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Nan Huai-ch’in’s Recollections of Li Zongwu



Statues of Nan Huai-ch’in (left) and Li Zongwu (right).


In his youth, Master Nan Huai-ch’in was in the habit of seeking out all manner of spiritual masters, martial arts masters, and educated people from whom to learn. One such person was the ‘founder of Thick Black Theory,’ Li Zongwu, of whom Master Nan has left this affectionate portrait, presumably written some time in the 1990s, included in recent editions of Li’s Collected Works.  This depiction is in stark contrast to the image given by Li’s written work, that of a cynical, embittered contrarian.


An early edition of Li Zongwu’s book


In recent years, Li Zongwu’s book Thick Black Theory has become something of a bestseller in Taiwan, Hong Kong as well as mainland China, where many people like to read it. But, contemporary readers quite likely do not understand the historical background to this work, and fewer yet know of Li Zongwu himself. Li Zongwu was a man from Sichuan, who called himself ‘the Founder of Thick Black Theory.’ Thick Black Theory means having a thick skin and a black heart.

I spent some time with Li Zongwu and had a connection with him, and in my mind, Li Zongwu was not in the slightest either ‘thick’ or ‘black.’ In fact, it could even be said that he was very kind-hearted.

I came to know Li Zongwu just before the war against Japan, I don’t recall precisely when. At that time, I was in Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, and was not at all a big city like Hong Kong, where the pace of life is so fast. In my mind, everyone took life at a leisurely pace, and even until now, I still cherish those memories of Chengdu.

When I moved to Chengdu from Zhejiang, I had just turned twenty years old. Us outsiders foreign to the province were called ‘Southerners,’ and the locals weren’t too fond of us. At that time, I wanted to learn Taoism with all my heart, as well as ‘flying sword kung fu’ in order to go fight the Japanese.

So I often went to visit famous and cultured people, and those who had kung fu skills. In Chengdu at the time, there was a small park, Shaocheng Park, which had a lot of teahouses and chess tables. You could brew a pot of tea and sit there half the day, or all day long, and when you left, you paid. If you had to leave to go do something, you could leave the lid upside-down on the pot of tea, and the owner of the teahouse would leave it there until you came back. If you hadn’t got any money to drink tea, that was alright too. When the owner asked you what you wanted to drink, you could just ask for a glass, and they would bring you a glass of water. I don’t think we’ll see this kind of rural atmosphere ever again.

Shaocheng Park was the gathering place for the famous literati, the old fogeys and young diehards. You would often see people wearing old-style scholar’s robes and cotton shoes, all manner of eccentric characters. These were exactly the kind of people I was looking for, so I became a frequent visitor to the park.

For the people there, I was just a young blow-in. I wore a Sun Yat-sen style suit and I was from Zhejiang, the same place as Chiang Kai-shek. Some people were suspicious of me at first, thinking that I had been sent there by Chiang. After a while, people began to slowly understand that I was there to learn, their suspicions faded, and I began to make friends with some of these older people.

One day, I was at Shaocheng Park drinking tea and playing chess with some of these older gentlemen, when a man walked in. He was very tall, hunched over and wore a felt hat. He looked rather peculiar, like someone from ancient times. When they saw him come in, everyone nodded and said hello. I asked my friend Mr Liang who that was, and he said, “You don’t know who he is? He’s the founder of Thick Black Theory, Li Zongwu. He’s very famous in Sichuan.” Mr Liang then told me Li Zongwu’s story, and I said I really wanted to meet him, so I asked Mr Liang to introduce us. Mr Liang brought me over and introduced me to Li Zongwu, saying, “This Nan lad, he’s not from around here, but he’s a young friend of mine.” I quickly said, “I have long heard of your esteemed name,” even though I had only just heard of it! This kind of faux politeness is sometimes necessary.

The founder of Thick Black Theory invited us to sit down and have some tea and a chat. Our so-called chat consisted of us sitting there and listening to him expound his theories, talk about the Japanese occupation, listen to him curse the Sichuan Army and listen to him curse such and such a person as being worthless. That was my first time meeting the founder of Thick Black Theory, but later, I would often meet him in Shaocheng Park.

