A Response to the Critical Buddhist Position on Zen

Charles Muller

Charles Muller

Toyo Gakuen University

"Innate Enlightenment and No-thought: A Response to the
Critical Buddhist Position on Zen"

General Observations

The Main Issues

Indigenous East Asian Thought: Essence and Function

Essence-Function and Innate Enlightenment Practicing Non-Abiding

Practicing Non-Abiding

The Meaning of No-Thought

The Korean Son Perspective

Ch’an as Buddhism


    General Observations

    Prof. Matsumoto Shiro, who has already presented for us at this
    conference, and his colleague, Prof. Hakamaya Noriaki, have together
    produced a number of lengthy essays on a theme called hihan bukkyo
    (批判佛敎), in English, "Critical Buddhism."(1) Under this broad title, they
    have written on a wide range of issues, including those that are sociological,
    historical, philological as well as philosophical in nature. At the core of their
    project is the conviction that the concepts of tathaagatagarbha and innate
    enlightenment (本覺思想) are alien to Buddhism, due to the fact that those
    concepts imply a belief in a hypostasized self–a type of atman, which
    Buddhism originally and distinctively sought to refute through the
    conceptual framework of pratiitya-samutpaada (dependent origination).

    They claim, therefore, that the only texts to be considered as authentically
    Buddhist are works from the early Pali tradition and from Maadhyamika
    that limit themselves to apprehensions of the Buddhist reality that (1) can
    be treated in and through language, and (2) can be treated in and through
    the language of a strictly delimited model of dependent origination. Any
    discourse that extends to the treatment of an "other" beyond the two
    aforementioned frameworks is regarded as non-Buddhist. Under this
    interpretation, most of the schools of Buddhism that developed in East
    Asia, most importantly Ch’an and Hua-yen, cannot be considered Buddhist,
    as it is in these schools where the conception of innate enlightenment was
    prioritized, serving as the basis for the "faith" that empowers practice. Since
    Ch’an and its descendant schools in Korea and Japan are understood as
    having centered their teachings on a kind of mindlessness that ignores or
    disparages the role of language in religious cultivation, these schools are
    especially singled out as epitomizing the aberrant tendencies of East Asian
    false Buddhist schools.

    Prof. Hakamaya takes the incorporation of emphasis on the
    trans-conceptual in East Asian Buddhism to be in great part the result of
    influence from Chuang-Lao Taoism, which, according to him, is
    representative of a "topical" philosophy that prioritizes subjective religious
    experience over objective rational inquiry. This topical philosophy, in the
    Buddhist context, is said to support a belief in dhaatus, or inherently
    existent entities, a belief that is foreign to Buddhism, but that, according to
    Hakamaya, is characteristic of Taoism. Prof. Hakamaya sees the Taoist
    tendency to focus on a mysterious, experiential, unnamable Tao as having
    infected East Asian Buddhism, and especially Ch’an, which thenceforth
    produced literature that mimicked the dhaatu-vadistic tendency of Taoism.

    The Critical Buddhist project has a markedly Japanese orientation, which is
    understandable, as it originated in the course of an effort to identify the
    source of ideology within the Japanese Soto Zen establishment that has led
    the leaders of that sect to condone government policies that are socially
    discriminatory, and to search out possible Buddhist-related causes for
    attitudes of indifference on these matters on the part of the Japanese
    Buddhist intellectual establishment. Most notorious here are leading
    exponents of the Kyoto school such as Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji,
    whose topically-oriented writings have provided much support to Japanese
    theories of cultural superiority.

    The vast majority of Japanese Buddhist scholars during the past century
    have devoted their energies to issues of philology and have not engaged in
    any sort of serious inquiry into the role and policies of the modern
    Buddhist establishment in the history of Japan since the Meiji Restoration.
    In this context, the protagonists of the Critical Buddhist movement, who
    are themselves part of the Tokyo Buddhist academic circle, should be
    accorded due praise, being the first in a long time to step outside of the
    Japanese Buddhist monolithic scholarly establishment and dare to call to
    task its lack of critical attitude.

    Unfortunately however, the insularly Japanese context of their argument
    has limited the exposure of the work of the Critical Buddhists to the
    confines of the Japanese Buddhological academy, and a handful of foreign
    scholars who have enough awareness of their situation and their work to
    take an interest. Also limiting, however, are constraints derived from their
    distinctive way of reading of the texts of East Asian Buddhism in particular,
    and their way of understanding East Asian philosophy in general. There is a
    significant degree to which their conceptions of innate enlightenment and
    Zen doctrine as a whole are distinctively Japanese interpretations–and
    more narrowly, Soto-based interpretations. This is approach can be
    accepted if it is clearly indicated that the critique is being made only against
    Japanese Zen. But the fact is that the critique is being made toward the
    East Asian meditative schools in general, with no acknowledgment being
    made regarding the significant differences observable in the character of
    the various streams of Ch’an/Son/Zen in China, Korea and Japan.

    A prominent example of the kind of problem that can be created by this
    non-discriminating approach will be obvious to those with a background in
    Korean Buddhism. With the strongly pon’gak sasang oriented content of
    the writings of such influential figures as Wonhyo, Chinul and Kihwa,
    Korean Buddhism can be argued to have been even more profoundly
    imbued by the notion of innate enlightenment than Japanese Buddhism. Yet
    the philosophical character of Korean Buddhism, and its conduct in regard
    to support of questionable government policies has been radically different
    from that of Japan, demonstrating almost none of the negative "original
    enlightenment"-influenced effects identified by the Critical Buddhists in its
    Japanese manifestation. The Korean Son tradition has also not shown the
    aversion to critical philosophical discourse that is characteristic of the
    Japanese Zen as understood by the Critical Buddhists. Korean Son scholars
    have been extremely sensitive to the matter of the relationship between the
    worded and wordless aspects of the Buddhist doctrine, such that the
    exposition of this issue has often constituted a segment of their writings.
    Are such differences the result of a distance between the Japanese and
    Korean interpretations of innate enlightenment? Or are they derived from
    differences between Japanese and Korean indigenous thought? Or some
    combination of both?


