I’ve managed four posts on Tibetan Chan without mentioning the question of whether the Chinese meditation tradition known as Chan influenced the Tibetan meditation tradition known as Dzogchen. Or, to put it in the stronger version, whether Dzogchen is just a disguised form of Chan. Partly, I’ve left the question alone because it doesn’t seem that interesting to me. It seems evident that if you spend a while with Chan and Dzogchen texts from the time when the influence is supposed to have taken place (the 8th/9th centuries) that there is one clear difference between the two: they are in dialogue with two different kinds of scripture. That is to say, Chan is a tradition in dialogue with the sutras, while Dzogchen is in dialogue with the tantras.
Though nobody (with the notable exception of Jeffrey Broughton) has recently gone into print trying to prove that Dzogchen came from Chan, the idea hasn’t gone away. It was repeated to me recently, and insistently, by a very intelligent and very nice Indologist. And now that I’m involved in a research project on Tibetan Chan, I’ve decided to stop avoiding the issue, partly to try to show why “was Dzogchen influenced by Chan” is a bad question, partly to argue that when Chan and Dzogchen did come together, it was a case of them converging at the same point, rather than one influencing the other. That will be in an article which will probably come out next year. For now, I’d like to look at a very short Chan text, and make a very simple point.
The point is this – people who have said that there must be some kind of influence passing from Chan to Dzogchen have come to this belief because the texts look similar. However they justify the argument, it is the similarity in the language used in these two meditation traditions that caught their eye. (And this is surely true of the polemics in the Tibetan tradition itself as well as modern scholars like Guiseppe Tucci.) But, as we all know, apparent similarities can be misleading.
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Let’s look at the text. It is found in the compendium IOL Tib J 709, and is presented as the teaching of a certain ’Gal na yas. So far nobody has identified this figure, but I think I have — the name seems to be a somewhat garbled rendering of Haklenayaśas, the 23rd patriarch of Chan. (The Chinese version of his name, by the way, is Helenayeshe 鶴勒那夜奢, and that initial H would have been pronounced more like G in this period.) The teaching attributed to this Indian master is “the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka”:-
There are many gates to meditation in the Mahāyāna. The ultimate among them is the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka. The instantaneous approach has no method. One cultivates the nature of reality in this way: phenomena are mind, and mind is uncreated. In that it is uncreated, it is emptiness. Since it is like the sky, it is not a field of activity for the six sense-faculties. This emptiness is what we call vivid awareness. Yet within that vivid awareness there is no such thing as vivid awareness. Therefore without remaining in the insights gained from studying, cultivate the essential sameness of all phenomena.
The tone of this is certainly similar to many Dzogchen texts. Take for example these lines from the Dzogchen text found in another Dunhuang manuscript, IOL Tib J 647 (for more on which see this post, and the comments):
The mind itself, which is without basis or root,
Is not to be found through effort; it is like the sky.
Enlightenment which is uncreated
Is enlightenment free from cause and effect.
I think you can probably see why there might be a temptation to say, “they’re so similar, one must have come from the other!” After all, they both talk about the mind being like the sky, and about not engaging in conventional methods to realize enlightenment (and I could find another quote to illustrate that Dzogchen texts also talk about the sameness of all phenomena). But hang on a minute — all of this language is also found in Buddhist scripture, in both the sutras and the tantras. Readers of Tibetan might like to check this at the online resources of the Universities of Virginia or Vienna. So what we have here is a case of a shared basis.
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There are also, though somewhat hidden in translation, quite a few differences in the terminology between Tibetan Chan and Dzogchen texts. Looking back to the teaching attributed to Haklenayaśas, we see the key term “vivid awareness” plays a key role. Now the Tibetan term behind this is tshor, and it is translating the Chinese character jue 覺. In Chan, this term means the clear and present awareness that arises in meditation.
This meaning of tshor is specific to literature translated from Chinese, and original Tibetan Chan texts based on that literature. It’s a fairly central concept for Tibetan Chan texts, but elsewhere in Tibetan Buddhist writing, tshor means something completely different, Sanskrit vedanā, which is one of the five aggregates, usually translated as “feeling”. And tshor meaning “vivid awareness” does not, as far as I know, ever appear in Dzogchen texts.
So, to sum up, the similarities that Dzogchen texts share with Chan texts are also shared with the sutras and tantras, while the differences show that the two genres come out of quite different environments. This is not to say that no Tibetan ever held transmissions of both Chan and Dzogchen texts; in fact it is highly likely that several did. There might have been some instances of cross-pollination. I’m not trying to hermetically seal Dzogchen away from Chan, but I hope I’ve shown why arguments based on the fact that they look similar are not going to take us very far.
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IOL Tib J 709, 42v: $/:/mkhan po ‘gal na yas bs[am] g+tan gI snying po bshad pa’// theg pa chen po’i bsam gtan gI sgo yang mang ste// de’I nang na dam pa nI don dbu ma la cig car ‘jug pa yIn te// cIg car ‘jug pa la nI thabs myed de// chos nyId kyI rang bzhIn la bsgom mo// de la chos nI sems sems nI ma skyes pa ‘o// ma skyes pa nI stong pa ste// dper naM ka dang ‘dra bas// dbang po drug gI spyod yul ma yin bas na// stong pa de nI tshor ba zhes bya ‘o// tshor nas nI tshor ba nyId kyang myed de// de bas na thos pa dang bsam pa’i shes shes [sic] rab la/ ma gnas par chos mnyam pa nyId la sgoms shig ces bshad do//: ://
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For statements about Chan influencing Dzogchen, see:
Jeffrey Broughton. 1983. “Early Ch’an Schools in Tibet.” In Robert Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1-68
Giuseppe Tucci. 1958. Minor Buddhist Texts: Part II. Rome: Is.M.E.O.
On the term tshor in Tibetan Chan texts, see:
Luis Gomez. 1983. “The Direct and the Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahâyâna: Fragments of the Teachings of Mo-ho-yen.” In Robert M. Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 69-168.
For an argument against Tucci, basically the tenth-century argument of the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, see:
Kenneth Tanaka and Raymond Robertson. 1992. “A Ch’an Text from Tun-huang” Implications for Ch’an Influence on Tibetan Buddhism.” In Steven Goodman and Ronald Davidson (eds.), Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation. New York: SUNY Press. 57–78.