Category Archives: Tsung-mi: An Intimate Study


The grand-finale of Tsung-mi’s Chan Prolegomenon is a testament to his analysis and paraxial methodology of laying side by side the modes of delusion and awakening within Mind’s Dynamic-Nature. Although there’s an apparent contradiction within Mind’s bifurcation between denizens of the six-realms of karmic-existence and the Noble One’s of the Blessed three-vehicles, in actuality both are part and parcel of the One Luminously-Pure Sphere of the Dharmakaya. Peter N. Gregory expounds: read more

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Dark Ch’an

As a further sign that Tsung-mi was not totally entrenched in the evaluation of letters and words and their import for the Buddhadharma, Chapt. 8 of the Chan Prolegomenon assures the assiduous Mind-adept that the Total assessment of the Buddhadharma—the great “wordless teaching”—rests in what Broughton identifies as Tsung-mi’s “dark understanding”. The one who is adroit in Unborn Mind Zen recognizes this as Dark Ch’an, which entails forgetting about the exclusive reliance on words by “turning-about” from all images (forms, sensations, thought-material, analyzations, all Eight-Layers of the Body Consciousness) and remaining prior to the created-order of thingness and intuitively resting in Suchness THAT innately and spontaneously acts under all circumstances. In Essence it’s all about resting in the Tao (Unborn) and no-thing else—thus it’s darkness to ordinary modes of perception and a Luminous Actuosity for the awakened Spirit-Mind.  Scholars like Jeffrey Broughton know that in this sense Tsung-mi is speaking in “Chuang-Tzu” mode, or the Tao of the Unborn Mind. read more

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Conjoined Realities

To this very day there is little consensus as to the precise-relationship between tathagatā-garbha and alaya-vijñāna. Seong-Uk Kin, in his excellent extract, “Understanding Tsung-mi’s View on Buddha Nature”, nicely extrapolates on its evolving traits. The concept of alaya-vijñāna first appeared in the Samdhinirmocana-sūtra, circa early 4th century C.E. in India. This Sutra asserts that the alaya-vijñāna is a form of consciousness that exhibits particular modes of perception. It is here that it also takes on the familiar metaphorical-shape as a receptacle that house seeds of karma as well as the propensity for all future karma. It is essentially based on this understanding that Yogācāra Buddhists determine how all phenomenal-diversity develops; indeed, for them alaya-vijñāna is the hallmark for all conventional realities, and it is how subjective-agents interact in their environment. For Chinese Buddhists, their main concern was how tathagatāgarbha and alaya-vijñāna differed, especially pertaining as to whether alaya-vijñāna was pure or impure. The great Translator in China, Paramartha, asserted that it was defiled-garbha. As time progressed the Chinese developed their own unique Yogācāra schools that particularly focused on this concern. Fa-shang (495-580) represented one of these schools and expounded that tathagatāgarbha and alaya-vijñāna were exclusively separate from one another: alaya-vijñāna was totally impure and existed solely to house all karmic and phenomenal-based associations; whereas the tathagatāgarbha was solely “pure” and the ultimate source for all there is. This stood in stark contrast to other Yogācāra schools that asserted that alaya-vijñāna in-itself was pure and the sustainer of all phenomena—it was completely synonymous with the tathagatāgarbha . In a masterstroke of providing the middle-ground for all these opposing schools, the Awakening of Faith integrated both concepts: alaya-vijñāna was bifurcated as epistemologically a combination of both pure and impure aspects of consciousness, while ontologically it was not distinct from tathagatāgarbha. When in awakened-mode the alaya was pure; when in delusion, it was impure. The following diagram (from Seong-Uk Kin’s extract), depicts how the Awakening of Faith harmonized tathagatāgarbha and alaya-vijñāna as the “One Mind in Two Aspects”: read more

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The Old Man in the Nāga Samadhi

Zekkai Chūshin (1336-1405), considered to be the dominant poet of all the Five Mountains Zen Poet-monks, once referred to Tsung-mi as “the old man in the nāga [mythological serpent = the Buddha] samadhi.” (Broughton, ZOC) The origin of this can be traced back to the Platform Sutra of Huineng: read more

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Bodhidharma Dhyana

Some might suspect from reading this series that Tsung-mi was someone who only emphasized the scholastic-side of Ch’an Buddhism. They would be wrong. Tsung-mi’s spirituality was a healthily balanced one—one that took Sūtra Study very seriously, yet at the same time being willing to cultivate the full-import of Ch’an—which essentially refers to faithfully practicing Dhyana. In fact, his subtitle to the Ch’an Prolegomenon is, “COLLECTION OF EXPRESSIONS OF THE PRINCIPLE AND PRACTICE OF DHYANA” (Broughton). Here’s his wonderful definition for the Absolute make-up of Dhyana/Ch’an: read more

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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: read more

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Eunuch Power and the Two Entrances

The Sweet-Dew Incident

It may sound hard to hear for modern ears that the great Tsung-mi’s downfall was at the hands of Eunuchs. However, these were no namby-pamby fellows that appear in some Mel Brook’s comedy, but rather fierce-warriors that were actually bred for maintaining power and control over the Emperor’s Court.  The year was 835 and Tsung-mi became implicated in what is known as the Sweet-Dew Incident. This involved a failed coup attempt to oust the Eunuch stronghold over the Emperor Wenzong. The main conspirator,  Li Xun, sought refuge in Tsung-mi’s monastery. Apparently, Tsung-mi favored Li Xun’s politics and after shaving his head to resemble one of the monks, granted him sanctuary.  For his action, Tsung-mi was later arrested and even faced possible execution. But once again Tsung-mi’s own powerful presence and powers of persuasion made an impact and his execution was stayed. Peter N. Gregory writes: read more

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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: read more

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Early Formation

Early Classical Formation

Tsung-mi’s early life is unique because it did not fit the mold of the typical Ch’an monk. Usually contact within the Buddhist monastic-community happened at an early age, between childhood and the early teen years. Tsung-mi came from an elite family and he began his early non-monastic education as a young child well-into his late teens fervently studying the Chinese Classics; this was a pivotal development because his early formation was firmly rooted in a “Classical vein” which helped to form his stature as a man of the fine-arts, a distinction that empowered his most erudite mode of expression. This was reinforced in his late teens and early twenties by fine-tuning this classical-exposure with a healthy dose of some Buddhist texts. read more

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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: read more

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