The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism

John R. McRae

Indiana University

The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism 


Why are descriptions of Ch’an practice, both medieval and modern, so dominated by
dialogues, narratives, and orality? Where other schools of Buddhism may be described in
terms of relatively succinct lists of doctrines and practices-four of this, eight of that,
a dash of ritual, a measure of self-cultivation-it seems that the only way to describe
Ch’an is by a succession of narratives: to explain the Ch’an emphasis on understanding the
mind, tell the story of Huik’o cutting off his hand to hear the teachings from
Bodhidharma; to explain ch’an’s attitude toward seated meditation, recount how Huai-jang
prodded Ma-tsu by pretending to grind a tile into a mirror; to explain how true spiritual
understanding goes beyond words, describe Huang-po and Lin-chi prancing through their
unique combination of first and shout. This is not just the odd proclivity of medieval
Chinese; Ikky?’s sojourn under the Nij? bridge in Ky?to is just one example from medieval
Japanese Zen.1)  And one can hardly read a page of
twentieth-century writings on Zen without encountering the use of story as explanatory
device. The most notable practitioner of this strategy is of course D. T. Suzuki, whose
standard approach is effectively to write that “Zen is such-and-such, and let me tell
a few stories that exemplify what I mean, “with little or no real attempt at
explanation. And virtually all of these stories involve include the direct quotation of
words put in the mouths of enlightened Zen masters. Why, among all the schools of
Buddhism, is there such an emphasis on dialogues, narratives, and orality in the
explanation of Zen Buddhism?

For many readers, it might not be immediately obvious why this is a reasonable and
important question, since the equation of Ch’an with stories has all the feeling of a
shared cosmology, a worldview that we all think of as naturally and obviously true. 2)  That is, the orality of Ch’an practice is as much a
given as the air we breathe, the water in which fish swim. To think of why Ch’an and the
descriptions of Ch’an should emphasize orality is roughly akin to asking why there is
gravity. But this is just the point: just as modern physics may thrill at the explanation
of that most omnipresent of forces, so should we turn our collective gaze to perhaps the
most common feature of Ch’an Buddhism, its peculiar use of language. The first step in
this process is to recognize that the use of language, narration, and orality in and about
Ch’an is indeed profoundly “peculiar,” that we should self-consciously
defamiliarize ourselves with the conventional Ch’an rhetoric that teaches us to be
comfortable with paradox and absurdity, to too easily accept the bizarre as merely
“the way Ch’an masters behave.” I would argue there is nothing pre-ordained or
obligatory about how Ch’an masters and their students are depicted in Ch’an literature;
the first step in understanding Ch’an as a cultural and religious phenomenon is to realize
how deeply contingent, how specifically conditioned in historical terms, such descriptions
are. To paraphrase Suzuki R?shi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and one of
the most beloved icons of Zen in America, we need an attitude of “beginner’s
mind” toward the understanding of Ch’an itself.3)
The goal of this paper is to specify and describe the various factors that influenced
the appearance of Ch’an encounter dialogue. Given both the limitations of space and the
preliminary nature of my own research on the matter, I will not attempt to analyze how all
these factors may have operated in coordination with each other to yield the results
apparent in the historical record; the focus here is strictly on the apprehension of the
most likely culprits, not the complete unraveling of the entire conspiracy.

Before this inquiry can begin, however, we must understand what “encounter
dialogue” is and how its appearance may be recognized. This will draw us into two
separate areas: first, issues of orality versus written transcription and, second, the
historical evolution of Ch’an and the types of texts that may include the transcriptions
of encounter dialogue.

The term “encounter dialogue” renders a Chinese term used by YANAGIDA Seizan
柳田聖山 to refer to the questions and responses that take place between Ch’an masters
and their students, chi-yüan wen-ta 機緣問答 (J. kien
mond?).4)  As used here, encounter dialogue is
a particular type of oral practice, one in which masters and students interact in certain
definable, if unpredictable, ways. Ideally, the goal of the interactions is the
enlightenment of the students, and since the teachers cannot simply command their students
to achieve this they use various verbal and physical methods to catalyze the event. Often
the exchanges of encounter dialogue can be understood in terms of both the assumption of a
spiritual path (maarga, tao 道) and its negation: students ask questions positing
a path to liberation, and teachers undercut the implicit assumptions involved so as to
indicate the immediate perfection of the here-and-now. 5)
There are of course also negative examples, in which a student is dismissed for not being
a true seeker, or when a student or other questioner turns out to be beyond the need for
spiritual assistance. And sometimes a student or fellow teacher will catch a master
napping, so to speak, using an inadvertant dualism. Even in these cases, there is a
palpable sense of lively immediacy in encounter dialogue exchanges. What is not
included in the definition of encounter dialogue are questions that seek to elicit
explanations about Buddhist doctrine or the spiritual path in general, as well as answers
that seek to provide information. Such topics miss the mark because they are only
“about” seeking and do not speak to the needs of an actual seeker in the
immediate present.

The preceding definition should suffice for the moment, in spite of its incompleteness
and lack of detail. More important, it is almost certainly an idealized abstraction that
fails to capture the vitality, variegation, and nuance of encounter dialogue itself, and
which perhaps incorporates too much of our own projections onto medieval Chinese Ch’an. We
can ignore these issues for the present. A pair of significant problems occurs, however,
because of the spontaneous fluidity of oral exchange and the fixity of written language.
First, what we have to go on are written texts, which contain not encounter dialogue
itself but the transcriptions thereof. This is a crucially important distinction. There is
good evidence to suggest that something like encounter dialogue was in vogue within Ch’an
practitioner communities long before it came to be written down, and that the very act of
transcribing it was both difficult and significant. Second, how do we recognize when a
particular exchange is one of encounter dialogue, rather than some less inspired form of
communication? Are there specific characteristics of written language by which we can
differentiate between knowledge-and enlightenment-oriented discussions? Although it would
be a difficult, if no doubt useful, exercise to enumerate such characteristics, the task
is probably easier done than said: we may not be able to explain it well, but we can
recognize encounter dialogue when we see it. In addition, I will argue below that the
transcriptions of encounter dialogue exchanges use a set of literary techniques to
generate the impression of oral spontaneity and lively immediacy, and it will be useful to
observe the extent to which this literary effect has shielded us from seeing the
dramatized nature of the transcriptions. That is, encounter dialogue exchanges do not
necessarily record what “really happened,” although they are rendered with such
lively immediacy that they appear this way to the reader. It is important to recognize
literary efficacy for what it is.

When did encounter dialogue emerge in the Ch’an tradition, and when did it first come
to be transcribed in written form? The following is a quick summary of the historical
evolution of Ch’an, organized into a convenient set of periods or phases. 6)

Proto-Ch’an: Although the historical identity of Bodhidharma is now
unrecoverable, a group of meditation specialists celebrated him as their spiritual model
from at least the middle of the sixth century on. This group of practitioners seems to
have wandered to various locations in northern China, carrying with them the Treatise
on the Two Entrances and Four Practices(Erh-ju ssu-hsing lun
二入四行論), a text
composed in Bodhidharma’s name to which they appended a substantial body of material. Much
of this latter material is anonymous or attributed to figures unknown. And the provenance
of this material is also in question, with some of it probably deriving from the eighth
century. None of the exchanges included seem to fit the definition of encounter dialogue
given above, but there are several that might be considered questionable. 7)

East Mountain Community: During the half-century from 624 to 674, Tao-hsin
道信(580-651) and Hung-jen 弘忍(601-74) stewarded a monastic community at Shuang-feng
雙峰(“Twin Peaks”) or Huang-mei 黃梅 in what is now Hupeh Province. Tao-hsin
actually resided on the western peak; the name of this phase of Ch’an is taken from the
location of the community during Hung-jen’s time, since he was the central figure of this
phase of Ch’an. We know that this was a meditation community attended by Buddhists of
various inclinations from all over China. We know a certain amount about the teachings of
Hung-jen, or at least those attributed to him retrospectively, through a text known as the
Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind(Hsiu-hsin yao lun
修心要論), which was compiled for him by his students some years or even decades after
his death. There also exists a text attributed to Tao-hsin, but this was probably composed
even later than the Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind. 8)  In any case, there is nothing resembling encounter
dialogue in either of these texts, and the closest we get to any sense of dialogic
immediacy is the following statements attributed to Hung-jun:

My disciples have compiled this treatise [from my oral teachings], so that [the reader]
may just use his True Mind to grasp the meaning of its words… If [the teachings
contained herein] contradict the Holy Truth, I repent and hope for the eradication [of
that transgression]. If they correspond to the Holy Truth, I transfer [any merit that
would result from this effort to all] sentient beings. I want everyone to discern their
fundamental minds and achieve buddhahood at once. Those who are listening [now] should
make effort, so that you can achieve buddhahood in the near future. I now vow to help my
followers to cross over [to the other shore of]….

