Tracking the five other Zen Patriarchs


In part 2 of her photo essay, Veena shares her discoveries about Huike, Sosan, Daoxin, Hongren, and Huineng.

Zen Patriarchs Collage
The Six Zen Patriarchs: Bodhidharma, Huike, Sosan, Daoxin, Hongren, Huineng

Huike (487 – 593)

HuikeMany sannyasins probably know about Huike from the story that Osho was fond of telling: about how Huike cut off his left arm to persuade Bodhidharma to accept him as a disciple. There does seem to be some historical basis to this story as it is told in different places in different ways. Interestingly, monks in the Shaolin Temple often use only one hand in the ‘namaste’ gesture, as a nod to Huike who could only use his one hand! Very little else is known about Huike except that he left the Shaolin Temple area after Damo left and wandered around China. But I have discovered a few bits of information from Chinese friends.

In Dengfeng I met a very interesting young man called Ya Jun who is passionate about local history and found a kind of ‘kindred spirit’ in me because I too wanted to learn as much as possible. The big problem was that Ya Jun spoke no English at all so our communications were limited to our respective translation apps on our phones. These apps are all right for everyday language but when we got into the realms of spiritual history, they were woefully inadequate. Despite his enthusiasm, therefore, Ya Jun was only able to share a fraction of what he probably knew!

(However, I was able to verify one of his stories later with the help of an online link. This was a story about Lao Tzu’s temple which is situated to the south-east of Song Mountain. You can read the story in Osho News.¹)

One day Ya Jun came to my flat in Dengfeng with a tatty old book and enthusiastically showed me two paintings of Huike, which I immediately photographed. I was very excited because these were the first images of Huike I had ever seen. I thought that because they were in a very old Chinese book, I would have a ‘scoop’! How exciting it would be to acquire unseen images of Huike!

Huike contemplating. Painting attributed to Shi Ke (石恪, 10th century). Tokyo National Museum
Huike and tiger. Painting attributed to Shi Ke (石恪, 10th century). Tokyo National Museum

Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find they were both online. I was especially curious about the second image – of Huike resting on a tiger – and finally found that it was actually based on a story mentioned by another of Osho’s favourite spiritual masters: Dogen.

When telling his disciples about Huike’s courage while he waited outside Bodhidharma’s cave in the freezing snow, Dogen said that Huike remembered ‘how past bodhisattvas practiced without thinking of their own bodily life, such as the bodhisattva who offered himself to a hungry mother tiger to help her seven cubs. Then Huike thought to himself, “Ancient people with great capability and determination were like that, then who I am?”’ (Source: The Dogen Institute)

Reading Dogen’s words, the story seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it until friend Dhiren remembered that the story is told in the Jataka Tales about Buddha, who, in a past incarnation, offered his body to a hungry tiger mother to stop her eating her newly born cubs. Remembering this story, Huike was inspired to be brave enough to cut off his arm. And in the few rare images that exist of him he seems to be often depicted with a tiger.

During one of my early visits to China I found out that there was a small, rather dilapidated, house on Mt Taishi which is on the opposite side of the valley from Wuru Peak where Bodhidharma lived in his cave. Huike apparently lived here while he was a disciple of Bodhidharma. I don’t know much more than that. But my fantasy was that, because the cave could be seen from Huike’s house, he could have waved or bowed to his Master each day on the opposite side of the valley!

Then, a few years ago, I met a very interesting young Chinese woman called Sara (the western name she gave herself). Although she spoke good English, she had never talked with a westerner before, so she was excited to have long conversations with me. I was equally excited because I could learn a lot from her. Her family had lived in a village in the Shaolin Temple valley for many generations but, in about 2010, when the Temple became a World Heritage Site, the money-obsessed Abbott decided that the village should be destroyed to make way for more tourist-oriented attractions. Everybody was kicked out and the village buildings were destroyed. It seems, however, that Sara’s family were quite wealthy and although they had to move, they were able to keep their two very successful restaurants just on the edge of the Shaolin Temple grounds, and her grandfather was allowed to live upstairs in one of them. As Sara was ‘family’, she and her friends were allowed into the Shaolin Temple grounds free of charge. A very useful contact as it helped me avoid the expensive admission fees!

On a glorious autumn day, she took me up in the cable car to see Huike’s house again. There seemed to be some construction going on but Sara took me straight to the little house and after doing the three requisite bows at the entrance, she led me inside.