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    The Main Issues

    In treating the interpretations made by the Critical Buddhists of East Asian
    philosophical texts, I will focus on a few main, overlapping arguments. First,
    I will question the characterization of innate enlightenment thought as being
    "topical," along with the assertion that it is equivalent to a topicalized Taoist
    perception of reality. My main theme in this discussion will be the
    importance of the recognition of the central place of the essence-function
    paradigm in East Asian religious thought. I will then question the Critical
    Buddhist’s understanding of the Ch’an usage of the concept of "innate
    enlightenment" through the examination of one of the most prominent of
    the "innate enlightenment" Ch’an texts, to show the extent to which the
    Ch’an authors tried to avoid referring to innate enlightenment in a
    hypostasized manner. I will argue the misunderstanding derives from
    reading Buddhist texts from a perspective that assumes a purpose of mere
    ontological and metaphysical description, rather than the performative
    soteriological intent with which they were actually written. The next part of
    my argument will be an examination of the concept of "no-thought," which
    Prof. Matsumoto takes, as the basis of Zen, to mean "absence of thinking."
    I will assert here that there is no major Ch’an text in which no-thought, or
    no-mind, is defined as absence of thought, but that instead, the concept
    means "non-attached thought." I will refer, in this argument, to seminal
    passages in both the Platform Sutra and Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment.
    Finally, I will give some examples of how the most influential thinkers in
    Korean Son were deeply involved in the exposition of the paradoxical
    relationship between the worded and wordless teachings, and how they
    attempted to resolve this paradox.

    I would like to start by drawing attention to two perspicuous responses to
    Critical Buddhism already crafted by two leading specialists in East Asian
    tathaagatagarbha/original enlightenment thought, that did much to help me
    orient my point of departure for this essay: Sallie King and Peter Gregory.
    Dr. King, in her article "Buddha-Nature is Impeccably Buddhist" has
    argued, based on a close reading of the Buddha-Nature Treatise, that a
    major point of that seminal treatise is to demonstrate that the term
    "Buddha-nature" is nothing but another way of expressing the meaning of
    "thusness," which is, she argues, rather than being an ontological category,
    an ecstatic, experiential apprehension of reality as-it-is. She says:
    "[Thusness] is not an ontological theory; [it] is an experience. And if there
    is an ontological theory implicit in this experience, it is certainly not
    monism."(2) She believes that it is erroneous to read Buddhist texts as
    attempting solely to establish epistemological or ontological positions. Such
    texts need, instead, to be seen in their role as soteriological devices. This
    approach is corroborated by the allusions made throughout the Buddhist
    corpus, such as the parable of the raft, or of the arrow, which, as Peter
    Gregory points out, clearly "imply a pragmatic approach to truth according
    to which doctrines only have provisional status."(3)


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    Indigenous East Asian Thought: Essence and


    In terms of a general understanding of Chinese philosophy, there are
    serious problems with the analysis of East Asian philosophical thought
    provided by Prof. Hakamaya, especially regarding his characterizations of
    Confucianism and Chuang-Lao Taoism, of which the latter stands accused
    as the major corrupter of the imported Buddhist religion in East Asia. This
    is, as Hakamaya understands, because the Tao of the Tao te ching
    "precludes conventional naming and denies language."(4) The first problem
    with this assessment, is that it is made based only on a couple of isolated
    passages from the Tao te ching and Chuang tzu. If we examine these two
    texts thoroughly and in a manner that takes into account their overall
    message, we can see that in almost every chapter, the authors have stayed
    far from projecting a simple monistic worldview, attempting instead to
    demonstrate the inseparability of the Tao from the world of phenomena and
    discursive thought.

    Prof. Hakamaya makes this characterization of Taoism by citing only the
    first four lines of the first chapter of the Tao te ching, which Jamie
    Hubbard has translated for us as:


    The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;

    The names that can be named are not the eternal name.

    The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;

    The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.


    Putting aside for the moment the matter of whether Prof. Hakamaya’s
    interpretation warrants the positing of the Tao as a kind of atman, or
    whether or not the rest of the eighty-one chapters of the text corroborate
    such an interpretation, if we merely go down to the bottom of the same
    chapter we read:


    These two are the same–

    When they appear they are named differently.

    Their sameness is the mystery,

    Mystery within mystery;

    The door to all marvels.


    If there is a distinction being made between the worded and the wordless,
    why are they, immediately below, declared to be the same? And how can
    someone who is making such an assertion ignore the immediately following
    passage of such a short chapter?

    One might want to maintain here that this sameness is indicative of
    monism. But it is not so simple, as the the two are also named differently,
    and the mode of their sameness is mysterious. Furthermore, anyone who
    does want to argue for monism here should be aware that there is an
    extensive tradition of Chinese scholarship that will argue against such an
    interpretation. The named and the nameless do have a well-defined
    relationship in the context of neither sameness nor difference, which I will
    now explain.

    Rather than being examples of a simple monism, the Tao te ching and
    Chuang tzu conduct a wide variety of articulations of the indigenous East
    Asian concept of essence-function (t’i-yung), among which, that of the
    first chapter of the Tao te ching is quintessential. T’i originally means
    body or substance, and refers to the more internal, more essential, hidden,
    important aspects of a thing. Yung refers to the more external,
    superficial, obvious, functional aspects of something. But these must be
    clearly understood to be aspects–ways of seeing a single thing, and not
    two separate existences. Therefore, the essence-function construction is
    always relative in its usage, and t’i is not the Chinese analog of atman, or
    dhaatu.(5)   In properly understood t’i-yung logic, a dichotomized or
    polarized notion of the pair is impossible. T’i can only be seen,
    apprehended, expressed, and indeed–exist, through the presence of yung.
    In other words, t’i is dependently arisen from yung, and yung is
    dependently arisen from t’i.