QUESTION: This treatise [teaches] from beginning to end that manifesting one’s own mind
represents enlightenmnet. [However, Ⅰ] do not know whether this is a teaching of the
fruit [of] or one of practice.

ANSWER: The basic principle of this treatise is the manifestation of the One Vehicle…

If I am deceiving you, I will fall into the eighteen hells in the future. I point to
heaven and earth in making this vow: If [the teachings contained here] are not true, I
will be eaten by tigers and wolves for life-time after lifetime.

This material from the very end of the Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the
Mind clearly evokes the voice of the compilers, who identify themselves as
Hung-jen’s students. However, both here and in the repeated injunctions to “make
effort” throughout the text, we may be hearing Hung-jen’s own voice as well.

Northern school: In 701 Shen-hsiu 神秀(606?-706) arrived in Lo-yang at the
invitation of Empress Wu, an event which constitutes the debut of Ch’an among China’s
cultured elite. For the next two or three decades Shen-hsiu and his students maintained an
extremely high profile in imperial court society, where they presented themselevs as
transmitters of the “East Mountain Teaching” of Tao-hsin and especially
Hung-jen. (Actually, the East Mountain Teaching period of Ch’an might be extended past
Hung-jen’s death to include Shen-hsiu’s residence at Yü-ch’üan ssu during
675-700, and the Northern school phase may be said to have begun with Hung-jen’s student
Fa-ju’s 法如 [638-89] activities on Mount Sung in the 680s.) The Northern school
represented a great flourishing of Ch’an activity and writing, and the first examples of
the “transmission of the lamp history” (ch’üan-teng shih
傳燈史 ; J. ent?shi) genre of Ch’an texts appear during this phase. It is in one
of these texts that we find the first incontrovertible evidence that something like
encounter dialogue was being practiced within the Ch’an community-but was not yet being
transcribed in full. 9)

Southern school: Beginning in 730, a monk named Shen-hui 神會 (684-758)
sharply criticized the Northern school in public, promoting instead his own teacher
Hui-neng 慧能 (638-712) as the Sixth Patriarch in succession from Bodhidharma and the
exponent of the true teaching of sudden enlightenment. Shen-hui’s career included activity
both in the provinces and centered on Lo-yang, and he was an active missionary for the new
Ch’an movement as well as a factionalist partisan and fundraiser. Indeed, my research into
his life and teachings suggests that his vocation on the ordination platform helped to
determine the content and style of his teachings. We have a remarkable collection of texts
recording the teachings of Shen-hui, which include a considerable amount of oral exchange,
and although I believe he had a significant influence on the transformation of Ch’an
discourse, none of this oral exchange constitutes encounter dialogue according to the
definition given above.10)

Oxhead school: Although this faction describes itself as a subsidiary lineage
deriving from Tao-hisn, its real heyday was the second half of the eighth century. Below I
will discuss two texts associated with this school, the Treatise on the Transcendence
of Cognition
(Chüeh-kuan lun 絶觀論), an anonymous text from
sometime after 750 or so, and the Platform Suutra of the Sixth Patriarch
t’an-ching 六祖壇經), the first version of which dates from about
780. In addition to the significant data in these two texts, I will introduce a few brief
passages from biographical sources for members of the Oxhead school, which in spite of its
shadowy historical reality had a very creative impact on the evolution of Ch’an rhetoric
and doctrine.

Provincial Ch’an: Sometime in the second half of the eighth century, or perhaps
the very beginnig of the ninth, a new style of Ch’an developed in what is now Kiangsi and
Hupeh. I will focus on Ma-tsu Tao-i 馬祖道一(709-88) and his Hung-chou school
洪州派. 11) Ma-tsu and his disciples are depicted in
Ch’an records as engaging in spontaneous repartee in what is almost a barnyard atmosphere
of agricultural labor and other daily tasks, and this style of interaction seems to fit
perfectly with the descriptions of Ma-tsu’s teachings about the ordinary mind and the
activity of the Buddha-nature. (These issues are discussed below in section GET.) If so,
this would be the earliest incontrovertible appearance of encounter dialogue, and indeed
the accounts of Ma-tsu and his first-and second-generation disciples form the core
repertoire of encounter dialogue anecdotes in Ch’an literature. There is just one problem:
the presentation of Ma-tsu and his disciples in this fashion does not occur in writing
until 952, and earlier writings relating to Ma-tsu and his faction present a somewhat
different image of his community.

Rather than proceed further with this listing of Ch’an phases and factions, let me
comment on the crucial incongruity just mentioned. The first text to transcribe Ch’an
encounter dialogue bursts onto the scene in 952, a twenty-fascicle compilation of
dialogues and stories associated with all Buddhas and patriarchs down to that time. The is
the Tsu-t’ang chi 祖堂集 or Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, which was
compiled by two third-generation students of Hsüeh-feng I-ts’un 雪峰義存(822-908)
living in ch’üan-chcu 泉州 (Fukien). The compilers worked during the period of
disturbances and political unrest following the collapse of the T’ang dynasty, but in the
peaceful haven of the Five Dynasties regimes of the Min-Yue ?越 region of the
southeastern coast. I can only imagine that the two compilers were amazed to discover an
unexpected characteristic about the Buddhist monks arriving in Ch’üan-chou during
this period: so many of them told encounter dialogue anecdotes about their teachers, their
teachers’ teachers, and their fellow practitioners. Presumably, until this emergency
gathering of the sa^ngha no one had quite paid attention to the very prevalence of such
anecdotes, which probably circulated in the form of monastic gossip as practitioners
traveled from one place to the next. Thus I imagine the two compilers exclaiming in
amazement at the recognition that so many were celebrating the same types of stories, the
initial realization of the magnitude of a new development that before then the
participants in this informal, “back room” enterprise had considered interesting
individually without recognizing its widespread importance. 12)
At the same time as the Tsu-t’ang chi compilers realized the widespread nature
of this gossip and its intrinsic religious value, they must also have become aware of its
precarious existence: further civil disturbance might do irreversible damage to the
Buddhist establishment, and this ephemeral oral genre would be lost. Thus, simultaneously
with the expression of amazement at what they had just recognized as a new and widespread
phenomenon of encounter dialogue practice, they also reacted with horror at the prospect
that, unless it were recorded, the entire body of material and indeed news of the genre
itself were liable to disappear with the civil and military unrest of the times.

One of the innovations of encounter dialogue transcriptions as a genre is that they
record not only the sage pronouncements of Buddhist teachers, but the sometimes foolish
and often formulaic questions of their students as well. I am not certain the Tsu-t’ang
compilers were aware of the significance of their decision to record not only the
words of teachers, but also those of the students. Rather, I imagine they could not have
seen any other course of action, given the quality of the dialogue material they had
collected, although from our vantage point this appears to be a shift of major
significance in the evolution of Chinese Buddhism.13)
Whatever their reflexive awareness of the processes involved, they established a format in
which written recreations of oral dialogue could be transcribed in a standardized format
(i.e., Mandarin) of colloquial speech and thus be widely understandable, without the
barriers of regional dialect transcriptions that would have rendered the text inaccessible
at various points to all Chinese readers. In Ch’an studies we have tended to disregard the
significance of the act of transcribing or representing oral dialogue in writing, but of
course this is not a trivial process at all. Even though many o the dialogues recorded in
the Tsu-t’ang chi were between southerners or residents of other regions who must
have been spoken in some form other than northern Mandarin, that is the form in which they
are represented in the anthology. In other words, either or both of two conditions apply
to virtually the entire contents of the Tsu-t’ang chi: first, dialogues had to be
converted from some non-Mandarin dialect into Mandarin, and, second, literary techniques
were used to make the written product appear as if it transcribed actual speech. 14) The first condition suggests that in the very act of
transcription some “translation” of encounter dialogue exchanges inevitably took
place; the second is merely our recognition of the fact that we are dealing with a genre
primarily of “text” rather than “event.” In other words, rather than
thinking of the Tsu-t’ang chi anecdotes as sources of information about what
happened in Ch’an history in the eighth century, we should approach them as evidence for
how Ch’an figures thought and wrote in the tenth.

These speculations and inferences have played an important role in determining the
course of the present research, but they will have to await another venue to be examined
as they deserve. Here I must emphasize the extraordinary nature of the Tsu-t’ang chi
and the great temporal disconformity between the supposed emergence of encounter dialogue
as a religious practice and its transcription into written form.15)   True, this text is one in a series of “transmission of
the lamp history” texts, which begins in the second decade of the eighth century, so
that its basic structure is not unprecedented. However, with the exception of some partial
and/or equivocal examples introduced below, no earlier transcriptions of encounter
dialogue now exist, and it is stunning for the first known representatives of this new
genre to appear for the very first time in such extensive form. It is not only that there
is such a substantial volume of this material appears all in one text, although this is of
course striking, but also that the material included shows all the signs of a mature oral
genre. That is, these are not raw, disconnected stories, Often we find different versions,
comments, and changes that imply both a lively discourse community and conscious editorial
intervention. Obviously, the Ch’an community as a whole is engaged in a shared or common
dialogue about the spiritual implications of a whole is engaged in a shared or common
dialogue about the spiritual implications of a number of profound statements and telling
anecdote. And, of course, they were organized into the comprehensive genealogical
framework of the “transmission of the lamp history” genre.

