Tibetan Chan II: the teachings of Heshang Moheyan

Dancer as Hashang

In the previous post in this series, we looked at the story of the great debate convened by the Tibetan emperor Trisong Detsen. The debate was to decide between the Chinese and Indian versions of Buddhism that were being taught in Tibet at the time. The Indian teachers favoured the scholastic Buddhism that was found in India’s great monastic universities at the time, while Chinese teachers taught mainly meditation in the style they called Chan (later to become Zen in Japan).

The problem with Chan was that it seemed to dismiss what the Indian teachers were presenting as the essentials of Buddhism, that is, virtuous acts and analytical philosophy leading to wisdom. The Chan teachers chracterised the duality of virtue and nonvirtue and the practice of analysis itself as just the kind of thing that gets in the way of real wisdom. All one had to do, they claimed, was stop making distinctions, whether between virtue and nonvirtue, existence and nonexistence, or any dualities at all.

According to Tibetan histories, the Indian side won the debate decisively–understandably enough, as the anti-analytical approach of the Chan teachers was not best suited to the arena of intellectual debate. The King decreed that Tibetan Buddhism was to follow the Indian example, and the Chinese teachers were to return to China. Whether things really happened in this way, Tibetan historians certainly saw this as a decisive moment in Tibet’s religious history, and never failed to tell the story of the debate. Thus even the debate’s loser achieved a lasting fame, or notoriety. Heshang Moheyan (or Hwashang Mahayan to Tibetans) came to be an emblem of a particular kind of erroneous meditation: the idea that all you have to do to achieve enlightenment is shut down all mental activity.

Some Tibetans of a more analytical bent used the Heshang as a polemical stick to beat the meditation traditions that stressed nonconceptual awareness, like Dzogchen and Chagchen. But this was hardly fair, since within even these traditions teachers warned meditators of falling into the extreme of Heshang Moheyan’s blank meditation. Moheyan achieved a long-lasting notoriety in popular culture too, as a figure of fun in ritual dance traditions (as discussed in this recent article).

* * *

IOL Tib J 468Until recently little was known about the real teachings of Heshang Moheyan except through the Tibetan histories which, written by the spiritual descendants of the winning side of the debate, were unlikely to offer a completely fair representation. Then with the opening of the Dunhuang cave, we suddenly had quite a number of manuscripts apparently written by followers of Tibetan Chan, recording the sayings of Chan masters like Moheyan himself. Great work on piecing together the Dunhuang fragments of Moheyan’s writings has been done by Luis Gomez, and I will look at just one of these manuscripts here, IOL Tib J 468. I want to ask if we can establish whether Moheyan really taught a kind of ‘blank’ meditation, or something a little less extreme. Let’s see.

In his description of meditation, Moheyan writes this:

When you are engaged in contemplation itself, look at your own mind. Then, the lack of any mental activity at all is non-thought. If there is movement of the conceptual mind, be aware of it. “How should one be aware?” Do not analyse the mind which is moving in terms of any kind of quality at all: do not analyse it as moving or not moving; do not analyse it as existing or not exising; do not analyse it as virtuous or non-virtuous; and do not analyse it as defiled or pure. If you are aware of mind in this way, it is natureless. This is the practice of the dharma path.

Well, there is certainly mention here of “the lack of any mental activity.” But the rest of the passage concerns what to do when there is mental “movement”. Interestingly, Moheyan does not suggest suppressing this movement. What he says is: be aware of it without analysing it. What kind of awareness is he talking about? The Tibetan word is tshor, which is used here as a translation for the Chinese character jue 覺 meaning ‘awakening’, ‘illumination’ or ‘awareness’. These words seem a long way from the blankness that Moheyan is supposed to have experienced in his meditation practice. Indeed it seems that he is telling his students here not to suppress mental movement, but to leave it to move in the context of an awareness that does not distinguish it into dualistic extremes.

* * *

Another aspect of Moheyan’s teachings, which I’ll just touch on here, is the fact that he only recommends this technique of meditation to ‘those of sharp faculties’. Others, he says, do need to use various graduated methods. Just what percentage of people he considered to possess these ‘sharp faculties’ is not made clear, but perhaps not so many. In any case, we can see that Moheyan’s teachings were not so radical as they were painted in the later Tibetan tradition. They even seem, dare one say it, quite reasonable…

* * *

1. Demieville, Paul. 1952. Le Concile de Lhasa. Paris: Imprimeries Nationale de France.
2. Gomez, Luis. 1983. “The Direct and Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahāyāna: Fragments of the Teachings of Moheyan,” in Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen, edited by Gimello and Gregory: 393–434.
3. Schrempf, Mona. 2006. “Hwa shang at the Border: Transformations of History and Reconstructions of Identity in Modern A mdo.” JIATS 2: 1-32

