Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163): The Awakening and Career of a Religious Genius and the Image these Created

Miriam Levering
University of Tennessee
May 14, 2013

In 1101 the future Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) at age 13 by Chinese reckoning both started and abandoned a classical education and decided to become a Buddhist monk.[1] Three years later he was ordained. By the time he died in 1163 he had become one of the two or three preeminent Chan abbots and teachers of the empire, and the one of his generation who had by far the greatest impact on future generations. He had attracted many patrons and students from the educated elite, including several prime ministers and a number of very influential scholars and poets.[2] He had found a new method for making Linji Chan teaching and practice more effective, and thereby changed the way teaching and practice were done in the future in the Linji house. Within the Song dynasty Chan Buddhist school, Dahui Zonggao formulated and popularized the form of gongan study called “looking into and observing a saying,” the saying being a word, sentence or phrase that crystallizes a specifically chosen gongan problem. This method of gongan study is sometimes called “inspecting the critical phrase,” or in Chinese, kan huatou. This method of gongan study remained at the heart of most Chinese Chan training not only for the rest of the Song dynasty but for all the succeeding centuries in China, Korea and Japan. His Dharma-heirs and others from the Linji house who were inspired by him occupied many of the abbacies at major Song dynasty Chan temples. At the end of his life he presided over two of the empire’s most prominent monasteries, Mt. Ashoka (Ayuwangshan) and Mt. Jing (Jingshan). He enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor Xiaozong (r. 1163-1190), who gave him the name “Dahui,” “Great Wisdom .[3]

In the generations of Chan teachers in China after Dahui Zonggao, most used the forms of practice he invented. Influential Song dynasty monks who owe a debt to Dahui include Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), the author of “The Gateless Gate,” still central to koan practice and education in Japanese Rinzai Zen monasteries today. In the Yuan dynasty, Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295) and Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323) wrote important essays on huatou practice that followed closely Dahui’s understanding. Ming dynasty and later Buddhist masters took Dahui Zonggao’s Chan as a model, including Yunqi Zhuhong (1535-1615), Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) and Miyun Yuanwu (1566-1642).

In the modern era the importance of Dahui Zonggao and the meditation method he clarified and popularized has continued. Master Hsu Yun (1840-1959) led meditation retreats in China in which he lectured to the participants on the huatou method.[4] Garma C. C. Chang (Chang Chen Chi; 1920-1988)), who in the 1950’s wrote the best introduction to Chan Buddhism for the West until recent times, The Practice of Zen, translated into English excerpts from Dahui’s Letters so that Western students could learn properly how to do huatou practice.[5] The Venerable Sheng Yen, an outstanding contemporary Chinese writer about Chan in English, taught the huatou method to his students in Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere by lecturing on excerpts from Dahui’s letters and individual Dharma-instructions (fayu).[6]

In Japan and Korea important teachers who particularly valued and taught Dahui’s approach to practice include the tremendously influential Chinul (1158-1210), Muso Soseki, and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), the founder of today’s Rinzai Zen. Chinul, the founder of Korean Son Buddhism, commissioned a text of Dahui’s Letters to be brought to Korea from China. Reading it enabled him to awaken. Dahui’s Letters has been a very important part of almost all Korean Buddhist monastic education since Chinul and remains so today. Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhists such as Hakuin adopted Dahui’s kan huatou teaching method and lectured on Dahui’s Letters in monasteries. Hakuin also cited Dahui’s emphasis on integrating Chan practice with secular activity when he addressed his lay community. In his Orategama I, for example, Hakuin writes that “The Zen Master Dahui has said that meditation in the midst of activity is immeasurably superior to the quietistic approach.”[7]

There is no question that in Dahui’s own time and for many generations down to the present Dahui has enjoyed a mostly positive but sometimes sharply negative reputation. In the future studies scholars may examine in more detail the image that his contemporaries and later masters had of him as reflected in Song dynasty Chan and secular anecdote collections, as well as in later sources. Here we will undertake a more fundamental inquiry: what image of Dahui is presented in the Recorded Sayings collections that present his own sermons and writings, and in the chronological or “annalistic” (year-by-year) biography (nianpu) for Dahui that was compiled shortly after his death.

Because Dahui’s image has many dimensions, his yulu collections are vast, and his chronological biography is long and detailed, not every aspect of his image can be touched on here. We will focus only on some of the more important dimensions of Dahui’s image.[8]

A full study of Dahui’s image as presented in that text and in the Chan Arsenal of Master Dahui Pujue (Dahui Pujue chanshi zongmen wuku), on which I will occasionally draw, must be deferred to another occasion.[9]

Dahui as autobiographer

Dahui’s image as found in these texts is primarily created by his own words about himself, as well as by his other words and deeds. The whole is edited no doubt by his followers and in some cases, himself. One would expect a Chan master’s image to be conveyed in his teachings and his teaching style; it is indeed standard for a reader in early modern China or elsewhere to derive the image of a master from his or her words and actions as he interacts with those he would enlighten. His contemporaries and later readers certainly formed an image of Dahui Zongao through his recorded teachings and actions. But Dahui’s image was to an even greater extent created by his own stories about himself as found in his yulu collections and his chronological biography. Dahui in his scheduled sermons (shangtang, xiaocan, etc.) and his unscheduled “general sermons” (pushuo) to the assembly of monks, nuns and their lay guests, his written dharma instructions (fayu) and his letters (shu) addressed to individuals, tells stories about himself. These stories provide a very distinct image of the man as Chan student and teacher, one which no reader of his works can ignore.

Whether this is unusual for a Song dynasty Chan master we cannot know. Most other masters of the Song left much shorter yulu or yulu compilations: perhaps stories about themselves were left out by editors. At the very least it is highly unusual to find such stories in the edited yulu compilations of Song Chan masters. Let us begin with those stories, and then turn to Dahui’s teachings and his teaching style. From Dahui’s point of view, his stories about himself were part of his teachings. Thus both can be called his “Chan.” Taken together they form Dahui’s image.

Dahui’s Image as Seen in Stories about Himself

a. Dahui was not a fully educated literatus, although he received a literary education at least through the age of thirteen

In his extant discourse records Dahui tells his listeners and readers virtually nothing about his secular background. Dahui was born to the Xi family in Xuanzhou in Ningguo district (present-day Xuancheng county), in present-day Anhui province. His family does not appear to have been a prominent one. Neither Dahui himself nor his Annalistic Biography tell us anything about family or recent ancestors who served in government positions. I have searched the extant lists of exam graduates in gazetteers for his unusual surname, Xi, in his family’s home region and found only one name. That name could not have fit Dahui’s family.

Dahui’s autobiographical stories do make clear that he was not by education a full member of the literati class, if by literati we mean the class of people who had a literati education and either served or did not serve in government. We can draw no conclusions about his family.

Dahui’s Annalistic Biography (nianpu) gives an account of his youth that combines a few facts with hagiographic tales. Two elements of that account are worth mentioning here. First, a no longer extant source quotes Dahui as saying that from his birth the family’s financial fortunes steadily declined, even more so after a devastating fire when he was ten.[10] Second, the Nianpu describes Dahui being forced to pay a fine and leave the local school at the age of thirteen after only thirteen days because he threw an inkwell that accidentally hit the teacher’s hat.[11] An extant sermon confirms at least part of this. In it Dahui says, “I started school at thirteen, and had only thirteen days of school.”[12]

According to the Nianpu, Dahui turned down an opportunity to study for the civil service examinations. Under the heading for his sixteenth year the Nianpu says that although his family rented space for him to study for the government examinations for a civil service career, Dahui did not like the project and soon left, taking in that same year his first religious vows with a Buddhist teacher.[13] The Nianpu‘s entries convey an impression that Dahui as a young man neither received nor wanted to receive a secular classical and literary education. Dahui later in life was befriended by poets and scholars, and formed teaching relationships with distinguished literati; this fact forms another important part of his image. But he was not trained in the classical tradition himself.

One might think that a Song dynasty hagiographer might see it as an advantage in a future monk that he had no interest in secular education. However in fact, Song dynasty hagiographers usually included secular educational achievements in the biographies of eminent monks, seeing those as a mark of eminence. Likewise, contemporary historians might suppose that without more secular education a monk would be ill prepared for a career at the highest levels of Song Chan. The Buddhist world of the Song dynasty was very much dependent on and a part of literati culture.[14] But Dahui makes clear in his yulu collection that it is awakening opens the door to success in all aspects of Chan, in his own case as in others. Awakening itself results in the command of expression in words that a Chan master needs, whether or not he has literary training.

b. After ordination Dahui showed an early and consistent interest in Chan, studying gongan and commentaries on gongan with teachers and through books.

