A taste of Zen: Heze Shenhui

Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications
Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings, by Andrew Ferguson

Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Heze Shenhui (670–762) was an eminent disciple of the Sixth Ancestor. He strongly supported and promoted Huineng’s place in Chinese Zen history. Shenhui championed the Southern school of Zen, and vociferously attacked what became widely known as the Northern school, the school associated with Yuquan Shenxiu.

明 沈周 , 文徵明 合璧山水圖 卷 Joint Landscape Shen Zhou (1427–1509) & Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) Ming dynasty ca. 1509 and 1546 China

Shenhui put forward two reasons for his attack on the Northern school. The first was, “The (ancestral) succession is spurious.” Attacking Shenxiu’s legitimacy as the Dharma heir of Hongren was an extension of Shenhui’s proposition that that honor belonged exclusively to Huineng. Obviously, the argument was self-serving as well, since Shenhui could thus make a claim to be the true Seventh Ancestor of the Bodhidharma line.

The second reason for attacking Shenxiu was, “(His) Dharma gate is gradual.” By this, Shenhui meant that the various “gradual” spiritual practices employed by Shenxiu, as well as other disciples of Hongren, were fundamentally at odds with what Shenhui regarded as the genuine Zen of his teacher, Huineng.

Shenhui’s life and teaching are at the center of the most hotly debated questions of Zen history and thought. He is a controversial figure who set a standard of teaching that emphasized sudden, unmediated enlightenment. This characteristic of Chinese Zen distinguishes it from other Buddhist schools. The idea of nonmediated, sudden enlightenment clearly took solid root as a centerpiece of Chinese Zen during Shenhui’s era and suffused the teachings of subsequent generations of the Southern school.

Shenhui’s Zen, expounded in the name of the Sixth Ancestor, castigated the idea of “gradual” enlightenment achieved through meditation and religious practices that were meant to realize and maintain “pure original mind.” Shenhui’s proposition, in effect, attacked not only the Northern school, but many of the practices that were part and parcel of Daoxin and Hongren’s East Mountain Zen tradition as well, including their basic outlook on meditation practice.

Scholars have documented that Daoxin, Hongren, and Hongren’s disciples variously used “gradualist” practices, practices that set religious life distinctly apart from secular life, in their practice centers. One example was Hongren’s disciple Zishou Zhishen, the founder of the Sichuan Zen school, who is believed to have heavily emphasized chanting Buddha’s name over all other practices.

Sixteen Luohans, Wu Bin (active ca. 1583–1626) China. © Metropolitan Museum of ArtYet Shenhui has been shown to have tampered with, not to say subverted, the historical facts surrounding Huineng’s life to gain ascendancy for his “sudden” Zen ideology. Shenhui’s account of Huineng’s life contains self-serving inconsistencies. Moreover, his writings about earlier Zen development, particularly the succession of Zen ancestors beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha, contain blatant errors and contradictions.

The “Northern” school was the name applied by Shenhui to the most politically dominant and powerful stream of Zen of his era. This stream was a continuation of the East Mountain school of Hongren, as taught by his disciple Shenxiu, and by Shenxiu’s own many disciples who were spread through northern areas of the country. Shenxiu obtained unprecedented influence at the imperial court during the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Shenxiu’s disciples Puji and Yifu then carried on this influence until events overcame the school around the year 755.

Shenhui’s main attack on the Northern school occurred at a conference he staged at Great Cloud Temple in Huatai in the year 734. In that meeting, Shenhui put forth the “Exposition on Determining Right and Wrong [with respect to] Bodhidharma’s Southern school.” The conference staged a debate between Shenhui and a certain “Dharma master Chongyuan,” who defended the Northern school. Although the influence of this conference on the imperial court and public opinion is disputed, the meeting clearly laid out lines of battle between the doctrines of the southern and northern currents of Zen.

After the conference at Huatai, Shenhui proceeded to live in the northern capital city of Luoyang, where he directly confronted the Northern school by inciting opinion in public gatherings. Eventually, Shenhui was banned from Luoyang as a rabble-rouser. During the period of his banishment, historical events transpired that helped his cause. The An Lushan uprising, a catastrophically destructive rebellion against the Tang dynasty, led to the destruction of the twin capital cities of Luoyang and Changan. The areas suffering devastation were important regions of Northern school predominance. This direct destruction of the Northern school led to a vacuum of court influence that Shenhui’s followers managed to fill. Thus, the Southern school gained social and political ascendancy not simply due to a preferred religious doctrine, but as the unforeseen result of a civil war that wracked northern China during that era.

