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Founders of the Two Lineages

In the time that followed the triumph of the Southern School, two 3rd generation disciples of Huineng were recognised as the founders of the two important lineages of the Classical period of Ch’an. 

Shitou Xiqian  (石頭希遷) (700-790)

Ch'an Master Shitou Xiqian

Ch’an Master Shitou Xiqian

He was a native of Gaoyao in Duanzhou, west of Guangzhou and not far from Caoxi, the temple where the elderly Sixth Patriarch resided.   His family name was Chen and as a youth he is said to have been present at the death of Huineng in 713.  Subsequently, he was enrolled as a novice at Lofu shan (羅浮山) in his home province where he received monastic training and, at the age of twenty-eight,  took the tonsure in 728.  Thereafter, he travelled away to Nanyue Heng shan in Hunan, a mountain sacred to both Daoism and Buddhism.   He went there to seek out Huineng’s Dharma heir, Qingyuan Xingsi who was abbot of Nantai si.  The story is told that when Qingyuan, who was teaching several other disciples in the method of sudden enlightenment, saw the potential of Shitou, he remarked, “I have many horned cattle, but one unicorn is enough for me.” Studying there under Qingyuan, Shitou realised enlightenment and after observing the proper mourning period following the death of his master in 940, he withdrew to a rocky outcrop above Nantai si where, in 742, he built a simple hut with  a grass roof and remained there for the next 23 years.  During that time, he became well-known locally and this is when he earned the name we know him by, Shitou or ‘Stone-head’.  Disciples gathered around him over this period and, in 764, they convinced him to start a new Chan centre in Hunan  at Ling-tuan in T’an-chou.  The new centre was a focus for his teaching and other disciples sought him out there. 

Shitou Xiqian has left us two works.  The first is called The Grass Hut Song, written during his period of seclusion and is a paean to the solitary life and became well-known since it tapped into the Chinese  ideal of life as a recluse in the Taoist model.  The second work was the product of Shitou’s study of the commentary on the Hua-yen sutra by the third patriarch of that school, Fa-tsang法藏, who died in 712, a year before Huineng.  The profound teaching of Huayan doctrine generated volumes of commentaries following the third translation of this sutra by Fa-tsang.  Shitou, like others, was attracted to the depth of this teaching and consequently wrote The Agreement of Difference and Unity.

The span of Shitou’s life coincided with the period of the controversy between the northern and southern schools of Ch’an that eventually saw the latter prevail. In particular, his training with Qingyuan at Nantai si occurred at roughly the same time as Shenhui’s attacks on the Northern School.  Doubtless the merits of the sudden enlightenment of their own master Huineng as against  gradual enlightenment were debated at the monastery, however we are told specifically that Shitou became the disciple of Qingyuan when he was teaching the sudden enlightenment to his own disciples.  The writings of Shitou that have come down to us do not contradict this view.

In connection to his teaching, a story is told of Shitou when he was approached with a question by a disciple:

A monk asked, “What is Ch’an?
Shitou said, “ A piece of tile.”
The monk asked, “What is the Way?”
Shitou said, “Wood.”

His enlightened disciples were Danxia Tianran (738-824), Yaoshan Weiyan (751-834), and Tianhuang Daowu (748-807). 
As he grew older, it is said that Shitou returned to the Nan Heng shan where he had spent so much of his time.  He died in 790 and a stupa was erected in Dongling.  Emperor De Zong bestowed on him the posthumous name of ‘great teacher without limit.’

Mazu Daoyi (馬祖道) (709-788)

Ch'an Master Mazu Daoyi

Ch’an Master Mazu Daoyi

He was an enlightened disciple of Nanyue Huairang (2nd generation Ch’an master, a disciple of Huineng) who became a defining figure in Ch’an and founder of the lineage that would produce the Linji and Guiyang Schools of Chan.

