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The Syncretism of Chan Buddhism and Precepts: Formation of Chan Ideology in the Ninth Century by Pei-Ying Lin

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This essay aims to explore how the forgotten alliance of Chan Buddhism and precepts developed into discourses throughout the history. Chan Buddhism, well known for its unique rhetorical styles and deconstruction methods, is not usually regarded as affiliated to the vinaya in current understanding. The evidence in this essay, however, shows that at an early stage, the formation of Chan Buddhism evolved from vigorous debates of the bodhisattva precepts. Since Yanagida Seizan’s[1] authoritative study on the history of Chan, it is generally acknowledged that Chan Buddhism experienced a significant transformation during the 9th century in China. In the following few decades after Yanagida, quite a few excellent revisionist studies on Chan Buddhism have emerged in the western scholarship.[2] These studies, however, maintain a sectarian boundary in their frameworks, which may not be entirely accurate to Chan Buddhism in this prosperous period of Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) has been described as the “Golden Age” of Buddhist development when different Buddhist schools flourished with distinctive doctrines. The 9th century also saw an intensive interaction between China and Japan, and the existent reports from those foreign monks constituted valuable materials for understanding Buddhism of this period. From the outsider’s viewpoints, interestingly, a more blurred and syncretistic picture is discovered in contrast with the standard Chan history. Regarding the doctrinal affinities, Japanese perception of Chan Buddhism conforms to the situation in China. Coming back to the Chinese materials, in the discussions about the bodhisattva precepts in relation to the Lankāvatāra Sutra and the Platform Sutra, particular attention will be given to their religious agendas. As the result of this study, a revision of the development of Chan Buddhism will be provided in the light of the formation of Chan ideology.

In an attempt to tease out the question how Chan Buddhism was differentiated from other traditions at that time, a collection of monks’ bibliographies are found to be rather revealing. Buddhist catalogues, if studied carefully in a different light, provide an invaluable guide into the contemporary doctrinal context: the doctrinal affinities and intellectual confluences of Chinese Buddhism. Luckily enough, some Japanese visiting monks, notably Saichō 最澄(767–822)[3], Ennin 円仁(794-864)[4] and Enchin 円珍(814 – 891)[5], mentioned Chan texts in their bibliographies. Amongst them, Saichō is one of the earliest to mention the Chinese Chan lineage in Japan. These Japanese monksunderstanding of Chan Buddhism came from the Chinese masters whom they had met in China, and for this reason the way they organised their catalogues reflects the teachings of their Chinese masters. In these catalogues, firstly, we have found the conspicuous alliance between the Lankāvatāra Sutra and bodhisattva precepts. This perception of a “syncretism” of Chan and precepts is confirmed by the praxis and is connected to the debates arising from religious agendas. These debates, to be regarded as religious discourses, are persuasions during a competition. In this aspect, historical circumstances and political motives are taken seriously into account in this essay in analysing the transformation of Chan Buddhism. From the inception of doctrinal debates, the discourses then went through a process of simplification and nationalisation, which sums up the organism of the formation of Chan ideology. It was through this dynamic process that religious agendas and Buddhist doctrines intertwined with each other and then formulated into a Chan ideology.

1. The Japanese Perspective


The first catalogue discussed here is “The Catalogue for Scriptures Acquired in Yuezhou by Dengyō Daishi (Saichō)”[6], which was written in 805A.D. The scriptures Saichō acquired in Yuezhou consist of a range of doctrinal traditions, including Tiantai, Huayan, Chan, Vinaya and Esoteric Buddhism. Saichō’s attempt to categorise the scriptures into several groups can be found in this catalogue. Despite the vinaya texts are in the very end of this catalogues, the “Passages and Sentences of the Bodhisattva Precept” (Pusajie wenju 菩薩戒文句) in one fascicle is followed by several Chan-related texts[7], such as the “Treatise on Guarding the Mind” (Kanxin lun 看心論), “Meaning of Non-Production” (Wusheng yi 無生義), the “Collection of the Works by Shuanglin Bodhisattva” (Shaunglin dashi ji 雙林大士集)[8], the “Biography of the Six Patriarch Master Caoxi” (Caoxi dashi zhuan 曹溪大師傳), and the “Treatise on the Transcendence of Cognition” (Jueguan lun 絕觀論)[9]. Followed by another three scriptures, it is then the “Lineage Chart of the Bodhidharma Tradition” (Domo xitu 達磨系圖). As listed above, we find that the “Passages and Sentences of the Bodhisattva Precept” in Saichō’s catalogue locates near the cluster of Chan scriptures. The connection between Chan tradition and the bodhisattva precept in his perception is identifiable.