Going up in the cable car to Huike's house
Huike's house
Another view of Huike's house
Interior, showing the villager's attempts to preserve the house
Original materials
View of Wuru Peak seen from Huike's house

She told me that after Huike left, the local villagers took care of his house in honour of him, and generation after generation of villagers looked after it and made repairs when needed. Thus, it was still standing. She showed me the roof and some walls at the back which she said were made of the same local materials of which the original house was built. The villagers wanted to keep its authenticity as much as possible.

I asked Sara what the current construction was all about and she asked some of the monks lazing around and was told that there were some rooms being built for monks who wanted a quiet place to live and meditate.

A few years later, during one of my last visits to China, I again went up, alone, to visit Huike’s house because views of the whole area were stunning because of the Autumn colours everywhere.

To my horror, I saw that the little house had disappeared and there was now a big new concrete building in its place! I saw two American tourists who had an English-speaking monk as a tour guide so I asked the guide what happened to the little house. He told me they had got rid of it and built this nice new place instead! I was devastated and asked him why they would destroy something of such historical significance, and his disturbing answer was, ‘Oh, it was too messy!’!

The ghastly concrete edifice built in place of the ancient Huike house
Monks and construction mess

I have noticed elsewhere that the Shaolin Temple authorities have, in their greed for the tourist big bucks, destroyed so much that is of real historical value. These few photographs of Huike’s little house are now all that remain of this precious glimpse of the history of the Zen Patriarchs.

Sengcan or Sosan (496? – 606)

Sengcan or SosanIf little was known about Huike, even less is known of the Third Zen Patriarch, Sengcan, or Sosan, the Japanese form of the name which Osho used. Possibly the 4-year period, from 574 to 578, of political unrest and severe persecution of Buddhism and spiritual leaders, contributed to the lack of information. During this dangerous time Huike fled to some mountains to hide, and it was here that he transmitted the Dharma to Sosan, who had become his disciple.

After receiving the transmission, Sosan lived in hiding on Wangong Mountain in Yixian and then on Sikong Mountain in southwestern Anhui – the province east of Henan where Song Mountain is. Later, when it was safe to do so, it seems he wandered around central China, returning for a while, according to legend, to Mount Ta in the Song Mountain range.

We know of Sosan because Osho spoke on his famous text called Xin Xin Ming (or Hsin Hsin Ming in Japanese). The opening words are:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent,
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for, or against, anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect,
like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.

Osho’s extraordinarily beautiful series of discourses were published as a book called Hsin Hsin Ming: The Book of Nothing.

In the book Osho says:

“When a Sosan speaks, he speaks totally on a different plane. He is not interested in speaking; he is not interested in influencing anybody; he is not trying to convince you about some theory or philosophy or ism. No, when he speaks his silence blooms. When he speaks, he is saying that which he has come to know and would like to share with you. It is not to convince you, remember – it is just to share with you.

“And if you can understand a single word of his, you will feel a tremendous silence being released within you.”

An old photo of Sosan's house on Mount Ta
The newly renovated house
A view of Mount Ta where Sosan lived for a while

The pictures of another dilapidated little house and its modern restoration have once again been given to me by Ya Jun. As always, because of his lack of English (and mine of Chinese!), it is difficult for me to get any clear details but, with the help of our translating apps on our phones, it seems that Sosan did spend some time living on Mount Ta, where the local villagers built him the little house. From what I understood from Ya Jun, it was possible to visit this little house – but it would have meant a long steep hike up the mountain which my ageing body was unable to make!

Daoxin (580 – 652)

DaoxinIt seems that Sosan was quite a retiring kind of master, not given to much action. His successor, Daoxin, was very different.

After he became awakened, Daoxin moved to other areas of the country and set up the first exclusively Zen monastery at the foot of Broken Top Mountain in the province of Hubei. The first three Patriarchs had preferred a life of relative solitude and insecurity – wandering here and there to teach their doctrines. Daoxin’s idea was that it would be easier for people to go deep into the ways of Zen if they lived and worked together, and so he set up the monastery. Here the Zen concept of working for your living (instead of begging or receiving donations) started – work became part of one’s ‘worship’ – and the monastery became a commune with the monks engaging in all the work necessary to sustain their lives. Sound familiar?

