On the Buddha-nature of Insentient Things

Robert H. Sharf


University of Michigan


On the Buddha-nature of Insentient Things (or: How to Think about a Ch’an Kung-an)








A monk asked Chao-chou:
"Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?"
Chao-chou replied: "He does not."

[Wu-men kuan]


Sometime during the seventh and eighth centuries a new doctrine gained currency
among Chinese Buddhist exegetes, an doctrine that came to be known as "the
buddha-nature of the insentient" (wu-ch’ing fo-hsing 無情佛性, hereafter
"BNI"). According to this teaching, not only do all sentient beings possess the
inherent nature of buddhahood, but so do plants and trees, stones and tiles, and even
particles of dust. Of course, stated in this manner, it might appear as simply another
expression of the familiar Mahaayaana teaching Jof non-duality: since everything is
dependently originated and thus devoid of an abiding essence or "self-nature" (svabhaava),
everything is inherently pure, empty, and quiescent. From this perspective, there is no
ultimate distinction between the absolute on the one hand (be it styled dharmakaaya,
tathataa, nirvaana, ^suunyataa, original mind, buddha, or what have
you), and the multifarious world of lived experience on the other.

Nevertheless, the claim that insentient objects possess buddha-nature would have
initially sounded odd, if not preposterous, to a medieval Buddhist scholiast. As early
critics were quick to point out, the doctrine contravened well-known passages in
authoritative Mahaayaana scriptures that explicitly restricted buddha-nature to sentient
beings. Moreover, there were no scriptural precedents for insentient objects actually
attaining bodhi; nor had anyone ever witnessed such an occurrence. In response,
proponents of BNI appealed to the doctrines of skillful means (upaaya) and the
"division of the teachings" (p’an-chiao 判敎) to defend their position:
they dismissed scriptural passages that contravened their position as provisional
teachings for those of limited capacity. While the debate would continue throughout the
medieval period, by the Sung Dynasty the BNI doctrine appears to have gained wide
acceptance in both T’ien-t’ai and Ch’an circles, and it was embraced by many eminent
Japanese monks as well, including the founders of the Shingon, Tendai, S?t?, and Nichiren

The notion that insentient objects–objects that we might consider part of the
natural or physical world–possess buddha-nature has attracted the attention of a number
of contemporary scholars. For those interested in the issue of "sinification" (a
widespread passion among specialists in Chinese Buddhism), the notion is especially
intriguing. Scholars have surmised that concern with inherent buddha-nature (fo-hsing
佛性) gained prominence in China in part due to the indigenous Chinese preoccupation
with humankind’s hsing 性 or "inherent nature," a philosophical theme
that dates back to the Warring States period. This issue was eventually decided in favor
of the Mencian view that humankind’s nature is inherently good, a position that resonated
with the Mahaayaana claim that all beings possess the nature of buddhahood. While the
theory of buddha-nature itself can be traced back to Indian sources (it is closely
associated with tathaagatagarbha thought),1) 

the extension of buddha-nature to the insentient was a distinctively
Chinese innovation. It is, in short, a conveniently discrete and perhaps paradigmatic
specimen of "sinification." One might then interpret the BNI doctrine as an
attempt by Buddhists to appropriate the discourse concerning hsing from the Juists
and to trump them at the same time; in contrast to the expansive Mahaayaana vision of
universal buddha-nature, extending even to walls and roof-tiles, the Juist discourse on hsing
appears relatively mundane and parochial.

The East Asian Buddhist controversy concerning inherent buddha-nature endured
through the centuries, and has emerged once again in a recent Japanese debate over what is
and what is not "authentically Buddhist." In short, the two Japanese proponents
of "critical Buddhism" (hihan bukky? 批判佛敎), Matsumoto Shir?
松本史郞 and Hakamaya Noriaki 袴谷憲昭, insist that metaphysical absolutes such as
"buddha-nature" are not only antithetical to the original teachings of
?aakyamuni, but are also responsible for the moral failings of the Japanese Buddhist
priesthood.2) (The dogma that ultimately
all distinctions are illusory–that all beings are essentially equal from the perspective
of their shared buddha-nature–is inherently reactionary in so far as it obviates the need
for genuine equality, social justice, and political engagement.) From the perspective of
Matsumoto and Hakamaya’s "critical Buddhism," the extension of buddha-nature to
insentient objects only exemplifies the exegetical excess, and the intellectual and moral
bankruptcy, that is occasioned by the wanton reification of the absolute.

While the BNI doctrine promises to reveal something about what makes Chinese
Buddhism Chinese (and perhaps what makes Japanese Buddhism Japanese), this is by no means
the sole reason for contemporary interest in the topic. Of equal if not greater
significance is the assumption that the doctrine pertains to native Buddhist conceptions
of nature and attitudes toward environmental and ecological issues. On the surface, the
BNI doctrine appears to both valorize the world of nature, and to affirm our place within,
rather than apart from, the material world in which we find ourselves.  3)

This is a now familiar theme; one repeatedly reads that the Chinese and Japanese
view themselves as one with nature, in marked contradistinction to Occidentals who
position themselves outside the natural world, as its lord and master. This is due, we are
told, to very different sets of metaphysical presuppositions resulting from divergent
cultural legacies. The Western belief in an ontological rift between the human realm and
the world of nature is supposedly tied to Judeo-Christian monotheism, which postulates an
enduring divide between the creator and his creation, a divide that is replicated in the
later Cartesian bifurcation of the immaterial world of spirit and the physical world of
extended matter. In contrast, indigenous East Asian traditions such as Taoism and Shinto
do not envisage a gap between the contingent realm of human experience and the realm of
truth. Chinese and Japanese religious thought exalts the world of nature as the locus of
spiritual insight, freedom, and liberation. The BNI doctrine would seem to be an
unambiguous, if metaphorical, expression of this Chinese vision of the "unity of man
and nature."

Of course, if it is true that our metaphysical intuitions are constructed by our
specific linguistic, intellectual, and cultural legacies, and that the legacy of the
"East" is fundamentally different from that of the "West," then it
follows that the Chinese may not simply differ from us in their attitude toward
nature; rather, their view of the world might not include anything that quite corresponds
to our concept of "nature" in the first place. Which makes one wonder: in the
absence of a shared epistemic referent–a trans-cultural, trans-linguistic,
trans-historical signified to which the signifier "nature" corresponds–is there
any sound intellectual basis for such grandiose cross-cultural comparisons? Are efforts at
this level of generality necessarily vacuous? Or worse, do they lie in the service of a
more nefarious ideological agenda? 4) 

I intend to avoid these murky hermeneutic waters below. My own sense is that the
early sources pertaining to the buddha-nature of the insentient actually reveal little
about native Chinese views of "nature," and have even less to say with respect
to contemporary ecological concerns. As we shall see, the sources tend to be implacably
scholastic–they are wedded to a gordian doctrinal system that is predicated on the
authority of a host of institutionally sanctioned Indian and Chinese texts. The fact that
the doctrines espoused by these texts were frequently at odds with each other only fueled
the development of increasingly convoluted and abstruse interpretative strategies.

While most scholars will readily acknowledge the scholastic nature of much
medieval Buddhist thought, Ch’an is often presented as an exception. Ch’an is viewed as
one school that explicitly eschewed scholastic pursuits, in favor of rigorous meditative
practice leading to transformative insight. The literary form most distinctive of Ch’an,
the kung-an 公案("public case"), is accordingly presented as an attempt
to foil the discursive impulse that is essential to the scholastic enterprise. But a
careful reconstruction of the debate over BNI gives a very different view of Ch’an: not
only were Ch’an masters active and passionate participants in this quintessentially
discursive controversy, but, as we will see, the BNI doctrine was the immediate context
for the most famous kung-an of all, "Chao-chou’s dog."

My first task will be to review the early development of the BNI doctrine. As
the relevant materials have been the subject of a number of detailed historical and
doctrinal studies, my review will be brief. 5) 
I will, however, pay somewhat more attention to early Ch’an sources than I do to San-lun,
Hua-yen, or T’ien-t’ai materials as the Ch’an involvement in the debate has heretofore
received relatively little notice in Western studies.


The fifth-century monk Tao-sheng 道生(360-434) appears to have been the first
to advance the theory that all sentient beings, including icchantika, possess
buddha-nature. 6)  The claim was
contentious in its day, for according to the six-fascicle version of the Nirvaa?a-suutra
translated by Fa-hsien and Buddhabhadra, buddha-nature is eternal but icchantika do
not possess it. 7)  Tao-sheng
disagreed, insisting that icchantika too possess the seeds of buddha-nature, and
will one day attain buddhahood.