Ennin’s catalogue is more organised and structured than his teacher Saichō. It is in the catalogue titled “Nittō shingu shōgyō mokuroku” 入唐新求聖教目錄[10], three versions of bodhisattva precept of the Brahma Net Sutra (Fanwangjing) are followed by the Platform Sutra. Several columns later, one can find the cluster of the “Text for Bodhisattva Precept Conferral” (Shou pusajie wen 受菩薩戒文), the “Lyrics for the Buddha Nature of the Highest Vehicle” (Zuishangsheng foxing ge 最上乘佛性歌), and the “Determinate Meaning of the Orthodox Lankāvatāra of the Great Vehicle” (Dasheng lengqie zhengzongjue 大乘楞伽正宗決).[11] Again, scriptures regarding the bodhisattva precept are grouped together with the Chan texts.

The above evidence proves that, in the 9th century Buddhist conception, the bodhisattva precept is associated with the Lankāvatāra tradition. There are still other catalogues, which show the same patterns in making categorisation of Buddhist manuscripts of the time. This information about grouping can be taken as an indicator and a starting point where we may begin to tease out the question where does this doctrinal affinity come from. In an attempt to clarify the connection between precepts and Chan tradition, what follows is a discussion on the doctrinal underpinnings for their categorisation that has not received enough attention from modern scholars.

2. The Doctrinal Context of Bodhisattva Precepts


The origin of bodhisattva precepts in China came from two strands during the fifth century[12]: one is the “Pusa dichi jing” 菩薩地持經[13] and another is the Brahma Net Sutra (Sk. Brahmajala; Ch. Fanwangjing) 梵網經.[14] The former one is derived from the Yogācāra School, where meditation and gradual practice is highlighted. The latter, which proved hugely popular in southern China, relies on Vairocana as its sole authority and expounds the ten stages of meditation achievement. Both scriptures concern not only the moral conducts but also the supposed consciousness of bodhisattva. It can be easily discerned from the above features, both of them put much emphasis on constant practice of meditation. It means that bodhisattva precept was never separated from meditation practice on the basis of the purification of mind. The praxis and doctrinal affinity confirm the interdependency between Chan and precept.

The procedure of precept conferral is likewise very informative in understanding the 9th century perception of precepts. Before the actual precept conferral ritual, repentance and meditation are two important requirements for receiving bodhisattva precepts. As one of the earliest example, in the fifth century, Daojin 道進(also known as Fajin 法進) once expressed his request to receive the bodhisattva precepts from Dharmaksema 曇無讖(385-433)[15]. In response, Dharmaksema instructed that a deep repentance and diligent meditation must be completed before receiving the bodhisattva precepts so as to remove all karmic obstructions.[16] In other words, for the transmission of bodhisattva precepts, meditation is a compulsory preparation step for the sake of the purification of mind.

The manifestation of a purified mind penetrated the development of Chan Buddhism in China. During the seventh to eighth centuries, the ‘Northern Chantradition, which was transmitted through written scriptures and the alleged patriarchs, has a root strongly linked to the Bodhisattva precepts. In Jingjue’s 淨覺(c.712)[17] “Record of the Lankāvatāra Patriarchs” (Lengqie shiziji) 楞伽師資記, Gunabhadra 求那跋陀羅(394 – 468), one of the translators of the Lankāvatāra Sutra,[18] was the first patriarch and Bodhidharma was the second. Gunabhadra, similar to Bodhidharma, was featured by his supernatural power which was regarded as a result of the constant meditation practice. Both Indian masters taught meditation and precepts concurrently while promoting the Lankāvatāra Sutra and bodhisattva precepts side by side. Meditation and precepts are paired because of their doctrinal implications on the purification of mind. According to the Lankāvatāra Sutra, a pure mind is validated by non-transgression of bodhisattva precepts; it also states that, among the “Six Perfections”, the “Perfection of Precept” must be realized through deep understanding of the emptiness and well controlled intentions. As it shows, the Bodhisattva precepts in the Lankāvatāra Sutra are built upon the elimination of illusions. For these reasons, it is understandable that, these two masters must have regarded the Lankāvatāra tradition and the Bodhisattva precepts as having close doctrinal affinities.


Instead of treating them as intrinsically independent thoughts, rather, the outgrowth of the Lankāvatāra Sutra and bodhisattva precepts should be considered as part of a broader context of the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism in China. Mahāyāna precepts invited much disputation at an early stage of Buddhist transmission to China. In the vigorous debates on Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna precepts, there was a conceptual change: in combining with bodhisattva vows, the vinaya was transformed into Mahāyāna precepts.[19] The Hīnayāna vinaya did not enjoy many advocators because the majority of Chinese Buddhists were in favour of Mahāyāna Buddhism since the outset. It is the historical reality that the bodhisattva path has been long accepted as the highest approach. It is well taken by the Chinese Buddhists that, according to the Lotus Sutra and the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsakasūtra, Ch. Huayan jing 華嚴經), unlike the bodhisattvas, the sravakas and the pratyekabuddhas have insufficient faculties to understand the Buddha’s teachings. On this basis of a hierarchy of “vehicles”, Chinese master Zhiyi 智顗(538–597) designed a sophisticated classification, which regards the Mahāparinirvānasūtra as the last sermon by the Buddha. In solving the conflicting ideas about various “vehicles”, Zhiyi maintains that a Mahāyāna monk can observe Hīnayāna precepts with a Mahāyāna mind. The Hīnayāna vinaya was devised to lead people to Buddhahood, and it would potentially reveal that final goal too. This explanation was called “kaihui” 開会(revealing and harmonizing).[20] Based on Zhiyi’s distinction of the bodhisattvas, Mingkuang 明曠(late 8th century), in his “Commentary to the Tiantai Bodhisattva Precepts” 天台菩薩戒疏, differentiated Mahāyāna and the Hīnayāna precepts and further advocated the (Brahma Net’s) bodhisattva precepts.[21]

