Repositioning Xinxing 信行 (540–594) in the Chinese Meditation Tradition

Xinxing’s Teaching on the Formless Samādhi

In: Journal of Chan Buddhism
Pei-ying Lin Assisant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Fu Jen Catholic University Taipei Taiwan

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This paper aims to bring out an alternative perspective on the life and work of the alleged founder of the Sanjiejiao 三階教 school, Xinxing. The current study discusses a different aspect of Xinxing’s influence, namely, his impact as a chan master. As the prominent Chan School went through different phases of development, the influence of Xinxing’s meditational teaching waxed and waned in the Chan cycle. Focusing on the texts titled Duigen qixingfa 對根起行法 and Zhizhongshi zhufa 制眾事諸法, I will explore the connotation of sanmei 三昧 (samādhi) in his teaching. In particular, I will explore the term “formless samādhi” (wuxiang sanmei 無相三昧) in Xinxing’s work and in other contemporary texts on meditation by meditation masters, such as Huisi 慧思 (515–577). In this way, this study situates Xinxing in the larger context of meditation teachings which emerged during the sixth century.

1 Introduction

This research begins from Xinxing’s teaching on meditation emerging in sixth century China, a period when meditational practices were not totally unified but intensely pursued by diverse communities. Against this background, this paper draws from primary sources, Dunhuang manuscripts attributed to Xinxing, concentrating on the parts relating to meditation. In the second part of this paper, I will introduce Huisi’s similar teaching on meditation for comparison. Having done so, Xinxing’s role in Chan Buddhism can then be evaluated more accurately.

Thanks to Yabuki and Nishimoto, the life of Xinxing has been well examined.1 Furthermore, it is clear that various meditation communities were active and competing with each other during his time.2 Most scholars, including Yabuki, Nishimoto, and Hubbard, however, have focused on Xinxing’s ideas of the three levels and his meditational practice has been understudied. That is to say, we know more about Xining’s doctrines of universal veneration (pujing 普敬) of all sentient beings as Buddhas, the sixteen practices of the Inexhaustible Storehouse, and the six-period pūjā, and less about his theory on meditation.

Xinxing’s time, the sixth century, is traditionally regarded as seeing the beginning of sectarian Buddhism in China. Facing crises arising from both lack of imperial patronage and persecution, it is not a coincidence that the prominent “schools” of Chinese Buddhism known as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan, burgeoned with tensions and competition. As Kawakatsu Yoshio noticed in his study on Huisi 慧思 (515–577), the Chinese began to develop their own collective identities within Buddhism during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties.3

Despite Buddhism flourishing in the Northern Wei and the Liang, what followed was the dramatic persecution of Buddhism during 574–578 CE by the Northern Zhou 北周 (557–581). The Buddhist persecution confirmed in the minds of Chinese Buddhists the idea that Buddhism was in decline around the sixth century. Despite the conflict between a fateful sense of demise and the universal character of Buddha-nature, the rhetoric of decline gained a dominant place in Buddhist discourse in China at this time. The idea of meditation which, when linked to the concept of “decline of Buddhism” (mofa 末法), possibly in the seventh century, had a profound influence on the Chan and Tiantai groups.4 The Teaching of the Three Levels reflects the same strand of thought. It is hence useful to compare Xinxing and Huisi for their similar ideas about formless practice and their concerns over the decline of Buddhism.

During this age of crisis, the writings on the transmission of Buddhism substantiated the process of identity construction during the invention of tradition.5 The most prominent feature of Chinese Buddhism during this time was the lineage building. Lineage construction matured in the seventh century when Tiantai and other groups developed their lines of transmission. Continuing into the eighth century, the formation of various lineages was largely shaped by contemporary politics among elite monks and their patrons.6 However not all individual teachers or groups were drawn into such a process, and not every Buddhist group possessed an equal sense of membership among themselves. Take the community of “Teaching of the Three Levels” (Sanjiejiao 三階教) for example, the followers of Xinxing did not reconstruct their history in the same manner as was done in Tiantai and Chan.7

As for the sources, in the present paper, I will adduce the texts as listed below to understand Xinxing’s idea of the formless samādhi. These texts were originally discovered in Dunhuang and have been edited and annotated by Nishimoto Teruma.

  1. Duigen qixing fa 對根起行法 [Practice that arises in accord with the capacity]. (S.5841 & S.2446)8

  2. Fa putixin fa 發菩提心法 [Method of Arising the Bodhicitta]. (P.2283)9

  3. Zhizhongshi zhufa 制眾事諸法 [Assorted Rules for Community Regulation], hereafter Zhi fa 制法. (P.2849) Also bound together are Qishifa 乞食法 [Manual of Begging for Food] and Shou bajie fa 受八戒法 [Procedure Manual of Receiving the Eight Precepts]. (P.2849R)10

  4. Foxingguan 佛性觀 [Contemplating Buddha-nature]. (S.1004)11

2 Xinxing, a Meditation Master

Xinxing is mentioned as a meditation master (Xinxing chanshi 信行禪師) in various sources that the current paper cannot venture to probe into detail.12 And yet, despite Xinxing’s emphasis on meditation practice, surprisingly, he claimed to have been unfit himself for meditation as noted in the Dasheng wujinzang fa 大乘無盡藏法 [Inexhaustible Storehouse of the Mahāyāna].13 Xinxing wrote to a governor the following report.

On the 10th day of the first month in the seventh year of the Kaihuang era (587), Monk Xinxing of Xiangzhou Guangyan Monastery reported the provincial administrative clerk: “When I was young, I suffered a troubled mind and was exhausted; therefore [I was] unfit for seated meditation or chanting the scriptures. Since the age of seventeen, [I have been] seeking for good teachers. Now I am forty-eight and a full thirty-two years have passed.”