In a general sermon Dahui says, “From the time I left home at age nineteen I sought out teachers, asked for instruction, and looked at Chan stories (kan huatou).[15] Dahui tells many stories of his early teachers and his early Chan studies. From these one can see that Dahui was a talented young man who had an interest in and a gift for Chan, as well as what Chan study consisted of in his day. At eighteen he began formally studying Chan in his native Xuanzhou with a teacher in the Yunmen lineage. Even prior to this, he obtained a copy of and fell in love with Yunmen’s yulu collection. In a general sermon (pushuo) Dahui tells the story:

“Soon after my head was shaved I knew that there was This Matter. Although I was in a village temple, I often wanted to buy the discourse records of various masters. Even though I did not yet understand it I loved the conversations of Yunmen and Muzhou (Yunmen’s teacher).[16] [Muzhou said,]”All of you! Those who do not yet have insight into Chan (lit: who have not yet reached an entry[17] ) must attain entry. Those who have already attained an entry should not be ungrateful to your old teacher afterward.”[18]

At the age of nineteen Dahui left Xuanzhou and went to Taipingzhou, where he studied with Ruizhu Shaocheng, also called Baoyin Dashi, a teacher of the Linji school.[19] A story that Dahui tells from this period gives his hearers a good idea of the kind of study he was doing and its results. He attained “a place of joy” and thought he understood Chan when reading in Xuansha Shibei (835-908)’s discourse record the story of Ruiyan Shiyan (dates unknown; his teacher Yantou died in 887) who every day sat in his abbot’s quarters calling out “Master of the house!” and then answering himself, “Yes.” He would then call out, “Are you wide awake?” And answer, “Yes.” He would call out again, “Later on don’t let yourself be fooled by anyone.” And again answer, “Yes, yes.”[20]

Dahui says that he sought out Shaocheng to ask about his understanding.[21] He told Shaocheng that had he been there in the monk’s place, he would have said “Yes” to Xuansha’s last question. When Xuansha replied, as Dahui thought he must, “See if you can call out,” Dahui would have repeated the whole of Ruiyan’s calling and answering. “After all, everyone has a ‘master of the house.’ There is no reason why he could call out but I cannot call out.” Dahui says that when he understood this he was considerably freed and enlivened, and Shaocheng approved his understanding (kenke). Dahui says: “At the time I also thought I was right. I was happy for a long time.”[22]

According to Dahui’s Arsenal (Wuku), Dahui asked Shaocheng for instruction on Xuedou Mingjue (980-1052)’s Niangu and Songgu.[23] According to Dahui’s account in one sermon, Shaocheng had personally studied with Xuedou.[24] When Shaocheng turned the request around and asked Dahui to explicate these texts, he was so impressed with Dahui’s understanding that he suggested that Dahui was the reincarnation of Xuedou.[25] Perhaps this story shows a young Dahui who believed, in keeping with the literati-influenced nature of Song dynasty Chan, that Chan was best approached through stories about Tang and Five Dynasties masters as mediated through Song dynasty poetic commentaries. Dahui tells his audience that he served as an attendant to Shaocheng for two years, discussing gongan with him every day.[26]

c. Dahui studied from teachers and texts of all Chan lineages, including especially Linji and Caodong lineages

Dahui often emphasizes in his sermons and mentions in his letters that he studied with teachers of all of the various schools of Chan before his final awakening under Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135) in 1125. “I went forth and traveled everywhere visiting teachers. Yunmen, Caodong, Guiyang, Linji, even “The three worlds are only mind, the ten thousand dharmas are only consciousness” – I mastered all of these various schools of Chan. When I got to a place, I only had to enter the interview room of the teacher twice before I would have understood the teaching. But always in the end my feeling of doubt was not broken through.”[27]

This wide experience is an important part of the image of himself he wants to create: someone who has worked with all of the different teaching methods of the various Chan schools, and thus is able to evaluate them from firsthand experience. Dahui especially emphasizes this point after he has begun his long campaign of criticizing some forms of practice encouraged by Caodong teachers.

Key to his creation of this image is the emphasis that he places on his studies at the Taiyang Monastery in Hubei, a major center for the Caodong lineage. As Morten Schlutter and Ishii Shudo have demonstrated, the Caodong lineage was at that time in the midst of a major revival with new teachings and modes of expression.[28] The chief Song dynasty reviver of the Caodong tradition, Furong Daokai (1043-1118), had spent thirteen years as abbot at Taiyang Monastery before leaving in 1095.[29] Here in 1108-09 Dahui studied with the current abbot, a Caodong teacher named Dongshan Daowei (n.d.), whom Dahui identifies as an eminent disciple of Furong Daokai.[30] Dahui also mentions having studied with two of his assistants, “First Seat” Yuan and “First Seat” Jian.[31] Dahui says, “Within two years [at Taiyang Monastery] I mastered the cardinal instructions of the Caodong house.”[32] Dahui does say that Daowei did teach awakening, unlike some teachers of whom Dahui was critical.[33]

From Dahui’s autobiographical stories it is clear that thereafter most of Dahui’s teachers and associates until the beginning of his study with Yuanwu belonged to the Huanglong branch of the Linji lineage. Dahui tells many stories of his time studying with Zhantang Wenjun (1061-1115) at Jewel Peak Monastery (Baofeng si) in the Stone Gate mountains in the northern part of present day Jiangxi Province.[34] Some of Dahui’s stories mention an unexpected benefit of studying with Zhantang at Jewel Peak, namely, that a second opportunity to learn Caodong teachings presented itself.[35] In the assembly was a relative of Zhantang’s whom Dahui refers to as “Attendant Jian.” Dahui tells his hearers that Jian had been an attendant of Furong Daokai’s for more than ten years, and obtained Daokai’s Way, including all of the important instructions of the Caodong house. Perhaps this is the same Jian as the “First Seat Jian” mentioned above. Dahui relates that he took this opportunity of being with Attendant Jian to understand these teachings more thoroughly.[36]

d. Dahui was not an iconoclast or a non-conformist

Stories about his time with Zhantang serve the creation of Dahui’s image in one particularly interesting way. Instead of describing himself as a free spirit, an iconoclast, a spontaneous inventor of startling actions and striking modes of communication during this time of maturing practice, Dahui described himself as the “parfait knight,” the perfect Chan monk.

Through a close study of the various versions of the records of Tang master Linji and the developing versions of the Linji lu in which these records were brought together in the Song dynasty, Albert Welter has shown that from the late Five Dynasties through the early Song dynasty, the changes made are in the direction of making Linji’s language and gestures in his interactions with students more dramatic and action- filled. The later versions of the stories about Linji represent Linji as a dynamic, enigmatic and iconoclastic action figure, rather than a conventional Buddhist abbot who gives sermons to audiences of monks and lay people.[37] Welter suggests that the impossible, even grotesque physical descriptions one finds of figures such as Mazu and Huangbo, and the novel behavior that Chan masters such as Linji exhibited in the later texts, such antics as shouting, slapping, hitting, nose-tweaking and the like, are deployed by Song dynasty writers as caricatures to suggest that Chan masters are “new kinds of champions who expose the boundaries of previous limitations and suggest ways to break through to a new kind of existence, a new way of living… .”[38] Such images of new champions responded to cultural needs brought on by the breakdown of the Tang order as well as the political need of the new Song dynasty to establish a new order. The Visual representations of some Chan masters have the same convention-breaking aspect; the artist plays with physical proportions and depicts bulging eyes and mirthful dispositions, “to exhibit [through expressive representations of Chan figures] the unique style of Chan through an unconventional appearance.”[39]

All this vanishes, Welter argues, when Song masters themselves are described or depicted. Little time passes between the lifetime of a well-known master and the public circulation of his yulu, a circumstance that promotes a more fact-based representation. Song dynasty masters are generally described as possessing the refined manner and sophistication that their literati contemporaries aspired to.

Certainly his yulu collections and his nianpu do not represent Dahui as a dynamic action hero of grotesque appearance who breaks the bounds of convention! Nor does Dahui in his autobiographical stories describe himself in that manner: quite the opposite. How does Dahui describe himself as the perfect Chan monk? He says in a sermon: “Everything that the Buddha praised–precepts, samadhi, wisdom, liberation, correct views, –each one I did according to what he said–right down to the three thousand rules of deportment and the eighty thousand small karmic acts, every one I was perfectly clear and precise about. And everything the Buddha forbade I did not do, I did not dare disobey.”[40] Dahui never describes himself as a non-conformist, one who uses the freedom produced by his training to startle or surprise anyone. The exception, and this is an important exception, is the way he describes his attacks on teachers who teach “quiet sitting” or “silent illumination Chan”; of that, more below.

Zhantang also thought he was a perfect in his performance of all aspects of his teaching role as First Seat. As Dahui tells it, Zhantang called the younger monk to him and made the following comment:

“Senior monk Gao (i.e., Dahui), you understood my Chan at once. When I ask you to explain it, you explain it well. When I ask you to hold up stories of the ancients (niangu), or make up poems praising the masters of old (songgu), to give instructions to the monks, or to give general explanations (public instructions) (pushuo), you also do all these things well.[41] There is only one thing that is not right. Do you know what it is?”

