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Albert Welter

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the soul of man:
Seeing into one's own nature and attainment of

Bodhidharma, First Patriarch of Zen (4-6 Cent. AD)

T'ANG DYNASTY (618-907); SUNG DYNASTY (960-1279);
MING DYNASTY (1368-1644)

The figure of Bodhidharma casts a large shadow over Ch'an and Zen studies. The fact that little is known about Bodhidharma is hardly unusual in the history of religions, where historical obscurity often serves as a prerequisite for posthumous claims regarding sectarian identity. Indeed, one learns much about the nature and character of Ch'an through Bodhidharma, around whose image the most successful challenge to Chinese Buddhist scholasticism was mounted.


According to currently accepted views of Ch'an history, the successful assault of Ch'an on Buddhist scholasticism coincided with a period of vibrant dynamism, during which the activities of a core group of Ch'an masters, Ma-tsu Tao-i, Pai-chang Huai-hai, Huang-po Hsi-yun, Lin-chi I-hsan, and Hui-neng, et al, formed the basic components of Ch'an identity. Following this so-called "golden age", Ch'an dynamism was reduced to static formalism, and fell into a state of decline. According to this view, Sung Buddhism represents the "sunset period", the twilight glow of a once strong, vital tradition, reduced to a shadow of its former glory. From this perspective, the golden age of Buddhism in China, including Ch'an, was unequivocally the T'ang dynasty (618-907). The Sung represents the beginning of a period of unremitting decline.

Bodhidharma has a special place in this story. As champion of a "mind to mind transmission," focusing on the enlightenment experience occurring in the context of the master-disciple relationship, Bodhidharma initiated the alternative to the textually-based teachings of the scholastic tradition. Bodhidharma's role in the transformation of Chinese Buddhism was widely acknowledged by the beginning of the Sung. The early Sung Buddhist historian, Tsan-ning (919-1001), spoke positively of Bodhidharma's role in criticizing prevailing exegetical conventions within Chinese Buddhist scholasticism. He acknowledged Bodhidharma as the first to proclaim: "Directly point to the human mind; see one's nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters."

The traditional position of Ch'an and Zen orthodoxy has been that the slogans originated with Bodhidharma and that they represent the implicit message of Ch'an teaching from its outset. Ch'an historians, following contemporary Zen scholarship, regard the slogans as products of the T'ang period, reflecting the rise to prominence of the Ch'an movement in the eighth and ninth centuries during its "golden age." As a result, the slogans are typically regarded as normative statements for a Ch'an identity fully developed by the end of the T'ang. Knowledgeable observers will note, however, that one slogan is missing from Tsan-ning's list. The principles of Ch'an identity are usually expressed through four slogans, not just the three mentioned by Tsan-ning here. The importance of the missing slogan, "A special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'an/ kyge betsuden), is highlighted by the fact that it usually heads the list. The purpose of the present investigation is to inquire into the origins of these slogans and the way they came to represent the Ch'an tradition of Bodhidharma, highlighting the disputed position of Ch'an as "A special transmission outside the scriptures" in Sung discourse.

Ch'an Slogans and the Formation of Ch'an Identity Individually, the four slogans are found in works dating before the Sung, but they do not appear together as a four part series of expressions until well into the period when they are attributed to Bodhidharma in the Tsu-t'ing shih-yan (Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs) in 1108. Even then, their acceptance was not without controversy. Mu-an, the compiler of the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, remarked contemptuously: "Many people mistake the meaning of 'do not establish words and letters.' They speak frequently of abandoning the scriptures and regard silent sitting as Ch'an. They are truly the dumb sheep of our school." In reality, three of the slogans- "do not establish words and letters"; "directly point to the human mind"; "see one's nature and become a Buddha"- were well established as normative Ch'an teaching by the beginning of the Sung. The status of the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures," as an interpretation of the true meaning of "do not establish words and letters" (pu li wen-tzu, literally "no establish words-letters") was the subject of continued controversy.

