Just Sit or Wake Up? A Tale of Two Old Teachers

Just Sit or Wake Up? A Tale of Two Old Teachers January 5, 2016


The tension over what to emphasize in dharma practice, just sitting or waking up (aka, meditation or wisdom), goes way back, probably to the time of the historical Buddha. And because we are in an emergency situation – born and soon to die – discovering the most skillful approach for resolving the great matter of birth and death – and throwing ourselves into it – is an urgent matter.

If we make the wrong choice, well, lost time won’t be found again.

In China, an atypical tension between those with just-sitting and waking-up predilections erupted into an intense conflict during the 12th Century, especially between two monks, Zhenxie Qingliao (Japanese, Choryo Seiryo, 1089-1151), a successor in the Caodong/Soto lineage that passed through Eihei Dogen to Japan, and Dahui Zonggao (Japanese, Dai-e Soko, 1089-1163), a successor in the Yogi branch of the Linchi/Rinzai lineage that was transmitted to Japan by Enni Bennen and others, also in the 13th Century.

The Chinese Ch’an lineages eventually worked things out by accepting the wisdom/Dahui position and returned to the harmonious and near non-distinctness of different lineages that was characteristic before the fight between Silent Illumination and koan introspection. Unfortunately, the conflict was still smoldering when Bennen went to China just shortly after Dogen returned from China. Dogen had found a way to integrate the just sitting and koan introspection aspects of the path, although his successors seem generally to have bypassed his brilliance and returned to the just-sitting position, thus the conflict continued in Japan and is part of what’s been transmitted to the West.

So it’s important to take a look at it, because like one-term Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura said, “Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it” (note: that’s a “real” quote from the internet and that one-term Jesse apparently heeded his own advice). 

Qingliao and Dahui: Soto meets Rinzai

In the 1130’s, Qingliao was a prominent teacher in the Caodong/Soto tradition, and the abbot of Xuefeng monastery with almost seventeen hundred monastics. He sure was no slouch. Qingliao taught a practice that emphasized many hours of still sitting, called the Silent Illumination approach to practice:

“Without taking a step you should constantly sit in your room and just forget about the teachings. Be like dry wood, or a stone, or a wall, or a piece of tile, or a pebble. Cut off knowing and understanding and be naturally vacuous and completely bright. You should not make the least bit of conscious effort.”

Die completely, he advises, in your effortless zazen (just sitting), forget the teachings (like the turn-around words of the Buddhas and ancestors) and brightness (wisdom) will be there without contrivance.

Qingliao may not have emphasized effortful enlightenment, but he is reported to have had an enlightenment experience. One day when he was studying with Danxia, Danxia asked, “What is the self before the empty eon?”

Qingliao started to speak but Danxia interrupted him and said, “Too noisy. Go away for awhile.”

Later, Qingliao was wandering in the mountains and he was suddenly awakened.

Most enlightenment experiences recorded in Zen literature occur while two people are in dialogue. Those that occur while the practitioner is sitting zazen are rare, although there are few when the adept is away and in nature, often having the catalytic turn-around comment of their teacher cooking away beneath the surface, like in Qingliao’s case.

However, there’s something vague and quietistic about Qingliao’s experience. We just know that he was wandering in the mountains and not the specifics. Other wandering-in-nature stories have monks stubbing their toe, or kicking a rock that struck bamboo, or suddenly really seeing the peach blossoms. Not so with Qingliao.

Qingliao’s teaching seems to have reflected his enlightenment – a naturally occurring phenomena without a notable precursor other than wandering in the mountains. So enlightenment is not something to strain and stress about.

Dahui, on the other hand, was a strong proponent of wisdom and stressed breaking through the veil of illusion and tasting real reality. He invented the head-word or turn-around method of koan introspection, first using it with a nun who had been a student of Qingliao, Miao-tao, and because of the effectiveness of the method, championed the focus on the little word “mu” (or “wu” in Chinese and “no” in English) that has haunted many a Zen student since his day. Dahui’s turn-around innovation swept through the Zen world faster than scholars can track it – like the proverbial arrow flying past Korea.

Miao-tao, the one person for whom we have recorded teachings translated into English (as far as I know) that studied with both Qingliao and Dahui, said that she learned from Qingliao that enlightenment was not an event. She learned from Dahui that, indeed, it was. This distinction is still present in the just-sitting and koan introspection circles today.

An important aspect of Dahui’s innovation was that it didn’t require a practitioner to sit silently in their room for years waiting for illumination. How many lay people could do that? The turn-around word koan method could be done anytime, anywhere. The practice was powerfully portable and immediately connected with lay practitioners. This may well have been a primary reason for it spreading across east Asia so rapidly.

In about 1134, Dahui was invited to give a talk at Qingliao’s monastery. Dahui began the talk by calling Qingliao a “clear-eyed teacher.” But then he got personal and stepped way beyond the expected decorum for a guest, especially in Confucian culture. Dahui took up the phrase that played a key role in Qingliao’s enlightenment, “the self before the empty eon,” and suggested it was merely a dangerous contrivance that could encourage practitioners to “sit immovable in the ghostly cave under the black mountain until they get calluses on bones and buttocks, and saliva is dripping from their mouths.”