開皇七年正月十日,相州光嚴寺沙門信行白州知事檀越: 信行少小患心勞損,由是不堪坐禪,亦不堪講誦。自從十七以來,求善知識。至今四十八歲,積滿三十二年。14

Despite this seemingly humble statement of his inferiority in meditational practice, Xinxing indeed highlighted the practice of meditation and contemplation. The Duigen qixingfa, an early and central Sanjie text, includes detailed instructions on the “mindfulness of the four evil places” (sinianchue 四念處惡); the “contemplation of equality” (pingdeng guan 平等觀); and “the five gates of contemplation” (wumen guan 五門觀).15 A remarkable portion of this text concerns meditation.

Xinxing’s teachings are oftentimes regarded as eccentric in the spectrum of Chinese Buddhist schools. His thought may seem radical to the mainstream schools of Buddhism, but at the core of his teaching, he incorporated cardinal doctrines of Buddhism. Moreover, meditation is the major activity according to his monastic rules. Hence, one should not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that he was a heretic. Jamie Hubbard, for instance, focused on how Xinxing took the opportunity to advocate new doctrinal and institutional configurations.16 The rhetoric of the decline of Buddhism, in the case of Xinxing, resulted in a particular way of conceptualising the division of the Sangha as stipulated in the monastic rules of the Zhi fa.17 In the following section, I will follow this lead to illustrate that Xinxing responded to the anxiety of the “final age” with an innovative method of systematisation of Buddhist teachings.

2.1 The Three Levels

The three levels, as defined by the Duigen qixing fa, refer to, from top to bottom, 1) bodhistattvas of the highest level, 2) of the middle level, and 3) of the third level, which include virtually all people of our time.

As for the place of practice for the ordinary people and bodhisattvas of the first level, who have the capacity for the One Vehicle, regardless of whether they dwell in communities or remote mountains, whether in quiet or chaotic places, they will attain the way … Sentient beings of the second level, who have the capacity for the Three Vehicles, may practise only in quiet places, and not in a community … As for the place of liberation of sentient beings of the third level, who have [wrong] views of emptiness and existence, they must reside in communities, and it is not suitable [for them] to stay at ease and quiet in remote mountains.

第二階三乘根機眾生入道處者,唯在靜處,不得在聚落 …

In the Duigen qixing fa it is firmly insisted that practitioners of the third level must reside in communities and not in isolation, whereas the second level practitioners must remain in quiet places and not in the communities. In contrast, the highest-level practitioners can sojourn at whichever sites they chose. Xinxing explains that the second level beings have meditated on the “formless samādhi” (wuxiang sanmei 無相三昧) during their countless previous lives, and hence quiet places are suitable for these advanced practitioners. The third level, on the contrary, need companions to strengthen their faith so as to practice harder.19

Finally, according to Xinxing, since we are born in this degenerate world, most of us are the third level people. Hence, in the Zhi fa, the sangha is divided into two groups, the Wise Monks (zhihui sengzhong 智慧僧眾) and the Mute Sheep Monks (yayang seng 瘂羊僧). The group of the Mute Sheep Monks is the majority and these two groups should not mingle together except on rare occasions such as the major universal gathering.20 The Mute Sheep Monks are also called the Practitioner Monks (xingxing seng 行行僧), or Meritorious Monks (fude seng 福德僧).21 They are the majority of the sangha and therefore the Zhi fa is written mostly for them.

2.2 Formless Samādhi

As explained in the second chapter of the Zhi fa, the “Method for selecting Mute Sheep Monks” 瘂羊僧揀擇人法, this type of monks should observe ascetic practice (toutuo 頭陀) and formless samādhi.22 Therefore, Xinxing not only singled out the method of formless samādhi for practice, he also proclaims that meditation is extremely important for all practitioners. The reason being we are already in the age of the decline of the Dharma. In the fourth chapter of the Zhi fa, the “Clarifying the method for transcending the mundane world for the degenerate world, time, and sentient beings” 明惡世界惡時惡眾生學出世行法, for the Mute Sheep Monks, the formless samādhi is emphasised as the only correct practice.23 The same concept is expounded in the sixth chapter of the Zhi fa, titled “Seated meditation” (zuochan 坐禪):

After the Buddha’s extinction, in this degenerate world, all evil monks must take seated meditation as the sole foundation [of practice].


This statement corresponds with the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation” 最妙勝定經 (Ch. Zuimiao shengding jing; Jap. Saimyō shōjōkyō),25 which gave meditation the highest priority among all Buddhist practices. As quoted by Huisi, anyone who ever tried to practice meditation, even those who achieved only a preliminary level, are superior to any treatise masters. The original passage reads:

Again, as the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation” describes, someone might read, with his discursive mind, all the Buddhist scriptures of twelve categories (dvādaśāvga-buddha-vacana)26 and his [hand-written] notes might fill up the margin of the scrolls … [Even so,] it is no better than delving into meditation in one thought of contemplation. Why is that? It is but that those who aspire to meditation practice, even if not attaining concentration yet, they are much more superior to any treatise masters from all the ten directions.

復次如勝定經中所說。若復有人。… 散心讀誦十二部經。卷卷側滿。… 不如一念思惟入定。何以故。但使發心欲坐禪者。雖未得禪定。已勝十方一切論師。27

In light of this citation, Xinxing added in his proclamation that “Seated meditation alone should be the foundation of practice for all the evil monks of the evil world.” As mentioned in the previous part of this paper, Xinxing emphasised the necessity of humbling oneself by admitting one’s wicked nature. Just like Xinxing’s division of the Sangha, the meditational practice also varies in accord with one’s capacity. In the Zhi fa, the rule is:

Those with higher capacity may sit in a quiet room with eyes closed, contemplating and meditating on the formless samādhi. Why is that? [It is] because of their higher capacity, and by definition, they must have contemplated on the formless samādhi in their past lives…. Those of second-tier capacity may also sit in a quiet room with eyes closed, contemplating and meditating on the present Buddha image, from a few to many. Why is that? [It is] due to their second-tier capacity, and by definition, they must have contemplated on a Buddha image in their past lives…. Those of the lowest capacity may walk around, but they must keep standing, heads up and eyes wide open, and they must have their eyes fixed on a Buddha image. They cannot drop the head nor close the eyes. Only when one gets extremely tired of walking and standing, one may temporarily sit down in a bright spot that other people can see. There, still, their heads up and eyes open, eyes fixed on a Buddha image. They are not allowed to drop the head nor close the eyes. Why is that? [It is] because of their being of lowest capacity. Because, by definition, they never contemplated wholeheartedly on a Buddha image in their past lives.