    The t’i-yung principle, which has its origins deep in the recesses of early
    Chou thought in such seminal texts as the Book of Odes, Analects, I ching
    and Tao te ching, became formally defined and used with regularity in the
    exegetical writings of Confucian/Neo-Taoist scholars of the Latter Han and
    afterward. Scholars of the pre-Buddhist Chinese classics had utilized
    t’i-yung and its earlier equivalents, such as pen-mo (本末 "roots and
    branches") in Confucianism and hei-pai (黑白 "black and white") of Taoism
    to explain the relationship of inherent human goodness and spiritual
    harmony with its not-always-manifest permutations. The Confucian
    concept of inherent goodness is intimated in the early Chou works, and
    fully articulated in the Analects and the Mencius. Of central importance in
    these texts is the basic human quality of jen ( "humanity," "benevolence")
    that expresses itself in various "functions" such as propriety (li ) and filial
    piety (hsiao ).

    Although Confucianism and Taoism differ in terms of the respective
    emphases of their discourses, with Taoism taking a more naturalistic
    approach to human cultivation and Confucianism advocating a more
    rules-oriented stance, in terms of basic worldview, there is great overlap
    and deep connection between them, most importantly in terms of their
    sharing in the same t’i-yung paradigm. In view of the depth of this
    sharedness, when it comes to making the kind of hard and fast distinction
    between the two traditions that Prof. Hakamaya wants to make, categorizing
    one as "critical" and the other as "topical" it cannot be permissible to do so
    based only on a couple of fragmentary citations from the Analects, Tao te
    and Chuang tzu, while giving almost no consideration to the way that
    these texts are understood in their entirety by specialists in the area. The
    only Confucian specialist to whom Hakamaya refers is Ito Jinsai.(6) But
    even when we read the Ito citation, there is nothing said about the Analects
    other than that it contains "clear argumentation" and "sound reasoning."
    There is nothing whatsoever in the passage to offer any support to
    Confucian-as-critical/Taoist-as-topical distinction.


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    Essence-Function and Innate Enlightenment

    The Buddhist religion, as it was exported from India, did not contain a
    sustained and overt discussion of the concept of innate Buddhahood. But
    East Asians perceived within the Buddhist doctrine the potentiality for
    human perfection, which they naturally described in their native framework
    of t’i-yung. However, with innate and actualized enlightenment as
    manifestations of the essence-function model, innate enlightenment was not
    hypostasized as a "locus" but was instead understood as an experiential and
    enhanceable potentiality. In terms of basic constitution, in the process of
    enlightenment, the the human mind and body have nothing added or
    subtracted. This is a basic premise taught in innate enlightenment texts
    such as the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Yan cheh ching 圓覺經 ) and
    the Awakening of Faith (Ta-sheng ch’i-hsin lun 大乘起信論), where innate
    and actualized enlightenment are described not as static ontological
    categories, but as a way of looking at existence that allows for a workable
    prescription toward practice.(7)

    In most of the private discussions that I have had with my colleagues who
    specialize in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, I have been told that that East
    Asian Buddhism shows virtually no new philosophical insights beyond the
    articulation of the theories of pratiitya-samutpaada and uunyataa that are
    contained in Maadhyamika and Yogaacaara. I understand why they believe
    this, since the East Asian concepts of emptiness (k’ung ) and mutual
    interpenetration of phenomena (shih-shih wu-ai 事事無碍) are indeed
    deeply informed by their Indian predecessors. But from here, there is one
    sense in which the critical Buddhists and I are in agreement in perceiving
    that there certainly is some sort of significant philosophical transformation
    that occurs in the Buddhist doctrine once it is assimilated in East Asia. The
    difference between us, however, is that where the Critical Buddhists would
    characterize this transformation as a corruption by the reification of the
    concept of buddha-nature, I would regard the major Chinese
    reinterpretation of Buddhism to be first and foremost that of the recasting
    of the doctrine in terms of essence-function, which, rather than bringing
    harm, was highly beneficial in the degree to which it helped to more deeply
    bind the philosophical dimension of the buddhadharma with the practical


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    Practicing Non-Abiding


    Beyond this philosophical development, the most important contributions
    made by the Ch’an movement are, rather than doctrinal, of a practical
    nature, in that the Ch’an masters showed a special level of sensitivity to the
    tendency of the human mind to become enmeshed in conceptual positions.
    For them, the main obstruction to the attainment of enlightenment had
    nothing to do with either a lack, or excess of knowledge of the doctrine, the
    problem being that of the propensity of the mind to become conditioned
    and attached to concepts. Regardless of the extent of one’s doctrinal
    mastery, such expertise, if not handled properly, will soon turn into an
    impediment. Therefore Ch’an masters to this day are cautious as to their
    wording when they discuss the matter of enlightenment, knowing how easy
    it is for students to get stuck on words, especially the terminology usually
    associated with awakening.

    But since human beings must inevitably discuss things in the course of
    teaching and learning, concepts will be established, reified, and clung to.
    Therefore the need of methods to break such attachments. One of the
    primary remedies used in this work, is to subject such concepts to an
    analysis that shows them, just like all the objects to which they refer, to be
    dependently-originated, and therefore, lacking in self-nature. For the
    scholar, this view of dependent origination is noted, and categorized as a
    seminal aspect of the Buddhist doctrine. For the Buddhist meditator, the
    purpose is quite different. The merely learning of such a metaphysical
    theory in itself will do little to help him in his fundamental task of
    overcoming his habituated, mistaken perception of reality. Therefore he
    engages himself in the practice of meditation, where the observation of the
    dependently-originated nature of things is sustained for long periods of
    time, is deepened and enhanced, such that it begins to affect his worldview
    and actions even while not engaged in formal sitting meditation. Buddhist
    texts tell us that the result of such a sustained contemplation can be, if the
    power of the contemplation is strong enough, a major rupture of the
    habituated discursive process, which allows the disclosure of deeper aspects
    of the consciousness.