Eventually, processes such as these lead to the emergence during the Sung dynasty of
the Kung-an chi 公案集 (J. K?an sh?) or precedent anthologies, in which
particular snippets of encounter dialogue material were collated into series and their
most crucial passages used to form curricula of meditation subjects. This style of
practice is referred to as “viewing the critical phrases,” K‘an-hua
看話; J. kanna. I am referring of course to texts such as the Blue Cliff
(Pi-yen lu 碧巖錄 ; J. Hekigan roku) and Gateless Barrier
(Wu-men kuan 無門關 ; J. Mumonkan). Although it would be convenient to
think of these precedent anthologies as entirely a later development, we will see that the
tendency of teachers to put questions to their students becomes apparent well before the
appearance of the Tsu-t’ang chi. Was it possible, in fact, that the very editorial
tendencies that led to the emergence of the precedent anthologies were already apparent in
the Tsu-t’ang chi? We will not be able to address this intriguig question in the
present context. However, there is good evidence that early Ch’an teachers posed
unsolvable conundrums for their students to contemplate, a practice which is inescapably
similar to the later k’an-hua style of meditation. Therefore, it makes excellent
sense to couch these inquiries in terms of not only the oral practice of encounter
dialogue, but also so as to include certain encounter-style interrogations by teachers of
their students.) By “encounter-style” I of course mean inquiries that conform to
the style of emphasis on individual spiritual endeavor described for encounter dialogue

I will introduce an example from the Tsu-t’ang chi at the end of this paper.
Based on the preceding considerations, though, we can specify the following questions to
be asked of the available evidence on Ch’an prior to the appearance of this important
text: Does any of the dialogue material of early Ch’an bear similarities to mature
encounter dialogue? Are there any partial transcriptions of encounter dialogue exchanges,
especially teachers’ questions that might have been used to guide students’ meditative
endeavors? At the most basic level, what are the criteria we should use for identifying
encounter dialogue material, or its prototypic variants, if any? And, at the opposite end
of the scale, is there any evidence for tendencies similar to those which led to the
emergence of k’an-hua or “viewing the critical phrase” type of Ch’an,
which seems to be a natural progression from the devotion to encounter dialogue perse?

II. The eightfold path to the emergence of
transcribed encounter dialogue and k’an-hua ch’an

Based on an admittedly sketchy review of the evidence, I have found eight separate
characteristics of early Ch’an Buddhism that may have contributed to the eventual
emergence of encounter dialogue and k’an-hua Ch’an. I have avoided previously
discussed doctrinal issues, such as the concepts of ^suunyataa(emptiness) and praj~naa(non-discriminating
wisdom), and the impact of Maadhyamika dialectic, etc. But this by no means limits us to
linguistic issues; below I will suggest that Ch’an had to develop a rationale for socially
oriented practice prior to the perfection of dialogue techniques. Obviously, none of these
characteristics is shared throughout the entire early Ch’an movement, and there are almost
certainly others not yet identified.

A. The image of the Ch’an master responding
spontaneously to his students

There are numerous examples of early Ch’an teachers being described as having special
abilities of teaching, which they exercised in an unstructured moment-to-moment manner.
Some of the earliest known expressions of this concern Hung-jen, the central figure of the
East Mountain Teaching and so-called “fifth patriarch.” Hung-jen forms the
original nucleus of the hagiographical persona of the unlettered sage, and he is described
as spending his days in meditation and his nights tending the monastery cattle. As soon as
he was appointed successor to Tao-hsin, the previously silent Hung-jen was immediately
able to understand the problems of his students and teach them with a fluid, spontaneous
style that combined an appreciation of the Ultimate Truth with complete expertise in the
expediencies of religious practice. 16)
Fa-ju, who was unique among Hung-jen’s students for spending so many years with the
master, is described as having unique abilities in his interactions with his students, so
that he could remonstrate them strongly without incurring resentment. His anger is
described as two empty boats hitting each other in the middle of a lake, which I take to
mean having a hollow sound that signified an absence of attachment or resistance. Also to
be considered here are Lao-an 老安, or Hui-an 惠安(584?-708) and I-fu 義福(661-736)
of the Northern school, who were the subjects of various occultish anecdotes.17)

The primary examples of this religious type are of course Bodhidharma and Hui-neng. The
portrayal of Bodhidharma teaching Hui-k’o and others clearly developed over time and has
been documented so clearly by SEKIGUCHI Shindai 關口眞大 as to represent something of
an index to the evolution of the Ch’an ideology as a whole. Based solely on date of first
occurrence, though, it is significant for our purposes that the famous “pacification
of the mind” exchange between Bodhidharma and Hui-k’o does not appear until the
publication of the Tsut’ang chi in 952. In earlier texts, Bodhidharma is
represented as teaching Hui-k’o by means of the transmission of the La^nkaavataara
(in the Hsü kao-seng chuan 續高僧傳 667) or Diamond Suutra (the
appendix to a text by Shen-hui, who died in 758); even the famous exchange between
Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, a celebrated mismatch that neatly
illustrates the difference between the conventional “Chinese maarga model” and
the Ch’an “encounter model” of master-student exchange, is not recorded for the
first time until 758 or shortly thereafter (in the same appendix to Shen-hui’s text). 18)

Hui-neng is of course a different story. Here we can safely accept the date of 780
suggested by both Yampolsky and Yanagida as the date of the Tun-huang version of the text
as its date of compilation, so that a few pages below we may consider an accretion to the
text in at least its two tenth-century versions. 19)
That is, we can purposely avoid consideration of the existence of any earlier version of
the text and take the Platform Suutra as pertaining to a legendary creation of the
late eighth century and beyond, rather than the historical figure who supposedly died in
713. Here we have a figure who responds to situations with remarkable élan and
spiritual brilliance, in spite of the fact that he is supposedly quite untutored in the
literary arts: he composes insightful poetry (the “mind verse” [hsin-chieh
心偈] offered in response to ‘Shen-hsiu’s verse), makes mysteriously profound
pronouncements (informing two monks that their minds were in motion, not the flag and wind
about which they were arguing), and poses miraculous challenges to individual seekers
(showing the pursuing Hui-ming 慧命 CHECK that he could not lift the robe, let alone
take it back to Huangmei 20)). In all these cases,
Hui-neng is represented as enlightened, not by any doctrine he pronounces or essay he
produces, but rather in his interactions with the figures around him.

B. “Questions about things” in the Northern school

How did early Ch’an teachers interact with their students? The hagiographical images of
Hung-jen and Hui-neng are not our only clues: we do not know how the students responded,
but at least we have some evidence for the types of questions early Ch’an masters placed
before them.

The Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi 楞伽師資記 [Records of the Masters and
Disciples of the La^nkaa[vataara], a “transmission of the lamp history”
written in the second decade of the eighth century, contains an intriguing set of
rhetorical questions and short doctrinal admonitions, which it refers to as
“questions about things” (literally, “pointing at things and asking the
meanings,” chih-shih wen-i 指事問義).21)
Such questions and admonitions are attributed to several of the early masters, as
shown in the following examples:


When [Gu.nabhadra] was imparting wisdom to others, before he had even begun to preach
the Dharma, he would assess [his listeners’ understanding of physical] things by pointing
at a leaf and [asking]: “What is that?”

He would also say: “Can you enter into a [water] pitcher or enter into a pillar?
Can you enter into a fiery oven? Can a stick [from up on the] mountain preach the

He would also say: “Does your body enter [into the pitcher, etc.,] or does your
mind enter?”

He would also say: “There is a pitcher inside the building, but is there another
pitcher outside the building? Is there water inside the pitcher, or is there a pitcher
inside the water? Or is there even a pitcher within every single drop of water under

He would also say: “A leaf can preach the Dharma; a pitcher can preach the Dharma;
a pillar can preach the Dharma; a building can preach the Dharma; and earth, water, fire,
and wind can all preach the Dharma. How is it that mud, wood, tiles, and rocks can also
preach the Dharma?”


The Great Master [Bodhidharma] also pointed at things and inquired of their meaning,
simply pointing at a thing and calling out: “What is that?” He asked about a
number of things, switching their names about and asking about them [again] differently.

He would also say: “Clouds and mists in the sky are never able to defile space.
However, they can shade space [so that the sun] cannot become bright and pure…”


The Great Master (Heng-jen} said: “There is a single little house filled with crap
and weeds and dirt-what is it?”