上根者,得在靜室端坐,閉目用心,作無相三昧觀。何以故?由上根故。義當過去已有用心觀無相三昧因故。… 次根者,亦得在靜室端坐,閉目用心,觀現在形像佛從少至多。何以故?由次根故。義當過去已有用心觀形像因故。… 最下下根者,得行,唯得立,唯得舉頭開目,用眼觀現在形像佛。不得低頭,不得閉目。唯除行立極疲懈者得暫在明處人眼見處坐,亦須舉頭開目,用眼觀現在形像佛,不得低頭,不得閉目。何以故?由最下下根故。義當過去未有用心觀形像佛因故。28

Practitioners of the highest capacity can sit in a quiet room with eyes closed and meditate on the formless samādhi. Those having the second capacity may also sit in a quiet room with eyes closed and meditate on a Buddhist image. In contrast, those of the lowest capacity must keep their eyes open and fixed on a Buddhist image.

The above has alluded to Xinxing’s emphasis on sole meditational practice. We have also seen that the formless samādhi (wuxiang sanmei 無相三昧) is weighted in assessing the three categories of practitioners. And yet, what is formless samādhi in Xinxing’s definition? The term wuxiang 無相 appears in many places in the text. In the Duigen qixing fa, he explains the concept:

All sentient beings are intrinsically the tathāgatagarbha, there are no real names of the buddhas, hence it is called “nameless” (wuming 無名); there is no real thirty-two features [of a buddha], hence it is called “formless” (wuxiang 無相).

一切眾生體是如來藏,未有真佛名,故名無名;未有真三十二相故,  故名無相。 29

This understanding of the wuxiang is in accordance with the Diamond Sūtra, especially with the example of the real thirty-two features of a buddha. An emphasis on the real (zhen 真) indicates that everything is not real because it is impermanent. This exposition is in accord with Madhyamika and Chan Buddhism.

Moreover, Xinxing quotes the Nirvana Sūtra throughout, and on this particular concept, he refers to the Nirvana Sūtra’s mention of the thirty-two features. Those who see the thirty-two features of a buddha must understand what they see is not ultimately true, and then they can see things through, until eventually recognising everything to be formless and nameless.30 Throughout his teaching, Xinxing relentlessly expounded that the practitioner must contemplate, on a daily basis, on the truth of formlessness (i.e. all dharmas are formless): “When the Sun sets and evening begins, one should contemplate the no-self of the formlessness.” (日没初夜作空無相觀).31

Xinxing’s reinforcement of meditation is also seen in his rules of punishment. In the Zhi fa, the monks are liable to the punishment of ‘one hundred prostrations’ for various transgressions. Interestingly, among the regulations, those concerning meditation are numerous, including how to wake up a sleepy meditator and other proper manner in the meditation hall. For example, the Zhi fa states,

Again, one should sit according to the stipulated hours. One must not lean on chairs with five pillars or curtains. If transgressions happen, the punishment is one hundred prostrations. [The meditation hall] must be lit at all times. [One may] emerge from or retire into meditation when the time keeper rings the bell, so as to observe the timed periods. One should sit according to the stipulated hours, relying on the time keeper’s inspection. If anyone is asleep, the meditation-whisk may be used [to wake him up].


Nishimoto has pointed out that Xinxing must have consulted Zhiyi’s regulations, the Li zhifa 立制法.33 Comparing these two set of regulations, one can see that Xinxing set up more rules than Zhiyi did. Furthermore, there are more rules concerning meditation in Xinxing’s Zhi fa than in Zhiyi’s. It is therefore an indication that Xinxing’s instruction is largely centred on meditation.

2.3 The tathāgatagarbha Thought

Xinxing advocates the tathāgatagarbha thought, i.e. the Tathāgata-womb, the matrix of latent Buddhahood, throughout all of the texts. He has relied heavily on the tathāgatagarbha doctrine together with the six forms of consciousness. He refers to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra several times while explaining the tathāgatagarbha doctrine.34

In expounding on Buddhist consciousness, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra draws upon the concepts and doctrines of Yogācāra and the tathāgatagarbha tradition, and the most important doctrine issuing from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra is that of the primacy of consciousness (Skt. vijñāna).35 The sūtra asserts that all the objects of the world, and the names and forms of experience, are merely manifestations of the mind. This emphasis on mind activities corresponds naturally to the yogi-praxis of which meditation is one of the major forms.

First, let us see the following citation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra in the Foxing guan,

Hence the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra states: The seven vijñānas and the citta-dharma-jñāna cannot resent suffering; it is not conductive to Nirvana. Only the tathāgatagarbha may resent suffering. Also, it is known that Buddha-nature may resent suffering. [Therefore,] aspiring to Nirvana is the so-called Buddha-nature.

故《楞伽經》云: 七智及心法智不能厭苦,非涅槃因。唯有如來藏能厭眾生苦。又知佛性能厭苦,樂求涅槃,即謂佛性。36

It should be noted, however, that this is not a direct quotation from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra since the Sūtra actually has a slightly different rendering. In Guṇabhadra’s (Qiunabatuoluo 求那跋陀羅, 394–468) translation, it writes,

Mahāmati, the seven vijñānā do not transmigrate, nor are they affected by pleasure and pain, nor are they conductive to Nirvana. Mahāmati, the tathāgatagarbha is affected by pleasure and pain, together with the cause; it may arise and extinguish at times.