    When the Critical Buddhists discuss the analysis of dependent origination,
    they seem to assume that its point is only a matter for the development of
    metaphysical positions within the domain of circumscribed by language. If a
    meditator wanted to participate in such an understanding, she would have to
    halt her pratiitya-samutpaada-based vipayanaa (observing meditation) with
    an intellectual grasp of anatman, and desist from going on to focus the
    same meditative tool on the conceptual objects, or "dharmas." If this kind of
    limitation is enforced, it cannot but end up privileging the status of
    language, as the meditator is denied recourse to the analysis of linguistic
    constructs. However, the so-called "emptiness of dharmas," one of the
    cornerstones of Mahayana doctrine, includes the fact that all linguistic
    constructs are dependently originated, and therefore any conceptually
    grounded insights, while of use in certain applications, cannot be seen to be
    outside the purview of the analysis of dependent origination. While certain
    Buddhist thinkers according to the situation may relax on the thoroughness
    of this contemplation in order to allow for the creation of introductory-level
    instruction, or for the purposes of construction of a coherent system, the
    usage of this analysis in the formal exercise of meditation is quite another

    Therefore the guided contemplation exercises contained in Ch’an sutras,
    while often starting out by alluding to the existence of an originary mode of
    enlightenment, invariably conclude such discussions by refuting the same
    concepts on the basis on the lack of inherent nature in linguistic
    formulations. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment contains numerous
    examples of this kind of practice, as although apparently-ontological
    statements are offered concerning the presence of something called innate
    (or "perfect") enlightenment, this is done only for the purpose of creating a
    provisional object of faith, such that practitioners may confirm their will to
    practice in the face of the strong negative aspects of the
    emptiness-oriented Mahayana doctrine. The perfect enlightenment being
    described is not intended to be posited as one’s etern>

    Transfer interrupted!

    apacity for total awareness, unobstructed by prejudices and misconceptions
    derived from one’s misunderstanding of the existence of self and objects.
    The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is especially suitable for examination
    of this problem, since it is considered to be a quintessential "innate
    enlightenment" scripture–a foundational text of the Ch’an school that
    remains influential in the Chinese and Korean meditative traditions to the
    present day.

    Let us look at a well-known passage from the second chapter of the sutra:


    善男子, 一切衆生種種幻化皆生如來圓覺妙心, 猶如空華從空而有. 幻華雖滅,
    空性不壞. 衆生幻心還依幻滅, 諸幻盡滅, 覺心不動. 依幻說覺亦名爲幻. 若說有覺,
    猶未離幻. 說無覺者, 亦復如是. 是故幻滅名爲不動.

    Good sons, all sentient beings’ various illusions are born from
    the perfectly enlightened marvelous mind of the Tathaagata, just
    like the sky-flowers come to exist in the sky. Even though the
    illusory flowers vanish, the nature of the sky is indestructible.
    The illusory mind of sentient beings also vanishes based on
    illusion, and while all illusions are utterly erased, the enlightened
    mind is unchanged. The use of illusion to speak of enlightenment
    is also called illusion. If you say there is enlightenment, you are
    not yet free from illusion. If you say there is no enlightenment,
    this is the same thing. Therefore, the cessation of illusion is
    called ‘unchanging.’(8)

    The first line, which says "all sentient beings’ various illusions are born
    from the perfectly enlightened marvelous mind of the Tathaagata," is typical
    of the characterizations of the "perfect enlightenment" found in this sutra.
    The fact that it is a "source" from which "all illusions" arise could well lead to
    the assumption that some sort of dhaatu is being hypostasized. But,
    interestingly, while we might expect, in a dhaatu-vadistic framework, for
    perfect enlightenment to be the source for manifest enlightenment, it is
    instead the source of "all illusions," which immediately problematizes the
    "topical" interpretation. This is of course is a characteristic implementation
    of the t’i-yung framework. T’i, as the basic enlightened aspect of the
    human mind may manifest itself poorly (as delusion) or correctly (as
    manifest enlightenment), within the same individual, depending on the
    circumstances, and depending on the perceiver.

    The "perfectly enlightened marvelous mind of the Tathaagata" is best not
    interpreted as either an ontological or epistemological category: it is a
    description of an experiential condition of the mind unfettered by mistaken
    views and attachments/aversions. It is a psychological state that sentient
    beings have the potential to experience, according to their basic
    constitution. In the case of the Buddha, this harmonious condition appears
    naturally, and is called "enlightenment." In the case of sentient beings, it
    does not appear naturally, and is called "illusion" or "enlightenment"
    according to its degree of actualization.

    The next line of the sutra says "The illusory mind of sentient beings also
    vanishes based on illusion, and while all illusions are utterly erased, the
    enlightened mind is unchanged." Here, the illusory mind does not disappear
    based upon its "source," but as the result of (dependently arisen) causes and
    conditions. Despite the disappearance of illusion, nothing has actually
    changed–nothing has been added or subtracted. Aware of the
    svabhaava-taste of this description ("the enlightened mind is unchanged")
    the author immediately adds: "The use of illusion to speak of enlightenment
    is also called illusion. If you say there is enlightenment, you are not yet free
    from illusion." This tells us that the prior hypostasized notion of
    enlightenment has no constant validity–that it is a dependently arisen
    notion–a provisional device to orient the practice of contemplation. The
    object being abided in and the subjective abiding are both overturned.
    Finally, the natural tendency that most people have–that once a position is
    negated, to assume its opposite to be true–is also cut off directly with the
    next phrase, that states "If you say there is no enlightenment, this is the
    same thing."