His family name was Ma and he was a native of Shifangxian in what is now Sichuan province in southwest China.  He was born in 709, entering Luohan temple at the age of consent where he took the tonsor under Ch’u-chi (d.732 or 734).  This Ch’an master was the enlightened disciple of Damen Hongren (601-674), Fifth Patriarch and abbot of the East Mountain School.  In 729 the young Mazu took the monastic ordination in the same province from Vinaya Master Yuan in Yanzhou when he was 21.   Thereafter he became a yunshui (itinerant monk), travelling along the Yangzi into the mountainous region of Hubei province, staying on Mingyueshan (Mingyue Mtn), Songzixian.  By 732 he moved south to Hunan province where he decided to stay on Hengshan (Heng Mtn) near Tianzhufeng.  There, he built a meditation hut on the mountain next to Bore si (Bo-re monastery). 

It was on the mountain that Mazu encountered Nanyue Huairang, the enlightened disciple of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch, who came to Hengshan in 721.  Mazu became one of Huirang’s seven disciples and received the Dharma seal from him before leaving in 742.

Mazu travelled south to Fojiliang (Buddha Trace Mtn. in Fujian province) where he took several disciples. He then moved to Shigong on Qishan (Qi Mtn, now in Jiangxi province) in 743.  He hadn’t been there long before the death of his master, Nanyue Huairang caused his return in 744 to Hengshan where he erected a stupa to his master.  Mazu returned to Qishan, staying until 750 when he moved to the eastern district of Fujian, Qianzhou  near the coast and the outflow of the Jinjiang river at Gonggongshan (Gonggong Mtn) where he taught for the next twenty-two years.

The reputation of Mazu and the numbers of his disciples gradually built over the years of these three teaching periods.  In 772, he relocated once more, this time to Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Jiangxi.   Many of the disciples that he taught over his lifetime came with him to form what would become known as the Hangzhou School. one that exercised great influence in the time before the appearance of the ‘Five Houses’ of Chan.  In 788, Mazu climbed Shimenshan (Shimen Mtn) where he predicted his own death within a month.   On his deathbed, when asked how he was, his last words were, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”  This was later incorporated into a kung-an.   In 791, a stupa was erected in his honour.  He received two posthumous titles conferred by emperors Xianzong and Xuangzong in the next century. 

Mazu’s Teaching

Mazu brought the focus of Ch’an back to Bodhidharma’s original teaching while his innovative methods of arousing enlightenment in others was propagated at large by his many disciples, three of whom founded Ch’an houses (schools).  His legacy is the record of enlightened disciples and the writings about their master that are recorded.  Mazu himself, unlike Shitou, has left no written record of his teachings. 

Mazu’s teaching pointed directly to the mind.  “This mind is Buddha (jixin shi fo).  Apart from the mind there is no Buddha, apart from the Buddha there is no mind.”  This ‘ordinary mind’ as identified by Mazu is perfect in its original state and is identified with Buddha-nature. It does not act volitionally to grasp at good or evil but it encompasses all the observed states of the mind of ordinary people from enlightenment to ignorance.  Thus the ‘ordinary mind’  is both pure and defiled at the same time.   This teaching  is supported by the ‘two aspects of one-mind’ in the Awakening of the Faith in the Mahayana sutra.  Here, the first aspect of the mind is Thusness (xin Zhenru) that neither is born nor dies, the second aspect is the mind subject to birth and death (xin shengmie) which is the ordinary realm that is subject to continual life and death.

Mazu was also well known for his techniques in teaching used to bring the adepts among his disciples to an enlightening experience.   These methods of teaching became emblematic of Ch’an thereafter, followed and embellished by his disciples, they inspired many others to develop their own unique teaching methods.  In conversation, he made use of rudeness, contradiction and absurdity as intuitive ways to point disciples toward self-nature.  To this same end, he used physical shocks such as tweaking the nose or a strike on the head to jolt a disciple to realisation.

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