Tao-sheng’s position was vindicated with the appearance of Dharmaksema’s
(385-433 or 436) translation of the sutra in 421. 8) 
This recension, which became known as the "northern tradition,"9) actually waffles on the topic of the icchantika:
the sutra first excludes icchantika from those who possess buddha-nature (T.374:
12.404c4-21); but later it tempers the doctrine, saying that one should direct one’s
compassion equally to all, including icchantika, with the desire that they may be
enlightened (454a6ff., 456a24ff.); that the Buddha preaches to the icchantika
because at least some of them possess the faculties necessary for enlightenment
(482b3-12); that all icchantika possess buddha nature and thus are capable of
attaining enlightenment (493b20 ff.); and that all, including the icchantika, will
attain supreme enlightenment once they abandon their original defilements (505c14-15).10)

Dharmak?ema’s translation of the Nirvaa?a-suutra served as the earliest
and most important canonical statement of the universality of buddha-nature in China.
However, the text unambiguously restricts the possession of buddha-nature to sentient
beings: "’Non-buddha-nature’ refers to insentient things such as walls and fences,
tiles and stones. Everything apart from insentient things such as these is called
‘buddha-nature.’" 非佛性者 所謂一切障壁瓦石無情之物,
離如是等無情之物是名佛性.11) This
was indeed the prevailing view throughout the Northern and Southern Dynasties, a period in
which the Nirvaa?a-suutra played a prominent role in scholastic exegesis, and
served as the subject of numerous commentaries.12)

The developments that would lay the ground for the BNI position did not begin
until over a century after the authoritative translations of the Nirvaa?a-suutra
gained currency. This development is usually traced to the six-century monk Ching-ying
Hui-yüan 淨影慧遠(523-592), a Ti-lun exegete interested in the relationship
between the buddha-nature of the Nirvaa?a-suutra, and "originally pure
mind." In his Ta-ch’eng i-chang, 大乘義章 Hui-yüan makes a pivotal
distinction between the "buddha-nature that knows" 能知性, and the
"buddha-nature that is known" 所知性(T.1851: 44.472c). The former is
described as the "mind of true consciousness" 眞識心 that is capable of
awakening to buddha-nature through the elimination of ignorance. The text explains that
"this nature is situated in sentient beings, and does not extend to the
insentient" 局在衆生 不通非情 (472c18-19). Thus when the Nirvaa?a-suutra
says that buddha-nature is present only in sentient beings, it is referring to the
"buddha-nature that knows." The latter, the "nature that is known, is like
the dharma-nature, the apex of reality, the mark of reality, the dharma-realm, the supreme
meaning of the teachings and the sutras which is emptiness, ultimate truth, and so
on" 所知性者 謂如法性實際實相法界法經第一義空一實諦等
(472c22-23). When the scriptures call the highest teaching "buddha-nature," or
when they call the middle-way "buddha-nature," they are referring to the
"nature that is known." Hui-yüan explicitly says that this aspect of
buddha-nature penetrates everywhere, both within and without (472c25-26), the implication
being that it extends to insentient as well as to sentient things.

Hui-yüan’s bifurcation of buddha-nature is in some respects structurally
analogous to our distinction between epistemology and ontology, in so far as it
distinguishes between buddha-nature as the "content" of a rarefied and
non-dualistic mode of cognition, and buddha-nature as the ground of being that makes such
a cognition possible. This conceptual structure will find its way into much of the
subsequent theorizing on the subject.

While Hui-yüan has all the pieces in place, he never actually states that
insentient objects possess buddha-nature. The first to do so appears to have been the
San-lun commentator Chi-tsang 吉藏 (549-623). Chi-tsang takes a somewhat different
approach to the issue than does Hui-yüan: rather than beginning with a bifurcation of
buddha-nature into two aspects, one of which is coterminous with the insentient and one of
which is not, Chi-tsang argues that the distinction between sentient and insentient is
itself ultimately empty.13)

Thus if you are going to deny buddha-nature to something, then not only are
grass and trees devoid of buddha-nature, but living beings are also devoid of
buddha-nature. But if you hold to the existence of buddha-nature, then it is not only
living beings that have buddha-nature, but grass and trees must also have
buddha-nature…. Since there is no duality between the dependent and the true, if
sentient beings possess buddha-nature, grass and trees must also possess buddha-nature.
For this reason we maintain that it is not only sentient beings that possess
buddha-nature, but grass and trees also possess buddha-nature. If we understand that all
dharmas are equal and do not view the two marks of the dependent and the true, then in
reality there are no marks of attainment or non-attainment. Since there is no
non-attainment, we provisionally speak of attaining buddhahood. Thus at the moment when
sentient beings attain buddhahood, all grass and trees also attain buddhahood.14) 

For Chi-tsang, the rubric of buddha-nature is merely another way of affirming
emptiness, dependent origination, and the middle way, from which vantage point all
distinctions, including that between sentient and insentient, must be relinquished.
Buddha-nature is not a something that could be possessed by, or reside in, sentient, much
less insentient, things.

Nonetheless, Chi-tsang immediately goes on to qualify his thesis, conceding that
his analysis proceeds from the perspective of "pervasiveness" 通門, wherein
all distinctions fall away. From the perspective of "difference" 別門,
however, one can indeed distinguish between sentient and insentient:

Because sentient beings have mental delusions, they can attain the truth of
awakening. Grass and trees have no mind, and thus they have no delusion. What would it
mean for them to obtain awakening? It is like waking from a dream: if you are not
dreaming, then you cannot waken from it. Therefore it is said [in the Nirvaa?a-suutra]
that since sentient beings possess buddha-nature they can attain buddhahood, but since
grass and trees are devoid of buddha-nature they cannot attain buddhahood.15)  

Thus while Chi-tsang is willing to come out and declare, perhaps for the first
time, that insentient objects possess buddha-nature, he attempts to stay within the
confines of the Nirvaa?a-suutra teachings, and readily concedes that the attainment
of enlightenment is only possible for sentient beings. 16)

Both Hui-yüan and Chi-tsang were primarily interested in emphasizing, in
the scholastic idiom of their day, the message of the universality of the buddha-nature.
They had no choice but to deal with the sentient/insentient distinction, as it occurs in
the very passage of the Nirvaanaa-suutra that served as the locus classicus for the
doctrine. On the whole, one gets the impression that the sentient/insentient issue was
somewhat inconsequential to their larger projects, and it is difficult to imagine what
practical ramifications might have been entailed in one’s defense or rejection of the BNI

By the early T’ang the doctrine of universal buddha-nature, or the ultimate
identity of the buddha and all beings, had become a hallmark of orthodoxy among many
Chinese Buddhist commentators. The idea appears in diverse formulations, many of which
simply fudge the distinction between sentient and insentient. Typical is the following
passage in the apocryphal, but highly influential, Yüan-chüeh ching
圓覺經, likely composed in China sometime during the second half of the seventh

Wisdom and foolishness interfuse as praj~naa. The teachings accomplished
by both bodhisattvas and heretics are equally bodhi. The realms of ignorance and true
suchness are not different. Morality, meditation, wisdom, and greed, anger, and delusion
are all noble practices. All the worlds of sentient beings share the same dharma-nature;
the hells and the heavens are all pure lands. Those with and those without [buddha-]nature
all attain the buddha way. The defilements are all ultimate liberation. The dharmadhaatu‘s
ocean of wisdom illuminates all phenomena as if it were empty space.

智慧愚癡通爲般若. 菩薩外道所成就法 同是菩提.
無明眞如無異境界. 諸戒定慧及游怒癡俱是梵行. 衆生國土同一法性.
地獄天宮皆爲淨土. 有性無性齊成佛道. 一切煩惱畢竟解脫.

(T. 842: 17.917b3-8)

I suspect that the figurative claim that all beings are destined for buddhahood,
irrespective of their possession of buddha-nature, was intended to subsume the category of
the insentient along with the sentient, without saying so explicitly. (To do so might have
raised suspicions concerning the provenance of the scripture.)  17) The exegetical challenge of the day was to be as
conceptually inclusive and comprehensive as possible.

