The Record of Tung-Shan

Record of Tung-Shan

There really are some very interesting translations coming out nowadays [late 80s]. The Record of Tung-shan contains the teachings of Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-869) who is regarded as the founder of the Ts’ao-tung (Jap. Soto) school.

The Master [Tung-Shan], whose personal name was Liang-chieh, was a member of the Yu family of Kuei-chi. Once, as a child, when reading the Heart Sutra with his tutor, he came to the line, ‘There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.’ He immediately felt his face with his hand, then said to his tutor, ‘I have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, and so on; why does the sutra say they don’t exist?’

This took the tutor by surprise, and, recognizing Tung-shan’s uniqueness, he said, ‘I am not capable of being your teacher.’

From there the Master went to Wu-hsieh Mountain, where, after making obeisance to Ch’an Master Mo, he took the robe and shaved his head. When he was twenty-one he went to Sung Mountain and took the complete precepts.

Tung-shan was born in 807 in Kueichi, a town in south eastern Shao-hsing district of Chekiang Province, an area rich in legend and religious tradition. The mountain of Kuei-chi was popularly believed to be the site of the tomb of Yü, the legendary first ruler of the semi-historical Hsia Dynasty (2183 1752 B.C.E.). Not far to the southeast is Mt. T’ien-t’ai, the great Buddhist center founded by Chih-i (538 597). This mountain is also associated with the eccentric Ch’an poet of the T’ang dynasty Han-shan. Tung-shan died in 869.

Tung-shan was a contemporary of Lin-chi [Rinzai Gigen] (d. 866). Like Lin-chi, Tung-shan spent much of his early life visiting Ch’an masters and recluses in the Hung-chou region. This must have been about the time of the great Buddhist suppression of 845, but if this momentous event had any effect on Tung-shan, there is no indication in any of the records. He eventually established his own centre on ‘Cave Mountain’ (tung-shan) in Hung-chou (modern Nanchang hsien in the province of Kiangsi), where, among his disciples, the two most notable were Yün-chü (835? 902) and Ts’ao-shan (840 901). Yün-chü’s branch of Tung-shan’s lineage survived in China until the seventeenth century and was carried to Japan by Dogen in the thirteenth, where it continues to the present as the Soto Zen sect.

These records are not biographies, of the Zen masters, in the traditional sense, since they generally provide little more concrete information than a figure’s birth-place and family name. All else tends to be anecdotal snatches of conversation derived primarily from lineage histories and records.

Thus the actual person and teachings of Tung-shan must remain as shadows behind the work we are considering here. The various texts we have considered represent a series of successive impressions that were gradually polished and modified, influenced no doubt by the concerns of the compilers’ own times.

William F. Powell

But here’s a taste:

Just before leaving [Yün-yen], Tung-shan asked, ‘If, after many years, someone should ask if I am able to portray the Master’s likeness, how should I respond?’

After remaining quiet for a while, Yün-yen said, ‘Just this person.’

Tung-shan was lost in thought. Yün-yen said, ‘Chieh Acarya, having assumed the burden of this Great Matter, you must be very cautious.’

Tung-shan remained dubious about what Yün-yen had said. Later, as he was crossing a river, he saw his reflected image and experienced a great awakening to the meaning of the previous exchange. He composed the following gatha:

Earnestly avoid seeking without, lest it recede far from you.
Today I am walking alone, yet everywhere I meet him.
He is now no other than myself, but I am not now him.
It must be understood in this way in order to merge with Suchness.

The eighth and ninth centuries in China were very exciting and creative times in Buddhist history. Some of the all-time great masters such as Ma-tsu, Hui Hai, Huang Po and Lin Chi all flourished at this time.

Followers of the way were encouraged to travel from master to master to ‘test’ and deepen their understanding. And this book is the record of Tung-shan’s conversations and interviews with many of the other masters of his time. It is really encouraging to see works like this being translated and published, not only for followers of Soto Zen, but for all of us who love the dharma.

Tung-Shan asked a monk, ‘What is the most tormenting thing in this world?’
‘Hell is the most tormenting thing,’ answered the monk.
‘Not so. When that which is draped in these robe threads is unaware of the Great Matter, that I call the most tormenting thing,’ said the Master.


The Record of Tung-Shan

Trans. William F. Powell. University of Hawaii Press. 1986. 99pp.
As far as I can see, The Record of Tung-Shan is currently out of print.

From Buddhism Now February 1990

Click here for more teachings by Tung-Shan.

Categories: Biography, Book reviews, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, History, Mahayana

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