Dahui replied, “What is it that I do not know?”

Chantang said: “Ho! You lack this one liberation.”[42]

e. It is not sitting, it is practicing uninterruptedly and doubting, that brings awakening

Later in his life when telling of events during this period of study with many teachers he says that he was not as enthusiastic about the practice of sitting meditation as some others. When others wanted to do sitting meditation all night, Dahui wanted to stretch out his legs and sleep. Dahui tells this story about himself to make a positive point: it was not special devotion to sitting meditation that eventually got him to awakening, but never letting his doubt-filled investigation drop.[43] Dahui makes the same point when he says in another sermon, “I studied Chan for seventeen years. In my tea, in my rice, when I was happy, when I was angry, when I was still and quiet, when I was disturbed (luan), I never once let myself be interrupted.”[44]

f. The impact on and importance of Zhang Shangying to Dahui’s image.

In 1115, when Dahui was 27 years old by Chinese reckoning, Zhantang died, and Dahui, still without the full certification he needed to be an abbot and an independent teacher, was left without a mentor. Zhantang’s death resulted in Dahui’s seeking out the prominent lay Buddhist scholar Zhang Shangying (T. Tianjue) (1043-1122), also called in Buddhist circles “the Inexhaustible Layman (Wujin), to ask him to write a biographical epitaph (taming, lit. stupa inscription) for his teacher. When the 27-year old Dahui met Zhang at his home in Jingzhou in 1115, and visited him again five years later, Zhang was a former chief minister, a Dharma-heir of the Linji Huanglong branch Chan master Doushuai Congyue (1044-1091), a scholar of Huayan Buddhism, and a prominent defender of Buddhism against its critics and political enemies. In 1120, in his 32nd year by Chinese reckoning, Dahui visited Zhang Shangying again and stayed with him for eight months. It was on this second visit that Zhang Shangying recommended to Dahui that he study with Yuanwu Keqin. In the former Chief Minister Zhang Jun’s stupa inscription for Dahui he mentions that Zhang Shangying offered to give Dahui money to travel to study with Yuanwu.

Why and in what contexts does Dahui bring up the special attention given to him by Zhang Shangying? Since I have written of this matter elsewhere, I will bring up only one illuminating fact here.[45] That is, Dahui describes his visits to and conversations with Zhang Shangying in a sermon with particular significance.

Although the image that Southern Song dynasty Chan masters present of themselves and their successful students as free from all worldly concerns, it is probable that they were also aware of the desirability of sustaining claims to authority and transformative power. Chan had been strongly supported by the court in the Northern Song period, but found itself under somewhat serious restriction in the early Southern Song. As the Southern Song court left more local affairs to local gentry and officials, Chan needed support from local literati and their families more than before. Chan was still well-supported and popular among parts of the elite, but had been coming under intellectual and cultural attack since the Confucian (or Classical) revival of the Northern Song. Chan masters no doubt were aware of this need to mount successful claims to authority on behalf of their tradition of teaching and training. In addition, Chan masters may have felt this need for their own lineages and for themselves individually.[46]

The sermon at Pushuo p. 418 in which Dahui tells of his friendship with Zhang Shangying and about Zhang’s recommendation of Yuanwu took place in a heightened social and institutional context. It was given on the evening of the day of his formal installation as abbot of the large public imperially supported monastery at Mt. Ashoka. This was a gathering at which many monastic and lay Buddhists as well as more than a few literati and officials would have been present. It occurred on the 23rd day of the twelfth month of the Chinese lunar calendar of 1157.[47]

At that time Dahui was returning to monastic life near the capital after a long period spent in exile among the “southern barbarians.” In 1137 he had been given the abbacy of the major temple on Mt. Jing, which he had expanded into a major center. There he taught two thousand monks in residence, more during summer retreats, and received visits from laywomen, nuns and literati as well as monks. Four years later he had been accused of the unmonkly behavior of talking politics with Zhang Jiucheng (1092-1159), a scholar, imperial teacher and high official whose faction opposed the policies of the current Chief Minister, Qin Gui (1090-1155).[48] He had been defrocked, his ordination taken away, and like Zhang sent into exile. A few years later a court document reviewing Dahui’s exile alleged that Dahui’s scurrilous political behavior had only gotten worse, and he was banished deeper into the hinterlands of the malarial south. In 1156 he had been given his freedom to return and allowed to become a monk again following Qin Gui’s death in 1155.

Career patterns among Song dynasty Chan monks culminated in abbacies; it was as abbot that a master taught and produced Dharma-heirs. For the imperially regulated temples, which included of course all of the wealthy ones that could accommodate many students, abbots were chosen by the court on the recommendation of local officials. The local officials in turn usually took the recommendation of the other abbots in the surrounding area.[49] Dahui had been highly esteemed in the capital region seventeen years previously. But while Dahui had been in exile, his lineage brothers and cousins seem to have been in retreat. Qin Gui favored Tiantai Buddhism over Chan. Major Chan centers such as Dahui’s old Dharma seat at Mt. Jing were occupied by Caotong Chan teachers, not by members of Dahui’s Linji lineage.

Even though his ordination had been rescinded, during his exile Dahui had not cut off all contact with Chan students and literati. He continued to teach while in exile, and Chan monks followed him there to study with him. On returning from exile he was given the abbacy at Mt. Ashoka at the recommendation of his age-mate, the Caodong school abbot Hongzhi Zhengjue of the large monastery on Mt. Tiantong, also in present-day Zhejiang Province, whose teachings he had verbally attacked, though apparently mostly indirectly. Mt. Ashoka was both a Chan training center and a major pilgrimage center, for it housed the most sacred Buddhist relic in China, the Buddha’s finger bone. As one of the most prominent imperially sanctioned Chan monasteries it merited the leadership of a first-rate abbot.

On the evening of his installation as abbot, Dahui needed to reintroduce himself and his philosophy, as well as set forth his claim to suitability for high monastic office. His association with Zhang, the late Northern Sung high official who was briefly Chief Minister and was much admired in Buddhist circles as a distinguished scholar of Buddhism and as a prominent defender of Buddhism, could only help polish his reputation for excellence, scholarship and Chan insight.

g. Dahui’s awakening: one or many?

Over many centuries in Asia and in the West, no one who has written about Dahui has been unaware of the story of his great awakening under Yuanwu. Dahui himself told the story in shorter and longer versions many times in his sermons and letters. Not least because Dahui was an untiring proponent of the necessity of an awakening if one wanted to break through samsara to Buddhahood, as well as a relentless critic of those whom he said thought it unnecessary, Dahui’s account of his awakening is a very large contributor to his image as a truly awakened teacher.[50]

Dahui’s accounts of his own awakening shatter an image of accomplished Tang and Five Dynasties Chan adepts that Song dynasty genealogical lamp histories and edited discourse records (yulu) encourage: the image of the attainment of enlightenment as a sudden, once-and-for-all thing. Dahui’s account of his first real, authentic, thorough-going awakening is not a description of an enlightenment that took place on one day through one encounter with one teacher on one occasion. Instead, it involved three awakenings: one upon hearing words in a sermon by Yuanwu Keqin; one after working on a different gongan with Yuanwu for six months; and the third two years later when reading the Huayan sutra.

The context of Dahui’s awakening

According to Dahui, his teacher Zhantang did not give Dahui a certification of awakening. There ensued a ten-year period during which, according to his own account, Dahui was plagued by doubt. He doubted himself and he doubted Chan. He doubted his own attainment, as he seemed to be an awakened person in the daytime, but had frightful dreams at night. And after so many years of study without attaining what the ancients had attained, that is, becoming a person of seamless awakening, he doubted that Chan had been successfully transmitted to his own day. Zhang Shangying had shared with him his own view that the Huanglong branch of the Linji school, in which Dahui had spent many years, had had but two recent teachers of high quality; both were dead now. Perhaps he did not urgently pursue a teacher-student relationship with Yuanwu because he did not sufficiently believe that studying with Yuanwu would be different. He says that in fact he actually doubted Yuanwu more than the other available teachers.[51] In sermon he says:

“If it turned out [with Yuanwu Keqin] as it had with all those previous teachers who gave me approval (yinke, J. inka), I was going to write an essay saying that there was no Chan–I would not believe that there was a Chan school [anymore]. I thought it would be better to teach scriptures and commentaries so as not to lose out on being a person of the Buddhadharma [in my next life].”[52]

