Shitou Xiqian - "Stone Head", Poet and Lineage Holder

Before immersing ourselves in the finer details of the Sandokai I want to say a few words about its supposed author - Zen Master and Ancestor Shítóu Xīqiān - Sekito Kisen in Japanese. 700  790 CE are given as his birth and death year. In Chinese his name is written like this: 石頭希遷. These characters literally mean “stone head hoping to ascend” (Shitou Xiqian - Wikipedia, 2019). And although I am not suggesting for a second that Shitou was some sort of 8th century Chinese Rastafarian, I cannot help it but also point out that the second poem he is famous for besides the Sandokai is called “The Song of the Grass Roofed Hut”. According to legend, Shitou had earned his nickname because he spent many years sitting in zazen (Zen meditation) on a stone slab on Mount Nanyue in Hunan province, and not for smoking weed. At some point after his death Shitou was awarded the honorific title Wuji Dashi - 無際大師 - which means something like “Boundless Great Teacher”.

Besides writing poems and enduring hard surfaces, Shitou is also important as a crucial link in the Soto Zen lineage of transmission. This lineage is very peculiar to the Zen tradition. It goes all the way back to the historical Buddha and even includes six mystical Buddhas who came before Shakyamuni. Each and every Zen nun or monk has an exact record of every single teacher who came before him or herself and the whole line back right to the beginning. Up to Master Keizan who lived in Japan around 1300 CE and who is number sixty-one on the list, all Soto Zen monks and nuns share the same ancestors. This common list of patriarchs is chanted in Zen temples on a daily basis. The lineage is so important, because in Zen the wisdom of the Buddha can only be transmitted from person to person, teacher to disciple, and not through books or any other means. And only those who have received this transmission in person from an authentic teacher of the lineage can pass it on to the next generation. To the eye of the historian such ancestral lineages are always suspicious however. The royal dynasty which claims to descend from an ancestral god or hero usually wants to confirm its status and power in the present rather than giving an accurate account of the past. Zen schools are no different in this respect. When we look at the lineage we should really see it as a mixture of history and fiction. Whilst almost all of the names following the first six mythological Buddhas are those of real historic personalities, it is very unlikely that they represent this unbroken chain of teacher-disciples as the lineage suggests.

Shitou, the author of the Sandokai, is number forty-two on the list of the male ancestors when the six mythological Buddhas are counted. He comes seven generations after the legendary Bodhidharma who is supposed to have brought Zen from India to China. And there is only one other name between him and the famous so-called sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen - Dajian Huineng, Daikan Enō in Japanese (638 to 713 CE). Huineng supposedly introduced the idea of “sudden enlightenment” into Zen. This teaching is recognised by all Zen schools today. Shitou, whose family name is given as Shen, grew up in the vicinity of the residence of the late Huineng in Guangdong province in south-east China. He is supposed to have met the sixth patriarch in person and is said to have been present at his death bed (Dumoulin, 2005, pp 165-166.) Later Zen chronicles suggest that there has been some sort of transmission between the ageing patriarch and the young boy, but even they recognise that the future Shitou was too young at the time of Huineng’s death to receive the full package. Following the account of Dumoulin, Shitou only left home at the age of 28 and took the monk ordination in his home province Guangdong. He is then supposed to have trained with Quinguang Xingsi - Japanese Seigen Gyōshi - who is held as the direct dharma successor of Huineng in the official Soto line of transmission. Shitou is said to have eventually received Dharma transmission from Quinguang, which secured him his position on the lineage. There is some doubt as to the authenticity of this account. The scholar Albert Wehler suggests that Quinguang, about whom very little is known, seems to have been invented at a later stage in order to secure the transmission line from Huineng via Shitou to his successors (Qingyuan Xingsi - Wikipedia, 2018). On all accounts, scholars now seem to agree that Shitou was in fact not a great name at the time he was alive, but became important long after his death when the Zen schools had become influential in China, and proof of lineage meant access to power and status. Be it as it may, Shitou moved to the neighbouring Hunan province and settled on Mount Nanyue Heng in 742. It is there where he engaged in his long sitting on a stone slab which made him famous for posterity. According to Dumoulin, Shitou was at some point responsible for running a large Zen temple with many disciples, but this might also be a later fiction (Dumoulin, 2005, p. 165). Amongst Shitou’s probably not that many disciples was according to the official lineage Yaoshan Weiyan (Japanese Yakusan Igen) who became his Dharma successor. From Yaoshan the lineage eventually reaches Dongshan Liangjie (Japanese Tōzan Ryōkai) and Eihei Dōgen - the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school.

To sum it up, we really don’t know very much about Shitou. Besides the two poems there are records of some dialogues between him and his teacher Qingyuan Xingsi and his disciple Yaoshan Weiyan and a few other anecdotes (Taiso Keizan Zenji, 2017). How much of it is true nobody knows. At least, nobody seems to doubt that Shitou actually existed as a real person.

Discussed on 26 June 2020

Resources: All sources are mentioned in detail in the entry from 16 June 2020


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