One time, the founder of Thick Black Theory told me: “I see you have heroic ideas, and in the future you will be able to make a difference. However, I will teach you a way to become a hero even quicker! If you want to be successful and famous, you have to curse people, curse those who are already famous. You needn’t curse anyone else though, just curse me, Li Zongwu, that good-for-nothing bastard! In that way you will succeed. However, all the while you must paste on your forehead a sheet of paper extolling Confucius, while you hold a tablet honouring me enshrined in your heart!”

I didn’t take his advice, so I never made a name for myself.

One time, I said to him: “Teacher, please don’t speak any more of this Thick Black Theory, please stop insulting people.” He said: “I do not insult people casually. Every one of those people has a thick face and a black heart. I am only ripping the mask off.”

I said: “I heard that the Central Government is starting to pay attention to you, and that there are people out to get you.”

He said: “My boy, you don’t understand. Einstein and I are the same age. He invented the theory of relativity and now he is a world-renowned scientist. Me, I have not even become famous in Sichuan or Chengdu. I hope they arrest me, I’ll become world-famous as soon as I’m sitting in prison.”

In the end, Li Zongwu wasn’t arrested, and thus never became world-famous.

He once said to me: “My luck isn’t good, unlike Cai Yuanpei or Liang Qichao.” Yet, his book on Thick Black Theory has been popular for a half century now. Many people like to read it, something I think he himself never foresaw.

His title of ‘Founder of Thick Black Theory’ was entirely self-styled: he never had a “church,” an organisation, nor a single follower. He was a rather lonely, solitary man.

At the time, many people liked to read his books, but not many people dared to have anything to do with him, being afraid of getting on his bad side. Not me though, I was not afraid and I still often met with him.

After a year or two, a friend of mine, a monk I’d known from Hangzhou, passed away in Ziliujing, now called Zigong. As I owed him a debt of gratitude, I decided to go to Ziliujing to pay my respects. My good friend, a monk called Qianji, also accompanied me.

We walked for eight days, from Chengdu to Ziliujing, found the tomb of our friend, burnt incense and bowed. From Ziliujing to Chengdu would be another eight days trek, and we had gone through almost all of our travel budget and were starting to get worried.

Just then a thought occurred to me: the founder of Thick Black Theory, Li Zongwu, was from Ziliujing. As Li Zongwu was well-known, as soon as we asked where his address was, we found out. His courtyard house was quite large, and the gate was wide open. In the past, it was like that in the countryside, the doors were open from morning till night, not like Hong Kong nowadays, where the doors are always strictly closed.

We called for him from the doorway, and the founder of Thick Black Theory himself came out to greet us. He was very happy to see me, and asked: “What are you doing out here?”

I told him I had come to see off a dead friend. He misunderstood me, thinking I was teasing him, and said: “I’m not dead yet!”

I quickly explained myself to him, and as soon as he saw we were as ravenous as wolves, he immediately had a dinner prepared for us. A chicken was killed, fish were fished out of the pond, fresh vegetables were prepared, and we had an authentic Sichuan meal. After having our fill of food and drink, I opened my mouth to ask him if we could borrow some money. I said: “‘One does not enter the Buddha hall without reason,’ I am afraid I must bother you about something. I am out of travel money to get back to Chengdu.”

He said: ”How much do you need?”

“Ten silver dollars,” I replied.

He got up and went to a cabinet in the living room and took an envelope and gave it to me. I reckoned that there was more than ten dollars in there and asked how much. There were twenty dollars in there. I told him that that was too much, that I only needed ten. He insisted that I take twenty. I said I didn’t know when I could repay him, but he said to just take it and spend it first, and we could figure out the rest later.

Judging from this small matter of borrowing money, we can see that the founder of Thick Black Theory was a decent man, not ‘thick’ or ‘black’ in the slightest, but even very sincere and very kind.

