This compilation of Buddhist biographies, teaching and transmission stories of Indian and Chinese Chan (Japanese 'Zen') masters from antiquity up to about the year 1008 CE is the first mature fruit of an already thousand year-long spiritual marriage between two great world cultures with quite different ways of viewing the world. The fertilisation of Chinese spirituality by Indian Buddhism fructified the whole of Asian culture. The message of this work, that Chan practice can enable a free participation in life's open-ended play, seems as necessary to our own time as it was to the restless times of 11th century Song China.
This is the fifth volume of a full translation of this work in thirty books.
(b.1949, England) studied Classical Guitar and Piano at Trinity College of Music, London. Later he studied Chinese Language and Literature at Leiden University in Holland, to further a life-long interest in the practices of Chinese Chan Buddhism. He lives in Holland with his wife Mariana.
The men of Mount Muping
Of appearance classic and simple
Are sparing of words
Regarding each other as strangers in common
Their hearts are like the bright autumn moon
Their threadbare patchwork robes
Were not spun by silk worms
Their peaceful song is of the sound of birds
To the city towers they come today
Already soaked through by the dawn
(20.588 Chan master Shandao)
'The wonderful principle of all the Buddhas is not dependent on the written word.'3 Indeed after the demise of Shakyamuni Buddha, nothing was written down for centuries. Transmission concerned the passing on of a key practice from one person to another, enabling a re-linkage to the source of the original nature, 'the ancient city',4 already present within all human beings. This practice involved a direct and practical engagement with oneself as a human being (no Gods or discarnate entities were involved), which led the way to an enlightened humanism handed down within the family of the Buddhas. This key practice, still unchanged through centuries, centres on the art of forbearance.5 But forbearance needs a something to bear; fervour6 needs to be humanised by restrained conduct,7 until it matures into appreciative discernment.8
Atapa, ardour, has two sides to it, destructive and creative. In the Buddhist canon the destructive aspect is self-torment, torture or religious austerities, and was condemned by the Buddha as not conducing to freedom, to disinterestedness. 'If there is only asceticism and no clear appreciation of the Original Heart whilst still being bound by love and hate, then asceticism is like walking a dangerous road on a black moonless night.'9 The creative aspect refers to the cultivation of reverence and forbearance through the practice of the middle way, the path of freedom, from which gratitude emerges. Chan master Hongbian tells Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r. 847-859 CE), 'All Buddhist monks reverence the Buddha and recite the sutras - this is the abiding support of the omnipresent Dharma, from which emerges the fourfold gratitude.'10
Atapa is not an abstraction: when we look at our modern lives 'upstairs', in the light of common day, it is surprising to find how often and easily we are moved, how ardour arises within us. It seems to be a kind of flutter, a being moved by something quite arbitrary. Anything at all can suddenly click in via one of the senses and there it is; the fire that slumbers inside stirs to life and announces itself physically. It comes up from the inside, yet once released and allowed to fly, it naturally spreads quickly the more dramatically it makes its escape from captivity. Crowds are its food and it can unite, ignite, a large body of living beings (not only humans) instantly with a dangerous potency, causing a veritable conflagration.11 That is why we instinctively revere ardour, which is to say, fear it, because we do not want to lose our hard-won autonomy, to be blown away like a leaf in the wind. Ardour has to be approached circumspectly, with a kind of primitive instinctual awe, through proper rites and practices. But ardour is always mixed with fascination, for it is really central to our whole lives and we know this. It is completely familiar, yet usually remembered only when it has been and gone again. Apart from this warm-blooded enthusiasm, nothing is of much importance. It is the one real thing in our world and every time members are deeply moved, is the announcement of ardour's very physical presence, to whatever degree of intensity it might be.
Ardour does not often manifest as a roaring nuclear furnace, but is frequently felt as a glow of appreciation. When this warm glow is confined inside with awareness, instead of being allowed to discharge itself, waking thoughts and images arise which take us for a moment back to timeless, imageless depths, where the light of common day hardly ever penetrates. These depths feel so familiar and alien that they not only refresh memories of an ancient state, but also unite us with the great Continuum of which we are each one a living link. This thirst for the depths is the expensive price tag attached to living in the upper world of the everyday, and being quenched for a moment of this longing is the most refreshing draught there is and constitutes a true momentary reconnection with the Great Continuum,12 our ancestral home.
