The identity of emptiness, thusness
Almost every teacher-student conversation and
koan reported in the chan literature between the 7th and 13th centuries can be
read as a representation of one of these three fundamental Mahayana doctrines,
expressed in sign, symbol and metaphor. (By separating the original Buddhist teaching
of the non-inherent existence of the personal self, later termed sunyam svabhavam
in the Madhyamika formulation, from the more inclusive Mahayana concept of the
emptiness of all phenomena, one could then speak of four rather than three fundamental
philosophic doctrines articulated in the chan discourse.)
But there exists
also an underlying assumption that all three of these positions are identical.
Implicit in the chan discourse is the understanding that emptiness, thusness and
Buddha-nature, as seen from the standpoint of ultimate or absolute truth, are
not only inseparable, but also the same. Therefore the chan master tries to awaken
the baffled student by jumping unexpectedly from one position to another. To give
two examples from our texts: in the dialogue with Dadian Baotong, Shitou corrects
Dadian's false definition of emptiness -"Originally nothing exists"
- by showing that if nothing existed, the original face (Buddha-nature) wouldn't
exist either. And when Yaoshan tells Yunyan that "six is one and one is six,"
he means that if all things empty, they are also characterized by thusness (non-duality)."
The entire chan discourse can be seen as an apparently endless proliferation
of signs pointing to that which can never be signified to begin with, so that
for that very reason new signs are continually generated. (This proliferation
of signs is called "supplementarity" by the semioticist Jacques Derrida:
the compensation through proliferation on the part of a signifier for a signified
which can never be made present. One signified gives way to another, functioning
in turn as a signifier.) But a part of the tension which stimulates this ongoing
process of symbolic articulation is the switching back and forth from the positions
representing emptiness, thusness and Buddha-nature. Paradigmatic in this respect
and standing at the very beginning of the chan literature is the famous enlightenment
story of Huineng, which led to his recognition as the Sixth Patriarch by Hongren,
the Fifth Patriarch in the lineage back to Bodhidharma. Hongren calls upon his
students to write a verse expressing his experience of enlightenment. Shenxiu,
considered the master's first disciple, writes a poems which expresses tathagata-garbha
or Buddha-nature theory, employing the mirror metaphor:
The body is the Bodhi-tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish
And must not let the dust collect.
Huineng however responds with a
verse composed from the standpoint of emptiness-theory:
Originally there is
no tree of enlightenment,
Nor is there a stand with a clear mirror.
the beginning not one thing exists;
Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling?
(Both poems are quoted here from Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism,
p. 132. But the Dunhuang manuscripts give a different version of Huineng's famous
poems: cf. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch , p. 132, footnote
Significantly, Hongren says that Huineng's understanding is still not
complete - suggesting perhaps that a higher position would be that which equates
both theories - but he nonetheless confers the robe of succession to Huineng.
It is as if Hongren, faced with the necessity of deciding between sunyata and
tathagata-garbha, accepted the former as a superior teaching, but left open the
possibility of a position higher than both, expressible however only by symbol
and metaphor, and unapproachable through discursive thought. The alternation between
these two positions, along with the further position of thusness*, and the subsequent
symbolic elaboration which assumes or incorporates both or all three as the substance
of reality, inspire chan discourse through the next six centuries, and the writings
of Dogen Zenji in 13th-century Japan as well.
Several texts from the early Tang-period speak of the fusion of thusness and Buddha-nature.
A representative example is the Dunhuang manuscript entitled Bodhidharma's Treatise
on Contemplating Mind, translated by J.C. Cleary in Zen Dawn, pp. 79-102. The
origin of this work is unknown, but it could have been composed in Jiangxi or
Hunan during Shitou's lifetime. However, equating the Buddhist absolutes goes
far back into the Indian tradition, as for example in the Srimaladevi Sutra (The
True Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala): "World-Honored One, the Tathagata-embryo
is the Tathagata's knowledge of emptiness," trans. Garma Chang, A Treasury
of the Mahayana Sutras, p. 378.