Master Xu Yun: Chinese Schools of Buddhism


Transcriber’s Note: Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) interpreted all legitimate Buddhist schools as sharing a single (and unsullied) root in pure Dharma, and forbade discrimination between these effective paths by those who followed them.  This is because one pure path shines brightly (like a boundless mirror), and reflects the essence of all other legitimate paths.  However, Xu Yun clearly criticises those paths that are obviously ‘aDharmic’ in nature or intent, (because of the karmic damage these corrupt methods inflict upon the individual and society at large).  A recurring issue in this regard, is those ordained Buddhist monastics who do not follow the Vinaya Discipline. Also of note is Master Xu Yun’s obvious profound education regarding the history of early Pali Sutta Buddhist schools extant in ancient India.  As a representative of the traditional Mahayana School from an earlier era, we can conclude that Master Xu Yun’s attitude in 19th and 20th century China, is that of the early Mahayana movement thousands of years ago in ancient India (passed unsullied from one generation to the next), before it became obscured by certainties of modernity and the complexity of international relations, and that such an attitude fully accommodated (and did not reject) the pre-Mahayana Schools (some of which were eventually transmitted to China), even though many of these early Dharma Schools do not acknowledge the validity of the Mahayana path, or indeed the special position the Chinese Ch’an method ascribes to itself.  Master Xu Yun was a consummate diplomat in his Dharma teaching, perhaps demonstrating that real Buddhist practice always possesses an element of the ‘political’ about it, regardless of whatever age it manifests within.  ACW 8.9.2016

Shanghai Prayer Meeting for World Peace – 17th December, 1952

Ch’an Master Xu Yun Taught:

The most popular methods in use today are Chan and Pure Land. But it is regrettable that many members of the Sangha overlook the rules of discipline without knowing that the Buddhadharma is based on discipline (sila), meditation (dhyana) and wisdom (prajna); it is like a tripod which cannot stand if one of its legs is lacking. This is so important a thing that no students of the Buddhadharma should disregard it. The Chan transmission began when, in the assembly on Vulture Peak, the World-Honoured One held up a flower – a gesture which was acknowledged by Mahakasyapa with a smile. This is called ‘the sealing of mind by mind’ and is the ‘Transmission Outside the Teaching’. It is the foundation of the whole Buddhadharma. The repetition of Amitabha’s name, sutra-reading, and concentration upon mantras are also designed to help us escape from birth and death. Some say that Chan is a sudden method while the Pure Land and Mantrayana are gradual ones; it is so, but this is only a difference in names and terms because in reality all methods lead to the same result. Hence the Sixth Patriarch said, ‘The Dharma is neither instantaneous nor gradual, but man’s awakening may be slow or quick.’ If all methods are good for practice and if you find one which suits you, practice it; but you should never praise one method and vilify another, thereby giving rise to discrimination. The most important thing is sila (discipline) which should be strictly observed. Nowadays there are corrupt monks who not only disregard the rules of discipline, but who say that to observe them is also a form of clinging; such an irresponsible statement is harmful and dangerous to beginners. The Chan doctrine of the Mind was handed down through Mahakasyapa and his successors in India and reached China where it was eventually transmitted to Master Hui-neng, its Sixth (Chinese) Patriarch. This was the Transmission of the Right Dharma which then flourished (all over China).

The Vinaya-discipline School began with Upali, who received it from the Lord Buddha who declared that sila is the teacher of all living beings in the Dharma-ending-age. After Upagupta, it was divided into five schools (the Dharmagupta, Sarvastivada, Mahisasaka, Kasyapiya and Vatsuputriya). In China, Dao-xuan (a celebrated monk of the Tang Dynasty) of Mount Nan studied the Dharmagupta, wrote a commentary on it and founded the Vinaya School, becoming its Chinese Patriarch.

The Tian-tai School was founded in China by Hui-wen of the Bei-qi Dynasty (550-78) after he studied Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Shastra and realized the Mind-ground. Du-shun (d.640) studied the Avatamsaka Sutra and subsequently founded the Hua-yan School, which was later called the Xian-shou School after its Third Patriarch.

Hui-yuan (d. 416) founded the Pure Land School which was handed down through its Nine Patriarchs. Its Sixth Patriarch, Yanshou Yong-ming (d. 975) and three succeeding ones, were enlightened Chan Masters who spread the Pure Land doctrine, and the two schools (Chan and Pure Land) intermingled like milk and water. In spite of the division of the Buddhadharma into different schools, these do not stray from the underlying meaning revealed by the Buddha when he held a flower aloft. Thus we realize that Chan and Pure Land are closely related and that the ancients were painstaking when they taught the Buddhadharma.

The Yogacara (Mi-zong) School was introduced in China by Vajrabodhi (who arrived there in 619). It was spread by Amogha (d. 774) and then flourished thanks to the efforts of Chan Master Yi-xing (672-717). The above expedient methods of teaching the Buddhadharma are mutually complementary and should never be categorized as separate denominations, contrary and hostile to one another, for this would run counter to the intentions of the Buddhas and Patriarchs. An ancient said that they are but like yellow leaves given to children to prevent them from crying.

Empty Cloud: Translated by Charles Luk and Edited by Richard Hunn, Element, (1988), Pages 149-150

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