A Feast of Chan Poems and Chan Thought

Title of speech: “Crossing the bridge, ‘tis not the water, but the bridge that flows﹘Chan thought in Chan poems ”

Speaker: Cheng Pingkun

Time: July 16, 2011

Venue: Dharma Drum Degui Academy


【Information provided by DDU School of Life and Values】On the sultry summer afternoon of July 16, over twenty spiritual friends gathered at the Dharma Drum Degui Academy to partake in a feast of Chan poems and Chan thought.

At the outset, speaker Chen Pingkun pointed out the gist of the topic of this speech, “Chan thought in Chan poems,” exploring the messages of Chan thought through the poems of the Chan tradition, and going on to elaborate on Chinese Chan Buddhist thought based on those messages.

Taking “a perspective on dependent origination” as a central theme, Mr. Chen pointed out that Buddhism’s law of causality (karma) is not about a single cause and effect, or even about multiple causes and effects. The true, profound meaning of dependent origination does not take a single, fixed, individually existing entity as the basic model for looking at all the phenomena in the universe, and allows for the development of the “emptiness of all dharmas” tenet that Mahayana Buddhism took pains to advocate later on.

Mr. Chen then briefly introduced the initial phase of Chinese Chan tradition, comprising important Chan concepts and techniques from Bodhidharma (around 500C.E.) to Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch, including Bodhidharma’s “Two Entrances and Four Practices” and Huineng’s teachings such as “no thought,” “no form,” and “no abiding.” Based on these concepts, he highlighted the two essential elements that constitute Chinese Chan Buddhism: the ideas of Tathagata-garbha or buddha-nature, and the contemplative practice of prajna (wisdom).

In the central portion of the speech, Mr. Chen used a poem by Hanshan (literally, “Cold Mountain”; about 691-793), a Tang Dynasty monk, which reads, “The lonely moon atop cold mountain shines, revealing that there is nothing at all in the blue sky. The priceless jewel is precious and natural, but buried deep in the body of the five aggregates” to interpret the prajna and Tathagata-garbha concepts that the poems of Chan tradition sought to convey. At the same time, he talked about the story or doctrinal origin behind the creation of certain poems, such as the story of Chan Master Danxia Tianran (739-824) keeping warm by burning a wooden buddha statue on a snowy night, and teachings such as “the ordinary mind is the Way” given by Chan Master Mazu Daoyi (709-788), ending with the poem of the lay master Fu Xi (497-569), which reads, “The empty-handed holds a hoe; walking, he rides a buffalo. Crossing the bridge, ‘tis not the water, but the bridge that flows.”

Mr. Chen also made reference to the “Treatise on the Immutability of Things” by Sengzhao (384﹘414) to give different interpretations about the connotations of the poem, thinking that the poem was meant to express concepts related to the middle way inherent in the idea of dependent origination, such as “nonduality of existence and non-existence” and “nonduality of movement and stillness.”

After the lecture, the participants also shared and exchanged their thoughts about “emptiness” and “existence,” and their understanding of the doctrine of the “middle way.” Although the fascinating discussion was cut short because time was limited, everyone agreed to continue on the Chan path in the future through the on-going introductory lecture series on Chan culture.