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Religion Library: Zen

Sacred Texts

Written by: Julia Hardy

Another sutra of importance to Chan was the Lankavatara Sutra, an account of a visit of the Buddha to Lanka, the island (now known as Sri Lanka) off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. According to Chan legend, Bodhidharma taught the Lankavatara Sutra to Huike, and early histories sometimes called Chan the Lankavatara school. Later, ideas from the sutra would be systematized by the Yogacara school.

The Lankavatara Sutra addressed these questions: If there is no self, how can an individual accumulate karma, and where is that karma stored? In response, it described eight levels of consciousness, the final level being a "storehouse consciousness" (alaya vijnana), which contains the karmic seeds of all past experience. When engaged, these karmic seeds provoke deep memories, and stimulate the process by which sentient beings are reborn. If one can break through at the root of consciousness, at this storehouse level, to grasp the emptiness of all categories and things, then the cycles of rebirth and dependent origination can be broken. This idea of a breakthrough realization of the true nature of mind was appealing to Chan thinkers. For them, however, the breakthrough was not to the realization of "pure mind" or some "other" state outside of normal existence.

The realization of the true nature of mind might result from the Chan practice of the "encounter dialogue," or gongan (Japanese, koan) study. Two men came to be known as famous practitioners of this technique: Shitou Xiqian (710-790) and Mazu Daoyi (709-788), and they would later be recognized as the founders of two schools of Chan, Linji (Rinzai in Japan) and Caodong (Japanese, Soto). The best known of all encounter teachers is Linji Yixuan (d. 867), whose phrase, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him!" is a familiar Chan saying. Some of the gongan include short questions, such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" "What was your original face before you were born?" or "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?"

It should be noted that no texts of the time contain any record of Shitou or Mazu employing the encounter dialogue. The first record of its use is in the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, which appeared in 952. This anthology is also an early example of the Chan "transmission of the lamp" text; that is, it contains a list of all the patriarchs in a Chan lineage that began in India and continued to the time of the text. A number of these "transmission of the lamp" histories became part of the official Buddhist canon. They contained biographical information and records of the teaching of prominent monks, and also included many examples of encounter dialogues. Later, the dialogues were extracted and collected into separate anthologies, along with commentaries by others.

While serious gongan study is limited to the monastic setting, the publication of gongan anthologies has made them familiar to lay readers, and, for many, their characteristic enigmatic style has come to represent the uniqueness of Chan.

Study Questions:
1.     Describe the relationship between enlightenment and Zen scriptures.
2.     What sutras have influenced Zen, and how?
3.     What does it mean to “encounter dialogue"?


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