An Undivided Friendship


Tsung-mi’s Ch’an-Literary Period

Tsung-mi’s Ch’an-Literary Period was filled with many diverse associations. At that time political-types also fostered a scholarly background. Many of these Politicos of the day were thus totally in-sync with Tsung-mi’s literary style that couched Ch’an precepts with such scholarly acumen. One such poet-statesman, Po Chü-i (772-846), wrote the following poem in honor of Tsung-mi’s ability to balance the transmission of the spirit-mind with the written word:

The way of my master and the Buddha correspond perfectly;
Successive thoughts being unconditioned, each thing is able [to reveal
the dharma].

The mouth treasury spreads the twelve divisions [of the canon] abroad;
The mind tower lights a thousand lamps.
Utterly abandoning the written word is not the middle-way;
Forever abiding in empty vacuity is [the practice of] the lesser vehicle.
Rare indeed is one who understands the practice of the bodhisattva;
In the world he alone is to be esteemed as an eminent monk. (Gregory, pg.78)

Without question, though, the prominent figure in Tsung-mi’s life at this time was the slightly younger novice and personal friend, Pei Xiu (791–864) [P’ei Hsiu]. One particular Ch’an writing was written especially with Pei Xiu in mind, Tsung-mi’s Ch’an Letter. As is oftentimes the case with these great-masters, many of their most salient teachings were written in the form of letters addressed to an aspiring adept. The essential design of this letter was to discourage his friend from pursuing the teachings of another Ch’an master at the time—Mazu and his Hongzhou school. While Tsung-mi thought most highly of Mazu as a fellow Ch’an-extraordinaire, he vehemently denounced the central-thrust of his teachings.

Tsung-mi and the Hongzhou School

Mazu’s indispensable principle is announced with the following:

If you want to know the Way directly, then ordinary mind is the Way. What is an ordinary mind? It means no intentional creation and action, no right or wrong, no grasping or rejecting, no terminable or permanent, no profane or holy. The sutra says, “Neither the practice of ordinary men, nor the practice of sages—that is the practice of the Bodhisattva.” Now all these are just the Way: walking, abiding, sitting, lying, responding to situations, and dealing with things.

Tsung-mi set out to denounce the Hongzhou doctrine since it equated literally everything under the sun with Buddha-nature. Thus, greed and hatred was equated with compassion, ignorance with enlightenment, and inverting wrong AS right:

Now, the Hongzhou school says that greed, hatred, precepts (sīla), and concentration (samādhi) are of the same kind, which is the function of Buddha-nature. They fail to distinguish between ignorance and enlightenment, the inverted and the upright. . . . The Hongzhou school always says that since greed, hatred, compassion, and good are all Buddhanature, there could not be any difference between them. This is like someone who only observes the wet nature [of water] as never changing, but fails to comprehend that, since water can both carry a boat or sink it, its merits and faults are remarkably different. (The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth- through Tenth-Century China, Jinhua Jia, pg 68

We will get to the value of Tsung-mi’s denouncement of Hongzhou shortly, but first we need to give Mazu his fair-due. Mazu initially believed that what Bodhidharma transmitted as the ‘dharma of one mind’ was totally based on the Lankavatara Sutra. The ‘dharma of one mind’ was exclusively based on the tathagatagarbha:

In the Sanskrit term tathagatagarbha, “garbha” means both “embryo” and “womb,” and the meaning of the term tathagatagarbha varies depending on the context. It implies first that every sentient being possesses the germ or cause—the embryo of Tathagata—to attain Buddhahood. In other contexts, it is also explained as the essence or effect of Buddhahood, and therefore becomes synonymous with Buddha-nature, bodhi, dharmakaya, Thusness (Zhenru), and so forth. Like the masters of early Chan, Mazu preferred the second implication and recognized the inherent essence/Buddha-nature as “one’s own original mind” (zijia benxin), “one’s own original nature” (zijia benxing), “one’s own treasure” (zijia baozang), or “mani-pearl.” (ibid, pg.29)

Mazu would further state that when following its outflows (phenomena), mind is impure; when fully awakened, it Recollects its original Buddha Nature. Thus, Mind functions as the alaya-vijñana (or storehouse consciousness) when it seeks to grasp all those phenomenal outflows. When Mind functions as Its Essential-Thusness—Tathata—then Its perfectly aligned with IT’s own Womb of Suchness. In other word, when Recollecting Itself as the Absolute, then its functioning under the mode of enlightenment. Yet, when perceiving exclusively from the vantage-point of the phenomenal, then Mind functions in ignorance. This all sounds perfectly-well and in full accord even with Tathagatagarbha Unborn Mind Zen, however it does need to be noted that Mazu eventually equated both-sides of Mind’s function AS Buddha-nature. In other words, functionality is synonymous with Buddha-nature. Tsung-mi called-him-out on this and countered that Mind’s Essence—Its Essential Suchness—could never be equated with its functions. Mind’s functions can reflect both pure and impure, but Mind ultimately is neither Pure nor Impure. Its Essence is always Complete in Itself and AS ITSelf and no-thing more.

When push comes to shove, Tsung-mi does come-out on top. Mazu failed to see that, when taken to extremes, his Buddha-nature=Everything would open the gates to extreme antinomianism. This has actually created confusion throughout the millennium. Mazu eventually came to equate all-phenomena as Buddha-nature and this was his Cardinal-Sin. When taken to extremes, it’s easy to see that the seeds of Dogenism were planted early-on. Personally, I like the finer-elements of the Hongzhou School, like its earlier Lanka-orientation; and most especially with the Zen Teachings of Huang Po, which, by the way (as stated earlier) were compiled by Pei Xiu. In light of this it’s apparent that his old master’s (Tsung-mi) warnings about Hongzhou (in the Ch’an Letter ) were not totally taken to heart and did not prevent him from pursuing elements of the teachings; especially with his relationship with Huang-po. Huang-po’s own teachings style was more vernacular-based, known as old baihua (gu baihua); indeed, this stood in stark contrast with Tsung-mi’s more refined, Classical-based style of writing. All in all, though, Pei Xiu deeply honored his old Dharma-teacher and friend; part of the following epitaph he wrote in Tsung-mi’s honor is quite a moving testament:

“As for me and the Great Master, in the dharma we were older brother and younger brother; in righteousness we were intimate friends; in my deepest thoughts he was my guide [shan zhishi]; and for the teachings we were internal and external protectors [neiwai hu].” 

Broughton, Jeffrey Lyle (2012-08-14). Zongmi on Chan (Translations from the Asian Classics) (Kindle Locations 5499-5501). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

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One Response to An Undivided Friendship

  1. n. yeti says:

    I don’t “do” gashos, because I find them a rather trivial Western pretension. However I give this post the spiritual equivalent of a thumbs up sign.

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