Dahui’s account of his awakening under Yuanwu is well known. Dahui narrated his awakening story from this point several times in sermons in various degrees of detail. Through connections he enrolled in Yuanwu’s assembly at the Tianning Monastery at the capital. One day when Yuanwu had “ascended the hall” to give a sermon to a large assembly at the invitation of a woman lay donor, Dahui heard Yuanwu raise for the assembly’s inspection the gongan “A monk asked Yunmen: what is the place where all the Buddhas are emancipated?’[53] Yunmen replied, ‘[Where] the East Mountains walk on the river.'”[54] Yuanwu continued: “If someone were to ask me today what the place is like where all the Buddhas are emancipated, I would reply, ‘The shun wind comes from the south, and produces a slight coolness in the palace.”[55]

At this point for Dahui suddenly “before and behind were cut off. It was like bringing a ball of tangled silk up against a knife–in one stroke it was sliced through. At that moment perspiration covered my whole body. Although no moving images arose, yet I was sitting in a place of total nakedness.”[56] In another sermon Dahui describes his experience differently:

“Suddenly at this point I broke through the lacquer bucket. All of my various views and bits of knowledge from the past [years of study] melted like snow in hot soup-they vanished without a trace. I was so lively…. When the following year [Yuanwu] elevated me to First Seat, I made a great vow to take this Matter that is our original allotment and give it to monks and nuns so they would understand.”[57]

He continues:

“One day I went to enter Yuanwu’s chamber. Yuanwu said, “For you to reach this state was not easy, it is a pity that you have died and cannot come to life. Not doubting words is a great malady. Don’t you know that it is said, ‘You must let go your hands while hanging from a cliff, then you become master of your own fate. When afterwards you return to life again, no one can deceive you.’[58] You must believe that there is this principle.” I said to myself, based on what I attained today I am already very lively. I cannot understand [what he is talking about?].”[59]

“Yuanwu assigned me to the ‘Selecting Leaders Hut’ as an attendant without duties.[60] Every day I entered Yuanwu’s chamber several times with literati for individual instruction. Yuanwu only raised, “The word “being” and the word “non-being” are like a wisteria vine clinging to a tree.” As soon as someone opened his mouth, Yuanwu would say, “Wrong!” It was like that for half a year. I just concentrated on investigating [this one gongan].

“One day when I was in the abbot’s quarters with some officials partaking of the evening meal, I just held the chopsticks in my hand and completely forgot to eat. Yuanwu said ‘This fellow is investigating “boxwood Chan.”‘[61]

“I offered an analogy. I said, ‘Teacher, it is the same principle as a dog staring at a pot of hot oil; he can’t lick it, but he can’t leave it alone either.’ Yuanwu said, ‘You’ve hit on a wonderful analogy. This is what is called the diamond cage (so hard you can’t get out of it), the prickly chestnut ball (that can’t be swallowed).[62]

Finally Dahui asked Yuanwu what his teacher Wuzu Fayan had said when Yuanwu asked him about this same statement (hua). Yuanwu was not willing to talk about it. Dahui said:

“‘When you asked [Wuzu], you were not just by yourself. You asked in front of the whole assembly. What could prevent you from telling about it now?’ Yuanwu said, “Once I asked him, ‘What about “‘Being’ words and ‘non-being’ words are like a wisteria vine clinging to a tree”?’ Wuzu said, ‘You can’t describe it, you can’t depict it.’ I asked further, ‘Suppose the tree falls and the vines die–what then?’ Wuzu said, ‘How important their companionship is to them. ‘'”[63] “The minute I heard him raise this, I understood. I said, “I got it!” Yuanwu said, “I am only afraid that you have not yet become able to pass through the gongans.” I said, “Please raise them.” Yuanwu then raised a series of gongans. I cut through them in two or three revolutions. It was like setting out on a trip in a time of great peace–when you get on the road you encounter nothing to stop you. Yuanwu said, “Now you know that I have not deceived you.””[64]

Multiple awakenings

The Ming dynasty Buddhist teacher Yunqi Zhuhong (1535-1615) had great respect for Dahui. In his Zhuchuang ribi (Jottings at the Bamboo Window, second series) published in the mid-seventeenth century, Zhuhong told a story about Dahui to illustrate his own comments on “great awakening” and “small awakening:” “According to the lore, the venerable Dahui [Zong]gao [underwent] great awakening eighteen times, [his] small awakenings being countless.”[65] Hakuin Ekaku, who revived Rinzai Zen in Japan, quoted Yunqi Zhuhong’s report many times, writing that this was his own experience as well.[66] At least from Zhuhong’s time, this transmitted tradition became part of Dahui’s image. Do Dahui’s yulu collections and the Nianpu support the idea that Dahui experienced eighteen major awakenings?

First, in these collections does Dahui say anything of the sort? It might be possible to go through Dahui’s autobiographical stories and find stories about moments prior to his large enlightenment under Yuanwu in which he reports glimpses, moments of happiness, and the like. For example, Dahui summarizes his experience prior to meeting Yuanwu as follows:

“I started studying Chan when I was seventeen, and I was thirty-four years old when I shattered the lacquer cask [of deluded mind].[67] Before that I had passed gongans. I had understood when confronted with ‘a blow, a shout’ (the teaching technique associated with the Linji school). I had gone [up against] ‘flint-struck sparks and lightning flashes’ and understood.[68]

Dahui actually tells us of several of these moments in which he understood, seemed to understand, or received approval from his teacher. For example, in one sermon Dahui tells that he himself before he met Yuanwu had already been challenged with the “East Mountain walks on the water” gongan by a First Seat named Fang.[69] After working on it constantly for a couple of weeks, when the First Seat brought it up to him again, he understood part of it. After that he made up hundreds of turning words for it, but he could not get one that fit definitively. Finally when he was reading the “Record of Words (yulu)” from when Donglin Zhaojue had been living at Letan (that is, Jewel Peak) in Jiangsi, he came upon an exchange (wenda, J. mondo) in which the answer was “his heels do not touch the ground.” He was overjoyed, and went to the First Seat to say that he had understood.[70] When the First Seat asked once more the meaning of “The East Mountain walks on water,” Dahui replied, “His heels have not touched the ground.” Dahui then reports that not only did he think that he had passed the gongan this time, but he wrote a eulogy (song) about the gongan, and also raised it as an instruction topic.[71]

Several meanings of “awakening” or “enlightenment” were accepted in Chan by Dahui’s time. As Kenneth Kraft writes, the concept of enlightenment was flexible enough to embrace specific insight experiences and advanced states of awareness. Awakening could refer to the full range of awakening experiences, from a tip-of-the-tongue taste to a profound realization, as well as to a full awakening or full buddhahood.[72] Certainly in considering the accuracy of Zhuhong’s report it would be appropriate to count all the insight experiences Dahui recounts. But in his yulu collections and the stories of his quoted in the Nianpu, Dahui usually dismisses the importance of these glimpses and moments of joy as compared with his awakening under Yuanwu. Looking back on this period of his study of Chan prior to meeting Yuanwu, he said :

“I studied for seventeen years. I did have fragmentary awakenings (bits and pieces of awakenings). Under Yunmen house teachers I understood some things. Under Caodong teachers I understood some things. The only thing was that I could not attain front and rear being cut off.”[73]

Furthermore, he creates the impression that sometimes what seemed to be understandings were only episodes of verbal facility or mental cleverness. Reflecting Dahui’s own perspective, the Japanese Rinzai monk Muso Soseki writes:

“Dahui was a wandering monk in his youth, and he learned “lip-Zen.” He flattered himself that he had attained complete awakening, but he realized at last that that was not true. He visited Yuanwu, and finally had his lumps of illusion smashed to pieces. After that he always spoke of his mistake as a way of warning his disciples. Today’s students, too, must keep this teaching in mind.”[74]

Since Dahui tends in his yulu collections to downplay these earlier, partial glimpses as based on mistaken ways of investigating gongan, stories about them do not strongly support the image of Dahui created by Zhuhong. Dahui’s lack of investment in these small awakenings after his great one is particularly striking if one compares Hakuin’s reports about his many large and small awakenings with Dahui’s self-reports in his yulu collections and Nianpu. Here is one of Hakuin’s accounts:

“Alone in the hut, I thrust my spine up stiff and straight and sat through the night until dawn….After a month of this life, I still hadn’t experienced a single pang of hunger. On the contrary, my body and mind were fired with a great surge of spirit and resolve. My nights were zazen. My days were sutra-recitation. I never let up. During this period, I experienced small satoris and large satoris in numbers beyond count. How many times did I jump up and jubilantly dance around, oblivious to all else! I no longer had any doubts at all about Dahui’s talk of eighteen great satoris and countless small ones. How grievously sad that people today have discarded this way of kensho as if it were dirt!

“As for sitting, sitting is something that should include fits of ecstatic laughter-brayings that make you slump to the ground clutching your belly. And when you struggle to your feet after the first spasm passes, it should send you kneeling to earth in yet further contortions of joy.”[75]

Although Dahui sometimes says that he had a moment of joy, or a happiness that lasted a long time (see above, p. x), his reader gets no encouragement to imagine Dahui dancing around jubilantly or experiencing contortions of joy or fits of ecstatic laughter. Ecstasy is not a part of the image of Dahui.