大慧!七識不流轉,不受苦樂,非涅槃因。大慧!如來藏者,受苦樂與因俱,若生若滅。(T no. 670, 16: 4, 512b15–17.)

And yet, in Śiksānanda’s (Shicha’nantuo 實叉難陀, 652–710) translation, it says,

“Mahāmati, [the system] itself of the five vijñānā is not subject to transmigration, nor is it affected by pleasure and pain, nor is it conductive to Nirvana. The tathāgatagarbha is affected by pleasure and pain, together with the cause; it may arise and extinguish at times”37

大慧!五識身非流轉,不受苦樂非涅槃因,如來藏受苦樂與因俱有生滅。(T no. 672, 16: 5, 621c12–13.)

From the above passages, one can see that Xinxing’s indirect, and fairly loose, quotation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra is closer to Guṇabhadra’s translation. Xinxing’s approach is nevertheless quite clear that, by contrasting the tathāgatagarbha and the vijñāna, the former has the superiority.

Regarding the nature of the tathāgatagarbha, Xinxing further explains in the Duigen qixingfa the argument in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra that saying the tathāgatagarbha may arise and extinguish is simply expedient means (fangbian 方便), and one should not insist on the inherent existence of the tathāgatagarbha.

The assertion that the tathāgatagarbha is subject to emergence and extinction is, by its very nature, an expedient means of preaching the worldly truth, hence the mention of ‘emergence and extinction’ [of the tathāgatagarbha]. It is not to be insisted that the substance of the tathāgatagarbha is in reality liable to emergence and extinction. Taking the analogy of waves of water: When the water becomes waves, the water moves back and forth; it is due to the wind, hence the wave, not because the water possesses an inherent wave.

如來藏作生死,是名善說世間說,故有生死,非如來藏體有生有 死。喩如波依水,水即作波,風因縁故波,非水體有波。38

Following the above explanation of tathāgatagarbha vis-à-vis the Buddha-nature, Xinxing then combined the tathāgatagarbha doctrine with his teaching of the Three Levels in a later section of the Duigen qixingfa:

The principle of tathāgatagarbha, or the Buddha-nature, and so on, is the Universal Teaching. Whether one is ordinary or a sage, evil or upright, all are one subject matter, and nothing else at all; it has to be the tathāgatagarbha.


Here the tathāgatagarbha is addressed and highlighted to support the teaching of the two divided doctrines according to the capacities of the practitioners. These two divided doctrines are named the Universal Doctrine (pufa 普法) and the Separate Doctrine (biefa 別法). The Universal Doctrine is the fundamental tenet of the Three Levels School and is given primacy above all. Without the tathāgatagarbha doctrine, it would otherwise be difficult to substantiate the theoretical underpinnings of the universality of the Universal Doctrine.

2.4 Cessation of Thought

Built on all above discussions, the meditation practice taught by Xinxing is called “formless samādhi contemplation” (wuxiang sanmei guan 無相三昧觀). The formless samādhi corresponds to the idea of “no thinking”, and its importance increased later in the Chan tradition.40 These terms can be found in in eighth-century documents from Dunhuang such as the “Treatise on No Mind” (Wuxin lun 無心論) and the “Treatise on Cessation of Thought” (Jueguan lun 絕觀論).41 As these Dunhuang documents are regarded as part of the Chan repertoire, it is clear that Xinxing’s teaching on meditation did not emerge from thin air, rather, it was a specific response to a general concern of his time. It hence supports James Benn’s suggestion that Xinxing’s vision of the Mute Sheep Monks be regarded as a trend that ran in parallel with Chan’s exhortations to “no thought,” “cessation of thought” and “mindlessness”.

These ideas, namely “no thought” and “cessation of thought”, integrated conceptualisation from early Mahayana scriptures, such as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Nirvana Sūtra. On the other hand, it is also possible that the ideas of “no thought” and “cessation of thought” in the Chan tradition came into existence in order to bypass the corrupted clergy. As Benn indicates, Xinxing highlighted the foolish “mute sheep monks, like the lineages of Chan, look like a particularly Chinese solution to the problem of being located far from the Buddha in space and time.”42 Since these ideas formulated during the similar period of time, and they are solving similar problems, it is likely that Xinxing’s thought and the later formed Chan tradition were different pieces cut from the same cloth, even if there was no direct mutual influence. The mute sheep monks naturally lead to the conclusion that the one should not trust one’s own reasoning ability; it hence accords with the advocation of “cessation of thought.”

3 Contemporaneous Meditation Masters

If we situate Xinxing in the sixth century, we may actually see parallels between him and other meditation masters of his time. First, let’s look at a brief overview of Xinxing’s doctrinal tendency. As Hubbard writes,

What, then, do we make of Xinxing’s teachings? Are they as unique and different as usually thought? How well do they fit the general tenor of the times: the belief in the lowered capacity of sentient beings, the need for new doctrines and practices appropriate to those sentient beings, the doctrine of universal Buddha-nature, and the holistic vision of the Huayan Sūtra all were widely shared with his contemporaries. So, too, the scriptures on which Xinxing relied: the Lotus Sūtra, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, the Huayan Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, the Śrīmālādevīsiṃhanāda Sūtra, and the Xiangfa jueyi jing; these were among the most widely quoted scriptures of the day. Likewise, Xinxing’s emphasis on the precepts, dhūta practice, cultivation of dhyāna through seated meditation, repentance rites, and buddhanāma liturgies are all representative of, not exceptions to, the monastic regimen of Chinese Buddhism from the sixth century onwards. The same can be said of what little we know of their institutional organization; from the apparent involvement of lay precept groups to the social welfare activity of the Inexhaustible Storehouse, all fits with the trends of the times.43

Up to this point, it is clear that Xinxing drew on multiple sources in formulating his doctrinal system. As in the Zhi fa, Xinxing incorporated meditation and repentance for the physical purification of mind, body and speech.