But the urge toward increasingly comprehensive and expansive rhetorical
formulations would inevitably run up against the scripturally sanctioned dichotomy between
the sentient and the insentient. Exegetes were thus forced to reproduce the hermeneutic
strategies pioneered by Hui-yüan and Chi-tsang. Witness, for example, the manner in
which the Hua-yen exegete Fa-tsang (643-712) handles the issue: in a discussion of the
meaning of "dharma-nature" (fa-hsing 法性) in the Ta-ch’eng ch’i
hsin lun i-chi
大乘起信論義記, Fa-tsang explains that "true suchness
眞如 pervades both the defiled and the pure, the sentient and the insentient."
Citing an unnamed treatise he goes on to say that, with regard to sentient beings,
suchness is called buddha-nature, and with regard to non-sentient beings it is called
dharma-nature. 18)  He makes
much the same point in his Hua-yen ching t’an hsüan chi 華嚴經探玄記,
where he writes that "while the nature of true suchness taught by the three vehicles
permeates both the sentient and the insentient, only sentient beings can awakening to
buddha-nature." 19)  Fa-tsang,
much like Hui-yüan, appeals to a distinction between epistemology and ontology in
order to assert the buddha-nature of the insentient without contravening the letter of the
Nirvaanaa-suutra. And Chi-tsang’s distinction between the absolute and the
contingent (the non-dualistic perspective of the absolute versus the perspective of
contingent experience), amounts to much the same thing. In all three cases there is a
reluctance to challenge scriptural authority.

The full development of the doctrine that insentient things have buddha-nature
is usually associated with the T’ien-t’ai school, particularly with the work of Chan-jan
湛然 (711-782). We will see below that this is somewhat misleading: Chan-jan was likely
following the lead of certain prominent Ch’an masters of his day. Be that as it may,
Chan-jan is the first on record to directly challenge the authority of the Nirvaanaa-suutra
on the issue.

As the self-conscious architect of T’ien-t’ai orthodoxy, Chan-jan denies the
originality of his position, claiming to find precedent in the Mo-ho chih-kuan
摩訶止觀. Specifically, Chan-jan refers to a passage from Kuan-ting’s 灌頂 (561-632)
preface to the work that was considered by the later tradition to represent the very
essence of T’ien-t’ai teaching. 20) Speaking
of the "perfect and sudden" 圓頓 practice Kuan-ting writes: "When [the
mind] is fixed on the dharma-realm–when [each] moment of thought [is one with] the
dharma-realm–then there is not a single form nor a single smell that is not the middle
way" 繫緣法界 一念法界 一色一香 無非中道 (T.1911: 46.1c24-25). In his
Chih-kuan fu-hsing ch’uan hung chüeh, 止觀輔行傳弘決, Chan-jan explains
that this reference to the single form and the single smell refers to the universality of
buddha-nature, even among insentient things:

Based on the principle of identity [the Mo-ho chih kuan] here says that
"each and every color and scent is the middle way." "Colors" and
"scents" are unanimously considered insentient. However, to accept that color
and scent is the middle way [is to accept that] insentient things [possess] buddha-nature.
[This] jars the ear and boggles the mind.21) 

In fact, neither Chih-i nor Kuan-ting explicitly countenance the buddha-nature
of the insentient. On the contrary, in his commentary on the Nirvaanaa-suutra,
Kuan-ting unambiguously states that insentient beings do not possess buddha nature:
"While there is buddha-nature in sentient beings, there is no buddha-nature in grass
and trees; rather, they have the nature of grass, trees, etc." 22) In order to bring his own doctrine into line with the
writings of his predecessors, Chan-jan plays the upaaya card: he insists that
Kuan-ting fully understood the buddha-nature of the insentient, but that he hesitated to
say so as the times were not yet fitting.

But there is evidence that Chan-jan did recognize the novelty of his own
position, at least within the T’ien-t’ai fold. The tacit acknowledgment is found in the
opening of his Chin-kang pei 金剛?, a short work written around 780, not long
before his death, that is devoted exclusively to the defense and clarification of the BNI
doctrine.23)  The text opens with an
autobiographical statement of how the text came into being: it seems that one quiet night
Chan-jan found himself contemplating the sublime and interwoven T’ien-t’ai teachings
concerning the centrality of buddha-nature, the unity of all oppositions, the existence of
all realms in a single instant of thought, and so on. Chan-jan reports that in the midst
of his reverie he "fell into a trance-induced sleep. From my subconscious, I
proclaimed ‘insentient things possess [buddha-]nature.’" 24) The rest of the text is presented as a transcript of the
ensuing conversation with interlocutors that appear in his dream. The treatise closes
abruptly with the following: "I suddenly awoke from my dream. The questioner, the
respondent, the questions and answers, all were ungraspable."25)

This would seem to be a remarkable admission: on the one hand Chan-jan presents
his position on BNI as emerging from reflection on cardinal T’ien-t’ai principles. On the
other hand, the fact that the doctrine occurs to him in the midst of an inspired dream
would seem to concede the originality of his thought.

The thrust of Chan-jan’s position is quite simple: Mahaayaana doctrine (1)
insists on the universality of buddha-nature, and (2) will not ultimately brook a
distinction between sentient and insentient things:

The individual of the perfect [teaching] knows, from beginning to end, that the
absolute principle is non-dual, and that there are no objects apart from mind. Who then is
sentient? What then is insentient? Within the Assembly of the Lotus there is no
discrimination. What difference is there between the [three types of medicinal] herbs and
the [two types of] trees, and the soil [in which they grow], or between the four elements
[of which they are comprised]?

圓人始末知理不二 心外無境誰情無情 法華會中 一切不隔

According to Chan-jan, statements to the contrary, such as the notorious passage
in the Nirvaanaa-suutra denying buddha-nature to the insentient, must be understood
as pratipak?a–they are intended as expedient antidotes to particular
misconceptions and thus must not be taken at face value.27)

Chan-jan’s approach to the BNI doctrine shows the influence of his predecessors:
his willingness to invoke absolutes such as "principle" or "mind"
recalls the Ti-lun exegesis advanced by Hui-yüan, while his critique of the
sentient-insentient dichotomy is reminiscent of Chi-tsang. But there are differences:
first, Chan-jan is willing to dismiss certain passages in the Nirvaanaa-suutra as
expedient or provisional teachings. Second, there is Chan-jan’s use of the imagery of the
Lotus assembly, which seems to move the discussion away from the somewhat arid
abstractions of earlier Nirvaanaa-suutra commentators, to a more poetic vision of
the phenomenal world as the very locus of awakening. In other words, for Chan-jan, to
claim that the insentient possess buddha-nature is not merely to grant inanimate objects
an inherent potential that will never be realized; nor is it a purely metaphysical theory
predicated on the perspective of absolute truth. Rather, Chan-jan seems to be saying that
the very colors and smells of the world around us constitute the Assembly of the Lotus;
they are the immediate and undefiled expression of buddhahood.

Chan-jan was the first to devote an entire treatise to the defense of BNI. The
fact that the Chin-kang pei was the only treatise he ever wrote (the remainder of
his corpus consists largely of commentaries), and that it was written near the end of his
life, suggests that the doctrine was of particular significance to him. Why would he have
devoted so much energy to this single and somewhat idiosyncratic scholastic concern? While
the available sources may be insufficient to provide a definitive answer, there is
evidence that the BNI doctrine had emerged as a pressing and controversial issue in
eighth-century Buddhist circles. It seems that the immediate pretext for Chan-jan’s work
was not the scholastic arguments advanced by earlier generations of Ti-lun, San-lun, and
Hua-yen commentators, so much as the unorthodox positions touted by certain of Chan-jan’s
contemporaries, contemporaries associated with the nascent Ch’an tradition.


The Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi 楞伽師資記, a text recovered from
Tun-huang and associated with the "Northern-school" of Ch’an, is attributed to
Ching-chueh 淨覺 (683-ca. 750), and is believed to date from the early part of the
Kai-yuan period (713-742).28) The issue
of the buddha-nature of the insentient is first mentioned in the record of the
fourth-patriarch Tao-hsin 道信 (580-651): "The Nirvaanaa-suutra says: ‘All
beings have buddha-nature.’ If you say that walls, fences, tiles, and stones do not have
buddha-nature, then how could they preach the dharma?"29) And in the biography of the fifth-patriarch Hung-jen 弘忍
(601-674) that immediately follows we find the following:

[Hung-jen] said: "The Buddha has thirty-two marks. Do jars also have the
thirty-two marks or not? Do pillars have the thirty-two marks or not? Proceeding in the
same way we ask if earth, trees, tiles and stones have the thirty-two marks or
not?"… He also said: "At the moment when you are in the temple sitting in
meditation, is your body also sitting in meditation beneath the trees of the mountain
forests or not? Are earth, trees, tiles, and stones also able to sit in meditation or not?
Are earth, trees, tiles, and stones able to see forms and hear sounds, wear a robe and
carry a bowl, or not? When the La?kaavataara-suutra speaks of the dharma-body of
the realm of objects 境界法身, it [refers to] just this.30)