After we had finished dinner and were chatting, he suddenly asked me not to return to Chengdu, but to stay on a while. I asked: “Stay to do what?”

He said: “Don’t you like martial arts? You are here to learn, no? There is a martial arts master here, Master Zhao, his kung fu is amazing.”

He then told me about this Master Zhao: “He was born a cripple, but his kung fu is excellent, especially his ‘light skill.’ He could put on a new pair of shoes and walk a mile in the snow and there won’t be a speck of mud on them. He once had a disciple whose kung-fu was also very good, but who misused what he had learned to do bad things. One night the disciple crept over a wall into a house and raped a woman. In a rage, Master Zhao put an end to his kung fu, maiming him, and he hasn’t taken on any more students since.”

Li Zongwu felt it would be a shame if Master Zhao’s kung fu were to be lost, and so encouraged me to stay on and practice. I asked how I could become his student if he was refusing to accept new disciples.

Li Zongwu replied that it was not the same, as I was from Zhejiang, and Master Zhao had learned his kung fu from a couple from Zhejiang, and that if he were to recommend me, I was sure to be accepted.

He said: “Study martial arts with Master Zhao for three years, develop some martial skill, and in the future, being a warrior won’t be so bad!”

He also said that he would be pay the tuition fees for the full three years, taking care of all expenses. As I saw he was being sincere, I could not refuse him to his face. Learning martial arts was very attractive to me, but three years was too long. I asked for time to consider the matter.

That night, Qianji and I went back to the inn to spend the night. Early the next morning, Li Zongwu showed up to persuade me to stay on and learn martial arts, and in the end, I had to turn him down.

He immediately regretted it, and said: “What a pity, what a pity.”

And I returned to Chengdu.

Soon thereafter, I went on retreat for three years, cutting off all contact with the outside world, not knowing the news nor the great changes taking place out in the world. There was only one young monk who would come back up the mountain from picking rice, who occasionally brought back a little news. This monk was not from the area, and didn’t really care about the war with Japan, so I heard nothing at all about that. One day, the young monk came back, saying: “The founder of Thick Black Theory, Li Zongwu, has died.” When I heard this, I felt deeply saddened. I had borrowed twenty silver dollars from him and would never be able to pay him back. So, every day I recited the Diamond Sutra for him, in order to help him “cross over.”

Later, I heard he had died peacefully at home in bed.

– Nan Huai-ch’in


Li Zongwu (1879-1943)

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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 Charles E. Tuttle (Tuttle Library of Enlightenment), 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. Part2.

Textual study of the Platform Sutra  

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


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Ai Wu (艾芜) was born Tang Daogeng (汤道耕) on June 20, 1904 in Xinfan, Sichuan Province and studied at Sichuan No. 1 Normal School in Chengdu. As an adolescent he had hoped to attend Beijing University and take part in the progressive social movements brewing in the capital at the time, but was unable to raise the required funds.

Disillusioned with the education system, and with an arranged marriage looming, he left Chengdu and hitch-hiked south to Kunming, determined to, “go into the world and rely on my own hands and labour.” From Yunnan he travelled further south, to Xishuangbanna, from where he crossed without visa or passport into Burma and wandered on to Rangoon. Whilst in Burma, encouraged by a local monk he wrote his first story before he was arrested and deported by the British authorities.

This journey, often spent in the company of beggars, horse thieves, and other such vagrant personalities, became the source of his first and most important work, Journey to the South (南行记 Nanxing Ji). Filled with vivid descriptions of life on the road, the world of small border towns and the people he met along the way, the book was widely read and established Ai Wu’s reputation as a writer.

One of the main reasons for the book’s popularity was Ai Wu’s stylistic commitment to objective observation, something which was very different to the books which had preceded it.

In 1932 Ai Wu, along with Sha Ding, wrote to the writer Lu Xun asking for advice on how best to write about the things that they had experienced, the people they had met and the events which were taking place in the world around them.