On the other hand, after his initial awakening with Yuanwu there were at least two more large awakenings. As we have seen above, Dahui’s enlightenment process did not end on the first day on which the bottom of the lacquer bucket fell out, and he rushed to Yuanwu’s chamber. Six months later, now as an attendant of Yuanwu, he was still working on the next gongan. His insight triggered by that gongan was perhaps his first large awakening. It enabled him to pass a long series of gongan, and presumably Yuanwu sanctioned his attainment.

But Dahui was still to have another large experience of awakening. In the sermon given at Mt. Ashoka after his return from exile Dahui continued his narration of the story of his awakening beyond the moment of his successful answering of gongans at Tienning Monastery in the capital. He relates a conversation that took place a few days later about someone else’s Chan song (song) in which he told Yuanwu that he wanted to compose an excellent Chan song of his own. He had the idea for it, but he could not think of the words. Just then he heard the words of a servant boy walking past outside the window, Dahui turned to Yuanwu and said, “Just this is the song I wanted to offer to you.” Yuanwu was very pleased.

From that point on, Dahui said, he talked fluently about a lot of things, and had no doubts about the words of the various Chan teachers in the empire. “But I still had not attained the great freedom. [This occurred] later [in the summer of 1128][76] when I was at [Cloud-cliff Chan Temple] on Tiger Hill (near the town of Suzhou in present-day Jiangsu Province) and read the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Huayan sutra), and got to the passage about the Bodhisattva’s entering into the eighth bhumi or stage, called ‘Immovable.'”[77]

The scripture says that when a bodhisattva attains complete acceptance of the non-origination of things, the attainment appropriate to stage seven, s/he obtains entry into this eighth stage, where s/he is a bodhisattva of profound conduct, difficult to know and without any distinctions. Her/his conduct leaves behind all forms, all thoughts, all attachments, and is measureless. This profound conduct of the bodhisattva is impossible for the followers of the Buddha who have not chosen to be bodhisattvas (that is, the sravakas and the pratyeka buddhas) to attain. S/he leaves behind all noisy striving, and complete stillness (nirvana) appears.[78]

The scriptural passage in question says that in that stage the bodhisattva “abandons all effortful, active practices (gongyong xing) and obtains the effortless dharmas (wu gongyong fa). Thoughts of the karma of body, speech and mind all cease, and he dwells in reward-conduct.[79] Take the example of a person who in a dream sees his body fall into a great river. Because he wants to cross the river, he puts forth a courageous determination and uses great skill-in-means. Because of his great courage and his employing great skill-in-means, he wakes up. As soon as he wakes up, everything that he is doing ceases. The bodhisattva is also like this: s/he sees that the bodies of sentient beings are in the four currents [that carry the unthinking along].[80] In order to save them, s/he gives rise to a great courage and vigorous effort to advance. Therefore she attains the Immovable Stage. On attaining it, all activities (gongyong) cease.”[81] “When I reached this point (in the text), for the first time nirvana appeared, and I attained the Great Freedom….My being able to trust my mouth to preach began at this time.”[82]

In a second sermon, Dahui ends the story with a different comment; he says:

“At this, I suddenly lost the cloth bag and I entered the realm of realization (jingjie) of the Flower Garland (Huayen, Avatamsaka) Sutra. From this point on my words flowed; I could talk up, down and sideways without having to rely on a single word of text. When students came into my presence I did not wait for them to reveal themselves, I knew immediately whether or not they were correct.”[83]

Clearly this experience was significant for Dahui in giving him perfect nirvana and great freedom, including especially freedom in the employment of words.

This is the last “large awakening” of which Dahui speaks in his sermons or writes in his letters and Dharma-instructions contained in his yulu collection or recorded in his Nianpu. If Dahui did in fact experience eighteen great awakenings in his lifetime, that exact number does not form part of his image in his public, published and widely circulated records.

Dahui’s Invention of the Huatou Method of practice; Teachings and Teaching Style

In his description of the Chan lineage’s success, the Yuan dynasty Chan master Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323), an intellectual heir to Dahui, noted the literary qualities of Chan works: “Eloquent are their words, crafty are their techniques; lofty is their style, pleasing are their rhymes, majestic are their commands, and great is their school.”[84] Scholars now agree that there was an addition made to the prevalent Linji school Chan practice methods between Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135) and Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163). From Dahui Zonggao’s time, Linji teachers shifted from elaborate comments on gong’an in regular sermons to monastic students and lay followers combined with written commentaries on gong’an, to a new “keyword” or “critical phrase” method of gong’an inspection that used only a few words.[85]

Using the gong’an commentaries in verse by Xuedou Chongxian (980–1052)[86] as his basic text, Yuanwu Keqin produced an intriguing collection of enigmatic exchanges with both prose and poetic commentary, the Blue Cliff Record (Biyanlu). Dahui, on the other hand, allegedly burned the wooden printing blocks from which copies of the Blue Cliff Record were “published.” The contrast is symbolic of the change between the teaching methods of the teacher (Yuanwu) and his dharma-heir (Dahui).

Abbots like Yuanwu Keqin and Dahui Zonggao presided over large bodies of monks who would practice Chan for twenty or thirty years. Their practice could be influenced and tested by verbal expressions. As Yuanwu often said, “Words cannot express it but words must be used to teach it.” As Robert Sharf has pointed out, much of the constant rehearsal of encounter dialogues and the production of commentaries on Chan sayings and gong’an in large Chan monasteries must have been for the sake of training future Chan teachers in the Chan use of words.[87] In Chan master Foguo [Yuanwu] Keqin’s Essentials of the Mind,[88] what is emphasized in his instructions to monks is a kind of mindfulness meditation focused on the present moment in which one (perhaps using samadhi power and growing insight into emptiness) discards delusions and attachments. As one is practicing this, he or she routinely listens to the teacher’s sermons in which gong’an are raised and hints are offered. The teacher raises a different gong’an with the monastic student when he enters the teacher’s room to test and trigger deeper awakening.[89] Yuanwu assured his monastic students that deep awakening will come to them if they practice in this way uninterruptedly for twenty or thirty years.

Dahui taught his monastic students in much the same way, but in addition he invented a method of new practice that does not rely insights triggered by poetry or the contemplation of cleverly disguised Buddhist theory.

Doubt and the Huatou

One problem that Dahui identified with the practice of almost all lay students and some monastics was that doubt was not focused and overcome. One can remain a student forever without actually experiencing awakening as an event, without in fact freeing oneself from attachment to and entanglement with the realm of illusion, i.e., samsara-that is, deluded mind.

Although teachers such as Yuanwu and Linji always spoke of doubt as a hindrance,[90] Dahui devoted his energy to explaining the need for doubt in gong’an meditation.

The problem that Dahui faced up to squarely was that is not all gong’an study as practiced in his day focuses enough doubt or effectively removes entanglements with words. Dahui’s method compresses and intensifies the monastic process of raising doubt to consciousness and focus that may be characteristic of gong’an study more broadly by inventing the practice of focusing one’s attention on observing the “key” or “critical” phrase (kan huatou) of a Chan “case” (gong’an, J. koan) to focus doubt while avoiding entanglement with words.

Dahui invented a non-discursive method of practice that does not rely on command of poetic skills or insights triggered by poetry, wrestling with Buddhist theory, or even words. One has to have some familiarity with the case. One then has to focus on the central question of the case, expressed in the “keyword,” to arouse doubt. But one does not respond with verbal thought or imagination to the words contained in the “critical phrase.” All “affective thinking,” that is, verbal thought and imagination, must cease before awakening can happen.

This invention by Dahui, a serious attempt to imagine different functions for language, either required or inspired serious philosophical engagement on Dahui’s part, as can be seen in Dahui’s explanations in both his Letters (shu) and Individual Instructions (fayu). His philosophical insights are reflected in his practice instructions to the student, which are calculated to wall off any entanglement with words or meaning as one continues to concentrate on inspecting the huatou. Dahui explains the process as follows:

“Here just observe the huatou. A monk asked Zhaozhou, ‘Does a dog have buddha-nature or does it lack it?’ Zhaozhou said, ‘It lacks it (wu).’ When you observe it, do not use extensive evaluation, do not try to explicate it, do not seek for understanding, do not take it up when you open your mouth, do not make meaning when you raise it, do not fall into vacuity, do not hold onto your mind waiting for enlightenment, do not catch a hold of it when your teacher speaks, and do not lodge in a shell of no concerns. But keep hold of it at all times, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. ‘Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?’ Hold onto this ‘lack’ until it gets ripe, where verbal discussion and mental evaluation cannot reach. The square inch of your mind will be in a muddle. When it is as if you have clamped your teeth around a tasteless piece of iron and your will does not retreat-when it is like this, then that is good news!”[91]

Here the procedure for using the huatou is largely explained by negation: One is not to evaluate or subject the huatou to interpretation, or to figure it out through exchanges with one’s teacher in the teacher’s room. Dahui’s instructions tie the practice to the removal of illusion/delusion with no possible generation of attachment to a new delusion. As Heller writes:

“The practice of observing the word is significant in that it does not eschew language and does not claim that language is always an obstruction. Rather, it indicates that one must approach words in a certain way. As Zhongfeng Mingben says, ‘You should know that the teaching of great illusion is under your feet; you do not need to move in the least. Only wait for your emotions to dissipate and your views to be extinguished, and you will tread on it as you walk.'”[92]

Here Zongfeng Mingben is in definite accord with his predecessor Dahui.