Tibetan text
IOL Tib J 468: (1v) //bsam gtan nyId du ‘jug pa’I tshe/ bdag gI sems la bltas na/ cI yang sems dpa’ myed de myI bsam mo/ rtog pa’I sems g.yos na tshor bar bya/ cI ltar tshor bar bya zhe na/ gang g.yos pa’I sems de nyId/ g.yos pa dang ma g.yos par yang myI brtag/ yod pa dang myed par yang (2r) myI brtag/ dge ba dang myI dge bar yang myI brtag/ nyong mongs pa dang rnam par byang bar yang myI brtag/ ste// chos thams cad cI lta bur yang myI brtag go// sems g.yos pa de lta bur tshor na rang bzhin myed pa yIn te/ /de nI chos lam spyod pa zhes bya’//

Moheyan in the Rinpung (Rin spungs) ritual dance © 2006 by Mona Schrempf, IATS, and THDL.

Also in this series:
Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan

And an article on a some later Tibetans who supported Moheyan:
The Great Perfection and the Chinese Monk: Nyingmapa Defenses of Hashang Mahāyāna

8 thoughts on “Tibetan Chan II: the teachings of Heshang Moheyan

  1. Congratulations on receiving the highly uncoveted Blogisattva award! You really have it coming. More people should notice it. You’ve had it for months. Who exactly knew?

    Best Multi-Part Blog Post [post series; blog; blogger]: Dharma from the sky “I: legends and history”, “II: Indian or Chinese dharma?”

    Look here:

    Now the sky is the limit! Or is it?


  2. Hi
    I suggest a book by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Dzogchen and Zen. Rinpoche brilliantly explains what Hwashang taught and how it fits into the Tibetan frame of teachings and practice, based on the text of Nubchen Sanggye Jeshe called Samten Migdron (I see in that older article that you read that one). I don’t know where to purchase this book though.

    all the best


  3. Dear Andrej,

    Thanks for pointing out Namkhai Norbu’s book (actually a transcription of a talk with notes by Kennard Lipman). I do have a copy, and it is a nice overview of the way the different approaches are distinguished in the Samten Migdrön. As he points out, the fault attributed to Chan is basically a grasping at ultimate truth. It’s clear that Nub Sangye Yeshe, the author of the Samten Migdrön, had access to the same kind of Chan manuscripts that were preserved at Dunhuang. In fact, he quotes the same lines that I quoted above from IOL Tib J 468.

    According to Luis Gomez, IOL Tib J 468 along with several other Dunhuang manuscripts can be pieced together to reconstruct an complete (or almost complete) work of Mohyehan, and it’s this that Nub Sangye Yeshe had access to. He called it ‘The Meditation Treatise of Moheyan’ (Ma ha yan gyi sgom lung), and although the title that appears at the beginning of IOL Tib J 468 is ‘The Introduction to Instantaneous Contemplation of Abbot Moheyan’ (Khen po ma ha yan gi bsam gtan cig car ‘jug pa’i sgo), they seem to be one and the same work.

    As well as acknowledging Namkhai Norbu’s book, I should point out that several Japanese scholars have done sterling work in studying Tibetan Chan, especially Daishun Ueyama.

  4. Dear Dab,

    Gee thanks, but I have to wonder how many multi-part Buddhism blogs there were last year. Anyway I’m keeping the day job.

    Does the sky have a limit? The Tibetan phrase (nam mkha’i mtha’) has always been slightly puzzling to me…

  5. Yeah, I do get your point. Where exactly does space leave off and leave only … ?

    … absence of space?

    Ain’t it more like Hebrew Ain Soph?

    And what about the words in that prayer, “As long as space endures”?

  6. This false equation, between transcending duality and polarity on the one hand and shutting down all mental activity on the other hand, is the reason that Chan’s non-dual prajna awareness is called “anti-social.” IF a person believes that seeing through the false opposition of the two poles of what are conventionally called “the opposites” means having a blank mind or shutting down all mental activity, THEN for sure the conclusion would be that such a meditation method is anti-social and to be avoided. But Chan/Zen has always emphasized this very same view–that shutting down all mental activity is NOT the method.

    So the false equation of Chan with “blank meditation” becomes the “emblem” for a movement of political hegemony disguised as religious debate.

    This is a very informative blog. Thanks!

  7. The complete and detailed explanation of the Chan and Dzogchen approach to “Buddha Mind” or “The Great Perfection” reaches the pinnacle of clarity in Padmashambava’s instructions in “Self Liberation Through Seeing with Naked Awareness ” in my opinion.

    The inevitable conclusion reached by one successfully completing the Naked Awareness practices must be that The Great Perfection , The Great Completion , Buddha Mind, IS non-conceptual awareness.