He also said: “If you sweep out all the crap and weeds and dirt and clean it all
up so there is not a single thing left inside, then what is it?…”

Also, when he saw someone light a lamp or perform any ordinary activity, he would
always say: “Is this person dreaming or under a spell?” Or he would say:
“Not making and not doing, these things are all the great”

He also said: “When you are actually sitting in meditation inside the monastery,
is there another of you sitting in meditation in the forest? Can all the mud, wood, tiles,
and rocks also sit in meditation? Can mud, wood, tiles, and rocks also see forms and hear
sounds, or put on robes and carry a begging bowl?”


(Shen-hsiu} also said: “Is this a mind that exists? What kind of mind is the

He also said: “When you see form, does form exist? What kind of form is

He also said: “You hear the sound of a bell that is struck. Does (the sound} exist
when (the bell} is struck? Before it is struck? What kind of sound is sound?” He also
said: “Does the sound of a bell that is struck only exist within the monastery, or
does the bell’s sound also exist (throughout} the universe (in all the} the

Also, seeing a bird fly by, he asked: “What is that?”

He also said: “Can you sit in meditation on the tip of a tree’s hanging

He also said: “The Suutra says: ‘The Bodhisattva with the
Limitless Body came from the East.’ If the bodhisattva’s body was limitless in size, how
could he have come from the East? Why did he not come from the West, South, or North? Or
is this impossible?”22)

There are a number of observations that must be stated about these interrogatives, even
if we cannot develop them all fully here. First, to me the image of Bodhidharma asking
about the things around him has the ring of believability, but only because I know what it
is like to move into a new language community and struggle to communicate with those
around me. By the rule of difference used in biblical interpretation,23)  I wonder if this may be a detail actually deriving from the
shared life experiences of foreign missionaries that was so trivial as to escape polemical
alteration. I can easily imagine Bodhidharma struggling with language, and yet at the same
time transforming some of his questions from simple linguistic issues into more profound
religious and philosophical queries. Second, although I have not made an extensive search,
my readings over the past decade and occasional discussions with specialists in Indian
Buddhism have not shown any specific antecedents to this type of inquiry in any earlier
Buddhist context. One of course might draw comparisons with the questions found in ch’ing-t’an
淸談 or “pure conversation” literature of the third and fourth centuries, but
I have not found this line of investigation to be fruitful. 24)
Third, this style of interrogation probably had some general currency at the
beginning of the eighth century among Northern school figures. In the strictest sense, of
course, all we can say is that it was known to the compiler of the text, a successor to
Shen-hsiu named Ching-chüeh (683-ca. 750). The attribution of “questions about
things” is clearly unreliable with regard to Gu.nabhadra, who is included in the
Ch’an lineage solely in this text and without any known basis in fact. In spite of my
speculative comment just above, it is not fair to assert on the basis of this text that
such questions were actually known to Bodhidharma, either. Fourth, the terminology used
here is clearly based on a Chinese dictionary usage, in which chih-shih or to
“indicate [a] thing” refers to characters whose shape immediately invoke the
abstract meaning involved, such as the numbers one and two and the directions up and down(一,
二, 上, 下, respectively).25) Fifth, the logical
similarity and content of several of the questions implies a consistent intellectual
perspective, which seems not thoroughly undercut by their paradoxical nature. The
doctrinal implications of these questions would certainly merit further investigation.

Sekiguchi has already suggested that these “questions about things” resemble
the Kung-ans of later Ch’an. Although his analysis was superficial and unconvincing
to the extent that it inspired unusually harsh criticism from Yanagida, I believe that his
observation deserves reconsideration. 26) Obviously, we
cannot jump immediately from these questions to the k?an anthologies of the eleventh
century and beyond, but instead need to take into account the intervening efflorescence of
encounter dialogue. However, it certainly is reasonable to infer that these represent
something like the same sort of questions posed by masters to students in that later
genre. In contrast to kung-an anthologies, there is no context or literary
structure to explain how such questions were intended.

C. The “Ch’an” style of explanation in
eighth-century sources

In addition to these “questions about things,” there are various hints in
texts from this period and slightly later of what seems like the idiosyncratically
“Ch’an” style of discourse glorified in the later tradition. It is not always
clear, to be sure, that one unified style of explanation is indicated, but the references
are enough to suggest that something interesting is being reported, but not yet recorded
in full.

The central figure in this respect is Shen-hsiu, already introduced above, who had a
special role as “Ch’an commentator” on the meaning of the suutras as translated
by ^Sik.saananda during the first few years of the eighth century. One longs to know what
the “Ch’an meaning” of any scriptural term might be, but no doubt Shen-hsiu’s
style of interpretation was largely identical to the “contemplative analysis”
found in his Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind(Kuan-hsin lun
觀心論) and related works. Here Shen-hsiu represents all of Buddhism as metagogy for
the “contemplation of the mind” (k’an-hisn 看心), declaring that the
Buddha was simply not interested in the nominal subject matter of some of the suutras but
instead had an esoteric meaning. Thus rather than actually describing how monks should
bathe themselves, the Buddha was actually building an extended metaphor for meditation,
with the heat of the fire standing for the power of wisdom, the cleansing effect of the
water the efficacy of mental concentration, etc. Rather than describing actual votive
lamps to be used for devotion, the Buddha described the “truly enlightened
mind,” in which the body was metaphorically the lamp’s stand, the mind the lamp’s
dish, and faith its wick, etc. Shen-hsiu writes, “If one constantly burns such a lamp
of truly suchlike true enlightenment, its illumination will destroy all the darkness of
ignorance and stupidity.” 27)

Another clue for the prevalence of unconventional “Ch’an-style” dialogue
occurs in the epitaph for the Northern school figure I-fu(661-736) by Yen T’ing-chih
嚴挺之, in which the another recounts that he and Tu Yü 杜昱, another of I-fu’s
epigraphers, collected the departed master’s sayings as they were remembered by his
students. The two men were apparently unable to write down all of those sayings,
presumably because of their great number. Even though they recognized the value of these
sayings, neither of their epitaphs for I-fu contains anything that might correspond to the
subject of such a search. 28)  Although the format
of disciples collecting a master’s sayings is known from the earliest days of Ch’an
(witness the material associated with Bodhidharma’s Treatise on the Two Entrances and
Four Practices
(Erh-ju ssu-hsing lun 二入四行論) and the Treatise on
the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind
(Hsiu-hsin yao lun 修心要論), the
latter of which declares explicitly that it was compiled by Hung-jen’s students), but the
manner of the statements by Yen T’ing-chih and Tu Yü imply that a special kind of
pronouncement was involved.

As time went on, the epitaphs of members of the Northern school and other figures
important in the development of Ch’an began to include precisely this sort of material.
For example, note the following exchange and commentary form the epitaph for P’u-chi’s
普寂 student Fa-yün 法雲 (d.766):

“Has the Buddha’s teaching been transmitted to you?”

“I have a sandalwood image [of the Buddha] to which I pay reverence.”

[This reply was] profound yet brief, and those listening felt chills of loneliness. The
day after [the questioner, a prominent official,] left, Fa-yün died without illness
while sitting cross-legged on his chair.29)

After all the hyperbole about Shen-hsiu’s being equivalent to a buddha and P’u-chi’s
being the religious teacher of the universe (themes stated in documents from the first
half of the eighth century as part of the Northern school’s campaign for public
recognition), it is perfectly natural to find a slightly later master deflating the idea
of the transmission altogether.

The epitaph for Hui-chen 慧實(673-751), who was more closely affiliated with the
T’ien-t’ai and Vinaya schools than with Ch’an, includes a more explicit reference to and
several examples of what seems like encounter dialogue:

“When people do not understand, I use the Ch’an [style of] teaching(ch’an-shuo

QUESTION: “Are not the teachings of the Southern and Northern [schools]

ANSWER: “Outside the gates of both houses is a road to everlasting peace.”

