Archive for the ‘The Hermitage’ Category

Forever Wander - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as Calligrapher-Beggar (Detail) by Ren Yi, 1887

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The Sixth Patriarch of Zen:

Clarifying the Mind, Seeing its Essential Nature


“Outside of Mind, there is no Buddha”. Calligraphy by Master Nan


The Platform Sutra, or Altar Sutra, of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Huineng, is one of the foundational works of the Zen school. As translator Thomas Cleary notes in his preface to his translation of “the Sutra of Hui-neng“: “Hui-neng characterized his teaching as the teaching of immediacy, based on direct insight into the essential nature of awareness. As a testimony of his eminent place in Zen tradition, the record of Hui-neng’s life and lectures is the only such document to be dignified with the title of sutra, or “scripture”, the word traditionally reserved, in Buddhist literature, for the teachings of a buddha.”

Master Nan Huai-chin (Nan Huaijin, 南懷瑾), one of the most revered lay Buddhist teachers of recent times, in his “Story of Chinese Zen“, provides a succinct summary on the background of the Platform Sutra before explaining the technical aspect of Zen meditation in plain language.

* * *


Master Nan Huai-chin

* * *

 The Sixth Patriarch of Zen

The stories about Master Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen, are favorite topics for discussion among people who lecture on Zen and the history of Chinese philosophical thought. I will present a brief introduction to his tale and then discuss several misunderstood issues therein.

Great Master Hui-neng was surnamed Lu in lay life. His ancestors were from Fan-yang (in Hopei, north China), but during the Wu-te era of the reign of Emperor Kao-tsu of the T’ang dynasty (618-626) his father was assigned to a post in Kuang-tung (Canton) province. At the age of three he lost his father, and his mother resolutely took care of him alone until he grew up.

Hui-neng’s family was poor and gathered wood for a living. One day as Hui-neng was carrying a load of kindling to market, he happened to hear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. When the recitation reached the passage that says, ”One should enliven the mind without dwelling on anything,” Hui-neng attained a degree of realization. The man who was reciting the sutra told him that it was a Buddhist scripture that the fifth patriarch of Zen, Hung-jen, who was teaching in Huang-mei (Hupei), always instructed people to read. Hui-neng then contrived a way to go to Huang-mei to seek to learn to practice Zen. (At that time he had not yet left society to become a monk.)

When the fifth patriarch, Zen Master Hung-jen, first saw him, he asked, “Where do you come from?”

Hui-neng answered, “From Ling-nan.”

The fifth patriarch then asked, “What do you want?”

“I only seek to become a Buddha.”

“People from Ling-nan have no Buddha nature; how can you become a Buddha?”

Hui-neng said in reply, “People may be from the south or the north, but how could the Buddha nature have any east or west?”

Hearing this, the fifth patriarch told Hui-neng to go to work with the rest of the people there. The future patriarch said, “My own mind always produces wisdom. Not straying from one’s own nature is itself a field of blessings. What would you have me do?” The fifth patriarch saw that his basic nature was extremely sharp, and told him to go pound rice in the mill, so Hui-neng went and labored there for eight months.

Then one day the fifth patriarch announced that he was going to hand on his robe and bowl and would choose someone to inherit the rank of patriarch. Therefore, he told everyone to present an expression of their mental attainment. Now at this time there were over seven hundred monks learning Zen from the fifth patriarch. Among them was a chief elder named Shen-hsiu, who had thoroughly studied both Buddhist and non-Buddhist classics and was looked up to by everyone in the community for his learning. He knew everyone was counting on him, so he wrote a verse on the wall of the hallway, saying,

The body is the tree of enlightenment,

The mind is like a clear mirror on a stand.

Diligently wipe it off again and again,

Don’t let it gather dust.

When the fifth patriarch had seen this verse, he said, “If people of later generations cultivate practice in accord with this, they will also attain superior results.” But when Hui-neng heard this verse from the other students, he commented, “That’s fine, all right, but not perfect.” The other students laughed at him saying, “What does an ordinary man like you know? Don’t talk crazy.”

Hui-neng replied, “You don’t believe me? I would like to add a verse.” The other students looked at each other and laughed without giving a reply. That night, Hui-neng secretly summoned a servant boy to come with him to the hall, and asked him to write a verse on the wall next to the one written by Shen-hsiu:

Enlightenment basically has no tree,

And the clear mirror has no stand;

Originally there is not a single thing;

Where can dust gather?

When the fifth patriarch saw this verse, he said, “Who composed this? He has not seen the essence either.” Everyone heard what the patriarch said, so they didn’t pay the verse any mind. That night, however, the fifth patriarch surreptitiously went to the mill and asked Hui-neng, “Is the rice whitened yet?”

Hui-neng answered, “It is whitened, but has not had a sifting yet.” (The word for “sifting” has the same sound as the word for “teacher.” This dialogue between teacher and student has a double meaning throughout.)

The fifth patriarch then knocked the pestle three times with his staff, and so Hui-neng entered his room in the third watch of the night, where he received the mental transmission of the fifth patriarch.

At that time the fifth patriarch repeatedly examined Hui-neng’s initial understanding of the meaning of “one should enliven the mind without dwelling on anything,” whereupon he penetrated all the way through to great enlightenment on hearing the patriarch’s words.

Then Hui-neng said, “All things are not apart from our intrinsic nature. Who would have expected that our intrinsic nature is inherently pure? Who would have expected that our intrinsic nature is basically unborn and unperishing? Who would have expected that our intrinsic nature is fundamentally complete in itself? Who would have expected that our intrinsic nature is basically immovable? Who would have expected that our intrinsic nature can produce all things?”