"Seeing one's nature" was an old idea in China that was promoted by Tao-sheng (355-434), a disciple of Kumarajiva. Drawing from Mahayana doctrine, Tao-sheng advocated the notion of an inherent Buddha-nature in everyone. The full phrase chien-hsing ch'eng-fo ("see one's nature and become a Buddha") first appeared in a commentary to the Nirvna stra, in a statement attributed to Seng-lang prior to the T'ang dynasty. The slogans "do not establish words and letters" and "directly point to the human mind" became common parlance in Ch'an circles by the end of the T'ang period. Eight-hundred years after Tao-sheng, Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), wrestled with the "inherent Buddha-nature in everyone" question and came to much different interpretation based more closely around Nagarjuna's Sunyata.

The first use of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'uan) that can be documented with historical certainty is in the Tsu-t'ang chi (Collection of the Patriarch's Hall), compiled in 952. The phrase is also included in a "tomb-inscription" of Lin-chi I-hsan (?-866), attributed to Lin-chi's disciple, Yen-chao, appended to the end of the Lin-chi lu, the record of Lin-chi's teachings. The historical authenticity of this inscription as the work of Lin-chi's disciple is highly dubious, as the Rinzai scholar Yanagida Seizan has pointed out. The connection of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" with the Lin-chi lu (Record of Lin-chi) is highly suggestive, however, of a Ch'an identity that developed in the Lin-chi lineage during the Sung.

The Wu-yeh Kingdom

While the Lin-chi lu professes to be the record of Lin-chi's words and deeds as recorded by his disciples, the current form of the text dates from an edition issued in 1120. The beginning of the twelfth century is also the time when the slogan "a special teaching outside the scriptures" was mentioned in the list of Ch'an slogans attributed to the Ch'an patriarch Bodhidharma in the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, mentioned above. The association of this slogan with Lin-chi and Bodhidharma was the culmination of a process through which the identity of Ch'an was transformed by members of the Lin-chi lineage.

Ch'an Orthodoxy at the Outset of the Sung: Ch'an as "A Special Transmission Within the Scriptures" In the tenth century, the period of the so-called "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms," China was without effective central control and the country was politically and geographically divided into several autonomous regions. The fate of Buddhism fell into the hands of warlords who controlled these regions. Given the recent experience of dynastic collapse and the perception of Buddhist culpability for T'ang failings, most warlords continued policies established in the late T'ang designed to restrict Buddhist influence over Chinese society. As a result, support for Buddhism during this period was geographically isolated to a few regions. Ch'an lineages emerged as the principal beneficiaries of this regionally-based support.

The Buddhist revival in tenth century China was dominated by supporters of the Fa-yen lineage. Fa-yen's teachings attracted numerous students, many of whom achieved considerable fame. The normative definition of Ch'an in Fa-yen circles envisioned Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Chinese Buddhism, and the basis for the revival of Chinese Buddhist civilization. It was rooted in a T'ang vision of Buddhism as an indispensable force in the creation of a civilized society. As a result, the Wu-yeh kingdom depended on the re-establishment of Buddhist institutions as central features of Wu-yeh society and culture. To this end, Wu-yeh rulers made a concentrated effort to rebuild temples and pilgrimage sites, and to restore the numerous Buddhist monuments and institutions that had suffered from neglect and the ravages of war. Historically important centers in the region, such as Mt. T'ien-t'ai, were rebuilt. New Buddhist centers, like the Yung-ming Temple in Lin-an (Hang-chou), were established. Ambassadors were sent abroad, to Japan and Korea, to collect copies of important scriptures no longer available in China. After several decades of constant dedication to these activities, the monks and monasteries of Wu-yeh acquired considerable reputations. Monks throughout China fled to Wu-yeh monasteries.

In addition to embracing Ch'an innovations, Wu-yeh Ch'an identified with old T'ang traditions, and this identification with the larger Buddhist tradition became a standard feature in the collective memory of Wu-yeh Ch'an. The distinguishing character of the Fa-yen lineage within Ch'an is typically recalled through the syncretic proclivities of its patriarchs, normally reduced to the harmony between Ch'an and Hua-yen in Wen-i's teachings, between Ch'an and T'ien-t'ai in Te-shao's teachings, and between Ch'an and Pure Land in Yen-shou's teachings.