Ardour leaving behind its traces, is the living proof that a direct relinkage with the great All is possible, is, in fact, always present. But the traces have to be followed up - quite a problem, since, 'the road of the ancients is without traces.'13 When the ardour of appreciation is upon us at a certain level of potency, it usually reduces us either to howling or to exaltation. It is experienced as a purification, a cleansing by an astringent, salty potion. The dynamics of ardour were later differentiated into a group of three factors. First was the raw vitality expressed as the ardour itself; second, the effect of its presence, unmistakable by its potency and power; and thirdly, the solid body of the one it floods and occupies (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
In the history of our world there have been those we revere as great, because of their impact on all of us. They are the ones who have been taken by this fiery force, to such a degree as never again to return to the everyday world, but stayed in that immensity, with the fire of ardour burning, and went on to achieve many things. Founding great movements that changed the very course of earth history was nothing to them. No real effort was involved; they were instruments, walking contagions of the divine or demonic, carriers of this naked force, taking fisherman away from their fishing, husbands away from their wives, sons away from their families. All is food for this raw force, to ignite followers to the presence of the ardour within, to carry them away to unknown depths from which there would be no return for some. The glorious martyrdom of transfiguration was their lot or they returned changed, different, aliens even to themselves. As Chan master Xuanying says,
the Unborn is a raging furnace
Such is this inferno in its raw state. Rather than just adding fuel to this fire within, Channists try to domesticate it, impossible as this might seem. Yet humans do concern themselves with this, for only in the human state, and under beneficent guidance, is this possible. Devoting whole life scenarios to roaming free, away from the crowd, even whilst living in the midst of them, they endure hardships easily, gladly and with gratitude, without in the least being swept away, despite the deadly threat of being burnt alive.15 The entire lifetime then becomes a slow, willing immolation, a systematic stripping away of all that is irrelevant.16 Both Channists and Daoists treat the fire of ardour with a deep veneration, for they know that this is every being's own treasure and birthright: long have they been in possession of the expedient means to nurture its potential with care and reverence, to humanise it. Only when the fire is tracked down to its source, does the real work of tending and gentling it begin.17
The Chinese themselves began the study and practice of Buddhism with the greatest possible intensity. During the initial period of some 500 years, their fervour for this Indian religion changed the whole complexion of their religious, cultural, social, economic and political landscape irreversibly. That Buddhism succeeded at all in China, given that 'to leave the home life' and become a monk was diametrically opposed to timeless Chinese traditions of reverencing ancestors and carrying on the family line, remains one of the wonders of the history of civilisation on the home world.
Out of this Chinese ardour for Buddhism came a home-grown distilled essence of the Buddha's practice. The Chan School took the bull by the horns in seeking a return to the ardour within, which had inevitably become obscured by five hundred years of frenetic literary and political activity. Neither is it surprising that this essence, called Chan, was and remains, difficult to swallow. The medicine is not a placebo, but is meant to facilitate an actual and direct return to the ancient city.
As Chan master Yunmen (Ummon), the Emperor of Chan, says in 19.505,
'I am saying to you that there is something right here, already deeply buried and that that is not understood, for there is as yet no access to this place. So just in the middle of calculating thinking, it is for you yourselves to go into this in detail. As long as you are not standing on your own feet, then hearing someone bringing up a saying is just taking it on second hand and it will fall down in no time. With the appearance of the great function,18 you do not need to bother making the slightest effort, for there will be no difference from the Buddhas and Patriarchs. Those venerable ones of old could not but help all men, and so let fall an appropriate word to offer an entrance to the Way. Yet these things should be laid aside in favour of you yourselves flexing muscles and bones. Is it not the case that there is little time to idle about, so hurry, hurry now! Time waits for no man and an out-breath will...