Daoxin also added some popular Buddhist practices to Damo’s pure Zen tradition, such as chanting the Heart Sutra. With these small changes, Zen was accepted by many more people and grew much more popular. Many came to visit Daoxin’s monastery and were able to imbibe the flavour of Zen.

Hongren (602 – 674)

HongrenThe 5th Patriarch, Hongren, a disciple of Daoxin, was an even stronger man and his fame surpassed his master. Because of him, Zen now became widely practised in China. It is unlikely that he went to Song Mountain, home of Zen. Instead, he moved south to Mount Pingmu, north of Guizhou Province, near Chongqing.

Because I did not visit any of these places, I have no personal connection with him or any little anecdotes to tell.

Neither can I find any mention of him by Osho.

Huineng (636 – 713)

HuinengHuineng, the 6th Zen Patriarch, almost overshadows Bodhidharma. His is an amazing story, although there are doubts about how much of it is true. He was interested in returning to Bodhidharma’s original teachings, most specifically the concept of ‘instant enlightenment’ – which Osho definitely favoured.

Huineng’s teachings were recorded by a disciple in a famous text called ‘The Platform Sutra’, two copies of which were found in the Library Cave in the famous Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, many miles away from where Huineng lived in southern China. (I asked a few scholarly Chinese friends how the documents had travelled so far but didn’t get any answers.)

I visited the Mogao Caves ² in the autumn of 2019. In order to protect the very fragile Caves, only a few are open to visitors at any one time. I only knew about one of the Caves – the Library Cave – because this is where an original copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. So, I was totally excited when my guide took us into the Library Cave! My very lucky day! Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside so I have no photo of my own, but Ya Jun found some old photos which he gave me. One shows the cave as Aurel Stein (the Hungarian-British explorer, famous for his archaeological expeditions of discovery in Central Asia) must have seen it in 1907.  Another shows the Frenchman, Paul Pelliot, (also well known for his explorations and discoveries in Central Asia) searching through the scrolls in the cave in 1908. Because he could speak Chinese, he was more able to select important documents to take back to France.

The 'Library Cave' in Dunhuang where the precious manuscripts were discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907
Paul Pelliot selecting manuscripts in the 'Library Cave' in 1908
This copy of 'The Diamond Sūtra', in Chinese, is the world's earliest, printed book

But it was Aurel Stein who brought the copy of ‘The Diamond Sutra’ back to England. It is now in the British Library in London. This copy of ‘The Diamond Sutra’, in Chinese, complete with a beautifully illustrated frontispiece, is the world’s earliest dated, printed book. It was produced on the 11th May 868, according to the Western calendar.

After these two gentlemen took what they wanted, many manuscripts were left behind including two versions of ‘The Platform Sutra’ by Huineng, which are the oldest versions of the texts available. The two texts, which date from between 830 and 860, have been very important for the historical understanding of Zen. Osho did not speak much on Huineng, probably because the sutras were written by a disciple. Huineng himself was, despite his brilliance, an uneducated and illiterate man.

On one of my many visits to the Chuzu Temple on Song Mountain, I found an information board which explains –  in frustratingly poor English – how Huineng had come there to pay homage to Bodhidharma. With him he brought a cypress tree to plant in Bodhidharma’s honour. There are many of these kind of trees in the Song  Mountain area. They grow very slowly but live to be thousands of years old. (The cypress tree in the Song Yue Temple on another part of Song Mountain is one of the oldest trees in the world – over 4,500 years old.)

Information board telling of Huineng's visit to the Chuzu Temple
The cedar tree Huineng planted in honour of Damo

Needless to say, I give Huineng’s tree a hug whenever I visit the Chuzu Temple; my own way of paying my respects to Huineng – and indeed to all of the blessed Zen masters who have walked and meditated on Song Mountain.

From the little information I can find, it seems that a definition for the word ‘patriarch‘, in this context, is that a master has passed on the Dharma to his successor and presented him with a begging bowl and a robe as symbols of the transmission. There is no record of Huineng doing this. In fact, just before he died he said something to his disciples which reminded me so very much of Osho, who did not appoint a successor either. Huineng‘s words were something like this: ‘You should act as though I were still in the world…. After I die, just go on practising as before, as though I were still here.‘

In this way the lineage of the Zen Patriarchs ended.

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Veena is the author of a trilogy of books about her path to and with Osho.

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