The Wu-yeh view of Ch'an was officially represented at the Sung court by Tsan-ning, a scholar-monk who served as a leading official in Wu-yeh, and in turn, at the Sung court. The "official" view of Wu-yeh Ch'an presented to the Sung court by Tsan-ning accepted three slogans attributed to Bodhidharma as defining normative Ch'an teaching, and a characterization of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism ("the ch'an of the Supreme Vehicle"). The fact that the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures", was missing from this normative definition is closely connected to the view of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism, which presupposes harmony between Ch'an and Buddhist teaching. Rather than "a special transmission outside the scriptures," Tsan-ning considered Bodhidharma's teaching as a branch of the larger tradition of Buddhism stemming from Shakyamuni. According to Tsan-ning, those who conceive of a Ch'an identity independent of Buddhist teaching do not understand that "the scriptures (ching) are the words of the Buddha, and meditation (ch'an) is the thought of the Buddha; there is no discrepancy whatsoever between what the Buddha conceives in his mind and what he utters with his mouth."

The Wu-yeh perspective on the harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures was not unprecedented, but represented the "official" view in the T'ang. A century earlier, Tsung-mi (780-841), an influential interpreter of Buddhism recognized as a patriarch in both the Ch'an and Hua-yen traditions, promoted harmony or correspondence between Ch'an and Buddhist teachings, arguing that Ch'an teachings are in accord with the Buddhist canon, on the one hand, and the doctrinal positions of Chinese Buddhist schools, on the other. Tsung-mi's views provided the model for Wu-yeh Ch'an, both for Tsan-ning and for Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975), Wu-yeh Ch'an's greatest spokesperson.

Yen-shou recommended pluralism as the guiding principle governing Buddhist teaching and practice. For Yen-shou, Ch'an suggested the principle of inclusion in which the entire Buddhist tradition culminated in a grand epiphany. Doctrinally, this meant that the entire scriptural canon became united in a great, all encompassing harmony. From the perspective of practice, all actions, without exception, became Buddha deeds. Yen-shou clearly advocated a Ch'an practice based in the Buddhist traditions of the past, opposing those who "have become attached to emptiness, and [whose practice] is not compatible with the scriptures."

In the end, much was at stake over the two competing interpretations of Ch'an. The two conceptions of Ch'an as "harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures," or "a special transmission outside the scriptures," reflect different religious epistemologies. In essence, the distinction here is between a form of rationalism, a view that reasoned explanation is capable of communicating the truth coupled with the belief that the vehicle of this reasoned explanation is Buddhist scripture, and a type of mysticism, a view that the experience of enlightenment is beyond reification, verbal explanation, or rational categories, and that Buddhist scripture is incapable of conveying that experience. The debate in early Sung Ch'an was whether Ch'an is acquiescent with the tradition of Buddhist rationalism or belongs to an independent mystical tradition.

The history of Ch'an and Zen is generally presented as denying Buddhist rationalism in favor of a mysticism that in principle transcends every context, including even the Buddhist one. The "orthodox" Ch'an position maintains that the phrase "do not establish words and letters" is consistent with "a special transmission outside the scriptures," treating the two slogans as a pair. In this interpretation, both phrases are said to point to the common principle that:

True Enlightenment, as experienced by the Buddha and transmitted through the patriarchs, is independent of verbal explanations, including the record of the Buddha's teachings (i.e., scriptures) and later doctrinal elaborations.

However, this interpretation was not acknowledged in Wu-yeh Ch'an, which distinguished the phrase "do not establish words and letters" from the principle of an independent transmission apart from the scriptures, and treated the two as opposing ideas. Wu-yeh Ch'an acknowledged the validity of Bodhidharma's warning against attachment to scriptures and doctrines, but did not accept that this warning amounted to a categorical denial. As Ch'an became established in the Sung, monks and officials rose to challenge the Wu-yeh interpretation, and insist on an independent tradition apart from the scriptures.