Dahui’s teachings and teaching style are the basis of any claim that Dahui was a “religious genius,” and the source of the most positive dimensions of his image, particularly among those contemporaries and members of future generations who attained awakening in Linji, Rinzai or Son contexts. Dahui’s teachings and teaching style center on huatou practice and the central importance of experiencing awakening as an event. Dahui’s teachings about huatou practice and successful experiences with using huatou with his own students have been thoroughly explored by scholars, including myself.[93] As a teacher, Dahui’s pedagogy was lively, effective, intimately concerned, and what the Chan tradition calls “steep,” while at the same time making a path forward challengingly obscure (to the unenlightened) and abundantly clear. From Dahui’s point of view, and on his own account, what made him a good teacher was that he never allowed feelings, circumstances or personal and political relationships to influence what he said or the way he met and spoke to every person. As a master one of his important methods was to meet with each student alone for a private interview. Whatever the student presented or asked, Dahui would reply by demonstrating awakened mind, so that the student who was ready to see it could suddenly grasp what awakened mind is. In those interviews he avoided explaining anything to the student. If the student “got it,” that was good. If the student did not “get it,” then at least Dahui had not by providing an intellectual explanation ruined the student’s chances of “getting it” later. In a letter to an awakened monk just starting out on a career of teaching, Dahui writes:

“Now that you have attained an outside supporter who is in accord with you, you had better put aside the managing of the monastery and frequently devote yourself to practice with the other monks. If you continue to practice for a long time, you will become admirable automatically.

“Again, I hope you will examine the monks carefully [in individual interviews] in your room, but don’t allow human feelings [to influence you], and do not fall into the weeds [of verbal explanations] while following them. Rather, show them the fundamental original Mind in order that they realize and penetrate the Path for themselves. Only then can yours be a proper teaching method by a virtuous master who really cares for the welfare of people.

“When you see them hesitate and doubt because they do not comprehend the teachings, if you give them detailed explanations you will not only blind them, but also lose your [gift of] teaching them from the Original State. Even if you win no one, the teaching method of the Chan patriarchs is originally like that; or if you win one or half a man, you will not betray your original determination and vow, seen from your Original State.” (Letter 63.)

And again, to a different monk:

“Now that you have already renounced the world and succeeded to the name of the virtuous masters, you should receive visitors from the basis of the Original State and leave the matters of goods and grains in the storehouse in the charge of another monk….When a monk comes to your room [for a private interview], give him a short lecture of vital importance but don’t explain things to him. In the past when Chan Master Xuefeng Kong came to my hermitage at Mt. Yunju to join the other monks who followed me, I knew that he was one of those who would contribute to the Buddha’s teachings by not deceiving himself. Therefore, I consistently revealed the Path to him from the Original State.

“Later he attained enlightenment elsewhere by clarifying the great Dharma and accepting the teachings of the Original State which he had earlier received. When that happened he came to realize that I did not conform to a worldly mentality…If I had gotten muddy and wet for him [i.e., given him explanations] and explained things to him in detail, he would certainly have scolded me after having attained awakening. As an earlier master said: “I value not the virtue of my master, but rather his not having explained anything to me. If he had explained anything to me, how could this day ever have come?” This expresses this principle. “(Letter 64)

In tandem with his promotion of huatou practice, Dahui attacked what he called “heretical teachers” with “false teachings” who were ruining the chances of sincere Chan practitioners to attain awakening. Again, these attacks have attracted the attention of scholars, and will not be further described here, except to say that Dahui’s comments on these teachings and teachers were harsh and derogatory. Not only that, his campaign continued throughout Dahui’s career. All of this is pervasively reflected in Dahui’s yulu collections and the Nianpu: these are indeed almost the only sources from which scholars study this dimension of Dahui’s teachings.

Although previous Linji teachers, beginning with Linji in the Linji lu, are depicted as scolding heretics and deluded practitioners, as well as repeatedly defining what true or orthodox Chan teachings and practice involves, nothing can be found in Song Chan literature to compare with Dahui’s unrelenting attacks on “silent illumination.” The texts that present these attacks also present Dahui as well aware of what he is doing: he says, “I am called [Zong]gao who scolds (ma) Heaven.”

Here is what Dahui himself has to say when writing to a monk about his campaign of public criticism:

“Recently there are a group of phony people who sell the Buddha’s teaching retail and practice a conglomeration of quasi Chan everywhere…They assure one another of each other’s enlightenment by uttering meaningless words, one after another, and they mislead and deceive future generations. This is causing the right teaching to decline. The teaching of our school, which is based on mind-to-mind transmission and direct teaching, will soon disappear, and so we cannot but carefully examine this problem.” (Letter 64)

According to his yulu compilation and the Nianpu, Dahui began criticizing “silent illumination Chan” in 1134. In 1137 he was appointed to the abbacy of the Nengren Monastery on Mt. Jing, where his attacks continued with great regularity. He had accomplished a lot at Mt. Jing by the time he was fifty-three, including raising and money for and building a dormitory for an additional thousand monks. In that year, 1141, the official Li Hanlao, a longtime friend, wrote about the impression Dahui made on those who knew him in an inscription (ji) for Mt. Jing to commemorate the opening of a new dormitory:

“The master is the twentieth generation grandson of Linji. His Way is broad, and those whom it attracts are myriad. His gate is steep, and those who climb it find it difficult [to live up to his strict standards]. His instructions hit the mark, and those who are enlightened under him feel close to him. His discussions are lofty, and those who listen are amazed. But, there are also people who become frightened and disconcerted by his lofty talk. Among his contemporaries those who doubt him criticize and slander him. I know that there is gossip, defamation and suspicion circulating about the master and cannot but feel enraged by this.” Although it is easy to get enraged by the notion of slander and defamation, with the right defamation lawyer now in the modern day, there is always someone to talk to. At locations such as https://www.dhillonlaw.com, these enraging issues can be dealt with. [94]

From within Dahui’s corpus and from other sources we cannot know how his contemporaries perceived him in light of his ongoing campaign of attacks. Perhaps the gossip, defamation and suspicion circulating about Dahui may well have been because of Dahui’s attacks.

Dahui’s admirers, and among great Chan/Zen/Son teachers in China, Japan and Korea they were many, praise Dahui for his attacks on “silent illumination” teachings and

practice. Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1768), the Zen teacher who revolutionized Japanese Rinzai Zen teaching and practice, resulting in the Rinzai Zen that continues today in Japan, did so largely by turning back to the model provided by Dahui. Hakuin likens silent illumination practice to polishing a tile to make a mirror. He says: “This is known as seeking for the spirit.” In his view Dahui was indescribably kind in gritting his teeth and attempting to drive out such concepts.[95] So while Dahui was harsh in his scolding, his harshness was kindness in calling attention to the danger of mistaken and fruitless kinds of practice.

Was Dahui Zonggao a Religious Genius?

As the above account shows, Korean Son, Chinese Chan and Japanese Rinzai Zen traditions place Dahui at the very top of their list as a chief creator of their tradition and a model to follow in the present. Dahui’s Letters are taught in monastic seminaries and training programs in Korea, Japan and Taiwan as a basic textbook and guide about the Path to awakening using huatou inspection. I think that Dahui was indeed religious, and was a genius. He was able to be creative because he had a deep understanding of his tradition, both through study and from years of practice. He had attained a great freedom of action and speech from transforming and deep insight that came from a place beyond any egotistical influences. He was willing to let go of any concern for reputation and attack the teaching methods of his fellow Chan monks. He may thereby have saved the Rinzai/Linji Chan tradition from extinction, as Hakuin Ekaku did again six centuries later in Japan. He had many successful disciples, far more than most Chan teachers in the Song dynasty. His recorded sayings, poems, letters and sermons were widely circulated in his own time. They have been kept in print and widely read by religious teachers and religious seekers up to the present.

However, we see him via an image of him created by his recorded words and the impressions of a few others who knew him well. It is not easy to measure that image by the criteria we have chosen to help us define and identify “religious geniuses.”