The Mahāyāna adoption of the Hīnayāna precepts was an effective solution as a supplement to the bodhisattva precepts, and later on, various interpretations of bodhisattva precepts emerged in numerous Mahāyāna writings.[22] The incorporation of Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna precepts is best illustrated in the classification system called the ‘Precepts for Purification of Three Clusters’ (Sanju jingjie, Jap. Sanju jōkai 三聚淨戒), which include:

(1) the prevention of evil
(2) the promotion of good
(3) the salvation of sentient beings.

Among the three clusters, the prevention of evil could be identified with Hīnayāna ones and the promotion of good as Mahāyāna ones.[23] It shows, again, that the purification of mind is the purpose for observing the precepts. It is this idea of a pure mind that makes meditation and precept conferral inseparable in practice, and similar evidence can be found in Esoteric Buddhism. As ‘Precepts for Purification of Three Clusters’ soon became the foundation of precepts in Esoteric Buddhism, it is noteworthy that an important Esoteric text on the ‘Precepts for Purification of Three Clusters’ is entitled “Dhyāna Guidance by Master Subhakarasimha(637-735)”(Wuwei sanzang chanyao 無畏三藏禪要)[24]. In the “Dhyāna Guidance by Master Subhakarasimha”, what is most important in receiving a bodhisattva precept is to initiate and maintain the bodhicitta. With same rationale, another Esoteric text “Text for the Highest Vehicle Initiation of Bodhisattva Mind Precept and Repentance” (Zui shangshengjioa shoufa puti xinjie chanhuiwen 最上乘教受發菩提心戒懺悔文)[25] is also devoted to explain how one receives the precepts, initiates the bodhicitta (awakening mind), and then acts out the repentance. Repentance of previous sins seems to be essential for purifying one’s mind in this regard. After receiving the bodhisattva precept, one should further continue to practise meditation and the “Four Samadhi” (four contemplation practices). These all show that the practices of meditation, repentance and precepts are all necessary parts in the process of purification of ones mind. As the outcome of this transformation, bodhisattva precept expresses the idea of an all-embracing Buddha nature. Thus the goal of ordination ceremony is the confirmation of the Buddha nature. This precept embodies the enlightenment in one’s own present body (Ch. Jishen chengfo, Jp. sokushin jōbutsu 即身成仏); this view of precept is called: precept is the vehicle of salvation (Ch. Jiesheng yizhi, Jp. kaijō itchi 戒乗一致).[26]

Up to this point, it is clear to us the reason why the Lankāvatāra Sutra and bodhisattva precepts were grouped together and occurred as a repetitive pattern in the Buddhist bibliographies. In various traditions of Buddhist schools, it seems that, concerning the purification of ones mind, meditation and precepts are two sides of a coin. This association was not a feature exclusively of either Chan or Esoteric Buddhism; rather, it was a common perception and praxis that developed in tandem with the Mahāyāna development in Buddhist history. Furthermore, the doctrinal and historical development of this idea did not stop here and it continued to the point that a distinctChan” explanation gradually took its form.

3. The Vehicle Theory in the Lankāvatāra Sutra


Discussions on Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna began from the fifth century and continued for centuries to come. The Lankāvatāra Sutra first proposes “non-vehicle” and “one-vehicle” against the Mahāyāna-Hīnayāna disputation.[27] A bit later the term “Highest Vehicle” (zuishangsheng 最上乘) emerged, often occurring conjointly with another term “single mind” in Chinese writings. The “Highest Vehicle” refers to Mahāyāna bodhisattva’s path with the prajñā associations. Among the scriptures collected in the Taishō Tripitaka, this term appears frequently in the sections of Prajñā, Chan and Esoteric.[28] The doctrinal implications of the “Highest Vehicle” in these texts might differ from one to another:

A.) The Esoteric tradition regards the bodhisattva approach as the highest, and an initiation ritual, the bodhisattva precept conferment, is mandatory. :B.) In a commentary to the Lankāvatāra, the “Highest Vehicle” is dedicated to the realisation of the “purified self-nature inherent in oneself” (圓成實自性).
C.) In the later “Southern Chan” context, it refers to the sudden enlightenment as a realisation of prajñā, and it implies that someone who takes on the “Highest Vehicle” approach will eventually enlighten in an intuitive leap.

