Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan

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.

* * *

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.

*  *  *

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/

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

9 thoughts on “Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan

  1. Thanks again for another informative post.

    So now I am wondering about the Samye debate and must say I know nothing. Did Moheyan represent himself or was his teaching debated by a student of his? I am wondering if the mischaracterization of his teachings was politically motivated or just misunderstood. Given what exists in the manuscripts it seems quite similiar to what is taught in dzogchen.

    Again – my ignorance is abundant – but is it possible that Moheyan’s teaching was too close in content to the Bon teachings as they were understood at the time – and discredited by association? (ie the tibetans did not want to be associated with Bon and therefore the Ch’an teachings – seemingly close in content – were also discredited). It has always seemed natural to me that given the realities of migration and the habits of monks of the time to wander that all of these traditions would intersect at some point – as they have obviously done here. Quite interesting.

    Any links elsewhere in your blog are apprecited as well as links elsewhere. This does seem like a pivotal time in buddhist teaching history.

  2. Thanks for your comments —

    Well, the text that has always been considered the great source for the Samye debate is the Testament of Ba (Sba / Rba / Dba’ bzhed). In this account, Moheyan does represent himself, and is opposed by the Indian master Kamalaśīla and one or more members of the Ba clan.

    Considering that the Testament of Ba gives, as the title suggests, the point of view of the Ba clan, it is hardly likely to be a disinterested source. Here we have the idea that Moheyan’s meditation technique was to remain without thoughts at all ‘like an egg’.

    As for the Bon question, I don’t see any resemblence between the Bon of the 8th/9th century and Chan. As far as we know from the Dunhuang sources, early Bon was very about funeral rites, divination and the cult of the kings. Meditation didn’t feature much, if at all.

    Similarities to Dzogchen are there, but before we go jumping to conclusions we should look carefully at what Nub Sangye Yeshe had to say about the similarities and differences between Chan and Dzogchen (briefly touched on by Namkhai Norbu in the book mentioned in the comments to the previous posts). Is the Samye debate the first manifestation of a distinctly Tibetan determination to keep individual teaching lineages separate from each other?

  3. >Is the Samye debate the first manifestation of a distinctly Tibetan determination to keep individual teaching lineages separate from each other?<
    Interesting question. If, yes – wondering why. What else was going on then historically, politically, that might have created this mindset, this atmosphere? Or was it a ‘spiritual’ impulse – an attempt to keep things simpler for practitoners – less confusion, etc. Of course, there is never simply one cause for events that occur. Interesting to speculate but as they say history has a way of repeating itself so, at least from my perspective, any attempt to understand the past may very well be useful in the present.
    Thanks for your response.

  4. Dear Early & C.L.,

    “any attempt to understand the past may very well be useful in the present”

    I think that is precisely the problem with doing history, and I think many historians would agree. It’s not that we find it useful. It’s that we do find ways to make it useful for present concerns. Which gets in the way of making it actually useful. And which also gets in the way of making our efforts to find out about the past bear truthful fruits. The Ch’an vs. Indian authorities debate in imperial Tibet an excellent case for all that.


  5. Dear C.L. and Dab,

    Is a historian to be defined as one who sets out to know ‘what really happened’ — to (mis)quote von Ranke? And is any other motivation, among which ‘relevance to the present’ is always going to be the strongest, likely to lead one away from that knowledge? I would tend to agree with these statements, but I’ve a sneaking feeling this is too simplistic, and idealistic…

    At least, a historian must begin by choosing what he or she wants to know more about, and how can these choices be entirely free of his or her predispositions? So I may not be trying to make the investigation of the ‘real’ Moheyan serve the needs of the present, but didn’t those needs inform my choosing this subject to begin with? And what of all the subjects I neglect because I am not predisposed to find out more about them?

  6. Dear DAB and Early,

    I think the study of quantum physics shows that the observer (in this case ‘the historian”) can never be taken out of the equation as an “effect on what is observed”. The very act of observation changes what is observed. Phenomenology once attempted to “bracket out” any bias of what was undertaken for study. I think we now understand that cannot be done. Or do we? Perhaps I have misunderstood what QM posits.