Both Tao-hsin and Hung-jen allude to the non-duality of the subjective and
objective worlds, as well as to the doctrine that "all is mind" that is closely
associated with the La?kaavataara. This appears to lead to their inference that
even the inanimate objects of our perception possess buddha-nature and "preach the

It is impossible to know whether this accurately depicts the teachings of either
Tao-hsin or Hung-jen, or whether it rather represents the thought of the editor (or
editors) of the Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi. As we will see below, other texts,
notably the Platform Sutra, depict Hung-jen as rejecting rather than espousing the
BNI position. Nonetheless, the passages attest to an interest in the issue among Ch’an
teachers in the early part of the eighth century, just as Chan-jan was beginning his

The Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi is not an isolated example. The Chüeh-kuan
絶觀論, or "Treatise on the Extinction of Contemplation," is a short
text associated with the Ox-head lineage (Niu-t’ou tsung 牛頭宗), six manuscript copies
of which were recovered from Tun-huang. While the text has been attributed to Bodhidharma,
Ho-tse Shen-hui 荷澤神會 (684-758), and Niu-t’ou Fa-jung 牛頭法融 (594-657), among
others, it was likely composed by a later Ox-head teacher sometime during the third
quarter of the eighth century, i.e., just around the time that Chan-jan was formulating
his own position on BNI.31)

The text takes the form of a conversation between a teacher, named
"Attainment" (ju-li 入理), and his disciple "Gateway" (yüan-men
緣門). About a third of the way into the text we find the following exchange:

Gateway asks, "Is the Way found only in embodied spiritual entities, or
does it reside in grass and trees as well?" Attainment says, "There is no place
the Way does not pervade." [Gateway] asks, "If the Way is pervasive, why is it a
crime to kill a man, whereas it is not a crime to kill grass and trees?" [Attainment]
answered, "Talk of whether it is a crime or not is a matter related to sentience, and
is thus not the true Way. It is only because worldly people have not attained the truth of
the Way, and falsely believe in a personal self, that their murder entails mental
[intent]. This intent bears karmic fruit, and thus we speak of it as a crime. Grass and
trees have no sentience, and are thus originally in accord with the Way. As they are free
of a self, there is no calculation involved in killing them, and thus we do not argue over
whether it is a crime or not.

Now one who is free of a self and is in accord with the Way looks at his own
body as he would at grass or at trees. He bears the cutting of his own body as do trees in
a forest. Therefore, when Ma~nju^sr? held a sword toward Gautama [Buddha], or when
Angulimalya held out a knife at ?aakyamuni, they were both in accord with the Way.32) Both realized non-origination, and completely
comprehended the emptiness and nonexistence of illusory transformations. That is why we do
not argue about whether it was a crime or not."

[Gateway] asks, "If grass and trees have long been in accord with the Way,
why do the sutras not record instances of grass or trees becoming buddhas, but only of
persons [becoming buddhas]?" [Attainment] answers, "They do not only record
persons, but record grass and trees [becoming buddhas] as well. A sutra says, ‘A single
mote of dust contains all dharmas.’ Another says, ‘All dharmas are suchness; all sentient
beings are also suchness.’33) Suchness is
devoid of any duality or discrimination."

緣門問曰, 道者爲獨在於形靈之中耶, 亦在於草木之中耶.
入理曰, 道無所不遍也. 問曰, 道若遍者, 何故煞人有罪, 煞草木無罪.
答曰, 夫言罪不罪, 皆是就情約事, 非正道也. 但爲世人不達道理,
妄立我身, 煞卽有心, 心結於業, 卽云罪也. 草木無情, 本來合道,
理無我故, 煞者不計, 卽不論罪與非罪, 夫無我合道者, 視形如草木,
被斫如樹林. 故文殊執劒於瞿曇, 鴦掘持刀於釋氏. 此皆合道,
同證不生, 了知幻化虛無. 故卽不論罪與非罪. 問曰, 草木久來合道,
經中何故不記草木成佛, 偏記人也. 答曰, 非獨記人, 亦記草木. 經云,
於一微塵中, 具含一切法. 又云, 一切法亦如也, 一切衆生亦如也.

This work represents a significant departure from the arguments advanced by the
San-lun, Hua-yen, and T’ien-t’ai authors mentioned above. On the one hand, the Chüeh-kuan
accepts that, from a worldly perspective, grass and trees are indeed insentient.
But precisely because they lack mind and sentience, and thus have no thought of
"me" or "mine," grass and trees are "in accord with the
Way." The treatise goes so far as to claim scriptural support for the view that
insentient things actually become buddhas (ch’eng fo). The way to buddhahood is the
way of insentience: one must put an end to discernment (chüeh-kuan 絶觀) and
become mindless (wu-hsin 無心). Then, like the grass and trees, you will be one
with the Way, and utterly unconcerned with death.

The BNI doctrine also finds support in the Pao-tsang lun 法藏論, a
text traditionally attributed to Seng-chao 僧肇 (374-414), but which is believed to date
to the late eighth century.35) This text
is loosely associated with early Ch’an in general, and the Ox-head line in particular, a
finding that is consistent with the brief passage on BNI in chapter three:

The scripture says: "Buddha-nature is uniform, expansive, and difficult to
fathom." There is no duality between an ordinary person and a sage: [buddha-nature]
fills everything, wholly suffusing the grass and trees, fully pervading the ants, reaching
even to the tiniest mote of dust, and the very tip of a strand of hair–there is nothing
that exists and yet does not embody the One. 咸備草木周遍庵蟻

The rare mention of "ants" in conjunction with the BNI thesis is
significant, as it likely alludes to a passage from the Chuang-tzu that may have been
influential in the development of this doctrine (see below).

A similar pro-BNI position is also attributed to the Northern Ch’an master
Shen-hsiu 神秀 (605?-706) in the Tsung-ching lu 宗鏡錄, a text compiled by
Yen-shou 永明延壽 (904-975) and published in 961. Shen-hsiu teaches that "when
sentient beings cultivate realization, insentient beings also cultivate realization."
卽有情修證 是非情修證. There is ultimately no distinction between self and
other, or consciousness and its objects.37) While
the Tsung-ching lu is relatively late and thus unreliable as a window on
Shen-hsiu’s original teachings, it is nevertheless significant that Yen-shou’s sources
associated this venerable "Northern Ch’an" figure with the BNI doctrine.

This admittedly fragmentary evidence suggests an interest among some early Ch’an
teachers in a somewhat radical version of the BNI doctrine. These texts depict the BNI not
merely as a universal metaphysical ground, nor do they reduce the argument to the
non-duality of the sentient and the insentient. Rather, these Northern Ch’an texts all
suggest that insentient objects actually "cultivate realization" and
"become buddhas."

However, not all of the early Ch’an leaders agreed: some prominent figures found
the BNI position utterly untenable. One of the more strident rejections of the BNI
doctrine is found in the record of Shen-hui, in which he debates an Ox-head opponent on
the subject:

Ch’an Master Yuan of Ox-Head Mountain asked: "[You say that] buddha-nature
permeates all sentient things, and does not permeate all insentient things. I heard a
venerable elder say:

Lush groves of emerald bamboos,

Are wholly the dharma-body.

Luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums,

Nothing is not praj~naa.

靑靑翠竹 盡是法身 鬱鬱黃河 无非般若38)

Now why do you say that [buddha-nature] only permeates sentient things, and does
not permeate insentient things?" [Shen-hui] answered: "Surely you do not mean
that the merit of lush groves of emerald bamboos equals that of the dharma-body, or that
the wisdom of luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums is the same as praj~naa? If the
groves of bamboos and chrysanthemums are equal to the dharma-body and to praj~naa,
then in which sutra does the Tathagata record a case of an emerald bamboo or a
chrysanthemum attaining bodhi? The notion that emerald bamboos and chrysanthemums
are the same as the dharma-body and praj~naa is a heterodox doctrine. Why so?
Because the Nirvaanaa-suutra says: ‘That which lacks buddha-nature is deemed an
insentient thing.’"39)

This exchange, as well as others to be discussed below, attest to the
controversial status of the BNI thesis in the mid-eighth century. Moreover, there is
reason to believe that Shen-hui and his followers flagged the BNI thesis as a means to
distinguish themselves from their Northern Ch’an rivals: while the Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu
depicts the fifth-patriarch Hung-jen as a supporter of BNI, the Platform Sutra
has Hung-jen espousing the very opposite. In a list of "transmission verses"
near the end of the Tun-huang version of the text, Hung-jen’s verse is given as follows:

Sentient beings come and lay down seeds,

And insentient flowers grow.

Without sentiency and without seeds,

The ground of mind produces nothing.