3.1 Meditation Master Huisi

An interestingly comparable figure is Huisi: their doctrines bear similar traits. Both Xinxing and Huisi followed the fangdeng 方等 (penitentiary rite and retreat) rituals from the “Great Expanded Dharani Sūtra” (Da fangdeng tuoluoni jing 大方等陀羅尼經) which became significant particularly in Tiantai Buddhism.44 Huisi and Xinxing both relied on meditation, repentance, and precepts to provide solutions for practitioners during the final stage of Dharma. In this regard, Xinxing’s teaching is consistent with Huisi’s, particularly, the idea that the perfection of wisdom comes from meditation, not from studying Buddhist scriptures.45 It is an intellectual response to the worries over the end of Dharma within Chinese Buddhism.

As an influential master, Huisi’s teaching on meditation must have been controversial enough to arouse a fierce competition between Huisi and those who primarily mastered in Buddhist scriptures.46 It is curious to see just how and why Huisi became so immensely interested in meditation. According to his biography, he was born in Henan Province in the Northern Wei 北魏 and received ordination in his dreams. As for his initial interest in meditation, he was at first inspired by the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation.” Then he joined the group led by Huiwen 慧文 in Northern Qi 北齊, who had attracted several hundreds of followers during that time. While famous for setting up a large group of meditation practitioners, Huiwen was also known as a treatise master (lunshi 論師) of the “Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom” (Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā Śastra, Ch. Dazhidu lun 大智度論), hence traces of Mādhyamika Buddhism are to be found in Huisi’s works. The “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation” is cited both in Huisi’s and in Zhiyi’s works.47 Huisi, in his “Dharma-gate of the Samādhi Without Dispute” (Zhufa wuzheng sanmei famen 諸法無諍三昧法門), following a quotation of the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation”, commented that anyone who ever tried to practice meditation, even those who only practised at a preliminary level, was superior to all treatise masters.48 From the extant citations, it seems that the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation” also argues for an adjusted correlation of the practices of meditation and wisdom.

Huisi’s teaching of meditation can be found in the “Samādhi of Freely Following One’s Thought” (Suiziyi sanmei 隨自意三昧) and the “Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra’s Course of Ease and Bliss” (Fahua jing anlexing yi 法華經安樂行義) and the “Dharma-gate of the Mahāyāna Contemplation” (Dasheng zhiguan famen 大乘止觀法門).49 In these texts, Huisi taught about two major types of meditation: the Lotus samādhi (法華三昧) and the samādhi of freely following one’s thought.50 The Lotus samādhi, one of the half-sitting-half-walking samādhi (banxing banzuo sanmei 半行半坐三昧) and also known as the twenty-one-day practice (sanqiri 三七日), is explained in the “Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra’s Course of Ease and Bliss.”51 The Lotus samādhi is designed for Mahāyāna bodhisattvas in accordance with the Lotus Sūtra. The “Lotus Sūtra’s Course of Ease and Bliss” include activities with attributes (youxiang xing 有相行) and activities without attributes (or formless activities, wuxiang xing 無相行) as this text explains there are bodhisattvas of lower capacity (dungen pusa 鈍根菩薩). Even though in his treatise, the “Lotus Sūtra’s Course of Ease and Bliss”, Huisi claimed that he believes the Lotus Sūtra teaches ‘sudden and perfect teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism’ (dasheng yuandun 大乘圓頓),52 he maintained that gradual practices are good for some practitioners. The second type of meditation, the ‘samādhi of freely following one’s thought,’ allied to the ‘neither-walking-nor-sitting samādhi’ (feixing feizuo sanmei 非行非坐三昧), is about the attainment of sudden enlightenment through gradual practices, including techniques of controlling the body, mind and breath.53 A similar idea appears in his “Dharma-gate of the Samādhi Without Dispute”.54 Both of these works recognise the value of the gradual approach, which will eventually lead to the realisation that the body has no inherent existence.55

3.2 Sengchou and Bodhidharma, the Meditation Masters

Huisi and Xingxing were not the only meditation masters, or the most influential two. Meditation master Sengchou 僧稠 (480–560), for instance, was an important figure before Xingxing’s time.56

Likewise, Bodhidharma is another key figure in the Chan repertoire.57 In all the biographies the provenance and destiny of this hundred-and-fifty-year-old monk remains mysterious. The method he practised is called the “facing-the-wall contemplation” (biguan 壁觀) which consisted of realising “two entries” and “four practices.” A number of writings attributed to him are said to have been collected and compiled as the “Bodhidharma’s Treatise” (Damo lun 達摩論)58 His approach to meditation, or even to a wider concept of practice, is called the “One-practice samādhi” (yixing sanmei 一行三昧), which formed the core of the Chan teachings passing to Japan.59

3.3 Huisi and Xinxing’s Influence on Chan Buddhism

Echoing Xinxing’s division of the Three Levels, Huisi argues that gradual enlightenment was suitable for bodhisattvas of lower capacity, while for those of a higher capacity (ligen pusa 利根菩薩), sudden enlightenment is the path. Since every sentient being has the tathāgatagarbha, sudden enlightenment is both possible and most appropriate.60 Huisi then brings together ideas about the tathāgatagarbha, using as his sources the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and the Prajñā collections. In so doing he claimed that only meditational practices can result in the perfection of wisdom, the supreme practice of meditation is formless, thus producing a synthesis which had a profound influence on the development of Chan Buddhism.61 Since this form of meditation incorporating prajñā was so deftly taught by Huisi, and likewise in Xinxing’s case, the formless practice was well accepted by Chinese Chan Buddhists such as presented in the Dasheng wusheng fangbian men 大乘無生方便門 attributed to Shenhui.62 Among Huisi’s four kinds of samādhi, which were further expounded by Zhiyi in the “Great Calming and Contemplation” (Mohe zhiguan 摩訶止觀, T no. 1911), the ‘Lotus samādhi’ and ‘Samādhi of freely following one’s thought’ had a direct influence on Chan Buddhism.63 His insistence on a balance between meditation and wisdom found audience among the early Chan Buddhists.