The fifth patriarch answered, “If you do not know the fundamental mind, study of doctrine is useless. If you do know the fundamental mind and see your own basic nature, then you are called a great man, a teacher of celestials and humans, a Buddha.” Then he handed on the robe and bowl, making Hui-neng the sixth patriarch of the spiritual lineage of Chinese Zen.

After the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen, had transmitted the mind seal, that very night he saw the sixth patriarch Hui-neng off on his way across the river to go south. Personally picking up the oar, he said, “I am ferrying you across!” But the sixth patriarch replied, “When deluded, one is ‘ferried across’ by a guide; when enlightened, one ferries oneself across. Although the expression ‘crossing over’ is the same, the usage is different. I have received the teacher’s communication of the Dharma, and have now attained enlightenment; it is only appropriate that I cross over by myself, of my own nature.” Hearing this, the fifth patriarch acceded, “So it is, so it is! Hereafter the Buddha Dharma will flourish through you.”

After this, the fifth patriarch stopped giving lectures. The whole community wondered about this, and asked about it, to which the fifth patriarch replied, “My Way has gone! Why inquire after it anymore?” Therefore the students asked, “Who got the robe and the Dharma?” The fifth patriarch replied, “The able one got them.”

Now the community got together to discuss this. Since the worker Lu was named (Hui-)neng, which means “able,” they decided that he must have received the Dharma and slipped away in secret. Therefore, they agreed to pursue him. After two months of searching, one of the party in pursuit, a former military leader who had left society to become a monk, a man named Hui-ming, went ahead and caught up with the sixth patriarch just as he reached the Ta-yu Range.

The sixth patriarch took the robe and bowl and tossed them onto a rock and said, “This robe just symbolizes evidence of truthfulness, that is all; why fight over it?” Hui-ming then tried to pick up the robe and bowl, but found that he could not even move them. He said, “I came for the Dharma, not for the robe!” The sixth patriarch responded, “Since you came for the Dharma, you should stop all entanglements and not give rise to a single thought; then I will explain it for you.”

Hearing this, Hui-ming stood still for a very long time; then the sixth patriarch finally said, “Don’t think of good, don’t think of evil: at this very moment, what is your original face?” Hui-ming attained great enlightenment at these words. He also asked, “Is there any other secret message aside from the esoteric meaning of the esoteric words you have just spoken?” The sixth patriarch said, “What I have told you is not a secret. If you look into yourself, you will find the secret is in you.”

Hui-ming then climbed down the mountain and claimed he had found no trace of anyone up on the ridge, and induced the posse to disperse.

After this, the sixth patriarch lived in anonymity among a group of hunters in south China. It was not until fifteen years later that he finally emerged from hiding and went to Fa-hsing monastery in Canton province, where the priest Yin-tsung happened to be lecturing on the Nirvana sutra. There he took shelter under the eaves.

One evening, as the wind was causing the monastery banner to flap noisily, two monks were debating about it: one said that it was the banner moving, the other said it was the wind moving. They kept on arguing ceaselessly, so the sixth patriarch commented, “It is not the wind moving, and it is not the banner moving either; it is your minds moving.” Because of this he was recognized by the priest Yin-tsung, who announced that he had found the sixth patriarch of Zen. Gathering the whole community, the priest shaved Hui-neng’s head, invested him with the precepts, and ordained him as a monk. Subsequently, he lived at Ts’ao-ch’i and spread the Way of Zen widely.

This is a brief history of the enlightenment and teaching of the sixth patriarch of Zen. Based on this story, I will present three issues for study, to enable everyone to avoid further misinterpretations in the understanding of Zen studies and in the investigation of Chinese cultural and philosophical history.


Grand Master Huineng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen

* * *

 The First Issue

The first issue has to do with the sixth patriarch’s enlightenment, clarifying the mind and seeing its essential nature, along with two expressions in Shen-hsiu’s verse. In the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, which has come down through history in several different versions, as well as in the records of the various texts of the Zen school, there are stories about the sixth patriarch’s first enlightenment that are not very much different from one another. In Chinese Zen, beginning with the fifth patriarch Hung-jen, people were instructed to recite the Diamond Prajnaparamita sutra as a means of entering the Way, thus changing Great Master Bodhidharma’s didactic method of using the Lankavatara sutra to seal the mind. This can only be called a change in the method of instruction; there is no difference at all in the essential message of Zen. The main import of the Diamond sutra is to clarify the mind and see its essential nature. Here and there it explains the truth of essential emptiness as realized by prajna. The method of cultivating practice to seek realization therein emphasizes the three words ”skillfully guarding mindfulness.” It explains the real character of essential emptiness, saying, “the past mind cannot be apprehended, the future mind cannot be apprehended, the present mind cannot be apprehended.” The goal is perfect knowledge of “enlivening the mind without dwelling on anything.”

For the sake of obtaining a general understanding of the Zen principle of governing the mind, I will presently use modern concepts to make a comparatively easy and lucid explanation. This can also serve as an instructional basis for cultivating practice, because it is a simple and swift method of cultivating mind and nurturing its essential nature.


Grand Master Huineng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen

Step One

First we have to quietly and calmly observe and examine our own inner consciousness and thoughts, and then make a simple analysis in two parts. The first part consists of the thoughts and ideas produced from sensory feelings like pain, pleasure, fullness and warmth, hunger, cold, and so on. All of these belong to the domain of sensory awareness; from them are derived activities of cognitive awareness, such as association and imagination. The other part consists of consciousness and thought produced by cognitive awareness, such as vague emotions, anxieties, anguish, discriminating thoughts regarding people, oneself, and inner or outer phenomena, and so on. Of course the latter part also includes intellectual and scholastic thinking, as well as the very capacity one has to observe one’s own psychological functions.

Step Two

The next step comes when you have arrived at the point where you are well able to understand the activity of your own psychological functions.