None of these disparities challenge any fundamental presumption of the bodhisattva approach. Rather, it seems that the “Highest Vehicle” does not have a fixed definition, but more as an adjective usage in these texts.

The discussion on Buddhist vehicle began from the Lankāvatāra, but its founding role did not prevent its fate from ebbing away. According to two prefaces by Jiang Zhiqi 蔣之奇 (1031-1104)and Su Shi 蘇軾(1037-1101)[29], the Lankāvatāra is said to go against the trend of simplification, which led to its diminution. On the other hand, it is intriguing that while the attitude toward the Lankāvatāra Sutra changes, Bodhidharma remains attractive for its symbolic value. The latter was traditionally regarded as introducing the former to China and for this reason the contradictory attitude needs a resolution. Feeling compelled to disengage the connection between the two, Chinese monks were also puzzled that how could Bodhidharma promote teachings which are not supporting sudden enlightenment? A passage in the “Zutangji” 祖堂集[30] demonstrates the attempt to solve this problem. Monk Daocun 道存asks Master Yangshan 仰山(840?-916?) whether it is true that the Lankāvatāra Sutra was introduced by Bodhidharma to China? Yangshan answers that it is an untruthful story. Beginning by a historian-like refutation about the dates of the translations, he then clarifies various concepts of: the Buddha nature, sudden enlightenment, the provisional role of language (in the forms of preaching, texts and exegetical studies), and the importance of real practice (refers to mediation practice in this context). He then concludes that it was simply a skilful consideration of Bodhidharma to teach the Lankāvatāra because his contemporary Buddhists were obsessed with exegetical studies and doctrinal debates, and also because an emphasis on real practice (修行) is the same core in the Lankāvatāra Sutra and in what Bodhidharma genuinely wanted to teach.[31] During the time when Bodhidharma travelled to Southern China in the sixth century, the dominant monastic education in Chinese monasteries remains to be scholasticism and exegetical studies.[32] Therefore, Bodhidharma’s attempt to counterbalance the mainstream reflects a tension between exegetical studies and proponents of real practices. In this competition, different factions formulated their own ideologies to attract patronage, especially the imperial patrons. Not surprisingly, the tendency of simplification in Buddhist doctrines proved popular to the ordinary people as well as the royal families. This tendency also explains the rise of the Platform Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, by replacing the Lankāvatāra Sutra, and it will be discussed in the following section.

4. Platform Sutra’s Reductionism

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As the interdependency of meditation and precepts in doctrines as well as praxis has been discussed above, we may now turn our focus to the Chan repertoire, where bodhisattva precepts take an important part. There are three important Chan texts in which the conferral ritual for bodhisattva precept constitutes a focal point[33]:

A. “Gateway to Mahāyāna Non-Creation and Skilful Means” (Dasheng wusheng fangbian men) 大乘無生方便門[34], (hereafter “Gateway”)
B. Dunhuang manuscript “Platform Dialogue on Sudden Enlightenment and Chan Branch’s Direct Realisation of the Essence by Monk Nanyang (Shenhui)” (Nanyang

heshang dunjiao jietuo chanmen zhiliaoxing tanyu) 南陽和上頓教解脫禪門直了性壇語 by Shenhui, (hereafter “Platform Dialogue”)

C. Dunhuang manuscript “Six Patriarch Platform Sutra” 敦煌本六祖壇經, with the full title “The Highest Mahāyāna Mahā-Prajñāpāramitā Sutra of the Southern School’s Sudden Teachings” 南宗頓教最上大乘摩訶般若波羅密經.[35] (hereafter “Platform Sutra”)

The first text has been identified to have the same origin to the “Nanyue edition” 南岳本[36] of the “Ritual for Bodhisattva Precept Conferment” (Shuopusa jieyi) 授菩薩戒儀[37] from Dunhuang. It is very likely that the “Gateway” was copied from the “Ritual for Bodhisattva Precept Conferment”. The original title informs us that the contents of the ritual must be understood together with its theoretical underpinnings. In comparing these three texts carefully, it can be found that they are nuanced in some doctrinal explanations. Shenhui’s “Platform Dialogue” is very similar to the “Gateway”, which represents the “Northern Chan” teachings. This similarity is ironic because Shenhui himself has severely criticised the “Northern Chan” School; it implies that these debates were simply discourses to generate attraction. What lies under the seemingly debates about “Northern and Southern Chan” Schools is actually a disputation on the theories for real practices and for the bodhisattva precept: the approach for attaining a pure mind. This conforms to the categorisation in the Japanese bibliographies as mentioned already. On the other hand, if looking at their differences, the third text “Platform Sutra” departed from the other two in terms of its emphasis on the “Formless Precepts” (Wuxiang jie) 無相戒. The difference between them corresponds to the debate about “guarding the mind” on a gradual basis versus the “formless” practice, which is also regarded as a competition between the Lankāvatāra Sūtra and the Platform Sutra. This discrepancy implies a shift from the “mind precept” (through “guarding the mind”) towards the “Formless Precepts”. This shift itself shows a tendency of simplification of Buddhism in China, which formed an ideology useful for the political leadership, and more evidence will be discussed shortly.