  7. I’m wondering about the translaton of this clause: “The prevention of the arising of thoughts.”
    Is it not the same as the line from the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment that is found in the koan of Case 45 of the “Record of the Temple of Equanimity” that reads, “At all times in life, do not raise deluded thoughts”? (居一切時不起妄念)
    There is an important distinction between the admonition to “prevent” the arising of thoughts and “not to raise” deluded thoughts. I can’t see a Chan Master like Moheyan telling people to “prevent the arising of thoughts,” but I can see him telling people not to raise wrong or false thoughts.

  8. Thanks for your several comments on these Chan posts. It’s nice to have more input from someone well informed about Chan. I’ll try to address all your comments, but for now, let me start with this, as it’s fairly straightforward. The Tibetan line from Pelliot tibétain 117 is this:

    །མྱྀ་བདེན་པའྀ །སེམས་གཡོས་ཚོར། གཡོ་བ་ཉིད་སྐྱོན་དུ་རིག་ནས། ཚོར་བས་གཡོ་བ་འབྱུང་དུ་མྱྀ་སྟེར་ན་འགོག་པའོ།

    Which roughly translated is: “Being aware of the movement of false thoughts, that movement itself is understand as a fault. Thus the arising of that movement is not allowed. This is cessation.”

    Now I take it from this that the method in question is implicitly being presented as a lower method. And in the Bsam gtan mig sgron, this is made explicit, with this particular method being associated with the śrāvaka path. So I don’t think there is a problem here. The similarity of the language to the koan you cite is interesting though. I believe these five methods are also found in several Chinese Dunhuang texts, but I have not investigated that yet.

  9. Perhaps the disagreement between the two sides actually comes down to a power struggle, more political than spiritual, the desire to see one school have the sole right of control for all of Tibet, after all, we still see plenty of it going on these days.
    As far as the “like an egg” quote goes, as I said before, even blankness, that is the total absence of all phenomena is still being registered in awareness , that awareness is not confined or reduced or effected or modified in any way.
    The Lonchenpa quote is correct imo, Padmashambava taught directly and to apparently poorly qualified seekers. It is that directness which gives his teachings such power to resonate and liberate.
    For example in the “Pointing out Instruction to the Old lady” Padma himself says that

    “even though you ( the old lady) may be of inferior intelligence and feeble wits, you are not disadvantaged.”

    Why? because, he says,

    “the basic material of Buddhahood is within you”

    thus all are qualified. Part of the “Pointing Out Instruction” is quoted below.

    “No matter what occurs in your mind , the flow of thoughts,memories,or the five poisonous emotions , when you do not focus upon them,the movement vanishes by itself: thus you are untainted by the faults of thinking.
    To be flawless does not mean to became inert like a stone. It means that your awareness remains free of the flaws of thinking,like the example of of having gone to an island of gold; on that golden island not even the word “stone” exists.
    Likewise once your thinking dissolves into original wakefulness, there is not even the label “thought.”

    In other words non-conceptual awareness is still full and complete even while thinking is happening. Focus on that awareness that is free of concepts and you are not only in it, but you ARE it , original wakefulness.

    The best way to solve the “blank mind ” question if you have more than an academic interest in this topic is to try it for yourself.
    Pause a thought for a moment and see what happens.
    You might be surprised to find that the sense of Self is still full and complete, you are still being, aware, seeing, hearing, all the senses are still functioning, except you are “nakedly aware” without any mental clothing , you are without any interpretation of what is happening, there is nothing right or wrong about it, you just simply are original wakefulness. Now let thinking restart but remain as the underlying naked awareness…….what could be simpler than that!

    Respect to the translators of “Treasures from Juniper Ridge” Erik Pema Kunsang & Marcia Binder Smith, from where I have quoted “The Pointing-Out Instructions to the Old Lady”.

    Respect to all and especially to Sam and those others who have brought theses enlightening treasures to us all, Brad.

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