Han-shan Te Ch'ing (Hanshan Deqing, 1546-1623) is considered one of the four most eminent Buddhist monks in the late Ming Dynasty partly for his social-political interactions with Ming court, exegesis of Buddhist texts, and most importantly, for his C'han practice.

In all of the history of C'han, there is not a single master that has written in such detail about his own practice and experiences, especially in describing the Enlightened state of mind. According to a compiled record, The Dream Roaming of Great Master Hanshan, he had numerous and extraordinary Enlightenment experiences.

According to the record, Han-shan served as proofreader of the Book of Chao, the source of "Things do not Move." Han-shan came across the stories of a Bramacharin who had left home in his youth and returned when he was white-haired. When people saw him, the neighbors asked, "Is that man [whom we know] still living today?" The Bramacharin replied, "I look like that man of the past, but I am not he." On reading this story ,, Han-shan suddenly understood that all things do not come and go.

When he got up from his seat and walked around, he did not see things in motion. When he opened the window blind, suddenly a wind blew the trees in the yard, and the leaves flew all over the sky. However, he did not see any signs of motion. When he went to urinate, he still did not see signs of flowing. He understood what the text spoke of as, "Streams and rivers run into the ocean and yet there is no flowing.

Related here as well, Pai-chang Huai-hai known throughout Zen lore for Hyakujo's Fox is also known for the response Ma-tsu gives Pai-chang regarding the flying away of ducks when Ma-tsu says: "When have they ever flown away, they have been here since the beginning."

Also known throughout Zen lore is Tokusan Senkan (Te Shan) (781-867), infamous for burning his commentaries on Buddhism within hours of his Awakening experience. The following is offered for your own elucidation:

The famous image of Te-shan ripping up the sutras in liberated ecstasy is the image of Te-shan in the moment of having appropriated and internalized the sutras. Is Te-shan destroying the text and subverting its authority because his Realization is in conflict with that projected by the text? Emphatically No! Te-shan's Realization is understood to be an actualization of the same 'way' that gave rise to the Buddha's Realization which is written into the sutra, just as Te-shan's Realization is imprinted into the textual account of his iconoclastic act.

That iconoclastic acts are not denunciations of an authority that has been broken and overcome is similarly implied in the life of Lin-chi. After having slapped his teacher, Huang-po, thus flaunting his freedom from Buddhist authority, Lin-chi settles down in the monastery to study under the master, possibly for as long as two decades. The liberating act of 'casting off' was incorporated into a more encompassing intention directed towards communal practice which included obedience, loyalty and learning. (source)

NOTE: It should be mentioned, in perhaps some CONTRAST to the gist of the content and thesis of the above paper by Welter, that the view as taken by the Wanderling and presented through the various offerings of AWAKENING 101 coincides more closely with the THREE quotes BELOW and CONSIDERS IT THE MOST CREDIBLE VIEW:

"Being neither teacher nor guru, and since from the first not a thing is, the most one can do is to offer a glimpse or help point the way. In the end it resides in you"

the Wanderling, Awakening 101

True Enlightenment, as experienced by the Buddha and transmitted through the patriarchs, is independent of verbal explanations, including the record of the Buddha's teachings (i.e., scriptures) and later doctrinal elaborations.

Albert Welter, T'ang Ch'an and the Myth of Bodhidharma

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration that 'The monk is your teacher.'

Ven. Wapola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught


the intent of the three quotes should be taken in conjuction with the ingrained view presented within the final two paragraphs inserted ABOVE relating to Te Shan:


A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing to the soul of man:
Seeing into one's own nature and attainment of Buddhahood


Is the practice of Zen, which by its own nature explores or professes the Enlightenment experience as attained by the Buddha and the ancient masters Outside the Doctrine, in direct contrast with or violate the premises of the Buddhist concept of Wrong Practice (silabbata paramasa)?



Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.









BODHIDHARMA: The First Chinese Patriarch