The doctrinal competitions arose from the social and political milieu of Tang China, and one particularly important figure is Emperor Xuanzong’s 玄宗(685-762, r. 712-756) for his forceful religious policy and his strong inclination toward Daoism. Xuanzong’s control of translation activities has created an unfavourable environment to scholar monks who specialised in exegetical studies of Sanskrit scriptures. Xuanzong’s hostile attitude towards Indian monks had caused a significant decrease in the number of translations from Sanskrit originals.[38] As an outcome, Xuanzong’s religious policy possibly encouraged a remarkable degree of national pride of Chinese Buddhists in the eighth century. On the other hand, Xuanzong was particularly interested in some Buddhist sutras, such as the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra 金剛般若經) and the Prajñāpāramitā for Humane King 仁王般若經.[39] The Prajñā texts enjoying imperial patronage during the eighth century have facilitated sudden enlightenment theory corresponding to a tendency of simplification. It is understandable that Xuanzong had paid special attention to these scriptures, particularly the Prajñāpāramitā for Humane King, because it provided him with some sort of ideal type for political leadership. Naturally, as it were, the emperor’s attitude fortified the tendency to replace the Lankāvatāra Sūtra with the Diamond sutra. Buddhist discourses in the ninth century moved towards a direction which matches Xuanzong’s preferences. The imperial patronage on the Diamond Sutra, the Prajñā texts and sudden enlightenment theory was a determinant factor in the competition between the Lankāvatāra Sūtra and the Platform Sutra, while the arguments for this competition have been found in the three bodhisattva precept conferment documents as just discussed.


The three texts regarding bodhisattva precept conferment indicate the movement toward formless practices. This tendency of simplification continued until a unique religious ideology was formed to reflect the political concerns of Buddhist monks all over East Asia. As T. Griffith Foulk[40] argues, the doctrine of the “awareness of the non-arising of phenomena無生法忍 (anutpattikadharmaksānti) as the highest reaches of Mahāyāna experience played an important role in expanding the scope of Chan. In so doing, Chan was not limited to the purely contemplative role of meditation and was freed from its Inidian origin. It thus made Chan becoming a complete religious and ideological system.[41] This statement is well taken by Buswell (1989), who further argues that Chan was part and parcel of a wider trend during the fifth through the eighth centuries to sinisize Buddhism. The tathāgatagarbha doctrine and the specific type of enlightenment accessible to all had facilitated the spread of Chan ideology.[42] Both Foulk and Buswell see Chan as an ideology inseparable with the political concerns of contemporary Buddhist monks. If we may agree with them, the doctrines can be considered as discourses that support certain agendas regarding the political and social circumstances. Buswell highlights the tendency of sinisization of Buddhism starting from China and stimulated the Korean intellectual monks at the same time. In the attempts to turn Buddhism into ones own culture, the nationalization of Buddhism happened in China, Korean and Japan simultaneously during the ninth century. Evidence to be found in China conforms to the trend of nationalization of Buddhism in each East Asian country, and the similarity and continuity suggest the necessity to see East Asia a whole. During the ninth century, accompanying the nationalization movement within and outside the court, a rising national pride, with fervent political intention, is something that permeates the narratives about Chan masters. Given the intense interaction between East Asian countries, Japanese and Korean visitor monks were the witnesses and most likely, in a short time, appropriated it into their own customs. We will see in the following part of this essay that, in the ninth century, Japanese and Korean monks who visited China began to cater for their patrons and followers with strikingly similar religious rhetoric, which incorporates elements from Chan and precepts, and it again reveals the forgotten association between Chan and precepts.

5. Empty and Immobile Threefold-Learning

The Chan ideology moving in a direction toward the Prajñā doctrines continued to spread and thrive in Japan. The earliest mention of Chan transmission in Japan can be traced to Daoxuan 道璿(702-760), who then transmitted to Xingbiao 行表and Saichō.[43] Daoxuan’s name is barely mentioned in the Chinese sources.[44] On the contrary, much information about him is preserved in the Japanese resources. In 733, the Japanese emperor Shōmu 聖武(701-756) sent monks to China to look for one suitable Vinaya master. Upon the imperial invitation, Daoxuan began his sojourn in Japan since 736. Daoxuan was a disciple of Puji 普寂(651-739)[45], the leading disciple of Shenxiu 神秀(606?-706). With this “Northern Chan” background, Daoxuan’s teaching of Chan Buddhism cannot be separated from the Vinaya. Just like Puji, Daoxuan emphasises an equal value of Chan and precepts because they are regarded as the duties that a practitioner should observe. Among various precepts, the “Precepts for Purification of Three Clusters” discussed above is highlighted in Daoxuan’s teachings. Daoxuan’s understanding of Buddhism represents a bridge of Buddhist transmission from China to Japan. Daoxuan’s cross-transmission of the “Northern Chantradition and precepts implies the affiliation between Chan Buddhism and the bodhisattva precepts. His influence on Saichō’s Buddhist perceptions can be found in:

