July 08, 2013

Consider the Source: Why did the Ancient Zen Masters Seldom Mention Emptiness?

Andy Ferguson

Early Chinese Zen masters seldom spoke about ideas like emptiness. Early writings also lack discussions about sutras, including texts like The Diamond Sutra, which is strongly linked to the Zen tradition. The Heart Sutra is hardly mentioned, and the bodhisattva ideal also gets very little ink in early records. Often, when such ideas and texts are mentioned by the old masters they are referred to with a dismissive, even derisive, tone.

The Lamp Records, composed primarily between the 9th and 13th centuries, comprise the principal collection of ancient Zen writings. They consist of a huge collection of foundational Zen stories (koans) that served as source material for later books like The Blue Cliff Record, Mumonkan, and other widely read Zen classics. The Lamp Records defines traditional Chinese Zen at its apotheosis. But these records say little about the concepts and sutras I refer to above. Is this because ancient Zen really did transmit something “without setting up a single word, outside the [traditional] teachings,” as claimed by the Buddha in his legendary teaching at Vulture Peak? Given the prominence of these texts and ideas in Zen practice today, how do we explain their omission in old Zen writings? Evidence suggests that Bodhidharma’s Zen turned its back on Buddhist doctrines espoused by other sects, and those doctrines only later found their way into his Zen tradition.

The great Chinese monk-scholar Dao Xuan gives an account of Bodhidharma’s most senior disciple, Sengfu. He explicitly states that after Sengfu became Bodhidharma’s disciple, he “never again studied sutras.” An early story about the popularity of Zen practice in the Northern Wei dynasty (around the year 500 AD) recounts that the wife of the emperor became interested in the new, popular Zen movement, and so invited a hundred practitioners and Zen teachers to live in the palace where she supported them. “Thereupon throughout the capital city, teachers and monks all practiced Zen, and did not again express interest in sutras.”

Other early Zen teachers, like the critically important “fourth ancestor” Daoxin, also emphasized meditation and understanding the nature of mind over sutra study. However, the most radical rejectionist may have been Baizhang. I’ll explore his surprising record in my next blog.

—Andy Ferguson

This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson's new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

Ferguson is the author of Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings, which is used widely by Western Zen teachers, and Tracking Bodhidharma, which offers a wealth of new information about the founder of Chinese Zen Buddhism.

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wonderwheel's picture

They seldom mentioned emptiness because they were more interested in teaching direct realization of the original true mind. Emptiness is too easily conceptualized. The Fifth Ancestor Zen Master Hongren taught that the Zen lineage was the lineage of the Most Supreme Vehicle which was the same as the One Vehicle. In his "Discourse on the Most Supreme Vehicle" he presents questions and answers. In the 9th Q&A he is asked about why the Zen lineage is called the lineage of the 12 divisions of the Canon. The point being this very issue of how can the Zen lineage be called the lineage of the Sutras when Zen doesn't overtly teach the Sutrras as objects of learning. Hongren includes both a reference to emptiness and to the Nirvana Sutra in his reply showing how the early Zen masters used both to discern the true meaning of learning.

[9] The question states: How does one know that preserving the original true mind is the lineage of the twelve divisions of the sutras?

The Answer states: From within every sutra the Tathagata explains every wrongdoing and blessing, every cause and condition, and fruit and recompense and accomplishes bringing in all mountains and rivers, the trees and grasses of the great earth, ranks every kind of miscellaneous objects appearing in countless unlimited parables.
Those who might manifest countless spiritual powers and every kind of transformation only are Buddhas for teaching and guiding the unwise multitude of beings having every kind of desire and every mind’s 10,000 differences of practices. Indeed, for this reason the Tathagata accords with this mind gate to lead them to enter the One Vehicle.
Since we know in essence that the Buddha nature of the multitude of beings originally comes pure and clear like the sun with clouds underneath, only comprehend in this way to preserve the original true mind and when the clouds of false thinking are exhausted the sun of wisdom immediately manifests. What further need is there for much learning to know the views about life and death and every principle of the meaning of suffering as well as the affairs of the three worlds? Like the metaphor of polishing a mirror, with the dust exhausted the clarity autonomously manifests. Consequently in the present within the ignorant mind, that which is attained by learning after all is worthless.
If you are able to comprehend in this way and do not lose Correct Remembrance (samyaksmrti, the 7th of the Eightfold Path), then as for that which can be learned from within the unconditioned mind, this is the true learning. Although it is declared “true learning,” in the end there is nothing learned. Because why? Because the duality of self and nirvana is entirely empty. Furthermore there is no two and there is no one. Therefore, there is nothing to learn.
Even though the nature of things is empty, first you must comprehend in this way to preserve the original true mind. Because false thinking does not arise, the selfish mind is extinguished. The Nirvana Sutra says, “Those who know Buddha do not explain Dharma and are called ‘being fully learned.’” Therefore, to know and preserve the original true mind is the lineage of the twelve divisions of the Sutras!

mahakala's picture

thirty spokes converge on the hub of a wheel;
the work of the cart hinges on the hole in the center

clay is shaped into a large vessel;
the space within is what allows it to hold anything

lovely doors and windows are carved,
the function of the room comes from its emptiness

usefulness of what is
depends on what is not

great perfection seems incomplete,
but does not decay;
great abundance seems empty,
but does not fail.

great truth seems contradictory;
great cleverness seems stupid;
great eloquence seems awkward.

as spring overcomes the cold,
and autumn overcomes the heat,
so calm and quiet overcome the world.

- dao de jing (roughly 600-400 BCE)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Nice recap of negative space. Nagarjuna taught that since everything arises and continues to exist by virtue of its relationship with other phenomena (i.e., dependent origination) it has absolutely no fixed or independent substance of its own (i.e., it is empty, void, or non-substantial). Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing that cannot be changed. Nothing exists entirely on its own, and no form is absolute and immutable. The universe, then, is full of new situations at every moment.
This open-ended nature of the universe also applies to human beings. Our lives are full of new possibilities for the future. It all depends upon how we view ourselves—how well we recognize these possibilities—and what kind of relationship we create with our surroundings.
According to the perspective of non-substantiality, everything changes not only in its appearance or shape but also in its nature or meaning. For example, a raft may be useful for a traveler to cross a river. But it would be foolish to carry the raft a long distance after crossing the river. The raft then becomes a heavy burden, an obstacle to the journey. In this sense, the concept of non-substantiality suggests that it is foolish for us to base our lives on and grow attached to things that we possess, such as wealth or status. Like the raft, they are only of immediate value, and attachment to them can even become a burden on our journey toward self-perfection. And from the standpoint of the eternity of life, they are nothing at all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Considering Nagarjuna developed the concept of void around the 2nd Century from Shakyamuni's teaching of dependent origination, early Chinese practitioners may have begun recording their own notions of it only after several hundred years trying to comprehend it.

Richard Fidler's picture

Doesn't Ferguson answer is own question by quoting Zen traditional belief that spiritual transmission exists outside scriptures? Most Zen literature I have read has to do with koan and mondo exchanges, stories designed to nudge the Zen student into looking at things in a new way. At first, those spontaneous dialogues became the basis for practice, but later they came to be written down as a guide for new practitioners, presumably as new teachers lost confidence in their ability to create their own dialogues. (Or is it that teachers stopped writing down their exchanges?) In any case, Zen never relied on translations of Indian texts--perhaps because it connected closely to Daoism. In fact, didn't early Zen Masters use terms like Dao in their teaching? China may already have had an adequate vocabulary to express important concepts and didn't need to turn to India.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It probably never occurred to them to make something out of nothing.