Taken together, Huisi and Xinxing both advocated formless samādhi, and they were inspired to master meditation because of the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation.” Furthermore, they both distinguish the difference of practitioners according to their varying capacities. As their cases demonstrate, the intellectual reworking of the relationship between the perfections of meditation and wisdom paved the way for the intricate theory of formless practice. From then on, during the sixth to ninth centuries, Chan masters from various communities were primarily aiming at refining theories for practice.64

It is likely that Daoxuan’s 道宣 (596–667) Xu Gaoseng zhuan 續高僧傳 [Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks], first composed in 645 and revised in ca. 665 and was edited by later authors, attributed the transmission of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra to Bodhidharma.65 Adapting from the Xu Gaosengzhuan, Jingjue 淨覺 (683–c. 750) added to the authority of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, displaying his devotion to it but at the same time articulating an inconsistent attitude towards texts and language for the purpose of transmission.66 In this regard, the Sanjie texts functioned like Chan lineage accounts to justify the legitimacy of their Buddhist transmission.

Daoxuan’s interest in the relation between supernatural powers and meditation is clear and consistent in his life and his works.67 Reading through Daoxuan’s biographies of eminent monks, those who are called Chan masters typically had the characteristics of practising meditation, performing ordination ceremonies, and possessing supernatural power. This idea of an ideal Chan master has remained dominant in Chan circles.

4 Concluding Remarks

As the monks’ biographies in the Xu Gaosengzhuan illustrate, the Northern and Southern Dynasties saw tensions between corruption in the temples and petitions for reformation, which exacerbated the long-lasting debate between scholastic monks in the capital and mendicant monks in the mountains. In such a social environment, the competition between different strands of Buddhist thought was fierce. Influenced by the foreign monks from India and central Asia, some of the northern Chinese of the sixth century adopted the idea of asceticism and assiduous meditation practices. Meditation practice was advocated through the idealised image of Chan masters in the biographies of eminent monks such as the representative figures mentioned. This religious background is the provenance of what may be called the Chan ideal. By placing Xinxing in a wider context, this paper provides a reassessment of the formless samādhi and its influence on early Chan Buddhism.

Interestingly enough, the images of Xinxing, Huisi, and their contemporaries conveyed in their biographies have some similarities: all of them emphasised meditation, encountering heavy criticism, which involved fierce suppression. Their experiences of suppression then led to the reinterpretation of meditation against treatise learning. A comparison of their writings shows that these figures advocated the importance of practice. Meditation is emphasised along with prajñā (wisdom), the consensus regarding the formless samādhi lies in their views of the bodhisattva path, sudden enlightenment, tathāgathagarbha, meditation incorporated with prajñā.

Taken these together, As the cases of Huisi and Xinxing demonstrate, the intellectual reworking of the relationship between the perfections of meditation and wisdom paved the way for the intricate theory of formless practice. From then on, during the sixth to ninth centuries, Chan masters from various communities were primarily aiming at refining theories for practice.

This paper discusses several aspects of Xinxing’s teaching in comparison with other meditation masters. First, one can easily illustrate that Huisi and Xinxing both advocated formless samādhi, and they were inspired to master meditation because of the “Sūtra of the Most Marvelously Victorious Meditation.” Furthermore, they both distinguish the difference between practitioners of varying capacity. Huisi’s advocacy of mofa belief, in his Vows, is the foundation of the new approach to practice proposed by him, that of formless meditation. This strand of thought corresponded with the underlying logic of Xinxing’s teaching on meditation.


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See Yabuki Keiki 矢吹慶輝, Sangaikyō; Nishimoto Teruma 西本照真, Sankaikyō. Also see Hubbard, Absolute Delusion; Zhang Zong 張總, Zhongguo Sanjiejao.


See the more recent study of Xinxing’s view of meditation is found in Greene, ‘Another Look’, 49–114.


Kawakatsu Yoshio 川勝義雄 indicates for Huisi’s time a shift from the sense of “myself at the present time and location” 今ここの私 towards that of “our” 私どもの present; see his ‘Chūgoku teki shinbukkyō’, 501–538, especially 502.


The concept of mofa was first introduced to China through Dharmakṣema’s (曇無懺, 385–433) translations of the Dabo niepan jing 大般涅槃經 (Skt. Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, T no. 374, vol. 12, completed in 421 AD) and the Beihua jing 悲華經 (T no. 157, vol. 3, completed in 419 AD). The most comprehensive survey of the Buddhist concept of decline remains Jan Nattier’s work. Nattier argues convincingly for an East Asian origin of the three-period system, the “true dharma,” “resemblance dharma” and “final dharma.” (Nattier, Once Upon, 86–90) She demonstrates that the Buddhist legends of decline are akin to the prophetic literature in Hebrew texts, but the particular “final dharma” (mofa 末法) is a unique East Asian variant of “final age” (moshi 末世), which corresponds to the Sanskrit term paścimakāla. (pp. 94, 284) Hubert Durt, however, regards “eschatology” as somewhat artificial, considering examples of the relativization of the three stages of the Dharma according to the region and the chronology. Durt, Problems of Chronology, 44.


Robert Campany drew on Benedict Anderson for the collective imagination of lineages in the Chan tradition. Campany, ‘On the Very Idea’, 287–319. He follows the earlier theoretical formulation in Hobsbawn and Ranger, Invention of Tradition.