1. Saichō’s Kenkairon 顕戒論.
2. The Preface to Ihyō Tendai shū 依憑天台集.
3. Kōjō’s Denjutsu isshinkaimon 伝述一心戒文.[46]

His commentary to the Brahma Net Sutra granted Saichō the view that the Brahma Net Sutra is the most important precept to Buddhists.[47] Considering the challenge of career for a foreign monk in Japan, the evolution of his doctrine must have been some sort of careful contrivance in order to fit the circumstances. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Daoxuan’s influence in Japan mainly came from his education in the precepts. The following section will explain how his teaching on precepts and Chan evolved into a discourse in Japan.

The line of transmission from Shenxiu is featured by the syncretic learning centred at the Yuquan Monastery 玉泉寺, well-known for its reputation in various Budddhist traditions, notably Esoteric Buddhism, Tiantai, Huayan and Chan teachings all together. This is why the elements of Tiantai, Huayan, Vinaya and Chan are cited extensively in Daoxuan’s writings. Likewise, the disputations initiated by Shenhui 神會(684-760)[48] in China had affected Daoxuan’s teachings. Shenhui accused Puji’s ‘observing the mind[49] to be a burden for everyone’s bodhicitta, and proposed that ‘discerning the intrinsic essence’ is a better approach. Shenhui’s simpler approach, by allegedly linking to sudden enlightenment theory, almost becoming an ideology of its own, proved hugely popular among the literati and emperors that no one ever dared to argue against sudden enlightenment since then on. In response to Shenhui’s accusation, Daoxuan adopted the gradual practice and contrived the “empty and immobile threefold learning” 虛空不動三學, that part of Saichō’s enlightenment theory was inherited from.[50] Not unnaturally, Daoxuan’s doctrinal swing corresponds with the tendency of simplification in China proper. From this aspect, Daoxuan’s teaching is an extension of Chinese Buddhism in the eighth century Japan. Like Shenxiu and Puji in China, he also attracted Japanese followers and patrons in preaching an enlightenment theory as a Buddhist ideology. This parallel in Japan again demonstrates the importance of a wider context of East Asian societies to be considered seriously.

6. Conclusion: The Formation of Chan Ideology

Starting with the categorisation in the bibliographies compiled by Japanese visiting monks of the ninth century, for its different yet objective light on Chan Buddhism, this paper argues that current false categorisation of the ninth century Buddhist schools has obstructed our understanding of Chan Buddhism.


Fortunately, all the evidences of the doctrinal debates and historical records confirm the doctrinal affinity of the Chan tradition and the precepts as shown in the categorisation in the catalogues. In various traditions of Buddhist schools, it seems that, concerning the purification of the mind, meditation and precepts are not separable; rather, they are two sides of a coin on the basis of the praxis of the enlightenment theory. This is the doctrinal reason why the Lankāvatāra Sutra and bodhisattva precepts were grouped together and occurred as a repetitive pattern in the Buddhist bibliographies. This association was not a feature exclusively in either Chan or Esoteric Buddhism; rather, it was a common perception and praxis that developed in tandem with the Mahāyāna development in China. The doctrinal and historical evolution of Mahāyāna ideas, like that of bodhisattva precepts, moved on to the point that a distinctChan” ideology gradually took a form to persuade its usefulness for political leadership through a simplification process.

During the evolution of Chan ideology, a shift of attitude to the Lankāvatāra Sutra happened in contrast with the long-lasting popularity of Bodhidharma. Turning away from the Lankāvatāra Sutra, then to the “Formless Precept”, is a result of the competition of the “Highest Vehicle”. Emperor Xuanzong’s preference and the Korean parallel indicate a tendency of simplification and nationalisation of Buddhism in a wider context of Buddhist East Asia. The similarity in polemics from various Buddhist traditions indicates the necessity to consider East Asian Buddhist countries as a whole.

In such a dynamic process, politics and Buddhist doctrines intertwined with each other and formed the Chan ideology. As construction and reconstruction went on and on in later times for the sake of separation, it is easy to neglect the early picture, which is somewhat blurred. Hence, rather than being misled by mere projections from a modern perspective, a clarification from a contemporaneous perspective helps us to understand the Buddhist perceptions of their time.


