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Yuquan Shenxiu

Yuquan Shenxiu – The "First" Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an

Yuquan Shenxiu (Traditional Chinese: 玉泉神秀; pinyin: Yùquán Shénxiù; Wade–Giles: Yü-ch'üan Shen-hsiu) was one of the most prominent Ch'an masters of his time. Shenxiu (606?–706) was a Patriarch of the East Mountain Teaching at Huangmei Mountain and the publicly recognized Sixth Patriarch and Dharma successor of Daman Hongren (601–674), the Fifth Patriarch of Ch'an. He was honored by Empress Wu Zetian (reign 690–705) and was the reputed writer of the Guan Xin Lun (Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind, composed circa 675–700), a piece of writing once credited to Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Ch'an. He is also incorrectly termed the founder and first patriarch of the discredited Northern School of Ch'an.

Shenxiu was born in Weishi County, a suburb of Luoyang in Henan province, i.e., Dongdu (东都), the "Eastern Capital" of the T'ang dynasty and one of China's four great ancient capitals. His family surname was Li. His family was aristocratic and wealthy. It may have also been related to the T'ang dynasty imperial family. During his boyhood, he was schooled in the Chinese classics of all Three Teachings: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

At the age of 13, he traveled to the government granaries at Kaifeng in Henan province, one of China's eight ancient capitals, during a time of famine. There he pleaded for the distribution of grain to the suffering population. During that period, he met an unknown Buddhist, who inspired him to embrace Buddhism. After spending the next seven years wandering homeless and visiting the famous Buddhist mountain retreats of China, Shenxiu was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 625 at Tankong monastery in Luoyang, which was also the Buddhist center of activity at the end of the Silk Road since the second century Western AD. Other sources hold that he became a monk in 618 during the year of Gaozu's (the first T'ang emperor) accession to the throne.

Shenxiu's activities were largely unknown for the next twenty-five years, but the Chuan Fabao Ji (Tradtional Chinese: 傳法寶紀; Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure) chronicles that Shenxiu studied the regulations and ceremonies of Buddhism (vinaya), practiced meditation (dhyāna), and the cultivation of wisdom (prajñā). In 651, Shenxiu began his studies under Hongren, who was just a few years his senior. The Chuan Fabao Ji records that he studied under Hongren at Huangmei Mountain (Huángméi shān 黃梅山) and read the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, Hongren's favored scripture, for six years before receiving Hongren's inka (yīng kǎ 英卡), his seal of authentic enlightenment. Depending on the source, Shenxiu's departure is dated at either 657 or 661. Regardless, Shenxiu left Hongren's monastery some ten years before the arrival of Dajian Huineng (638–713), the official Sixth Patriarch, with whom Shenxiu supposedly vied against in the famous verse-writing contest sponsored by Hongren.

It is unclear why, but sometime during the years 665–668 Shenxiu was banished by Emperor Gaozong of the T'ang dynasty. He hid for ten years before returning to public life between 676–679. He first resided at the Jade Spring Monastery (Yuquan Si; 玉泉寺), but a new temple was soon erected for him about 1½ miles away, the Monastery of the Six Perfections (Dumen Si; 度門寺廟) where he lived and taught for the next twenty-five years.

Heze Shenhui (684-758), the man who eventually denounced Shenxiu's teachings as "gradualist" and supported their abandonment in favor of the "sudden enlightenment" teachings of Huineng, was among those who studied with Shenxiu. Shenhui later left Shenxiu's tutelage to study under and attend to Huineng.

Faru (638-689), another disciple of Hongren's, was first named the dharma heir of Hongren. Some of the contemporary Ch'an texts name Faru as the Sixth Patriarch, and Shenxiu as the Seventh Patriatrch. Following Faru's passing in 689, though, Shenxiu and other disciples of Hongren competed to be named Hongren's successor.

Shenxiu's bid to be the Sixth Patriarch was cemented in his later years. When he was aged well over ninety years old, Shenxiu was invited to Luoyang in late 700 by the infamous Empress Wu, who had usurped T'ang imperial authority and established herself as China's sole empress regnant and the founder of the short-lived Second Zhou dynasty. Empress Wu was using Buddhism and prominent Buddhist clergy to support her claims to power. Empress Wu originally intended to invite Faru, but his death forced her to turn to Shenxiu next.

Shenxiu's arrival in 701 was spectacular. The Chuan Fabao Ji records that Shenxiu's path was decorated with flowers and that Shenxiu was seated on a litter of the kind used by the imperial family. Empress Wu breached all imperial protocol by kneeling before Shenxiu and touching her forehead to the ground in a show of reverence. The Chuan Fabao Ji recorded "From princes and nobles down, everyone [in the capital] took refuge in him."

