Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen  

“Buddhist scriptures collected by Horyuji” by 柏翰 / ポーハン / POHAN is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/?ref=openverse.

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (54)

A Pitiful Condition
335. Dharma Hall Discourse

「示衆」 (示衆)
如來禪祖師禪   (如來禪・祖師禪、)
古不傳東土妄傳 (古傳えず東土妄りに傳う。)
迷執虚名何百歳 (虚名に迷執すること何百歳、)
可怜末世劣因縁 (怜れむべし末世の劣因縁。)

Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen
were not transmitted by the ancients, but only transmitted falsely in the Eastern Land (China).
For several hundred years some have been clinging with delusion to these vain names.
How pitiful is the inferior condition of this degenerating world.[1]

— • —

This is verse 53 in Kuchūgen and Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 335 in Volume 4 of Eihei Kōroku. Dōgen Zenji only recited this verse as the dharma discourse without making any explanatory speech, or else his speech was not recorded. This verse in Manzan’s version is slightly different from Monkaku’s version in the second line:

古不傳妄傳 (古は傳えず、妄りに傳う)
were not transmitted in the ancient times, but only transmitted falsely in these days.

A Pitiful Condition

This dharma discourse was given during the summer practice period in 1249. Taigen Leighton and I took this title for the discourse from the fourth line. In Shōbōgenzō and Eihei Kōroku, Dōgen Zenji often criticizes various aspects of the Zen he encountered in Song Dynasty China. This verse is about one of the problems he found. He does not agree with the distinction between Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen.

Tathāgata Zen is a translation of Nyorai Zen (如来禅). This expression is used in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (Nyū-Ryōgakyō, 入楞伽経). According to scholars, this Mahāyāna sutra was created around the 4th century CE in India. Lanka refers to Sri Lanka; avatāra means “to enter,” so that the title means “Entering Sri Lanka.” In this Sutra, somehow, Shakyamuni Buddha is invited by the king, visits Sri Lanka, and answers his questions. Basically, the teaching in this Sutra is a combination of the consciousness-only theory of the Yogacara school and the theory of Tathāgata-garbha. There are three Chinese translations of this sutra. The first one was translated by Guṇabhadra (求那跋陀羅, 394–468). This sutra gave inspiration to the early Zen (Chan) practitioners in China. According to a Zen text, Bodhidharma said that Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was the only reliable sutra he found in China and transmitted it together with his robe to the second ancestor, Huike (Eka, 慧可). The group later called the Northern School (so-called by the Southern School) named their own lineage Lanka School (Ryōga-shū 楞伽宗) and made a collection of biographies of their ancestors entitled, Ryōga-shiji-ki (楞伽師資記, Record of Master and Disciple in [the Transmission of] the Lanka). This text was unknown until it was found in the Tunghuang cave in 20th century. In this text, Guṇabhadra. the translator of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, was recorded as the first ancestor of their school, before Bodhidharma.

In the Lankavatara Sūtra, meditation (dhyana, chan, zen) practice was categorized into four kinds. In the D. T. Suzuki’s English translation, these are:

(1) the Dhyana practised by the ignorant,
(2) the Dhyana devoted to the examination of meaning,
(3) the Dhyana with Tathāta (suchness) for its object, and
(4) the Dhyana of the Tathāgatas.[2]

The first kind refers to the kinds of meditation practice by Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas: to see no-self, to see the body of the self is impermanent, suffering and impure, to attain the state of no-thought. The second kind refers to the meditation practice in the Mahāyāna that sees the meaning of the various aspects of emptiness — not only one’s own self, but also all dharmas are empty. The third kind refers to the meditation to see tathāta (suchness, emptiness) itself as its object, and go beyond all kinds of discrimination. The final kind, the Dhyana of the Tathāgata is having entered the stage of Tathāgatahood, and abiding in the triple bliss which characterizes self-realization attained by noble wisdom, devoting oneself for the sake of all beings to the accomplishment of incomprehensible works.

Zen people thought the first kind is the practice of the lesser vehicle, the second and third are meditation practices based on Mahāyāna teaching on seeing emptiness of the self and objects, and seeing suchness itself. The fourth practice is not only for developing oneself but also benefitting others.

Sometime after the separation between the Northern School and the Southern School occurred, Guifeng Zongmi (Keihō Shūmitsu, 圭峯宗密, 780–841) wrote Chan Prolegomena (Zengenshosenshū-tojo, 禅源所詮集都序). Zongmi was an important Fayen School (Kegon-shū, 華厳宗)master who also claimed himself a Zen master in the lineage of Shenhui (神会), one of the disciples of the sixth ancestor, Huineng. In his work, Zongmi categorized Zen into five kinds depending on their profundity:

(1)   Outsider Zen (Gedō-zen, 外道禅)
(2)   Common-person Zen (Bonpu-zen, 凡夫禅)
(3)   Inferior-vehicle Zen (Shōjō-zen, 小乗禅)
(4)   Great-vehicle Zen (Daijō-zen, 大乗禅)
(5)   Highest-vehicle Zen (Saijōjō-zen, 最上乗禅) also named Tathāgata-purity            Zen (Nyorai-shōjō-zen, 如来清浄禅)

Zongmi said that the fifth kind of Zen is the highest and is the Zen transmitted by Bodhidharma. “The practitioner all-at-once identifies with buddha substance.”[3]

These two texts were the origin of the name Tathāgata Zen (Nyorai Zen, 如来禅). Zen practitioners used this name of Zen to show that their practice was the highest, beyond other meditation practices based on Mahāyāna teachings such as the Tientai (天台) system of meditation practice, described in Tientai Zhiyi’s The Great Cessation-and-Contemplation (Makashikan, 摩訶止観).

Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen
were not transmitted by the ancients, but only transmitted falsely in the Eastern Land (China).

In the Southern School, specifically Mazu’s lineage called the Hangzhou School (Kōshū-shū, 洪州宗), people thought that Tathāgata Zen was still based on the teachings in the scriptures; their practice was transmitted outside teaching (kyōge-betsuden, 教外別伝) and called Ancestral Zen (Soshi Zen, 祖師禅). For example, there is a dialogue between Yanshan Huiji (Gyōsan Ejaku, 仰山慧寂, 807–883) and Xiangyan Zhixian (Kyōgen Chikan香巌智閑, ? – 898), two major disciples of Guishan Lingyou (Isan Reiyū, 潙山霊裕, 771–853):

The master (Yanshan) asked Xiangyan, “Younger brother! What is your view these days?”
Xiangyan said, “I cannot say anything after all.”
Then he composed a verse:

Last year’s poverty was not yet poverty.
This year’s poverty is poverty in its true sense.
Last year, I didn’t have a room to stick a gimlet,
This year, I don’t even have the gimlet.

The master replied, “You only attained Tathāgata Zen, not yet Ancestral Zen.”[4]

From this dialogue, it seems that Yanshan meant that Tathāgata Zen is going beyond discrimination, and seeing emptiness beyond any conceptual thinking without using language, and that Ancestral Zen is freely functioning in a concrete way without discrimination, such as shouting, hitting with a stick, kicking, or raising a finger, a fist, a whisk, etc.

Later in Song Dynasty China, many Zen people thought their practice in the ancestral way was transmitted outside teaching, without relying on any written teachings, so that their practice of Ancestral Zen was superior to Tathāgata Zen. Dōgen Zenji does not appreciate such a Zen tradition.

For several hundred years some have been clinging with delusion to these vain names.
How pitiful is the inferior condition of this degenerating world.

“For several hundred years” means from the time of Yanshan and other eminent Zen masters in the Tang dynasty, which is sometimes called the golden age of Zen, to Dōgen’s day. When Dōgen had traveled to China in his youth, after about two years of Zen practice at Chinese Zen monasteries and meeting with several Zen masters, he still had not found the true teacher he was looking for. In 1225, right after his Japanese master Myōzen passed away, Dōgen met Tiantong Rujing and became his disciple. Dōgen kept a record of his questions and Rujing’s answers in Hōkyōki. The first question in this record is about the separate transmission outside the teaching, and the second question is about Zen masters’ instruction of just raising a fist, holding up the whisk, or hitting with a stick, not allowing their students to utilize thinking mind for measuring things.[5]

Receiving Rujing’s instruction, he was convinced that such a separation between Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen was not a genuine teaching. In various fascicles of Shōbōgenzō, he repeatedly criticizes such common teachings of Zen. For example, in Shōbōgenzō Bukkyō (Buddha Sutra, 仏経), he wrote:

Nevertheless, for the last one or two hundred years or so, in great Song China, all reckless stinky skin-bags have declared, “We should not keep even the ancestral masters’ words and phrases. Much less should we see the teachings within the sutras and use them forever. We should simply make our body-minds like withered trees or dead ashes. We should be like broken ladles or bottomless buckets.” In this way people have carelessly become like non-buddhists or heavenly demons.[6]

“This degenerating world,” is a translation of masse (末世), which means the age of the final dharma, the third of the three ages of the dharma–the age of true dharma, the age of semblance dharma, and the age of the final dharma. It is said that in the age of the final dharma, only Buddhist teachings remain, no one practices, and no awakening is possible. Japanese people believed that the period of the final dharma began in 1052. Dōgen did not accept this theory, as he wrote in Bendōwa:

In the Teaching Schools they focus on various classification systems, yet in the true teaching of Mahāyāna there is no distinction of True, Semblance, and Final Dharma, and it is said that all who practice will attain the Way.[7]

However, here, he uses this expression in the common meaning. Anyway, to me, this verse seems not as poetic as others composed by him.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record volume 4, dharma hall discourse 335, p.304) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] See The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Translated from the Sanskrit by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Prajna Press, Boulder, pp. 85–6.
[3] Zongmi on Chan (Jeffrey Lyle Broughton, Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 104.
[4] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Records of the Transmission of the Lamp vol. 3 (by Randolph S. Whitefield), p.83.
[5] See Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dōgen (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala, 1999), p.4.
[6] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi), p.541.
[7] Translation by Shohaku Okumura & Taigen Daniel Leighton in The Wholehearted Way, (Tuttle Publishing, 1997), p.37.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:
See Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright©2022 Sanshin Zen Community

1 thought on “Tathāgata Zen and Ancestral Zen  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.