QUESTION: “Do the results of religious practice vary according to the extent [of

ANSWER: “When a drop of water falls from the cliff, it knows the morning

QUESTION: “How can one who is without faith achieve self-motivation [in spiritual

ANSWER: “When the baby’s throat is closed (i. e., when choking), the mother yells
to frighten it [loose]. Great compassion is unconditioned, but it can also cause [a
student to] whimper.”30)

A confirmed skeptic might suggest that Hui-chen is merely answering in easily
understood metaphors, rather than in some really new “Ch’an [style of]
teaching.” If this is the case, then we must infer that a new type of metaphorical or
metagogic usage became the vogue in Ch’an Buddhism during the second half of the eighth
century, for such usage is also apparent in the biographies of Fa-ch’in 法欽 (714-92)
and Hsüan-lang 玄朗 (673-754), well-known representatives of the Oxhead and
T’ien-t’ai schools, respectively. 31) The Sung
kao-seng chuan
宋高僧傳 [Biographies of Eminent Monks (Compiled During the) Sung]
and Ching-te ch’üan-teng lu 景德傳燈錄 [Records of the Transmission of
the Lamp (Compiled During the) Ching-te (Era, or 1044)] contain several examples of
encounter dialogue involving Northern school figures, although of course these examples
may be later fabrications. 32)  The practice of
this prototypic encounter dialogue may have had a much wider currency than the extant body
of literature suggests, and the members of the Northern school may have only been the
first to legitimize its use within the Ch’an tradition,

D. Doctrinal bases for the social orientation of
early Ch’an practice

What were early Ch’an practitioners doing when using paradoxical interrogation,
dialogue, and interactive training methods? Since they do not tell us explicitly,33) our only recourse is to turn to the voluminous writings
they did bequeath to us and explore them for clues. There are obvious methodological
problems in this approach involving interpretive leaps and projections, but I see no other

One of the most clearly apparent features of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and
Four Practices
attributed from quite early on is its bimodal structure, which consists
of one abstract and one active “entrance” or “access” to
accomplishment of the Dharma. Although there are several different ways in which one can
read this text, one of the most appropriate and useful readings is to take them as
introvertive and extrovertive, respectively. That is, the “entrance of
principle” refers to interior cultivation, mental practice undertaken deep within the
individual’s psyche, and the “entrance of practice” refers to practice
undertaken actively and in interaction with the world.

Other than dialogue per se, the other important question to be considered here is the
extent to which the doctrinal formulations of the Northern school’s Five Expedient
Means (Wu fang-pien
五方便) may have provided justification for the emergence of
encounter dialogue. Here I am not thinking of encounter dialogue so much as an oral
practice, but in the more general category of its identity as a social practice.
That is, is there anything in the Five Expedient Means that provides justification
for the outward, social dimension of Ch’an religious practice?

The answer to this question is of course affirmative, the key passage being the
following (from section J):

Bodhisattvas know the fundamental motionlessness of the six senses, their internal
illumination being distinct and external functions autonomous. This is the true and
constant motionlessness of the Mahaayaana.

[QUESTION]: What do “internal illumination being distinct” and “external
functions autonomous” means?

ANSWER: Fundamental wisdom (ken-pen chih 根本智) is “internal
illumination being distinct.” Successive wisdom (hou-te-chih 候得智) is
“external functions autonomous.”

[QUESTION]: What are fundamental wisdom and successive wisdom?

ANSWER: Because one first realizes the characteristic of the transcendence of the body
and mind, this is fundamental wisdom. The autonomous [quality of] knowing and perception
and the nondefilement [associated with the enlightened state] are successive wisdom. The
first realization of the fundamental…. if realization [of the transcendence of body and
mind] were not first, then knowing and perception would be completely defiled. Know
clearly that the autonomous [spontaneity of] knowing and perception is attained after that
realization and is called successive wisdom.

When the mind does not activate on the basis of the eye’s perception of form, this is
fundamental wisdom. The autonomous [spontaneity of] perception is successive wisdom. When
the mind does not activate on the basis of the ear’s hearing of sounds, this is
fundamental wisdom. The autonomous [spontaneity of] hearing is successive wisdom. The
nose, tongue, body, and consciousness are also the same. With the fundamental and
successive [wisdoms], the locations [ch’u 處) are distinct, the locations are
emancipated. The senses do not activate, and the realizations are pure. When successive
moments of mental [existence] are nonactivating, the senses are sagely (sheng 聖).
Now, the terms “fundamental wisdom” (mula-j~naana)
and “successive wisdom” (p.r.s.tha-labdha-j~naana) are well known from
the Abhidharmako^sa and many subsequent texts, but they do not occur CHECK with any
emphasis in the Lotus Suutra, which is supposed to be the basis of this section of
the Five Expedient Means. 34) Since this and
other examples of Northern school literature revel in playing with and immediately
discarding doctrinal formulations, there is little reason to speculate on why this
particular pair of terms should occur here. The important issue is the congruence between
this and other dyads used.

Scattered throughout the same section of the Five Expedient Means we find
various statements involving this dyad:

If the mind does not activate, the mind is suchlike. If form does not activate, form is
suchlike. Since the mind is suchlike the mind is emancipated. Since form is suchlike form
is emancipated. Since mind and form both transcend [thoughts], there is not a single
thing. 35)

The transcendence of mind is enlightenment of self, with no dependence (yüan
緣) on the five senses. The transcendence of form is enlightenment of others, with no
dependence on the five types of sensory data. The transcendence of both mind and form is
to have one’s practice of enlightenment perfect and complete (chüeh-hsing yüan-man
覺性圓滿) and is equivalent to the universally “same” dharmakaaya of
a Tathaagata. 36)

The transcendence of though is the essence, and the perceptive faculties (jianwen
hi) are the function. Serenity (chi 寂) is the essence, and illumination (chao
照) is the function. “Serene but always functioning; functioning but always
serene.” Serene but always functioning-this is the absolute (li 理)
corresponding to phenomena (shih 事). Functioning but always serene-this is
phenomena corresponding to the absolute. Serene yet always functioning-this is form
corresponding to emptiness. Functioning yet always serene-this is emptiness corresponding
to form….

Serenity is unfolding; illumination is constriction (lit., “rolling up”).
Unfolded, it expands throughout the dharmadhaatu. Constricted, it is incorporated
in the tip of a hair. Its expression [outward] and incorporation [inward] distinct, the
divine function is autonomous.37)

The meaning of enlightenment is that the essence of the mind transcends thoughts.
Transcending the characteristic of craving, it is equivalent to the realm of space, which
pervades everywhere. This is called enlightenment of self. Transcending the characteristic
of anger, it is equivalent to the realm of space, which pervades everywhere. This is
called enlightenment of others. Transcending the characteristic of stupidity, it is
equivalent to the realm of space, which pervades everywhere. The single characteristic of
the dharmadhaatu is the universally “same” dharmakaaya of the
Tathaagata. This is called complete enlightenment.38)
These examples, which could easily be supplemented from later sections of the Five
Expedient Means
and other works, should suffice to reveal the basic Northern school
concern for describing not only how one understands the abstract truth of the
Buddhadharma, but also how one puts it into practice on behalf of sentient beings. This
bimodal structure is certainly indebted to the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four
attributed to Bodhidharma and may be taken as a basic characteristic of
early Ch’an Buddhism.

It would be more convenient for our purposes, I suppose, if this bimodal structure
explicitly involved masters and students, and if it stated clearly that one was first to
become enlightened oneself and then inspire the enlightenment of others. Instead, as with
all Ch’an literature at this time (not to mention the texts of other schools), the
aspiring student is still invisible, and the recipients of the enlightened master’s grace
from the moment of successive wisdom onward are anonymous sentient beings. However, the
emphasis on the importance of activity in the social or inter-personal realm (which is
implicitly seen as temporarily subsequent but equal in value terms) is firmly established
with these formulations.

E. The use of ritualized dialogue between teachers
and students

The mechanical formulations given above are not the only interesting feature of the Five
Expedient Means
. The text must have been something like a set of teacher’s notes for
holding initiation and training meetings according to an approved Northern school program,
in which context it includes the following examples of ritualized dialogue. The first
example is from the very beginning of the text, just after the initiates are led
responsively through a declaration of certain basic vows:

The preceptor asks: What do you see (lit., what thing do you see)?

The disciple(s) answer: I do not see a single thing.

Preceptor: Viewing purity, view minutely. Use the eye of the Pure Mind to view afar
without limit, without restriction. View without obstruction.

The preceptor asks: What do you see?

ANSWER: I do not see a single thing.

D. View afar to the front, not residing in the myriad sensory realms, holding the body
upright and just illuminating, making the true essence of reality distinct and clear.

View afar to the rear…to both sides…facing upwards…facing downwards…in the ten
directions all at once…energetically during unrest..minutely during calm…identically
whether walking or standing still…identically whether sitting or lying down, not
residing in the myriad sensory realms, holding the body upright and just illuminating,
making the true essence of reality distinct and clear.

E. QUESTION: When viewing, what things do you view?

[ANSWER}: Viewing, viewing, no thing is viewed.

[QUESTION}: Who views?

[ANSWER]: The enlightened mind (chüeh-hsin 覺心) views.

Penetratingly viewing the realms of the ten directions, in purity there is not a single
thing. Constantly viewing and in accord with the locus of nonbeing (wu-so 無所),
this is to be equivalent to a buddha. Viewing with expansive openness, one views without
fixation. Peaceful and vast without limit, its untaintedness is the path of bodhi (p’u-t’i
菩提路). The mind serene and enlightenment distinct, the body’s serenity is the bodhi
tree (p’u-t’i shu 菩提樹). The four tempters have no place of entry, so one’s
great enlightenment is perfect and complete, transcending perceptual subject and object.39)

The second example is in the second section, which is nominally based on the Lotus

A. The preceptor strikes the wooden [signal-board] and asks: Do you hear the sound?

[ANSWER] : We hear.