For instance, a monolithic transmission was proposed by Shenhui in order to exclude other masters. See Morrison’s analysis on Kuiji 窺基 (632–82) and Shenhui for the mechanisms of the construction of lineage. Morrison, Power of Patriarchs, 47–50, 54.


For instance, as Hubbard argues, Xinxing’s teachings did not even become a distinctive category within the Three Level Teaching itself, but remained miscellaneous. See Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 106.


Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 480–507.


Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 602–08.


Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 578–601.


Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 650–59.


Xinxing’s biographical information can be found in Xu Gaoseng zhuan, (T no. 2060, 50: 16.559c18–560b10); Lidai sanbaoji 歷代三寶記 (T no. 2034, 49:105b16–c3); Mingbaoji 冥報記 (T no. 2082, 51:788a29–c5); Sui da shanzhishi Xinxing chanshi xingjiao zhibei 隋大善知識信行禪師興教之碑 (Otani University Collection); Gu da Xinxing chanshi mingta bei 故大信行禪師銘塔碑 (Kyoto University Collection).


Part of the Dasheng wujinzang fa 大乘無盡藏法 (“Mahayana Inexhaustible Storehouse”) was first identified by Yabuki at the British Museum. Yabuke named it Xinxing yiwen 信行遺文 (S.2137). It was until later when Fang Guangchang 方廣錩 identified another manuscript (S.9139) to be the latter scroll of the same text, and according to the last lines, the title of the whole text is Dasheng wujinzang fa 大乘無盡藏法. The combined text can be found in Zangwai wenxian 藏外文獻, vol. 4. (ZW, no. 42, 4: 366a3–372a8) Cf. Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 19.


ZW no. 42, 4: 372a1–5.


The five gates of contemplation include the contemplation of the four Buddhas 四佛觀, the contemplation of all relatives 普親觀, the contemplation of the impurity of food 食不淨觀, the contemplation of no-self and formlessness 空無相觀, and the contemplation of impermanence 無常觀.


Xinxing did so under the banner of his teaching called “Practice that Arises in Accord with Capacity” (Duigen qixing fa 對根起行法). Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 17–19.


Benn, ‘The Silent Saṃgha’, 11–38.


This text is that of Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 490, and the English translation is from Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 80–89, with modifications; cf. Greene, ‘Another Look’, 90.


第二階 … 何以故?由從入佛法以來唯學無相三昧坐禪故。第三階 … 唯有藉著多伴,喻如破車藉多繩木,須牢繫縛、始可載物。 For the original text, see Duigen qixing fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 490.


Zhi fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 578.


Ibid., 579.


Ibid., 579.


唯得學一切無相三昧坐禪。(Zhi fa, Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 580.)


Ibid. 581. Cf. Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 20.


This scripture was lost, but rediscovered at the Dunhuang Cave. It proved to be an apocryphal (non-Indian) text composed during the Six Dynasties and it was popular during 535–545. Komazawa daigaku Zengaku daijiden 駒沢大学禅学大辞典 1, p. 399. For its influence on Huisi, see Magnin, La vie, 31; Sekiguchi, Tendai shikan, 379–402. The content is quoted by Huisi, see below.


The twelve kinds all together literally means all Buddhist scriptures. Nevertheless, these twelve categories include: sūtra, geya, vyākarana, gāthā, udāna, nidāna, itivrtaka, jātaka, vaipulya, adbhuta-dharma, and upadeśa.


T no. 1923, 46: 629b. Huisi’s Zhufa wuzheng danmei famen 諸法無諍三昧法門.


Zhi fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 582–83.


Duigen qixing fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 494.


即須見相無名無相無相之相. Foxing guan, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 654.


Duigen qixing fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 506.


Zhi fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 581–82.


See a list of punishments in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 452–53.


Cf. Hubbard’s analysis on the connotation of the Tathāgatagarbha Buddha (Rulaizang fo 如來藏佛) in Xinxing’s teaching and the use of several Mahayana scriptures including the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The present paper focuses on the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha as drawn from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. See Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 106–111.


For its philosophy, see the introduction in D. T. Suzuki’s English translation of the full text. (Suzuki, The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.)


See Foxing guan, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 654.


Adapted from D. T. Suzuki’s translation, Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, 204: ‘Momentariness’.


Duigen qixing fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 493. It is interesting to note that the Huayan wushi yao wenda 華嚴五十要問答 complied by Zhiyan 智儼 includes an almost entirely identical passage: “如來藏作生死,是名善説世間言説。故有生死。非如來藏體有生有死。喩如波依水,水即作波。風因縁故有波,非水體有波。” (T no. 1869, 45: 2, 532b20–22.)


Duigen qixing fa, in Nishimoto, Sankaikyō, 504.


Benn, ‘The Silent Saṃgha’, 28. Cf. Jan, “A Comparative Study.”


These texts are introduced in Sharf, Coming to terms, 47–51.


Benn, ‘The Silent Saṃgha’, 37.


Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, 223.


See Zhiyi’s Fandeng sanmei xingfa 方等三昧行法 (T no. 1940, vol. 46). Stevenson, ‘T’ien-t’ai Four Forms’.


For an overview of Huisi’s works and thought, see Stevenson and Kanno, The Meaning of the Lotus, 3–182.