Whether they be in the domain of sensory awareness or in the domain of cognitive awareness, they are each referred to generally as a single thought: when you can reach the point where in the interval of each thought you can clearly observe each idea or thought that occurs to your mind, without any further absentmindedness, unawareness, or vagueness, then you can process them into three levels of observation.

Generally speaking, the preceding thought (thinking consciousness) that has just passed is called the past mind, or the prior thought; the succeeding thought (thinking consciousness) that has just arrived is called the present mind, or the immediate thought; while that which has yet to come is of course the future mind, or the latter thought. However, since the latter thought has not yet come, you do not concern yourself with it. But you must not forget that when you take note that the latter thought has not yet come, this itself is the present immediate thought; and the moment you realize it is present, it has at once already become the past.

Step Three

Now the next step is when you have practiced this inner observation successfully for a long time. You watch the past mind, present mind, and future mind with lucid clarity and then develop familiarity with the state of mind of the immediate present, when the past mind of the former thought has gone, and the future mind of the latter thought has not yet come. This state of mind in the instant of the immediate present then should subtly and gradually present an open blankness.

But this open blankness is not stupor, lightheadedness, or like the state before death. It is an open awareness that is lucid and clear, numinous and luminous. This is what the Zen masters of the Sung and Ming dynasties used to call the time of radiant awareness.


If you can really arrive at this state, you will then feel that your own consciousness and thinking, whether in the domain of sensory awareness or in the domain of cognitive awareness, are all like reflections on flowing water, like geese going through the endless sky, like the breeze coming over the surface of water, like flying swans over the snow: no tracks or traces can be found. Then you will finally realize that everything you think and do in everyday life is all nothing more than floating dust or reflections of light; there is fundamentally no way to grasp it, fundamentally no basis to rely upon. Then you will attain experiential understanding of the psychological state in which “the past mind cannot be apprehended, the future mind cannot be apprehended, the present mind cannot be apprehended.”

Step Four

Next after that, if you really understand the ungraspability of the past, present, and future mind and thought, when you look into yourself it will turn into a laugh.

By this means you will recognize that everything and every activity in this mind is all the ordinary person disturbing himself. From here, take another step further to examine and break through the pressure produced by biological sensation and the physical action and movement stimulated by thought, seeing it all as like bubbles, flecks of foam, or flowers in the sky. Even when you are not deliberately practicing self-examination, on the surface it seems like all of this is a linear continuity of activity; in reality what we call our activity is just like an electric current, like a wheel of fire, like flowing water: it only constitutes a single linear continuity by virtue of the connecting of countless successive thoughts. Ultimately there is no real thing at all therein. Therefore you will naturally come to feel that mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers, the body is not the body, the mind is not the mind. Every bit of all of this is just a dreamlike floating and sinking in the world, that is all. Thus you will spontaneously understand “enlivening the mind without dwelling on anything.” In reality, this is already the subtle function of “arousing the mind fundamentally having no place of abode.”

Step Five

Next, after you can maintain this state where you have clarified the consciousness and thinking in your mind, you should preserve this radiant, numinous awareness all the time, whether in the midst of stillness or in the midst of activity, maintaining it like a clear sky extending thousands of miles, not keeping any obscuring phenomena in your mind. Then when you have fully experienced this, you will finally be able to understand the truth of human life, and find a state of peace that is a true refuge. But you should not take this condition to be the clarification of mind and perception of essential nature to which Zen refers! And you should not take this to be the enlightenment to which Zen refers! The reason for this is because at this time there exists the function of radiant awareness, and you still don’t know its comings and goings, and where it arises. This time is precisely what Hanshan, the great Ming dynasty master, meant when he said, ”It is easy to set foot in a forest of thorns; it is hard to turn around at the window screen shining in the moonlight.”

In all of what I have said here, I have provisionally used a relatively modern method of explaining the conditions of human psychological activities and states. At the same time I have used this to explain what transpired when the sixth patriarch of Zen experienced an awakening on hearing someone recite the line of the Diamond sutra which says, “Enliven the mind without dwelling on anything.” If through this you can understand the process of inner work and mental realization represented by the verse composed by the sixth patriarch’s senior colleague Shen-hsiu, “The body is the tree of enlightenment, the mind is like a bright mirror stand; wipe it off diligently time and again, not letting it gather dust,” then you can thereby know the sixth patriarch’s realm of mental realization as represented by his verse, “Enlightenment basically has no tree, and the bright mirror has no stand; originally there is not a single thing, so where can dust gather?” If you make a comparison between these two, you will naturally be able to understand why the fifth patriarch Hung-jen summoned the sixth patriarch to his room in the third watch of the night and entrusted him with the robe and bowl.

However, “Originally there is not a single thing, so where can dust gather,” still represents his attainment before he received the transmission of the robe and bowl. Don’t forget the states mentioned above, because the state of “originally there is not a single thing” is like the realm of apricot blossoms in the snowy moonlight, which although clear and refined, is after all only one side of the matter, the silent cold of empty silence devoid of any living potential. The time the sixth patriarch made a complete breakthrough to great enlightenment was when he went into the fifth patriarch’s room in the third watch of the night, and the fifth patriarch questioned him closely about “enlivening the mind without dwelling on anything,” forcing him to go a step further to understand thoroughly the ultimate basis of the essential nature of mind. That is why he said, “Who would have expected that intrinsic nature is fundamentally pure of itself? Who would have expected that intrinsic nature is fundamentally unborn and unperishing? Who would have expected that intrinsic nature is fundamentally complete in itself? Who would have expected that intrinsic nature is fundamentally immovable? Who would have expected that intrinsic nature can produce myriad phenomena?” This finally represents the realm of immediacy and enlightenment in the “sudden enlightenment at a word” spoken of in Zen.