Empress Wu kept Shenxiu at court despite his desire to return to his home temple. Through his remaining five years, Shenxiu journeyed between the two capitals of Chang'an (the "Western Capital" or Xijing (西京)) and Luoyang, teaching Buddhist Dharma before his passing at the Tumen Si monastery, reputedly sitting in meditation, on February 28, 706 aged over 100 years old. The Lengqie Shi Zi Ji (Traditional Chinese: 楞伽師資記; Records of the Lankavatara Masters) record his last words as ch'u-ch'u chiao ("the teachings of the expedient means have been made direct"). He was buried with state honors and is one of just three Buddhist monks to receive a biographical notice in the official histories of the T'ang dynasty.

Empress Wu honored Shenxiu with the title National Teacher (Kuo Shih 国史). The T'ang dynasty Emperor Zhongzong (684, 705-710), who ruled before Empress Wu and was restored after her deposement, honored Shenxiu posthumously with the honorific Greatly Penetrating Dhyāna Master (Datong Chanshi 大通禪師), just the second time in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism and the first in three hundred years at the time that such an imperial honor had been granted. Shenxiu's most important disciples were Songshan Puji (651-739) and Yifu (658-736). His disciples promoted his teachings under imperial patronage. Shenxiu named Puji as the Seventh Patriarch of Ch'an and his Dharma heir. The years that soon followed Puji's lifetime saw the fall of the artificial Northern School (in actuality the East Mountain School), though.

In spite of, or perhaps due to, the unwanted prominence that was placed upon Shenxiu, envy and hostility developed against him after his death. In 732, Shenhui, denounced him for selling out to court life and abandoning the true teachings of Ch'an, exchanging the practice of sudden enlightenment for a gradual practice. Because the teachings of 'sudden enlightenment' eventually prevailed in the wake of the Northern–Southern School controversy, the charges stuck, and Shenxiu's reputation faded over the years.

One of the most widely known and popular legends in Chinese Ch'an is the poetry contest between Shenxiu and Huineng at Hongren's Huangmei Mountain monastery. The story comes from the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, though it was not an actual event.

The Platform Sūtra records that Hongren, realizing he was coming to the end of his life, bade his disciples to write a gatha, or "mind-verse," to show their level of understanding as part of a poem contest. The contest winner would be declared Sixth Patriarch and receive the robe and begging bowl of Bodhidharma. The monks decided among themselves not to offer gathas, yielding to Shenxiu who they wanted to see named as Hongren's Dharma heir. Shenxiu, weighed down with doubts of his attainment and the weight of expectations, wrote a verse anonymously on a corridor wall in the monastery at night. Shenxiu's verse read:

The body is the tree of enlightenment,
The mind is like a bright mirror's stand;
Time after time polish it diligently,
So that no dust can collect.


In public, Hongren commended the verse and enjoined the monks of the monastery to recite it. In private, Hongren bade Shenxiu to write another verse as Hongren believed that Shenxiu didn't demonstrate total understanding of the Dharma. Shenxiu failed to write a new gatha try as he might.

Meantime, the unlettered Huineng heard the other monks chanting Shenxiu's verse and queried about it. When he learned of Hongren's contest, Huineng requested a monk to take him to the wall where Shenxiu's poem was written and to write his own poem for him. Two significant versions exist in older versions of the Platform Sūtra. One version read:

Bodhi is no tree,
nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
Since all is originally empty,
where does the dust alight?


Hongren dismissed the verse in public to try to protect Huineng from the wrath of other monks who were devoted to Shenxiu. Later at night in private, though, he illuminated the true meaning of the Diamond Sutra to Huineng. Hongren passed to Huineng the robe of Bodhidharma, making him the Sixth and last Patriarch of Ch'an, and urged him to flee the Huangmei Mountain monastery that night in secret.

In 730, 731, and 732, Shenhui, stressing his connection to Huineng, launched his first series of oratorical attacks that questioned Shenxiu's legitimacy as Hongren's successor. Shenxiu considered himself as a teacher of Hongren's "East Mountain" (Dongshan 東山) tradition. Shenhui labeled Shenxiu as a teacher of the "Northern School" (Beizong 北宗) of Ch'an, which he claimed advocated a "gradualist" (jian jiao 漸教) idea of enlightenment in contrast to Huineng's superior "sudden" (dun jiao 頓教) belief taught by the "Southern School" (Nanzong 南宗), which Shenhui fabricated.

At the Great Dharma Assembly in Henan Province in 732, Shenhui first coined his term of the "Northern School" to deride Shenxiu's "East Mountain" School. There he claimed that Shenxiu attempted to supplant the title of Sixth Patriarch from Huineng. He justified his claim by declaring that Huineng (then deceased for nineteen years) possessed Bodhidharma's robe instead of Shenhui (then deceased for twenty-six years).

