Facing the wall

The history of Chan begins in India. In Buddha's lifetime, yoga as a practice in the concentration of the spirit was widespread. It is in the nature of yoga to concentrate the spirit on one point: the achievement of serenity through seated meditation.

In fact, the yoga methods of the day were limited at this time to restrictions on what was to be eaten, fasts, and certain vows such as the vow to remain standing on one leg for a prolonged period of time. Through such ascesis and a whole array of exercises, the yogi trained himself in indifference to external stimuli and in the control of the slightest movement of his own spirit.

Buddha practised this kind of yoga for twelve years from the moment that he decided to renounce a mundane life. He visited saints and interviewed wise men, travelling to the four corners of the country. But in the end Buddha did not find in Yoga any answer to two essential questions: What is man? How should man live?

Buddha abandoned ascetism, sat down quietly, crossed his legs and observed his breathing. During the dawn of the eighth day of Zazen he attained a higher level of consciousness as he observed the light of a star. Buddha discovered his true nature in the universe and a rule for the existence of all men.
Chan was taken to China by Boddhidharma. Boddhidharma represented the twenty-eighth generation of Buddha’s disciples. At that time China was divided between rival states. Chaos reigned everywhere owing to the upheaval caused by the struggle for power. The country was oppressed by tyrants and bloodied by rebellions. The Liang dynasty ruled over one of the states of ancient China. The emperor Wu-Ti, head of this dynasty and fervent Buddhist, heard of Boddhidharma and invited him to his palace.

In response to Wu-Ti’s question: “What is the basic principle of Buddhism?” Boddhidharma replied: “An immense vacuum.A clear sky. A sky which does not distinguish between the enlightened and the ignorant. The world exactly as it is.” In spite of his being a fervent Buddhist, Wu-Ti did not understand Boddhidharma?s message and the latter realised that the time for spreading Chan in China was not yet ripe. For this reason, he crossed the Yang-Tse river and retired to the Shorin temple in the Northern mountains. There he practised Zazen seated in front of a wall for nine years, some say uninterruptedly.
Bodhidharma was not popular to the degree that he was envied by his contemporary Buddhists, who, as we are told by his biographers, attempted to poison him three times, but without success.

China was not, however, an uncultivated land for the seed of Chan, there had been many practisers of Chan before Bodhidharma. All that he had to do was to wait for an earnest seeker after the spirit of Shakya Muni. Therefore he waited, and waited not in vain, for at last there came a learned Confucianist, Shang Kwang by name, for the purpose of finding the final solution of a problem which troubled him so much that he had become dissatisfied with Confucianism, as it had no proper diet for his now spiritual hunger.

Thus Shang Kwang was far from being one of those half-hearted visitors who knocked the door of Bodhidharma only for the sake of curiosity. But the silent master was cautious enough to try the sincerity of a new visitor before admitting him to the Meditation Hall. According to a biography of his, Shang Kwang was not allowed to enter the temple, and had to stand in the courtyard covered deep with snow. His firm resolution and earnest desire, however, kept him standing continually on one spot for seven days and nights with beads of the frozen drops of tears on his breast. At last he cut off his left arm with a sharp knife, and presented it before the inflexible teacher to show his resolution to follow the master even at the risk of his life. Thereupon Bodhidharma admitted him into the order as a disciple fully qualified to be instructed in the highest doctrine of Mahayanism.

This event is worthy of our notice, because such a mode of instruction was adopted by all Chan teachers after the first patriarch, and it became one of the characteristics of Chan.

Bodhidharma’s labour of nine years in China resulted in the initiation of a number of disciples, and transmitted the law to Hui Ko, creating him the Second Patriarch.

After the death of the First Patriarch, Hui Ko did his best to propagate the new faith over sixty years. The Second Patriarch found a man who was well qualified to be taught in the new faith, and converted him, giving him the name of Sang Tsung (So-san). After years of instruction and discipline, he bestowed on Sang Tsung the Kachaya handed down from Bodhidharma, and authorized him as the Third Patriarch. It is by Sang Tsung that the doctrine of Chan was first reduced to writing by his composition of Sin Sin Ming (Sin zin-mei, On Faith and Mind), a metrical exposition of the faith.

The Third Patriarch was succeeded by Tao Sin (Do-shin), who being initiated at the age of fourteen, was created the Fourth Patriarch after nine years’ study and discipline.

Tao Sin transmitted the Law to Hung Jan (Ko-nin), who being educated from infancy, distinguished himself as the Abbot of the Hwang Mei Monastery at Ki Cheu. The Fifth Patriarch, according to his biographer, gathered about him seven hundred pupils, who came from all quarters. Of these seven hundred pupils the venerable Shang Sin (Jin-shu) was most noted for his learning and virtues, and be might have become the legitimate successor of Hung Jan, had not the Kachaya of Bodhidharma been carried away by a poor farmer’s son of Sin Cheu.

Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, seems to have been born a Chan teacher. The spiritual light of Buddha first flashed in his mind when he happened to hear a monk reciting a sutra.

Some time before his death (in 675 A.D.) the Fifth Patriarch announced to all disciples that the Spirit of Shakya Muni is hard to realize, that they should express their own views on it, on condition that anyone who could prove his right realization should be given with the Kachaya and created the Sixth Patriarch.

After the death of the Fifth Patriarch the venerable Shang Siu, though not the legitimate successor of his master, was not inactive in the propagation of the faith, and gathered about him a number of enthusiastic admirers.

Consequently Hui Neng, still clad like a layman, changed his clothes, and began his patriarchal career at that Monastery. This is the starting-point of the great development of Chan in China.

Chan spread quickly through China six generations later, thanks to Huei-Neng (Eno) considered one of the greatest Patriarchs of Chinese Chan. After Huei-Neng, a five-petalled flower blossomed. This Chan expression means that Chan opened up like a flower with five petals and spread throughout the whole country thanks to the five schools which arose from Master Eno?s lineage. These schools were Igyo, Hongen, Soto, Unmon, and Rinzai. In the mountains and forests of China, construction began on thousands of temples in which tens of thousands of people lived, devoting themselves to the study and practice of the Dharma of Buddha.

In the course of time Chan would impregnate Chinese civilization, elevating its thinking, culture and art to sublime heights. Of these five Chinese schools, only three reached Japan: Soto, Rinzai and Obaku (the latter is considered a branch of the Rinzai school). The other two died out in China.

In Japan only the Rinzai and Soto schools took firm roots, the former thanks to Eisai and the latter thanks to Dogen and Keizan. The Rinzai tradition is based on a strict discipline designed to disarticulate mental creations. The Koan or enigmatic question that is difficult to answer is of great importance and its resolution, beyond the realms of the intellect, leads directly to the experience of Satori and awakening.

The Soto tradition aims above all to concentrate on the life of Buddha, that is to say, follow Buddha’s daily life, advancing continually in achievement thanks to daily practice, without expecting anything extraordinary. The essence of Soto is Shikatanza, sitting, only sitting.

With the Master Dogen (1200-1254) the Soto tradition and the very essence of Buddhism attained a level of maturity and precision difficult to encounter at other times. His masterpiece, the Shobogenzo is a work that is indispensable for understanding Buddhism and the essence of a whole Eastern civilization.