In the last post we were looking at Heshang Moheyan, the Chinese teacher of Chan (better known in the West as Zen) who became for Tibetans a lesson in how to go wrong in meditation. He taught, they said, a method of suppressing thoughts leading to a blank state of mind that could be mistaken for enlightenment, but was really just a dead end. Not only that, but his teachings were dangerous too, scorning the traditional division between virtue and vice, because both were just thoughts and therefore obstacles to enlightenment. As an old saying attributed to Moheyan goes, it doesn’t matter whether the cloud is white or black–it still blocks the sun.
Well, as I mentioned last time, the Dunhuang manuscripts contain the teachings of Heshang Moheyan, and they were much less simplistic, and more reasonable, than the later cartoonish version of him might suggest. For one thing, he didn’t advocate the suppression of thoughts (with a blank mind “like an egg” as one version of the Samyé debate nicely puts it). He says this quite clearly:
Therefore you should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.
So I think we can say with some confidence that the ‘real’ Heshang Moheyan (insofar as we can claim to know him) was quite aware of the dangers of approaching meditation as the mere suppression of thoughts. He also didn’t think that the simple approach set out in the quotation above was right for everybody. In fact it was only intended for “those of the sharpest faculties.” For the rest of us he taught a series of five techniques of increasing subtlety. All are misguided in some way apart from the fifth and ultimate method.
1. A direct awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts.
2. An examination of that awareness.
3. The prevention of the arising of thoughts.
4. The perception that thoughts have no intrinsic nature (that is, they are empty).
5. Awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts without analysing or pursuing this awareness, so that thoughts are freed the instant they arise.
So it would clearly be an oversimplification to characterize Moheyan as teaching a single method for every student. It seems here that he is well aware of the need for different methods depending on the ability of the student. Likewise, he didn’t reject the bodhisattva’s classic path of six ‘perfections’: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. In the Dunhuang manuscripts Moheyan answers a question on this very topic with subtlety. The question is, “is it necessary to practice the other dharma methods, like the six perfections?” Moheyan answers:
“According to conventional truth, the six perfections are said to be the means for teaching the ultimate truth; it is not that they are unnecessary. According to the scriptures that speak of the ultimate truth beyond the ordinary mind, there is no knowing or saying whether the other dharma methods like the six perfections are necessary. This is explained more extensively in the sutras.”
Isn’t this the move that the Perfection of Wisdom sutras make over and over again? From the conventional point of view, ethical practice and meditation are necessary to progress toward the goal. But from the point of view of the goal, ultimate truth itself, these practices are all empty of any real existence. So, as Moheyan says, one can’t speculate from the position of ultimate truth about the need for methods which don’t truly exist. What one cannot say, according to Moheyan, is that the six perfections are unnecessary. That possibility is the only one that he is excluding here.
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Perhaps the disagreement between the two sides in the Samyé debate really comes down to this question: who are these people with sharp faculties who can access ultimate truth directly through their own awareness? Because for everybody else, Moheyan’s teachings are not that different from the Indian and Tibetan masters he is supposed to have faced in the debate. If a significant proportion of students may be considered to have sharp faculties, then the difference between the two sides is a significant one; but as that proportion shrinks, so does the difference between the two sides.
I’m not sure we can ever say what Moheyan’s position was here. It might be argued that if he spent so much time teaching the direct approach to ultimate truth, he must have thought that there were plenty of students able to practise it. Perhaps. If we look at a similar (though not identical!) tradition, that of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, we find that the same issue comes up again and again. The greatest exponent of Dzogchen, the fourteenth-century scholar and meditator Longchenpa, wrote this:
“The great yogins who arrived at that [ultimate] state–such as Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Tilopa–taught it directly, without cause and effect, virtue or sin. Even if we can understand this intellectually, we have not reached it through becoming truly accustomed to it. Therefore we are taught it only when we are no longer afraid of that state and can be careful about the subtleties of cause and effect.”
For Longchenpa then, the class of those who can approach ultimate truth directly without a gradual build-up is very small, and perhaps no longer exists at all, consisting only of famous masters from the distant past. As we know from his many other works, Longchenpa was very serious about teaching the direct approach to the ultimate. Yet as this passage makes clear, for everyone but the very greatest of meditators this did not mean rejecting the Buddha’s teachings on causation, or ethics.
If the Dunhuang fragments really do present Moheyan’s teachings, then there is every reason to believe that he held much the same view. He may have had a more optimistic idea of the number of students able to approach the nature of mind directly with no previous training, but he was careful to emphasise the need and value of the rest of the Buddha’s teachings.
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References and Tibetan texts
This post, like the last, is indebted to Luis Gomez’s excellent article which gathers the Tibetan sources for Moheyan’s teachings (see the reference in the previous post). The first quote in this post comes from The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The five approaches are found in Pelliot tibétain 117 and The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The quotation on the six perfections appears in Pelliot tibétain 823 (f.2.4 to 3.3) and is also found the Chinese version of the Samye debate in Pelliot chinois 4646 (136b.2-5). Finally, the Longchenpa quote is found in Jigmé Lingpa’s Yeshé Lama (p.332; I haven’t found the location of this passage in Longchenpa’s work yet). I also discussed the issue of the different types of student in the context of Dzochen in my book Approaching the Great Perfection (pp.115-124).
Bsam gtan mig sgron p.165: de bas na ‘du shes dgag par yang mi bya / ‘byung bzhin ci la yang mi bcos par gyi na ye gtang ji bzhin du bzhag dang rang zhi ste rjes su mi ‘brang ngo //
Pelliot tibétain 823: f.2.4-3.3: pha rol tu phyin pa drug la stsogs pa’i chos kyi sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos/ smras pa/ kun rdzob ltar pha rol tu phyin pa drug kyang/ don dam par bstan pa’i phyIr thabs su bshad de/ myI dgos pa yang ma yin// don dam par smra bsam las ‘das pa’i gzhung ltar na/ pha rol tu phyin las stsogs pa chos kyI sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos shes smos su yang myed de/ mdo sde las kyang rgyas par bshad do/
Ye she bla ma p.332: gshis der phebs pa’i rnal ’byor pa chen po rnams la rgyu ’bras dge sdig med pa thad drang du bshad de padma dang/ bi ma la dang/ te lo pa la sogs pa bzhin no/ rang cag rnams la blos de ltar rtogs kyang goms pas thog du ma ’phebs pas/ gshis la mi skrag cing las ’bras cha ’phra ba la ’dzem pa dang sbyar nas bshad do/