He went on to present a koan from the Linchi lu #30, the heart of which goes like this:

“An elderly monk came for an interview with the master. Before he had finished the customary greetings, he asked, ‘Would it be right to make a formal bow? Or would it be right to do without the bow?’
Linji shouted.
The elder monk made a formal bow.
Linji said, ‘Quite some thief-in-the-grass!’
The elder monk said, ‘Thief! Thief!’ and left the room.
Linji said, ‘Better not think that that ends the matter!’”

Here we have a vigorous and playful interaction between Linji and an old monk. Nobody in this koan is sitting until they have saliva dripping from their mouths. Dahui went on to claim that he understood the koan but Qingliao did not. Major etiquette violation!

One way to see this interaction between Dahui and Qingliao is that Dahui lacked basic social skills, violating decorum as he did. Later, even Dahui’s head monk would confront Dahui, asking something like (translations vary), “Why you gotta be such a dick?”

Another way to see it is that Dahui was so devoted to awakening that he was willing to ruffle some robes.

And finally, another way to see it is that Dahui was testing Qingliao. It looks to me like Dahui was playfully enacting the very koan he presented. Dahui had entered a master’s room, Qingliao’s monastery, raised a question about decorum, right practice, and, in his way, called Qingliao a thief.

Throughout Dahui’s presentation, it is recorded that Qingliao maintained his calm composure, but as far as we know, didn’t meet the challenge directly like Linchi, didn’t engage the play, didn’t expose his heart and meet Dahui. Qingliao didn’t shout and he didn’t bow. He just sat in dead-like calm. It isn’t recorded whether he had saliva dripping from his mouth or not.

The encounter had numerous outflows

Soon afterwards, Dahui was sent into exile for fifteen years. Some scholars speculate that it may have been due, in part, to his rude attacks on Qingliao and Silent Illumination. Qingliao must have had friends in high places, perhaps even close to the emperor, to receive appointments to prominent monasteries and so it is possible that these supporters rallied to his defense and got Dahui his comeuppance. Support for this theory comes from the court’s choice for abbot to succeed Dahui at his somewhat more prominent monastery after he was sent into exile – Qingliao.

Exile, however, would not deter Dahui from denouncing Silent Illumination and advocating for the turn-around method of koan introspection which he did throughout his career before, during, and after exile. He had seen the method’s powerful effects in the number of dramatic awakenings the method had precipitated, and there was no going back.

After his unhappy meeting with Dahui, Qingliao wrote a commentary on a poem by the third Zen ancestor in China, Sengcan, “Trusting in Mind.” Qingliao criticized some of the practices that Dahui advocated, for example, taking the turn-around words from koans and resting them in the lower abdomen, a technique advocated in koan introspection circles to this day, including by yours truly.

And there’s more.

Four generations and well over one-hundred years later, Wuwai, one of Dogen’s dharma brothers who had also received transmission from Rujing, and edited Dogen’s Recorded Sayings, wrote a preface to the 13th Century edition to Qingliao’s commentary on “Trusting in Mind,” noting that this was Qingliao’s rebuttal to Dahui’s slanderous attacks on Silent Illumination.

The great 18th Century reviver of the Rinzai tradition in Japan, Hakuin, borrowed much from Dahui when he leveled similar attacks on the Soto successors of Qingliao, as did the 20th Century provocateur, Yasutani Roshi. It isn’t clear, however, that there were Soto monks calling what they did Silent Illumination either in Hakuin or Yasutani’s time, as the attacks on this phrase by Dahui and others seems to have relegated it to the silence before the empty eon. Just sitting, though, has a way of slumping into a samadhi practice, where Dogen’s earnest, vivid sitting, becomes lulling in quietude.

Shortly after the conflict, Caodong teachers stopped using the words “Silent Illumination,” although it seems to be having a bit of a revival in the West. Dogen, for example, in none of his many recorded words, used the term a single time. Rujing himself, the dharma great grandson of Qingliao, seems to have been impacted by the conflict and appears to have been working toward integration of Silent Illumination and turn-around koan introspection, borrowing aspects and language from both approaches.

For example, teaching his monks about practice and enlightenment, Rujing said,

When the divided mind flies away, how will you deal with it? Zhàozhōu little dog buddhanature mu. This single word mu – an iron broom. Where you sweep, confusion swirls around, swirling around confusion where you sweep. More turning, sweeping, turning. In the place you cannot sweep, do your utmost to sweep. Day and night, backbone straight, continuously without stopping. Bold and powerful, do not let up. Suddenly, sweeping breaks open the great empty sky. Ten thousand distinctions, a thousand differences exhausted – completely opening.”

Here we have Rujing, lineage holder in the Caodong/Soto school which had previously championed Silent Illumination, using mu to to sweep the mind clear, much in the spirit of his Silent Illumination predecessors, but now silencing the mind with vigorous and effortful mu, the most significant turn-around word of all time. Rujing also uses mu in order to have the Dahui effect – a sudden enlightenment experience, breaking open the great void. There is no trace in Rujing’s words of the conflation of practice and enlightenment.

However, it wouldn’t be until Rujing’s student, Dogen, that the issue of meditation or wisdom, just sitting or waking up, would be fully exhausted. It seems to me that the whole of Dogen’s voluminous recorded teaching was about this one point. And the work has continued through the years and now we know that just one breakthrough, although an important step on the path, requires ongoing just sitting (when it’s earnest, vivid sitting) and koan introspection, and that fully understood and actualized, both can be essential to bringing forth the great truth of the triple treasure.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Sensei, with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans, is now available (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri. Click here to support the teaching practice of Tetsugan Sensei and  Dōshō Rōshi.

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