Tsung-mi: An Intimate Study


Tsung-mi (780-841)

A good subtitle for this series would be, “The Spiritual Knowing that knows no darkness.” With brilliant erudition Tsung-mi (pronounced Zongmi—preferred spelling by modern-day scholars) set out to define Bodhidharma’s Mind Transmission as a silent knowing of Mind’s Substance; yet at the same time not eschewing the canonical words that are embedded in the silence. The prime reason for Bodhidharma’s phrase, Mind Transmission outside of scriptures, simply assuaged the Chinese mindset that, at the time, was infatuated with grasping at words while being blind to the Actual Mind-Substance that the words were pointing at. In this sense, the word “silent” referred to Bodhidharma’s own remaining still and quiet until the adept came to intuitively “know” on one’s own the nature of Mind’s Substance. It was after this “knowing” that he said to the adept, ‘That is how it really is [fang yan zhenshi shi]! This is in complete contradistinction to today’s Zennists’ understanding; the following is from a Zen dictionary published by the Sōtō Zen School:

The slogan “no involvement with the written word; a separate transmission outside the canonical teachings” is spoken of as a special characteristic of the Zen school. Scholars of the teachings took as the main thing only the written words and theories of the sutras and treatises and thereby lost the true spirit of Buddhism. In the Zen school, the true dharma as real Buddhism does not depend upon the mere written word and the sutra teachings but is something transmitted from mind to mind. And so, valuing personal experience [taiken], Zen advocated the slogan “no involvement with the written word; a separate transmission outside the canonical teachings.”

Tsung-mi’s Classical-Ch’an approach vitiates this commonly-accepted Zen notion by accentuating the “knowing (zhi)” aspect:

The term “Knowing” (zhi), a translation equivalent of the Sanskrit term jñāna (Hirakawa, 885), is the core of Zongmi’s Chan. In both Buddhist and non-Buddhist Indian contexts jñāna (“sacred knowledge” or “abstract knowledge”) is contrasted with vijñāna (“practical knowledge” or “applied knowledge”). Zongmi (Chan Prolegomenon, section 24) says of this Knowing: “The mind of voidness and calm is a spiritual Knowing that never darkens. It is precisely this Knowing of voidness and calm that is your true nature. No matter whether you are deluded or awakened, mind from the outset is spontaneously Knowing. [Knowing] is not produced by conditions, nor does it arise in dependence on any sense object. The one word ‘Knowing’ is the gate of all excellence.”
Broughton, Jeffrey Lyle (2012-08-14). Zongmi on Chan (Translations from the Asian Classics) (Kindle Location 5377). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Above all, Tsung-mi was a man and true proponent of the Hua-yen School of Buddhism and later came to be known as its last Patriarch. The full scope and depth of his writings exemplifies the great mystical edifice of the Flower Garland Sutra that fascinated his vibrant, erudite mind. Another predominant Sutra that captivated his attention was the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment; it was to play a dominant role since he remained totally devoted to its formulation of “sudden-awakening followed by gradual-cultivation.” It could be said that the teachings of Tsung-mi and later, the Mind Mirror (Zongjinglu) of Yongming Yanshou (904–976), represent the last two great pillars of the Scholastic-Ch’an Tradition, one whose very foundation rested upon the Ch’an Canon. Unfortunately, there are no extant copies of this gigantic-volume of Ch’an literature, but both Tsung-mi and Yanshou demonstrate through their writings how these “teaching devices of the noble-ones” treated a wide-array of mind-delusions, and were subsequently compiled in this vast-vault that contained them. Later we will be covering Tsung-mi’s great Chan Prolegomenon—his systematic treatment of Ch’an since its early inception that truly reveals how he is the Homer who portrays this early Ch’an world; but first we will focus on his biographical-sketch, one that includes reference to his dear young novice and close personal friend, Pei Xiu [P’ei Hsiu] (791–864), who, as it turned out, had the fine distinction of knowing both the unparalleled Tsung-mi, and later the great Huang Po himself, personally compiling his teachings in the Two-Volume work all students of Ch’an and Zen have come to know and love. For this series I am indebted to Peter N. Gregory’s text, “Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism”, and Jeffrey Broughton’s , “Zongmi on Chan.” As Broughton writes:

In time this [Zongmi’s] approach would surely lead to a revised version of Chan history that has less shouting, hitting, tearing up of the sutras, scatological sayings, and so on, and more sober sutra study combined with a highly ritualized practice gradually carried out over time.
Broughton, Jeffrey Lyle (2012-08-14). Zongmi on Chan (Translations from the Asian Classics) (Kindle Locations 277-279). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

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2 Responses to Tsung-mi: An Intimate Study

  1. n. yeti says:

    A bit on jñāna (knowledge) in sanskrit. I think it is important to approach the meaning of this word carefully because it is not the knowledge commonly thought of in Western terms as a bit of information to be acquired and built into a complex web of conceptual understanding. The word seems to be common in not only Buddhism but Jainism and Hinduism and has (like a lot of sanskrit terms) so many nuances that it is perhaps untranslatable into English, much less into the rational materialist mindset which so greatly influences every aspect of life in the present day. When I think of jñāna it is of a direct encounter with reality through experience; the difference, let’s say, between knowing the sensation of a brazier burning one’s finger by having actually experienced this, and reading about such a thing or acquiring a conceptual understanding of the same. But even more than this, it is knowledge of truth. It is not the kind of knowing two lawyers might come up with through ingenious methods of manipulating the perceptions of a jury to suggest or imply a plausible or reasoned “truth” about their clients. It is an undifferentiated knowledge. We’ve discussed this before, as I recall, when talking about tatva (truth/reality) which is a word which combines the roots “you” and “that”. I don’t think the kind of knowledge implied by jñāna can be adequately explained or described outside of direct experience; without the experience of truth it cannot actually be said to be true. Perhaps, to carry this further, nothing can be “said” to be true at all. I think then jñāna is perhaps not best translated as “knowledge” but, perhaps, because of the difficulties of the Western mind, it is best to just to adopt the word in sanskrit with its own implicit meaning as a recognition of truth. Though it is not something one acquires by reading, for example, I would like to make another subtle observation, which is that the recognition of truth in a book can be jñāna if one can relate through direct experience pointed to by the book, and the book opens this channel of recognition. This explains why there is no real teaching of truth (in my view) but also why teaching is of such great value to those who seek to recognize truth, and why it is so important to share and exchange realizations with fellow seekers. It is for this reason I see no authority in spiritual seeking whatsoever. It also may help to explain why I derive great benefit from studying many religions, while not adhering to any particular tradition, nor getting entangled when there are conflicts among them from a doctrinal standpoint.

  2. n. yeti says:

    Through this understanding it might also be seen why earthly existence is necessary for acquisition of jñāna. The immediate recognition of truth is afforded by bodily/mortal form in this saha-world, and we should not be so quick to obscure this opportunity for recognition of truth with the desire, no matter how subtle, to overcome existence.

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