  1. Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山(1967) , Shoki zenshū shisho no kenkyū 初期禪宗史書の硏究, Kyoto: Hozokan,reprint, 2000.
  2. Just list a few examples: Bernard Faure (1997), The will to orthodoxy: a critical genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press; John R. McRae (2003), Seeing through Zen: encounter, transformation, and genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Saichō was a Japanese Buddhist monk credited with founding the Tendai school in Japan, for a detailed study of his life, see Paul Groner (1984), Saichō: the establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, Seoul : Po Chin Chai.
  4. For a study of his life, see Saeki Arikiyo 佐伯有淸 (1989), Ennin 円仁, Nihon Rekishi Gakkai henshū日本歴史 学会編集. Tōkyō : Yoshikawa Kōbunkan. For an excellent study on his travel in China, see Ōno Katsutoshi 小野勝年 (1964-1969), Nittō guhō junrei gyōki no kenkyū 入唐求法巡禮行記の研究. Tōkyō : Suzuki Gakujutsu Zaidan.
  5. For a study of his life, see Saeki Arikiyo 佐伯有清 (1990), Enchin 円珍, Nihon Rekishi Gakkai henshū日本歴 史学会編集. Tōkyō : Yoshikawa Kōbunkan.
  6. Denkyō daishi shōrai Esshū roku 傳教大師將來越州錄(T55, No. 2160).
  7. T 55, No 2060, 1059b.
  8. Shuanglin Dashi, or Fu Dashi, is Fu Xi 傅翕(497-569) of the Sui Dynasty. He was once invited by Emperor Liang Wu Di to give a lecture on the Diamond Sutra.
  9. This scripture has been regarded as a work by Farong 法融(594~657), the founder of Ox-head Chan branch. Its philosophy is a continuation of the strand of Bodhidharma’s “Treatise on the Two Entries and Four Practices” (Er’ru sixing lun 二入四行論). John McRae (1986), The Northern School and the formation of early Ch’an Buddhism, Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, p. 211.
  10. T 55, No. 2167, 1078b – 1087b.
  11. This pattern is consistent in other catalogues as well, such as Ennin’s the other catalogue for the scriptures he acquired in Yangzhou (T 55:1075b) and another monks’s catalogue (T55: 1071c – 1073c).
  12. For a detailed historical survey, see Funayama Tōru 船山徹(1995), ‘Rokuchō jidai niokeru bosakkai no juyō katei: Rūsō, Nanseiki wo chūshin ni’ 六朝時代における菩薩戒の受容過程—劉宋.南齊期を中心に, Tōhō gakuhō東方學報67 (1995), pp. 1 – 135.
  13. Satō Tatsugen 佐藤逹玄 (1986), Chūgoku bukkyō ni okeru kairitsu no kenkyū 中国仏教における戒律の研究. Tōkyō : Mokujisha, pp. 347-60.
  14. T 24, No. 1484.
  15. During the fifth century, the concept of Buddha nature was under debate and Dharmaksema was asked to translate one edition of the Mahaparinirvana sutra to reassure Chinese understanding. (T50, no. 2059, 336c.)
  16. Daojin and Dharmaksema was the earliest record of the appearance of bodhisattva precepts in China. See Funayama Toru (1995: 6-20). Nobuyoshi Yamabe (2005:20) also proves the link between repentance and visionary experience. The visionary experience was also important to meditative experience and Buddha chanting practice. Here one sees the possibility that in practice Pure Land, Chan and Vinaya weaved with other.
  17. For Jingjue, see Quan Tang Wen, fas. 327, “DaTang Da’anguosi gudade Jingjue shi taming ” 大唐大安國寺故大德淨覺師塔銘, written by the famous Tang poet Wang Wei 王維 (701-761).
  18. Gunabhadra’s translation of the Lankāvatāra Sutra, although coming out later than Dharmaksema’s, was more widespread. It is noteworthy that Dharmaksema’s interest in the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, Bodhisattva Precepts and the Lankāvatāra coincided with Gunabhadra. This reflects the major concern of their contemporaries.
  19. See John R. McRae (2005), “Daoxuan's vision of Jetavana: the ordination platform movement in medieval Chinese Buddhism”, in Going Forth: visions of Buddhist vinaya, ed. by William M. Bodiford, Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 2005, pp. 68-100.
  20. Groner, Paul (1984), Saichō: the establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, Seoul: Po Chin Chai. p. 199.
  21. T 40: 580c – 584a.