“We have written several short stories with the following themes: one of us specialises in using satirical techniques to show both the apparent and the hidden weaknesses of the petty bourgeois youth with whom he is familiar; the other specialises in taking lower class figures of his acquaintance, figures washed aside by the great currents of modern times, and depicting in his works their intense yearning for life and their vague impulse to revolt under the heavy burden of life. We wonder, can works of such content be said finally to make some kind of contribution to the the present time? At first we hesitate, and even after we pick up the pen we falter.”

“Although we have read a few works by the proletarian writers, we don’t want to take a few fictitious characters and have them stand up and make revolution; we prefer to seize on a few familiar models and depict them truthfully.”      

Lu Xun and His Legacy by Leo Ou-fan Lee,University of California Press, 1985, Pages 43 & 45

Lu Xun advised them to “declass” themselves and to “be at one” with the people around them, regardless of their position in society. He hoped they would be able to, “gradually overcome their own life and consciousness and see a new road.”

As evidenced by this correspondence, Ai Wu’s intention when writing Journey to the South was to avoid subjectivism in order to completely “declass” himself. His narrative alter ego in the book plays a very restrained role in an attempt to completely identify with the protagonists in the stories. In, A Lesson in Life, the first of the stories in the book, the narrator; arriving in Kunming in a hungry and penniless state, undergoes an initiation into the world of these protagonists thus qualifying the narrator of the later stories to speak of, “We whom the world has abandoned.”

The style and subject matter of Journey to the South, avoided the distortion of reality often used in satire and any loftiness of tone. Ai Wu simply presented life and the society around him as it was, including its imperfections, thus making the book accessible to a much wider readership because the majority rather than the minority could relate to the world found within its pages.

Journey to the South by Ai Wu may not be well known or widely available in the West either in Chinese or English, but its influence can be seen in the work of many modern Chinese writers, especially that of Liao Yiwu (廖亦武).

“Journey to the South isn’t as famous as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which helped define America’s Beat Generation, but for my generation of Chinese it had much the same effect. ‘Go south, further south’ was for years a popular mantra among my friends; now it is debased as a motivational slogan.

In the 1980s, I dated a girl who read Journey to the South with tears slipping down her cheeks. She re-read the book on the night before she broke up with me and then followed the path mapped by Ai. She went south, further south, and was arrested by border police. She spent six months in a detention centre, where she endured the abuse and harassment of fellow inmates, most of whom were prostitutes and drug dealers. She returned to Chengdu, but only to better plan her next journey south. She sold everything she had and used the cash to bribe a private guide from a Dai village to take her across the border.”

Go South, Further South by Liao Yiwu, Asia Literary Review, Vol. 15, Spring 2010

Links to books by, or featuring work by Ai Wu:

Banana Vale by Ai Wu

Wild Bull Village (Chinese short stories) by Ai Wu & Others

Three Exotic Views of Southeast Asia: The Travel Narratives of Isabella Bird, Max Dauthendey and Ai Wu, 1850-1930

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Chap*Books is a space dedicated to the under-appreciated art form of the chapbook which has been of significant importance in the launching of many fine authors.

This excellent blog reviews and promotes the chapbooks and small collections published by small presses that the contributors have purchased, found or been given along the way. A few of the many featured are pictured above and below.

Recently, the good people at Chap*Books wrote a piece about Spring Wanderings by J. H. Martin and we would like to say thank you, not just for the kind words about the book, but for the solidarity shown by Chap*Books in promoting and supporting the work of lesser known writers and small press publications not only on their blog but also by posting reviews on Amazon and other on-line retail outlets.