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    The Meaning of No-Thought


    What has been described above is a basic motif found in all major
    Ch’an/Son/Zen canonical texts: the teaching of the method of avoidance of
    abiding in set thought patterns. Although this practice is commonly
    referred to as no-thought (wu-hsin, wu-nien 無心 無念 ), it is a serious
    mistake to understand Zen to refer merely to the "denial" or "cessation" of
    "conceptual thinking."(9)  Even if the etymology of the Sanskrit term
    dhyaana can be shown to have no-thought connotations, we cannot ignore
    all the semantic development undergone by the Chinese term ch’an in the
    course of the production of the Ch’an texts in East Asia. Rather than
    referring to an absence of thought
    , no-mind refers to the condition of
    not being trapped in thoughts, not adhering to a certain conceptual habit
    or position

    The error of interpretation made by many scholars (and by Zen
    practitioners as well) is in taking this term to refer to an ongoing absence of
    thought. Yet while this assumption is routinely made, it is impossible to
    corroborate it in the Ch’an canon. If we study the seminal texts carefully,
    we do find a description of the experience of the severing of thought that
    occurs in the course of a thoroughgoing pursuit of a Buddhist meditative
    exercise. But nowhere in the Platform Sutra, Sutra of Perfect
    , Diamond Sutra, or any other major Ch’an text, is the term
    "no-mind" explained to be a permanent incapacitation of the thinking
    faculty or the permanent cessation of all conceptual activity
    . It is rather
    the case that the interruption of the discursive process at a sufficiently
    deep level allows for an experiential vision of a different aspect of the mind.
    The view of one’s self and world through this other aspect is radically
    different from the former. It is not that thought no longer occurs. The
    conceptualizing faculty still functions quite well–in fact, even better than
    before, since, now, under the influence of the deeper dimension of the mind
    it no longer has to operate in a rigid, constricted, and clinging manner. It is
    now possible to see things as they really are, unfiltered by one’s own
    massive depository of presuppositions. This is what is meant by the term

    When the Ch’an texts talk about no-thought, or no-mind, it is this state of
    non-clinging or freedom from mistaken conceptualization to which they are
    referring, rather than the permanent cessation of thinking that some
    imagine. The deeper, immeasurably more clear aspect of the mind that they
    experience in the course of this irruption of the discursive flow, they call
    "enlightenment." Realizing now, that this potential of the mind was always
    with them, they call it "innate."

    The locus classicus for the concept of no-thought is the Platform Sutra,
    which says:


    無念者於念而不念. 無住者. 爲人本性. 念念不住. 前念念念後念. 念念相讀無有斷絶.
    若一念斷絶法身卽是離色身. 念念時中. 於一切法上無住. 一念若住念念卽住名繫縛.
    於一切法上念念不住卽無縛也. 無住爲本.

    "No-thought" means "no-thought within thought." Non-abiding is
    man’s original nature. Thoughts do not stop from moment to
    moment. The prior thought is succeeded in each moment by the
    subsequent thought, and thoughts continue one after another
    without cease. If, for one thought-moment, there is a break, the
    dharma-body separates from the physical body, and in the midst
    of successive thoughts there will be no attachment to any kind of
    matter. If, for one thought-moment, there is abiding, then there
    will be abiding in all successive thoughts, and this is called
    clinging. If, in regard to all matters there is no abiding from
    thought-moment to thought-moment, then there is no clinging.
    Non-abiding is the basis.(10)


    Nowhere is there a mention of any kind of disappearance of, or absence of
    thought. "No-thought" refers distinctly to an absence of abiding, or
    clinging. According to this explanation of the concept, any reading of
    wu-nien as an "absence of thought" is a misinterpretation.

    Returning to the Sutra of the Perfect Enlightenment, we should make it
    clear that the first passage that we cited from that text is by no means
    some odd exception to an otherwise svabhaava-centric discourse. The
    pattern repeats itself over and over: the initial reference to an intrinsic
    capacity for enlightenment based on a t’i-yung model, followed by an
    exercise in the practice of non-abiding in conceptions–a combination of
    basic Mahayana doctrinal grounding, which is further invariably followed
    with an effacement of provisionally-established conceptual structures.
    Again, in a subsequent passage of the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment we


    善男子, 一切菩薩及末世衆生應當遠離一切幻化虛妄境界. 由堅執持遠離心故,
    心如幻者亦復遠離. 遠離爲幻亦復遠離. 遠離離幻亦復遠離. 得無所離卽除諸幻.
    比如鑽火兩木相因. 火出木盡灰飛烟滅. 以幻修幻亦復如是. 諸幻雖盡不入斷滅.
    善男子, 知幻卽離, 不作方便. 離幻卽覺亦無漸次.

    Good sons, all bodhisattvas and sentient beings of the
    degenerate age should separate from all illusory and false
    realms. By firmly abiding in separation from thought, you also
    separate from the thought of ‘illusion.’ As this separation
    becomes illusion, you again separate from it. You again separate
    from this separation from separation from illusion, until you
    reach "nothing to be separated from," which is the removal of all
    illusion. It is like making a fire with two sticks. The fire blazes
    and the wood is consumed; the ashes fly away and the smoke
    vanishes. Using illusion to remedy illusion is exactly like this. Yet
    even though all illusions are extinguished, you do not enter into
    nothingness. Good sons, awareness of illusion is none other than
    freedom [from it], without devising expedient means. Freedom
    from illusion is none other than enlightenment, and there are no

    Again, this is an instruction on, and a guided exercise through, the
    non-abiding in conceptual constructs, where the point is for the practitioner
    to learn that illusion is none other than the habit of adherence to reified
    thought constructs. The metaphor, as we can see, is pratiitya-samutpaada
    through and through. We can also see the author’s distaste for attaching a
    baggage-laden name, such as "enlightenment" to the resultant state. But he
    nonetheless wants to add a note of encouragement to make it clear that the
    resulting state is not a void. Where, from this kind of passage, do we get
    the message that the individual is henceforth incapable of thought? And
    where is enlightenment hypostasized?

    Again, in a later chapter of the sutra:


    善男子, 彼之衆生幻身滅故, 幻心亦滅. 幻心滅故, 幻塵亦滅. 幻塵滅故, 幻滅亦滅.
    幻滅滅故, 非幻不滅. 比如磨鏡, 垢盡明現. 善男子, 當知身心皆爲幻垢.


