After about 900 years of teacher-to-student transmission, the practice that was to become what we know as Zen Buddhism moved from India to China. This happened somewhere around the 5th or 6th century CE with Bodhidharma’s arrival. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Dharma was unknown in China before that time. Buddhism in various forms had already been in that country for centuries by the time the Western Barbarian arrived (although that didn’t necessarily make Bodhidharma’s work any easier).
Read on for the continuation of the Ancestral Line essay.
To read Part I, click here. click here.
Bodhidharma did not have many disciples. One account of his life states that there were only 2, another mentions 4 — one of whom was a woman, the nun Dharani.
In his teachings, Bodhidharma is known for his ‘directly pointing at Mind’.
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood
Dazu Huike (Second Ancestor) – born in China in 487 CE, was a respected scholar both in Buddhist and non-Buddhist classical writings. He yearned, however, to experience the truth directly for himself. Hearing of the “Red-bearded Barbarian,” he traveled to Shaolin Temple; Bodhidharma was apparently staying near there in a mountain cave. (This cave exists today, and is a prime pilgrimage destination for Zen Buddhists.) When they met, Huike was in his early forties and Bodhidharma had not yet accepted any disciples. Despite the scholar’s begging him for his teaching, Bodhidharma simply sat silently in zazen, “wall-gazing.” Huike stood there all night in the falling snow outside the entrance to Bodhidharma’s cave. Finally Bodhidharma spoke. “How,” he asked Huike, “can you hope for the true teaching with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.” Supposedly, it was only when Huike proved his determination by cutting off his arm that the master finally accepted him as a disciple. Huike stayed with Bodhidharma for six years, until his teacher died (or sailed back to India on a reed, depending on which version you choose). Huike’s enlightenment experience was triggered by the following exchange with his teacher (this dialogue is Case ?? in the Mumonkan): “Master, my mind is not at peace. Please pacify it,” said Huike. Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “Then,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have already pacified your mind for you.”
We do not know much about Huike as a teacher, but there are reasons to believe his style was similar to that of Bodhidharma. In fact, the recorded conversation between him and his successor, Sengcan, is strikingly similar to another one, between Huike and Bodhidharma: Sengcan asked Huike to absolve his sins. Huike replied: “Bring me those sins.” When Sengcan could not do that, Huike said “You see, I have already absolved you.” Huike’s work was not well received by some other Chinese Buddhist teachers, and apparently people conspired against him. As a result, the Second Chinese Dharma Ancestor was executed for heresy. The posthumous title “Dazu” that was added to his name means “Great Ancestor”.
Jianzhi Sengcan (Third Ancestor), who died at the beginning of the 7th century CE, is the purported author of Affirming Faith in Mind, a text that we chant regularly at Windhorse. When he met Huike, he was in his forties and suffering from sickness (probably leprosy). He stayed with Huike for only a few years; after receiving the transmission his teacher advised him to hide in the mountains to avoid the persecution of Buddhists that swept China during the second half of the 6th century. After coming out of hiding, Sengcan wandered for ten years before finally settling for a time on Mount Luofu. It is during his journeys that he met his future successor – a teenager named Daoxin, whose name we chant in our Full Ancestral Line.
Dajian Huineng – the famous Sixth Chinese Dharma Ancestor is supposedly one of the very few who ever experienced enlightenment without any prior zazen training. His awakening is said to have taken place when, heading back home after having delivered a load of wood, Huineng heard a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra. Huineng then started talking with the monk, who said he had come from the faraway monastery of Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor. As Huineng came from a poor family and was supporting his mother (his father was deceased), the journey would not have been possible had a stranger not stepped forth and given him some money for his mother’s care. After 30 days of marching, Huineng arrived at the monastery “with no other aim than that of becoming a Buddha”, as he himself told Hongren upon their first meeting. That conversation convinced Hongren of Huineng’s understanding and potential, but the master, concerned that jealous monks might harm the extraordinary visitor, sent him to work in the rice fields. Eight months passed before they met again.
The story of Huineng’s receiving the transmission is often mentioned in teishos: When time came for the master to appoint a Dharma successor and pass on the Ancestors’ robe and bowl, Hongren challenged the monks to compose gathas (verses) that would show their understanding of the Dharma. The monks felt confident, however, that the head monk would succeed Hongren, so they did not bother to write anything. The only gatha presented was that of the head monk, but Hongren was not pleased with the level of understanding shown in the verse. He tactfully did not reveal this to the monks, who went on reciting the verse around the monastery.
This is how the illiterate Huineng heard the poem and, seeing its limitations, composed his own. He managed to get a novice to write it down for him (as with the head monk’s gatha, Huineng’s verse was written in a public place on the monastery walls). The monks marveled at the verse, which clearly alluded to and contradicted the one by the head monk. Hongren, aware of the commotion, again judged the situation to be risky for Huineng’s well-being and so wiped off the verse, uttering a disapproving comment. Later, in private, the master subtly indicated to Huineng that he should come to his quarters in the “third watch” of the night. There, Hongren gave him instruction on the Diamond Sutra. During that secret meeting, upon hearing some of the lines, Huineng had another, deeper awakening experience. The Fifth Ancestor transmitted the robe and bowl to him and instructed the young man to hide in his home region for 10 to 15 years before formally beginning to teach. He also advised Huineng to discontinue the tradition of handing on the robe and bowl. (If the relations between monks were as charged as they appear to have been in that monastery, one can see why!)
A long time passed before Huineng revealed himself as the Sixth Ancestor. While still in hiding, he is said to have spent time with a group of hunters, teaching them the Dharma when an opportunity arose, letting their prey out of the traps and eating only the vegetables from their meat stews. He spent most of his active teaching life in Po-lam Monastery, and after he died his body was mummified.
In the next part of the Ancestral Line series we will fast-forward, both in time and in space – first to Japan, and ultimately to America.