“I found this book in an antique shop in rural PA about a month ago. It’s a beautifully made book that by my calculations ought to be a “chapbook” but isn’t. …

The poetry itself is beautiful and mysterious. It reflects the country that the work is about (China).” Read more

“Each chapbook is a story in itself – the publisher, the poet/author, the designer/illustrator – each has a story and a history. Along the way, I have found many tales and yarns. Some fascinating and others truly pitiful. Part of the reason I write this admittedly infrequent blog is that these authors – these publishers – these people need to be remembered in some fashion. Their chapbooks alone acknowledge their existence as people. Their names live on, however delicately, through their “thin slivers of nothing” (the weight of a chapbook when stacked on a shelf with various TOMES between)” Read more

An informative article on the chapbook appeared in Jacket Magazine a few years back: Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book

“Distanced from its historical roots, the form of the chapbook found new life in the burgeoning world of modern poetry, in which pamphlets from the international Dada movement and beautifully designed works of Russian avant-garde poets set a new standard. Continuing through Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the mimeo revolution of the 60s, the advent of photocopying and desktop publishing, and the production of PDF files containing the online equivalent, the chapbook now thrives in the esoteric though open space of contemporary poetry. … Whether comprised of an extended sequence, a series of short poems, or a single, longer work, the chapbook, in its momentary focusing and sculpting of the reader’s attention, is the perfect vehicle for poetry.”

Read the rest of this excellent article at Jacket Magazine

We strongly encourage those interested in literature, poetry and the arts to support their local poets and independent bookshops by picking up one of these collectable pieces of ephemera from time to time. In the words of one memorable review, chapbooks are “well worth a look, and at less than the price of a pint, what have you got to lose?”

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When you conceal your will from others, that is Thick.

When you impose your will on others, that is Black.

– Li Zongwu

In the West, Machiavelli’s book The Prince is probably the best known work on simulation and dissimulation. In Chinese culture however there is a rich and deep seam of literature on strategy and deception. Sun Zi’s Art of War is the most famous, but the more recent book, Thick Black Theory (厚黑学 – Hòuhēixué), written by Li Zongwu (李宗吾) in 1912, is possibly the most important when it comes to trying to understand the Chinese strategies of today.

Li Zongwu was a social philosopher and critic and his purpose in writing Thick Black Theory was to describe the symptoms of an illness, or, to be more precise, to bring into the light the cultural shadow which is known to all in Chinese society as “thick face, black heart.”

The description “thick face, black heart” is used to describe what many, but by no means all, in Chinese society, whether they say so publicly or not, perceive to be the “must have” quality of Chinese people if they want to be successful, whether that be in society, business or politics.

“Thick face” is in essence a shield to protect a person from the criticism and negative opinions of others, thus preserving and thickening their own “face,” both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, by refusing to accept the limitations or criticism that others have tried to impose or force upon them.

“Black heart” is the sword used to do battle with others as well as oneself. The black-hearted practitioner focuses their attention purely on their goals and ignores the possible cost to themselves or others. Together with this well-defined and honed killer instinct, the cutting edge of a practitioner’s sword is dispassion – to do battle without or, in spite of fear, and to be able to detach themselves completely from their own and others’ emotions so that their presence does not thwart or hinder them from achieving their ultimate goals.

In Thick Black Theory, the methods by which people use the idea of “thick face, black heart” to obtain and hold on to money, status and power, and how they use these to preserve their position and accumulate more are described in detail.

Li Zongwu’s original intention was to publish Thick Black Theory in a series of three articles in The Chengdu Daily in 1912. However, the official outrage and violent reaction caused after the first article was published led to a cancellation of the series. This series of three articles was later published several times between 1934 and 1936 in a single volume in Beijing by friends of Li Zongwu. Despite the controversial image of Chinese society that it portrayed, each edition sold out immediately before being banned by the government – a deliciously ironic fact given that in 1989; when the ban on the book was lifted, it was published by the Central Party School in Beijing. The book is now a consistent bestseller throughout mainland China, has been published in multiple editions and has spawned a whole sub-genre of “self-help” books, as well as in-depth studies of historical events and characters following the “thick black” premise.

It is important to remember that Li Zongwu’s work is purely an observation and study of “thick face, black heart,” and was never intended to be an endorsement of the amoral practices when mastered (which many non-practitioners would consider to be immoral) that the book describes. The irony that it is now used and reinterpreted as a manual for succeeding in business and society, only goes to show how prescient these observations were, both then and now, and how little has actually changed.

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