there being no physical body means that all things, suffering and the material world, are an illusion, they are nothing. If one can realize this, enlightenment can be attained suddenly. In both cases the practice of the way is no longer thought of, it is a part of nature and constant.

Shenxiu’s fourth and final line continues the analogy of the mirror’s stand. ‘Do not let it attract any dust.’ Huineng’s final line is a direct response to Shenxiu’s and a continuation of his previous line. ‘Where could any dust be attracted?’. Once again, the two verses seem to argue but as much as the disagree, they both concur that at our base we are pure and akin to Buddha. Shenxiu claims that dust, suffering and temptations from the physical world, must be cleaned constantly, through Northern School practices, to keep the mirror and stand, the way of the Buddha and its connection to the mind, at its original pure state. (Lai 248) Huineng, along with the Southern School, believes that this mind is an illusion and only a source of impulses, passion, and suffering; without it, we are pure. Whether about continuous practice or immediate recognition, the two lines agree that it is purity and Buddha-nature that we have inside of us.

The two stanzas very clearly describe two different schools of Buddhist thought, Shenxiu’s the gradual attainment of Buddhahood and Huineng’s sudden enlightenment, both make points that Northern and Southern students alike find true.

Works Cited

Whalen Lai (Jul. 1979) Ch'an Metaphors: Waves, Water, Mirror, Lamp

Philosophy East and West , Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 1979), pp. 243-253 University of Hawai'i Press

Morten Schlütter, Stephen F. Teiser (Feb. 2012) Readings of the Platform Sutra

Columbia University Press Stable URL:

McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, The University Press Group Ltd, ISBN 978-0-520-23798-8

Hui-Neng, and Philip Boas. Yampolsky. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. New York [u.a.: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1967. Print.

Wardner, A.K. (2000), Indian Buddhism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers


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