有情來下種, 無情花卽生. 無情又無種, 心地亦無生.40)

The doctrinal purport of the verse is not as clear as it might be, and it is not
surprising that later versions of the verse found in the Tsu-t’ang chi 祖堂集,41) the Ching-te ch’uan-teng lu
景德傳燈錄,42) and the
"vulgate" edition of the Platform Sutra published in 1291,43) modify the wording in such as way as to
highlight Hung-jen’s opposition to BNI:

Sentient beings come and lay down seeds,

From the earth fruit is produced.

Without sentiency and without seeds,

There is no [buddha-]nature and nothing is produced.

有情來下種, 因地果還生. 無情卽無種, 無性亦無生.

Not only is the wording altered, but in the later texts the verse has been
incorporated into Hui-neng’s autobiographical narrative: the verse figures in the secret
transmission ceremony in which Hui-neng receives the dharma. A transmission verse
presumably exemplified the very essence of a master’s wisdom, as well as his distinctive
"teaching style" (feng 風). It is thus significant that Hung-jen’s verse
is a refutation of the BNI thesis. Shen-hui and his followers evidently saw the BNI
doctrine as a "wedge issue" with which to distinguish themselves from their
Northern rivals; in the process they depicted Hung-jen as espousing precisely the opposite
position to that ascribed to him in the Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi.

As the Southern school gained ascendancy in the mid-T’ang other masters would
reiterate Shen-hui’s opposition to BNI, including Ta-chu Hui-hai 大珠慧海 (d.u.), a
disciple of Ma-tsu Tao-i 馬祖道一 (709-788). Hui-hai is the purported author of the Tun-wu
ju-tao yao-men lun
頓悟入道要門論, a text that addresses the BNI issue at some
length.44) The second fascicle of the Tun-wu
contains the following three exchanges on the issue:

Deluded people do not know that the dharma-body has no appearance, but manifests
form in response to things. Thus they say that, "Lush groves of emerald bamboos are
wholly the dharma-body; luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums, nothing is not praj~naa."
But if chrysanthemums were praj~naa, praj~naa would be the same as the
insentient, and if emerald bamboos were the dharma-body, then the dharma-body would be the
same as grass and trees. Then when people munch on bamboo shoots, they must be munching on
the dharma-body…

Master Chih, a lecturer on the Hua-yen scripture, asked: "Why do you not
agree with the aphorism: ‘Lush groves of emerald bamboos are wholly the dharma-body;
luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums, nothing is not praj~naa‘"? The Master
said: "The dharma-body is devoid of appearance, but takes form in response to emerald
bamboos. Praj~naa is without knowing, but manifests in response to chrysanthemums.
It is not that those chrysanthemums or emerald bamboos themselves possess praj~naa
or the dharma-body. Therefore a scripture says: ‘The true dharma-body of the buddha is
like empty space; it assumes form in response to things, like the moon reflected on

A master who lectured on the Hua-yen scripture asked: "Does the Ch’an
Master believe that insentient things are the buddha or not?" The Master said:
"I don’t believe it. For if insentient things were the buddha, then living people
would be inferior to the dead. Even dead donkeys and dead dogs would be superior to a
living person. A scripture says: ‘The buddha-body is precisely the dharma-body; it is born
of the precepts, meditation, and wisdom; it is born from the three wisdoms and the six
supernormal powers; it is born from all the excellent dharmas.’ If you claim that
insentient things are the buddha, then were you, venerable one, to die right now, you
would make a buddha."45)

Note that Hui-hai is responding to the same aphorism that appears in Shen-hui’s
work, and advances somewhat similar arguments to dismiss the BNI doctrine as simply

Huang-po Hsi-yüan 黃檗希運 (d. ca. 850) is another influential figure
who, while he does not directly address the BNI issue, seems to limit buddha-nature to the
sentient. In his record we read:

The Master ascended the hall and said: "This very mind is buddha. It
reaches upward to all the buddhas, and downwards to things that slither on the ground; everything
that contains spirit
possesses buddha-nature, and is equal with respect to the
substance of the one mind. The reason that Bodhidharma came from India was only to
transmit the dharma of one mind, and to directly point to the fact that all beings are
originally buddha." 皆有佛性同一心體.

Huang-po’s logic, stripped to the bone, is simple: since buddha is mind, only
things that possess mind are buddha. Ironically, the identification of buddha and mind is
the center of the most eloquent and influential statement in support of BNI, that
by the Ch’an master Nan-yang Hui-chung 南陽慧忠 (675-775).

Hui-chung, a contemporary of Shen-hui, is credited by the later Ch’an tradition
with the teaching that insentient things not only possess buddha-nature, but actually
"preach the dharma." 無情說法.47) We
have already seen that, according to the Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi, the fourth
patriarch beat him to it by a century or so. Nevertheless, Hui-chung’s position on the
subject is perhaps the most developed in the history of the debate, and I will,
accordingly, quote at length from his long disquisition on the topic:

A Ch’an student asked: "What is the meaning of the saying ‘the mind of an
old buddha.’" The Master said: "Insentient things such as walls, fences, tiles,
and stones are all the mind of an old buddha." The Ch’an student said: "But this
is at odds with the scriptures. The Nirvaanaa-suutra says: ‘Everything apart from
insentient things such as walls, fences, tiles and stones is called buddha-nature.’ Now
you say that all insentient things are the mind of buddha, but you have yet to consider
the relationship between ‘mind’ and ‘nature.’ Are they different or not?" The Master
said, "To the deluded they are different; to the enlightened they are not
different." The Ch’an student said, "But this also contradicts the scriptures.
It is said in a scripture: ‘Good son, mind is not buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is eternal,
while mind is not eternal.’ Now you say that they are not different. How do you intend to
explain yourself?" The Master said: "You rely on the words, rather than on the
meaning. It is like a cold winter night, when water is bound up as ice. When warm weather
comes, the ice melts back into water. When sentient beings are deluded, their nature is
bound up as mind, but when they become enlightened, their minds are released again as
[buddha-]nature. If you still maintain that insentient things are without buddha nature,
then the scriptures ought not to say that the triple realm is only mind, and that the
myriad dharmas are only consciousness. Therefore the Hua-yen suutra says that all
the dharmas of the triple realm are produced by mind. Now I ask you, do insentient things
exist within the triple realm, or do they exist outside the triple realm? Are they mind,
or are they not mind? If they are not mind, the scriptures ought not to say that the
triple realm is only mind. If they are mind, [the scriptures] ought not to say that
insentient things lack buddha-nature. It is you who contravene the scriptures, not

The Ch’an student asked: "If the insentient actually possess mind, can they
preach the dharma or not?" The Master said: "They preach magnificently, they
preach continually, and they preach eternally without a moment’s pause." The Chan
student asked: "Then why is it that I do not hear it?" The Master said:
"Just because you yourself do not hear it, it does not mean that others do not hear
it." [The Ch’an student] continued: "Then who can hear it?" The Master
said: "All the sages hear it."…48)

The student asked: "Within the teachings of the scriptures one only sees
sentient beings receiving the prophecy of future perfect enlightenment, and then, at some
future time, becoming a buddha named so-and-so. One never sees an insentient being
receiving the prophecy of future perfect enlightenment and becoming a buddha. Among the
thousand buddhas of the current Bhadra kalpa, if there is a single case of an
insentient object becoming buddha, please show it to me." The Master said: "I
now ask you, imagine a prince at the time of his coronation as king. Does the person of
the prince receive the kingship [all at once], or must every territory in the kingdom be
individually bestowed upon him?" [The student] replied: "When the prince is
crowned king, everything in the kingdom becomes his. What need is there for him to receive
anything else?" The Master said: "The present case is just the same: at the
moment when sentient beings receive the prophecy of their future buddhahood, all the lands
of the three-thousand great-thousand worlds are completely subsumed within the body of
Vairocana Buddha. Beyond the body of the buddha, could there still be some insentient
object to receive the prophecy?"49) .
. .

[The student] asked: "A venerable elder has said:

Lush groves of emerald bamboos,

Are wholly suchness.

Luxuriant clusters of chrysanthemums,

Nothing is not praj~naa.