[QUESTION]: What is this “hearing” like?

[ANSWER]: Hearing is motionless.

[QUESTION]: What is the transcendence of thoughts?

[ANSWER]: The transcendence of thoughts is motionless.

This motionlessness is to develop the expedient means of sagacity (hui fang-pien
慧方便) our of meditation (ting 定). This is to open the gate of sagacity.
Hearing is sagacity. This expedient means can not only develop sagacity, but also make
one’s meditation correct. [To achieve this motionlessness] is to open the gate of wisdom,
to attain wisdom (chih 智). This is called the opening of the gates of wisdom and
sagacity. 40)

Here we find transcribed segments of ritual dialogue from a doctrinally specific
Northern school context. When looking for antecedents for transcribed dialogues in early
Ch’an texts, we should not overlook this type of material. That is, to what extent did
encounter dialogue grow out of a monastic training and ritual context in which students
responded to monkish ritual celebrants in thoroughly formalized manners? Elsewhere in the Five
Expedient Means
are other portions of this catechistic ritual, which demonstrate the
same form of scripted recitation-and-response pattern. This material skilfully weaves
Northern school doctrine into an intriguing mix of ritualized initiation, teaching
catechism, and guided meditation practice. I have already discussed the relevance of some
of the phraseology here for our understanding of Northern school doctrine and the
construction of the Platform Suutra;41) other
aspects of this material that deserve discussion include its bearing on the indebtedness
of early Ch’an to T’ien-t’ai formulations. 42)
Here I would like to focus on the following possible reading of the implications of this
material: that Ch’an encounter dialogue derived not (or, perhaps, not solely) out of spontaneous
oral exchanges but rather (perhaps only in part) out of ritualized exchanges. Given
arguments already made by Griffith Foulk and Robert Sharf that spontaneity is merely
“inscribed” within the heavily ritualized context of Sung dynasty Ch’an, this
interpretation allows us to wipe out the distinction between the “classical” age
of T’ang dynasty Ch’an when encounter dialogue was spontaneous and the subsequent
ritualization of dialogue within Sung dynasty Ch’an.43)
At the very least, the examples of transcribed dialogue introduced above should
break us loose from the preconception of “event” and suggest we look elsewhere
for the origins of encounter dialogue as “text.” I will come back to these
points later.

F. The widespread use of anecdote and dialogue in teaching

One factor that should not be overlooked is the widespread tendency within the
developing Ch’an movement to use anecdotal material and dialogue transcriptions for
teaching purposes. One can almost chart the ever-increasing anecdotal content of Ch’an
literature. One of my favorite examples is a story about a stupid couple brewing rice
wine, who’ve never seen a mirror and mistake their partners’ reflections on the surface of
the fermenting liquid as secret lovers; the moral drawn is that foolish ordinary people do
not recognize that the entire world is a reflection of their own minds.44)   The growth of the Bodhidharma legend over time is once
again relevant here, but need not be discussed again. Then again, the most important
individual contributor to this dimension of Ch’an was of course Shen-hui.

We do not have to accept the entirety of Hu Shin’s characterization of Shen-hui’s
historical importance-which clearly projects Hu’s own twentieth century concerns onto his
medieval subject-to recognize that Shen-hui transformed Chinese Ch’an. Whatever the
doctrinal significance of Shen-hui’s teaching of sudden enlightenment. whatever the
factionalist impact of his outspoken criticism of the Northern school, one of the ways in
which he changed Ch’an was in the extreme caution he made his colleagues feel about
describing their doctrinal formulations. I have labelled this impact Shen-hui’s standard
of “rhetorical purity,” which mitigated against any expression using dualistic
or gradualistic formats. That is, Shen-hui’s vigorous attack on the dualism and gradualism
of Northern school teachings had a chilling effect on other teachers.

Simultaneously, Shen-hui was a master story teller, even as he was a master public
speaker. Many of the most famous stories of Ch’an appear first in the transcriptions of
his sermons and lectures: Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma and Hui-k’o, and CHECK,
but not, curiously enough, many stories about his own teacher Hui-neng. There is also a
substantial amount of transcribed dialogue within the Shen-hui corpus, either between
Shen-hui and his designated Northern school stand-in or between him and various famous
laymen of his day. There is a palpable sense of fictional creativity here, such that some
of the dialogues with famous laymen may very well have been made up out of whole cloth. On
the other hand, the dialogues do not quite conform to out expectations of encounter
dialogue, in that they are two clearly structured, too much of a logical pattern, to
represent spontaneous exchanges.

G. The fabrication of enlightenment narratives

There is another tendency of early Ch’an writings to be discussed here: the tendency to
compose fictionalized accounts of enlightenment experiences. Let me discuss the other
examples of this tendency before turning, in the next section, to the case of Hui-neng.

One of the best-known texts of early Ch’an is the Treatise on the Transcendence of
Cognition (Chüeh-kuan lun
絶觀論) of the Oxhead school faction, whose members
were known for literary creativity. This text describes an imaginary dialogue between two
hypothetical characters, Professor Enlightenment (ju-li hsien-sheng 入理) and the
student Conditionality (yüan-ch’i 緣起), of which the following is only the
barest skeleton:

Professor Enlightenment was silent and said nothing. Conditionality then arose suddenly
and asked Professor Enlightenment: “What is the mind? What is it to pacify the mind (anxin)?”
[The master] answered: “You should not posit a mind, nor should you attempt to pacify
it-this is called ‘pacified.'”

Question: “If there is no mind, how can one cultivate enlightenment (tao
道)?” Answer: “Enlightenment is not a thought of the mind, so how could it
occur in the mind?” Question: “If it is not thought of by the mind, how should
it be thought of?” Answer: “If there are thoughts then there is mind, and for
there to be mind is contrary to enlightenment. If there is no thought (wunian) then
there is no mind(wuxin), and for there to be no mind is true enlightenment.”
… Question: “What ‘things’ are there in no-mind?” Answer: “No-mind is
without ‘things.’ The absence of things is the Naturally True. The Naturally True is the
Great Enlightenment (ta-tao 大道).”…

Question: “What should I do?” Answer: “You should do nothing.”
Question: “I understand this teaching now even less than before.” Answer:
“There truly is no understanding of the Dharma. Do not seek to understand it.”
… Question: “Who teaches these words?” Answer: “It is as I have been
asked.” Question: “What does it mean to say that it is as you have been
asked?” Answer: “If you contemplate [your own] questions, the answers will be
understood [thereby] as well.”

At this Conditionality was silent and he thought everything through once again.
Professor Enlightenment asked: “Why do you not say anything?” Conditionality
answered: “I do not perceive even the most minute bit of anything that can be
explained.” At this point Professor Enlightenment said to Conditionality: “You
would appear to have now perceived the True Principle.”

Conditionality asked: “Why [do you say] ‘would appear to have perceived’ and not
that I ‘correctly perceived’ [the True Principle]?” Enlightenment answered:
“What you have now perceived is the nonexistence of all dharmas. This is like the
non-Buddhists who study how to make themselves invisible, but cannot destroy their shadow
and footprints.” Conditionality asked: “How can one destroy both form and
shadow?” Enlightenment answered: “Being fundamentally without mind and its
sensory realms, you must not willfully generate the ascriptive view (or,
“perception”) of impermanence.”

[The following is from the end of the text.]

Question: “If one becomes [a Tathaagata] without transformation and in one’s own
body, how could it be called difficult?” Answer: Willfully activating (ch’i
起) the mind is easy; extinguishing the mind is difficult. It is easy to affirm the body,
but difficult to negate it. It is easy to act, but difficult to be without action.
Therefore, understand that the mysterious achievement is difficult to attain, it is
difficult to gain union with the Wondrous Principle. Motionless is the True, which the
three [lesser vehicles] only rarely attain.”[?]

At this Conditionality gave a long sigh, his voice filling the ten directions.
Suddenly, soundlessly, he experienced a great expansive enlightenment. The mysterious
brilliance of his pure wisdom [revealed] no doubt in its counter illumination. For the
first time he realized the extreme difficulty of spiritual training and that he had been
uselessly beset with illusory worries. He then sighed aloud: “Excellent! Just as you
have taught without teaching, so have I heard without hearing…”45)

I would not suggest that the preceding constitutes “encounter dialogue,”
because it is entirely too well structured and logical. This critique is also applicable
to two texts that share a single rhetorical structure: the Treatise on the True
and Essential Determination.46) In
each case, a single proponent of Buddhist spiritual cultivation is depicted as both
enlightened Ch’an master and sincere lay seeker. That is, the same individual is depicted
as both asking and answering questions concerning spiritual cultivation, in his identities
as monk and layman. I have always been amused by the openings of these texts: after
describing the dual identity of the speaker as both teacher and student, when the first
question is posed by the student the teacher praises it as the most profound inquiry he’s
ever received in all his years as a monk!