    Good sons, since the illusory body of this sentient being vanishes, the
    illusory mind also vanishes. Since the illusory mind vanishes, illusory
    objects also vanish. Since illusory objects vanish, illusory vanishing also
    vanishes. Since illusory vanishing vanishes, non-illusion does not vanish. It
    is like polishing a mirror: when the filth is gone, its brightness naturally
    appears. Good sons, you should understand both body and mind to be
    illusory filth. When the defiled aspects are permanently extinguished, the
    entire universe becomes pure.(12)

    Here we have a movement of negation that proceeds from the subjective
    body and mind, out to the objects. In terms of standard Mahayana doctrine,
    that is, in itself, a sufficient descriptive account of the enlightened
    condition. However, the author is not content to offer only a doctrinal
    description. He also wants the reader to be repeatedly removed from the
    concept of vanishing. The result is an experiential condition of the mind of
    the practitioner unfettered by illusion. When defilement is extirpated, the
    purity of the entire universe is visible. Nowhere is it stated that the
    attainment of enlightenment implies the loss of the ability to think.


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    The Korean Son Perspective


    Critical Buddhist arguments against innate enlightenment and no-thought
    are unlikely to gain a great deal of currency within Korean Buddhist
    scholarship. But this is not because the argument would be seen as foreign
    or difficult to identify with. Rather, because the question of the relationship
    of innate and actualized enlightenment, and the relationship between the
    wordless and the worded expressions of the buddhadharma have already
    received sustained, extensive and sophisticated treatment by the most
    prominent thinkers in the Korean tradition. The dialog on this topic was
    already well-developed as early as in the twelfth century, and continued for
    several centuries. Any modern scholar who can read literary Chinese, and
    wants to investigate the treatment of this topic can readily find more than
    enough material in the writings of such figures as Wonhyo (元曉 617-686),
    Chinul (知訥 1158-1210), Kihwa (己和 1376-1433) or Hyujong (休靜
    1520-1604). All four of these men wrote extensively on the matter of the
    relationship between innate and actualized enlightenment, and the latter
    three delved deeply into the relationship between the doctrinal (linguistic)
    transmission and the so-called "mind-to-mind" transmission. The
    predominant unifying factor in the Korean Son discourse on these topics is
    that is it thoroughly essence-function oriented, and is based mainly on the
    content of the formational Ch’an texts: the Platform Sutra, Sutra of
    Perfect Enlightenment
    , Awakening of Faith, Diamond Sutra,
    Vajrasamaadhi-suutra, etc.

    The first major Son figure to take up the matter of the relationship between
    the worded and wordless teachings as major project was Chinul. Aided by
    the analysis of the Hua-yen ching provided by the Li T’ung-hsan (李通玄
    635-730),(13)  Chinul utilized Hua-yen philosophy to support Son
    soteriological views. In discussing this matter in his commentary on Li’s
    work, Chinul utilized the essence-function construction to explain the
    relationship of the Hua-yen theory of interpenetration to the Son awakening
    experience, saying:

    The diligent practitioner who is cultivating his mind should first, by means
    of the path of the patriarchs, become cognizant of the fact that the
    fundamental subtlety of his own mind cannot be defined in words and
    letters. Then, using the texts, he should discern that the essence and
    function of his mind are none other than the nature and characteristics of
    the realm of reality (dharmadhaatu). Then the virtuous power of [the
    actualization of] the interpenetration of phenomena with phenomena, and
    the efficacious function of the wisdom and compassion [that are gained
    from an awareness of] the sameness in essence [of all things] will no
    longer be external concerns (i.e., merely conceptual theories).(14)

    While the trans-conceptual aspect of the teaching is obviously prioritized,
    Chinul is quick to follow up by pointing out the need to re-integrate this
    experience with the world of conceptual understanding.

    The matter of the relationship between these aspects is discussed in the
    writings of many of Chinul’s descendants, but the most extensive work is
    done on the topic about two centuries after Chinul, by the monk Kihwa.(15) 
    Kihwa addressed in his writings a wide variety of Buddhist and
    non-Buddhist religious themes, but one of his favorite topics was the
    renewal of Chinul’s argument for the essence-function relationship of Son
    and Kyo, which he did primarily within the context of the Kumgang
    o ka hae sorui (Combined Commentaries of Five
    Masters on the Diamond Sutra
    金剛般若波羅蜜經五家解說誼 )(16)  and his
    commentary on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, (Won’gakkyong hae
    圓覺經解說誼 ).

    Since the Diamond Sutra is a text that deals directly with the problems of
    the relationship of language to reality, it was the perfect vehicle through
    which Kihwa could express his understanding of this intrinsic unity as
    reflected in the two opposite movements of: (1) the necessity of the
    practice of meditation for a proper realization of that which to which the
    scriptures refer, and (2) the viability of scriptural study as a means towards
    the attainment of the Son goal of enlightenment. While Kihwa was clearly in
    favor of an informed usage of scriptural study in Buddhist cultivation, he at
    the same time upheld Ch’an’s strict admonition regarding the possible
    pitfalls of language. He says early in the O ka hae:

    An ancient said: "The Three Vehicles and Twelve Divisions of the Teaching
    embody the principle and grasp the mystery." This being the case, what is
    the special significance of the ancestral teacher’s coming from the West?
    And the separately transmitted teaching should also not be found outside of
    the scriptures. But since that which is contained in the worded teaching has
    remained hidden and undisclosed, now the patriarchs reveal and spread its
    truth, and not only is the meaning of the doctrine made clear, but the
    "separately transmitted teaching" is also fully disclosed. Since there has
    been something designated as "the transmission of direct pointing," how
    could this be something that is contained in the doctrinal teaching? If we
    merely reflect on the story of Ts’ao-chi of Huang-mei,(17)  this can readily
    be seen!(18)

    We should make sure, here, to understand that in the context of our above
    meeting with the Platform Sutra, that we do not take its "formless"
    teaching, to be some sort of blankness, or nothingness, but as the teaching
    of non-abiding in constructs. Here, although Kihwa first intimates that the
    Ch’an of the patriarchs and the sermons of the Buddha manifest the same
    reality, and that one cannot stick to an "anti-language" position, he
    subsequently places a strong emphasis on the privilege of the wordless
    transmission. Below, he offers a view of the issue that tends in the other
    direction, pointing out the usefulness of the worded teaching, while at the
    same time maintaining his warning against attachment to it:

    The dharma that the Buddha has taught is absolute and is relative. Since it
    is relative, liberation is none other than written language. Since what was
    taught in the east and taught in the west for forty-nine years(19)   is
    absolute, written language is none other than liberation;(20)  yet in over
    three hundred sermons, ^Saakyamuni never explained a single word. If you
    are attached to the words, then you see branches of the stream but miss
    their source. If you do away with words, you observe the source but are
    ignorant of its branching streams. When you are confused about neither the
    source nor its streams, then you enter the ocean of the dharma-nature.
    Having entered the ocean of the dharma-nature, the no-thought wisdom is
    directly manifested. The no-thought wisdom being directly manifested,
    whatever is faced is no impediment, and you penetrate wherever you

    Although one should not be attached to words, words also are not to be
    denied. Here, the essence-function framework can be seen in the
    source-streams simile. Kihwa first counsels regarding the serious pitfall
    which has been warned against throughout the Buddhist tradition, and
    which became a main concern of the Ch’an tradition–that an imbalanced
    attachment to words (yung) can lead to an obstruction of the very essence
    (t’i) of Buddhist practice. Yet to forget words and become absorbed in the
    wordless is to forget the phenomenal world and be attached to the essence.
    According to Kihwa, this is also not an acceptable Buddhist position. What
    remains is the "middle path," which means continuous avoidance of abiding
    in exclusivist views. This is "entering the ocean of the dharma-nature,"
    which results in the manifestation of no-thought wisdom. No-thought
    wisdom penetrates everything with which it comes in contact.

    Below, in a related passage, Kihwa makes the same point in a slightly
    different way. The Buddha is speaking to Subhuuti, the arhat-interlocutor
    of the Diamond Sutra:

    "Subhuuti, what do you think? Does the Tathaagata have a dharma to be
    explained or not?"

    Subhuuti answered the Buddha, saying, "World-honored one, the
    Tathaagata has no dharma to be explained."(22)

    Tao-ch’uan, (one of the five commentators) says: "Quietly, quietly."

    Kihwa adds: "The Buddha has nothing to explain; this is definitely true. But
    ‘saying nothing’ is also not the Buddha’s original intention. That is why
    Tao-ch’uan says ‘quietly, quietly.’ One should not claim one-sidedly that
    there is ‘nothing to be said.’"

    A bit further on he adds: ". . . therefore it is said, ‘even though you do not
    rely on the path of verbal teaching, you should also not be attached to the
    position which fully rejects verbal explanation.’"(23)

    Kihwa considers the Diamond Sutra to be so valuable exactly because he
    understands "non-abiding" to be the key of all Buddhist practices. Again
    relying on the essence-function framework, he says:

    "Non-abiding is the great essence of the myriad practices, and the myriad
    practices are all the great function of non-abiding. The teaching of the
    compassionate saint [the Buddha] takes non-abiding as its abode. With the
    great essence shining, one cannot but be aware of the great function.(24)

    Concerning the relationship of the Diamond Sutra with the practice of
    non-abiding, Kihwa says:

    Praj~naa‘s divine source is vast, lacking all kinds of characteristics. It is
    extensive, yet lacks an abode. It is empty and not existing; it is profound
    and unknown. Now this single sutra takes this as its core teaching and as
    its essence. Although there is no awareness, there is nothing that it does
    not know. Although there is no abiding, there is no place where it does not
    abide. Although lacking characteristics, it does not obstruct any
    characteristics. This is the function of marvelous existence. What all
    buddhas have realized is exactly the realization of this. What all the
    patriarchs have transmitted is exactly the transmission of this. Their means
    of awakening people is also exactly through this.(25)

    In the Diamond Sutra, non-abiding is equated with the lack of attachment
    to any characteristic (hsiang/sang ). Therefore, the Diamond Sutra’s
    teaching of No-Aspects (wu-hsiang/musang 無相 ) is synonymous with
    non-abiding. The Diamond Sutra’s discussion, as is the case with the other
    texts of the praj~naapaaramitaa genre, carries out a systematic refutation
    of the abiding in characteristics, and most importantly, the abiding in
    characteristics of selfhood and thinghood. The same then, applies for
    abiding in either of the positions of "words" or "wordlessness."

    In summary, Kihwa is strongly opposed to exclusivist positions either for or
    against the role of written language in the cultivation of the dharma. But
    since his articulation of the polarity is through essence and function, we can
    say that while Kihwa accepts the validity of both approaches, it is clear that
    the "wordless" teaching, being the essence, has priority, and the textual
    approach is secondary. But once again, "primary" and "secondary" in this
    sense cannot be understood in an either-or manner. The secondary is just
    as necessary to the primary as is the primary to the secondary. You can’t
    have one without the other. We find both Chinul’s and Kihwa’s positions
    reiterated throughout the subsequent Korean tradition, in subtle detail. The
    leading Son master of the later Choson, Hyujong, also discussed this matter
    at great length in his writings.(26)

    By contrast, we have seen the Diamond Sutra cited in the Critical Buddhist
    project in an attempt to support the thesis that Ch’an materials advocate
    "no-thought" understood as a kind of mental blankness, together with
    selected citations from Mo-ho-yen, who, although well-known to scholars
    of Tibetan Buddhism for his defeat in the famous sudden-gradual debate, is
    a decidedly minor figure in the history of the development of Ch’an. Here
    Mo-ho-yen is cited as stating that "conceptualizing is a defect," supported
    by a quote from the Diamond Sutra to the effect that: "The Diamond Sutra
    says, ‘One who is free from all conceptions is called Buddha.’"(27)  Based
    on our above discussion, however, we can know that this phrase "free from
    all conception," should be taken, rather than referring to some sort of
    permanent incapacitation of the faculty of thought, to mean exactly what it
    says: namely "freedom from conceptions," which is none other than the
    ability to be unattached to one’s concepts, to be able to stand away from
    the never-ending flow of discursive consciousness. This line from the
    Diamond Sutra is in perfect agreement with what we have seen above in the
    Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment and Platform Sutra. I would further point
    out that the Diamond Sutra, as a text whose theme is nothing but the
    investigation of, and countering of, the tendency to reify and attach to
    conceptual constructs has no line in it that asserts, that "conceptualizing"
    [in itself] "is a defect."(28)