But it will not do to forget how the sixth patriarch lived in hiding among a group of hunters after that, spending fifteen years at sustained cultivation after his enlightenment. By this it can be understood how the Lankavatara sutra brings up both the sudden and the gradual, and Zen includes both the sudden and the gradual. As it is said in the Surangama sutra, “The principle is to be understood all at once; then, using this understanding to clear them up, phenomena are to be worked on gradually, exhausted through a step-by-step process.” This indicates the equal importance of sudden and gradual. Nowadays people who talk about Zen studies cling to this one phrase “originally there is not a single thing,” and are liable to do just about anything; it’s a wonder they don’t fall into the views of crazy Zen! You must know that Zen actually has a rigorous process of practical work, and is not a matter of empty talk or wild self-approval; only then can you approach authentic Zen.


“Zen and Taoism”, Chinese edition.

The Second Issue   

The second issue has to do with the expression “don’t think of good, don’t think of evil.” In the story of the sixth patriarch’s enlightenment, I spoke of what transpired when the monk Hui-ming caught up with the sixth patriarch on the Ta-yu Range and declared he had come for the Way rather than to take the robe and bowl. The sixth patriarch therefore first told him, “Don’t think of good, don’t think of evil.” After quite a long while, the sixth patriarch then asked him, “At precisely this moment, what is your original face?” In other words, he was asking, “When you are not thinking of good or evil in your heart, and there is no thinking going on in your mind at all, what is your original face?”

Because very few of the later readers of the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch have done any real Zen work, they overlook the meaning of the expression “quite a long while.” And they also take the interrogative “what” in “what is your original face” and read it as if it were the demonstrative “that.” Thus they suppose that when this mind is “not thinking of good and not thinking of evil,” this itself is the fundamental basis of the essential nature of mind. Hence there has come to be the misunderstanding that recognition of the absence of good and evil is itself the essence of mind. If this be so, can mentally retarded people, mentally ill people who have lost the power of coherent thinking, and brain damaged people all be considered to have attained the realm of Zen?

Thus it should be clear to you that when you reach the point at which you are “not thinking of good and not thinking of evil,” only when the open clarity of your mental state produces the realm of all subtle understanding can it be considered the initial enlightenment of Zen. And this can only be said to be initial enlightenment; this is the beginning of what the sixth patriarch referred to as the secret being in you. If people misunderstand this story, they are really in danger of fooling themselves and misleading others; that is why I have made a particular point of presenting this to you for you to reflect upon.

The Third Issue      

The third issue has to do with “it is not the wind moving, nor is it the pennant moving; it is your minds moving.” This is the sixth patriarch’s first exercise of his potential after having just emerged from the mountains, and it is an example of what was called acuity of mind in later Zen. It is a kind of subtle saying characteristic of the situational teaching method; it is not the essential teaching of Zen that points to clarification of mind and perception of its nature. It is equivalent to the saying that “wine does not intoxicate people, people intoxicate themselves; sex does not delude people, people delude themselves,” which are similar witticisms.

“When the clouds race by, the moon runs swiftly; when the shoreline shifts, the boat is traveling.” Can you tell who is moving and who is still? If you are asleep, even if “on both banks the cries of the monkeys go on and on; the light boat has already passed the myriad mountains,” nevertheless you do not see or hear; so how could you compose such a marvelous expression? This is what is referred to in the Only Consciousness doctrine of Buddhism as the wind of objects blowing the waves of consciousness, the principle that all feelings and thoughts are dependent on something else, stirred up by the wind of external objects. It is not the essence of mind of Zen Buddhism, the completely real nature of mind that has the same root as the universe and all things.

Some people often take up the saying “it is your minds moving,” from the story of the wind and the pennant, and equate it with having attained complete understanding of the mind teaching of Zen. That is really a hundred and eighty thousand miles from Zen. If it were so, would modern psychological analysis not be sufficient to reach the realm of Zen? What further need would there be to talk about Zen? If you look at the great Zen masters of the T’ang and Sung dynasties in terms of this manner of understanding, you would certainly have to scorn Zen as a useless practice. Just like “a row of white herons rising into the blue sky,” the farther the flight, the more remote it becomes!

[The Story of Chinese Zen, by Master Nan Huai-chin, translated by Thomas Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser, 1995]


“The Story of Chinese Zen”

* * *

Further Reading:

The Platform Sutra: Translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, Commentary by Master Hsuan-hua

The Platform Sutra: Translation by Wong Mou-lam & C. Humphreys

The Platform Sutra: Translation & Commentary by P. Yampolsky

Commentary on the Platform Sutra by Ven. Sheng-Yen

The Platform Sutra: Translation by John McRae

The Platform Sutra – many different texts, translations and articles

The Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, translation by Charles Luk (Lu Kuan-yu):

Part 1.


Textual study of the Platform Sutra

 Excerpts from the Platform Sutra translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)


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Weigh This Well - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: A Beggar at Mt. Luofu (Detail) by Su Liupeng (1796 – 1892)

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六祖斫竹圖 by Liang Kai

‘Madman Liang’ – Liang Kai (梁楷)

(c. 1140 – c. 1210)

‘Liang Kai treasured his ink as if it were gold,
but when he got drunk, their drops could suddenly turn into a downpour.’

- Chan Monk Beijian, 1246

A master of spontaneous technique, Liang Kai, or ‘Madman Liang’, is often credited with the creation of the Chan or Zen school of painting.