    Suppression of thought is not practised in Naked Awareness meditation . If you analyse Moheyan’s quote in the article above you will see I think that it is an attitude of non-modification of thought, by another thought. For example if a violent thought should arise, don’t modify or qualify that thought by thinking, ” I should not be thinking this thought.”

    By maintaining this equilibrium, neither thinking ,nor not thinking, just being nakedly aware a state of meditation is reached that is a total absence of all phenomena , a state that is objectively void, or blank. However there is still a presence of awareness cognising that total absence of objectivity. How else could the void be known? So the “blankness” is absolutely suffused with and consists of awareness, as are all states, waking, dreaming, deep sleep or un-consciousness ,after all what brings back the message from the un-conscious state, the message “I was not”?
    This approach is designed to break down the practitioners concepts of what awareness is and give the direct understanding of his true nature as that awareness.
    The usual concept is that awareness is not present in a blank or unconscious state. The sage is pointing out that awareness is still present even when it ( mind, awareness) is totally naked ,unclothed of conceptualising and also still present when unclothed of the totality of all manifestation. Like space it is intrinsically unborn and everpresent.
    As life mostly takes place here in the waking state the formal sitdown eyes closed meditation must be extended and the recognition of non-conceptual awareness must permeate the waking state also.
    The experience gained in formal meditation is then brought into the waking state by simply suspending the conceptualising process during ones daily activity, remaining free (naked) of all concepts. This is not a process of suppression, it is simply turning the attention completely to the naked awareness ,as that awareness is intrinsically naked of thought ,full attention to it or attention’s complete absorption in it, so to speak, is the cessation of conceptualising. The cessation of thought is a byproduct of seeing with naked awareness because awareness is intrinsically non-conceptual!
    In the waking state only the thoughts are suspended , the rest of the manifestation continues via the sensory perception. In those moments of naked awareness the practitioner is instructed by the sage to make enquiry into that state. This enquiry is also nonconceptual, it is not a thinking process!
    The questions for that enquiry are laid out in the “Seeing With Naked Awareness” text.
    The most fundamental question is ,while meditating in this way in the waking state but free of all thoughts, is there any evidence present for a meditator?
    Is there any evidence present for the existence of an entity in non-ceptual awareness?
    Is there any evidence for an observer in the mind (awareness) which is free of that concept, “observer”?
    Or, who am I if there is an absence of the idea of “I”?
    The practitioner realises that the meditator and entityness itself are purely conceptual, that there is no practitioner ,that there is no actual thing as observer or observed, there is only No-thingness, Suchness, the anatman state, the Great Perfection,Buddha mind, blah blah blah!
    The Dzogchen teaching as you all know and as I have just discovered in the last day or so are from the final or highest teachings of the Nyingmapas.
    This fact forms the basis for the most legitimate complaint by the status quo, the Indians, against this relatively new movement, the chinese Chan. There is a very similar argument going on right now, albeit a rather one sided one ,between teachers of traditional Vedanta and a modern non-dual movement called Neo-advaita.
    The argument is that the student is normally not ready for this stage without a long preparation. The teachings of Dzogchen are a finishing school if you like, the pointy end of the business, the pinnacle, here direct Liberation happens. Very few are qualified , only the very sharp and sincere ones will succeed without prior lengthy preparation.
    It is a legitimate argument. If the sadhaka fails to see directly into his own nature as intrinsic awareness what other methods or approaches does the teacher have for him or her at that level?
    Well practically and realistically he or she needs to go back down the ladder and start at a level that is more in resonance with their qualifications. By propagating this argument the Indians with their extensive schools and Universities of yoga and ritual practices are also looking after their own interests as well as the seeker’s, after all, if this long preparation is abandoned what of the livelihood and status of all those involved in the long years of preparation?
    This is the fear of the traditional Indian Vedantins at present. What will happen to their schools, ashrams and scholars if students can get instant enlightenment in America or Australia? They won’t go to India any more and there will be a considerable loss of prestige and money.
    I could write a more extensive piece on this subject including a commentary on “Self Liberation Through Seeing” but I am not academically inclined, I am a practitioner not a pundit. I don’t read Tibetan or Sanskrit and I am relying completely on John Myrdhin Reynold’s translation which is of unsurpassed excellence in my opinion.
    If you read Pabmashambava’s text and compare it to what I have suggested I think you will see my points.
    I am very new to the academic side of The Great Perfection so please point out where my understanding is deficient.
    Much respect to Sam for this site and his investigation into this most intriguing subject.
    Much respect to everyone involved in discovering and translating and dissecting the various ancient texts .
    I would be very very happy if any of the scholars here can point me towards any other Dzogchen of Chan texts that deal very specifically with the Great Perfection as naked non-conceptual, present awareness.
    Regards, Brad.

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