In Shenhui's writings and lectures against Shenxiu and the "Northern School", there is no mention of the verse contest between Shenxiu and Hongren, though, which puts the authenticity of the verse contest in doubt. The Platform Sūtra is first attributed to a little known student of Huineng's named Fahai (d.u.), but it was subjected to numerous revisions from the 8th to 13th centuries. Some of the revisionists come from the Oxhead School (Niutouzong 牛頭宗) of Ch'an Buddhism, who attempted to bridge the divide between the Northern and Southern Schools. The Oxhead School was founded by Niutou Farong (594-657), who was reputedly a disciple of Dayi Daoxin (580–651) the Fourth Patriarch of Ch'an. The Oxhead School drew its name from Farong's temple on Oxhead Mountain (Niútóu shān 牛頭山) south of Nanking. The Oxhead School followed a third way, and tried to establish a middle road between the positions the other schools had taken while the Northern-Southern School controversy was at its height. It aligned with the Southern School in its insistence that meditative practice be connected to the realization of perfect wisdom, but, like the Northern School, did not call for the abandonment of all other practices and Buddhist scriptures in place of an exclusive reliance on meditation. The Oxhead school appears to have died out after eight generations, and its last recorded patriarch is Ching-shan Tao-ch'in (714–792).

Buddhist scholar John McRae points out that the verses attributed to Shenxiu and Huineng respectively were likely meant to accompany one another and elucidate two sides of one practice. Additionally, Shenxiu's verse does not explicitly advocate gradualism so much as the necessity for constant practice. It is evident that in his lifetime, Shenxiu was a more renowned teacher than the unknown Huineng, who became famous in following years through the Platform Sūtra and other later works.

Shenxiu was well educated and he studied the Buddhist sutras (scriptures) diligently. He never rejected textual and scriptural study. In addition to expounding on the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, Shenxiu wrote a lengthy commentary on the Avatar ṃ sokka Sūtra. The later prevalent Ch'an tradition of calling itself a 'special transmission outside of words and letters' was lacking in Shenxiu's eyes.

Shenxiu re-explained the sutras as metaphors of "skilful means" (Sanskrit: upāya उपाय ; fangbian 方便) for "contemplation of the mind," (kan xin 看心) urging the achievement of Buddhahood in everyday activities. Seen through this lens, a daily activity like taking a bath was a religious act in which soap used to cleanse away dirt "is actually the ability of discrimination by which one can ferret out the sources of evil within oneself." Cleaning one's mouth with a toothpick is "nothing less than the Truth by which one puts an end to false speech." Religious exercises like burning incense were viewed as "the unconditioned Dharma, which 'perfumes' the tainted and evil karma of ignorance and cause it to disappear."

In regard to dhyāna (meditation), Shenxiu held that the student should cultivate the inherent ability of the mind "to illuminate and understand all things" and to see the emptiness of all things. He explained that there is a great stillness and tranquility in all things. A "Northern School" text condensed as the Five Skillful Means (Wu Fangbian 五方便) says: "in purity there is not a single thing…Peaceful and vast without limit, its untaintedness is the path of bodhi (बोधि). The mind serene and enlightenment distinct, the body’s serenity is the bodhi tree."

Even though Shenxiu and his falsely labeled "East Mountain" School were attacked as teaching a gradualist approach toward reaching enlightenment, the Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind (Guanxin Lun 觀心論), a Northern text credited to Shenxiu clearly says: "It does not take long to witness this (i.e., to realize sagehood); enlightenment is in the instant. Why worry about your white hair (i.e., about your age)?" Shenhui labeled Shenxiu's encouragements to constant practice as being "gradualist" (a charge which could be applied to the whole Dongshan tradition of the Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs as well).

Shenxiu never claimed to be the only legitimate successor to Hongren, but the fact that he was named by Hongren as his successor and had been given the role of Imperial Preceptor (teacher) gave him legitimacy. Shenxiu's teachings were widely accepted and esteemed during his lifetime. Shenxiu was an accomplished and well-rounded Buddhist monk and scholar who practiced meditation and study and was open to learning from a variety of sources. Modern scholarship draws attention to his influence from T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen Buddhist thought. Shenxiu's teachings are not so easily labeled as "gradualist." Shenxiu and his disciples advocated approaches from both gradual and sudden, depending on the abilities and experience of the student.

Yuquan Shenxiu 2

The Platform Sūtra itself records Shenxiu saying to an assembly:

The dharma is originally a single school; it is people who think 'north' and
'south.' The dharma is of one kind; but the understanding of it may be 'direct' or
'gradual.' So why the terms 'direct' and 'gradual'? Dharma itself is neither
'direct' nor 'gradual.' Rather it is people who are sharp or dull. Hence the terms 'direct' and 'gradual.'

The influence of Shenxiu's teachings on following Ch'an doctrine and practices has been clouded by the vilification of Shenxiu by Shenhui some thirty years after Shenxiu's death. But present day scholarship has begun to recover a more balanced view of Shenxiu.

The tradition of Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts are continued in martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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