靑靑翠竹 盡是眞如 鬱鬱黃花 無非般若

Some people do not accept this teaching, while others believe in it. The words
are inconceivable, and I do not know what to make of it." The Master said: "This
pertains to the realms of great beings such as Samantabhadra and Manjusri; it is not
something that lesser men are able to believe and accept. This teaching is fully in accord
with the intent of the superlative scriptures of the Mahaayaana. Thus the Hua-yen
says: ‘The buddha-body fills the dharma-realm and manifests itself before all
beings. It responds in accord with conditions, extending everywhere, yet it remains
constantly ensconced on the seat of bodhi.’50)
As emerald bamboos do not lie beyond the dharma-realm, are they not the
dharma-body? Moreover, the Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa-suutra says: ‘Since matter is
boundless, praj~naa is also boundless.’51)
As chrysanthemums are but matter, are they not praj~naa?"52)

The last passage suggests that the aphorism about the bamboos and chrysanthemums
was a focal point for the BNI controversy, and Hui-chung may well have been responding to
the teachings of Shen-hui (or vice versa). In many respects, Hui-chung’s eloquent if
intellectually diffuse position represents a logical terminus for the BNI position; it is
difficult to know where one might go after invoking the notion that the universe itself is
the body of Vairocana, and that insentient things are constantly preaching the dharma.
While others would weigh in on the issue throughout the latter years of the T’ang dynasty,
no one seems to have contributed much new to the arguments on either side of the issue.53)

Before leaving the T’ang Ch’an controversy over BNI, I would note that there was
a Taoist version of the BNI doctrine circulating at around the same time. The Tao-chiao
道敎義樞, an influential Taoist expository work dating to the early seventh
century, is associated with a form of Taoist exegesis known as ch’ung-hsüan
重玄–a literary tradition strongly influenced by Buddhist thought in general, and
San-lun argumentation in particular.54) Chapter
29 of this text, entitled "The Nature of the Tao" (tao-hsing 道性), is
an extended argument in support of the universality of the "tao-nature":
"Everything that bears consciousness, down to and including animals, fruit, trees,
and stones, possesses the nature of the Tao."
While the Tao-chiao i-shu testifies to the currency of the BNI thesis among
at least some segments of the literati, it is also possible that the Taoist appropriation
of the idea contributed to the sectarian passion seen in the Buddhist debates of the


By the close of the T’ang Dynasty advocates of the BNI position appear to have
emerged on top, and, in China at least, the controversy fades into the background. The
same is not true of Japan, where the doctrine took on a life of its own. Innovative
discussions of the BNI doctrine can be found in the writings of numerous Japanese monks,
including K?kai 公海 (774-835), Saich? 最澄 (767-822), Annen 安然 (d. 889), Enchin
圓珍 (814-891), Ry?gen 良源 (912-985), Ch?jin 忠尋 (1065-1138), D?gen 道元
(1200-1253), and Nichiren 日蓮 (1222-1282), and, as mentioned above (n.17), the topic
was the focus of one of a series of spirited Hoss?-Tendai debates held under imperial
auspices in 963. Nor was the Japanese interest in BNI limited to exegetical works; it
finds its way into Japanese literature and performance arts as well.56)

One might argue that, at least in Japan, the BNI doctrine did indeed promote the
Buddhist valorization of "nature": Japanese advocates of BNI do tend to focus on
insentient phenomena that are part of what we would consider the "natural world"
(plants and trees, mountains and streams), as opposed to physical objects that are
products of human artifice (roof-tiles, walls, jars, etcetera). And at least one Tendai
master, Chujin, argued that plants are buddhas by virtue of their very planthood–their
possession of roots, stems, branches, and so on–and thus there is no need for them to
manifest the thirty-two marks. The evidence suggests a somewhat different attitude toward
the BNI doctrine than we found in China. But I will resist pursuing the Japanese sources
here, and focus instead on the significance of the debate for our understanding of Chinese
Buddhism in general, and Ch’an in particular.

In the case of China, rather than beginning with our rather hazy and
historically contingent notion of "nature," it might be more productive to turn
to the holistic conception of the cosmos that many sinologists believe is characteristic
of early Chinese thought. I am referring to what Joseph Needham has called the
"organismic" view of the world–the notion that the universe constitutes a
single, organically connected and interdependent whole. The early Chinese held that the
cosmos is comprised entirely of multiple "ethers" (chi 氣), the
transformations of which can be analyzed in terms of the five phases (wu-hsing
五行), the principle of "sympathetic resonance" (kan-ying 感應), and
so on. Such a world-view does not privilege the sorts of ontological distinctions that are
characteristic of Western thought, such as that between mind and matter, the sentient and
the insentient, the immanent and the transcendent, or between man and nature. This
enduring cosmological scheme was pivotal in the Chinese appropriation and elucidation of
Indian Buddhist philosophy.57)

Many of the strategies used to argue for the BNI position were derived, of
course, from Indian Buddhism in general, and Yogacara and tathaagatagarbha doctrine
in particular. (If all is mind, and mind is buddha-nature, then nothing is devoid of
buddha-nature.) While Indian texts such as the Avata.msaka-suutra do sometimes
depict the cosmos as a single interconnected and resplendent whole, the rhetoric tends
toward the abstract or transcendental–the perspective of the buddha rather than that of
ordinary folk. One looks in vain for an Indian reference to mundane objects like
roof-tiles and stones actually becoming buddhas and preaching the dharma.

The eminent scholar of Chinese Buddhism Kamata Shigeo 鎌田無雄 has argued
that BNI represents a synthesis of the Indian Buddhist notion that all things are mind,
and the Chinese holistic view of all things as constituting a single body (ittaikan
一體觀), particularly as articulated in certain early Taoist works.58) There is certainly no shortage of early Chinese
precursors or analogues to the BNI doctrine. Perhaps the most striking is the following
passage in chapter 22 of the Chuang-tzu:

Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, "This thing called the Way–where does it

Chuang Tzu said, "There’s no place it doesn’t exist."

"Come," said Master Tung-kuo, "you must be more specific."

"It is in the ant 庵蟻."

"As low a thing as that?"

"It is in the panic grass."

"But that’s lower still!"

"It is in the tiles and shards."

"How can it be so low?"

"It is in the piss and shit!"

Master Tung-kuo made no reply.

Chuang Tzu said, "Sir, your questions simply don’t get at the substance of
the matter. When Inspector Huo asked the superintendent of the market how to test the
fatness of a pig by pressing it with the foot, he was told that the lower down on the pig
you press, the nearer you come to the truth. But you must not expect to find the Way in
any particular place–there is no thing that escapes its presence! Such is the Perfect
Way, and so too are the truly great words. ‘Complete,’ ‘universal,’ ‘all-inclusive’–these
three are different words with the same meaning. All point to a single reality."59)

The T’ang court, whose ruling Li family traced their lineal descent back to
Lao-tzu, actively promoted Taoism as the legitimizing ideology of the dynasty.60) Emperor Hsuan-tsung (r.712-756), whose reign
coincided with the flurry of interest in the BNI doctrine chronicled above, was
particularly unrestrained in his support of Taoist thought. While the Tao-te ching
had been on the state examinations curriculum since 678 (it was removed by Empress Wu
during the years of 693-705), Hsuan-tsung elevated the status of this Taoist classic until
it came to dominate the course of study for aspiring officials. In 741 the emperor founded
the Ch’ung-hsuan hsueh 崇玄學 ("Academy of the Revered Mystery") In order to
educate young scholars in the Taoist classics, and at the same time instituted the Tao-chü
道擧 ("Examination on Taoism"), in an attempt to establish a Taoist
counterpart to the system of imperially sponsored Confucian schools and examinations. It
seems reasonable to assume that the promotion of Taoist study among the literate classes
would have contributed to the development and acceptance of the BNI doctrine among the
Buddhist elite.

Kamata is surely correct to draw attention to the parallels between aspects of
Taoist thought and the Buddhist BNI doctrine. I would, however, make two observations: (1)
while Kamata views the "holistic" tendencies in Taoism as valorizing
"nature," Chuang-tzu, like the Buddhist exegetes examined above, does not
distinguish between the products of civilization (tiles and shards) and the phenomena of
the natural world (ants, grass, piss and shit); (2) while the BNI idea may well have been
inspired by the holistic Chinese cosmological conception of the world, the doctrine was
initially articulated in the language of San-lun, Hua-yen, and T’ien-t’ai scholasticism.
The primary concern of these early advocates of BNI, as best as we can make out, lay in
the coherent and consistent explication of the Indian materials at their disposal. These
materials presented a host of hermeneutical issues, including the seemingly intractable
problem of how to harmonize tathaagatagarbha ontology with Maadhyamika dialectic.
The somewhat pliable rhetoric of buddha-nature was to play a central role in their
struggle with such issues. In the process these inveterate scholiasts generated
innumerable and increasingly rarefied conceptual superstructures.