(Talk about self-serving!)

The narratives found in the Treatise on the Transcendence of Cognition, Treatise on
the True Principle
, and Essential Determination are manifestly fictional, but
it is reasonable to suspect that they were intended to model ideal teacher/student
interactions and may in fact have resembled to some degree actual exchanges that took
place between living meditation masters and practitioners. The point here is not to
speculate on the precise nature of such events, but to note that these texts represent an
innovative use of text in the Ch’an tradition. The same may be said for the Platform
, of course. In my study on the Northern school I showed how the events
described in this text could not have taken place, and the central point here is that the
very fictionality of the Hui-neng story is of prime importance.47)

H. The genealogical structure of Ch’an dialogue

Here let me add one other point about the example of Hui-neng, based not on the
fictionality of the story per se but instead the character of the protagonist. That is, I
suggest that there is a profound similarity between the story of Hui-neng and that of the
dragon king’s daughter in the Lotus Suutra: their total lack of the conventional
accoutrements of spiritually gifted persons. On the one hand, she was female, nonhuman
(although of high nonhuman birth), and severely underage-yet in a single moment she was
able to transform herself into a male, pass through all the trials and tribulations
expected of bodhisattva practitioners, and achieve perfect enlightenment. On the other
hand, he was illiterate, from the very edge of civilization in the far south, lowborn
(although his grandfather had been an official, albeit a banished one), and not even a
monk-yet he had the intuitive genius to be selected as the Sixth Patriarch.

It is in the story of Hui-neng that we find the last key to the emergence of encounter
dialogue transcriptions. The problem was not whether or not such dialogues were actually
occurring between masters and students, and if so how and to what extent. Rather, the
problem was the reluctance to transcribe what may have been virtually an everyday
occurrence in the back rooms of China’s monastic compounds. There had to be some epistemic
change that made it acceptable to transcribe, not only the words of the gifted and famous
master, but those of the student as well. The example of Hui-neng may have been a
significant factor in incurring this epistemic change, but the time was still not at hand.

It is generally believed that encounter dialogue first flourished in the faction of
Ma-tsu Tao-i 馬祖道一 (709-88), which is known as the Hung-chou school 洪州派.
Ma-tsu and his disciples are depicted in Ch’an records as engaging in spontaneous repartee
in what is almost a barnyard atmosphere of agricultural labor and other daily tasks. There
are enough dialogues concerning a large enough number of figures that it would seem heresy
to suggest that nothing of the sort “really” happened, that the encounters were
all “fictional.” I will certainly not go that far here, but I cannot avoid
noticing a certain problem, already introduced above: whereas the encounters involving
Ma-tsu and his disciples are supposed to have taken place in the latter part of the eighth
century and beginning of the ninth, they are not found in transcribed form until the year
952, with the appearance of the Tsu-t’ang chi 祖堂集 or Anthology of the
Patriarchal Hall

We do have a much earlier text from the Hongzhou school, the Pao-lin chuan
寶林傳 or Transmission of Pao-lin [Monastery]. Only parts of this text
are extant, and scholars have generally assumed that the lost portions (which were devoted
at least in part to Ma-tsu and his immediate disciples) must have been incorporated into,
and thus were not substantially different from, the corresponding sections of the Tsu-t’ang
. Unfortunately, I cannot accept this assumption, for the simple reason that the
extant portions of the Pao-lin chuan do not contain encounter dialogue
transcriptions. There is a great deal of dialogue transcribed in this text, virtually all
of which is fictionalized representation of enlightened masters. However, none of this
dialogue has the same lively feel as the exchanges of the Tsu-t’ang chi.

There is one feature of the Pao-lin chuan, though, that I believe to be of
crucial importance: the rigid narrative structure of the text. This text describes the
lives, and to a lesser extent the teachings, of the Ch’an patriarchs from ^Saakyamuni
through Bodhidharma to Ma-tsu, and in each case the patriarch in question is described
twice; first as a gifted student discovered by the current patriarch and second as a fully
vested patriarch out searching for his own successor. It is curious that in no case (at
least up to the account of Huike) is the enlightenment experience of the patriarch in
question described; we have only the “before” and “after” images, not
any reference to or depiction of what we would think to be the most crucial event in the
entire process. For the present purposes, though, we may also note the great significance
placed on the patriarchs as students. That is, this text creates a structural parity
between the student as incipient patriarch and the patriarch as realized student.

I suspect that this structural parity played a role in making the transcription of
encounter dialogue possible, that is, in making the transcription of both sides of
encounter dialogue exchanges possible. However, it was not possible yet, and the
reluctance of this text to describe enlightenment experiences may imply that it was used
for popular teaching in the spread of Buddhism throughout the newly developing areas of
Chiang-hsi, rather than for training within the context of the monastic meditation hall.

III. Final ruminations

Because of the preliminary nature of this research, I will not add an integrated set of
conclusions. Instead, so as to indicate some of the different considerations that can be
applied to examples of Ch’an encounter dialogue transcription, let me present one brief
passage from the Tsu-t’ang chi. The following is the famous story of Ma-tsu’s first
encounter with Huai-jang:

Reverend Ma was sitting in a spot, and Reverend Jang took a tile and sat on the rock
facing him, rubbing it.

Master Ma asked, “What are you doing?” Master [Huai-jang] said, “I’m
rubbing the tile to make a mirror.”

Master Ma said, “How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?” Master
[Huai-jang] said, “If I can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile, how can you achieve
buddhahood by sitting in meditation?”48)

Did this really “happen?” There is obviously no way to prove that it did not,
but since the event is first reported some centuries it was supposed to have taken place,
we are certainly entitled to substantial skepticism.

More important than journalistic accuracy, though, is how the anecdote was recorded,
edited, augmented, and transmitted through both oral and written media. In the first
place, we can clearly hear echoes of Vimalakiirti scolding ^Saariputra for sitting in
meditation in the forest. This famous precedent has been recast in a contemporary mode, by
means of implicit reference to the “mind-verses” of the Platform suutra,
which of course involve polishing a mirror. The material that immediately follows on the
dialogue with Ma-tsu in the Tsu-t’ang cbi contains other references to the
mirror, which implies some sort of unified editorial inclination. Second, the reader
should notice the primitive character of this rendition of the story: neither location nor
time are specified ― all we have is the simple nucleus of the words, with no effort to
establish the context. Later versions of the story will add suitable detail, but it is the
nature of the Tsu-t’ang cbi to require its readers to use their imaginations
to provide their own context; in Marshall MacLuhan’s terms, this is “hot medium”
like radio that makes the readers or listeners actively imagine what is happening, rather
than a “cold medium” like television that gives viewers enough sensory data to
turn off their minds.

Third, this story is usually cited as Ma-tsu’s enlightenment story, or at least to
indicate his identity as Huai-jang’s student. Although this earliest version includes
several lines of subsequent dialogue between the two men, it does not contain either
statement explicitly. Based on this story Ma-tsu is traditionally thought of as
Huai-jang’s successor, with Huai-jang understood as a successor to the Sixth Patriarch
Hui-neng. However, when we look mire closely at the available sources, we see that Ma-tsu
studied with other figures as well, and that Huai-jang’s connection with certain Northern
school figures is ever so much more substantial than his problematic connection with

The point is that, from whatever may have happened during Ma-tsu’s religious training,
from some unknown point in time the Ch’an community developed this image of an encounter
between him and Huai-jang. Whatever did or did not happen, the news of that encounter was
dramatized and circulated in oral and/or written form. What we have in the Tsu-t’ang cbi
is something like the core of the story, with the reader, listener ― or perhaps the
teacher ― left to supply the details. As T. H. Barrett has written, this process
resembles nothing so much as the circulation of jokebooks at roughly the same time. As
with the formulaic notation of the Five Expedient Means, which seems to have provided the
liturgical skeleton on which Northern school teachers could superimpose their own
flourishes and interpretations, the encounter dialogue literature of Ch’an was prepared as
skeletal notations upon which teachers and students could improvise. In order for this
genre of literature to appear, though, it required a shared conception of Buddhist
spiritual practice, some of the elements of which I have attempted to isolate in the pages


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1) See Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism. A History
Volume 1 India and china
(New York: Macmillan, 1988), pp. GET. revised version info.
Ikky? Get source. (Not in Dumoulin.)


2) See Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in
, second edition (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), GET. In the following I
use either “orality” or the “Zen use of language” as shorthand for the
tripartite combination of dialogue, narrative, and orality.


3) See Shunry? Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal
Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
(New York: Weatherhill, 1970).


4) YANAGIDA Seizan, “The Development of the ‘Recorded
Sayings’ Texts of the Chinese Ch’an School,” trans. by John R. McRae, in Lewis
Lancaster and Whalen Lai, eds., Early Ch’an in China and Tibet, Berkeley Buddhist
Studies, no.5(Berkeley, CA: Lancaster-Miller Press, 1983), pp.185-205, esp.pp.192 and 204
n.25, where the first compound (for “encounter”) is defined.


