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Ch’an of the Patriarchs

Bodhidharma at Shao-lin temple

He was the 28th Patriarch in India in a direct lineage with Buddha.  He arrived via the sea route to China in 517 at the port city of Canton, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period.  The Liang Dynasty with its capital near Nanjing represented the Han people who fled south from the Hsiung-nu, Turkic and Tibetan invasions in the north.  Bodhidharma traditionally is said to have visited here first where his encounter with Emperor Liang Wudi took place.  He then crossed the Yang-tse River to the territory of the Northern Wei settling in Shaolin temple where he spent nine years in meditation facing a cave wall.   During his stay, he acquired at least four disciples one of whom, Huike received the mind to mind transmission to become the 2nd patriarch of Ch’an.  After a further nine years, Bodhidharma decided to return to India but he seems to have been poisoned before he left.

Bodhidharma was of a serious demeanour and he is often depicted with a severe look.  His teachings are known directly only through his Outline of Practice where he speaks of the two ways of entering the Noble Path and the four methods of practice.  His method of meditation was called piguan (wall-gazing).  Additionally he was said to have used the lankavatara sutra which became the foundation teaching of the Ch’an School.

The lankavatara sutra draws upon the concepts and doctrines of yogacara and tathagatagarbha.  However, the most important principle expounded in this sutra is the primacy of consciousness (vijnana) and the teaching of consciousness as the only reality.  The sutra asserts that all the objects of the world, and the names and forms of experience, are merely manifestations of the mind. It describes the different tiers of consciousness in the individual, culminating in the alayavijnana (storehouse consciousness) which is the base of the individual’s deepest awareness and his tie to the cosmic. The tathagatagarbha teaching as expounded in this sutra was important in the development of Ch’an as the Buddha nature became a central teaching of this school. 

Dazu Huike 2nd Patriarch (486-593)
He came to Shaolin at the age of 32 in the 527 CE dissatisfied with the type of meditation then practiced in northern China. He met Bodhidharma there outside the famous cave where he had meditated for 10 years.  He stayed with him for 6 years before receiving the wordless transmission, his robe and bowl, the symbols of the patriarchy.  He then travelled to the Northern Chi Dynasty capital of Yeh in 536 at 32 where he taught.  Bodhidharma’s teachings as given by Huike were not popular.  Northern Chinese Buddhist tradition was ascetic practices, meditation aimed at suppressing the passions, shamanistic incantations, and magic.  Huike taught that we were all buddhas and that enlightenment is only a thought away rather than something that took lifetimes to achieve.  They did not understand the Ch’an teaching of the usefulness of doing nothing to gain nothing.   Huike was forced to flee from Yeh when Ch’an was not received well by the sangha and he stayed instead in the south during the Chen dynasty (557-588).   At the beginning of the re-unification of China by Emperor Wen of the Sui, he came to the capital Changan in 580 and taught there until he was executed in 593.

Jianzhi Sengcan 3rd Patriarch (d. 606)
He was a lay practitioner who received the transmission in 536 at the age of 40.  He later fled with Huike when the persecution of Buddhism (574-77) by Emperor Wudi of the Northern Zhou Dynasty forced them into hiding.  Following the end of the persecution, Sengcan again spent ten years wandering with no fixed abode.  Later still he returned to Wangong shan where many laity visited him to become disciples but he died two years later in 606.

Dayi Daoxin 4th patriarch (580-651)
As a 14 year old novice he received the dharma transmission in 592 in the early Sui Dynasty.   Daoxin’s contribution was the successful broadening of Ch’an beyond the basic teachings of Bodhidharma and this brought to it a greater appeal to society at large. He is credited with doing so by adapting techniques from the Tiantai, Sanlun and Pureland Schools. He compiled manuals of discipline and meditation for his students.  He expanded the accepted literature by including the prajna sutras, adopted the standard precepts of Buddhism for Ch’an and introduced chanting the Buddha’s name as a form of meditation.   He was the first Ch’an master to establish a settled community of monks, founding East Mountain Temple on Potou shan where he taught for thirty years training many disciples, including the 5th patriarch.

Damen Hongren 5th Patriarch (601-674) and the East Mountain School
He joined the sangha as a young teenager at East Mountain temple, becoming a disciple of Daoxin from whom he received the Dharma transmission.  Upon Daoxin’s death in 651, he became the abbot and although known as a lankavatara master, he continued the fourth Patriarch’s practice of using the prajna sutras as part of his teaching.  The temple was well-known and Hogren trained up eleven enlightened disciples.   During his life the term East Mountain School arose to describe his teachings and those of his predecessor, Daoxin.

Dajian Huineng 6th Patriarch (638-703)
He was by far the most important figure in Ch’an history while his patriarchate was a watershed in Ch’an development.  His teachings and the story of his life had a remarkable broadening appeal to the populace at large who were not well-educated and from a poor background.  It is said that he taught 33 known enlightened disciples who spread his teaching widely and accounted for the five schools of Ch’an.  The Platform sutra, which concerns his teachings, is the only Chinese sutra recognised in the Chinese Tripitaka.  His disciples formed the Southern School after his death, sharply dividing Ch’an before dominating it thereafter.  His teaching emphasized sudden enlightenment through the direct experience of meditation with no mention of chanting or sutra reading as useful in its attainment.

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