The Ch’an appropriation of the BNI idea is, at first sight, less obviously
scholastic. To the early Northern and Ox-head masters, the BNI doctrine was logically and
ideologically consonant with their emphasis on "no-mind," "extinguishing
thought," and so on. In other words, the conceptual context of the doctrine was not
so much scriptural exegesis as meditative praxis. Thus the BNI idea was used not merely to
express the radical nonduality of subject and object, but also to evoke a state of perfect
inner and outer quiescence, wherein one is indistinguishable from a tree or a wall.

Northern support for the controversial BNI position presented Shen-hui with a
ready target for his polemical attacks. Surely, the idea that an insentient object could
become a walking, talking buddha is not only contrary to scripture, but patently absurd.
From Shen-hui’s point of view, the doctrine was more than merely wrong-headed; it was
potentially dangerous. The identification of the physical world around us–the world of
emerald bamboos and chrysanthemums–with the world of enlightenment, would mitigate the
need for rigorous monastic practice leading to bodhi. Shen-hui’s critique, in other
words, has much in common with the later attacks by the Sung master Ta-hui Tsung-kao
大慧宗?(1089-1163) against the "silent illumination Ch’an" (mo-chao ch’an
默照禪) of his Ts’ao-tung 曹洞 lineage rivals. (It also resonates with the concerns
of contemporary exponents of hihan bukkyo: just as BNI mitigates the need for
personal realization, it mitigates the desire to work for the collective social,
political, or environmental good.)

It is possible that Shen-hui’s attack was primarily motivated by worldly
ambition; he may simply have been exploiting the BNI issue in order to advance his own
career. It is also possible that Shen-hui was sincerely troubled by the ethical and
doctrinal ramifications of BNI. Most likely it was bit of both. But putting the possible
ethical or practical consequences aside, I would note that the arguments presented on both
sides of the BNI debate are eminently "discursive": Shen-hui and his cohorts
cite the authority of scripture, appeal to reason, logic, and common sense, make liberal
(and sometimes questionable) use of analogy, and so on. And once you look beyond the
distinctively Ch’annish literary and stylistic peculiarities, you find that the underlying
conceptual strategies are of a kind with their San-lun, Hua-yen, and T’ien-t’ai
counterparts. Take Hui-chung’s famous dictum that "insentient objects preach the
dharma" for example. On the surface the notion seems hyperbolic, potentially
antinomian, and somewhat "Ch’annish." But when Hui-chung is asked why, if
insentient things are continually preaching the dharma we can’t hear it, he responds that
only enlightened sages can hear them. Thus like Hui-yüan, Chi-tsang, Fa-tsang, and
other eminent scholiasts, Hui-chung is forced to "save appearances" by
reintroducing the slippery hermeneutic device of the two-truths.

At first all of this might seem a far cry from the kung-an literature of
Ch’an. Contemporary scholars have presented kung-ans as artful devices to subvert
discursive thought, not to mention scholastic analysis. Kung-an are presumed to
capture the immediacy and clarity of a master’s enlightenment, and thus they can have no
doctrinal, or even conceptual, content. Thus it may come as a surprise to discover that
the most famous kung-an of all, Chao-chou’s dog, was originally set in the arcane
intellectual context of the BNI controversy.

The "dog" kung-an has become notorious as the first case of the
Ch’an-tsung wu-men kuan, 禪宗無門關, an influential kung-an collection
compiled in 1228 by Wu-men Hui-k’ai 無門慧海 (1183-1260). Wu-men himself regarded this
kung-an as the most important of the collection, and it is often the first k?an
assigned to novice Japanese Rinzai monks. Wu-men culled this kung-an from the
recorded sayings of the eminent T’ang master Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen 趙州從梅(778-897).61) The full exchange, as found in Chao-chou’s
record, reads as follows:

[A student] asked: "Does a dog also have buddha-nature or not?" The
Master said: "It does not." The student said: "Everything has
buddha-nature, from the buddhas above, to the ants below. Why does a dog not have
it?" The Master said: "Because he has the nature of karmically conditioned

問, 狗子還有佛性也無. 師云, 上至諸佛, 下至 ?子皆有佛性,
狗子爲什?無. 師云, 爲伊有業識性在.62)

It might not be immediately evident that the unstated context of this repartee
was the BNI controversy. But look now at another exchange found later in the collection:

[A student] asked: "Does an oak tree also have buddha-nature or not?"
The Master said: "It has." [The student] said: "Then when will it become a
buddha?" The Master said: "When the sky falls to the earth." [The student]
said: "When will the sky fall to the earth?" The Master said: "When the oak
tree becomes a buddha."

問, 栢樹子還有佛性也無. 師云, 有. 云, 幾時成佛. 師云,
待虛空落地. 云, 虛空幾時落地. 師云, 待栢樹子成佛.63)

Finally, note a third exchange in the same text, in which Chao-chou is asked
once again about the buddha-nature of dogs:

"[A student] asked: "Does a dog also have buddha-nature or not?"
The Master said: "The [road] in front of every house leads to Ch’ang-an" 問,
狗子還有佛性也無. 師云, 家家門前通長安.64)

Chao-chou’s response to the second question suggests that he will accept, at
least provisionally, the buddha-nature of insentient things such as trees. And in the
third exchange, he has no trouble conceding buddha-nature to dogs as well. So why does he
deny it to dogs the first time around?

The first questioner is fully aware, of course, that according to Buddhist
teachings all sentient life has buddha-nature; no educated priest would mistake the
interlocutor’s question as an expression of ignorance. In fact the question only makes
sense in the light of the BNI controversy: it is a challenge to Chao-chou to articulate
his understanding of the vexed buddha-nature issue in such a manner that he remains true
to Ch’an principles. Thus Chao-chou must respond in a fashion that does not reify, or
express attachment to, the notion of buddha-nature, whether of the sentient or the
insentient. Chao-chou’s response–his unapologetic denial of buddha-nature to
dogs–denotes his freedom from attachment to doctrine (i.e., his acknowledgment that no
conventional formulation is ultimate), and his refusal to attempt to articulate a medial
or transcendental position. In short, he artfully dodges the issue.

Wu-men was, of course, familiar with the BNI context of these exchanges, as is
evident in his commentary to the kung-an:

Wu-men said: "To study Ch’an you must pass through the barrier of the
patriarchal masters; to gain marvelous enlightenment you must completely sever the way of
mind. If you have not passed through the barrier of the patriarchs, and not severed the
way of mind, then you are no more than the phantom spirit that haunts the grasses and the

無門曰, 參禪須透祖師關, 妙悟要窮心路絶. 祖關不透,
心路不絶, 盡是依草附木精靈.65)  

Chao-chou’s emphatic insistence that dogs’ do not have buddha-nature would, one
would think, make it even less likely that grasses and trees, which are insentient (devoid
of spirit or ling), possess buddha-nature. But in a characteristic twist, Wu-men
declares that if you do not grasp the import of Chao-chou’s statement, denying
buddha-nature to dogs, then you are that very spirit (ling) that dwells in the
grass and trees!


My conclusion will follow at a later date.


References to texts in the Taish? edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon (Taish?
大正大藏經) are indicated by the text number("T.") followed by
the volume, page, register(a, b, or c), and, when appropriate, the line number(s).

References to texts in the Dai nihon zokuz?ky? 大日本續藏經("ZZ.")
are indicated by Chung-kuo fo-chiao hui 中國佛敎會), followed by the page,
register(a, b, c, or d), and, when appropriate, the line number(s).

References to the Tsu-t’ang chi 祖堂集 are to the Korean edition found
in Yanagida ed. 1984, and are cited using the concordance format (section.folio.line).

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Schmithausen, Lambert

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1990; An Enlarged Version with Notes
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Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series no. 6. Tokyo: The International Institute for
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Sinification of Buddhism in Eighth-Century China." Ph.D. dissertation, University of

Shiveley, Donald H.

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Journal of Asiatic Studies
20: 135-161.

Sueki Fumihiko

1994 "Annen: The Philosopher Who Japanized Buddhism." Acta
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T’ang Yung-t’ung

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漢魏兩晉南北朝佛敎史. 2vols. Peking: Chung-hua shu-chü. First published in
Shanghai, 1938.

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1973 Bussh? no kenky? 佛性の硏究. Tokyo: Kokusho kank?kai.

Tokiwa Gishin 常盤義伸, and Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山.

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Yohizu Yoshihide 吉津宜英.

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Sh?gaku kenky?
15 (March).

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1) There is a considerable literature on the evolution of the
notion of buddha-nature in India; see, for example, Brown 1991; Demiéville and May
eds., 1929: 1.185-187; Hookham 1991; Ruegg 1989; and Tokiwa 1973.


2) See especially the recent collection of papers in Hubbard
and Swanson eds. 1977.