Born in Dongping in China’s Shandong province, Liang Kai was taught to paint by Master Jia Shigu and served as a Painter-in-Attendance at the Imperial Painting Academy in Hangzhou in the Jia Tai era (1202-1204) of Emperor Ingzong of the Southern Song period, where he was greatly influenced by the “Big Four” of the Southern Song – Li Tang (李唐), Liu Songnian (劉松年), Ma Yuan (馬遠) and Xia Gui (夏珪).

Whilst there he was bestowed with the prestigious golden belt – ‘jindai‘ – in recognition of his mastery in painting figures, landscapes and other subjects. For some reason (which some speculate was connected with his great fondness for alcohol), he declined this honor and decided to hang the belt up in his office and leave the court to go and live in the Liutong temple, near Lin’an. A decision which appeared bizarre to his peers and earned him the nickname of ‘Madman Liang’.

Now, no longer bound by the conventions of the Academy and the Court, he went about developing his own style of painting which was very different from the ‘gōng bĭ‘ (工笔), ‘meticulous’ style of the time.

Immortal in Splashed Ink by Liang Kai

The style he developed is often described as ‘jianbi‘ (减笔), meaning ‘abbreviated brush’.

Influenced by his Chan Buddhist practice and studies with Chan Master Wuzhun (1177-1249), Liang Kai strove in his paintings to evoke the subject or atmosphere with the minimum number of brush strokes required.

However, although this style allowed for the beauty of accidental effects, it also required a mastery of painting technique to allow them to occur naturally and without force or effort.

In his ‘abbreviated’ style it is not only the fingers that move when using the brush. Their movements must also be coordinated with the movement of the wrist, elbow and shoulder, so that the brush is used with the wrist suspended. In Liang Kai’s paintings; executed predominantly in monochrome ink, we see then not just the Chan principles of simplicity and spontaneity but also those of concentration and mindfulness.

It is in his later paintings, that this Chan (Zen) style of painting is most evident, along with his total control of  both ink and brush. And it is  these works and those of his Sichuan based contemporary Fa Chang (法常) which were to go on and inspire later painters such as Lin Liang (林良), Xu Wei,(徐渭) and Bada Shanren amongst many others.

六祖破經圖 -1

Unfortunately, because Chan painting (and that of the Southern Song period), has never been popular with Chinese collectors, all of the remaining works by Liang Kai are no longer in China but in Japan, where they have been rightfully prized and have had a huge influence on Japanese painting, especially ‘suibokuga’ (水墨画)  – Japanese monochrome ink painting.

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Ni Zan: Dreaming about Wang Xizhi (幾夢山陰王右軍)


The dream world cannot be found
away from my pillow –
but nowhere on the pillow can I find it.
And when I am in the dream world
my pillow might as well not exist.
Awake, I feel my dreams are empty;
in dream, the waking world has disappeared.
Can I be sure that the waking universe
has no pillow beneath it?
If dream and waking alternate,
which is fantasy, which is real?

Yüan Hung-tao

Pilgrim of the Clouds, Weatherhill, 1978                                                                                            Poems and Essays from Ming China, translated by Jonathan Chaves

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都心  -  孟大龍

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After living with Uncle for a few months and continuing my lessons to private students, I felt a great urge to travel again, if only for a few days. I had just been reading the Sutra of Hui Nêng (Wei Lang) which relates how a reputedly illiterate man became Sixth Patriarch of the Zen Sect well over a thousand years ago. Another monk had composed a poem comparing an enlightened mind to a bright mirror on which no dust (illusion) can collect. On having this read to him, Hui Nêng replied with another poem in which he declared that the ‘mirror’ has no existence and asked whereon such dust can collect. In this way he expressed his intuitive understanding of the voidness of all phenomena, including both illusions and the separate minds of individuals. This expression of enlightened understanding of Zen’s deepest truth won for him the Fifth Patriarch’s symbolical robe and bowl. After his death all those centuries ago, his body had miraculously resisted decay and, according to widespread belief, was still to be seen at the Nan Hua Monastery in North Kwangtung…

The present Abbot was no other than the Venerable Hsü Yün (虚云 / Xū Yún), who was believed to be well over a hundred years old, though still able to walk as much as thirty miles a day. He was renowned all over China as the greatest living Master of Zen; so I was delighted to hear the unexpected news that he had just returned after an absence of several months spent in a distant province. Not long after my arrival, I excitedly followed the Reverend Receiver of Guests to pay my respects to this almost mythical personage. I beheld a middle-sized man with a short, wispy beard and remarkable penetrating eyes. He was not precisely youthful-looking as I had been led to expect, but had one of those ageless faces not uncommon in China. Nobody could have guessed that he was already a centenarian. Finding myself in his presence, I became virtually tongue-tied and had to rack my brains for something to say, although there was so much I could profitably have asked him. At last, I managed to ask:

Is this famous monastery purely Zen, Your Reverence?”

Oh yes,” he answered in a surprisingly vigorous voice. “It is a great centre of Zen.”

So you do not worship Amida Buddha or keep his statue here?”

The question seemed to puzzle him, for he took some time to reply.

But certainly we keep his statue here. Every morning and evening we perform rites before it and repeat the sacred name while circumambulating the altar.”

Then the monastery is not purely Zen,” I persisted, puzzled in my turn.

Why not? It is like every other Zen monastery in China. Why should it be different? Hundreds of years ago there were many sects, but the teachings have long been synthesized – which is as it should be. If by Zen, you mean the practice of Zen meditation, why, that is the very essence of Buddhism. It leads to a direct perception of Reality in this life, enabling us to transcend duality and go straight to the One Mind. This One Mind, otherwise known as our Original Nature, belongs to everybody and everything. But the method is very hard – hard even for those who practise it night and day for years on end. How many people are prepared or even able to do that? The monastery also has to serve the needs of simple, illiterate people. How many of them would understand if we taught only the highest method? I speak of the farmers on our own land here and of the simple pilgrims who come for the great annual festivals. To them we offer that other way – repetition of the sacred name – which is yet the same way adapted for simple minds. They believe that by such repetition they will gain the Western Paradise and there receive divine teaching from Amida Buddha himself – teaching which will lead them directly to Nirvana.”

