A divided sangha - Sandokai - verses three and four

人根有利鈍,道無南北祖。人 means “person”. 根 usually means “root” or “base”, but in a Buddhist context it can also mean “spiritual faculty” or one’s ability to grasp a teaching. 有 - “to have”,  利 - “sharp” and 鈍 - “dull” or “dim witted”. As to the second phrase: 道 - “the way” (of enlightenment), 無 - “not” or “no”, 南 - “south”, 北 - “north” and 祖 - “ancestor”. The Sotoshu standard translation renders this sentence as “While human faculties are sharp or dull, the way has no northern or southern ancestor” (Sotoshu, p. 30.) All four commentators - Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki - agree with this wording. They also agree that “north” and “south”  point to a bitter rift in the young Chinese Zen movement in the 8th century.

“South” stands for the so-called “Southern School” of Zen. Initially a minority movement within Zen, this group saw itself as the exclusive heir of the lineage of Chinese Zen patriarchs and its legendary founder Bodhidharma (Dumoulin, pp. 107-154; The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.) The claim of the "Southern School" relied on the alleged transmission of the Zen patriarchate to the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen,  the monk Huineng  or Eno in Japanese (638 to 713). The conflict erupted on 15 January 732 when Heze Shenhui (658 to 758), a direct disciple of Huineng, launched an attack on what today would be called the establishment of the Zen school. This was when Shitou, our author of the Sandokai, must have been around 34 years old. Shenhui accused what he called the “Northern School of Zen” of having illegally usurped the Zen patriarchate from the fifth patriarch Hongren (Japanese: Konin, 601 to 674). According to Shenui, Hongren had transmitted the patriarchate exclusively to Huineng in a secret ceremony at the dead of night. As proof he presented the original robe - kesa - of Bodhidharma that had allegedly been passed on from patriarch to patriarch to Huineng, who had received it from Hongren in the clandestine nocturnal ceremony. The reception of the robe established Huineng as the sixth patriarch of Zen. This insignia of the Zen patriarchate was kept by the “Southern School” at the time of Shenhui's attack. To realise the graveness of this accusation we need to understand that in Shenhui’s mind there could really only ever be one legitimate patriarch at any one time. The Zen patriarch was something akin to a Buddha (Dumoulin, p. 112.) And all Buddhist schools agree that in any one world and at any one time there can only be one single Buddha. Two Buddhas existing next to each other would mean that neither of them would be perfect. This contradicts the very nature of a Buddha.

A second accusation that Shenhui levelled against the “Northern School” was that they had dumbed down Bodhidharma’s original teaching on enlightenment. Following the first patriarch, the “Southern School” taught “sudden” enlightenment. This means that anybody with enough devotion and talent would be able to realise enlightenment at any time by directly seeing reality as it is. The “Northern School” school however taught “gradual” enlightenment according to Shenhui. The latter consisted of a prolonged and cumbersome introspection and pacification of the mind in the search of enlightenment. Verse three of the Sandokai indirectly hints at these two divergent views on practice and enlightenment when mentioning people with “sharp” and “dull” faculties. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (2008), which gives a legendary account of the life of Huineng, tells us that the inferior “gradual” path to enlightenment was reserved for “dull” people. The “sharp” could realise the highest goal immediately: “... it is human nature that is either clever or dull. Deluded people cultivate gradually, while enlightened people suddenly conform [to the truth]". (p. 43)

After his initial attack, Shenhui continued his anti-establishment campaign for a couple of years. The atmosphere in the Zen movement was “overheated” and “poisoned” during this time according to Dumoulin (p. 114.) We also get a sense of the turmoil from the Platform Sutra (2008). In it, after handing over Bodhidharma’s robe, Honren urges Huineng to flee from the monastery as his life would be in danger once the monks discovered that the sacred robe was in the hands of this "southern barbarian". Heeding this advice, the sixth patriarch escapes the same night and is immediately pursued by a large mob of disgruntled “northern” Zen monks who almost catch up with him several times. Huineng then goes into hiding for fifteen years amongst a group of hunters (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, 2008, pp. 25-24.) Nobody believes that these details of Huineng’s life are literally true. The scholars agree that the Platform Sutra has been made up half a  century after Shenhui’s attack on the “Northern School” and one hundred years after the alleged night-time transmission itself. By that time the growing Zen movement had unanimously accepted the transmission to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng as gospel. But it is still significant that the authors of the text thought that violence and even murder were real possibilities when looking back at the time of conflict between the two factions. Those of us who have spent time in Zen monasteries and retreats know that conflicts between the followers of different teachers are not uncommon. Disciples identify strongly with their teachers. And real or perceived differences in styles and teachings can easily lead to animosities and even arguments. Retreats and temples can be stressful situations with individuals cramped together into small spaces, lack of sleep and demanding schedules of meditation, service and work. This cannot have been any different in Shitou’s time.

In Sandokai, Shitou, although according to tradition a dharma heir of Huineng, does not promote the “Southern School”. Instead he says that neither “north” nor “south” can claim ancestors. In doing so, he invalidates completely the core of the argument raised by Shenhui that there was a distinct linage of "southern" ancestors established through Huineng's patriarchate. Instead of “northern” and “southern” ancestors, the only true source of the Zen movement and its schools is the “mind of the great sage of India” - the universal Buddha mind as mentioned in the first verse. Shitou is directly addressing the conflict between followers of the two schools by telling them that at its root there is nothing to disagree upon. There is no evidence to suggest that Shitou was in any way directly involved in the great debates led by Shenhui. He was very likely not a prominent figure in the Zen movement at the time. I therefore find it not too far-fetched that Shitou, instead of engaging in lofty debates about Zen, ancestors and enlightenment, dealt with a very concrete argument in his own assembly of monks in backwater Hunan. It does not take much to imagine how monks called one another “dumb” or accused each other of peddling conspiracy theories and stories of fake transmissions. Be this as it may, all commentators agree that the first four lines of the Sandokai establish the conflict between “North” and “South” as the principal context of the poem.

Discussed on 24 June in the "Old Street" group.

A complete list of references is available in the post of 16 June 2020.


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