3) See, for example, Nakamura Hajime’s influential Ways of
Thinking of Eastern Peoples
: "the T’ien-t’ai sect taught the theory that ‘all
existences and even grass, trees, and earth can attain Buddhahood.’ That is to say, een
physical matter existing in nature can realize enlightenment and become Buddha. Generally
speaking, the tendency was to regard nature as the most beautiful and highest existence,
with man on an equal plane" (1964: 279). See also LaFleur 1973: 110; and Schmithausen
1991: 22.


4) Here I am referring, of course, to phenomena such as nihonjinron
日本人論 (theories concerning the [unique characteristics of the] Japanese) – a
psudo-scientific discourse about cultural difference than is often little more than a
thinly veiled display of cultural and racial chauvinism.


5) The Japanese literature on the subject is indeed vast, see
esp. Kamata 1962 and 1965: 434-474; Miyamoto 1961; Sakamoto 1959; Yoshizu 1973. In Western
languages see Koseki 1977: 217-231 and 1980; Penkower 1993 and 1998.


6) On Tao-sheng and the early debates concerning the
universality of buddha-nature see Lai 1982a; Liebenthal 1956; Link 1957; Liu 1982 and
1984; Penkower 1993: 393-396, n. 15; T’ang 1955: 2. 601-676; and Tokiwa 1973: 178-193.


7) Ta-pan ni-yüan ching 大般泥洹經, T. 376:
12.881b24ff. and 893a9ff.


8) Ta-pan nieh-p’an ching 大般涅槃經, T. 374.


9) In 436 a revision of the Dharmak?ema translation was made
with reference to the earlier translation by Fa-hsien, resulting in the
thirty-six-fascicle text known as the "southern edition" (T. 375).


10) See the overview in Penkower 1993: 395; Liu 1994: 160-168.


11) T. 374: 12.581a22-23.


12) There is a relatively robust literature on the so-called
"Nirvana school"; see, for example, Kamata 1962: 51; Kamata 1965: 435-439;
Koseki 1977: 218-221; Lai 1982a and 1982b; Liu 1982 and 1984.


13) Ta-ch’eng hsüan-lun 大乘玄論, T. 1853:
45.40a-41a. On Chi-tsang’s theory of Buddha-nature see especially Kamata 1968: 43-46;
Koseki 1977: 186-268; Koseki 1980; Liu 1994: 160-187; Tokiwa 1973: 217-219.


14) T. 1853: 45.40b18-20 and 40c13-18; cf. Liu 1994: 186.


15) T. 1853: 45.40c24-27.


16) See the discussion in Liu 1994: 187.


17) This scripture was indeed interpreted as supporting BNI by
the Japanese Tendai monk Ry?gen 良源 (912-985), who refers to it in a debate on the
subject with the Hoss? monk Ch?zan 仲算 (935-076), held in 963; see Miyamoto 1961:
675-676; LaFleur 1973: 101.


18) T. 1846: 44.247c12-14. For a detailed discussion of
Fa-tsang’s position, as well at that of other early Hua-yen exegetes including
Ch’eng-kuan, see Kamata 1965: 443-455. Note that there is considerable speculation about
the role that either Fa-tsang or Ch’eng-kuan may have played as the unnamed foil in Chin-kang
; see Penkower 1993: 467-481, n. 128; and 1998: 47-48, n. 101.


19) T. 1733: 35.405c26-406a27; see the discussion in Penkower
1993: 474-475.


20) T. 1911: 46.1c23-2a2.


21) T. 1912: 46.151c26-28; trans. Penkower 1998: 48, n. 108,
with minor changes.


22) Ta-pan nieh-p’an ching shu, 大乘涅槃經疏, T.
1767: 38. 184c22-23; see Penkower 1998: 49; Penkower 1993: 479.


23) T. 1932: 46.781a-786b. On the Chin-kang pei see
Kamata 1965: 466-474; and Penkower 1993.


24) T. 1932: 46.781a26-28; trans. Penkower 1998: 49.


25) T. 1932: 786b20-21.


26) T. 1932: 46. 785b8-9; trans. Penkower 1993: 525-528, with
minor changes.


27) See Penkower 1998: 29-30.


28) On the question of authorship and dating of the Leng-ch’ieh
shih-tzu chi
see esp. Barrett 1991; and Faure 1997: 160-176.


29) T. 2837: 85. 1289b8-9; Yanagida 1971: 264.


30) T. 2837: 85. 1290a4-6 and 14-18; Yanagida 1971: 287-288.


31) For an overview of scholarship on this text see McRae
1983; and the edition and Japanese and English translations in Tokiwa and Yanagida 1973.


32) See Tokiwa and Yanagida 1973: 24-26, notes 17-18.


33) The first quotation may come from the Avatamsaka-suutra
(T. 278 and 279), which contains numerous statements to the same effect. The second
quotation is a slightly modified version of a sentence from the Vimalak?rti (T.
475: 14.542b12-13).


34) Tokiwa and Yanagida 1973: 91.


35) On the dating and intellectual provenance of the Pao-tsang
see Sharf 1991.


36) T. 1857: 45: 148c8-10. The source of the quotation has not
been identified.


37) T. 2016: 48.943a24-28.


38) I have not been able to identify the source of this verse,
although it appears repeatedly in discussions of the BNI position; see, for example, the Tsu-t’ang
records for Nan-yang Hui-chung 南陽慧忠 (1.125.13), Tung-shan Liang-chieh
洞山良介 (2.65.3), and Ta-chu Hui-hai 大珠慧海 (4.47.6), all of whom will be
discussed below.


39) Shen-hui yü-lu 神會語綠, Hu Shih 1968:


40) T. 2007: 48.344b9-10; cf. Yampolsky 1967: 177.


41) Yanagida ed. 1984: 1.85.11-12.


42) T. 2076: 51.223a17-18.


43) T. 2008: 48.349a26-27.


44) While this text was not published until 1374, it agrees
with the account of Hui-hai’s teaching on BNI found in the Tsu-t’ang chi,


45) Hirano 1970: 138, 155, and 175.


46) Huang-po tuan-chi ch’an-shih wan-ling lu
黃檗斷際禪師宛陵錄, T. 2012: 48.386b2-5 (italics mine); see also T. 2012:
48.381a28-29 for similar phrasing.


47) Kamata 1962: 53.


48) Tsu-t’angchi: 1.121.10-122.14; cf. Ching-te
ch’uan-teng lu
景德傳燈錄, T. 2076: 51.438a9 ff.


49) Tsu-t’ang chi: 1.124.5-14; cf. Ching-te
ch’uan-ten lu
T. 2076: 51.438b6-11.


50) T. 279: 10.30a6-7.


51) T. 220: 7.871c14-15.


52) Tsu-t’ang chi: 1.125-13-126.7 (this segment does
not appear in the Ching-te ch’uan-teng lu). See the discussion in Liu 1994: 255.


53) The important master Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-869) was
also a noted advocate of BNI; see the Jui-chou tung-shan liang-chieh ch’an-shih yü-lu
瑞州洞山良价禪師語錄, T. 1986: 47.519b29 ff. (While this work was compiled in
1630, the earlier Tsu-t’ang chi corroborates Tung-shan’s interest in the topic
[2.65.3].) Much of the section on BNI in Tung-shan’s record is virtually identical to
passages found in the record of Hui-chung.


54) On ch’ung-hsüan Taoism see esp. Sharf 1991,
chapter 1.


55) HY. 1121, f. 762-763: 8.6b.


56) On the BNI doctrine in Japan see LaFleur 1973 and 1974;
Miyamoto 1961; Sakamoto 1959 and 1960; Shiveley 1957; Sueki 1994; and Yoshizu 1973.


57) See Sharf 1991, chapter 3.


58) Kamata 1962: 54; 1965: 461-465.


59) Chuang-tzu 59/22/43-47; trans. Watson 240-241.


60) On the T’ang use of Taoist ideology for political
purposes, see Barrett 1996; Benn 1977; and Twitchett ed. 1979: 411-413.


61) The record, Chao-chou chen-chi ch’an-shih yü-lu
趙州眞際禪師語錄, is believed to have been in circulation by the end of the tenth
century. The earliest extant recension is that preserved as fascicle 13 of in the Ku-tsun-su
古尊宿語錄, published in 1144.


62) ZZ. 118: 314a8-10; Akizuki 1972: 130-131.


63) ZZ. 118: 321b14-16; Akizuki 1972: 255-256. This exchange
suggests that case 37 in the Wu-men kuan, "Chao-chou’s oak tree," must
also be revisited in the light of the BNI controoversy.


64) ZZ. 118: 324a6-7; Akizuki 1972: 294.



65) T. 2005: 48.292c20-24.



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