The Chan Prolegomenon: Introductory Remarks


Tsung-mi’s Chan Prolegomenon (also known as the Ch’an Preface) is a vast-work considered to be his most crowning-achievement. In it he proves himself to be a great synthetic-agent as he weaves together all the major petulant Ch’an schools of his day and age, like the Northern, Ox-Head and Hongzhou—seeking to find that one common denominator that would surmount their irreconcilable differences.  Tsung-mi was the Noble-Lamp bearer who attempted to lead them all out of the dark tunnel of fractious-divide into the Luminous Light and Union of the Dharmadhātu. The work is like a colossal Chinese puzzle, with each piece fitting under what Jeffrey Broughton refers to as certain axioms, that attempt to correlate essential Ch’an teachings of the contentious traditions—all vying for primacy. In this respect it’s unfortunate that contemporary zennists haven’t even referred to a work of such stature, since it could help to allay all the vying-factions that attempt to discredit each other; what Tsung-mi has to say is very relevant today:

“Some take emptiness as the true basis of reality while others take awareness (chih) as the ultimate source. Some say that tranquility and silence alone are true, while others say that [ordinary activities such as] walking and sitting are what it is all about (shih). Some say that all everyday discriminative activities are illusory, while others say that all such discriminative activities are real. Some carry out all the myriad practices, while other reject even the Buddha. Some give free reign to their impulses, while others restrain their minds. Some take the sutras and vinaya as authoritative, while others take them to be a hindrance to the Way… 

Each adamantly spreads its own tradition and adamantly disparages the others. Since later students cling to their words and are deluded about their meaning, in their emotional views they obstinately contend with one another and cannot reach agreement…” 

It is not that the different teachings emphasized by the different Ch’an traditions are wrong or heretical. The problem is that each takes itself to be the party in exclusive possession of what is right [emphasis mine] (tan yuan ko chieh tang wei shih) and criticizes the others as wrong, a situation Tsung-mi likens to the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant. Tsung-mi concludes that the views of the different traditions must be brought into harmony, something that can only be done by uncovering a more comprehensive framework in which such apparently conflicting views can all be validated as integral parts of a manifold whole—in which the trunk, leg, side, and so forth are all seen to belong to the same elephant.

“Since the supreme Way is not an extreme and the ultimate meaning does not lean to one side, one must not grasp onto a single biased viewpoint. Thus we must bring them back together as one, making them all perfectly concordant (yuan-miao)” (Gregory, Tsung Mi, pg 229). 

Straight from the beginning of his Ch’an Prolegomenon, Tsung-mi attempts to show that in the very foundation of the Ch’an enterprise there was no contention between what was transmitted by the early Ch’an Patriarchs and the essence of the Sūtras themselves. He argues that both unequivocally originated from Gautama Buddha:

“The scriptures (ching) are the Buddha’s words,” he writes, “and Ch’an is the Buddha’s intent (i). The minds and mouths of the buddhas certainly cannot be contradictory.” (Gregory, pg. 226)

Tsung-mi pointed out that the Buddha’s original teachings, yea the unity of the Buddhadharma itself, became mired in layer after layer of the different schools that developed over time. Tsung-mi adamantly went on to finely articulate that the Buddhist Canon was never contradicted by what was later transmitted by the Ch’an patriarchs, but rather was fulfilled. In this tenor he was able to appease two extremes: the scholastic critics who claimed that Ch’an was not valid because it was somehow extra-canonical, and the Ch’an inconoclast-extremists who insisted that what was being “transmitted Mind to Mind” superseded any form of textual supremacy. What he wanted to make absolutely clear was that “standing-alone” in isolation, each of the Ch’an Schools was incomplete; but that their respected teachings, viewed as parts coming-together, formed the much larger whole of the Buddhadharma. He also added another crucial-piece of the puzzle—and that was the essential inclusion of Dhyāna—that BOTH Sutra study and disciplined Dhyana were prerequisites in the Ch’an enterprise. Tsung-mi once entered a ten-year period in exclusive solitude—away from the masses in order to “develop my concentration (samādhi) and harmonize my wisdom (prajñā)”.  Tsung-mi’s purview of this “whole-picture” was cosmogenic (even quantum by today’s standards) in scope:

Each and every dharma mutually includes one another. Every single speck of dust contains [all] worlds. They mutually determine and interpenetrate one another, their unobstructed interfusion is endowed with the ten profound gates, and their infinite multiplication is without end. (Gregory, pg.190)

Originally this vast opus of Tsung-mi was meant as a “preface” to a much larger, no longer extant work—his Ch’an Canon—wherein he assembled all of his time period’s contemporary Ch’an practices into ten categories. One can only wonder what that marvel most likely entailed. What we will do, however, is to focus our efforts on various aspects of this present marvel and hopefully convey its bridge between old-world Ch’an and Right-Praxis.

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