“Self Power” in the Chan Tradition
The Internal Quest for Sudden Enlightenment


 
The Birth of Chan
From Wuwei (Non-Action) to Wuxin (No-Mind)
The Chan school’s initial emergence and rise to prominence occurred during the Tang era, when a large number of charismatic Chan teachers such as Huineng (638-713), the renowned “sixth patriarch,” and Mazu Daoyi (709-788), the leader of the Hongzhou school that by the early ninth century came to dominate the Chan movement, achieved wide acclaim and attracted numerous disciples. A prominent feature of the early Chan school’s character and a major reason for its popularity were the personal charisma of its prominent teachers and the appeal of their teachings, which contained creative reconfigurations of essential Buddhist themes and concepts, recast in a distinctive Chan idiom. For the Chan school, the Tang era was a period of nascent growth marked by great intellectual creativity and religious vitality, often considered to be the tradition’s golden age. Subsequently memories (along with creative imaginings) of the glories of Tang Chan came to dominate traditional narratives of Chan history, even if those narratives were constructed in ways that reflected the beliefs and ideologies of later traditions. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 156]
 
 
The World-Honored One spoke: “I possess the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, the Subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa.” [Zen Buddhism: A History, 9]
 
 
Bodhidharma (c. 470-543)
The Twenty-Eighth (Indian)/First (Chinese) Patriarch

 
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded on words and letters.
Directly pointing to a person’s mind,
One sees one’s nature and becomes a Buddha.
[Translated by Brian Hoffert;
cf. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 221
]
 
 

 
Bodhidharma sat in zazen facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciples mind is not yet at peace. I beg you, my teacher, please give it peace.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring the mind to me, and I will set it at rest.” The Second Patriarch said, “I have searched for the mind, and it is finally unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “I have thoroughly set it at rest for you.” [Zen Buddhism: A History, 92]
  • How does this approach to enlightenment differ from the method used by the historical Buddha and other Buddhist schools? How is it distinctively Chinese?
 
The Platform Sutra
The Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng
(638-713)


Unexpectedly one day the Fifth Patriarch called his disciples to come, and when they had assembled, he said, Let me preach to you. For people in this world birth and death are vital matters. You disciples make offerings all day long and seek only the field of blessings, but you do not seek to escape from the bitter sea of birth and death [i.e. samsara]. Your own self nature obscures the gateway to blessings; how can you be saved? All of you return to your rooms and look into your selves. Men of wisdom will of themselves grasp the original nature of their prajna intuition. Each of you write a verse and bring it to me. I will read your verses, and if there is one who is awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will give him the robe and the Dharma and make him the Sixth Patriarch. Hurry, hurry!’ [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 157]
.
Shenxiu’s Poem
Our body is the bodhi tree,
Our mind a mirror bright.
Always strive to polish it,
And let no dust alight.
[translated by Brian Hoffert, CBETA; cf. BIBE, 246-7]
 



Huineng’s Poem
Originally no bodhi tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Buddha Nature is always pristine,
So where can the dust alight.
[translated by Brian Hoffert, CBETA; cf. BIBE, 247]
 
At midnight the Fifth Patriarch called me into the hall and expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. Hearing it but once, I was immediately awakened, and that night I received the Dharma. None of the others knew anything about it. Then he transmitted to me the Dharma of Sudden Enlightenment and the robe, saying: ‘I make you the Sixth Patriarch. The robe is the proof and is to be handed down from generation to generation. My Dharma must be transmitted from mind to mind. You must make people awaken to themselves.’ [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 159]
 

 
Dao must be something that circulates freely; why should [the deluded person] impede it? If the mind does not abide in things, the Dao circulates freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 500]