Can we measure the “love” and “compassion” of Dahui using this image? Perhaps no more than we can measure Jesus the Christ’s “love” by using his image as imprinted on the Shroud of Turin. While Dahui is often autobiographical, he is not “personal” in what he recalls; nor are others. If Jesus’s love is measured by what he did and why, it is partly because his story is unique. Dahui’s education, monastic training, experiences in meditation and successes as a teacher were not unique; only his wisdom and teaching methods appear in the image we have to have been unique.

Dahui’s wisdom, his philosophical grasp of his tradition and his ability to make creative connections to apply that philosophical tradition toward more effective methods of practice, can be seen through his “image” and are conspicuous among the teachers of his 350-year period. And his ability to meet students from his Original State was remarkable, but expected of someone in his position.

Dahui was able to relate directly to the person and persons before him at the given moment from his Original State, THE Original State, the Truth and Compassion that is beyond the knowledge of the people of the world as it is, those who do not realize and cannot embody the higher truth and reality that is the basis of this world. Very well educated people whose high social and political positions depended on intellectual commitments that told them that Buddhists taught nothing but error, nonetheless flocked to Dahui, sought his teaching and his wisdom, and supported his efforts. Perhaps that is the most effective testimony his image provides that he was a “religious” genius.


[1] Chinese customarily refer to Dahui Zonggao by his ordination name, Zonggao, and not

by Dahui, one of three names given to Zonggao by emperors to honor him. Japanese authors customarily refer to him by one of the honorific names, Dahui, followed by his ordination name, or simply Dahui.

[2]On these laymen and their relationship to Dahui, see Miriam Levering, “Ch’an Enlightenment for Laymen: Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) and the New Religious Culture of the Sung,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1978.

[3] For a general account of Dahui’s life and teachings, see Miriam Levering, “Ch’an Enlightenment for Laymen,” and Chun-fang Yu, “Ta-hui Tsung-kao and Koan Ch’an,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 6 (1979): 211-235. The latter is available at http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/HistoricalZen/TaHui.html.

[4] Master Hsu Yun’s lectures are translated into English in Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), Ch’an and Zen Teachings, series two (London: Rider and Company, 1961). They are available online at http://hsuyun.budismo.net/en/dharma/index.html.

[5] Garma C.C. Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959).

[6] Master Sheng Yen’s disciple Jimmy Yu told me that in the U.S. Master Sheng Yen lectured on huatou practice using J.C. Cleary’s translation Swampland Flowers.

[7] Yampolsky, Philip, The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 33. Note: This statement by Hakuin paraphrases a statement in a letter in Dahui’s Letters (Dahui shu), T.47 p. 918c.

[8] The main sources for this essay thus are the Recorded sayings (Yulu) of Chan Master Dahui Pujue (Dahui Pujue chanshi yulu) in thirty fascicles, and the General Sermons (Pushuo) of Chan Master Dahui Pujue (Dahui Pujue chanshi pushuo) in five fascicles. These two will be the texts that will govern the topics selected in relation to Dahui’s image. I will often refer to the first as “Dahui’s yulu collection.” There are no critical editions of these texts; I have selected the closest to the original, most readily available and most widely used as the sources for this essay. Dahui’s Letters (Dahui Pujue chanshi shu),to which I will occasionally refer, circulated separately in the Song dynasty and thereafter, but now is most easily and found in the Recorded sayings (Yulu) of Chan Master Dahui Pujue which is based on an early text. In addition, I will draw on the Chronological Biography of Chan Master Dahui Pujue (Dahui Pujue chanshi nianpu) completed in 1183, twenty years after Dahui’s death, and revised in 1205. The Chronological Biography (Nianpu) is largely based on information from Dahui himself from extant and non-extant sources.

[9] This text is in Taisho.47.1998B. I will cite it as Wuku.

[10] Ishii Shudo, “Daie Fukaku zenji no nenpu no kenkyu,” parts 1, 2 and 3 (jo, chu and ge). Komazawa daigaku bukkyo gakubu kenkyu kiyo 37 (1979):110-143; 38 (1980):97-133; 40 (1982):129-175. Hereafter I will give short references. Here the reference is Ishii, “Nenpu (jo),” pp. 112-113. All ages given for Dahui will be according to Chinese reckoning by which a person is one year old at birth and becomes two years old at the next New Year holiday. I will leave the ages in Chinese reckoning in Dahui’s narratives.

[11] Ishii, “Nenpu (jo),” p. 113.

[12] Pushuo, p. 418c.

[13] Ishii, “Nenpu (jo),” p. 113.

[14] Among several important studies, Albert Welter, Monks, Rulers and Literati: The Political Ascendency of Chan Buddhism (New York: Oxford, 2006) is particularly useful in understanding the close relation of Chan monks, rulers and literati in the Northern Song dynasty. So are the chapters by Schlutter, Huang, Borrell, Welter, and Levering in Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, eds., Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).

[15] Pushuo, p. 396a.

[16] Yunmen’s first teacher was Muzhou Daozong. This is at Muzhou yulu, 35b.

[17] Urs Erwin App in Facets of the Life and Teaching of Ch’an Master Yunmen Wenyan (864-949), Unpublished doctoral dissertation at Temple University, 1989, p. 329.

[18] This translation is by Chang Chung-yuan in his Original Teachings of Ch’an Buddhism (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 107.

[19]Pushuo, p. 396a; Wuku, T.47.953ab. According to Dahui, Shaocheng was in the lineage of Langya Huijue through his disciple Xingjiao Tan. Cf. Ishii Shudo, Daijobutten (Chugoku, Nihon hen), vol. 12: Zen goroku (Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1992), p. 458, and Ishii, “Nenpu (Ge),” p. 132b.

[20] This story is included as Case Twelve in the Wumenguan, and in the Wudeng huiyuan, juan 7. Cf. Hirata Takashi, Mumonkan, Zen no Goroku series vol. 18 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1969), pp. 55-58.

[21] Dahui says in another general sermon that he served as Shaocheng’s attendant for two years, discussing gongan with him every day. Pushuo, p. 430c.

[22] Pushuo, p. 446a. The same story is told at Pushuo, p. 424bc and Pushuo, p. 446a. What text Dahui referred to as the “Xuansha Heshang yulu” is unclear.

[23]A songgu, “eulogy of the ancient,” is a gongan commentary in which a story about an ancient Chan master is told, followed by a poetic commentary in the free-form zi style in which the meaning of the story is somewhat cryptically restated. A niangu, “picking up the ancient,” is a gongan commentary in which a story about an ancient Chan master is told, followed by a prose commentary. On these two genres and on Xuedou’s collections, see M. Schlutter, “The Record of Hongzhi.”

[24] Pushuo, p. 446a.

[25] T.47.953ab.

[26] Pushuo, p. 430c.

[27] P’u-shuo, p. 418d. Zhang Shangying, like Yuanwu, was from Szechwan.

[28]Morten Schlutter, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008). Ishii Shudo, Sodai Zenshushi no kenkyu: Chugoku Sotoshu to Dogen Zen (Tokyo: Daito Shuppansha, 1987).

[29] Ishii, Daijobutten, pp. 458-59.

[30] T.47.953b; Pushuo, p. 428b. See Schlutter in How Zen Became Zen, p. 166. Schlutter believes that Daowei during his lifetime was a prominent disciple of Furong Daokai.

[31] Wuku, T. 47.953b. These two are unknown in other sources. .

[32] Pushuo, p. 425d.

[33] Pushuo, p. 428b.

[34] Ishii, “Nenpu (ge),” 133a. This monastery is also known as “Letan” after a local lake.

[35] Wuku, p. 953b. Pushuo, pp. 425d and 428d.

[36] Pushuo, p. 425d.

[37] Albert Welter, The Linji lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 137.

[38] Welter, Linji lu, p. 138.

[39] Welter, Linji lu, p. 139.

[40] Pushuo, p. 426b.

[41] An abbreviated version of this is at Pushuo, p. 426b

[42] T.47.953b.

[43] Pushuo, p. 418.

[44] Pushuo, p. 421a.

[45] In Miriam Levering, “Dahui Zonggao and Zhang Shangying: The Importance of a Scholar in the Education of a Song Chan Master” The Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies 30 (2000), pp. 115-139.

[46] Janet Gyatso discusses the need to establish one’s own lineage over against others as an important factor in the popularity of autobiographical writing by Buddhist monks in Tibet in her Apparitions of the Self (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.)

Morten Schlutter pursues this theme in How Zen Became Zen, where he connects Dahui Zonggao’s unrelenting verbal attack on the practice and teaching of “silent illumination Chan” to the challenge posed to Linji Chan lineages by the sudden and successful revival of the Caodong Chan lineage during Dahui’s time. See also Schlutter, “Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung-Dynasty Ch’an,” in Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz, eds, Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, Kuroda Institute series, 1999), pp. 109-147.