Huisi described his life and the oppression he suffered from other hostile monks, whom he called “evil treatise masters” (e lunshi 惡論師), in his “Tract on Establishing the Vows” (Lishi yuanwen 立誓願文, T no. 1933, 46: 1.787b9). The full title is: Nanyue si da chanshi li shiyuan wen 南嶽思大禪師立誓願文 [Tract on the vow established by the great dhyāna master Huisi of Nanyue], (T no. 1933) The authenticity of this text is doubted by Etani Ryūkai 恵谷隆戒, ‘Nangaku Eshi’, 524–27. Magnin has followed Etani’s suspicion and argued that the concept of mofa was not very widespread in Huisi’s time. As the earliest mention of the Vows is in Daoxuan’s Xu Gaosengzhuan, it is possible that the concept of mofa was matured in the seventh century. However, the representation in the Vows is significant, so Magnin analysed its thought and translated it as the final paper of the same book. (Magnin, La vie, 104–16, 192–238.) On the other hand, Nattier attributes the first fixation of the three-period system to Huisi in 558. (Nattier, Once Upon, 100, note 114.)


Citations appear in Huisi’s ‘Dharma-gate of the Samādhi Without Dispute’ (Zhufa wuzheng sanmei famen 諸法無諍三昧法門) (T no. 1923, 46: 629b), Zhiyi’s Smaller Concentration and Contemplation (Tientai xiaozhiguan 天台小止觀; Jap. Tendai shōshikan) (T no. 1915, 46: 463a) and the Sophisticated Meanings of the Lotus Sūtra 法華玄義 (Fahua xuanyi) (T no. 1716, 33: 702a).


The original passage in note xxv. (T no. 1923, 46: 629b.)


For a detailed study on the Fahua jing anlexing yi, see Stevenson and Kanno, The Meaning of the Lotus, 185–304. As for the Dasheng zhiguan famen, the authenticity has been doubted. It is included here simply because it is consistent with the other two following texts with regard to meditational teachings. For studies on its contents, see Sheng Yen, Dasheng zhiguan; Matsuda Miryō 松田未亮, Daijō shikan hōmon. This scripture was possibly written in China some time during the late seventh to early eighth century. Even Saichō’s and Ennin’s bibliographies do not include it them. See Stevenson and Kanno, The Meaning of the Lotus, 48, 52.


For Huisi’s thought of the Lotus samādhi, see the excellent survey by Wang Qingwei 王晴薇, Huisi fahua changuan.


Huisi’s mention of Fahua sanmei in T no. 1926, 46: 697c22.


T no. 1926, 46: 697c.


Dainihon zokuzōkyō 大日本續蔵經 X 2. 3. 4: 346 c12–17.


T no. 1923, 46: 633a9–b11.


Magnin, La vie, 166–78.


Jan Yun-hua has a series of articles on Sengchou. See Jan, ‘Seng-chou’s’; ‘Chou chanshi yi’; ‘Dunhuang wenxian’. Chen Jinhua and Eric Greene have both elucidated the central role of Sengchou in relation to other contemporaneous meditation groups. (Chen, ‘An Alternative View’; Greene, ‘Another Look at Early’). For historical analysis and the evidence for this figure, see Yanagida, ‘Goroku no rekishi’, 96. See also p. 112 for the contrast between Bodhidharma and Sengchou in Daoxan’s biography.


See Faure’s suggestion that we treat Bodhidharma not as an individual but as a kind of textual paradigm. Faure, ‘Bodhidharma as Textual’, 187–198. Also see McRae’s critical review of Faure’s “theoretical” approach. McRae has called upon a reappraisal of historiographic method in the analysis of hagiography and to avoid the disadvantage of overarching twentieth-century modernist theories. See McRae, ‘The Hagiography of Bodhidharma’, 125–140.


See Du Fei’s 杜朏 remarks in the Chuan fabao ji 傳法寶紀 (T no. 2838, 85.1291b7–9). Cf. Bodhidharma’s biography in T no. 2060, 50: 551c6–12.


For a study of this doctrine as it occurred in the biography of Daoxin, see Sekiguchi Shindai 関口真大, Daruma Daishi, 279–292.


T no. 1926, 46: 698b.


On the extensive absorption of the perfection of wisdom in both Chan and the precepts tradition see Kawakatsu, ‘Chūgoku teki shinbukkyō’, 520.


His influence on the Chan tradition is far-reaching. According to Daoxuan, there are hardly any meditation masters who did not follow Huisi’s teaching on meditation, whether one was from the northern or southern traditions. See T no. 2060, 50: 564a.


For an analysis about its influence on Chan, see Stevenson, ‘The Four Kinds of Samādhi’, 45–98, especially 53. Cf. Yanagida, Shoki zenshū, 448. Huisi’s “Dharma-gate of the Samādhi Without Dispute” is quoted in Jingjue’s 淨覺 (683–c. 750) “Chronicle of Materials of the Laṅkā Masters” (Lengqie shizi ji 楞伽師資記). See T no. 2837, 85: 1284a. Note that Jingjue does not directly mention the name of Huisi. Here Huisi’s thought is identical with Buddhabhadra’s theory of the four peaceful minds (sizhong anxin 四種安心) quoted in Yongming Yanshou’s 永明延壽 (704–775) Zongjing lu 宗鏡錄, which is strongly influenced by the Lengqie shizi ji. See Yanagida, Shoki zenshū, 68.


The debates continued for centuries in Chinese Buddhism, and the most notable example, Mazu (709–788), was criticised for his antinomianism.


For Daoxuan’s perceptions of chan as a practice and chanshi as practitioners, see Jinhua Chen, ‘An Alternative View’, 332–395. It is instructive to read this in comparison with Greene, ‘Another Look at Early’, 49–114, especially 77. Greene argues against Chen that Daoxuan’s Xichan lun 習禪論 seeks to debunk Xinxing’s teachings on meditation rather than to refute Bodhidharma, since the latter’s followers did not form a coherent group until Daoxin’s time. Greene further suggests that, given the significant influence of Xinxing in his time, Xinxing’s ideas of “chan” should be taken into account for understanding the formation of Chan School’s ideology. Both studies in combination provide important information about the intellectual background for the early stages of Chan Buddhism.


Morrison, The Power of Patriarchs, 57.


See Wagner, ‘Buddhism, Biography and Power’.

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