5) See my “Encounter dialogue and the transformation of
the spiritual path in Chinese Ch’an, “in Robert E. Buswell, Jr., and Robert
M.Gimello, eds., Paths to Liberation: The Maarga and its Transformations in Buddhist
(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), pp.339-69.


6) The following summary draws heavily from my Northern
, pp. GET, although with the incorporation of more recently published analyses.


7) CHECK Yanagida and Faure translations. Consider one or two


8) See David Chappell, “The Teachings of the Fourth Ch’an
Patriarch Tao-hisn(580-651),” in Lewis Lancaster and Whalen Lai, eds., Early Ch’an
in China and Tibet
, pp.89-129; and Bernard Faure, The Will to Orthodoxy: A
Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism, trans. by Phyllis Brooks (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1997), p. 50ff. Although both Chappell and Faure take the section
devoted to Tao-hisn in the Leng-ch’iehshih-tzu chi as an authentic representation
of his teachings, I have argued that it is unlikely to be so; see Northern School,


9) In this paper I have intentionally over-simplified the
definition of encounter dialogue and the issue of when it first came to be transcribed.
Recently I have begun to consider hitherto unnoticed examples of Ch’an literature from
Tun-huang that include dialogue transcriptions that may test the boundaries of the usage


10) Certain examples of Shen-hui’s story-telling will be
discussed below. The dialogues in his texts involving Shen-hui himself are formulaic and
doctrinally oriented. I will defer documentation to my study of his teachings and
translation of his extant works, which is now in progress.


11) In an unpublished manuscript on early Ch’an history,
Jeffrey Broughton uses the term “metropolitan Ch’an” to encompass both the
Northern and Southern school phases, which largely completed for the same clientele of
cultured urbanites. While I choose to differentiate between the Northern and Southern
schools here(and recent evidence shows how much of Shen-hui’s efforts were in the
provinces), my use of “provincial Ch’an” is indebted to Broughton’s usage. CHECK
to see if he uses “provincial Ch’an.” Yanagida, “Recorded Sayings,”
p.192, suggests that the practice of recording Ch’an encounters probably began with
Ma-tsu. The present article attempts to address this issue with greater nuance.


12) For the expalnation of “back room” activities,
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(Garden City, NY:
Doubleday & Company, 1959), pp. 106-40, esp.pp.109-13.


13) See the article cited in note 5 above.


14) Here I am drawing upon personal conversations with
Professor Mei Tsu-lin of Cornell University.


15) One of the indications of this disconformity is that no
encounter dialogue material has been discovered among the Tun-huang texts, even though a
set of verses by the compilers’ immediate teacher, Ching-hsiu Wen-teng淨修文 [人十登]
, occurs there.


16) See MeRae, Northern School, p.36. It may not be
precisely fair to suggest these were the earliest such descriptions in Ch’an literature,
since the same text (the Ch’üan fa-pao chi 傳法寶紀) simultaneously
provides information about other teachers. Also, the epitaph for Fa-ju, discussed
immediately following, antedates the Ch’üan fa-pao chi by two decades.
Nevertheless, Hung-jen was the earliest central figure around whom this sort of mystique


17) The metaphor about Fa-ju is found in the Ch’üan
fa-pao chi
, McRae, Northern School, p.264. For various stories about Lao-an and
I-fu, See Northern School, pp.56-59 and 64-65, and Faure, Will to Orthodoxy,
100-5(Huian, i.e., Lao-an) and 78-81 (Yifu, i.e., I-fu).


18) See SEKIGUCHI Shindai 關口眞大, Daruma no kenky?
達磨の硏究 (T?ky?: Iwanami shoten 岩波書店, 1967), which lists the various
elements of Bodhidharma’s hagiography and the texts in which they appear, arranged


19) Cite En? no kenky?. Check Schlütter and there: are
Daj?ji and K?sh?ji versions that old? Or, can they be taken as indicative of the Hhi-hsin
version, which was?


20) This story is expanded considerably as the Platform
evolves. See En? kenky?. GET. Yampolsky?


21) This section draws heavily on Northern School,


22) Northern School, pp.92-93.


23) See Perrin, CHECK Brakke and Jan’s Ugra presentation.


24) I have looked for similarities, to no avail, in Richard B.
Mather, trans., A New Account of Tales of the World, by Liu I-ch’ing, with
commentary by Liu Chün (Minneapolis, MN; University of Minnesota Press, 1976)…


25) See the definition in OGAWA Tamaki 小川館環樹, et
al., Shin jigen 新辭源, 改訂版(T?ky?: Kadokawa shoten 角川書店,
1994),p.413a. Of course, this makes me wonder all the more about any actual connection
with Bodhidharma’s efforts to learn Chinese and teach the Dharma.


26) Cf. SEKIGUCHI Shindai 關口眞人, Daruma no kenky?
(T?ky?: Iwanami shoten, 1967), pp.335-43, and YANAGIDA Seizan, Yaburu mono(T?ky?:
Shunj?sha, 1970), p.236.


27) See the Kuan-hsin lun, in McRae, Northern School,


28) See Northern School, pp.95, 294 n. No1, and 302 n.


29) See Northern School, pp.95-96 and 302 n.244.


30) See Northern School, pp. 96 and 302 n. 245.


31) See Northern School, pp. 96 and 302 n. 246.


32) The best example of this is Hsiang-mo Tsang 降魔藏
(d.u.); see Northern School, p.63.


33) And of course their somewhat later successors had a great
reluctance to explain their activities openly. Perhaps they were profoundly incapable of
doing so, for reasons we have not yet thought to explore.


34) This pair of terms is discussed in the Abhidharmako^sa,
26.4x, and Fa-tsang’s 法藏 Wu-chiao chang 五敎章, A3.64x. CHECK these! These
references are from Nakamura, 381c-d, where the two terms are correlated with self-use
wisdom and enlightening self, and other-use wisdom and other-use wisdom and enlightening
others. NOTE that these terms ae widely used in the Five Expedient Means. See
Mochizuki, 1269a-b and 1378b-c, 2689c-90a, and 4846b-cv. CHECK occurrence of terms in
Tendai CD.


35) Northern School, p. 174 (from Five Expedient
, section One, A).


36) Northern School, p. 175 (same, One, D).


37) Northern School, p. 178 (same, One, J).


38) Northern School, p.179 (same, One, M). I have
included only this one example of how a dualistic formulation is expanded into a
tripartite one, but others occur. For example, on pp.176-77 the text develops a different
tripartite variation in which the initial nonactivation of the mind is correlated with the
dharmakaaya, knowledge of the motionlessness of the six senses is correlated with
the sambhogakaaya, and perfect illumination through all the senses is correlated
with the nirmaa.nakaaya.


39) Northern School, pp. 173-74 (Five Expedient
, Introduction, C-E). For various minor comments on the terminology used, see Northern
, pp.228-29 nn.228-33.


40) Northern School, p. 180 (Five Expedient Means, Two,


41) See the conclusion to Northern School, p. 238.


42) Note Shen-hsiu’s 25-year residence at Yü-ch’üan
ssu 玉泉寺, previously T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s 天台智?(538-97) place of residence.


43) GET Foulk and Sharf references.


44) See the Yüan-ming lun 圓明論, Northern
, pp.169-70.


45) Cf. John R, McRae, “The Ox-head School of Chinese
Buddhism: From Early Ch’an to the Golden Age,” in R. M. Gimello and P. N. Gregory,
eds., Studies in ch’an and Hua-yen, Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian
Buddhism, no. 1(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), pp.169-253.


46) These titles are abbreviations of Ta-sheng k’ai-hsin
hsan-hsing tun-wu chen-tsung lun
大乘開心顯成頓悟眞宗論 [Treatise on the
True Principle of Opening the Mind and Manifesting the (Buddha)-nature in Sudden
Enlightenment (According to the) Mahaayaana], and Tun-wu zhen-tsung chin-kang po-jo
hsiu-hsing ta pi-an fa-men yao-chüeh

頓悟眞宗金剛修性達彼岸法門要決 [Essential Determination of the Doctrine of
Attaining the Other Shore (of by the Practice of Adamantine Wisdom (According
to) the True Teaching of Sudden Enlightenment]. I have discussed these treatises in
“Shen-hui and the Teaching of Sudden Enlightenment in Early Ch’an Buddhism,” in
Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in chinese
, Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism, no.5 (Honolulu: University
of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp.227-278, and although now I would be very hesitant to make the
historical assertions that form the heart of this article, the intriguing format of these
two essays is still worthy of comment. CHECK texts to see final outcome: is student
enlightened in each?


47) See Northern School, p. 6. McRae’s first law of Zen
studies reads, “It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important.” That is,
historical events are trivial in comparison with how legends and myths live in the popular


48) TTC, 72a14-b3.



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