Shenhui thus founded what became known as the Heze (in Japanese, Kataku) school of Zen. The branch largely died out during the early ninth century and is not remembered as a major school. Nevertheless, the doctrine of sudden enlightenment remained a central characteristic that defined the teaching styles and cultural flavour of later Chinese Zen. In the next Zen generation, Mazu Daoyi’s Hongzhou school vigorously adopted a teaching style that expressed the “sudden” Zen outlook. That school displaced Heze’s school in influence during the ninth century, but the doctrine espoused by Shenhui had lasting influence on all subsequent generations of Zen teachers.

The Cassia Grove Studio, Wen Zhengming ca. 1532 China. © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Zen master Heze Shenhui of the Western Capital came from Xiangyang. His surname was Gao, and he became a novice monk at the age of fourteen.

At their first meeting the Sixth Ancestor asked Shenhui, “You have come on an arduous journey from afar. Did you bring what is fundamental? If you have what is fundamental then you can see the host. Let’s see what you have to say.”

Shenhui said, “I take no abode as the fundamental. What is seen is the host.”

The Sixth Ancestor said, “This novice is talking nonsense!” He then took his staff and struck Shenhui.

As he was being beaten, Shenhui thought, “[This master] is such a great and wise sage. It is difficult to meet such a person even after many kalpas of time. Having met him today how can I lament my life?”

From this time forward Shenhui served as Huineng’s attendant.

Once, the Sixth Ancestor addressed the congregation, saying, “I have something which has no head or tail. It is nameless and can’t be described. It has no back and no front. Do any of you know what it is?”

Shenhui came forward and said, “It is the source of all things. It is the Buddha nature of Shenhui.”

The Sixth Ancestor said, “I said that it has no name and no description. How can you say it is the source of buddha nature?”

Shenhui bowed and retreated.

The Sixth Ancestor said, “In the future if this youngster heads a monastery, it will certainly bring forth fully realized disciples of our school.” ([Later,] Fayan said, “The record of that time was indeed excellent. Today, if we point to a greatly awakened school, it is the Heze school.”)

Before long, Shenhui travelled to the Western Capital [Changan], where he received ordination.


The following passage from the debate between Shenhui and Dharma master Chongyuan is taken from The Record of the Zen Discourses by the Monk Shenhui.

Dharma master Yuan asked Shenhui, “Were Zen master Huineng and Zen master Shenxiu not fellow students of Hongren?”

Shenhui said, “They were.”

Chongyuan asked, “Since they were fellow students, are their teachings the same or not?”

Shenhui said, “Not the same.”

Chongyuan said, “Since they were fellow students, why are their teachings not the same?”

Shenhui said, “I will now explain their difference. It’s because Zen master Xiu taught people to ‘focus the mind and enter concentration. Stop the mind and observe purity. Give rise to mind that shines outward. Collect the mind inside and bear witness to it.’ For this reason their teaching is different.”

Chongyuan said, “Why is it that Zen master Neng does not teach [the practices taught by Zen master Xiu]? What are his practices?”

Shenhui said, “The practice of Shenxiu is to harmonize and subdue the mind.”

Chongyuan said, “Then should one not [perform the practices taught by Shenxiu]?”

Shenhui said, “These are the methods of the ignorant. Zen master Huineng’s practice is found apart from the two methods of ‘subduing’ or ‘not subduing.’ This is why is says in the sutra, ‘mind does not abide within, nor is it external.’ It is in quiet sitting. When one sits in this manner, one realizes buddhahood. In the six generations that have come before, not a single person performed the practices of Shenxiu. They are entirely different.”

In the year 760 Shenhui passed away while sitting in meditation. His burial stupa is located at Dragon Gate.

Cover: Zen’s Chinese Heritage© 2011 Andrew Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., wisdompubs.org. Paperback, 576 pages, 6 x 9 inches, $26.95, ISBN 9780861716173

Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Categories: Book reviews, Books, Buddhism, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, Foundations of Buddhism, History, Mahayana

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1 reply

  1. This tradition of Zen is wonderful. Passing the light on without words. One stroke of wand and the path is clearly visible.
    Thank you for this.

    Much Respect!


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