[47] This and other biographical detail and historical context discussed in this section are discussed at more length in Miriam Levering, “Ch’an Enlightenment for Laymen: Ta-hui and the New Religious Culture of the Sung,” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1978. See also Ishii Shudo, Daijo butten, Chugoku, Nihon hen, vol 12: Zen goroku, Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1992, pp. 403-499, for a discussion of Song Chan and a biography of Dahui.

[48] On Zhang Jiucheng, see Ari Borrell, “Ko-wu or Kung-an? Practice, Realization and Teaching in the Thought of Chang Chiu-ch’eng,” in Buddhism in the Sung, pp. 62-108.

[49] See Morten Schlutter, “Vinaya Monasteries, Public Abbacies, and State Control of Buddhism under the Northern Song (960-1127).” In William Bodiford, ed., Going Forth: Visions of Buddhist Vinaya (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

[50] A good account in English is in Chun-fang Yu’s “Ta-hui Tsung-kao and Kung-an Ch’an,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 6:221-235 (1979). For a more detailed account, see Miriam Levering, “Was there Religious Autobiography in China?” Many of the quotations from Dahui’s yulu collections in this section of this essay are also used in a different context and to support a different argument in Levering, “Autobiography.”

[51] Pushuo, p. 399c

[52] Pushuo, p. 418d.

[53] Urs App has: “What is the place from whence all the Buddhas come?” But see Zengojiten, p. 205b on the meaning of qushen, which is more like “come out of bondage.” App, Master Yunmen (New York: Kodansha, 1994), p. 94.


[55] This couplet is found in the following story given in the Tang shi jishi, juan 40, in the section on the Tang poet Liu Gongquan. “On a summer day the emperor Wenzong was making up linked verses (lianzhu) with various scholars. He offered, ‘Others all suffer from the heat, but I like the long summer days.’ Liu Gongquan continued the verse, saying: ‘The hsun wind comes from the south, and produces a slight coolness in the palace.'”

[56] Cf. Blue Cliff Record, case 6, which has “Though you be clean and naked, bare and purified, totally without fault or worry, this is still not the ultimate.” (Cleary, trans., p. 44.)

[57] Pushuo 410b-412b.

[58] These words appear in the Jingde chuandenglu, juan 20, and also in the Blue Cliff Record, case 41, in the commentary on the original case.

[59] This is also told at Pushuo, p. 421a.

[60] Zhemu is an allusion to a sentence: “good birds select the trees on which they roost–one selects the leader whom he would follow.”

[61] The huangyang plant is a plant in the box or boxwood family that allegedly grows only an inch a year. Here it is an image for being stuck in a partial awakening with nothing at work in you to move you further along.

[62] Zengaku daijiten, p. 145b; Zengojiten, p. 473a. Alternately: seat of thorns (Yu).

[63] The following two sentences appear in Zongronglu, 87: “Being words and non-being words are like wisteria vines climbing on a tree. Suddenly the tree falls and the wisteria dies–where do the words go then?” Cf. T. Cleary, Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues, p. 372.

[64] T.47.883ab. This story is also told at Pushuo p. 421a. At T.47.883b-c Dahui tells about further post-awakening conversations with Yuanwu.

[65] Jottings under the Bamboo Window text is in the Yunqi fahui (Collected Works of Master Yunqi), ci 25. Nanjing: Jingling kejing chu, 1897.

[66] See Hakuin Ekaku, Norman Waddell trans., Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin, p. 63; also p. 109.

[67] Actually, if we follow the Nianpu he was thirty-seven.

[68] In the Blue Cliff Record Yuanwu says, “You must realize that what is at stake here does not reside in words and phrases: it is like sparks from struck flint, like the brilliance of flashing lightning. However you manage to deal with this, you cannot get around losing your body and life.” T.48:177c8-10. Translated by App, in Master Yunmen, p. 79.

[69] Pushuo, p. 410b-412b. In one sermon Dahui says that he passed this gongan in a Yunmen school context. Pushuo, p. 396a.

[70] Donglin Zhaojue refers to Donglin Changzong, known as Zhaojue Chanshi (1025-1091). Cf. T.51.573c.

[71] Nianti; similar to niangu?

[72] Kenneth Kraft, Eloquent Zen: Daito and Early Japanese Zen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), pp 90-91.

[73] T.47.883a.

[74] Muso Soseki, “West Mountain Evening Talk, in W.S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu, trans., The Sun at Midnight (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), p. 161.

[75] Waddell, Wild Ivy, pp. 63 and 65. See also p. 109 and p. 122.

[76] According to the Nianpu it was 1128.

[77]Pushuo, p. 421b. The eighth stage is one in which the bodhisattva has completed all cultivation of the path to Nirvana.

[78] I cannot find in any of my dictionaries the compound that I tentatively translate “noisy striving.” This passage, lines 10 to 17 of T.10.199a, is quoted by Dahui in his telling of the story in a sermon at T.875bc. In the other two tellings of it he begins quoting with line 17, with which I begin my quotation in the next paragraph. This would lead one to conclude that what struck him in the passage was contained in lines 17 to 24.

[79] The version of Dahui’s telling of the story found at p. 459c omits this last phrase.

[80] These are views; desires; existence; and ignorance.

[81] T.10.199a, lines 17-24. The quotation in the versions at Pushuo, p. 459c and 421b end here at line 24 of the sutra text. The quotation in the version at T.47.875c goes on to line 28 of the sutra text.

[82] Pushuo, p. 421b.

[83] Pushuo, p. 459c.

[84] Quoted in Natasha Heller, “The Chan Master as Illusionist: Zhongfeng Mingben’s Huanzhu Jiaxun,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 69:2, Dec. 2009, 271-308.

[85] Morten Schlütter, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute Over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song­Dynasty Chan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008); Schlütter, “Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung-Dynasty Ch’an.” In Buddhism in the Sung, edited by Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, pp. 109-147; On Yuanwu, see Ding-hwa Evelyn Hsieh, “Yuan-wu K’o-ch’in’s (1063–1135) Teaching of Ch’an Kung­an Practice: A Transition from the Literary Study of Ch’an Kung­an to the Practical K’an­hua Ch’an,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 17.1 (1994). See also Miriam L. Levering, “Miao-tao and her Teacher Dahui,” in Gregory and Getz, eds., Buddhism in the Sung, , pp. 188-219; and Robert E. Buswell, Jr., “The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an­hua Meditation: The Evolution of a Practical Subitism in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism,” in Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, ed. Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1987), pp. 321–77.

[86] Xuedou’s anthology of poems that comment on one hundred gong’an was published in the Northern Song and circulated widely. It is recorded in a Southern Song catalogue dated 1151. The text included in the Sibu Conkan appears to be a Song dynasty edition; it is called The Collection (ji) of poetic commentaries (song) on the [words of the] ancients (gu) by the teacher Xuedou Chongxian also known as the Great Teacher Mingjue (Xuedou Xian heshang Mingjue dashi songgu ji. It is preserved in the Sibu Congkan, Xubian jibu, ser. 2 (Shanghai: Hanfen Lou, 1935), v. 370.

[87] Robert H. Sharf, “How to Think with Chan Gong’an,” in Thinking with Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, ed. Charlotte Furth, Judith T. Zeitlin, and Ping-chen Hsiung (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), pp. 229–35.

[88] Foguo Keqin chanshi xinyao (Chan master Foguo Keqin’s essentials of mind). XZJ 120.

[89] Dahui once pointed out to Yuanwu that because Yuanwu always used the same gong’an, the students could prepare in advance, defeating the exercise.

[90] Levering, “Ch’an Enlightenment for Laymen: The Teachings of Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163),” Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University 1978, and Ding-hwa Evelyn Hsieh, “Yuan-wu’s Teaching of Ch’an Kung-an Practice” (cited above).

[91] T 1998, 47:901c27–902a6. Translation by Natasha Heller in “The Chan Master as Illusionist,” p. 301.

[92] Heller, p. 303.

[93] Foremost among these scholars are Yanagida Seizan, Ishii Shudo, Robert Buswell, and Morten Schlutter. Important articles and books are: Robert E. Buswell, Jr., The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an-hua Meditation: The Evolution of a Practical Subitism in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism,” in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), pp. 321-377; Miriam Levering, “Miao-tao and her teacher Ta-hui,” in Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz, eds., Buddhism in the Sung, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, 188-219; Schlutter, Morten, “Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung Dynasty Ch’an,” Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz, eds., Buddhism in the Sung, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, 109-147.

[94] Nianpu under Shaoxing 11th year, pp. 39b-40a. This translation combines my own with that of that of Chun-fang Yu, in “Ta-hui Zonggao”, p. 216.

[95] Philip Yampolsky, The Zen Master Hakuin, p. 104.