  22. For a collection of precept and vinaya scriptures, see Ōno Hōdō 大野法道(1954), Daijō kaikyō no kenkyū 大乗戒経の研究, Tokyo: Risōsha, 1954.
  23. Examples can be found in the Yogācāra scriptures: Dichijing (Bodhisattvabhūmi), T 30: 910b-c; Yuqie shidi lun (Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra), T 30: 511a.
  24. Written by Shanwuwei 善無畏and Jingxian 敬賢during 716-735 in Chang’an. For a concise introduction of these texts, see Ōno (1954: 431-435).
  25. T 915: 941a.
  26. William M. Bodiford (2005), “Bodhidharma's precepts in Japan”, in Going Forth: visions of Buddhist vinaya, ed. by William M. Bodiford, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, pp. 185 - 209. P. 187.
  27. T16, no. 670: p. 497.
  28. The references include: Dasheng lichu liupolomiduo jing 大乘理趣六波羅蜜多經(T 261: 898a), Dunwu rudao yaomen lun 頓悟入道要門論(X63, No.1223: 18ab), Luizu dashi fabao tanjing 六祖大師法寶壇經(T2008:350c), and Zhudasheng rulengqie jing 注大乘入楞伽經(T 1791: 453c). Also in Tang literati’s writings: Li Hua’s 李華(d. 766?) “Gu Zuoxi dashi bei” 故左溪大師碑(QuanTangwen 320), Bai Juyi’s 白居易(772 – 846) “Xijing Xingshansi chuan fatang beiming”西京興善寺傳法堂碑銘(QuanTangwen 678).
  29. T16, no. 670: p. 479a-c.
  30. Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山, Sodōshū Sakuin 祖堂集索引, Kyōto : Kyōto Daigaku Jinbun Kagaku Kenkyūjo, 1980-1984. fascicle 18, p. 1619.
  31. “緣經上有相似處,通說通誘童蒙,宗通修行者”. Yanagida, Sakuin, column 5.75, p. 1619.
  32. James Robson (2010), “Monastic Spaces and Sacred Traces: Facets of Chinese Buddhist Monastic Records”, in Buddhist Monasticism in East Asia: Places of Practice, ed. by J. A. Benn, L. Meeks and J. Robson, NY: Routledge, p. 44.
  33. Satō Tatsugen (1986), pp. 391-8.
  34. T 85, No. 2834.
  35. It might also worth noting that the sub-title of this scripture is written as: 六祖惠能大師於韶州大梵寺施法壇經一卷兼受無相戒,弘法弟子法海集記.
  36. Tsuchihashi Shuko 土橋秀高 (1960), “Tonkōhon jubosatsukaigi kō” 敦煌本受菩薩戒儀考,Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū 印度學佛教學研究15 (1960), 8-1, pp. 33-42.
  37. T 74, No. 2378: 633a.
  38. Antonello Pallumbo, “Sending the Alien Monks back to the Marchlands: a Forgotten Nationalisation of Buddhism in Tang China”, unpublished manuscript.
  39. Xuanzong ordered Amoghavajra 不空(705-774) to translate and lecture on this sutra, see Amoghavajra’s biography in Yuanzhao’s 圓照Zhenyuan xinding shijiao mulu 貞元新定釋教目錄, T55: 885b.
  40. T. Griffith Foulk (1987), The Ch’an School and Its Place in the Buddhist Monastic Tradition, PhD diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  41. Foulk (1987), pp. 117-8.
  42. Robert E. Buswell (1989), The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea: The Vajrasamādhi-sūtra: A Buddhist Apocryphon, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. P. 10
  43. Recorded in Gyōnen’s 凝然(1240-1321)“Sangoku buppō denzū engi” (A Record of the Transmission of the Buddha-dharma through Three Countries) 三國佛法傳通緣起, Dainihon bukkyō zensho 大日本佛教全書, No. 467, p. 20.
  44. Only one Chinese catalogue mentions that he was a Vinaya master based on the Great Fuxian monastery in Luoyang. (T 51, No. 2089: 988b).
  45. For Puji, see Li Yong’s 李邕(678-747)“Dazhou chanshi taming” 大照禪師塔銘, Quan Tang Wen 262; the “Lengqie shiziji” 楞伽師資記, T85, No. 2837.
  46. Ishida Mizumaro 石田瑞麿(1986), Nihon Bukkyō shisō no kenkyū 日本仏教思想の研究, Kyoto: Hozōkan,pp.232 – 245.
  47. His “Commentary to the Brahma's Net Sutra”, title mentioned in the “Catalogues of the Lamp Transmission in the Eastern Realm”, Dongyu chuandeng mulu 東域傳燈目錄, (T 55, No. 2183: 1155 a-b.) For the influence of this commentary on Saichō, see Paul Groner (1984).
  48. See his “Puti Damo nanzong ding shifelun” 菩提達摩南宗定是非論, in “Shenhui hoshang yiji” 神會和尚遺集, pp. 281-90, Taipei: Hu Shi jinianguan胡適紀念館,1970.
  49. Puji’s instruction may be summarized as (凝心入定, 住心看淨, 起心外照, 攝心內證).
  50. See the citations of Daoxuan’s teachings in Saichō’s Kechifumyaku.


Author: Pei-Ying Lin