At once reluctantly and somewhat daringly I answered: “I see. But isn’t that a kind of – well, a sort of – of – er – deception? Good, no doubt, but…”

I broke off, not so much in confusion as because the Venerable Hsü Yün was roaring with laughter.

Deception? Deception? Ha, ha, ha, ha-ha! Not at all. Not a bit. No, of course not.”

Then Your Reverence, if you too believe in the Western Heaven and so on, why do you trouble to teach the much harder road to Zen?”

I do not understand the distinction you are making. They are identical.”


Listen, Mr P’u. Zen manifests self-strength; Amidism manifests other-strength. You rely on your own efforts, or you rely on the saving power of Amida. Is that right?”

Yes. But they are – I mean, they seem – entirely different from each other.”

I became aware that some of the other monks were beginning to look at me coldly, as though I were showing unpardonable rudeness in pertinaciously arguing with this renowned scholar and saint; but the Master, who was quite unperturbed, seemed to be enjoying himself.

Why insist so much on this difference?” he asked. “You know that in reality there is nought but the One Mind. You may choose to regard it as in you or out of you, but “in” and “out” have no ultimate significance whatever – just as you, Mr P’u, and I and Amida Buddha have no real separateness. In ordinary life, self is self and other is other; in reality they are the same. Take Bodhidharma who sat for nine years in front of a blank wall. What did he contemplate? What did he see? Nothing but his Original Self, the true Self beyond duality. Thus he saw Reality face to face. He was thereby freed from the Wheel and entered Nirvana, never to be reborn – unless voluntarily as a Bodhisattva.”

Yet, Reverence, I do not think that Bodhidharma spoke of Amida. Or am I wrong?”

True, true. He did not. But when Farmer Wang comes to me for teaching, am I to speak to him of his Original Self or of Reality and so on? What do such terms mean to him? Morning and evening, he repeats the sacred name, concentrating on it until he grows oblivious of all else. In time, after a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime or several lifetimes, he achieves such a state of perfect concentration that duality is transcended and he, too, comes face to face with Reality. He calls the power by which he hopes to achieve this Amida; you call it Zen; I may call it Original Mind. What is the difference? The power he thought was outside himself was inside all the time.”

Deeply struck by this argument and anxious, perhaps, to display my acquaintance with the Zen way of putting things, I exclaimed:

I see, I see. Bodhidharma entered the shrine-room from the sitting-room. Farmer Wang entered it through the kitchen, but they both arrived at the same place. I see.”

No,” answered the Zen Master, “you do not see. They didn’t arrive at any place. They just discovered that there is no place for them to reach.”

An Extract from The Wheel of Life by John Blofeld, Rider and Company, 1959

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Excerpts from the Zen teaching of Instantaneous Awakening,

by Ch’an Master Hui Hai, translation by John Blofeld.

Q: What method must we practice in order to attain deliverance?

A: It can be attained only through a sudden illumination.

Q: What is a sudden illumination?

A: ‘Sudden’ means ridding yourselves of deluded thoughts instantaneously. ‘Illumination’ means the realization that illumination is not something to be attained.

Q: From where do we start this practice?

A: You must start from the very root.

Q: And what is that?

A: Mind is the root.

Q: How can this be known?

A: The Lankavatara Sutra says: “When mental processes (hsin) arise, then do all dharmas (phenomena) spring forth; and when mental processes cease, then do all dharmas cease likewise.”

Q: By what means is the root-practice to be performed?

A: Only by sitting in meditation, for it is accomplished by dhyana (ch’an) and samadhi (ting). The Dhyana-paramita Sutra says: “Dhyana and samadhi are essential to the search for the sacred knowledge of the Buddhas; for, without these, the thoughts remain in tumult and the roots of goodness suffer damage.”

Q: Please describe dhyana and samadhi.

A: When wrong thinking ceases, that is dhyana; when 
you sit contemplating your original nature, that is samadhi, for indeed that original nature is your eternal mind. By 
 samadhi, you withdraw your minds from their surroundings, thereby making them impervious to the eight winds, that is to say, impervious to gain and loss, calumny and 
 eulogy, praise and blame, sorrow and joy. By concentrating 
 in this way, even ordinary people may enter the state of Buddhahood. How can that be so? The Sutra of the Bodhisattva-Precepts says: “All beings who observe the Buddha-precept thereby enter Buddhahood.” Other names for this 
are ‘deliverance’, ‘gaining the further shore’, ‘transcending the six states of mortal being ‘o’erleaping the three 
worlds’ or ‘becoming a mighty Bodhisattva, an omnipotent sage, a conqueror’!

Q: Whereon should the mind settle and dwell?

A: It should settle upon nondwelling and there dwell.

Q: What is this nondwelling?

A: It means not allowing the mind to dwell upon anything whatsoever.

Q: And what is the meaning of that?

A: Dwelling upon nothing means that the mind is not fixed upon good or evil, being or nonbeing, inside or outside, or somewhere between the two, void or nonvoid, 
 concentration or distraction. This dwelling upon nothing is the state in which it should dwell; those who attain to it 
are said to have nondwelling minds – in other words, they have Buddha-minds!

Q: What are the ‘three methods of training (to be performed) at the same level’ and what is meant by performing them on the same level?

A: They are discipline (vinaya), concentration (dhyana) and wisdom (prajna).

Q: Please explain them one by one.