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    Ch’an as Buddhism


    Although it does seem that the art of instruction on methods of
    engagement into the practice of non-abiding may have reached a new peak
    in the birth of Ch’an, I see neither a firm basis nor a special need to claim
    that the notion of unattached thought is the unique creation of the Ch’an
    movement. On the contrary, I would hold that even the earliest Indian
    forms of contemplation on pratiitya-samutpaada had a similar purpose, as
    they sought to sever attachment to the notion of the ego, which they
    conceived to be a basic cause in the production of du.hkha. Indeed, from
    the time of the earliest origins of Indian Buddhism, the concept of
    dependent origination was not merely a philosophical argument to be used
    against the non-Buddhist sects. Dependent origination was the object of
    vipa^syanaa, "observing" meditation, the point of which was the attainment
    of a permanent freedom from entitative thinking, characterized at that time
    by atman-ism. We should not be determined to confine Buddhism strictly
    within the domain of philosophical-linguistic discourse, and ignore the fact
    of its primary purpose as a soteriological system aimed at bringing about

    If we accept dependent origination as a basic strategy to be used in
    meditation, which is aimed at liberation, how can it be permissible to set
    limits to the extent of that meditation, and say "it is OK to use
    pratiitya-samutpaada to deconstruct atma-vaada, but you should stop
    there, and not proceed to the deconstruction of the dhaatu of thought
    constructs." According to the bulk of the materials presented in the
    Buddhist tradition, this is the key to the attainment of wisdom. And once
    we come to this point, how can it be impermissible to speak of the
    enlightenment experience? Or to speak of what quality it is that sentient
    beings possess that makes the enlightenment experience possible?



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    1) Western access to this debate has been greatly
    enhanced by the recent publication of the book Pruning
    the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism
    edited by Jamie Hubbard and Paul Swanson (University
    of Hawaii Press, 1998). This book contains English
    translations of several of the most important essays by
    Profs. Hakamaya and Matsumoto, along with several
    other articles by Japanese and non-Japanese scholars
    that argue for various positions within the context of
    this debate. Most of the citations in this article have
    been made from this extremely valuable work.

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    2) Pruning, King, p. 187.

    3) Pruning, "Is Critical Buddhism Really Critical?" p.

    4) Pruning, "Critical Philosophy Versus Topical
    Philosophy," p. 72.

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    5) For a more thorough discussion of the meaning and
    usage of the t’i-yung framework, see my articles
    entitled "The Composition of Self-Transformation
    Thought in Classical East Asian Philosophy and
    Religion" (Toyo Gakuen Kiyo, vol. 4 (March, 1996), pp.
    141-152.) and "East Asia’s Unexplored Pivot of
    Metaphysics and Hermeneutics:
    Essence-Function/Interpenetration" (paper presented at
    the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of
    Religion, available on the WWWeb at

    indigenoushermeneutics.htm. The latter work is a revised
    expansion of the former.

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    6) Ibid, p. 73. Hakamaya claims here, without
    explanation, that Ito somehow understood the Analects
    better than almost any Chinese scholar.

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    7) It is true that one can isolate phrases and passages in
    such works as the Awakening of Faith, Sutra of
    Perfect Enlightenment
    and Platform Sutra (Liu-tsu
    六祖壇經 ) that seem to refer to a hypostatic,
    atman-like enlightenment, as there are passages in
    these works which suggest innate, or perfect
    enlightenment as the "source" for manifest events, such
    as actualized enlightenment, or the myriad phenomena.
    But we should consider the Chinese concept used to
    denote this concept of "source," is that of a spring (yan
    ) that is integrally connected to its branch streams–a
    direct analog of t’i.

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    8) T 842.17.914a10.

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    9) See Matsumoto, Pruning, "The Meaning of ‘Zen’", p.

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    10) T 2007.48.338c5-10.

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    11) T 842.17.914a15-19

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    12) T 842.17.914c2.

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    13) Li wrote a famous commentary to the Hua-yen
    ching entitled Hsin Hua-yen ching lun 新華嚴經論

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    14) Hanguk pulgyo chonso 4.768a.

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    15) For details regarding Kihwa’s life and works, please
    see My Ph.D. dissertation "Hamho Kihwa: A Study of
    his Major Works" (SUNY Stony Brook, 1993)

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    16) Commonly referred to in Korea as the O ka hae.
    This is Kihwa’s further annotation to the anonymous
    redaction of five separate commentaries to the
    Diamond Sutra. These commentators include Tsung-mi
    (宗密 780-841), Hui-neng (慧能 638-713), Shuang-lin fu
    (雙林傅, Fu Ta-shih 傅大士 497-569), Yeh-fu Tao-ch’uan
    (冶父道川 ) and Y-chang Tsung-ching (豫章宗鏡 ).

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    17) More commonly known as Hui-neng, the Sixth
    Patriarch. Thus Kihwa is referring to the content of the
    Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.

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    18) Hanguk pulgyochonso 7.12.c5-10.

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    19) The length of ^Saakyamuni’s teaching career.

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    20) In the above two sentences Kihwa is alluding to the
    famous dictum from the Heart Sutra, "form is
    emptiness, emptiness is form."

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    21) Hanguk pulgyo chonso 7.42c21-43a5.

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    22) T 235.8.750a.15-16.

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    23) Hanguk pulgyo chonso 7.56b.24-c.10.

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    24) Hanguk pulgyo chonso 7.36.a.10-13.

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    25) Hanguk pulgyo chonso 7.14a.15-22.

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    26) See especially, his Son’ga kwigam

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    27) Matsumoto, "The Meaning of Zen," Ibid, p. 244.
    Unfortunately, a source for this citation has not been
    provided to allow us to see the original Chinese text, or
    its context.

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    28) Ibid., p. 244.

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