A: Discipline involves stainless purity. Concentration involves the stilling of your minds so that you remain 
wholly unmoved by surrounding phenomena. Wisdom 
means that your stillness of mind is not disturbed by your giving any thought to that stillness, that your purity is unmarred by your entertaining any thought of purity and that, in the midst of all such pairs of opposites as good and evil, you are able to distinguish between them without being stained by them and, in this way, to reach the state of being perfectly at ease and free of all dependence. Furthermore, if you realize that discipline, concentration and wisdom are all alike in that their substance is intangible and that, hence, they are undivided and therefore one – that is what is meant by three methods of training 
 performed at the same level.

Q: When the mind rests in a state of purity, will that not give rise to some attachment to purity?

A: If, on reaching the state of purity, you refrain from thinking; “Now my mind is resting in purity”, there will be no such attachment.

Q: When the mind rests in a state of void, will that not entail some attachment to void? 
 A: If you think of your mind as resting in a state of void, then there will be such an attachment.

Q: When the mind reaches this state of not dwelling upon anything, and continues in that state, will there not be some attachment to its not dwelling upon anything?

A: So long as your mind is fixed solely on void, there
is nothing to which you can attach yourself. If you want to understand the nondwelling mind very clearly, while you are actually sitting in meditation, you must be cognizant only of the mind and not permit yourself to make judgments – that is, you must avoid evaluations in terms of good, evil, or anything else. Whatever is past is past, so do not sit in judgment upon it; for, when minding about the past ceases of itself, it can be said that there is no longer any past. Whatever is in the future is not here yet, so do not direct your hopes and longings towards it; for, when minding about the future ceases of itself, it can be said that there is no future. Whatever is present is now at hand; just be conscious of your nonattachment to everything – nonattachment in the sense of not allowing any love or aversion for anything to enter your mind; for, when minding the present ceases of itself, we may say that there 
 is no present. When there is no clinging to any of those three periods, they may be said not to exist. Should your mind wander away, do not follow it, whereupon your wandering mind will stop wandering of its own accord. Should your mind desire to linger somewhere, do not follow it and do not dwell there, whereupon your mind’s questing for a dwelling place will cease of its own accord. Thereby, you will come to possess a nondwelling mind – a mind which remains in the state of nondwelling. If you are fully aware in yourself of a
nondwelling mind, you will discover that there is just the fact of dwelling, with nothing to dwell upon or not to dwell upon. This full awareness in yourself of a mind 
 dwelling upon nothing is known as having a clear perception of your own mind, or, in other words, as having a clear perception of your own nature. A mind which dwells upon nothing is the Buddha-mind, the mind of one already delivered, bodhi-mind, uncreate mind; it is also called ‘realization that the nature of all appearances is unreal’. It is this which the sutras call ‘patient realization of the uncreate’. If you have not realized it yet, you must
strive and strive, you must increase your exertions. Then, 
 when your efforts are crowned with success, you will have attained to understanding from within yourself – an understanding stemming from a mind that abides nowhere, by which we mean a mind free from delusion and reality alike. A mind disturbed by love and aversion is deluded; a mind free from both of them is real; and a mind thus 
freed reaches the state in which opposites are seen as void, whereby freedom and deliverance are obtained.

Q: Are we to make this effort only when we are sitting in meditation, or also when we are walking about?

A: When I spoke just now of making an effort, I did not mean only when you are sitting in meditation; for,
whether you are walking, standing, sitting, lying, or whatever you are doing, you must uninterruptedly exert yourselves all the time. This is what we call ‘constantly abiding’ (in that state).

Q: The sutras speak not only of samyak-sambodhi (full enlightenment), but also of a marvellous enlightenment lying even beyond that. Please explain these terms.

A: Samyak-sambodhi is the realization of the identity of form and voidness. Marvellous enlightenment is the 
realization of the absence of opposites, or we can say that it means the state of neither enlightenment nor nonenlightenment.

Q: Do these two sorts of enlightenment really differ or 

A: Their names are expediently used for the sake of temporary convenience, but in substance they are one, being neither dual nor different. This oneness and sameness 
 characterize all phenomena of whatever kind.

This eighth-century classic is a complete translation of the teachings of Ch’an Master Hui Hai (大珠慧海). Hui Hai was one of the early masters, along with Ma Tsu and Huang Po, who followed on from Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch.

Further reading:
• The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma – Outline of Practice
• The Transmission of Mind – Huang Po

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Excerpts from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po on the Transmission of Mind

Translated by John Blofeld

All the Buddhas and all sentient Beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured. The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp

Mind. Even though they do their utmost for a full aeon, they will not be able to attain to it. They do not know that, if they put a stop to conceptual thought and forget their anxiety, the Buddha will appear before them, for this Mind is the Buddha and the Buddha is all living beings. It is not the less for being manifested in ordinary beings, nor is it greater for being manifested in the Buddhas.

As to performing the six paramitas and vast numbers of similar practices, or gaining merits as countless as the sands of the Ganges, since you are fundamentally complete in every respect, you should not try to supplement that perfection by such meaningless practices. When there is occasion for them, perform them; and, when the occasion is passed, remain quiescent. If you are not absolutely convinced that the Mind is the Buddha, and if you are attached to forms, practices and meritorious performances, your way of thinking is false and quite incompatible with the Way. The Mind is the Buddha, nor are there any other Buddhas or any other mind. It is bright and spotless as the void, having no form or appearance whatever. To make use of your minds to think conceptually is to leave the substance and attach yourselves to form. The Ever-Existent Buddha is not a Buddha of form or attachment. To practise the six paramitas and a myriad similar practices with the intention of becoming a Buddha thereby is to advance by stages, but the Ever-Existent Buddha is not a Buddha of stages. Only awake to the One Mind, and there is nothing whatsoever to be attained. This is the REAL Buddha. The Buddha and all sentient beings are the One Mind and nothing else.

Mind is like the void in which there is no confusion or evil, as when the sun wheels through it shining upon the four corners of the world. For, when the sun rises and illuminates the whole earth, the void gains not in brilliance; and, w hen the sun sets, the void does not darken. The phenomena of light and dark alternate with each other, but the nature of the void remains unchanged. So it is with the Mind of the Buddha and of sentient beings. If you look upon the Buddha as presenting a pure, bright or Enlightened appearance, or upon sentient beings as presenting a foul, dark or mortal-seeming appearance, these conceptions resulting from attachment to form will keep you from supreme knowledge even after the passing of as many aeons as there are sands in the Ganges. There is only the One Mind and not a particle of anything else on which to lay hold, for this Mind is the Buddha. If you students of the Way do not awake to this Mind substance, you will overlay Mind with conceptual thought, you will seek the Buddha outside yourselves, and you will remain attached to forms, pious practices and so on, all of which are harmful and not at all the way to supreme knowledge.

This Mind is no mind of conceptual thought and it is completely detached from

form. So Buddhas and sentient beings do not differ at all. If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. But if you students of the Way do not rid yourselves of conceptual thought in a flash, even though you strive for aeon after aeon, you will never accomplish it. Enmeshed in the meritorious practices of the Three Vehicles, you will be unable to attain Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the realization of the One Mind may come after a shorter or a longer period. There are those who, upon hearing this teaching, rid themselves of conceptual thought in a flash. There are others who do this after following through the Ten Beliefs, the Ten Stages, the Ten Activities and the Ten Bestowals of Merit. Yet others accomplish it after passing through the Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva’s Progress. But whether they transcend conceptual thought by a longer or a shorter way, the result is a state of BEING: there is no pious practising and no action of realizing. That there is nothing which can be attained is not idle talk; it is the truth. Moreover, whether you accomplish your aim in a single flash of thought or after going through the Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva’s Progress, the achievement will be the same; for this state of being admits of no degrees, so the latter method merely entails aeons of unnecessary suffering and toil.

Our original Buddha-Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy and that is all. Enter deeply into it by awaking to it yourself. That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside.


I became ill and, receiving permission (from His Britannic Majesty’s Embassy) to rest for a few weeks in the country, I went to stay in an old monastery in the heart of the hills beyond Chungking…

… One day, while I was pottering about the monastery, I fell into conversation with the elderly monk in charge of the block-printing press which had for centuries been reproducing Buddhist works from heavy blocks of wood on each of which the text of a single page was beautifully hand-engraved. Thus a book containing one hundred pages required one hundred separate blocks of wood. The disadvantages of this method of printing are obvious; the advantage is that the lovely engravings are preserved virtually for ever, so that reprints can be made at any time. After showing me the press, my guide took me to the library and offered to lend me some of the volumes produced in that monastery during the last several hundred years. They included a work of one of the early Zen Masters, the Tun Wu Ju Chieh Yao Mên Lun, which title can be roughly translated as ‘The Path to Sudden Attainment'; it was composed by the T’ang scholar Hui Hai.

I carried this volume, excellently printed on soft paper, back to my cell and began to examine it. Presently it occurred to me that, though the content was very deep, the wording was such that a man with some knowledge of Zen would not find it too difficult to translate. It contained some very striking paradoxes, of which one caught my eye as soon as I opened the book for the first time.

A fool seeks for the Buddha, not for Mind.

A sage seeks for Mind, not for the Buddha.

… The more I read, the more I was tempted to essay a translation into English, which I finally produced. I know now that it was not a very good translation and that it contained far too many mistakes. Nevertheless, it did open up a new kind of work for me, culminating (up to now) in my new translation of the Dialogues and Sermons of Huang Po, one of the greatest of the early Zen Masters. It is a work which wonderfully expounds Zen, pointing directly to the way for us to come face to face with Reality! I feel that if I were to die tomorrow, at least my life would have produced one fruit of value to seekers after Truth. This is not a specially profitable thought, but somehow comforting. I often think that, if I had not fallen ill at that time and conceived the idea of translating Hui Hai’s book, I might never have thought of embarking upon this kind of work. That is why I feel sure that my Karma caused me that illness, not in the usual way of a penalty for disobeying some of nature’s spiritual or material laws, but that a great purpose might be fulfilled.

John Blofeld, The Wheel of Life, Rider and Company, 1959

Further reading:
• The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma – Outline of Practice
• Instantaneous Awakening – Ch’an Master Hui Hai

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Outline of Practice 

Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.

To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.

First, suffering injustice. When those who search for the Path encounter adversity, they should think to themselves, “In countless ages gone by, I’ve turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now, though I do no wrong, I’m punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say, “When you meet with adversity don’t be upset because it makes sense.” With such understanding you’re in harmony with reason. And by suffering injustice you enter the Path.

Second, adapting to conditions. As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change, it ends. Why delight In Its existence? But while success and failure depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes. Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path.

Third, seeking nothing. People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something – always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop Imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path.

Fourth, practicing the Dharma. The Dharma is the truth that all natures are pure. By this truth, all appearances are empty. Defilement and attachment, subject and object don’t exist. The sutras say, “The Dharma includes no being because it’s free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self because it’s free from the impurity of self.” Those wise enough to believe and understand these truths are bound to practice according to the Dharma. And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. And to eliminate impurity they teach others, but without becoming attached to form. Thus, through their own practice they’re able to help others and glorify the Way of Enlightenment. And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues. But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all. This is what’s meant by practicing the Dharma.

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine

Further reading:
The Transmission of Mind – Huang Po
Instantaneous Awakening – Ch’an Master Hui Hai

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